President’s Report to the Academic and Professional Faculty

Nov. 2, 2020 (in advance of Nov. 4 Faculty Senate meeting)

We’ve marked off 71 days on the calendar since the first day of fall semester classes; only 23 days remain until Thanksgiving break and our pivot to remote instruction and final exams. I know that more work remains before the semester wraps up, when faculty, staff, and students can gain some respite from the frantic pace at which we have been living and working. But hopefully there is comfort in being “in the home stretch” for a year that has been relentless, with COVID-19 dominating our lives after we barely recovered from the February disruption of our water situation.

As always, I admire and respect your perseverance and continued dedication to our students and our work, and wish everyone well in what I know are difficult and uncertain times. I remind us of the stress and range of emotions that our students and co-workers will be experiencing in the days following tomorrow’s election, and encourage your special tolerance and compassion.

Please vote if you have not yet exercised this most important civic responsibility and democratic right.

Here, I share several updates and news items.

Table of Contents:

Work-Life Balance – Several resources shared during last week’s roundtable are outlined below along with action items. Here is a video recording of the discussion for those who missed it.

Student Concerns – I outline below some of the student concerns and experiences we heard about in last week’s town hall discussion organized in collaboration with the Student Association.

COVID-19 – Compliance with health and safety standards and frequent testing are contributing to the low incidence of COVID-19 cases among students and employees, even as we must be cautious of the risks of “pandemic fatigue” and of lowering our guard. Health status of two employees who tested positive drives home the seriousness of the virus for members of our community. Plan for required pre-Thanksgiving testing are being submitted to SUNY for approval.

Budget and Budget Forum – Oct. 15 budget forum provided information about budget configuration, the scope of our budgetary challenges, and remaining uncertainties. A link to the video of the forum is provided here. We will share more information as it becomes available.

Anti-Racist Initiatives – Information below about “Diversity Fellows” initiative, work of faculty in STEM departments to build inclusive pedagogy, early discussion of courses and  curriculum around race, racism and inequity, Diversity and Inclusion Council training in “Restorative Practices,” and new SUNY-wide action plan to increase diversity, equity, and inclusion and to combat racial inequity and division.

Dismantling Racism Town Hall on Nov. 12 — continuing our ongoing series with faculty, staff, students, and alumni, 4:45-6 p.m., links to follow. In addition, community members may need to process election outcomes.

Spring Semester Planning – Final guidelines from SUNY are expected soon. Instruction prior to Feb. 1 is to be remote, except (with SUNY approval) laboratory and related facility- or equipment-dependent courses. Our current plans include Jan. 19 and May 13 as start and end dates of the semester.  Campus plans will be shared before submitting to SUNY.

Holiday Receptions — Traditional December holiday receptions will not be held; Classified Staff will be recognized virtually for years of service.

Work-Life Balance. Last week’s roundtable discussion on work-life balance reinforced and highlighted the exceptional challenges facing many employees, especially those who have caregiving responsibilities for children, parents, or other family members. We know those burdens fall most heavily on women employees, and we know the day-to-day stress and exhaustion this brings, along with longer-term anxiety about employment matters such as discretionary salary increases and reappointment, promotion, and tenure.  We hear the pleas and want to take steps that we can to support, assist, and connect employees with needed resources. Here is a video recording of the discussion for those who missed it.

During the roundtable we heard about free and confidential resources available through our Employee Assistance Program (EAP). Follow-up on the roundtable is on the agenda for the upcoming EAP Committee meeting, including how to be sure everyone is aware of its offerings and how the program can best support employees. Information on some paid leave options is available here. Assistant Professor Melissa Rock shared several resources on the roundtable chat (Caregivers in Crisis). The roundtable conversation has already spurred thinking about the possible creation of a community-generated work-life balance information hub for those who are interested.

We heard the request for a standard, uniform policy to support child- and family-care needs. As I shared during the roundtable discussion, we want to ensure that all employees feel confident to step forward with requests for accommodation without fear of retribution. But having observed or been part of the design and approval of such requests, I believe that individually tailored arrangements remain essential to serve individual and institutional needs well. For example, a faculty member expecting a baby in, say, the 12th week of a semester can teach a significant portion of the semester with a plan in place for others to step in to complete the instruction when needed. In contrast, parental leave following a due date in the third or fourth week of a semester may be better accommodated by having others assume responsibility for a faculty member’s courses from day one, with the faculty member pursuing an intentionally designed, alternative work assignment for the first few weeks of the semester until a leave is activated.

These are the kinds of varying accommodations that HRDI has pursued for the past several years through consultation with employees and supervisors, taking into account the significant constraints of New York State employment policies around matters such as availability and use of leave. Those constraints are very real, and many are not controlled at the campus level. We will likely not achieve the flexibility we all would want. But there is much we can do within the resources available to us. To advance that goal, we will draft a policy statement that supports individualized needs and outlines the institutional commitment that those who come forward will receive equitable support.

During the roundtable, we discussed the high standards and expectations that SUNY New Paltz employees set for our work, along with the reality that these are difficult or impossible for many to sustain in the current working environment. According to the advice of a recent article on gaining tenure and promotion, “something has to give,” and as a community we must work to create a climate at least for the short-term in which people are more comfortable giving themselves permission not to undertake the same scope of work or expect the same results that would have seemed possible “in normal times.”

Reducing or modifying expectations for service, scholarly achievement, or teaching contributions falls within the purview of faculty, faculty governance and of campus administration. This was a topic of discussion in my meeting last week with the faculty Executive Committee and will be discussed further in the coming weeks.

In response to a request from the “Futures Committee” of early-career faculty brought to our attention by the Executive Committee, we are reviewing options for delaying by a few days the deadline for submitting fall semester grades after final exams, to reduce the stresses of wrapping up the semester. Any flexibility there is constrained by our need to meet deadlines for determining academic standing and degree conferral. We will finalize that review in the coming days and inform you as soon as possible if we are able to extend that deadline.

Although it may have limited impact on teaching faculty and on employees who are working remotely, we hope that launching 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. core office hours at the start of the Thanksgiving holiday – weeks earlier than usual – will offer some measure of additional flexibility for those employees who are coming to campus to work.

Student Concerns. In addition to last week’s work-life balance roundtable with employees, we held a town hall discussion to hear about student experiences and concerns this semester.  This event was organized in collaboration with Haley Hershenson, president of the Student Association, and included the entire COVID-19 planning cabinet, faculty governance representatives, student financial services, student accounts personnel, advising staff, and others. I appreciate that a number of faculty and staff joined to listen to our students.  Ms. Hershenson outlined the recent open letter from Student Association leaders to faculty as a framework for this session.

We heard deep and heartfelt concerns from students about:

  • the performance and lack of attention of some faculty who are teaching remotely, with particular criticism focused on some asynchronous courses;
  • mental health issues and the need for support;
  • what feels like overwhelming workloads, especially with remote learning;
  • financial worries including delays in financial aid and questions about refunds from this past spring;
  • strong advocacy for continuing the Pass/Fail grade option;
  • criticism about the loss of spring break and how the “Mind, Body Spirit Days” will be structured.

We heard a hunger to connect with professors and staff, even if it is virtually. Particular criticism was directed at some faculty who, at least in the minds of some students, post material for asynchronous courses but themselves never appear.  I have heard this criticism also in emails from parents, and it is a matter that we must address, for the current semester and certainly for spring.

We cannot address all of the concerns raised by students. For example, SUNY guidelines for spring semester will not allow a spring break with the accompanying risk of COVID-19 transmission when students return to campus. We are also very concerned about an alternative suggestion from students of using Mind, Body, Spirit Days to create three- or four-day weekends that also might encourage travel away from campus. We will establish and publicize expectations that faculty not assign work due on those days, another concern raised by students. We will expand efforts to ensure that students are aware of ways to reach key student-support offices on campus. We will continue to remind students of the availability of Student Crisis Fund support for financial exigencies. While continuing the Pass/Fail option is problematic and may not serve students’ long-term futures well, we are exploring other options for grading flexibility for the current semester and perhaps for spring, and will consult with faculty before any action is taken.

Vice President Stephanie Blaisdell drew the session to a close with a wonderful expression of empathy, care, and support for our students, even if we are not able to accommodate all of their requests or demands.

COVID-19. We continue to be fortunate in having a low – but not zero — incidence of COVID-19 cases among students and employees. I spoke recently with our two employees who tested positive; one had been hospitalized, both were having difficulty breathing and expect it to be some time before they regain their health — driving home the seriousness of COVID-19 for members of our community. Our testing continues to go well, with very low positivity rates, and I am grateful to all for your cooperation with testing, for those who continue to volunteer to make our pool testing of students and employees so smooth and effective, and for the great work of our contact tracers. Our plan for required testing of students and employees before the Thanksgiving break is being submitted to SUNY, an effort to reduce risk of carrying the virus to other communities.

We are aware of and continue to caution students and other members of our community about the risks of “pandemic fatigue” and of lowering our guard. The ongoing risk is so apparent when we consider recent national trends, outbreaks in many parts of the country, and the “cluster” zones in New York that are the focus of the Governor’s current COVID-19 management strategy. We may take heart that the key elements of our current plan – mask-wearing, social distancing, hand-washing, avoiding large (especially indoor) gatherings, and extensive testing and tracing — are the key points that Dr. Anthony Fauci and other infectious disease experts continue to emphasize  as the best path for our country to turn the corner on a pandemic that is now raging. We know that families have experienced prolonged separation during this time and we understand the desire to be in community with friends and loved ones but we urge everyone to consider carefully the information provided by health experts as you make holiday plans.

Budget and Budget Forum. Thank you to all who joined our Oct. 15 budget forum and to Vice President Michele Halstead for laying out so clearly the College’s overall budget configuration, the scope of the challenges that we face, and the remaining uncertainties that hinder our forward movement at this time with specific plans and actions. We hope that the information presented and the following discussion helped everyone understand the budget adjustments we will have to make as the year progresses; these are almost certain to be major. The Budget Advisory Committee that Vice President Halstead and Provost Lyman lead has renewed its meetings to continue building the knowledge base among its members so that they can participate in meaningful ways in our budget processes.

We do not know when we will have greater clarity on the SUNY and New York State budget situation or receive guidance on adjusting our expenditures. Rest assured that we will apprise you of new information as it becomes available, via email or if warranted virtual gatherings, along with actions we are contemplating. As we have shared, we will employ a transparent and consultative process to inform our decisions.  For those who missed the budget forum and want to learn more, here is a link to the video recording of the event.

Anti-Racist Initiatives. I am excited that we have launched the “Diversity Fellows” initiative that Provost Lyman will describe in her monthly report, and am impressed with the diverse projects proposed for the initial iteration of this effort – dealing with curriculum and pedagogy, administrative materials and procedures, program development, and other topics. A group of faculty in several STEM departments have been working to build more inclusive pedagogy and classroom environments, and I know that discussions are underway in several faculty venues about developing new courses and curriculum around race, racism and inequity in our country – a need that we heard clearly from students and alumni in earlier town halls. The Diversity and Inclusion Council will engage in professional development in “Restorative Practices” under the leadership of alumna Camille Jacobs, who is deeply engaged in our diversity and equity initiatives (learn about her work here). We are eager to learn more and participate in the recently announced SUNY-wide action plan to increase diversity, equity, and inclusion and to combat racial inequity and division. The recently established Shirley A Chisholm Center for Equity Studies at SUNY Empire State College, directed by former New Paltz faculty member Dr. La Tasha Brown, will play a lead role in that initiative.

Dismantling Racism Town Hall on Nov. 12. I encourage you to participate in the next session in our ongoing series of virtual town hall discussions on dismantling racism with faculty, staff, students, and alumni (4:45-6 p.m.; links to follow). In part, we will share and discuss some of our efforts to dismantle racism including those noted above as well as others described previously like our Bias Reporting and Support Network and the development of UPD’s anti-racist statement. In addition, we should anticipate that irrespective of the outcome of the presidential election (if the outcome is even known by then), many members of our community will be reeling from and want to process the turmoil of our current national political and social climate.

Spring Semester Planning. We received this past weekend a revised draft of spring semester planning guidelines from SUNY, and yesterday SUNY leadership and campus presidents met to discuss the guidelines and spring semester planning. Feedback from presidents will be incorporated into a final version to be completed in the next few days.  Major areas are not expected to change. Our planning to date is generally consistent with those guidelines, with a mix of remote and face-to-face instruction, a ban on spring break as noted above, COVID-19 safety protocols, and clear expectations of quarantining and testing prior to returning to campus for the spring semester.

Our plan retains Jan. 19 as a first day of instruction, with the semester ending on May 13. A significant element of the SUNY guidelines is that all instruction prior to Feb. 1 must be remote, with some exceptions allowed for practicums or hands-on applied/experiential learning that takes place in specialized facilities and/or requires specialized equipment. An inventory of such courses must be submitted for SUNY approval no later than Dec. 1. Planning any face-to-face laboratory or studio instruction to be offered before Feb. 1 will be a major topic of discussion of the academic planning group.

The SUNY guidelines also include strong expectations for regular and substantive interaction between faculty and students in remote instruction – pertinent to some of the concerns we have heard from students, as noted above – and expanded training and orientation for both students and faculty in online instruction. We will share with you our campus plans when they are more fully developed and before we submit them to SUNY.

Holiday Receptions. It is probably obvious, but we will not be able to hold our traditional holiday receptions next month – for Academic and Professional Faculty, Retired Faculty, and M/C employees at the President’s residence – and the Classified Staff Appreciation and Recognition Holiday Luncheon in the MPR. We will miss these opportunities for fellowship, conversation, and appreciation and look forward to a future year when we can be together. Look for a slide show recognizing years of service of Classified Staff in the Daily Digest.

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


Donald P. Christian