April 20, 2020 (in advance of April 22 Faculty Senate Meeting)
It is stunning and sobering how our world has changed since my previous (March 2) monthly report, when I shared that, in coordination with SUNY and New York State, we were actively planning for the potential of COVID-19 to reach our campus and noted how rapidly those dynamics were evolving. Optimistically, I had expressed my hope that everyone was getting back into the rhythm of the semester after the disruption of the water situation in New Paltz. That event now seems trivial in comparison with coronavirus and all that we have been experiencing.
In this report, I offer perspective on our current circumstance and share information about our ongoing work, what little we know about the year ahead and the importance of planning for a variety of possible scenarios. I will also acknowledge and celebrate student recognitions. It has been longer than usual since my last report to you, lots has been underway (obviously), and there is much to share.
Since then, our lives have been overtaken with bringing students back from study abroad; supporting students and employees who tested positive for COVID-19, and those around them; abruptly planning and implementing a semester of remote teaching, advising, student support, and programming; moving students out of the residence halls and supporting those who have remained; trying to keep members of our community safe and healthy – ourselves, family members in our households and elsewhere, students and employees; instituting remote work (where possible) to keep College operations moving along; supporting employees whose work requires their presence on campus, at least occasionally. We have grieved with friends and co-workers who have lost loved ones, some enduring the pain of not being able to be present in their loved ones’ final moments.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues on its uncertain path, it feels as if our campus community has settled into a new, uneasy, rhythm that occasionally may feel unsteady but nonetheless has us moving forward, even as our patience is tested and our future is unsettled. I hope the additional information I share below will enhance your understanding of our work to manage operations during this pandemic and to set the stage for our continuing success as a leading public university in a changed world.
Table of Contents:
Thank You – I express my gratitude to all who have been so dedicated to the College, our students, our mission and purpose during an extremely difficult time.
Communication – We have put a priority on frequent and transparent communication and will continue to do so, providing members of our community with current information about the pandemic and our work and keeping our community connected.
Fund-Raising Successes – Our recent appeal has raised more than $17,000 for our Student Crisis Fund and the Crossing the Finish Line Fund to support students encountering unexpected financial challenges. We have now raised $21.13 million through “Soaring Higher: The Campaign for SUNY New Paltz,” 92% of the campaign goal of $23 million.
Current Semester – Below, I summarize indicators of success in our remote teaching and learning, support for students, and steps we are taking to stay in touch with students this semester.
Budget – We must be concerned about the potential for budget reductions as the year progresses. We have taken immediate steps to reduce expenditures, and are projecting how we would manage our budgets in the face of different hypothetical funding reductions, a draft plan for which is due to SUNY on April 27. SUNY New Paltz will receive $6.53 million through the federal coronavirus stimulus funding; half ($3.27 million) must be used for direct aid to students impacted financially by COVID-19.
Fall Semester Planning –Our goal and our hope is to have students, faculty, and staff back on campus for the fall semester in seated courses, but we are planning for multiple scenarios as detailed below.
Enrollment – Post COVID-19 enrollments are uncertain across the nation. Our summer course registrations are on par with last year; fall graduate student enrollments are higher than last year, and it is too early to assess fall undergraduate enrollments. Admissions has sent “virtual open house” materials to about 6,800 accepted students, and interest is high among prospective students in virtual information sessions and one-on-one admissions counseling.
Bachelor of General Studies – Faculty Senate will consider a proposed Bachelor of General Studies online degree program, designed as a flexible degree-completion program for those who have completed some college credits.
Chancellor’s Awards for Student Excellence – Congratulations to this year’s five recipients of this recognition (names and bios below).
Thank You. I am so proud of this entire community and all that so many have done and are doing to support and educate our students and fulfill our mission during this crisis. I am hesitant to enumerate individuals or departments because I cannot name all whose work has mattered so much and will continue to do so. Certainly the way that faculty have risen to the challenge of teaching remotely is remarkable. I’m moved by how colleagues have reached out to support each other, especially those who have not previously taught online. I know that many faculty and staff are supporting students who are traumatized by the impact of the pandemic on their lives. Many are doing so on top of taking care of young children (including assisting with their remote education) and other family members. I recognize and appreciate that this is a heavy lift and I hope you are all taking time for self-care.
Our Instructional Technology Services staff have maintained and advanced the hardware and software needed to support remote teaching and learning and help faculty understand and use those capabilities. Residence life staff have navigated many challenges supporting students who left campus residence halls, those who returned, and those who changed their minds after returning when they saw what life would be like here. Student Affairs personnel have developed virtual programming to engage and support students on campus and beyond. Our custodial and cleaning crews have been dedicated, thoughtful and careful in keeping the campus clean and safe. Student Health Services personnel have been available to assist and support students both in person through special procedures and via telephone. Psychological Counseling Center counselors are supporting students via telephone. Staff in many offices have kept key operations and functions moving along, with some personnel coming onto campus periodically to work – keeping safe social distance and usually working in isolation. Certainly our Emergency Management and Environmental Health and Safety personnel have been at the core of our work. The clear and informed messages you have received reflect the careful work of the Office of Communication and Marketing.
I am grateful to campus leaders and Emergency Management personnel who have been diligent and dedicated in planning and advising our decisions and actions during this crisis. Following several early meetings the week of March 9 that drew on a broader array of expertise, this group (“Cabinet COVID-19”) was organized, and includes Director of Emergency Management Scott Schulte (designated as campus “Incident Commander” during the pandemic), Director of Digital Media Matt Skillman (“Deputy Incident Commander”), the academic deans, AVP Shala Mills, Associate Provost Laurel M. Garrick Duhaney, AVP for Technology and CIO John Reina, and members of the President’s Cabinet – with others joining as particular issues arise. Our meetings (virtual since March 18, typically two hours daily, usually every workday and some weekends) have focused on addressing the myriad issues noted above. These leaders are showing untiring commitment to helping the College, our students, and our faculty and staff work through these difficult circumstances – and thrive as much as possible – so that we emerge from this pandemic as strong as we can. I appreciate the time, commitment, and creativity that this group is investing in solving problems, prioritizing issues, thinking about sharing critical information with the campus, and being strategic and forward looking about solutions and challenges. All of these campus leaders have risen to the occasion. I am humbled to work with them and certain that our decision-making is stronger because of their involvement!
Since March 16, I have participated in regular WebEx meetings with all SUNY campus presidents, Chancellor Kristina Johnson and her SUNY Executive Leadership Team. SUNY is coordinating a significant amount of our response, in close coordination with the Governor’s Office and consistent with his executive orders and guidance, though campuses maintain some autonomy in how we resolve these challenges based on our unique campus circumstances.
Communication. We have communicated frequently to keep our community apprised of key developments and impacts on our campus. At no time in my years as president has our communication seemed more important than now. We have prioritized frequent and transparent communication and will continue to do so. We recognize that for many of our questions, there are no answers yet, and I know that this uncertainty is anxiety-producing and stressful. This is the new normal and I appreciate the ways that you are all supporting each other virtually through these difficult times. I’m especially grateful to our Institute for Disaster Mental Health for their extremely valuable WebEx session in mid-March on psychological first aid in times of crisis and their helpful tip sheets on coping during this challenging period. This generosity and support is a hallmark of our community character, and our resilience will determine the nature of the institution we are when we reach the other side of this pandemic.
I hope and trust that everyone is familiar with the thorough compendium of information about COVID-19 that we have developed and regularly update (https://www.newpaltz.edu/coronavirus-info/). On March 30, we instituted a “Daily Digest” to share all COVID-19-related news in a single daily announcement. Previously in March, we had sent 46 messages to students, employees, or both (as many as 11 in one day!). That frequent communication reflected the many issues to be addressed, changing circumstances, shifting directives and guidance from SUNY, New York State, and the CDC, and our value in ensuring that members of our community are informed, supported, and connected with the College. Last week, we integrated into the Daily Digest the daily update about new COVID-19 diagnoses among students and employees. We will continue to communicate openly and transparently and encourage everyone to track the Daily Digest as the pandemic and its impacts evolve.
You may have noticed that one of our priorities through this crisis is to share with you, our elected officials and media the ways that our institution continues to serve the broader community and region. You have seen this through our proactive placement of media stories about our HVAMC involvement in 3D printing face shields for frontline workers (now numbering about 10,000 shields from New Paltz) and the support our IDMH is providing to the campus and broader community. We are highlighting our education students’ remote work with k-12 children in the region and the making of fabric face coverings by our theatre and art faculty and staff. I heard from the Executive Director of the New Paltz Regional Chamber of Commerce about the great work that several of our students are doing (virtually) to support area businesses at this difficult time, helping them to learn digital tools to communicate and operate remotely. We will continue to highlight these contributions as a way to demonstrate our value to New York State and in an effort to ensure that we continue to receive state taxpayer support for the value we add to all New York citizens.
Fund-Raising Successes. On another bright note, the recent appeal by Development and Alumni Relations raised more than $17,000 for our Student Crisis Fund and the Crossing the Finish Line Fund in the SUNY New Paltz Foundation. Both funds provide support for students encountering unexpected financial challenges, and efforts are made to respond quickly to their needs in these difficult times. In the current circumstances, the maximum award from the Student Crisis Fund has been increased, and some restrictions have been eased. Contributions to the Crossing the Finish Line fund are being matched by two anonymous donors.
We have now raised $21.13 million through “Soaring Higher: The Campaign for SUNY New Paltz” (https://www.newpaltz.edu/soaringhigher/), 92% of the campaign goal of $23 million. Current-year fund-raising stands at about $2.8 million, 94% of our annual $3 million goal. We continue to be awed by the commitment of our many donors to SUNY New Paltz – including many faculty, staff, and administrators – and their support for our students and programs, even in these trying economic times.
Current Semester. Some students and faculty began the semester in online courses; everyone else was thrown with little notice into remote teaching and learning, some – students and faculty alike – for the first time ever. Although we have heard of some rough spots, we have also heard many reports of things progressing well. ITS has worked hard to address internet or technology barriers, including by sharing “loaner” laptops to students, some recently secured by SUNY system. If you are aware of colleagues or students facing such issues, please refer them to the Student Help Desk.
Student leaves of absence (in other semesters these have been due to factors like health issues, death of a family member, change in financial circumstances) are on par with last spring, and course withdrawals are actually less than last year – good reflections of our students’ resilience and their experience so far, and of your collective work. We believe that the optional Pass/Fail grading system that we put in place has eased some students’ anxiety about remote learning, but we ask that you be sure students are aware of this option. Nonetheless, we know that students appreciate and value faculty support for the challenges that they may be facing. Please be certain they are aware of and are encouraged to use options like the “Raise Your Hand” feature on Starfish, and take advantage of virtual advising. We hope the delay in fall undergraduate course registration has been helpful in your efforts to make these critical connections with students.
I encourage you also to consider special outreach to graduating senior students who we know are especially saddened to have their final semester at New Paltz ended so abruptly and so many special events – commencement ceremonies, BFA and MFA exhibitions, athletic activities, Senior Toast, and others – postponed or shifted to a virtual format. You will see an announcement today about a virtual pre-recorded commencement to be held Friday, May 22, and you can expect more updates about other end-of-year events. We agree with our graduating seniors that these virtual efforts are a poor replacement and look forward to their return in May 2021 when we hope to be able to safely bring them and their family members and friends back to campus to celebrate their accomplishments. Still, these final months of their college experience warrant celebration now.
We are trying to stay connected with students (virtually) throughout this semester. Cabinet has met twice via WebEx with the Executive Leaders of Student Association and Residence Hall Student Associations, continuing a traditional monthly consultation that has persisted through four college presidencies. The President of the Student Association and I speak regularly by phone to sustain the partnership that we have developed that supports our students and we hope paves the way for the coming year of interaction. I know that Interim Provost Lyman and the Academic Vice President of the Student Association Haley Hershenson are also in regular contact. I have conducted two virtual “Hot Chocolate with the President” sessions, which I had anticipated to be poor substitutes for the regular sessions I have for years held with students in the residence halls, three or so times each semester. I was pleasantly surprised by the level of engagement, including questions from prospective (and I believe eager!) international students and comments from parents of accepted students. I recently joined Deans Backhaus and Freedman and Center for International Programs staff for a virtual coffee hour with international students. About 200 still live on campus and in the surrounding community, although several joined this conversation from their home country or from the homes of relatives in New York City. They are faring well overall, although uncertainty about future employment or continuing education weighs heavily on many.
Budget. As Vice President Halstead and I shared last week, the economic and financial impact of COVID-19 will have major consequences on SUNY campus budgets and that of other New York State (NYS) agencies. The NYS enacted budget for 2020-21, as many are aware, provides the same direct taxpayer support to SUNY state-operated campuses as in 2019-20 – a good starting point. However, this enacted budget gives the NYS Budget Director unprecedented authority to make downward adjustments in budget allocations on a quarterly basis if revenues fall below 99% of projections. We must be concerned about the potential for budget reductions as the year progresses; the SUNY fiscal year begins on July 1, which is the start of the second quarter of the NYS fiscal year. Funding for SUNY community colleges was reduced, carrying potential impacts on our future enrollment of transfer students.
As we wrote, we have been asked to curtail expenditures effective immediately, and all purchase requests will receive heightened scrutiny and reduced chance of being approved. We have moved ahead with nearly all faculty searches and with positions that have significant health and safety responsibilities, but overall we should expect hiring to be impacted. Each SUNY campus has been asked to provide analyses of how we would manage our budgets in the face of different hypothetical funding reductions. Our projections, due on April 27, are currently in development in consultation with the deans and other academic leaders. We will share further information as it becomes available, and certainly will develop a virtual mechanism for broader input and consultation about any necessary budget changes as the year progresses. We expect to have further and more specific guidance on budget planning for 2020-21 after the Board of Trustees meets in early May.
Many are aware that SUNY New Paltz will receive $6.53 million through the federal coronavirus stimulus funding; half ($3.27 million) is specifically for direct aid to students impacted financially by COVID-19. We recently received SUNY guidance on how both the institutional and the student support shares may be used, and the SUNY and New York State approval processes for our plans. Both forms of support are meaningful, although the institutional share is much less than our lost revenue this semester.
Fall Semester Planning. Our goal and our hope is to have students, faculty, and staff back on campus for the fall semester teaching seated courses. However, like state and national planning for “reopening” the economy, this timing will be driven by the virus, the course of the pandemic in the coming months, and concerns about human health and disease containment — not by our academic calendar. Any decision we make will follow guidance and directives of the Governor and the New York State and Ulster County Health Departments, and will likely be coordinated across campuses by SUNY administration.
Accordingly, as much as we hope for COVID-19 to run its course and to have a “live,” residential fall semester with a similar classroom/online ratio as in prior years, it would be irresponsible and foolish not to plan for being the best we can be in other scenarios, like the following:
- COVID-19 remains a public safety threat and we must continue a 100% remote learning approach.
- COVID-19 alters social interactions for the foreseeable future, resulting in necessary changes, such as 1) reduced residence hall or classroom occupancy due to social distancing requirements or 2) increased number of online or hybrid classes to reduce on-campus density.
- COVID-19 seems to be under control and the College returns to normal operation, but the virus resurges and we are forced mid-semester to shift back to remote learning for the remainder of the semester.
- COVID-19 remains a public safety threat and we must begin the fall with a 100% remote learning approach, but the situation improves mid-semester and we resume normal operation as a residential campus, with likely additional social distancing requirements.
These are the scenarios that campus leadership, including academic deans, are using to plan. I know that deans are sharing these with department chairs or faculty to gain broader input for our decisions and we will be consulting with faculty governance. Because the course of the pandemic is quite unclear at this time, we must direct attention to all of these scenarios, and I know that is frustrating and overwhelming. But we remind each other occasionally of Benjamin Franklin’s sage guidance that “failing to plan is planning to fail,” and of Dwight Eisenhower’s often-cited advice that “plans are useless, but planning is everything.”
Our planning includes issues like developing and offering (during summer) the necessary and desired professional development for faculty to teach online and remotely as well as possible; providing further support for students to learn well remotely; plans for how and when to offer laboratory and studio courses and internship opportunities if fall semester is disrupted; and creating appropriate remote teaching opportunities for faculty with health issues that may be a concern even if in-person, on-campus teaching is possible for others. We are considering hybrid strategies, for example, if in-person instruction is possible at the start of the semester, holding synchronous meetings in person (especially for classes like labs, performances, studios), using synchronous time for discussion, Q&A, small groups, etc., with other assignments offered asynchronously. Such a strategy would offer the advantage of easing the “pivot” from face-to-face to remote instruction if we were to be forced to make such a switch.
Enrollment. A large fraction of our revenue comes from tuition and student fees, so we are heavily enrollment dependent. If you have been reading the higher education press, you know there is great uncertainty about fall semester enrollments, even if COVID-19 is behind us, as returning or prospective students and their families, especially lower income families, reel from the economic impact of the pandemic; concerns about health and safety influence educational decisions; students choose online versus in-person education, or live at home and commute rather than live on campus; financial considerations influence choices of private versus public colleges; private colleges that have lost significant endowment revenue are unable to offer heavy tuition discounts; and many other factors. How these factors play out will no doubt become clearer in the coming months but the fluidity of the situation makes enrollments and budget harder to predict.
In the meantime, we see positive signs in our enrollment picture. As of last week, our total summer course registration count was identical to the same date last year, up slightly for graduate students and down slightly for undergraduates. Graduate enrollment for fall is up considerably over last year. Because we delayed the start of fall semester registration for current undergraduate students, fall semester registration numbers at this date are largely meaningless.
New undergraduate numbers for fall are more difficult to read but we see lots of action and interest. We were forced to cancel our in-person accepted student open houses and move to remote interactions and yield activities. We moved the enrollment deposit date for fall semester from the traditional May 1 to July 1, so we expect a lag in those numbers. The number of accepted first-year students is within 1% of last year, despite a bigger drop in number of applications and delays this spring in receiving information from high school counselors because of K-12 school closures along with the College Board canceling SAT and ACT exams. We are encouraged by robust interest in virtual General Information Sessions and requests for one-on-one admissions counseling,
Nearly 6,800 accepted students received this link to our very exciting and creative virtual open house (https://www.newpaltz.edu/admissions/acceptedstudents/). Scroll down below the “Congratulations on Your Acceptance…” page to click on the individual videos that paint such a compelling picture of our College and life here.
Kudos to everyone who has worked so hard and creatively to produce what we hope will be successful enrollment outcomes for us, irrespective of our fall instructional and residential configuration. I find the quality, tone, focus, and extent of remote offerings and yield activities exemplary. Thanks to leadership and staff in Undergraduate Admission; the Office of Communication & Marketing, Shala Mills and her staff in Graduate and Extended Learning; and deans and faculty who have connected with students to increase yield of our accepted students.
Bachelor of General Studies. Further kudos and thanks to everyone who advanced the proposal for the Bachelor of General Studies online degree program for Faculty Senate consideration this spring. This is designed as a flexible degree-completion program for those who have completed some college credits. We began developing this option well before the pandemic, as a way to reach non-traditional age prospective students and help them achieve their educational goals if they are unable to attend a residential campus. Given the COVID-19 disruption that has led so many to lose jobs and alter their personal and professional plans, we believe this degree completion pathway, with its primarily online delivery model, will be an even more important way for our institution to live its social justice values and meet the educational needs of our communities. Thank you to the faculty including members of the ad hoc BGS committee, the various curriculum committees and school councils/senates who developed and reviewed the proposal, under difficult circumstances. I am especially grateful to LA&S Associate Dean John Sharp for his leadership role in developing this program, and to LA&S Dean Laura Barrett, F&PA Dean Jeni Mokren, the other academic deans, and AVP Shala Mills for their advocacy and support.
Chancellor’s Awards for Student Excellence.Five New Paltz students, each a member of the class of 2020, have been selected for this SUNY-wide recognition, based on distinctive academic, athletic, leadership, service, and other achievements and contributions. The awards were to be conferred in a ceremony in Albany on April 22; a virtual alternative is being planned. I shared with each of the awardees my congratulations, pride in their accomplishments, and sadness that one of my favorite annual events will not be held. You may wish to take an opportunity to congratulate these students if you know them or if they are in one of your classes this spring. The names of the award recipients, their major(s), and selected accomplishments are:
- Alyson Hummer (Psychology Major, Music Minor), co-created the first Burmese piano-percussion ensemble in the U.S., co-organized major concerts and performances, performed in New York City and Washington, D.C., traveled to Myanmar to collect footage for her ethnographic film “Growing Rhythm,” Honors Program, peer mentor, extensive volunteer work locally and in Guatemala.
- Benjamin Jay (Management, Business Analytics, and Psychology Majors), Honors Program, significant accomplishment in applying business analytics to diverse problems, Welcome Center greeter, Resident Assistant, Student Ambassador, Senior Gift Committee, represented SUNY New Paltz at an international leadership conference, interned at DREAM, a nonprofit educational program supporting underprivileged students.
- Jeremy Luna (International Relations and Asian Studies), Boren Scholar, study abroad in Japan and South Korea, internships at the UN Information Center in Tokyo and the US Mission to the UN, former Congressman Charles Rangel International Affairs Fellowship aligned with his career goal to join the US diplomatic corps, Honors Program, Student Ambassador, Resident Assistant.
- Majessa Pedrozo (Communication Disorders Major, Sociology Minor), 2020 Valedictorian, Honors Program, training coordinator for Honors Peer Mentoring Program, teaching assistant, internships including the NYU Rusk Career Opportunity Program, work with teens on the autism spectrum, extensive volunteer work for disaster relief, blood drives, other causes.
- Philesha Teape (Biology Major), research on aquatic ecology, genetics, neuroscience with New Paltz faculty and in Netherlands through Global CUNY, member of three-time SUNYAC championship women’s basketball team, mentor, tutor and volunteer in home community, AC^2 tutor and study group leader, founding member of New Paltz Student Athletes of Color, African Women’s Alliance.
I wish the mix of good to sobering news I have to report were different, but I believe it is essential that you receive frank and open assessments of key developments and the challenges we face. We certainly will continue to keep you informed in the coming months as our budget, enrollment, and fall semester options become clearer. I am grateful for the selfless way that you have dedicated yourselves to serving our students and keeping the College strong. I have faith that during a time like this our best selves will continue to shine, and we will emerge strong from this difficult time.
I look forward to joining you at this week’s virtual Faculty Senate meeting and, as time allows, will respond to comments or questions about this report or other matters.
Donald P. Christian