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Presidential Reports and Communications

President’s Report
January 20, 2012

Happy New Year, and welcome to the start of spring semester 2012!  I wish everyone a productive, engaged, and enjoyable second half of the academic year, knowing full well that the semester promises to be tremendously busy.  With this report, I am beginning a new tradition of a January report, thus avoiding a two-month gap between the last report of the fall semester and the first of the spring semester, filling you in on several key developments in the intervening weeks and setting the stage for the semester’s work.

“Campus Audit” Survey.  This fall, I wrote about a survey of faculty, staff, students, alumni, community members, and others conducted to seek views and advice for me as a new president.  Some of you were asked to respond to the survey (I am sharing here the solicitation and survey questions). The input that I received was insightful, touched on many different issues, and reflects perceived strengths and weaknesses of the College as we move into the future.  Because of the diverse viewpoints and the individualistic nature of many responses, it has taken considerable time and care to distill key themes from the survey results.  Even though I continue to read and reflect on the feedback I received, several shared themes, concerns, and directions emerge.  These will become part of my thinking about priorities in my planning, even though strategies for addressing these priorities will require further thought and consultation to develop.  The main themes I heard about include the following; I will share further information about these themes in the coming months. 

  • Institutional pride as a strong foundation for our continued progress
  • Enhancing communication
  • Improving leadership development
  • Strong sense of shared mission
  • Improving internal operations and effectiveness
  • Increasing institutional “nimbleness”
  • Decreasing mistrust
  • Improving vision, strategy, and planning
  • Expanding regional and community engagement

Kiplinger’s Guide.  You perhaps have read that New Paltz joins 9 other SUNY campuses in Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine ranking of the top 100 “best values” in higher education.  New Paltz ranked #55 this year, placing us in about the 92nd percentile of more than 500 public four-year institutions considered. The rankings shifted from last year, in part because of a change in methodology, although this past year’s tuition increase for SUNY campuses may be another factor in such shifts (every SUNY comprehensive college included in the top 100 dropped in ranking from last year, and some fell out of the top 100).  We should be proud of the combination of low cost and high educational quality that led to this ranking.  Nonetheless, at a time that many are questioning the value that U.S. higher education provides (see, for example, “The Value Gap,” CHE 1/11/12), our priorities must include continuous improvement in quality.

Enrollment and Student Recruitment.  Our spring semester undergraduate enrollment is higher than last year.  Overall graduate enrollment remains even with last year – generally a good sign, although some key programs have continued to decline.  Transfer numbers (365) are even with last year (359), and have met our planned spring target of 300 full-time and 50 part-time new undergraduates.

We currently have 11,136 freshman applications for fall semester 2012 admission, compared with 11,288 this time last year (a drop of 1.4%).  We anticipate another 3,000 or so between now and April.  We remain the campus in the university college sector with the most applications, although Oneonta and Cortland are not far behind. Transfer applications are slightly (2%) ahead of last year, but it is too early to discern any real trends for that population.

Across the entire SUNY system, new student applications are down by 2%.  Although we have a huge applicant pool for a class of 1,150 first-year students, we must be alert because the market is getting vastly more competitive – in part a consequence of the demography of declining numbers of high school graduates.  Many of our public and private competitors are better positioned than us to leverage their applicants by offering financial incentives.  With rising costs and a struggling economy, money is becoming more important, and SUNY, although relatively inexpensive, is not the comparative bargain it once was.  Our challenge will be yielding the talented students we have become accustomed to enrolling without such financial incentives. 

Personalized and direct contact from individual faculty and department chairs to accepted students will be even more important this year than in the past.  Hearing from professors and departments about the great things that New Paltz has to offer makes a very real difference in the decisions of students to attend.  In my many conversations with alumni, I hear often that one of the most memorable parts of their New Paltz education was their close interaction with faculty and staff, a value that is important for us to showcase even before students make their decision to attend here.  In the next few weeks, academic departments will receive lists of accepted students along with suggestions for reaching out to them. I hope that each department will begin planning now to undertake these efforts, and thank you in advance for your partnership with Admissions staff in recruiting the incoming class we seek.

Budget Discussions and Process. As I shared in my November report, Vice President DiStefano and staff have been developing templates, process, and a timeline to inform decisions for investment of new resources, as we remain optimistic we will be able to do.  Their work and the work of a small group of Wonk members has focused on reframing the criteria, constraints, and ground rules that had been used in planning our recent budget reductions for resource investment purposes.  The SUNY Board of Trustee's approval of year two of a rational tuition policy and the release of Governor Cuomo’s budget on Tuesday that also included the tuition increase provide the campus with parameters that allow an estimate of the  additional resources that will be the focus of the process we undertake in the spring semester to identify critical areas of investment. Of course these estimates will depend on the outcome of final action on the tuition increase by the Legislature. We will hold a forum early during the spring semester to share these ideas and the process.  The process that is being developed includes steps for departments and units to request new budget allocations to be prioritized by deans/directors; allow for feedback and input from Budget, Goals and Plans Committee and the Administrative Council; review by the Wonk group; Cabinet review and final decisions.

Every indication is that the budget for the coming year will include virtually flat state support. Any net increase available to us will accrue from tuition increases that further stretch the financial resources of many of our students and their families, at a time that student and/or parent loan debt has already been increasing.  In this context, we must remain ever-attentive to our responsibility to focus investment of our financial resources on supporting and enhancing educational opportunities for our students.

External activities.  Director of Development Sally Cross, my wife Sandy and I recently returned from a 4-day alumni relations/donor cultivation trip to Florida, where we met with more than 45 current and prospective donors, alumni, and college supporters, at six different events in four cities.  It was particularly rewarding to co-host one of these events with New Paltz President Emeritus John Neumaier (1968-72) and his wife Sally Luther, who have been strong supporters of the College since he retired from the presidency.  The focus of those meetings was on “getting to know the new president” and an opportunity for me to share some of the great things going on at New Paltz.  We will be following up with several participants about our priorities for private support and about expanding their giving to the College.  One of these is a very successful alumnus introduced to us by an emeritus professor.  In the few days since returning from this trip, we heard from one donor-couple who have agreed to increase their regular contribution to the College by a substantial amount, in response to my presentation and request for increased support.

It is clear that our alumni have tremendous affection and regard for New Paltz and their experiences as students, some as far back as 60 years ago.  I heard again, as I did at this fall’s alumni reunion, how much the general education coursework and experience of our alumni has meant in their lives and careers.   Our discussions at one event generated ideas for a project to gather and share these alumni perspectives so that current and future students may better understand the lifelong value of general education, something we will consider as a future project. 

Every analysis and assessment indicates that a strong alumni base is at the core of private support for colleges and universities.  As I reported last month, our rate of alumni giving to the College is growing but is not at the level it must be to sustain the private giving that we increasingly rely on.  We have been hampered for a number of years by insufficient staffing in our alumni relations area.  Following discussion with Cabinet I recently approved a new position for a director of alumni relations that we will search for this spring.  This person’s responsibilities will include a focus on cultivating alumni donors.

The success of our fund-raising and development depends on work and involvement by members of the community other than the President and personnel in the Development Office.  In that vein, I congratulate Dean Schiffer for his successes this year in fund raising for LA&S, Kristine Harris and her colleagues for continued success in building the Asian Studies endowment, and Department Chair Carole Cowan for her important contributions to the establishment of a new endowment in Music.  I am grateful to University Professor Vladimir Feltsman for offering to perform a benefit concert as part of this spring’s inaugural-week events.  Emeritus Professor Sal Anastasio has helped by connecting me with a prominent alumnus.  Thanks, everyone!

In other external matters, I (along with Chief of Staff Shelly Wright, whose responsibilities include leading our government relations efforts at all levels) met recently with Susan Zimet, the new Town Supervisor of New Paltz about a variety of College-Town interactions.  We look forward to building and sustaining a positive working relationship with her and other town and village officials.  We will be meeting soon with Michael Smith, new President of the New Paltz Chamber of Commerce, another key organization in our town-gown interactions. 

On Thursday, January 19, New Paltz hosted and co-sponsored a conference on hazard mitigation, along with U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, FEMA, and the New York State Office of Emergency Management.  This is the same day that Congressman Maurice Hinchey, a New Paltz alumnus, announced that he will not seek re-election.  My welcome at the conference included the following comment:  “I want to take a moment on this special day to thank Congressman Hinchey publicly for all that he has done to support his alma mater in his role as our congressman and previously our state legislator.  His love and pride for SUNY New Paltz, support for our environmental curriculum, our Dorsky Museum, and other programs have meant so much to this college community and to me.  We will miss his leadership in this critical role.”  Later that day, Shelly Wright and I attended the press conference where the Congressman made his formal announcement, and I was able to share our gratitude personally.

Also earlier this week, I hosted a breakfast meeting with the CEO of a solar manufacturing company in the Hudson Valley, the president of a university in Nigeria with whom he works, and Interim Dean Dan Freedman and Department Chair Baback Izadi to discuss a possible collaboration that would create international opportunities for our students.  New Paltz Foundation Chair Noah Dorsky joined me for a meeting with Don Rubin and staff of the Rubin Museum (Manhattan) and the Donald and Shelley Rubin Foundation about opportunities that would benefit our Asian Studies, arts, and perhaps other academic and outreach programming, and help us increase connections with alumni. 

State of the State/State of the University.  I attended this year’s State of the State speech by Governor Andrew Cuomo in Albany on January 4, including participating in a lunch reception for 300 New York high school students hosted by SUNY at the Governor’s request.  It is noteworthy that he explicitly recognized Chancellor Nancy Zimpher for her work in positioning SUNY to be a real and recognized asset in the state – educationally, socially, culturally, and economically.  The Governor announced the creation of three $20 million capital grants to be available on a competitive basis to SUNY campuses outside of the research centers, focused on academic excellence and economic recovery.  We await more detail on this opportunity and how we can vie for these funds.

The following week, I attended Chancellor Zimpher’s State of the University address, entitled “Getting Down to Business.”  The following are key themes of her continuing vision for SUNY and its campuses, as presented in her address: strengthening our student focus; becoming more disciplined in our work – setting goals, measuring them, and holding ourselves accountable; functioning more effectively as a system; fixing the educational pipeline; increasing student mobility; borrowing a phrase from U.S. Education Secretary Duncan, breaking out of the “iron triangle” of cost, productivity, and access/completion, three ideals that often conflict with each other on college campuses.  The Chancellor discussed new approaches to allocating funds to SUNY campuses, including performance-based allocations that may include factors such as diversity and graduation rates.  Shared services and other approaches to shifting resources from administration to instruction will be key themes in the coming year.  Every campus will be expected to set targets to improve graduation rates, and progress in achieving those goals will be a factor in presidential evaluations.  Detail about  these initiatives is yet to be developed.

Brown Bag Discussions.  As I wrote in last month’s report, I will continue to make time available to faculty and staff to meet with me in informal “brown bag” discussions.  Here are the dates and times for these events so that you can mark them on your calendar in advance (we will email a reminder a week or so before each discussion along with a request for RSVP; all are in HAB 903):  Monday, February 13, 3-4 PM; Tuesday, March 27, 12:30-1:30; Monday, April 30, 9-10AM.  We will discuss questions or topics brought up by participants at the meeting, or you may forward possible agenda items to me in advance.  Cookies are provided for each meeting; please feel free to bring breakfast or lunch as you wish. 

What I Read During the Break.  I share with you key observations and conclusions of several books that constituted much of my recent reading.  These reflect the kinds of analyses,  perspectives, and the national contexts that are the basis of my developing thoughts about directions that the College must focus on as we continue on our path to becoming the premier public, liberal arts-based comprehensive institution that is our long-term aim.  Responding to such issues and challenges will require substantial change, but also presents exciting challenge and opportunity for us to achieve a new level of institutional distinction and contribution. 

Rethinking Undergraduate Business Education:  Liberal Learning for the Profession (Anne Colby, Thomas Ehrlich, William Sullivan, and Jonathan Dolle, 2011).  This book describes the authors’ work in the Business, Entrepreneurship, and Liberal Learning (BELL) project of the Carnegie Foundation.  Their focus on business education reflects the significant number of students nationwide who choose to major in business, but they make the point that the principles they develop are applicable to an array of professionally focused undergraduate majors and their relationship to a liberal education.

The authors share their starting premise that undergraduate business majors (along with other majors) should have the benefits of a strong liberal education, and that “business and liberal learning must be woven together to prepare students for their professional roles and work and also to prepare them for lives of social contribution and personal fulfillment.”  But their interviews, analysis, and evidence suggest a need for stronger and more intentional connection between education in the business major per se and in liberal arts and sciences.   They conclude with five key recommendations, summarized briefly here:

  • A strong liberal education should be part of the experience of every undergraduate business major, with courses taught with integration in mind and preparation for students to use their knowledge and intellectual capacities to act effectively and responsibly.
  • Liberal learning should be incorporated into the undergraduate business curriculum, helping students learn to think broadly and creatively about complex issues, develop sophisticated modes of thinking, and explore questions of personal meaning.
  • Business and arts and sciences curricula should be linked together in ways that help students make connections.
  • Institutions should be intentional in their integration of the arts and sciences and business education.
  • Business educators have a great deal to contribute to teaching and learning in the arts and sciences, helping all disciplines overcome the false dichotomy between an intellectually exciting education and a practically useful one.

Their analyses, models, and recommendations may inspire our ongoing discussion about general education reform as well as other curricular innovations that would enhance our educational mission to prepare students for lives and careers.

The Innovative University:  Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out (Clayton M. Christensen and Henry J. Eyring, 2011).  The authors discuss the accumulation of practices and expectations that characterize typical American universities, many adopted initially by Harvard, and resulting in that institution’s mission “to serve fewer of the country’s undergraduate students, to make the curriculum expansive in the aggregate but narrower and more arcane at the level of individual courses, and to focus more faculty attention on research scholarship.” They argue that a majority of other U. S. institutions have sought to emulate this same “DNA,” often without careful consideration, resulting in universities that are essentially unsustainable, especially in the face of diminished financial resources.  They refer to this pattern as “suicide by imitation.” They argue that traditional American colleges and universities must make strategic decisions to focus our missions if we are to be successful in conditions that make us vulnerable to disruption from forces such as expanding online and for-profit education and growing public and political skepticism about our value.  One of their conclusions is that universities “…need to become more focused and realistic about what they can achieve. Most need to narrow their choice of students and subjects and to deemphasize discovery scholarship in favor of other forms.”  Elsewhere, they suggest that “the university community must recognize students as primary constituents and the job of mentoring them as being equally or more important than any other, including discovery research.”  The authors present alternative models and their assessment of key steps that colleges and universities can make to achieve the focus necessary to thrive in the future.\

We’re Losing Our Minds:  Rethinking American Higher Education (Richard P. Keeling and Richard H. Hersh, 2011).  “Too many of our college graduates are not prepared to think critically and creatively, speak and write cogently and clearly, solve problems, comprehend complex issues, accept responsibility and accountability, take the perspective of others, or meet the expectations of employers.”  That assessment is the basis for the authors’ metaphor that “we are losing our minds.”  They suggest that learning is no longer the top priority of most colleges and universities, and that too many confuse “degree production,” rather than learning, as the primary mark of achievement of colleges and universities. In various chapters of this short, concise book, the authors discuss the urgent need for cultural change in the academy to focus on learning as the primary reason for our being; low institutional expectations and the absence of strong evidence that students are achieving essential learning; the developmental, integrative nature of “higher” learning, and the need for colleges and universities to achieve greater integration of academic and out-of-classroom learning; a simplified but clear discussion of learning as a neurobiological process; the need to develop cultures of assessment in which expected learning and the criteria for excellence are clear to everyone, and in which incentive and reward structures for faculty are changed; a framework and set of guiding principles for models that would result in improved retention and demonstrably enhanced student learning; and needed changes in decision making and priorities within the academy to achieve these results.  These authors embrace sound educational practice as an apprenticeship involving close interaction between faculty/staff and students that results in a “handcrafted” outcome – certainly a view that resonates with the educational values and traditions of New Paltz.

Clearly, the conclusions and perspectives of analyses such as these have been influential in my thinking about challenges and opportunities for New Paltz.  I believe that any of these books would provide valuable material for faculty-staff reading and discussion groups.

Best wishes for the start of a productive spring semester.

Donald P. Christian
President