President’s Report to the Academic and Professional Faculty

Dec. 7, 2020 (in advance of Dec. 9 Faculty Senate meeting)

First and foremost, I offer my deep and heartfelt thanks to the campus community for achieving a successful fall semester as we draw to a close. Some were skeptical that we could reach Thanksgiving and the planned pivot to a remote semester wrap-up without a premature end to an on-campus presence driven by a major COVID-19 outbreak. I believe our success can be attributed to all of these factors:

  • our detailed, thorough, and multi-faceted planning;
  • extensive volunteer effort by employees and students that drove our testing and tracing endeavors;
  • ongoing outreach and connection with students to achieve strong compliance with health and safety protocols;
  • the investment of time, effort and care by so many faculty to prepare for effective remote instruction, and the professional development offered by Information Technology Services – especially the Office of Instructional Technology, the Faculty Development Center, and the DASH Lab;
  • the work by faculty, staff, and student personnel to connect with and support on- and off-campus students during difficult times;
  • the seriousness with which our students and employees took our “Protect New Paltz” Pledge and embodied the “We Not Me” spirit of care for each other’s health and well-being;
  • additional work by frontline custodial employees to keep campus spaces clean and safe;
  • the dedication of those whose jobs require them to be on campus during a pandemic, along with the willingness of others to work remotely and for some to come to campus periodically to keep the university functioning – here I’d like to give a shout out of gratitude to our frontline Student Affairs, Student Services, Residence Life, Student Health Service, Psychological Counseling, Sodexo, Facilities Management, Emergency Management, Environmental Health & Safety, Information Technology Services, University Police and Print and Mail Room employees and those faculty who masked up to offer in-person instruction.
  • our good working relationships with village, town and county officials and the partnership we forged early in the pandemic with those community leaders and the county health department to protect not only the campus community but our neighbors in the broader New Paltz community. In a recent news article, Village of New Paltz Mayor Tim Rogers said he believes the college has done a good job because of its approach to the pandemic. In his words: “I think that the college administration and the students on campus have taken this very seriously, and that’s probably why New Paltz stayed open whereas some colleges … had to close early and moved to all remote. I think the community and the students get it, and people are doing the best they can;”
  • the guidelines and support that SUNY provided as the framework for our plans.

I know that many employees continued their dedicated work under challenging home and family circumstances and that navigating these is still particularly difficult on women as they remain predominately though not exclusively in caretaking roles. Families are trying to manage loss of traditional schooling, loss of after care, day care and summer camp options as well as loss of support services for individuals with special needs, mental health needs and elder care issues. Working through all these with one or more employment obligations has not gone unnoticed. Certainly a highly contentious national political environment was a significant backdrop to pandemic challenges. I am deeply grateful for your commitment to our students and our mission, and your hard work under difficult and stressful conditions. I recently asked an employee “how’s it going?” under these circumstances. This individual responded that it’s hard, then went on to conclude “But it’s really important work.”  That kind of dedication makes me so proud of this community, of what we achieve, and of what we can continue to do in the future.

In this report, I provide several updates as we wind down this semester and look ahead.

Table of Contents:

COVID-19 Update – We are ending the semester with a 0.35% positivity rate with more than 10,700 on campus tests, a handful of residential students in quarantine or isolation, and affected employees recovering, as we watch increases in COVID-19 across the region and country. We made it!!

Spring Semester Planning – Our spring semester re-opening plan has been submitted to SUNY for review and approval, and will be shared broadly with the campus when it is approved. Before submission, we consulted with key campus stakeholders. Plan elements are outlined below; SUNY has issued standards and expectations for assuring the quality of remote instruction.

Enrollment –  Recruitment of students for fall 2021 is underway, winter session enrollments are strong, spring semester enrollment is behind last year but improving.  Efforts are underway to encourage and support eligible continuing students who have not yet registered for spring semester courses.

Budget – No new information to report on expected taxpayer support for SUNY, scale of financial adjustments we face, or potential for federal stimulus funding.

Fall Semester 2021 – We are planning a “pre-pandemic” fall 2021 semester, with options to pivot if serious pandemic-related health concerns demand. A semester with pre-pandemic face-to-face courses offers the best assurance of reaching enrollment goals to sustain our campus economy. Remote instruction will be encouraged and supported to achieve strategic enrollment and academic goals, but we will not continue the same level of individual choice of instructional mode we have employed during the pandemic. Of course, we will accommodate documented health needs and support work-life balance concerns.

Training, Professional Development, and Being a Learning Community – Below, I offer insights into the extensive professional development opportunities that several departments have offered these past few months, many to develop skills and capacities to navigate our work under dramatically changed conditions. It has been rewarding to see so many members of our community seek these new capabilities, modeling for students our capacity as learners. Stay tuned for information about voluntary sessions that Human Resources, Diversity and Inclusion is planning for January 14 and 15.

DACA – We were pleased to learn that a federal judge last week ordered the current administration to begin accepting new applications for the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals program and to reinstate it to its 2017 form.

Middle States Evaluation Team Virtual Visit – Our Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE) Evaluation Team Visit is scheduled for Wednesday, March 24 – Friday, March 26, 2021, entirely virtual. This is a major step in our institutional reaccreditation process.

Anti-Racism Town Hall – The fourth in our anti-racism town hall series was held on Nov. 12, an opportunity for students, faculty, staff, and alumni to reflect on our world in the days after the election. We shared some of the recent actions the College has taken to advance our anti-racism goals. New Paltz alumna Camille Jacobs ’91 led and moderated our discussion, and we plan to continue this series in the spring. A new website catalogs our progress on anti-racist initiatives.

David Eaton and Linda Eaton Retirement– David Eaton, Vice President for Enrollment Management, and Linda Eaton, Associate Vice President of Student Affairs, are retiring at the end of this month after decades (a combined 65 years) of distinguished service to SUNY New Paltz and our students. In recognition of each of their significant and longstanding contributions to the College and the caliber of our academic, enrollment, and student life achievements, I will be presenting David and Linda each with the President’s Medal. This is the highest award the campus can bestow upon an individual.

COVID-19 Update. While our pre-Thanksgiving departure testing resulted in a modest uptick in positive tests, our overall positivity rate today is an enviable 0.35% with 10,727 on-campus tests administered. Consistent with other assessments, we have no indication of in-class transmission of the virus under our required conditions of reduced density, social-distancing, and mask-wearing. A handful of residential students are in quarantine or isolation, and employees who tested positive who I have spoken with are recovering well; some from earlier in the semester are back at work. Nonetheless, we are watching the significant increases in positive test results and hospitalizations in Ulster County, other parts of the Hudson Valley and New York, and across the U.S. These are reminders that our spring semester plans will require the same vigilance and care and remain contingent on state and local health directives.

Spring Semester Planning. We learned many lessons and gained feedback from students and employees that inform our spring planning, and give us confidence that we can have a spring semester with in-person presence similar to that of the fall – dependent on the pandemic’s course over the next month and a half.

New Paltz students shared perceptions about their fall semester experience on the recent SUNY-wide survey. Their most frequent responses about things we could have improved were:

  • improve the quality of online instruction;
  • provide more breaks in the fall semester; and
  • alleviate the overwhelming course workload.

Our students’ main concerns about spring 2021 are:

  • COVID-19 (presumably their own and the community’s health and safety);
  • the quality of online instruction;
  • having a break (see Interim Provost Lyman’s report last week about expectations for scheduling course assignments so that “Mind, Body, Spirit” Days are actual breaks for students).

We submitted our spring semester plan to SUNY for review last week, ahead of the December 10 deadline. We consulted faculty and student governance leaders and UUP campus leadership for feedback on the draft plan. We will share the plan in full once it is approved by SUNY leadership. Key elements are:

  • of course, continuation of mask-wearing, social-distancing, hand-washing/sanitizing, gathering size limits, and other health and safety measures;
  • a mix of remote, hybrid, and on-campus course offerings similar to this fall, and which SUNY requires be publicized on the College’s website;
  • with few exceptions (pending approval by SUNY), all instruction prior to Feb. 1 will be remote;
  • mandated testing and quarantining before/upon arrival on campus;
  • regular surveillance testing throughout the semester;
  • no spring break as mandated by SUNY guidelines but carefully structured Mind-Body-Spirit Days throughout the semester.

SUNY has issued standards and expectations for assuring the quality of remote instruction. Interim Provost Lyman’s report to the faculty last week and her further communication on Friday, Dec. 4, explain those requirements.

Our commencement planning committee has begun considering possible ceremony formats, which will be heavily contingent on the pandemic’s status in May and on SUNY and New York State and county health department guidelines, including allowable gathering size.

Enrollment. With nearly 80% of our campus operating revenue stemming from tuition and fees, our financial welfare and future are heavily dependent on sustaining and growing enrollment. As a result, we are tracking numbers carefully and taking key actions – beginning with the most immediate priorities of winter session and spring semester. At the same time, we are working to recruit new students for fall 2021, and to provide positive experiences for current students so those not graduating will return in the fall. Admissions personnel tell us that our highly effective management of COVID-19 this fall is a point of conversation with prospective students and their families – and is seen as a recruitment asset.

Our winter session enrollments are strong and slightly ahead of last year. Spring semester enrollments are lagging behind last year, reflecting in part fall-to-spring retention that – at least to date – is lower than in other recent years for first-year, transfer, all continuing undergraduates, and both new and continuing graduate students. Some of that lag may reflect registration for spring courses beginning a week later this year, as we have moved from being 12% behind last spring’s numbers two weeks ago to only 8% at the end of last week.  A survey of those students eligible to register who haven’t done so yet indicates that many still plan to register for the spring semester.  Because these are difficult times with many uncertainties to navigate, it behooves us to work actively and collectively with each of our students to assist them with their educational planning. Registrar Stella Turk has shared information with Department Chairs about current students who have not registered for spring, asking for outreach to encourage these students to enroll and to explore possible barriers (financial, advising, course availability, etc.) to be overcome.

Budget. Beyond our attention to enrollment and tuition revenue generation, we have no new information about our budget, the direct New York State taxpayer support that SUNY will receive, or the scale of the financial adjustments we face. Certainly New York State tax revenues continue to lag, with COVID-19 economic impacts compounding a significant deficit that the state was already facing early in 2020. There are some signs of movement on a new federal COVID-19 stimulus package, but the amounts likely to receive bipartisan support are modest and perhaps unlikely to include significant support for higher education.

As always, we will keep you informed as information becomes available to us.

Fall Semester 2021. Chairs, departments, and deans have begun planning course offerings for fall 2021. Our starting point is to plan a “pre-pandemic” fall semester, recognizing that serious pandemic-related health concerns continuing into mid-summer may demand a pivot to a mix of face-to-face, hybrid, and remote instruction similar to the current academic year. But – absent significant pandemic health threats — a “return to normal” semester gives us the best assurance of reaching enrollment goals that will sustain our campus economy and fiscal health.

I believe most are aware that few colleges and universities, within SUNY and throughout the nation, provided faculty with the freedom of choice about instructional mode that we have done, in both fall and spring. We will certainly continue to support documented health reasons for some faculty to teach remotely. We will also continue efforts of HRDI, deans, and supervisors to address work/life balance concerns through the tools available to us. But once COVID-19 health threats subside, we will not sustain the same level of individual choice of instructional mode we have employed during the pandemic.

Our future financial well-being will almost certainly be enhanced by expanding our remote offerings and programs in strategic ways that advance our academic mission and extend our outreach to new groups or categories of students. That might include program-level offerings like our online Bachelor’s in General Studies (currently in the approval pipeline) or well-informed decisions to offer sections of particular courses or programs remotely to grow enrollment or to alleviate documented constraints of physical classroom availability or room size. But student as well as program and institutional need and priority, not individual faculty preference, will be the primary drivers of such decisions by chairs, deans and the Provost. As we have long reinforced, our residential nature and the caliber of in-person interactions, including between students and professors, must remain a core strength, even as we diversify our remote and extended offerings to meet the region’s and state’s higher education needs. But with declining numbers of high school graduates and rising numbers of non-traditional age students seeking higher education opportunities, we must immediately plan and project a mix of programming that attracts new students to maintain a healthy campus economy. New insights regarding the value of online instruction garnered during this pandemic mean we have more faculty and academic leaders with the experience and expertise to grow such instruction in incremental and thoughtful ways.

Training, Professional Development, and Being a Learning Community. As a prelude to the voluntary professional development opportunities that Human Resources, Diversity and Inclusion (HRDI) is planning for January 14 and 15 (information forthcoming), I want to report on training that the College has provided the past few months – and my respect and admiration for the way that faculty and staff have seized upon those enrichments. Your active participation in these professional development opportunities reflects significantly on our core purpose as a learning institution, fostering an empathetic culture with a capacity for individual and collective growth. These programs built on the required search committee training we initiated in fall 2019, the extensive, heavily attended, and well-received training offered in January 2020, and the mandatory diversity and inclusion training that you’ve completed. Many of those pre-dated the COVID-19 pandemic and the need for many to develop new skills and capacities to navigate our work under dramatically changed conditions. It has been rewarding to see members of our campus community seek new capabilities, and take on the challenges of the pandemic by zealously and consistently trying to lean into our capacity as learners, serving as role models for our students. I recognize the vulnerability in raising our hand and saying that we don’t know or that we need help.

HRDI Programs. Since March 2020, HRDI has provided 78 open training opportunities on more than 40 different topics ranging from policy and procedure updates related to the pandemic, to technology for remote work, to professional development like managing conflict or honing listening skills. Total attendance was 1,324 participants (an average of 17 per session) from all parts of the campus community, including students. A major focus in the daily training from March 16 to May 15 was to support faculty and staff who were learning skills and tools to perform their roles remotely. HRDI continued to develop new training over the summer in response to requests to meet particular campus needs.

Those numbers do not include participants in the “Manager’s Toolkit” cohort program, which also ran across this time frame, or the orientation programming or customized retreats and workshops for individual units/divisions that HRDI provided this spring, summer, and fall.

Information Technology Services (ITS)/Office of Instructional Technology (OIT) Programs. The pandemic-driven pivot to remote instruction in the spring and the continuing demand this fall forced major advances in becoming a more technologically literate institution. As noted above in our planning for fall 2021, in-person teaching and learning will and must remain key once we move beyond the health and safety constraints imposed by COVID-19. But, as noted elsewhere, the technological progress we made this year positions us to diversify modes of instruction and innovate in program delivery to reach more (and diverse) Hudson Valley and New York students – and to do so with the high-quality teaching and learning for which we are known.

The Office of Instructional Technology (OIT), sometimes in partnership with Instructional Media Services or other units, mobilized to provide an impressive and diverse array of training for faculty and students to support our instruction, especially remote instruction even as we know of “lessons learned” in remote teaching and learning that can be applied to future in-person instruction. Several highlights include the development of two complete courses:

  • Developing a Blended Learning Course: an eight-module training on principles and best practices of online teaching and learning and the process of designing and developing an online course; this course was demonstrated on a SUNY-wide webinar, and materials were shared with two other SUNY campuses.
  • Student Online Learning Orientation: a five-module orientation and training resource for students to learn what to anticipate in an online course and to familiarize them with the major learning tools, assignment types, and assessment formats. This training terminates in an optional final exam with a certificate and badge for the student to share with instructors who require this training.

Between mid-March and mid-October, ITS – primarily OIT – offered more than 60 workshops on individual topics, all online since March 13, in addition to frequent individual remote drop-in sessions in March, throughout June and July, and in the fall semester. Examples of individual training include:

  • Blackboard Basic, Collaborate (including Ultra Breakouts), Assignments, Quickstart, Groups, Rubrics
  • Narrating PPT/Ensemble
  • Tests
  • Creating and Grading Assignments
  • OneDrive
  • Grade Drop-In
  • Orientation for the Blended Learning Training
  • Creating a Consistent Online Environment
  • Improving Course Communication
  • LinkedIn Learning and Open Educational Resources
  • Recording Lectures and Screen Captures
  • Knowmia Training
  • Webex Breakout Rooms and Blackboard Integration

OIT staff also provided specialized training that included setting up a Blackboard community for peer mentoring and tutoring programs in several departments; assisting EOP with creating Blackboard sites for new-student orientation; developing and offering introductions to Blackboard and instructional technology as part of new first-year student orientation. To continue building our capacity, these staff also evaluated and selected recording and screen-capture resources and provided training in their use; collaborated with other units to create “extended virtual learning” capability, and refined our default course shell, tailored in part to support faculty with little or no Blackboard experience.

I wish to thank Tanhena Pacheco Dunn, Ginger Jurecka Blake, Anneliese Kniffin, and John Reina, Kate Bohan, Rich McElrath, Troy Ellick, and their ITS and HRDI colleagues for their leadership and herculean efforts in this realm. I also want to call out the extensive and valuable complementary programming provided by Sarah Wyman and the Faculty Development Center and by Melissa Rock and the DASH (Digital Arts, Sciences and Humanities) Lab.

DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). It is heartening that last week a federal judge ordered the Trump Administration to begin accepting new applications for the DACA program that means so much to many of our students, their families and their communities.  The judge also ordered the administration to restore the program to its 2017 form, prior to announcing its plans to end the program. The ruling may allow hundreds of thousands of people to apply for DACA for the first time. One estimate is that 646,000 people currently have DACA and that an additional 685,000 meet the criteria to apply. President-Elect Biden has separately pledged to reinstate DACA.

Middle States Evaluation Team Virtual Visit. SUNY New Paltz’s Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE) Evaluation Team Visit is scheduled for Wednesday, March 24 – Friday, March 26, 2021, entirely virtual. A team of volunteer peer evaluators from MSCHE member institutions will evaluate our college, drawing upon the evidence and analysis in our self-study report and insights gained from interviews with faculty, students, staff, administrators, College Council members, and other College community members. Those meetings will confirm, clarify, and enrich information provided in the self-study report and provide additional perspective for the evaluators.

On the final day of the visit, the Team Chair will present an oral exit report to the campus. For each standard, the chair 1) will indicate whether, in the judgment of the team, the College appears to meet the standard; 2) may offer recommendations for improvement or requirements if non-compliance is indicated; and 3) may identify significant accomplishments, progress, or exemplary or innovative practices for each standard. The Team’s assessments are preliminary until the Commission finalizes its conclusions at its June 2021 meeting.

We will provide further information about faculty and staff participation in this process well in advance of the site visit.

Anti-Racism Town Hall. We held the fourth in our anti-racism town hall series on Nov. 12, titled “Dismantling Racism: Checking in Post-Election,” an opportunity for students, faculty, staff, and alumni to reflect on our world in the days after the election. To frame our conversation, we shared in advance some of the recent actions the College has taken to advance our anti-racism goals. New Paltz alumna Camille Jacobs ’91 led and moderated our discussion. Camille is an educator and restorative justice thought leader, deeply engaged with her alma mater and our diversity and inclusion work. Her words helped frame our discussion: “We all have to work towards creating a future at New Paltz different than we have now; a restorative community.” You may read more about this session and Camille here.  We plan to continue this series in the spring, with Camille’s involvement and guidance. She also is working with our Diversity and Inclusion Council on restorative practices that are applicable to advancing the work of the Council.

The Office of Communication and Marketing has created a website to catalog progress on our anti-racist initiatives, which we believe will be helpful in ensuring that interested alumni and other members of our community can remain informed about this work.

David Eaton and Linda Eaton Retirement. I believe most are aware that David Eaton, Vice President for Enrollment Management, and Linda Eaton, Associate Vice President of Student Affairs, are retiring at the end of this month after decades (a combined 65 years) of distinguished service to SUNY New Paltz and our students. I am deeply grateful that in response to my request they delayed their retirements by six months to provide continuity and stability as we planned and then navigated fall semester during the COVID-19 pandemic. In recognition of each of their significant and longstanding contributions to the College and the caliber of our academic, enrollment, and student life achievements, I will be presenting David and Linda each with the President’s Medal. This is the highest award the campus can bestow upon an individual. While I had hoped to have a presentation ceremony this month, the recent upticks in COVID-19 make that unwise, so we will present these awards during the Eatons’ planned visit to New York in May. I certainly wish them a long, happy, and healthy retirement.

Wishing everyone a successful closure to a semester like none we have experienced before. I also wish you a safe, happy, and restorative holiday season, knowing that many will miss some of the usual festivities and company of friends and family that make this season special. To return to wisdom from “The Lord of the Rings,” “even darkness must pass.”

I will be available to respond to questions and comments at this week’s Faculty meeting.


Donald P. Christian

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