President’s Report to the Academic and Professional Faculty

Oct. 6, 2020 (in advance of Oct. 7 Faculty Senate meeting)

We have made it to Week 7 of fall semester 2020, continue to provide an in-person presence for our students, and have managed to keep the number of COVID-19 cases in check, thanks to the vigilance of our faculty, staff and students who are on campus. While we cannot let down our guard, we have reached the midpoint and I hope that this is a trend we can continue through Thanksgiving. I wish everyone well during what I know is an unusually difficult and uncertain time. Here, I share several updates, news items, and upcoming events.

Table of Contents:

COVID-19 – Updates on low incidence of COVID-19 on campus, student and employee testing, telecommuting extension to Jan. 1, 2020.

Budget and Budget Forum – Oct. 15, 1 – 3 p.m. virtual forum to outline budget challenges, uncertainties and planned consultation.

Enrollment – Fall semester enrollment is within 5% of last year; recruitment of new first-year and transfer students for spring semester is underway, along with planning the right mix of face-to-face, hybrid, and remote course offerings to support students and ensure healthy enrollments.

Our Current Political Environment – Thoughts about engaging students and co-workers before and after the Nov. 3 election, and about core institutional values that are relevant to our academic enterprise and democratic way of life

Anti-Racist Action – Bias Reporting and Support Initiative has been launched to provide a clear path to report bias incidents, seek support and redress.

Middle States – Self-study will be available soon for faculty and staff review, preliminary visit by team chair (virtual) is scheduled for Oct. 23, site visit (likely virtual) in late March or early April 2021.

Alumni Reunion – To be held virtually Oct. 16-17; information below about Heritage and Alumni Award recipients, celebration of 50th anniversary of 1970 graduating class.

Hudson Valley Future Summit – Invitation to join virtual panel presentation on Oct. 30 on “Innovating in the Time of Covid-19.”

COVID-19. Our Daily Digest e-newsletter and Dashboard provide regular updates on the status of COVID-19 on campus and related topics, and I will provide only a few highlights here. Although I know things can change in an instant, it is heartening that our last active case was reported two weeks ago – on Sept. 21 (an off-campus student), and all of our recent PCR and pool test results have been negative, with positivity rate of less than 0.5% for students tested on campus. But we should not lower our guard given recent upticks in COVID-19 cases in New York City, parts of the lower Hudson Valley, and several other New York counties – as well as other parts of the country. I continue to be impressed with the diligence and care shown by our students and employees in mask-wearing, social distancing, and other practices. Local residents I encounter regularly share how pleased they are with our results to date. SUNY has issued strict guidelines for campuses to discipline students who violate these policies. We have done so in a few instances, even as we continue to value the educational approaches that have proven effective in encouraging compliance among our students.

We continue our ongoing mandatory PCR testing and pool testing of students, and have begun pool testing of employees as mandated by agreements between SUNY and UUP, PEF, PBANYS and CSEA collective bargaining units and recent SUNY requirements that Management-Confidential employees be tested. I am grateful to the employees who are graciously complying with those requirements. I extend a special note of appreciation to the many employees who are volunteering to help our pool testing run smoothly (Reminder: 9 – 10 a.m. on Thursdays and Fridays are designated as employee-only testing times). The resulting test results will give us an early warning of needed action if the status of COVID-19 on our campus should change. Nonetheless, news of the past few days reinforces a caution we have shared before: frequent testing must not spur complacency about safety measures like mask wearing, social distancing, and hand washing.

I am certain that everyone noted that the Governor’s Office of Employee Relations has issued a directive to extend telecommuting until Jan. 1, 2021, superseding an earlier campus decision to extend the measure. That action will help us maintain low density on campus and limit in-person interactions to those essential to campus operations and the success and welfare of our students and employees. This measure will also allow employees with school-aged children and those who have eldercare responsibilities to continue to fulfill those commitments with a work-from- home option.

I have heard from students – including in last week’s “Hot Chocolate with the President” events (masked, socially distanced, low-density and outdoors) – and from employees (last week’s virtual Administrative Council meeting) how difficult, sometimes overwhelming teaching and learning can be under these conditions. I am grateful for your and our students’ dedication to their learning and welfare and the importance of student success to the short- and long-term success of the College. I wish I could make everything better, and appreciate that most know I cannot.

Budget and Budget Forum. I encourage you to join the budget forum on Thursday, Oct. 15 (1 – 3 p.m.). Vice President for Administration and Finance Michele Halstead, Provost/VPAA Barbara Lyman, and I will share insights and respond to questions about:

  • our current budget, including the importance of “all-funds” budget thinking;
  • actions to date to significantly reduce expenditures and why we will need to do more;
  • continuing uncertainties that include spring semester enrollment and tuition revenue; actions, if any, the Board of Trustees will take to increase tuition; magnitude of an expected decline in direct support from New York State; and potential federal stimulus funding. We do not expect clarity on these matters until after the November election.
  • consultative approaches we will use to address our budget challenges as the magnitude of our problem becomes clearer and the year progresses.

From 2012 through 2015, we operated with balanced budgets – managing expenses so that they did not exceed revenue. Beginning in 2016, when the tuition rate was held flat for the first time in five years yet expenses continued to grow, we ran a structural deficit that grew to about $5 million by 2019. While worrisome, we regarded that deficit as manageable, by reducing expenditures, cautious use of campus reserve funds, and planned enrollment growth. We were making good progress on a three-year plan to right our budget. Then COVID-19 hit. The financial issues we face now are a world apart from those of 2016-19.

Part of our goal for the forum presentation and discussion is to help everyone understand those differences, and the level-headed and thoughtful actions we must take this year and likely for the next several. To help set the stage for that discussion, I will repeat language from my Aug. 21 State of the College address:

Looking to the year ahead, I will first speak about our unprecedented financial challenges… We need to steel ourselves for tough times ahead. We have had budget cuts and run structural deficits before, but this promises to be on a scale that will not leave us unscathed.

New York State is facing a serious budget shortfall… SUNY’s direct taxpayer support will likely be cut substantially…The potential for significant federal stimulus funding for higher education is a giant question mark… our residence hall budget took a big hit last spring when we refunded students who moved out mid-semester… our residence hall revenue will decline again this year.

This reality will demand hard decisions… We may have to ask things of each other we haven’t before, to bridge this difficult time until a better picture post pandemic…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.

Enrollment. As I shared last month, our fall semester enrollment is only about 5% below that of last fall, an outcome that is far more positive than some had speculated and feared. Nonetheless, that translates into a tuition revenue loss of more than $1 million. We are already planning actions to achieve healthy spring semester enrollment and tuition revenue generation. For the first time in many years, we will admit new first-year students in the spring, and are developing onboarding and orientation programs to support their success. Admissions personnel are working hard to recruit healthy numbers of transfer students. I wrote last month that many international graduate students deferred beginning their studies this fall. We hope that many will join us in the spring, but U.S. Embassy closures and inaction on issuing student visas, along with a recent Executive Order on international student visas, are not helping that cause.

Meeting or exceeding our spring semester enrollment goals depends on having a decent mix of in-person (totally face-to-face, or hybrid courses that include a meaningful on-campus presence) and remote course offerings, including a percentage of in-person courses at least as high as –ideally slightly higher than – this semester. Such a mix will meet the educational goals of those students for whom safety concerns or finances make studying remotely a better option, as well as those who seek and are best served by an on-campus experience that includes live instruction – all while reducing human density on campus and promoting health and safety. Provost Lyman, Vice President Eaton, and the deans and other academic leaders are working on approaches to achieve the right balance of course offerings to achieve those goals. It is worth noting that while students have withdrawn from courses of all modalities this semester, the withdrawal rate is disproportionately lower for traditional on-campus offerings and higher for remote courses. That aligns closely with the sense we are gaining that many students are feeling overwhelmed by the work of distance-education courses. We must bear in mind that the experiences of our students this fall and spring will have important bearing on retention into the following year and beyond – with longer-term implications for enrollment and tuition revenue

To my knowledge, there is no evidence of coronavirus transmission in masked and socially distanced classrooms, conditions that we will continue through at least the spring semester. I hope that the success of our campus to date in keeping COVID-19 under control, the behavior and compliance of our students, and continued testing will reassure faculty about the safety of face-to-face instruction under these conditions.

Our Mission and the Current Political Environment. My next monthly report to you will coincide with the November election, in advance of the Faculty Senate meeting on Wednesday, Nov. 4. The President’s hospitalization because of COVID-19 and return to the White House, how his health will progress over the coming weeks, and possible impacts on the Presidential campaign introduce other complexities into an uncertain, already-contentious political process and a national social and political climate that has Americans polarized, angry, and confused. The nation’s climate carries significant, real concern among many that our democracy and democratic institutions, including colleges and universities, are in peril. It is without question that the presidential election and the broader underlying political dynamics will be – and should be – on the minds of our students and employees as we go about our work in the next month.

These words from my report of Nov. 11, 2016, the week following our last presidential election, resonate today and offer perspective on how we work together and with our students during these perilous times, both before the election and afterward:

I wish to open this month’s report, coming on the heels of a historic presidential election, by acknowledging that the outcome has generated mixed reaction among members of our community — uncertainty and concern among some, satisfaction for others. Our campus is a diverse array of different races, religions, national origins, sexual and gender orientations/identities, ages, physical abilities, intellectual interests and viewpoints. This is a time when our ability to live with ambiguity and change will be fully tested, and as college president, I urge patience and tolerance with each other. In the midst of this national transition, the College will remain true to our values of providing access to high-quality educational opportunity for all. Know that I am committed to our educational mission and the academic and human values at the core of our work. As educators, we must seize this opportunity to help our students understand and be mindful of the historic, cultural, social and psychological elements at play at this time in our nation through our coursework, our conversations and our treatment of each other.

As a public university, our educational responsibilities include preparing citizens who are informed and engaged in the civic life of our democracy. Our academic enterprise relies on respect for the value of evidence, informed analysis, and science; and on drawing distinctions between fact and opinion and recognizing that expertise matters. These call for thoughtful and informed information literacy skills that we seek to instill in our students. We are committed to creating opportunities for all citizens to participate in the high-quality education we provide; supporting and taking action to address the climate crisis; supporting free speech; opposing white supremacy, misogyny, and expressions of hatred; and encouraging our students to engage in the democratic process including voting.

These enduring, core values should be at the heart of our conversations in the coming weeks and beyond. I encourage you to support students and others as we engage these issues, to exemplify the best realization of those values as you undertake your work as faculty, staff, and administrators at SUNY New Paltz, and to encourage our students and co-workers to participate fully in the democratic process. (I remind you of the guidance shared recently about the engagement of public employees in political activity.)

Anti-Racist Commitment: Establishing a Bias Reporting and Support Initiative this fall was an action item that college leadership committed to in our June 30 pledge to become an actively anti-racist campus. This initiative, under the leadership of Human Resources, Diversity and Inclusion and Chief Diversity Officer Tanhena Pacheco Dunn, was announced yesterday. The purpose of this initiative is to formalize and clarify a known path for students or employees who have experienced bias-motivated language or behavior to report such experiences, to receive support or redress, and where possible, to educate those responsible about the impact of their actions to reduce the likelihood of repeat offenses.

In the past, such incidences have been reported informally to key individuals or offices, but we know that some have not come forward. I spoke with our student (and the student’s parent) who was verbally accosted with racial slurs recently in the Village of New Paltz. It was clear from our conversations that, as awful as this experience was, being able to discuss it with others and to know that the College was not dismissive of the incident was meaningful. We want to be sure that no one going through such an experience returns to their residence hall room to process in solitude and in silence.

The initial network comprises individuals who, because of their roles and responsibilities, have commonly received, responded to, and resolved such incidents; several have experience in trauma-informed practices. We plan to expand the network over time with other members of our campus community who can help both prevent and respond to bias-related incidents. We will keep you apprised about this work over the coming months.

Middle States. The Middle States Reaccreditation Steering Committee and Editorial Team have continued to refine the self-study document and will make it available soon for campus review, with feedback requested by November 9. There will be a subsequent opportunity for campus discussion of the self-study and the process before the self-study is finalized and shared with the review team. The leader of our review team is Dr. Marcia Welsh, President Emerita of East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania. A regular early step in the review process is a campus visit by the team leader. Dr. Welsh will “visit” our campus virtually on Oct. 23, and will have reviewed a draft of the self-study beforehand. The site visit will take place during late March or early April (dates to be finalized) and will most likely be virtual.

I am grateful for the excellent ongoing work and thoughtful engagement of so many faculty, staff, and administrators to support our reaccreditation process, both before and since the onset of the pandemic.

Alumni Reunion. The 2020 Alumni Reunion will be held virtually on Friday and Saturday, Oct. 16-17. Faculty and staff are encouraged to participate in events throughout the weekend ( I know that alumni welcome the chance to connect with those who have had a great influence on their lives, even if this year’s virtual connections will not be as satisfying as in-person gatherings. I will speak and respond to alumni questions on Friday afternoon (2 – 3 p.m.). During an awards ceremony on Friday evening (6 – 7 p.m.), we will recognize individuals whose devotion to the ideals of the College serve as extraordinary examples to the entire New Paltz community:

Heritage Award honorees are:

  • Distinguished Professor Gerald Sorin
  • Alumni Couple Renee Padmore-Baccus ’91 and T. Dion Baccus ’92

Alumni Award recipients include:

  • Leslie Gordon ‘93g (Alumni Professional Achievement Award)
  • Glenn Geher (Friends of the Alumni Association Award)

This year’s Distinguished Alumni Service Award is presented to 11 alumni who shared their knowledge and expertise virtually with alumni and others last spring when in-person programming was cancelled:

  • Missy Graff Ballone ’13
  • Juan-Carlos Piñeiro ’07
  • Jennifer Haefele, RDN ’12
  • Gorgette Greene-Hodnett ’91
  • Jason Valentino ’07
  • Lester E. Mayers ’19
  • Destiny Moore ’13
  • Bradley A. Diuguid ’07
  • Kelly A. Murphy ’13
  • Lana Pasqual ’11
  • Nia Thomas ’11

During the Lantern Society Induction Ceremony on Saturday (12 – 1 p.m.) we will honor the 50th anniversary class of 1970.

Hudson Valley Future Summit. Faculty, staff, and students are invited to participate (free of charge) in the “Virtual Hudson Valley Future Summit: Innovating in the Time of COVID-19” on Friday, Oct. 30, 8:30 – 11 a.m. Panelists are Sarah Brennan, Associate Director of Programs, Hudson Valley Farm Hub; Avery Nimblette: Owner, Green Valley Landscaping and Lawn Care; and Jessica O. Matthews: Founder and CEO, Unchartered Power). During a 9 – 10 a.m. panel, they will discuss strategies their organizations planned and implemented to produce successful results, and how they approach equity in their workplace and best practices for implementing diversity and inclusion policies. The panel will be moderated by Sarah Lee, CEO, Think Dutchess Alliance for Business and Executive Director of the Dutchess County Industrial Development Agency. Plans are still in development for informal virtual networking to close the session. Registration and log in information will be provided before the event. Please share this opportunity with your students.

I look forward to “seeing you” at the Senate meeting and responding to your questions and comments.


Donald P. Christian