President’s Report to the Academic and Professional Faculty

Nov. 4, 2019 (in advance of Nov. 6 Faculty Senate Meeting)

I had considered introducing this report, as I have done the past three Novembers, with commentary on the state of the country and the world, but I opted for a brighter note. In my “Hot Chocolate With the President” gatherings in the residence halls this fall, I continue to hear that one of the best things students like about SUNY New Paltz is the caliber of their interactions and the relationships they build with professors and with key staff who support and advise them, and how inspired they are by you. Interim Provost Barbara Lyman joined my session last week and took the opportunity to share with students that one of the recurring themes she is hearing in her meetings with academic departments is how much faculty enjoy and value our students, and in turn are inspired by them. I commend you for all that you do to elevate these relationships to such a high level; without question, they are the most critical relationships at any university. Thank you.

I will not be able to join you at this week’s Faculty Senate meeting as I will be presenting in a formal session with State officials in my role as Co-Chair of the Mid-Hudson Regional Economic Development Council.

Here, I report on several key happenings, work in progress, and upcoming events.

Table of Contents:

Enrollment and Budget – A synopsis of key points in recent budget forum; current enrollment and budget status; and testimony at recent New York State Senate Committee hearing at SUNY New Paltz on public higher education finances.

Graduation and Retention – Our latest six-year graduation rates are highest ever, including for EOP, SMP and first-generation students. First-Year retention is 86%, up from last year’s 83%.

Student Financial Challenges and Food Insecurity – There are many indicators of financial and food insecurity among students, and we need to increase broader awareness of these impacts and be open to initiatives like open educational resources that lessen financial burdens.

Administrative Searches – Provost/VPAA and VP for Enrollment Management searches are well underway; positions to be posted by mid-November. Five finalists for Dean of Education visited campus recently, search expected to conclude soon.

Alumni Reunion – Notes from a very successful and rewarding alumni reunion weekend.

Fall Open House, Oct. 26 – Thank you to all who contributed to showcasing SUNY New Paltz and our educational opportunities for prospective students and parents.

SUNY Veteran and Military Student Conference, Nov. 5-6 – Our Office of Veteran and Military Services (OVMS) and Institute for Disaster Mental Health have played prominent role in planning and organizing this conference; OVMS Coordinator Jason Gilliland and Vice President David Eaton are presenters and IDMH Director Amy Nitza is moderating a session.

Holiday Receptions – Save the date: Dec. 7 for academic and professional faculty reception at President’s residence, and Dec. 13 for Classified Holiday Luncheon.


Enrollment and Budget. Thanks to everyone who attended the Oct. 17 budget forum and for your insightful questions about the current budget and steps we are taking to balance our revenue with our spending authorization. As Vice President Michele Halstead outlined, last year we needed to spend less than $400,000 in campus reserves, compared with the $5 million we had projected. That was due to healthy enrollments, the efforts of our entire community to reduce costs, and New York State’s “advance” of a portion of 2019-20 state funding to SUNY at the end of the 2018-19 SUNY fiscal year, which is in the early part of the 2019-20 New York State fiscal year.  As discussed at the forum, we hope that this use of the “magic window” (the name political scientists use for this advance, rarely employed for higher ed funding in New York but more often with K-12 or municipal funding) will continue in subsequent years. I applaud the agreement of Division of Budget to use this creative approach and SUNY’s advocacy for this measure. As a result of those changes, we have reduced our budget gap to about $2.9 million. As Vice President Halstead explained, current projections are that regular tuition rate increases will keep pace with future-year collective bargaining increases, even as we continue to advocate for increased state taxpayer support.

Our current fall semester enrollment is 43 graduate students and about 100 undergraduate students more than a year ago. We are encouraged by those trends. Indeed, local media coverage last week highlighted those increases at New Paltz, in the context of media interest in statewide enrollment declines across SUNY. However, largely because of the mix of full-/part-time and resident/non-resident students, we are short of our tuition revenue targets.  Our numbers are not yet final, and we may see some slight upward shifts. We will also step up efforts to recruit an even larger incoming transfer class in the spring to offset some of this loss. These differences do not materially change our assessment, shared in the recent budget forum, that we are moving in the right direction in bringing our budget into balance. These lags may extend the time for us to achieve that goal. These outcomes reinforce the importance of growing our enrollment – as emphasized at the budget forum, not solely through recruiting more students but also by increasing retention of students already here.

SUNY New Paltz hosted a New York State Senate hearing on the cost of public higher education, its accessibility, and affordability on Oct. 28. The hearing was requested and led by New York State Senator Toby Stavisky, Chair of the NYS Senate Standing Committee on Higher Education, and our local State Senator Jen Metzger. I testified as part of a SUNY leadership panel that included SUNY Provost Tod Laursen and SUNY Ulster President Alan Roberts. I spoke about the financial realities and challenges that SUNY New Paltz and our students face; the high-quality public higher education we provide; our positive economic impact in the Hudson Valley; the indirect taxpayer support we receive in the form of fringe benefits and debt service; the components of our operating budget (direct taxpayer support and tuition); the diverse student body we serve so well; our work to manage our budget by reducing expenditures and increasing enrollment; the great success of our EOP program and its growth; our facilities improvements and remaining space deficit and the high cost of living that negatively impacts our employees.

I responded to questions about loan debt of our graduates; sustainability initiatives; composting; support for students with disabilities; how I would invest additional funds (my answer: support students facing financial challenges; adjust employee salaries upward for the high cost of living in the Hudson Valley, and create additional opportunities for students). I believe our legislators gained a deeper appreciation for how effectively we use our resources, the positive impacts we produce, and the potential that further investment could achieve. Student leaders, employees and union representatives provided further compelling testimony about the important return on the state’s investment in SUNY.

Retention and Graduation Rates. Our latest six-year graduation and first-year retention rates – standard metrics of institutional effectiveness and student success – remain points of pride for us. Our six-year graduation rates of 76.6% overall, 73% for EOP students, and 76.7% for first-generation students were the highest ever. Students in our Scholars Mentorship Program (SMP) graduated at a phenomenal 81.7% rate. Our four-year graduation rates have dropped slightly, from 61.7% to 58.2%, a pattern that we are trying to understand and perhaps reflecting financial constraints that extend the time needed for our students to graduate. Interim Provost Barbara Lyman and VP David Eaton are assembling a broad-based “Student Success and Retention Committee” to develop evidence and identify key actions for us to best support students so they continue their studies and graduate in a timely way.

Our preliminary (non-final) first-year retention rate was 86%, an increase over last year.  Students registered with our Disability Resource Center were retained at 85.9%, reflecting the positive impact of that unit and the support of faculty and staff across the College.

Student Financial Challenges and Food Insecurity.  In a recent conversation with a “thought leader” in the Hudson Valley, one of the Vice Presidents and I were surprised to hear the perception that virtually all New Paltz students are at least solid to upper middle-class and should not have to deal with financial insecurity. We quickly disabused this person of that notion, sharing some statistics on student loan debt, stories of decisions some make not to purchase textbooks because they can’t afford them, and statistics on food insecurity. As the Rev. Dianna Smith, director and founder of the On-campus Food Pantry, shared with campus in a recent email, more than 60 students visited the food pantry between 1 and 4 p.m. on Oct. 23. She has shared with me that some members of the campus community do not believe these needs are real. Last year, SUNY administered a SUNY-wide survey of food insecurity.  Results for our campus (n = 222 respondents) showed that 60% have experienced not having enough money to buy food, and 50% have experienced being unable to study because they were hungry, but only 13% have received items from the food pantry, in part because many (44%) do not feel comfortable going to a food pantry.

Some of the testimony at the NYS Senate Higher Education hearing brought these challenges to the forefront, and it is important that we speak about these issues with members of the public and with our legislators. Certainly, emergency funding, crisis funds, and scholarship support are top priorities in our current “Soaring Higher: The Campaign for SUNY New Paltz” fund-raising effort (which now stands at more than $19 million raised towards our $23 million target).

These dynamics are important context for the discussions underway among Student Association leaders and some faculty about expanding use of Open Educational Resources to ease the financial burdens on our students. I am strongly supportive of this direction, even as I understand the underlying issues of academic freedom and faculty purview.

Administrative Searches. Searches for the Provost/Vice President for Academic Affairs and Vice President for Enrollment Management are progressing. The search consultants supporting both searches visited campus last week, meeting with the search committees, administrators, direct reports, students, faculty and staff.  I appreciate the time that so many people invested in providing the consultants with input about the College and the characteristics we seek in candidates for these two key leadership positions. The consultants were extremely complimentary about the engagement of the search committees, the work completed to date on position descriptions and other materials, and the caliber of the institution that will be very attractive to applicants.  The positions will be posted by mid-November and community members are encouraged to share these opportunities with colleagues in higher education who may be well suited to these roles. Instructions on nominating potential candidates will be shared with the campus when the searches are live.

Five finalists for the Dean of Education visited campus during the past two weeks, a continuation of last year’s search which did not result in an appointment.  Since we have an Interim Provost in place, I am serving as charging officer for this search. Interim Provost Lyman joined me for my individual interviews with each of the finalists, and I will continue to consult with her as I weigh the search committee recommendations and reference checks about the finalists.

Alumni Reunion. We hosted a vibrant and successful alumni reunion the weekend of Oct. 17, supporting our strategic plan essential initiative to engage alumni in the life of the College. Congratulations to Development and Alumni Relations staff who planned this weekend, and whose presence and support were so welcoming to alumni and guests. Several activities, including a presentation by Emeritus Professor Ron Knapp titled “A Half Century of Asia and Asian Studies,” celebrated the 50th anniversary of Asian Studies at SUNY New Paltz. I gave a formal presentation (my first chance to speak in Science Hall 181! What a great space!) about activities, accomplishments and priorities, modeled on my most recent State of the College address. I was pleased and impressed with the interest, engagement and support for SUNY New Paltz reflected in the questions and comments from our alumni. One senior alumnus shared with me that that very day he had joined our Tower Society, naming the SUNY New Paltz Foundation in his estate plans.

Fall Open House, Oct. 26. I want to add my thanks to those of Lisa Jones, Dean of Undergraduate Admission, to everyone who worked to make our Fall Open House such a success, on a beautiful autumn Saturday in the Hudson Valley. I was proud and impressed with the many faculty, staff, students, and administrators who engaged and spoke with prospective students and their parents about the exceptional learning experiences and opportunities we provide. I am grateful that so many gave of their weekend time for this important opportunity to showcase what we do so well.  Thank you.

Veteran and Military Students Conference, Nov. 5-6. As a result of the College’s recognized success and leadership in both its Office of Veteran and Military Services (OVMS) and the Institute for Disaster Mental Health (IDMH), these two units are leading this conference convened by Chancellor Kristina Johnson in Albany, titled Best and Shared Practices for Supporting Military-Affiliated Students on SUNY Campuses. The conference is sponsored by SUNY Trustee and Ambassador Carl Spielvogel, and IDMH Director Amy Nitza and Jason Gilliland, Coordinator of OVMS, played key roles in organizing the event.  Vice President David Eaton, who played an instrumental leadership role in expanding our veteran and military programs, is speaking on “The Value of an Active Military-Affiliated Students Program;” he will draw on the complex and changing history of the College’s relationship to the military since the 1960s and through the post 9-11 era to the present. Jason Gilliland is presenting sessions on “Administrator Bootcamp: Federal Policies and Compliance” and “Military Culture.” IDMH Director Amy Nitza is moderating a concurrent session, titled: “Panel Discussion of Campus Veteran Programs.” In addition to other SUNY representatives, presenters include Chancellor Johnson and our Congressman Antonio Delgado, who will offer welcomes; the Director of Military Programs at the American Council on Education; the Executive Director of the Center for Deployment Psychology at the Uniformed Services University; and a Vice President from Student Veterans of America.

The goal of the conference is to build better understanding and support among campus leaders for these programs, with a particular focus on building advocacy at the highest levels of campus leadership.  It is expected that representatives of nearly 50 of 64 SUNY campuses will participate. SUNY New Paltz’s leadership in this area is recognized by the dramatic growth in enrollment (from about 60 to nearly 400) of veteran and military-affiliated students since we created OVMS six years ago; our success (through partnerships between OVMS, IDMH, and the SUNY New Paltz Foundation) to secure extramural funding to share lessons learned across SUNY; and to the impact of that programming on SUNY students.

Holiday Receptions. Please save the date for the annual Holiday Reception for all Academic and Professional Faculty, Retired Faculty, and M/C employees at the President’s residence, Saturday, Dec. 7, 2:00-4:00 and 4:30-6:30 p.m. Sandy and I hope that you will be able to join us and your colleagues for what always proves to be rewarding fellowship and conversation.

Our Classified Staff Appreciation and Recognition Holiday Luncheon begins at noon on Friday, Dec. 13, in the Student Union Multi-Purpose room.

Best wishes to each of you (and our students) as we approach the final third of the academic semester.

Donald P. Christian