Before we begin, let’s pause to remember the lives lost to the pandemic and to racial violence throughout our country.
I have known for months that I would present this address virtually, instead of sharing physical space with colleagues, catching up and sharing news, and welcoming all students on campus. Launching the year this way is unsettling, but emblematic of a new world we must embrace for now.
I am sensitive to how long anyone should reasonably be expected to listen to a virtual address, so expect a shorter speech today!
The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted our work at a scale for which normal planning and governance processes are inadequate. How we keep SUNY New Paltz moving forward on a positive, upward trajectory during a pandemic, a state budget crisis, and long-delayed urgency for racial equality is our unprecedented challenge.
I turned to literature to frame our current circumstances and how we move forward. In J. R. R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings,” two protagonists, Frodo and the wizard Gandalf the Grey, are talking. Frodo says, “I wish it need not have happened in my time.” The wizard Gandalf responds, “So do I, and so do all who live to see such times.” Gandalf goes on, “But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
That exchange surely captures that there are things we can control and things we cannot during this historic time.
“… to decide what to do with the time that is given to us.”
That phrase helps us move beyond loss and despair to a sense of hope, commitment and purpose to guide us through the coming year. It builds on the resilience this community demonstrated so well this spring and as we planned for a fall semester unlike any we have seen or would want. That resilience and dedication of this community will be called upon as we continue to provide high-quality education for our students, sustain the sense of community we value so much, and continue our public mission – all in a changed world.
Beyond COVID-19, white America has belatedly awakened to the racism, white supremacy and racial injustice and violence that have been a regular and routine part of life among Black and brown Americans for centuries. We recognize the pain from the delay in that recognition. To borrow from the title of a recent article by Ibram Kendi, “this may be the end of denial.” Racism has been long embedded in our society and institutions, including colleges and universities like ours.
How do we use the time that is given us to delve deeply into how position, privilege and tradition drive how we function? How do we act with a new sense of urgency to becoming the inclusive institution that we aspire to be? This summer, we listened to students, alumni and employees talk about their experiences and their ideas for change, and we shared our commitment and efforts toward this work. Our students are returning with clear expectations for change, and this work will be a dominant theme in our institutional life. In the words of another college president, this is a movement, not a moment. That movement will require our attention and collective energy. We must continue to listen – and we must also act. I will speak more about this work shortly.
I enjoyed meeting our new faculty and staff virtually this week, and again want to welcome you to our community. We are exploring ways to introduce our new colleagues virtually, even as we wish we could do so in person as in normal years. Know that we value all that you will bring to our students and our community.
I’ll make some administrative introductions. Dr. Rene Antrop-Gonzalez joined us in June as Dean of the School of Education, coming from Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he was Dean of the School of Urban Education. His academic background is in Spanish, Teaching English as a Second Language, and Curriculum and Instruction with an emphasis in Bilingual Education. Welcome, Rene!
Jeffrey Gant will join us on Jan. 1 as our new Vice President for Enrollment Management. Jeffrey is currently Director of Undergraduate Admissions at Montclair State University in New Jersey. We delayed this transition in the hope that we will resume some sense of normalcy before the spring semester starts.
I remain deeply grateful to Vice President David Eaton and Associate Vice President of Student Affairs Linda Eaton, who agreed to delay their retirements for six months. Their experience and institutional wisdom have been such assets in our preparation for this unusual year. I am grateful to others who I know postponed retirement to help the campus and our students through these times.
Three longstanding Student Affairs leaders have moved – or will soon – into positions of new or increased responsibility. Robin Cohen-La Valle is now Assistant Vice President and Dean of Students, with overarching responsibility for student wellness. Michelle Combs is Director of Student Conduct, and on Jan. 1 Michael Patterson will become Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs, overseeing student engagement, belongingness, orientation, residence life and other programming areas.
As I shared recently, Interim Provost Barbara Lyman has agreed to continue leading our academic enterprise for an additional two years, through June 2022. I have been pleased and impressed with her calm, wise and firm leadership, and have heard the positive assessments of her support and respect for faculty and for our academic mission. I look forward to continuing our work together. We will delay the national search for a Provost so that we can ensure full participation by faculty in selecting our academic leader.
Looking to the year ahead, I will first speak about our unprecedented financial challenges, which I wish were not happening in our time. We need to steel ourselves for tough times ahead. We have had budget cuts and run structural deficits before, but this promises to be on a scale that will not leave us unscathed.
New York State is facing a serious budget shortfall estimated at $16 billion. Economic recovery will be slow and tax revenues will lag. As a result, SUNY’s direct taxpayer support will likely be cut substantially this year. The potential for significant federal stimulus funding for higher education is a giant question mark, and the federal CARES Act funding we received covers only a portion of our financial losses to date. These losses and uncertainties led SUNY to institute a hiring freeze and severe spending limits. We are developing our own expenditure plans to guide decisions on campus.
In addition, our residence hall budget took a big hit last spring when we refunded students who moved out mid-semester. The residence hall budget supports roughly 100 employees in Residence Life and several other units. Because of social distancing and decisions by many students not to live on campus this fall, our residence hall revenue will decline again this year. Our enrollment for fall and the resulting tuition revenue, as of now, will be down less than we had feared – a good outcome.
This reality will demand hard decisions. We will re-activate the budget committee that Vice President Halstead and Provost Lyman lead. We will solicit your input and keep you informed of our decisions, enlisting the process we were praised for by Middle States in 2011, the year of our previous reaccreditation review. That year, we managed a $6 million budget cut on top of a $6 million cut two years earlier. We are planning a budget forum in October, when we believe we will have greater clarity on the budget.
We may have to ask things of each other we haven’t before, to bridge this difficult time until a better picture post pandemic. I am committed to bringing us through this storm, with your help. Our priority must be on safeguarding all that we have built over the years to make New Paltz a top-tier institution. Our task in the coming year will require sacrifice by all, perseverance and ingenuity.
A successful fall semester is essential both for our students’ experience and learning, and the importance of retaining and recruiting students to sustain enrollment and tuition revenue in the spring and beyond. I thank everyone who worked so diligently this summer to create new ways of reaching our incoming students through virtual videos and meetups. This work contributed importantly to our healthy enrollment picture. Thanks also to everyone who developed compelling virtual ways to reach prospective students and parents to support future enrollment. I also want to express my deep gratitude to those whose responsibilities required them to work on campus while others worked remotely. Many employees put in heroic effort to calculate and distribute refunds during spring, and then to distribute financial support from the CARES Act to help students and families.
The top priority of our planning for this year is the health and safety of all. We must depend on each other and act responsibly to protect our own health and that of others by monitoring our health, staying away from campus if we experience symptoms, wearing a mask, maintaining social distance and frequent handwashing. Think We, Not Me.
We have asked students to sign a pledge to honor these principles as a condition of on-campus presence.
We have created opportunities for faculty to teach on campus, and honored the requests of others to teach remotely. The outcome approximates what we had hoped: most courses are remote to reduce human presence and density on campus, but our offerings include face-to-face labs, studios and equipment-intensive courses. We have also included in our on-campus offerings courses typically taken by first-year students, and others that will support progress in the major for upper-division students. We know that many students have chosen to study remotely, and it is heartening that many faculty discovered new skills, talent and excellent outcomes in remote instruction.
In these ways, we will be able to provide at least some students with a live campus experience, albeit not what we might wish for them. But some innovations born of COVID-19 necessity may open our eyes to new ways of doing things. Our outdoor, informal Convocation processional to welcome new students was creative, fun and extremely well received. It may better reflect our community’s strengths than the formal event in the gym, and maybe we won’t go back to the old way. Let’s be attuned during these times for innovations like this.
As the semester begins, we know we must be adaptive, and we will hold a virtual forum on Sept. 2 to check in with each other about successes and challenges.
Of course, we must be prepared to pivot quickly to totally remote instruction if there is a resurgence of the pandemic. SUNY, the Governor and health officials will guide that decision.
I am grateful for the efforts of faculty and professionals during the spring to support our students and I call on you to do so again this fall. Most if not all students will bring some trauma with them. Some have been especially impacted: lower income students, Black and Latinx students whose families and communities were hit especially hard by COVID-19, and students of Asian descent who have been treated with suspicion. Some of our students have lost family members and friends, and many families are reeling financially. Many will bring to campus heightened anger, hurt and pain of racial inequity and injustice, along with great worry about what the future holds – at a time when they also are seeking normalcy as college students.
There is concern across the nation that the educational futures of students from historically underrepresented groups are especially at risk at this time. As a public university, we are especially committed to serving all students well, and we do. Consider these graduation statistics for different groups at New Paltz: our statistics in blue bars, national averages in green. It’s a true mark of distinction that our graduation rates are well above national averages, and that achievement gaps are far smaller than national averages – for underrepresented minority groups, low income, first generation students and students in our Educational Opportunity Program.
The underrepresented students in our Scholars Mentorship Program have graduation rates above 80%, vastly above state and national averages. We’re pleased to have moved the Scholar’s Mentorship Program into newly renovated and centrally located space next to the Educational Opportunity Program in the Student Union.
We want to support and sustain such student success, doubling down on our support for all students at this difficult time, with particular attention to students who may come to us with special vulnerabilities. It’s worth noting that 46% of students in our incoming first-year class are from historically underrepresented groups. That is down only slightly from last year’s record 48%, belying national predictions that these students would disproportionately not pursue higher education.
These are also times for us to be especially patient and supportive of colleagues and coworkers. Many are working under stressful circumstances:
- Doing their work AND caring for elderly parents or children who may not be in school or whose regular daycare may be disrupted;
- Serving as teachers to their own children while working full time;
- Dealing with financial challenges because a spouse or partner has lost employment;
- Supporting family members with compromised health while also exercising good self-care.
Underlying these sources of anxiety for many members of our community are grave concerns about a deeply divided America, the limited action to address burgeoning climate change, an upcoming and particularly contentious presidential election, and the future of our nation as a democracy. These certainly weigh heavily on me.
We can draw on another piece of Gandalf wisdom to reinforce the importance of kindness and generosity at this time – both for our students and colleagues:
"It is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay … small acts of kindness and love."
A major priority this year will be to advance our efforts to become an anti-racist campus, recognizing both the urgency to make progress and the complexities that mean this is not an overnight task. I will briefly highlight progress on several initiatives:
We are finalizing the purpose and structure of a bias response and support network and assembling its members. We want students and employees to have a clear path to seek support and redress when they have experienced bias, and to educate community members about the impact of these incidents on others.
The Provost has asked faculty governance leadership to review our curricular offerings and pedagogy to:
- Better highlight current offerings about race, racism and inequity in America so that we educate our students more effectively on these issues;
- Determine any significant gaps in those offerings;
- Review the diversity requirement and qualifying courses, so that all students learn the most critical, often discomforting, topics in this realm; and
- Explore instructional practices that enhance equity in educational outcomes.
The Provost and I both respect that the curriculum is under the primary purview of faculty.
We are broadening the structure of our diversity and inclusion work by creating a Working Group in each school that will coordinate with the College-wide Diversity & Inclusion Council. This will expand involvement, spur broader conversation and build avenues for integrating this work into the curriculum, departments and schools.
The University Police Department has stated its commitment to be an anti-racist law-enforcement organization. We are rethinking how we over-rely on UPD and are developing other ways to intervene with behavioral and mental health issues. For example, we are establishing a new after-hours protocol for students with mental health issues so that they can receive triage services without having to call UPD. To be clear, anyone observing a student in immediate danger of harm to self or other should call UPD. Our officers are trained to respond in such instances. We are grateful to UPD for their ongoing commitment to implicit bias training and for being first responders who consistently protect our community.
We take pride in having one of the oldest Black Studies Departments in the nation, established more than 50 years ago. We continue our commitment to strengthening the Department through support of its routine five-year program review this year, prioritizing the hiring of faculty in the department, and continued exploration of options for alternative space.
Our faculty recruitment this past year led to one-third of new faculty hires from historically underrepresented groups. We are heartened that search committee members found the training we began last year meaningful, and we will continue that work. Certainly the outcomes are what we want. Now we must welcome and retain our new colleagues.
We have submitted our proposal for the next round of funding through the SUNY PRODiG program, which provides support for new underrepresented faculty and for diversity and inclusion programming.
The national dialogue about race and racism continues to call attention to historic figures memorialized by statues or building names, the causes or ideas they represent, and whether we use time and space to remember different, long-ignored “heroes.” We recently completed a process that resulted in the removal of slaveholder names on six campus buildings.
I am speaking to you from land that is the traditional territory of people of the Munsee, Esopus, and Lenape tribes. We acknowledge their careful stewardship of this land for many generations. They and the enslaved Africans, early European immigrants, and subsequent waves of diverse immigrants all shaped the community and the College we know today. We are planning a contemplative space that acknowledges and teaches about this more fulsome history and these diverse contributions.
And we have commissioned a sculpture of Sojourner Truth at age 29, when she emancipated herself, to stand in front of the Library that bears her name. She is a national hero with Ulster County roots whose contributions to the anti-slavery and suffrage movements are worthy of further recognition on our campus. We are raising private funds for this project.
We recognize that statues and names are symbolic changes that do not replace the structural change we must advance.
Another of this year’s goals is completing the College’s first-ever major fund-raising campaign. Soaring Higher – The Campaign for SUNY New Paltz seeks to raise at least $23 million. We ended last fiscal year at 95% of our overall goal, and with funds raised this year we are now less than $1 million from our goal. Last spring we raised more than $64,000 in just six weeks for the Student Crisis Fund, which qualified for a $54,000 match from SUNY.
The Office of Student Affairs has distributed more than $37,000 since the fund began in 2018, including more than $32,000 to 40 students since March. The stories of these students are compelling testimony for the value of this support. We are grateful for everyone’s generosity.
A top fund-raising priority this year is financial aid and scholarship support, especially for low-income and underrepresented students. Our Crossing the Finish Line Fund supports juniors and seniors when emergency financial challenges threaten degree completion. Every gift to this fund – up to $100,000 – will be matched by two anonymous donors.
We are progressing well on the self-study for this year's reaccreditation review by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education. I am grateful for Provost Lyman’s overall guidance of this project and the great work of Laurel Garrick Duhaney and Ken Goldstein as Steering Committee Co-Chairs. I want also to thank other members of the Steering Committee for their work and their leadership of the working groups for each of the seven standards. I thank the many others who served on those working groups, and on the Editorial Committee. The self-study has been reviewed by Cabinet members and will be shared with the campus soon, before it is sent to the Middle States review team in advance of our spring 2021 review, which is almost certain to be virtual.
We will not abandon our values and how we see ourselves. At the same time, we must recognize that we face a new world changed by the pandemic and by shifting societal expectations for higher education. We may need to rethink how these values translate into action, now and after COVID-19. Other priorities may need to supplement or supplant some of these if we are to continue thriving as a top-tier public university in a changed world.
Our strategic plan has guided our work for the past several years, and will continue to do so – coupled with the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals – even as we recognize that the coronavirus pandemic has fundamentally changed the context in which we work.
The fall semester will undoubtedly bring unanticipated challenges that will demand our immediate attention. Also, we must plan for a spring semester and the next academic year under conditions that remain uncertain. Essential initiatives of our strategic plan may receive less attention while they still guide us.
Our immediate and short term planning needs and our top priorities in the time given us this year are: supporting student success, adjusting our budget, sustaining and growing enrollment, and dedicating time and attention to anti-racist action, all while keeping health and safety an overarching priority.
This will not be easy. We have weathered difficult times before, like hurricanes that caused damage and disrupted our work. We bring to these challenges a set of core strengths and achievements that few other institutions enjoy. In the words of another protagonist in “The Lord of the Rings,” Sam Gamgee: “But in the end it’s only a passing thing, this shadow; even darkness must pass.”
We will support each other through these difficult times until the darkness passes.
Thank you for listening, have an excellent year, and be safe and well.