Office of the President

State of the University

State of the University Address  |  President Darrell Wheeler Delivered: Aug. 25, 2023

“Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow: Building on Our Strengths, Addressing Our Challenges, and Shaping Our Future”


Good morning, SUNY New Paltz! What a difference a year makes. Today I have a sense of familiarity that was not available to me this time last year. Now, having experienced a full year in the company of outstanding colleagues, students, and community collaborators, I understand in a new way the transformative power and potential of this place we have in common. I am very pleased to say that Donovan and I have both felt welcomed and enlivened in our first year as “Hawks.”

Today, I have the opportunity to share reflections on the past year, elements of the opportunities and challenges, tail winds and head winds facing us in higher education: our today. And, I would like to share with you my perspective on some key goals and directions for SUNY New Paltz in our near future.

Before I go into more content specificity, let me take an opportunity to do something I think is really important to do in a deep way. Thank you, my colleagues, collaborators, and team members, for the successes we created this past year.

I want to express my deep appreciation for making this such a good first year. Let me begin by acknowledging members of the College Council and SUNY New Paltz Foundation Board of Directors. Would members of the College Council and SUNY New Paltz Foundation please stand or wave so that we can thank you for gifts you give in time, treasure, and talent? A special welcome and shout-out to my fellow birth sun sign compadre Tamah Wiegand.

What is a university without its teaching faculty in all ranks, full- and part-time? To these colleagues who give so much of themselves in designing and facilitating learning and creative spaces that bring forward the core academic mission, I say thank you! Please let me lead a special thank you for your time, talents, and treasures.

To our five academic deans, our graduate programs dean and our library dean, I want to acknowledge that your special gifts of insight, leadership and stewardship that are vital to our core enterprise.

Now broadly, to my colleagues who make this university a 24/7, 365 day a year place that facilitates the core mission, provides support and assistance to students, faculty, and staff, and always makes us look good, let me say thank you. Please allow me to thank you all for your work in facilities, UPD, Student Affairs, Enrollment Management, Financial Services, Food Service, Health Services, ResLife, Maintenance, Human Resources. I THANK YOU for all that you do each and every day.

To our alumni here today and community members and friends joining us, let me thank you for your gifts of time, talents, and treasures. For your willingness to be guides for me during this year, lending your council, encouragement, support, wisdom, humor, and grit. I thank you for all you’ve done.

To the members of the President’s Cabinet and President’s Office, I am certain, as Donovan might affirm, I’m not always the easiest person to work with, so I do thank you for your leniency and support this year. Shelly, Erica, Tanhena, Michele, Stella, Stephanie, Cathi, Lisa, and Rich. And now I get to add one of our newest members, Provost William McClure. I thank you for all that you bring to this enterprise.

I hope I haven’t left anyone out of this litany of thank you messages, but if I did, attribute to the head and not the heart.

In the spirit of gratefulness, let me acknowledge that the land we are on today is the traditional territory of the Munsee, Esopus, and Lenape tribes. This land also manifests the hopes, challenges and traumas of enslaved African ancestors and European settlers. In the spirit of never forgetting our true history, we become activated to stay on paths to do more and make greater this place we share, our SUNY New Paltz.

In many ways this marks the official beginning of a new academic year. In the cycle of the Academy, we welcome our new colleagues and students. We will have a chance to introduce new colleagues more formally in September. We celebrate the beginning of a new year in the life of our University.

The 2022-23 academic year has come and gone, and time would not permit me to recount each event or milestone but let me highlight some memorable items as they relate to the state of SUNY New Paltz.

We attained University status at the beginning of 2023 – a true indicator of our academic rigor and institutional strengths.

A year ago, I embarked on a series of listening and learning sessions across the SUNY New Paltz community. I want to thank my transition ambassadors, aka (wink) the Presidential search committee for their guidance and feedback because I set up a very ambitious agenda. Let me also thank the first set of faculty and staff who attended this listening session. You know who you are, all six of you, and as I promised, I will be coming back to you this year to get your thoughts about what this year has been like.  

The listening tours were critical to anchoring my personal knowledge of the New Paltz community, and I achieved more than I could have imagined. Meeting in small and large groups and hearing from so many of the new and long serving and dedicated employees. These meetings reinforced a message I’ve repeated many times over this past year – Invest in the people that make this campus a community! I had a personal goal of meeting 1,000 people across our campus, and I am confident that I’ve achieved this goal.

Coming into this presidency this community stated clearly, ‘we want a president who will be present’. I heard you and still hear you and have worked diligently to make presence a priority. In official and formal meetings, informal gatherings, social events, athletic events, open house gatherings, meet and greets, community events, SUNY New Paltz has been present, and I have been very proud to be a part of this.

I have met with our local, state, and national elected officials. We have discussed the significance of a public 4-year comprehensive university presence in the Mid-Hudson Valley and aspirations for strengthening existing partnerships and collaborations and the creation of new ones that enhance the lives and quality of life of our community members now as well as into the future. Two examples of this include the SUNY New Paltz School of Business being named as the Mid-Hudson Region Innovation Hotspot with a $1.25 million state grant over 5 years; a second example, we have been engaging with SUNY Ulster Community College and the County Executive’s Office to become a partner in the design and implementation of a new Workforce Innovation initiative at the new iPark87.

Our talented teams in Development and Alumni Affairs have facilitated more than 50 on- and off-campus events this past year, and across the country and world—I did one international event—to bring the vibrancy of the University center stage to old friends and new contacts, to revitalize the alumni who have waned in their connections with us, and to showcase global talent and local brilliance in new ways. I might add with great pride, and under the leadership of Erica Marks, Shala Mills, Aaron Isabelle, and many others, not only did SUNY New Paltz attain its largest single gift of $6.37 million from the Ibis Group for our Science of Reading endowed professorship and a new microcredential program, Erica has also led a team that has grown our endowment to more than $35 million.

The ways in which our institution attracts and retains students are not only part of our core mission but are also central to our financial stability. Our colleagues in the divisions of Student Affairs and Enrollment Management, Stephanie, and Stella, thank you so much, work each year to ensure that we recruit, enroll, retain, and graduate students who go on to do phenomenal things. This year the Division of Student Affairs has totally revamped the student Welcome Week and Convocation. Yesterday, more than 1,000 new students started the process of becoming “Hawks.” As they moved into residence halls and met their new cohorts, I had the privilege of meeting several students and their families during move-in day activities, including the family “Sip-N-Cry” farewell reception, and the student BBQ. I think it went well. It helped them cut the tie. Stephanie managed to have wine for them to sip. If you can come next year, do! It was amazing! My Aunt Lois and Cousin Beverly, here today, Donovan and I ate dinner in Peregrine Dining Hall last night. My goodness, if you have not met this class, they are jazzed up and energized! The enthusiasm and the gratitude expressed by them for the welcoming, and well-organized process was universally noted. Before these new students arrived, and over the past 2 to 3 weeks, our returning student leaders and athletes came back to campus. These student leaders become in many ways our signature examples of what it means to be a SUNY New Paltz student – they strive for excellence in their learning, they search for meaning in their living and act in ways that serve the greater good.

Our institutional cornerstone is of course our academic offerings and exemplary teaching. This year faculty and professional staff have demonstrated their skills, expertise, and adaptability as they addressed issues such as climate instability, environmental and social sustainability, critical inquiry, social-political discourse, and of course ChatGPT-AI. All of this in an effort to continue to offer excellence in teaching and learning and innovations in content and applications.

Our Academic Affairs Division congratulated and said fond farewell to Dr. Barbara Lyman for her four years of service as Interim Provost and we welcomed Dr. William McClure as our new Provost.  

We concluded the 2023 year with our signature events of student commencement exercises, recognition of honors and of course a few days of inaugural events. Overall, SUNY New Paltz had an exciting year with many commenting on the sense of community and engagement that was percolating.

If we look today and think about challenges even with these existing accomplishments that are definitely exciting, the context of higher education remains at an inflection point, with growing demands for accountability, clarity on its relevance, ability to confront current issues of social, racial, religious discords, demographic shifts, and challenging financial circumstances. SUNY New Paltz is certainly not immune to the full impact of these forces.

Again, by way of examples I want to speak to three of these challenging domains and their impacts at SUNY New Paltz.

Enrollment: Earlier I spoke about the excitement of new students arriving and their early engagements. Yes, we are pleased to welcome 1,195 new college students and more than 700 transfer students this fall. This number (1,195) is 200 short of the goal we set at the start of this recruitment cycle, even though our applications were up by nearly 4,000! To me, this represents a disconnect between what I have come to see and experience on campus and our ability to move students and their families from inquiry into the classrooms. Our Enrollment Management team, led by Interim VP Stella Turk, is evaluating this situation closely to help formulate steps to turn this experience around. Early analysis of data from the National Data Clearing House suggests that among 2021/2022 cohort of students we did not bring to SUNY New Paltz, but who were in our applicant pool, 87% of them are persisting somewhere else one year later. This represents a missed opportunity and suggests we must look at our marketing, recruitment, and academic requirements that we set internally to see if we can reverse this disadvantageous experience.

Many of you know first-hand that we have an outstanding Educational Opportunity Program (EOP). This year EOP welcomed 126 new EOP students. This impressive number is still 24 short of our institutional goal. As a result of this, we were required to prepare and submit a plan to SUNY on ways we will address this gap. I am confident that Antonio Bonilla and his entire team will guide us forward, even in a highly competitive recruitment field where students have many choices. This should remind us that even in premier programs like the SUNY New Paltz EOP we must always envision new ways of achieving our goals. The EOP leadership team has worked very hard to create a program that increases academic and student life success for our students. We are proud of the work that the EOP is doing and know we can do more to support this program and the students and communities they represent.

Example 2: Budgetary constraints and accountability. I suppose it is important for me to embrace what many may be thinking as we watch across the country and right here in SUNY the changing landscape and its impact on the fiscal well-being of colleges and universities and the mounting toll on these institutions’ ability to remain intact. It would be wholly inappropriate and poorly informed for me to speculate on any other institution’s financial situation. Rather, I want to reflect on a statement I made one year ago as I made my opening address: “We grapple with new ways of visioning our roles and value within an ecosystem that increasingly expects market valuation of the “return on investment” by students, parents, donors, and third-party partners. Today’s academic landscape requires attention to all of these forces while keeping true to its primary mission of educating its students and advancing scholarship, creative and performing excellence.” It is my responsibility—and I take this seriously—to share important information, not in a sanitized way, but as it is and how it impacts our institution, but, and—but, and—always with an eye toward next step solutions enabling us to secure our position and advance our work together.

Let me also say that today is not an in-depth financial review; that will come later in the semester led by our VP for Administration & Finance, Michele Halstead.

On our financial front, this year was a relatively familiar year to SUNY New Paltz as we examine the past five years of data. Our overall 2022 revenues were approximately $104 million, and our expenses $112 million, leaving a gap of nearly $8 million. This is not new. This is a pattern. Pattern is important. Through institutional savings, many relating to unfilled staff lines, cost containment and use of reserves we were, as we have for the past several years, able to meet all of our financial obligations and conclude the year “whole.” This pattern as I noted has been consistent for several years even as the portion of our budget that is State funded has gone from 70%+ to approximately 25%-28% over the past 75 years. Our tuition revenue presently accounts for 47-48% of our current revenue with residence halls providing another 21%. On our expense side, our single largest category is of course personnel services (pay and salary for employees) at 58%. As you can clearly hear, the financial model has shifted. One thing that is different this year – we were notified by SUNY that in their review of our campus reserves fund we are spending down at a rate that warrants close monitoring. We are not alone in this situation and will be working with SUNY to develop strategies that assist the institution in both monitoring and planning forward. To be clear, SUNY New Paltz is not in a free-fall, but this evaluative review does give us a wakeup call and an opportunity to design and deploy strategies that will move us into a strong financial position. That stated, we must develop plans that grow our financial strength and not just manage the deficit. We cannot cut our way into the future. We must build our way into the future.

My final example today relates to the recruitment, retention and professional development of faculty and staff. The “great resignation” is impacting higher education as well as many other employment sectors. This area requires innovative ways of meeting institutional work needs and the needs of those we seek to recruit for pay, professional development opportunities and work-life integration. I do not have an immediate solution or fix to this problem, but I firmly believe that investment in our people is an investment we must make. Finding the right ways and the resources to do this must be part of our ongoing work together. It is not the president’s job alone, not the faculty’s job alone, and not the staff’s job alone— We have to do this work together.

These three examples underscore the need for new approaches to integrated and strategic planning within higher education and here at SUNY New Paltz. We must make strides in alignment of our data sources and systems so that we have timely and precise data to make informed critical decisions and pathways for planning and implementation.

Now I turn my discussion with you to the future. A future that builds on and respects our strong past, learning from our mistakes, addressing our challenges, and setting a course that is based on who we say we are as a community and who we aspire to be as a community.

In this regard I go to the core of our institutional mission to provide an excellent education to our students that prepares them for lifelong learning and success; and equally so our mission of being a clear value to the citizens of New York and beyond. These two pillars must be the backbone that guide our decisions on curriculum, services, finances, and critical infrastructure. The specific strategies on how to get there must be derived through processes of engagement and mutual respect for diversity of perspectives, but in the end, we must do what is best for the institution to deliver on its chartered promise! I’ll highlight a few of these.

Strategic Planning: Our current strategic plan officially ran from 2013-2018. COVID and the presidential transition definitely impacted the development of a new plan. It is now time for this community to move ahead. To accomplish this, we will use fall 2023—the present—to engage in pre-strategic planning initiatives including reflections on the accomplishments in the 2013-18 plan, selecting a consultant, and engaging in preplanning gatherings (such as the Renaissance Concert of Ideas which was held this week, and our organizational leadership session on Sept. 6, which I know many of you have signed up for, offered by SUNY New Paltz alumni Dr. Stew Friedman [Wharton School, UPenn]). In spring 2024 we will start formal development of our new plan with the goal of completing it by May/June 2024 and a formal launch in fall 2024. In six months. Yes, in six months. Time is of the essence. We need to do this. Aggressive timeline yes, but as you have heard today, context and timing demand that we do not wait until it is convenient or comfortable.

Another category of our direction this year is a Comprehensive Campaign: SUNY New Paltz Foundation is leading this charge and has already begun the work of setting campaign goals, engaged the consultant and doing the necessary development work to increase the likelihood of success.

Back to investing in our people: I just mentioned two examples, with the Renaissance Center and Dr. Friedman. We will continue to look for ways to bring to all our employees’ resources that help them to develop, evaluate and sustain a healthy and strong educational institution in the 21st century. I consider investments in this area essential to our survival. I liken them to building a house and having good plumbing and electrical inside. The house is not just a facade, a shell, otherwise it is not habitable.

Strategic enrollment management: As noted in the example, we have challenges as all colleges/universities do and we must review our current practices with an eye toward changing things that are not working for us and to adapt alternate ways of engaging students, their families and our communities. Our Division of Enrollment Management has already provided me with a plan that goes to the year 2026 and has metrics that could substantially enhance our recruitment and enrollment pipelines and significantly improve our tuition revenue.

Just so you know this is not magical thinking: Had we met our enrollment target of 1,395 we would be in a better fiscal position. With 600 more students, we would have a balanced budget. With 8,000 students total enrollment (undergraduate, transfer, graduate, on-line) – and we’ve had 8,000 students total before – we would have approximately $2 to $4 million surplus each year. I welcome you all to think creatively about how to get there.

Creating success in non-tuition revenue streams: this includes philanthropic and donor support. It also will demand that we engage assertively in securing sponsored research, training, and service awards. Diversifying our non-tuition-based revenues will be part of an institution- wide initiative that will not detract from the core work in liberal arts and sciences but actually build synergies in and among them.

With new and innovative thinking in our Division of Academic Affairs, I have asked the provost and his team to begin a process of assessing opportunities for new programming and ways of attracting strong faculty and staff committed to the mission of SUNY New Paltz. Toward this end, I and the provost have received requests for faculty lines from the deans and I am pleased to share that this year we are planning to approve approximately 70% of the deans’ requested faculty searches. Not only are we planning to approve these searches, but the provost has designed a plan that draws on current resources so that these hires will actually have a near-net zero impact on our budget. But it will have the potential for re-shaping the ability to engage a diverse and talented pool of active service-minded, teaching-scholars.

In the area of Planning, Assessment, and Institutional Research: I know that Middles States re-affirmation is just what you wanted to hear at this point in my presentation. Well maybe not so much, but it is coming and in some ways is already here, with our mid-cycle review and next self-study occurring in the next 2 to 3 years. That’s not far into the future.

In our last MSCHE review, it was specifically noted that SUNY New Paltz would benefit from clear and consistent application of assessment measures anchored to clear goals that are used to guide planning and implementation across the institution. This is another opportunity to use a call to action to expedite our attention to a growing area in higher education – namely articulation of value and impact based on strong data analytics. We will in the next several months engage our community to implement steps to meet this goal.

Related to this, I must also mention that in a year in which SUNY received a sizeable increase in state funding, of which $4.1 million was provided to New Paltz, SUNY has also been required by the state to prepare “a long-term plan to address the impact fluctuations in student enrollment have had on the academic and financial sustainability of state-operated institutions and community colleges.” These plans must be submitted by SUNY no later than Jan. 1, 2024, and each SUNY campus will be required to prepare and submit its plan ahead of this deadline. Our plans must include baseline data on current strengths and trajectory; accelerating excellence through operational enhancements; and opportunities for growth in the areas of student success, research and scholarship, diversity equity and inclusion and economic development and upward mobility. As you can see, these align very well with our campus strategic priorities .

Facilities and infrastructure: We will continue to work with the SUNY Construction fund on projects that have already started and for those that have been prioritized in recent cycles. Earlier this week our VP for Administration & Finance, Michele, confirmed that work on Shango/College Hall will continue and that the SUNY New Paltz working group is actively engaged in reviewing plans for this major project.

In the area of marketing, communications, and government relations: Under the leadership of our VP for Communication & Marketing, Shelly Wright, we are working to enhance our capacity to identify and reach new student pipeline markets and to strengthen our position with social media channels to stand out as potential students search for colleges and universities in undergraduate and graduate markets.

This is not by any means an exhaustive list of the great work and opportunities ahead. It represents some of our pressing priorities aimed at bringing us into better alignment with our aspirations and potential for continued growth and excellence.

Let me remind myself maybe, but also you, that we live in times of continued local, national and world attention and engagement on any number of environmental, political, and social issues, including immigration, race, antisemitism, gender-based violence, mass violence, economic uncertainty, climate change and environmental sustainability, free speech, hate speech, threats of emotional, mental, and physical violence, diversity, equity, justice and inclusion and this is not, of course, an exhaustive list either. We know these issues impact the lives of students, faculty, and staff throughout our campus community, even as we stay focused on our core educational mission. We must affirm and commit to honest discussion and decisive actions, both in and out of the classroom. This commitment is truly manifest in the liberal arts education that centers our academic mission. The power of a broad, inclusive and transformative education cannot be underestimated. Today, as much as ever we must double down on the essentiality of engaging to strengthen, not lessen, the SUNY New Paltz commitment to a strong liberal arts education and demonstrate its access to all citizens of New York. It’s going to be one heck of an exciting and successful year with your support and engagement.