President’s Report to Academic and Professional Faculty

Read President Donald Christian’s January Report to Academic and Professional  Faculty

Happy New Year, and welcome to what I hope will be a rewarding second half of the academic year.  I am continuing the practice of a January report, to share recent campus news and touch on broader issues that help us position our work and our strategic plan priorities in a national context. We have many accomplishments to be proud of, including the success of our recruitment efforts to date and the diversity of the applicant pool. The news I will share bodes well for our efforts to continue honing our “sterling reputation as the state’s most sought-after college” (Chronogram, January 1, 2015).

Enrollment and Recruitment Updates. Our enrollment statistics and early figures on student recruitment bode extremely well for our program health, the diversity of our student body, and the possible financial resources we will have next year to further invest in one-time initiatives.  These outcomes reflect our profile and reputation for educational excellence, along with our successful recruiting, marketing and branding work.

More than 620 students enrolled in our winter online session, compared with 513 last year and 139 the year before. At this time last year, I reported that spring semester enrollments were down from the previous year and graduate enrollments were lagging.  Spring enrollments are higher than last year for both undergraduate (6,505 this year, 6,404 last year) and graduate (1,061 vs. 975 last year) programs. Our goal is to maintain long-term stable enrollments, not to grow – but we certainly must avoid shrinking our student body, institution, and budgets.

I have written before about declining numbers of high school graduates and the severe challenges that many institutions, especially in the Northeast, face in sustaining enrollments. In that context, it is striking (and rewarding!) that our fall semester 2015 applications are more than 8% above last year.  This is at a time that undergraduate application numbers in the SUNY comprehensive college sector are up by only 1%, and are down at 8 (of 12) campuses.  Our acceptance of new first-year students is 10% higher than at the same time last year. We have received 28% more applications from general-admit minority students than last year, and have accepted 16% more minority students (708 vs. 613).

Of course, applications and acceptances are only part of the picture: these students, most of whom apply to multiple institutions (as many as 8), still must decide to come to New Paltz.  The continuing effort of faculty, staff, and student ambassadors to draw accepted students to New Paltz is critical to achieving our recruitment goals for fall 2015.

Diversity of Transfer Students.  The percentage of Black students in our spring 2015 transfer class has climbed from 5% to 7% to 9% in the past three years, and the percentage of Latino students from 12% to 15% to 19%. This spring, 394 new transfer students joined us, of whom 130 are minority students, up from 96 last year and 84 each of the two previous years.  These trends reflect growing racial and ethnic diversity in the Hudson Valley and no doubt our reputation as a diverse campus that provides exceptional opportunities for all students.

The number of general-admit minority transfer applications for fall semester is also slightly higher than last year.  Our recruitment efforts will make a real difference in whether these students choose New Paltz.

Later in this report, I share findings of a study by New Paltz faculty about steps that our campus can take to increase the academic success of first-generation students and students from historically under-represented groups.

One-time Budget Allocations.  Cabinet has provisionally prioritized more than $600,000 in one-time funding allocations, primarily in support of new programming, instructional/research equipment, and online courses, staying focused on requests that advance the five specific Strategic Plan priorities outlined in my September 19, 2014 report. We will discuss and seek input on these priorities from the “Wonk” group next week, and share them with Administrative Council on February 18. We will hold a campus forum on these budget decisions soon after that, and make funds available as soon as possible.

Many requests were for “small” facilities projects. Such projects are commonly more complex than initially envisioned because they involve unforeseen structural, utilities, asbestos abatement, or other issues, and often cost tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. Cabinet continues to evaluate and prioritize these requests. We will ask Facilities to develop cost estimates for those that have clear linkages to the strategic plan priority of improving student learning. This will  inform final decisions about funding allocation and about moving ahead with key projects consistent with personnel and workload constraints in Facilities.

Kiplinger’s Best Value Recognition. Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine has again included New Paltz in its national ranking of the top 100 best values for public, four-year institutions that deliver a high-quality, affordable education. New Paltz (#60) was one of nine SUNY campuses ranked, behind Binghamton University (#18; our top competitor for students), Geneseo (#24), and Stony Brook University (#33). This ranking is based on quality factors (e.g., first-year retention, student-faculty ratio, four-year graduation rate) weighted at 55%, and cost factors (e.g., low tuition, abundant financial aid, and low average debt) weighted at 45%.

This recognition reflects the stellar work of our entire community of faculty, staff, and students.  Congratulations, and thank you!

Faculty Numbers. Our continuing investment in full-time faculty positions has resulted in 292 tenured and tenure-track faculty in fall 2014, up from 274 in 2013, 268 in 2012, and 258 in 2011. Full-time faculty in fall 2014 numbered 365, up from 356 last fall, 351 in 2012, and 323 in fall 2011.

The number of part-time faculty in fall 2014 was 236, up from 218 last year, but comparable to figures in the three previous years.  The percentage of classes taught by adjuncts increased slightly (now up to 29%), as we replaced instruction for an increased number of sabbatical leaves, hired part-time faculty to meet our most pressing course availability needs, and backfilled instruction while tenure-line searches are underway. Nonetheless, we remain committed to the long-term goal of increasing our reliance on full-time faculty.

Ottaway Visiting Journalism Professor. This year’s Ottaway Visiting Professor is author and multimedia narrative journalist Alissa Quart.  She will teach a spring semester upper-level journalism seminar “Narrative Nonfiction in the Digital Age.” Ms. Quart has authored three critically acclaimed non-fiction books, and has written for The New York Times Sunday Review, The Atlantic, The Times Magazine, Elle, The Nation, London Review of Books (New York) and other publications. She is co-editor of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project with writer and activist Barbara Ehrenreich, focused on journalism about inequality. Her current multimedia project, “The End of the Middle,” is about America’s struggling middle class; her first book of poetry, “Monetized,” will be published this year. She previously taught at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and was a 2010 Nieman Fellow at Harvard University.

We will introduce Ms. Quart to the campus community on February 9 at 6 p.m. in the Honors Center, when I will interview her about her life and work.

Strategic Challenges in Higher Education.  A recent presidential conference I attended included a session on the “series of strategic challenges” that higher education faces. Even as we implement priorities of our strategic plan, I am attentive to whether we missed key issues in our planning.

Indeed, the national-level “strategic challenges” identified in his session (presented here in bold, using the presenters’ terminology) align very closely with priorities of our strategic plan (noted in parentheses).

  • Focus on Student Outcomes (an explicit overarching value in our plan, embodied in our priorities of “innovation and the learning environment,” building an “engaged living and learning community,” alumni engagement);
  • Segmentation, Differentiation, and Branding (market New Paltz internally and externally; become better at “telling the New Paltz story”; engage alumni and the region);
  • Operational Efficiency and Cost Reduction (improve processes and increase institutional capacity; private fund-raising relates to this challenge, as does our effort to better align budget allocation and assessment with strategic priorities)
  • Online Modalities (build online education);
  • Transnational Education. Our planning did not identify this as needing improvement, likely because we already are a SUNY leader in international education. Nonetheless, we continue to build on our strengths in international education, to create new programs and pursue new opportunities.
  • Tighter Linkages to Employment.  This challenge also was not explicitly identified in our plan. Our priorities include expanding internships, student research, and similar experiential opportunities, among the most compelling educational experiences valued by employers. Furthermore, I have tried to be clear that liberal education at its core – with some “tweaks” – produces precisely the educational outcomes that employers seek.  So it should not surprise us that our community did not identify this issue as a separate, explicit priority; it already is embedded in our priorities. “To get a good job” is the top reason that first-year students (88%; UCLA CIRP) cite for going to college. We should not ignore this reality, just as we must not lose sight of other lofty goals of a liberal education.

What Matters in a College Education.  At the same conference, an inspiring session reinforced the great value of the close engagement that New Paltz faculty and staff have with students.  Students often praise such engagement in my “hot chocolate with the president” sessions when I ask “what do you like best about New Paltz?” Many alumni also report that relationships with faculty and staff were among their most meaningful and long-lasting educational takeaways.

This session also underscored the value of our strategic plan priorities of expanding internship opportunities and undergraduate student research, and the importance of our rich and diverse extracurricular programming.

This session focused on a 2014 Gallup-Purdue University “Great Jobs and Great Lives” Index, based on surveys of more than 30,000 Americans with at least a bachelor’s degree. This project sought to capture a holistic view of the lives of college graduates, the missions of colleges and universities, and the myriad reasons students go to college (read more here).

The Gallup-Purdue Index focuses on five domains of well-being:

  • Purpose (“liking what you do each day and being motivated to achieve your goals”)
  • Social (“having strong and supportive relationships and love in your life”)
  • Financial (“effectively managing your economic life…”)
  • Community (“sense of engagement with the areas where you live, liking where you live, feeling safe and having pride in your community”)
  • Physical (“having good health and enough energy to get things done on a daily basis”)

Well-being was indexed as “thriving,” “struggling,” and “suffering.” A majority of graduates are thriving in at least one domain of well-being; only 11% are thriving in five, and more than one in six do not thrive in any.

The research also developed an index of “workplace engagement” – whether employees are “intellectually and emotionally connected with their organizations and work teams because they are able to do what they’re best at, they like what they do, and they have someone who cares about their development.”

If graduates had a professor who cared about them as a person or made them excited about learning, or if they had a mentor, they had better than double the odds of thriving in their well-being and being engaged at work. “Having a mentor” in the Gallup studies was a feeling of being supported by the institution, not necessarily having a specific, individual mentor. If college graduates are engaged at work (39% are), the odds are nearly five times higher that they will thrive in all five elements of well-being. The phrase I sometimes use of “educating students for life and livelihood” captures this sense of a close linkage between workplace engagement and broader well-being.

These studies showed that the chances of being engaged at work doubled if graduates had had an internship or work experience where they applied what they were learning in the classroom, worked on research or other projects that took at least a semester to complete, or were actively involved in extracurricular activities and organizations.

Faculty and students study local learning environment and offer findings. After hearing this presentation, it was rewarding to learn about recent studies by New Paltz faculty and students that “localized” the importance of these and related factors in the learning environment. These findings both 1) underscore the importance of what we do so well and 2) provide direction to build on those strengths as we advance academic and student-life goals of our strategic plan.

Students in Professor Doug Maynard’s Psychological Statistics II class during the fall semester collaborated with Lucy Walker (Institutional Research) to develop and test hypotheses about educational outcomes based on 2011 and 2014 National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) data for New Paltz students.

Some key findings:

  • Discussing grades or assignments with faculty, working on activities other than coursework, and receiving prompt feedback from faculty were significantly associated with the self-perceived ability of students to think critically and analytically.
  • Meeting with faculty members and advisors to discuss future plans was positively correlated with self-perceived ability to learn effectively on one’s own.
  • Retention rates were positively associated with perceived level of academic challenge, as measured by time spent preparing for class, how much a student applies theories from class to the real world, and how hard a student felt they worked in a class.
  • Graduation rates increased significantly with increases in a composite variable capturing how the campus helped students academically and socially by promoting positive supportive relationships and coping with academic and non-academic responsibilities.
  • A composite variable of “student contribution to an academic setting” included items such as frequency that a student asked questions in class or contributed to class discussion; made a class presentation; worked on a research project with a faculty member outside of course or program requirements.  This combination of factors was strongly associated with early graduation.  They also found that the amount of time a student spent studying had the strongest impact on whether they graduated in four years!

A study by Psychology professors Greta Winograd and Jonathan Rust analyzed barriers to academic help-seeking among first-generation students and students from historically under-represented groups at New Paltz. This study was published in the fall 2014 issue of The Learning Assistance Review.

They found that students who associated academic help-seeking with feelings of inadequacy and inferiority also tended to report: (1) a weaker sense of belonging on campus and (2) concerns that professors and classmates would look down on the group to which students belong if they performed poorly in class. These findings support Massey and Fischer’s (2005) view that some students may be reluctant to seek academic help due to the risk of confirming stereotypes. Barriers to academic help-seeking were more pronounced among male students and students identifying as Latino/a. The study reported multiple positive impacts of the guidance, direction and support that our EOP program provides.

Recommendations of the study that we can apply in our interactions with students include:

  • Reframe academic help-seeking as educational and professional development and as an intellectual enterprise that can benefit every student.
  • Create opportunities for academically successful peer mentors to disclose their own academic help-seeking.
  • Help students understand that concerns about acceptance are common among students from all ethnic backgrounds.
  • Share information about how to access academic support services (including faculty office hours) early in the semester and when a student is referred for academic help.
  • Encourage students who are less cognizant of their academic challenges to seek services, supportively and as early as possible.

All of these findings reinforce the role that each of us has in advancing the academic and social success of our students.  Every positive interaction, even a seemingly small one, can make a difference in the life of a student.  Our impact on individual students is core to our institutional progress: Retaining just 11 more first-year students increases our retention rate by 1%.  And that matters, for our students and for the College.

I am grateful to these faculty (and their students) for taking on scholarly projects that give us insight into both our strengths and ways that we can be even more successful — and to the faculty and staff who gave our students the opportunity to engage in such meaningful work.

Closing.  Obviously, I have shared quite a bit here, and will postpone until next month updates about the SUNY performance management system and federal initiatives noted in my State of the College address. I will also share take-homes from yesterday’s State of the State and tomorrow’s State of the University addresses. This week I am participating in the 100th year symposium and conference of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U). I’m serving as an invited roundtable discussion leader in a session on themes in this report: encouraging new forms of faculty collaboration to advance student success and hands-on learning. I will share key lessons from this conference in an upcoming report.

Best wishes for a productive and enjoyable spring semester.


Donald P. Christian