President’s Report to the Academic and Professional Faculty

Feb. 1, 2021 (in advance of Feb. 3 Faculty Senate Meeting)

I wish everyone a healthy, safe, and engaging beginning to the in-person spring 2021 semester. I know that we continue to work under stressful and trying conditions, and I appreciate your dedication to our students and colleagues and to our academic mission. Below, I provide several updates of current and planned activities this semester along with several important updates that will inform our work.

Table of Contents:

COVID-19 and the Spring 2021 Semester – Reminders of expectations and guidance in place for a successful spring semester, including regular and substantive interactions in remote courses; a request for leniency as students complete required return-to-campus COVID-19 testing.

Welcome to Jeff Gant, Vice President for Enrollment Management – Jeff joined us on January 4, is developing plans and actions to advance goals of increasing recruitment, retention and revenue generation.

Budget Update – Governor Cuomo’s Executive Budget, which includes expectation of $6B federal support for New York, is very positive for SUNY, proposing only 5% recurring cuts in state taxpayer support, though much could change between now and March 31. We still face major challenges related to major revenue losses this year and last, and uncertainties about tuition and fee revenues, on top of our pre-pandemic budget deficit.  More detail about budget terms and process below.

Strategic Planning and the Strategic Planning and Assessment Council (SPAC) – We are finalizing several key priorities and specific initiatives for the SPAC this spring, along with work this group has been addressing throughout the year. Brief description of significant external forces that must be factored into our strategic planning.

Professional Development Updates – Participation in the January training days was outstanding. HRDI is responding to departmental requests for other professional development sessions, and will be launching other programs this spring (see below).

Scholarship Awards and Campaign Update –The SUNY New Paltz Foundation anticipates awarding more than $1 million in scholarship support to more than 400 students this year, a dramatic recent increase. Increasing scholarship support is a priority of our ongoing and very successful Soaring Higher: The Campaign for SUNY New Paltz fund-raising campaign.

Retention and Graduation Statistics – Our most recent statistics show first-year retention and six-year graduation rates well above national averages for public universities,

Social Mobility Index – SUNY New Paltz continues to rank in the top 3% of 1,447 colleges and universities in an index of impact on upward socioeconomic mobility of our graduates. More detail below.

Anti-Racism Efforts  – Note tomorrow evening’s “Continuing the Conversation: Anti-Racism in the Classroom” discussion sponsored by Black Lives Matter at School initiative and watch for more BLM events this month. A next session in our town hall series on anti-racism is being planned for later in February, during Black History month, to be led again by alumna Camille Jacobs ’91 (Communication Media) .

Spring Distinguished Speaker Series – Stay tuned for more detail on this spring’s presentation by Zaheer Ali, oral historian and scholar of Malcolm X, April 12.

COVID-19 and the Spring 2021 Semester. Testing. Our spring semester is off to a strong start as we embrace new directives from SUNY for students to have completed daily screenings for two weeks before arrival, quarantined before returning to campus; presented a negative result from a COVID-19 test taken within three days of return to campus or five days after arrival – as a requirement before participating in face-to-face instruction or other on-campus activities; and for us to test all students and employees every week they are on campus throughout the semester, beginning Feb. 8. Our fall semester volunteer-led pool testing (thank you, Assistant Athletic Director Keith Kenney and our many volunteers) was smooth and well-run, and our “return” testing is also volunteer-led and running well, with low positivity rates. While testing our entire on-campus population weekly will be a lift, we believe it will be readily manageable.

Chancellor Malatras’ visit to campus on Monday, Jan. 25. His visit included observing our testing set-up, discussing spring semester start-up plans, and exploring further support and guidance that SUNY might provide. He was extremely complimentary about the effectiveness of our campus efforts to keep COVID-19 under control, and about the collaboration across SUNY to manage the pandemic. He shared that since the pandemic began, SUNY has administered more than 700,000 on-campus tests with a positivity rate of 0.57% — noting that if we were a State, our record would be envied by many other states. New Paltz return-to-campus testing has so far been returning positivity rates below 1%. The Chancellor also reiterated a point I have also shared:  that there is zero evidence of in-classroom transmission of COVID-19 under the conditions we have in place and no evidence of transmission at our testing site.

We Not Me. In my media comments during that visit, I reiterated my faith in the ability of our campus to continue exercising a “We Not Me” mentality to safeguard the health of those around us. I also shared my understanding that we are asking a lot of our community to be tested every week, and my hope that we all understand that it’s a privilege to have access to COVID-19 testing, when many people in many communities and states cannot easily access tests. That said, we know the strain this is producing and call on your patience and mutual support during these difficult times.

Instructional guidance and expectations. Interim Provost Lyman has shared information and guidance about our start of in-person instruction, and about expectations for regular and substantive interaction between instructional faculty and students in remote courses. Those guidelines are outlined in our spring 2021 reopening plan, along with further information about resources for both faculty and students. In addition, Interim Provost Lyman and Vice President Stephanie Blaisdell provided guidance to faculty that included consequences for students who do not follow existing and new COVID policies this spring, such as testing before attending class, and Interim Provost Lyman shared expectations for regular and substantive interaction  between instructional faculty and students in remote courses in her December Report to the Faculty.

We ask that faculty be lenient in creating opportunities for students to make up any work they may miss during the first week of in-person class, prior to being tested.

Welcome to Jeff Gant, Vice President for Enrollment Management. Jeff Gant joined us on January 4 and has been working hard, both virtually and on campus, to meet staff, learn about the work of units within the division, and refine some of his ideas for ongoing improvement, including in reaching our enrollment goals. He oversees Academic Advising/Center for Student Success, Records and Registration, Scholars Mentorship Program, Student Accounts, Student Financial Services, Undergraduate Admissions, and Veteran and Military Services. In addition, Jeff will serve as my representative to the Campus Auxiliary Services Board. Later this month, he will share a report with the campus community about some of his vision for roles that faculty and staff can play in achieving our goals of increasing student recruitment and retention.

Budget Update. Governor Andrew Cuomo recently released his Executive Budget for New York State. This is always the first step – and a very significant one – in the annual budget process, to be followed in mid-March by “one-house budget resolutions” from the New York State Assembly and Senate, and subsequently considerable advocacy and negotiation leading up to the development of a final 2021-22 budget, with a March 31 deadline. We stand ready to support SUNY’s cohesive efforts with campus leaders to advocate with the Legislature on SUNY’s behalf.

We must not lose sight of several significant realities:

  • We were already in the midst of a multi-year plan to fix a structural budget deficit when COVID-19 hit;
  • Tuition rates remained flat this year, as in 2016 – the first year of five years we encountered significant budget challenges;
  • We incurred significant losses last spring through refunds of room and board fees and CARES Act funding made only a small dent;
  • Our reduced residence hall occupancy and enrollment mean diminished revenues this year.

This means we will be dealing with major financial challenges even if the NYS budget is favorable to SUNY because nearly 80% of our revenue comes from tuition and fees.

The Governor’s Executive Budget is positive for SUNY. SUNY was expecting a $300-$400M cut to state-operating support, but this cut now stands at 5% or $69M. The initial scenario is based on NYS receiving $6B from the federal government under a recovery package; if recovery funding is greater, the NYS and SUNY budget scenario may be even more positive (of course, it goes the other way if federal support is less). Other key elements of the Executive Budget are:

  • The 20% direct taxpayer support that has been withheld since March 2020 will be restored. Moving forward, taxpayer support will be cut by 5%. For New Paltz – if this level of reduction were to hold – that means a recurring, annual reduction of about $800,000 (5% of $15.99M). We must not trivialize the impact of such a cut, as it is ongoing and on top of the known budget shortfalls and revenue uncertainties noted above that we must overcome;
  • The Executive Budget holds harmless Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) and Educational Opportunity Program funding. The Excelsior Scholarship Program remains but with some changes. Tuition under the Excelsior program would be frozen at the current rate for the next two years, after which it might be reset;
  • The Executive Budget would create a $50M COVID recovery fund for which SUNY is eligible, along with other state agencies;
  • Continuation and extension of the Maintenance of Effort (year-to-year state tax support will remain static, after the 5% reduction) and predictable tuition of up to $200/year has been extended for 4 years;
  • Full support of State-operated campus employee benefits and bonded capital debt service costs;
  • $550M for capital, same as recent years;
  • In a significant policy change, the Executive Budget includes a request for SUNY to be able to approve our own programs, eliminating State Education Department (SED) approval. This would be a game-changer in the ability of campuses to be more nimble in putting forward new proposals to meet student and workforce demand. This would require a change in NYS Education Law and is expected to be controversial; and
  • Collective bargaining increases would be delayed until April 2023; it is possible that we will be required to set aside those funds on an ongoing basis, so that delay is unlikely to help alleviate our budget challenges, while it will certainly negatively impact family finances of our employees.

Again, I want to be sure it is clear that this is merely the starting point in a complex process that will play out over the next two months, and that even with full or partial restoration of our budget, we have a significant structural deficit to repair. We will keep you posted as new developments are known. In the meantime, the Budget Advisory Council continues to meet with Vice President Michele Halstead and Interim Provost Lyman. We are in regular contact with SUNY government relations officials about the appropriate roles that campus leadership can play in our budget advocacy; we recognize the political sensibilities surrounding this process and the potential negative impacts of unintended missteps on our desired outcomes.

Strategic Planning and the Strategic Planning and Assessment Council (SPAC). I have asked several schools to use their governance processes to identify new members of the SPAC to replace those whose terms have expired or will at the semester’s end. The President’s Cabinet and Associate Provost Laurel M. Garrick Duhaney have met and will soon finalize several key priorities and specific initiatives for the SPAC this spring, along with the work SPAC has been addressing throughout the year.

COVID-19 has dominated much of our planning since March, and almost certainly will require considerable attention for some time. But several external forces influencing higher education predated and have been exacerbated by the pandemic, and almost certainly will not be relieved as we emerge from the pandemic. We must continue to grapple with these factors:

  • Demographic changes that threaten enrollments;
  • Systemic racism;
  • Rising educational costs, coupled with flat or diminishing public financial support, challenging the ability of families to pay;
  • Ongoing public skepticism about the value of higher education, perhaps especially liberal/liberal arts education; and
  • Intensified competition.

These and other environmental factors will almost certainly demand that we be open to substantive change if we are to serve students for the future, and must be explicit elements of our strategic planning.

Professional Development Updates. I am grateful to all who took advantage of the voluntary professional development opportunities on January 14-15 as learners, and to those who shared their knowledge and expertise in these sessions as trainers. Nearly 200 people had registered, and 98% of registrants took part – despite Zoom/WebEx and pandemic fatigue! Participants included adjunct faculty, classified staff, Management-Confidential, academic and professional faculty, and graduate students. HRDI staff are reviewing feedback from participants to inform further opportunities, and have received multiple requests for department-based services and consultations.

A third cohort of the “Manager’s Toolkit” training (all virtual) will run from March until August; those taking on managerial roles or seeking to strengthen their skills have found this series very beneficial. The “Learning Module” of the People Admin project will start on Feb. 15. Stay tuned for further information about these opportunities.

Scholarship Awards and Campaign Update. We are keenly aware that even in pre-pandemic times, many of our students and their families struggled with financing their education, as direct taxpayer support has remained stagnant, and tuition and fees have increased (and the Perkins Loan program that we used to package financial aid for many low-income students went away). The impact of COVID-19 on family finances of many of our students has exacerbated that pre-existing condition. This is the context in which the availability of scholarship support is so critical to our students and to our institution.

I am pleased to share our progress the past few years in raising and distributing scholarship support through the SUNY New Paltz Foundation. In 2014-15, when we launched our “Major Gifts Initiative,” which was the start of our first-ever comprehensive fund-raising campaign, the Foundation awarded about $276,000 to just under 100 students. During the current year, we are on track to award more than $1 million to more than 400 students. That growth is due in large part to the generous support of alumni and other donors – including many faculty and staff – to expand our financial support, including several who supported “challenge” grants to encourage others to give.

In addition, Development staff, along with campus partners, have worked hard to ensure that we are exercising all approved options to award funds. For example, one longstanding scholarship is designated for graduates of two high schools, long interpreted to be limited to incoming first-year students. But the terms of the gift agreement allow an award to a community college transfer student who graduated from that high school, giving an additional degree of freedom in awarding those funds.

Soaring Higher: The Campaign for SUNY New Paltz continues to be highly successful and will continue through the rest of this fiscal year. Raising further funds to support student scholarships will remain a top priority for the remainder of this campaign.

Retention and Graduation Statistics. I am always excited to update you with the latest statistics on our first-year retention and six-year graduation rates – because they are high, and, as I have shared before, achievement gaps are small to non-existent compared with national averages. This graph shows first- to second-year retention (national average is for public universities):

And here are six-year graduation rates:

For further comparative context, the national average six-year graduation rate for Pell Grant recipients at public universities is 44.2%, and the national average for publics (like us) that accept 25-49.9% of applicants it is 56.4%.

These are key educational outcomes that reflect the high caliber of our programs, the dedication and hard work of our students, and the support, care, and attention that teaching faculty, professional staff, and other employees pay to our students and their academic and personal success. We should take pride in these achievements, at the same time recognize that continuing to increase retention and graduation and reduce any achievement gaps should be part of our goals for being an inclusive institution. A recent analysis expressed deep concern about long-term impacts of federal plans to support and incentivize college attendance without accompany plans to ensure successful completion.

Social Mobility Index. We continue to rank in the top 3% of 1,449 U. S. colleges and universities in CollegeNET’s Social Mobility Index, which measures “the extent to which a college or university educates more economically disadvantaged students (with family incomes below the national median) at lower tuition and graduates them into good paying jobs.” We join Buffalo State and three SUNY University Centers (U Albany, Stony Brook University, Binghamton University) in the top 50 in that ranking. The criteria that place these campuses are worth noting. Relatively low SUNY tuition is a factor in our strong ranking; college cost and family financial background are the most sensitive variables in the CollegeNET analysis. Buffalo State has the highest percentage of low-income students and first-year Pell recipients; we are intermediate among the five SUNY campuses on those measures. Graduates of the University Centers have higher early career salaries than Buff State and New Paltz. New Paltz, Binghamton, and Stony Brook have the highest graduation rates. This Social Mobility Index also measures the percentage of Pell awards made to students from families with annual incomes of $48,000 or more. Lower is better, and New Paltz’s 14.3% is lower than for the others. Our graduates also have the lowest average loan debt among these campuses.

CollegeNET offers the sobering analysis that the chances of today’s 35-year-old earning more than their parents when they were 35 is now less than 50%, down from 85-90% a generation ago. Further, CollegeNET points out that today’s college-educated 35-year-old likely labors under far more loan debt than their parents. The prospects of upward mobility for today’s generation are disheartening. Such considerations underscore the social-justice significance of our positioning on this index, and the great impact of our attention to student success, financial support, and providing high-quality education while containing costs.

Anti-Racism Efforts. I call your attention to tomorrow evening’s “Continuing the Conversation: Anti-Racism in the Classroom” discussion sponsored by the Black Lives Matter at School initiative and watch for more BLM events this month. A next session in our town hall series on anti-racism is being planned for later in February, during Black History month, to be led again by alumna Camille Jacobs ’91 (Communication Media).

Spring Distinguished Speaker Series. Our Distinguished Speaker Series (DSS) connects alumni, community members, friends, faculty, staff, students and their families with well-known authors, policy makers and leaders, scientists, media experts, business people, and other luminaries. The SUNY New Paltz Foundation received a generous gift from a private donor to underwrite part of this series. Our first virtual DSS this fall proved to be very effective.

Mark your calendars for this spring’s presentation by oral historian Zaheer Ali (, April 12, 5:00-6:00 p.m. (title and further detail forthcoming). Mr. Ali’s current work focuses on the power of American Muslim storytelling to spur social and cultural change. He has held numerous fellowships, served as Oral Historian at Brooklyn Historical Society, and is an adjunct faculty member at New York University. He was Project Manager of Columbia University’s Malcolm X Project and is a scholar of Malcolm X. We were introduced to Mr. Ali by our alumna Ilyasah Shabazz’85 (Biology), daughter of Malcolm X and educator Dr. Betty Shabazz, and herself a 2019 DSS speaker.

I look forward to seeing you at the Faculty Senate meeting on Wednesday where I will be available to respond to questions and comments about this report or other topics.

Donald P. Christian