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The Office of the President

State of the College 2011

September 16, 2011

Good afternoon, and welcome to our traditional launch of the academic year.  This is an opportunity to celebrate our vision and values, revisit where we have been, and identify our priorities and challenges for the year.  Also at this event, we welcome our new colleagues to the campus and our community.  I appreciate all of you being here this afternoon.   

Tropical Storm Irene’s arrival on Sunday, August 28, following - and followed by - several days of beautiful sunny weather, may be a good metaphor for the year ahead – bright and promising in some ways, wet and stormy in others, presenting us with exciting opportunities along with unexpected hardships. 

But we have overcome challenges before, and we can take pride in the capacity we have shown to work together to overcome them, to thrive, and to excel in a difficult environment.  Our response to Irene is only the most recent example.  Indeed, all of public higher education, within SUNY and beyond, faces significant hurdles.  These include a struggling and uncertain economy, and winds of change in public and political arenas calling for greater accountability and stronger performance by public colleges and universities. 

These forces demand that we continue to evaluate, refine, and redirect our priorities and how we achieve them, and that we not be content with past ways of doing our work.   We cannot ignore these forces, but in addressing them we must stay focused on our institutional goals and vision as a selective, residential, public, liberal arts-based institution.

We estimate the cost of Irene’s damage at well over $1 million, which we will cover with reserves unless government emergency funds are available.   This is a serious hit on our resources, but unforeseen costs such as these are precisely why we maintain such funds.  Our employees made a significant difference in planning for Irene, acting decisively during the storm, and working hard at recovery.  Quick action during the storm to cut power to several buildings saved us millions of dollars in further damage and may have saved lives.  The rapid mobilization to remove water and dry buildings and equipment speeded our recovery.  We owe all of the people responsible for these actions a huge debt of gratitude.

Our students stayed upbeat, calm, and creative during the storm and recovery period, and learned that they could not only survive without Internet and Facebook access, but could also enjoy interacting with their peers in different ways.  Some of our employees and students shared their training and expertise in disaster management and emergency response to support the broader community.  And all of you were patient and upbeat with inconveniences, including dislocation of some of your work sites.  All told, this community was impressive and strong during this event.

Leaving the storm aside for the time being, I want to speak about presidential transitions, as the presidential search did not conclude until many of you were well engaged in your summer activities.  I am excited and honored to serve as president of a college that I have grown to love and admire, and look forward to serving the College, our students, and the broader communities that depend on us.  I am grateful for the warm reception and many expressions of support I have received. 

Presidential transitions naturally introduce anxiety about the directions and values a new leader will bring, and what he or she will be like.  I hope that these past two years have given you some assurance about my approach, style, and values.  I embrace the grand vision that we continue on our trajectory to be one of the premier liberal arts-based, public comprehensive colleges in the Northeast.  I am proud of where we are and have been, and am committed to building a community that pushes on toward this overarching goal. 

Even though I have gotten to know the campus through two other positions, I intend to spend time learning about the campus through the lens of a new president -- its values, points of pride, its aspirations, and areas where we can most improve.  What I learn will help inform the way I chart the course for my presidency and the institution.  The steps I take to do that reflect both my immediate interest in learning the campus more fully as a new president, and my long-term commitment to communication, consultation, and community building. Know that while I am learning the campus in a new way, I will be moving ahead with a full work agenda and schedule. 

Leadership transitions and the distraction and disruption brought by Irene’s flooding make it even more important than usual that we remind ourselves of why we are here and that we revisit and reinforce who we are, what we value, and what we want to be.  If we don’t do that, it is easy for us to drift off course. 

Last year’s book “Academically Adrift,” generated considerable discussion about the state of higher education in America and raised questions about how much or how little students are learning; the debates that this study engendered cannot be ignored.  While we can argue about the methodology and interpretations of this study, it carries important lessons that we need to heed.

But we also have sound evidence that New Paltz is anything but adrift.  Because of our adherence to the key elements of a vision plan and our great care and focus, we have been on a strong and clear course.  We must remain committed to these elements as the foundation of our now well-established strength and reputation of providing high-quality educational opportunities to citizens of New York.

Our success draws on several strengths and values that I will present here, mapped alongside the central elements of our vision.  These include:

  • A personalized, residential college experience, where students, faculty, and staff learn together through close interaction. 
  • A high standard of rigor and academic expectation made possible by exceptional faculty who are committed to students and their learning, AND to conducting high-quality scholarship that informs their teaching, provides learning opportunities for students, and contributes to faculty vitality.
  • Intellectually capable and committed students who are able to rise to the challenges we provide.
  • A commitment to sustaining an open and diverse college community, considering many dimensions of diversity including socioeconomic background, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, political views, physical disability, and others.
  • Fostering a spirit of exploration, discovery, and artistry that prepares students to excel in a rapidly changing society and economy that demands creativity and worldliness.
  • A commitment to educating each student as a whole person.
  • Being an intellectual and cultural hub in the Hudson Valley and serving regional economic and educational needs.

It is also good at the start of an academic year to reflect on where we have been, and to forecast the coming year. 
We should be proud of the many affirmations of the quality of our work and the exceptional learning environment we provide for our students.  Our Middle States reaccreditation is a case in point.   As I shared with you in June, we met all fourteen standards and criteria for well-performing colleges and universities, were praised for the quality of our self-study, and were fully re-accredited.  We must respond to only one recommendation – in the area of assessment. 

We received five commendations from our review team – one of these explicitly recognized our culture of assessment, and three of the others include recognition of some aspect of our assessment effectiveness.  SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher suggested to me recently that New Paltz can be a distinctive leader within the SUNY system as a model for assessment of student learning and institutional effectiveness. Indeed, the Chancellor’s office called us the other day inquiring whether we could help another SUNY campus with assessment as it prepares for its accreditation process, and another president has reached out to me personally for similar guidance in dealing with recommendations they received.  Good assessment data provide powerful evidence for responding to concerns raised by studies such as “Academically Adrift,” as well as broader political questions about the value of investing in higher education.    

One set of assessment data you will hear about this semester is the latest NSSE data; this is the National Survey of Student Engagement.  This survey compares perceptions and views of our students about their education with those of students at other institutions.  Some of the results reinforce our sense of pride in what we do well, and others suggest we look more critically at some things that we think we do well.   I encourage you to attend the upcoming presentations about NSSE and to review and discuss the study and its implications.

Last year, we increased our ranking in both the Kiplinger’s guide and in US News and World Report.  We learned this week that we have again climbed in US News -- among regional universities in the North, to 6th from 7th for public institutions and to 30th from 33rd overall.  This is further affirmation of the great work that you all do.  Our outstanding graduation and retention rates, which exceed national averages by a healthy margin, are key to these rankings.  We should take pride in these indicators of student success, and put a priority on continuing to grow them.   At the academy for new presidents this summer, we were asked to share aspirations for our institutions, and I said I want to see us boost our freshman retention rates to over 90% from the current rate in the high 80s.  My colleagues told me that with our current retention rates, New Paltz is already in a different league than their institutions, underscoring for me our distinction in serving our students so well.

We again recruited a great class of first-year and transfer students, and slightly exceeded our enrollment targets – just the position we want to be in.  Our new students are academically well prepared, and their rapt attentiveness to Professor Peter Kaufman’s convocation address suggests that they are ready to learn.  Over 30 percent of our first-year students are Latino/Latina, African American, and Asian American-Pacific Islander, making this the most racially and ethnically diverse entering class we have had in a number of years.  Our admissions staff again did a tremendous job, and many of you helped with open houses and accepted students’ day and by reaching out to prospective students.    My many conversations with parents and students verify that our collective care in these areas is a huge factor in our success.

We continued to advance our academic agendas.  Despite our budget challenges last year, our ranks this year are enriched by 9 new tenure track faculty, 2 library faculty, and 7 full-time lecturers.  You will meet these new colleagues in a few minutes.  Faculty had another great year of scholarship – publishing books, articles, chapters; exhibiting artistic work and performing in various venues; presenting at conferences and other institutions; and seeking and securing external funding.  Many of our colleagues were recognized for the quality and impact of their work – drawing distinction both for themselves and the College.  Student involvement in research, scholarly and creative projects grows – much of it in collaboration with faculty mentors – offers a rich learning experience. 

We’ve also made exciting progress in keeping our curricular offerings vital.  Last spring, you approved a revision of our Honors offerings that will help us elevate the learning opportunities we provide and recruit the best students.  The parents of a new student – one a professor and department chair at a SUNY research center – wrote to me that the honors opportunities at New Paltz tipped the balance in their son’s decision to come here.  A group of faculty and staff have been reading and engaging in lively discussion about liberal education values and approaches that should underpin our educational offerings, especially general education.  The deans and faculty in Fine and Performing Arts and Science and Engineering are pursuing an innovative program at the interface of art and technology. And we are beginning a new living-learning community emphasizing Chinese language and Asian Studies, in which domestic students with interests in Asian Studies and Asian students live and study together.  I applaud this partnership between academic affairs and student affairs.

We expanded our presence in the region – consistent with our commitment as a SUNY campus to be a significant regional and community partner.  Last year, I made the point at every turn that our economic impact analysis shows that annually we infuse over $330 million into the Hudson Valley economy and nearly $400 million into the New York economy, along with extensive volunteer work.  We will continue to showcase these contributions that make a positive difference in the public perception of the College, and focus more effort on supporting economic development.    

The Dorsky Museum draws visitors to the campus, collaborates with other arts organizations, and extends arts programming to the broader community.  The Center for Research, Regional Education and Outreach – CRREO - and Director Gerald Benjamin extended College expertise to address issues of regional significance, on topics as diverse as local agriculture and food systems, public health and local government efficiency.  I am pleased and encouraged that growing numbers of faculty throughout the College are joining in CRREO’s work.   

Turning our attention back to the campus, we continue to make spectacular progress on improving the quality, appearance, and function of our buildings and grounds.  Except for the South Wing and Studley Theatre, Old Main is occupied and we will have a dedication ceremony this fall.  The renovation of Crispell Hall was completed at a rapid pace, we are progressing well with planning for renovation of the Library and Wooster, are beginning to plan a new residence hall, and after some delays design of the new science building is back on pace.  Renovation of the Excelsior Concourse is nearly complete, and other grounds improvements are progressing.  Our campus master plan was completed this spring, and it showed   – no surprise to any of us – that we have less non-residential space per student than any other SUNY comprehensive campus.  This will be a powerful basis for our advocacy in 2013 for allocation of state funding for new academic space.  Our employees in facilities make key contributions to our mission by guiding and planning these improvements and maintaining the campus so well.

Before I turn our attention to some of our priorities for the current year, I want to provide a broad-brush overview of our budget situation.  Last year, we planned a major reduction in our budget to bring our spending plan in line with reduced state budget allocations.  As we entered the new fiscal year, we had achieved about $5 million of that $6.3 million plan, and we intend to complete the plan.  

Late this summer, Governor Cuomo signed a rational tuition policy that allows SUNY to increase resident undergraduate tuition by $300 this year and up to that amount each of the next four years.   This is BIG news for us, and I appreciate all who advocated in support of this outcome.  This will increase our annual operating revenue by about $1.8 million, after allocating about $600,000 for additional financial aid.

That projected increase is contingent on not back-peddling from budget decisions we made last year. We will not simply use these tuition revenues to return to a previous status quo, but by realizing our budget-reduction plan we will create a clean slate to invest in our highest priorities.  Our intention, consistent with SUNY and state expectations, is to focus new investments on enhancing instruction and access.

The increased tuition revenue assures us that we have funds in our budget before we authorize searches for tenure-track faculty and other permanent positions.  This year, we have already approved searches for 15 of the highest-priority faculty requests brought forward by the Deans to the Interim Provost, for faculty who will join us in fall 2012.  We will review requests for additional positions that meet our most pressing needs for instruction and course availability, and we intend to authorize more searches this fall. 

We anticipate that next year we will receive an additional infusion of new revenue from a second year of tuition increase.  This year, we will consult about decisions for prioritizing new faculty and other positions, with a focus on sustaining our upward trajectory.   These searches will take place next year, so that we commit to permanent hires only when we know we have the resources.  We can hire one-year lecturers for next year to cover our most pressing instructional needs while tenure-track searches are under way.

After the challenges of budget cutting last year, the opportunity to invest new revenue and advance our core mission and goals is uplifting, to say the least.

I do want us to be mindful that we still live and work in an uncertain economy.  We will need to keep a careful focus on our highest priorities, to think creatively about how to achieve our goals in new ways, and to become more student centered.  You will be hearing more throughout the year about the “Shared Services” initiative being pursued throughout the SUNY system.  This is an effort to find efficiencies in our work by collaborating across campuses, to develop new models of instruction, and to increase the proportion of our resources directed to instruction and key student support needs.  We need to apply that principle on our own campus.

Despite these constraints, we have considerable capacity to educate New York’s citizens, and we have a responsibility to do that in the best way we can.  Remember that flood waters that cause damage also concentrate nutrients in floodplain soils, supporting the development of rich and diverse ecosystems.  Our budgetary challenges – by concentrating our attention and energy – may accelerate our notable progress on the lofty goals we have set for ourselves.

And so we should look to this year as bright and sunny compared with any we have faced recently.    
Here are highlights of the forecast for the coming year: 
We will undertake national searches for three major academic administrative positions, the Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs, the Dean of Science and Engineering, and the Dean of Education, with the provost search to be launched ahead of the dean searches.  We recently undertook an organizational audit of the School of Education to set the stage for a successful Dean search. 

Working with me and other Cabinet members, the Interim Provost will oversee a broadly consultative process to develop models for faculty workload, to address inequities and adjust to a reduced budget.   And we will pursue a consultative process to clarify our standards and expectations for reappointment, promotion, and tenure, and promotion to professor.  It has troubled me since I arrived here that key elements of such a fundamental process are not better articulated and communicated.  Without being formulaic, we can convey our expectations more thoughtfully than we do now. 

Our curricular discussions and innovations this year will include work on initiatives begun last year that I mentioned earlier; evaluating a change from a standard 3-credit to a 4-credit module; and advancing our graduate-level offerings and taking further steps to reverse the decline in graduate enrollments. 

We recently shared with you the report developed last spring on areas of alignment between activities and initiatives on the campus and the key themes of the SUNY strategic plan, The Power of SUNY.  All of these are important and we want to grow in each, including entrepreneurial work and business support in the School of Business and elsewhere; contributions to a healthy New York through programs in biology, communication disorders, and CRREO, among others; and our work on sustainable energy in the Schools of Science and Engineering and Business in collaboration with regional businesses and industry. 

As part of my annual report to the Chancellor I was directed to choose targeted areas in which we believe we can make unusual contributions, and which would factor into assessing our performance as an institution and mine as president -- with the understanding that these could change with our planning and consultation during the coming year.  I selected these priorities:

  • SUNY and the Educational Pipeline – growing our retention and graduation rates including our record of success with transfer students and students from under-represented groups,  and improving our programs in ways that address issues such as academic rigor and prevalence of active learning, issues raised in studies like “Academically Adrift”;  
  • SUNY and the World – expanding our already-leading study abroad and international programming, and pursuing innovations like the Asian Studies living-learning community and building on our award-winning study abroad programming;  and
  • SUNY and the Vibrant Community – increasing connections to our region through work such as that done by CRREO and the Dorsky Museum,  the One Book/One New Paltz project, and other endeavors. 

The College needs to develop a more thorough and expansive strategic plan to guide and frame our work.  I do not intend to undertake and complete a strategic planning effort in the first year of my presidency, while I am learning the College in a new way.  But I will begin planning and consulting about how to go about this, including ensuring faculty, staff, and student consultation and input; building on and refining the 8 vision points that have guided us so well, rather than beginning anew; and integrating themes of The Power of SUNY into our planning.  Given the centrality of academics in any plan we develop, there is merit in waiting to involve the new Provost. 

External fund-raising is a significant priority for my work this year, and I have already been investing major time and effort on this responsibility.  This is our most significant potential source of new revenue, and one that is under our control.  My work will include enhancing the capacity of our Foundation Board and supporting the continued development of advisory boards in schools and programs; assessing and investing in our development office; building new relationships and an expanded donor base, especially increasing the involvement of alumni; and refining our message about priorities and the importance of private giving.  Our growing record of educational distinction, our vision, and the alignment of our goals with SUNY system directions make a compelling case for private support for our students and programs. 

In closing, I cannot begin to tell you how rewarding I have found my many interactions and conversations these past several months – with students, parents, faculty and staff, alumni, community members, colleagues at other institutions, system leaders, and others whose relationships are important to us.  The high regard and respect for New Paltz that I hear is consistent and enthusiastic.   These judgments grow out of your great work and your creativity, care, and commitment to our students. We want to celebrate our successes in the enterprise of teaching and learning.  We want to engage in becoming even better at serving our students and the state.  In these ways, we continue our climb as premier institution of higher learning.  I look forward to working with all of you on this shared endeavor.

For the rest of the year, may we experience our red skies at night and not in the morning.

Thank you, and have a great year.

Donald P. Christian,