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The Office of the President

Academic & Professional Faculty Meeting 12/13/2011

President’s Report
Academic and Professional Faculty Meeting
December 13, 2011

Graduating Students.  Recognizing our outstanding December graduates last Friday proved a highlight of the semester.  I am grateful to everyone – Interim Provost, Deans, Department Chairs, Faculty, parents and friends – who attended this event, and for the time and thought that departments and programs invest in identifying students to recognize.  I know how difficult it can be to choose a single outstanding graduate to honor.  Last week, I also joined faculty and other administrators at recognition receptions for December graduates of the schools of Fine and Performing Arts, Business, and Science and Engineering.  The pride and joy that are so apparent in our students as well as their friends and parents are very rewarding. 

Campus Climate.   I thank the many faculty and staff who participated in the “Can We Talk About It?” forum on race and racial equity on November 30, and who have engaged students in subsequent discussion about these topics in classes, residence hall discussions, and elsewhere.  In the event that you were not able to attend, you may read more about the forum here. Even though this conversation must be seen as only a start of our work to address the campus climate surrounding race and racial equity, it was an excellent start.  Discussions about these difficult topics were honest and respectful.  I and others have heard how much students appreciated being able to engage in these discussions with faculty and staff in such a setting.  Even these preliminary conversations point to steps that we can take to improve the experience of all members of our community.  We learned about the need for awareness of the “bystander effect” that may lead us to be silent when we see or hear something troubling.  We heard suggestions for productively engaging people who make offensive statements, even if unintentional, to help educate.  The small-group discussions included reference to statements and actions by faculty in and out of the classroom that impact students of color negatively, and the need to increase awareness of such actions and their impacts.  Student Association President Terrell Coakley and I have discussed scheduling ongoing conversations during spring semester, to spur further dialogue about race and racism as well as other sources of bias and inequitable action towards students, faculty, and staff.   We have also begun to think about a campus climate survey to gather information that would help gauge the experiences of members of our community about race and racism and to inform further actions. 

These past few weeks, many alumni, community members, and others have expressed interest and concern about these incidents.  While continuing to condemn these senseless acts, I have shared my pride in and gratitude for the great sense of community that has been so apparent among students, faculty, and staff as we grapple with these issues and become a better community. 

I will comment here on other, broader elements of campus climate.  Events on other campuses this fall – UC Davis, Penn State, Syracuse, and others – highlight the obligations of colleges and universities to safeguard free speech and due process rights of faculty, staff, and students; to assure the safety and welfare of all members of the campus as well as people who visit the campus; and to maintain public order and protect state property.   Know that other College leaders and I are committed to fulfilling all of these responsibilities, even as we are aware that some events and circumstances present inherent tensions and conflicts among these aims that require thought and care to assess and follow the right course of action.  I hope that recent events on this campus – our swift condemnation of and follow-up on the racial incidents, our unwavering support for bringing Noam Chomsky, a potentially controversial speaker, to campus, and our collaboration with students seeking an avenue to express their concern about higher education funding – provide evidence of those commitments.

As a specific follow-up on the last example, you may have read about the concerns of students over library hours, as part of their broader concern over reduced state funding and its impact on their academic opportunity.  We should be proud that this is the issue that our students chose to address in a teach-in at the library Friday evening, and of the responsible way that they chose to voice their concerns.  It is heartening that many of the specific ideas of students about library access align well with the plans for the library renovation, which were informed in significant ways by spring 2010 student survey results and other campus input.  I will add a note of praise here for the great collaboration between Student Association leadership, Interim Provost Cheryl Torsney, and Student Affairs staff that has resulted in our decision, announced last week, to extend weekend library hours and to explore needs for further, additional library access.

Graduation and Retention Rates.  Graduation and retention rates are among the most important – and visible - summative measures of our success and that of our students.  I am able to share preliminary figures for our most recent reporting period.  We need to be attentive to a slight decline in our 4-year graduation rate, to 49.8% last year from 52.3% the year before, even though this rate is still well above national averages.  At the same time, our 5- and 6-year graduation rates climbed tantalizingly close to 70% (69.9%, up from 67.5%, and 69.7%, up from 67.1%, respectively).  Our retention rate for last year’s first-year students was a very impressive 88%, the level we reported year before last.  As I have shared with you before, such retention rates are the envy of many other colleges and universities, at the same time we should continue aiming toward moving them above 90%.  The national literature suggests that the most important variables that influence student success – as reflected in retention and graduation rates – are  “quality of the academic experience, academic advising, and course availability.”  These are areas that we must continue to address and improve.

Consultation with Students and Faculty.  As I wrote in my October monthly report, I have formed and been meeting with a Student Advisory Group to the President as well as continuing the faculty “brown bag” discussions I began last year.  My meetings with students are truly a delight for me, and help me stay in touch with the student experience and gain first-hand insights into what is going well and where we can improve.  We ended our fall semester meetings with an informal dinner at the President’s residence, and will resume our monthly on-campus gatherings in February.

Likewise, I have enjoyed and benefitted from my discussions with academic and professional faculty at the brown bags, and hope that both my responses to questions raised at the meetings as well as the opportunity to share my thoughts and explanations about issues and actions have helped to enhance understanding of the workings of the College.  Even though these discussions have been very lightly attended, I believe that faculty deserve this access to the President and will continue these gatherings during spring semester (we will announce dates and times before the start of the semester). If you have thoughts or observations about steps that might increase attendance, I encourage you to share them with staff in the President’s Office.

Update on Administrative Searches.  The search committees for the positions of Dean of Education and Dean of Science and Engineering have met, and advertisements for both positions are prepared and under final review prior to posting in the next several days.  The Provost advertisement is posted, and the consultants for this search visited campus earlier this month, met with many campus constituents about the role and desired attributes of the next Provost, and consulted with the search committee about an institutional and position profile that is being finalized this week.

Fund-raising, Development, and External Activities.   The November 20 Gala Celebrating New Paltz was a great success. Net proceeds from this event contributed about $47,000 to the endowment supporting students from Ulster and nearby counties attending New Paltz, bringing this endowment close to the half-million dollar mark. I am grateful to the many faculty, staff, and administrators who attended and supported this event.

Kudos to LA&S Dean James Schiffer for establishing and engaging an Advisory Board that has already launched an inaugural fund-raising effort.  We are excited to be adding a new member to the Foundation Board, and are planning a development trip to Florida during January to meet with alumni, donors, and prospective donors.  Alumni represent the most important base of support for any college’s fund-raising efforts.  We have much work to do in that arena, and I am reviewing staffing levels for alumni relationships that are well below those of our peers.  We are heartened by indications of growing alumni support for the College and our programs.  Our alumni giving rate increased from 5.9% in FY09 to 6.9% in FY11, when giving rates for some of our “aspirational” peers declined.  Unrestricted giving by alumni (an important mark of philanthropic support) increased by more than 40% during this same time period, from $119,000 to $166,000, when our aspirational peers experienced flat or declining giving.  Neither of these measures are where we want them to be, but at least the trend is positive.  

Some of my other externally focused activities include attending the Mount Saint Mary’s College annual gala; in addition to supporting another regional college, this was an opportunity to establish and reinforce connections in the Orange County community that matter to New Paltz.  Last Friday, I welcomed participants in a manufacturing conference held on campus, part of our effort to support and encourage economic development; the atrium and refurbished pre-event space are making our Student Union Building a much more attractive and functional facility for hosting regional gatherings such as this, and increasing the visibility of the College in the process.  I recently joined other regional organizational and institutional leaders at a community luncheon at Woodcrest, one of the Bruderhof communities in the region.  I was inspired by the commitment to community that I saw among these organizations, including Woodcrest members.  At the same time, I was sobered to hear the perspective and experience of so many leaders about the continuing impacts of Tropical Storm Irene and a down economy on individuals, families, and organizations in our region, underscoring a commonality we share with the broader community.

On December 21, we will host our annual holiday party for “Town-Gown” members, a group that focuses on maintaining and enhancing collaboration, understanding, and mutual support among the College, the village, and the town.

A character in one of my favorite western novels reflects that people live their lives day to day and mark their passage by years, when perhaps we should do both by seasons.  As I was preparing this report, I compared themes with those of last December’s report, and was reminded of the cycles and seasons of our academic lives.  For many if not all of us, those feel like they have been thrown into disarray this fall by tropical storms and flooding, an uncharacteristically early snowfall, racial incidents that surprised many and disappointed all, the death of a faculty colleague, an accident-caused power outage, a time of transition in academic leadership, and our continuing efforts to adjust to and work within a constrained economy.   December marks the approximate half-way point of the year, and the recurring themes of this and last year’s report – such as outstanding graduate recognitions - remind us of the good work that members of this community do on behalf of our students and the broader community, and of the overall sound health of our institution.  This past weekend’s holiday open house was a great example.  My wife Sandy and I enjoyed spending time with so many colleagues at that event, and very much value the sense of community that is both so evident at this event and that is enhanced by this opportunity for colleagues to get together in a relaxed and “fun” setting.  We are grateful that so many of you were able to join us.

I hope that we all take time to celebrate all the blessings of the season and the accomplishments of the year, and to enjoy the company of friends, family, and colleagues.  I wish everyone a safe and happy holiday season and a restorative winter break.

Donald P. Christian