“What to do with the time that is given to us”: President Christian’s 2020 State of the College Address

SUNY New Paltz President Donald P. Christian delivered his first-ever virtual State of the College Address on Aug. 21, setting the stage for a fall semester unlike any in the College’s history.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted our work at a scale for which normal planning and governance processes are inadequate,” President Christian said. “How we keep SUNY New Paltz moving forward on a positive, upward trajectory during a pandemic, a state budget crisis, and long-delayed urgency for racial equality is our unprecedented challenge … We have weathered difficult times before, like hurricanes that caused damage and disrupted our work. We bring to these challenges a set of core strengths and achievements that few other institutions enjoy.”

In rising to meet this difficult moment, President Christian turned to the wisdom of Tolkien’s brilliant wizard, Gandalf the Grey, and his observation that, while we may not be able to choose the time into which we are born, “all we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

“We can draw on another piece of Gandalf wisdom to reinforce the importance of kindness and generosity at this time – both for our students and colleagues: ‘It is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay … small acts of kindness and love,'” President Christian said.

Selected excerpts from President Christian’s address are transcribed below. The full text and recorded presentation can be accessed online.

On the urgency of anti-racist action: “How do we use the time that is given us to delve deeply into how position, privilege, and tradition drive how we function? How do we act with a new sense of urgency to become the inclusive institution that we aspire to be? This summer, we listened to students, alumni, and employees talk about their experiences and their ideas for change, and we shared our commitment and efforts toward this work. Our students are returning with clear expectations for change, and this work will be a dominant theme in our institutional life. In the words of another college president, this is a movement, not a moment. That movement will require our attention and collective energy. We must continue to listen – and we must also act.”

On employees’ contributions to a safe reopening, consistent with our academic mission: “I thank everyone who worked so diligently this summer to create new ways of reaching our incoming students through virtual videos and meetups. This work contributed importantly to our healthy enrollment picture. Thanks also to everyone who developed compelling virtual ways to reach prospective students and parents to support future enrollment. I also want to express my deep gratitude to those whose responsibilities required them to work on campus while others worked remotely. Many employees put in heroic effort to calculate and distribute refunds during spring, and then to distribute financial support from the CARES Act to help students and families.

On the need for, and lasting benefits of, creative problem solving: “Some innovations born of COVID-19 necessity may open our eyes to new ways of doing things. Our outdoor, informal processional to welcome new students was creative, fun, and extremely well received. It may better reflect our community’s strengths than the formal event in the gym, and maybe we won’t go back to the old way. Let’s be attuned during these times for innovations like this.”

On statewide fiscal losses, and potential impacts on the campus community: “New York State is facing a serious budget shortfall estimated at $16 billion. Economic recovery will be slow and tax revenues will lag. As a result, SUNY’s direct taxpayer support will likely be cut substantially this year … We may have to ask things of each other we haven’t before, to bridge this difficult time until a better picture post pandemic. I am committed to bringing us through this storm, with your help. Our priority must be on safeguarding all that we have built over the years to make New Paltz a top-tier institution. Our task in the coming year will require sacrifice by all, perseverance, and ingenuity.”

On the future of academic curriculum, diversity and delivery at New Paltz: “This year, we will launch, under Provost Lyman’s leadership, the initial stages of an academic master plan. This plan needs to focus on matters such as diversity in the curriculum, program mix, the best combination of modes of instructional delivery, including how we expand online offerings while sustaining our strength as a residential campus, responding to changing workforce needs while sustaining our liberal education core, and improving our curriculum review processes to reduce bottlenecks.

We will not abandon our values and how we see ourselves. At the same time, we must recognize that adapting to a new world changed by the pandemic and by shifting societal expectations for higher education will likely mean re-thinking how these values translate into action now and after COVID-19. Other priorities may need to supplement or supplant some of these if we are to continue thriving as a top-tier public university in a changed world.”

On continuing to improve University Policing: “The University Police Department has stated its commitment to be an anti-racist law-enforcement organization. We are rethinking how we over-rely on UPD and are developing other ways to intervene with behavioral and mental health issues. For example, we are establishing a new after-hours protocol for students with mental health issues so that they can receive triage services without having to call UPD. To be clear, anyone observing a student in immediate danger of harm to self or other should call UPD. We are grateful to UPD for their ongoing commitment to implicit bias training and for being first responders who consistently protect our community.”