President’s Report to the Academic and Professional Faculty

President’s Report to the Academic and Professional Faculty
February 5, 2018

I hope everyone is settling into the rhythm of the spring semester as I share the following updates and perspectives.

Table of Contents

Faculty Governance – Executive Committee, Provost, and President have begun regular meetings; Budget Advisory Committee to be formed this semester.

Enrollment Update – Spring semester undergraduate enrollments are strong, graduate enrollments are down despite notable growth in MBA and School Leadership programs; fall semester application numbers are excellent across a broad array of majors.

State of the University System Address – A summary of key themes Chancellor Kristina Johnson will emphasize in her leadership of SUNY.

Federal Updates – A brief survey of key challenges to higher education at the federal level, and some appropriate institutional responses.

Faculty Governance. The change to a new Faculty Senate model of governance is a historic milestone at SUNY New Paltz. I again express my gratitude to members of the Committee on Governance for their patience and diligence in moving this initiative along, and to the many faculty who engaged this process so thoughtfully. I am optimistic that this new model will streamline processes, help us be more nimble while also valuing deliberation and consultation, and enhance communication and collaboration between faculty and “administration.”  The Executive Committee of the Faculty Senate, Provost Lorin Arnold, and I have begun bi-weekly meetings to advance that latter purpose – increasing communication and mutual understanding; discussing governance matters; and together considering ways to address issues and opportunities. As need arises, we will arrange meetings of the Executive Committee and the President’s Cabinet, with similar goals in mind.

In collaboration with the Executive Committee and the Cabinet, this spring I will define the composition, purpose, and charge for a “Budget Advisory Committee.” Such a committee was recommended by faculty governance consultant Dr. Susan Resnick Pierce; she suggested such a committee to: 1) elicit input from the campus about possible new funding (if and when it is available); 2) educate committee members about the complexity of the budget and competing claims on it; and 3) be available to educate the campus about these matters. Dr. Pierce recommended a committee co-chaired by the Vice President for Administration and Finance and the Provost, and including two faculty members and two staff members, noting that student membership is valuable but challenging because of the steep learning curve and the general absence of students during summer.

This committee would function in the contexts that Dr. Pierce described so well in her report:

  • that budget planning nationally has become less about how to spend new money among competing claims, and more about how to allocate/reallocate existing funds or, unfortunately, where to make cuts;
  • the recognized reluctance of faculty and staff to take an active role in making decisions that might be detrimental to colleagues;
  • the necessity that budget decisions often need to be made quickly;
  • the reality that SUNY campuses learn about our budgets for the next year only during summer, requiring decisions during summer and making work undertaken during the academic year in advance of those decisions speculative.

Enrollment Update. Our spring semester undergraduate enrollments are solid – up slightly from last spring, with no indication that strong enrollment during the winter session dampened spring registrations. We are joined by 347 new transfer students (our spring-semester target was 350). Overall graduate enrollments are down slightly, even though we registered almost the same number of new students this semester as one year ago, and graduated fewer students in December 2017 than in 2016. Strong increases in new student enrollment in the MBA and School Leadership graduate programs are offsetting declines in many other programs. I want to call out and recognize the deans and faculty who restructured these programs and implemented new modes of delivery, the most likely sources of those increases.

Trends in numbers of undergraduate applications and acceptances for fall semester are also positive. We continue the long-term historical pattern of having more applications for first-year admission than any other SUNY comprehensive campus. Applications and acceptances for first-year admission are ahead of last year, and for transfer students are on par with last year (transfer patterns tend to develop later in the spring). It’s worth remembering that our entering class for fall 2017 – the combination of first-year and transfers – was the largest in our history, so these trends are cause for optimism about next year’s enrollment and tuition revenue.

We are seeing modest to large increases in the number of accepted students across an impressively broad array of disciplines – the arts, humanities, social sciences, teacher education, business, and STEM fields. We clearly are offering programs that attract student interest, and now we must all work together to yield these students, many who have multiple college choices. Departments are receiving lists of accepted students, and I thank you in advance for your efforts to reach out to share information about unique opportunities in your departments, faculty quality, alumni successes, and other Points of Pride to bring these students to New Paltz. Stay tuned for more information about participating in Accepted Students Open Houses on April 7 and April 21 (mark your calendars!).

State of the University System (SOTUS) Address. I share here (drawing heavily on her own language) some of the key take-home messages about vision and values that SUNY Chancellor Kristina Johnson outlined in her address on January 22. Advocacy for SUNY funding is one of her top priorities as the state Legislature deliberates the New York State budget in the coming months; her SOTUS address outlined some of her longer-term priorities.

Chancellor Johnson will focus on four themes that she believes will position SUNY as a national leader in higher education, having positive impacts on the lives of students and driving the New York State economy:

Innovation and entrepreneurship. The Chancellor focused attention on artificial intelligence and machine learning, which she believes will affect every industry and academic field and will be part of a complex future social, technical, and geopolitical landscape. She spoke about the need to recognize that boundaries between disciplines are disappearing. She reflected that her career – starting in engineering, evolving into policy, startups, and academic leadership – gave her an appreciation of the importance of persuasive oral and written skills, and the ability to draw from history and psychology that the liberal arts provide. She also believes that liberal arts students will need to know how cognitive computing can enhance their creativity and critical thinking. She believes we must increase cross-disciplinary research, entrepreneurship, and outreach, including expanding research opportunities for students in emerging disciplines.

Individualized education. Chancellor Johnson spoke about her own experience in the 1970s, an era that was not always encouraging of women pursuing degrees in engineering, or becoming professors, undersecretaries, or clean-energy CEOs (all of which she has done!) – to illustrate the caution that we must be attuned to not reinforcing existing prejudices. Our challenge is to encourage each individual student to chart their own path—and not to be constrained by the stereotypes of the past. Her vision includes helping students from different backgrounds and with different resources succeed. She spoke about the imperative that our faculty and staff must reflect the diversity of our students, so that no individual is discouraged from entering a field because they do not see role models in their classrooms. Her educational vision includes valuing the adaptive skills of social networking, communication, and critical thinking, and of expanding opportunities for graduates to enter the workplace having learned through internships, apprenticeships, research projects, and other out-of-the classroom experiences. She discussed developing new mechanisms to support students, including emergency financial aid (calling out successful programs at SUNY New Paltz!), sexual assault prevention, and food insecurity.

Sustainability, which she framed as countering risks to human civilization and the environment that enables it, especially getting “a grip on our carbon emissions.” She announced a goal for SUNY to source 100% of its electricity from zero-net-carbon sources, including renewables and energy storage, on an accelerated (but undefined) timeframe. That includes using SUNY’s buying power to purchase clean power, designing new buildings to achieve zero-net-carbon emissions, and investing in deep-energy retrofits and energy efficiency in existing buildings. Some of these initiatives will occur through a new partnership with the New York State Energy Research and Development Agency (NYSERDA).

Partnerships. SUNY benefits from its alliances with industry, government agencies, non-profit foundations, and international organizations. The Chancellor is putting a priority on expanding partnerships of all forms, including philanthropic relationships that will help secure the resources needed to seize the opportunities available to us. This includes securing resources at the system level to support major initiatives and collaborating on campus-level philanthropic efforts.

Values. Chancellor Johnson closed by describing SUNY as a diverse, inclusive, and tolerant organization. She spoke about the imperative that we “have the courage, as a system and as individuals, to make clear that SUNY is a place of opportunity for every single student seeking a great education and the desire to contribute to our society. So it is crucial that we commit to each other, care for one another, communicate, collaborate, and trust one another.”

Federal Updates. A recent webinar by the American Council on Education (ACE) addressed federal initiatives that will likely impact higher education in the coming years, and ACE’s research and advocacy efforts. Ted Mitchell, ACE President, and Terry Hartle, ACE Senior VP for government relations noted that they do not believe higher education has ever been “under so much fire” as it is now.

The national contexts for their analyses include: an angry, frustrated electorate; extreme partisan polarization; declining trust in institutions; and heightened global uncertainties. They believe that political considerations will be paramount in any actions and progress at the federal level: everything will be seen primarily through the lens of “how will this be good for my party?”

For higher education, they identified the following primary trends:

  • Declining trust in institutions directly impacts colleges and universities, even though we are still relatively trusted. ACE research shows greatest trust and confidence in community colleges, then regional comprehensives like SUNY New Paltz, with less trust for flagships and the very least for private nonprofits, especially those seen as “elite.”  Our continuing work to build and sustain local and regional trust and understanding of our mission and value is essential.
  • A growing indifference among white working class voters toward higher education. Survey results show that 56% consider a college education “a risky gamble,” and 52% think that having a degree would make no difference in their lives or those of their children, the first time since post-World War II that such views predominated among any group of voters. With ongoing demographic shifts in our country, it is heartening that three-quarters of Hispanic and African American respondents believe that a college education would make a difference in their and their children’s lives.
  • Higher education increasingly is seen as partisan (“liberal bastions, coddling to students, and hostile to conservatives”). Conservative legislators have long been skeptical of colleges and universities, but have supported (or been benign to) higher education because their constituents valued it. With growing indifference, if not antipathy, among conservative voters, policy makers are paying more, and different, attention.

ACE leadership is deeply concerned about these trends and is stepping up its research and advocacy. They emphasized several matters that colleges should attend to:

  • Echoing a theme in my January report, underscore for prospective and current students and parents the benefits of higher education, emphasizing consequences for employability. They were clear that they are not advocating for limited, technical education (as is emphasized by some national leaders), but showcasing job worthiness, career readiness, and the kinds of intellectual attributes that grow out of a great liberal education and that employers are interested in — some political rhetoric aside.
  • Recognize that affordability remains a major issue for many American families.
  • Understand that undergraduate education will be the fulcrum on which support for higher education will tip and step up our focus on completion and success of baccalaureate degree seekers.

DACA is the No. 1 priority of ACE and its advocacy efforts. They have hired two advocacy firms to help them. Dr. Hartle expressed his deep regret that there is no magic, reassuring message right now that we can share. The recording of this webinar will be available in several days and I can certainly make it available if there is interest.

While we cannot steer the national discourse, we can influence many matters on our own campus.  As I reflected on this webinar, I took pride in our work that is responsive to such issues:

  • our new governance model as an example of institutional response to changing conditions;
  • adaptations of our graduate programs to better meet regional workforce needs;
  • our expanding regional engagement as a basis for maintaining and building trust and confidence among members of the public who we depend on;
  • our high placement in rankings of socioeconomic mobility as a reflection of our contribution to the educational needs of diverse students.

Sustaining such initiatives and continuing to focus as we are on high-quality educational experiences for our students will position us to navigate the challenging political and economic currents that higher education faces.

I will respond to your questions and comments about this and my January report at the inaugural meeting of the Faculty Senate on February 7.


Donald P. Christian