President’s Report to the Academic and Professional Faculty

Feb. 28, 2022 (in advance of Mar. 2 Faculty Senate Meeting)

I prepared this month’s report keenly aware that it is one of three remaining in my tenure as your president. The number and diversity of items I share reflect the many dynamics we are working through, including financial challenges, but also the vibrancy and high caliber of our campus and the good work of our faculty, staff, and students – at a time that I know COVID-19 constraints continue to test everyone’s limits (but see below for some heartening news on that front!). I have been impressed with the engagement of the campus in our presidential search and am heartened by the prospects for attracting a great next leader. Here I provide updates on recent news and developments.

Table of Contents:

SUNY Budget Advocacy – We have met with our legislators to advocate for increased funding for SUNY, including key elements of the Executive Budget and SUNY priorities for funding beyond the Governor’s proposal; that advocacy continues.

Indoor Masking Policies – In light of last week’s revised CDC COVID-19 management guidelines, we will re-evaluate our indoor mask mandate; any change in policy requires consultation with county health department.

Senate Resolution on Strategic Plan Essential Initiatives Below, I outline the rationale for my decision not to support recent Senate resolution to add “DEI” and “Sustainability” as strategic plan essential initiatives.

Accepted Students Open Houses, March 26th and April 2nd – Faculty and staff are encouraged to engage with prospective students and their families, part of our effort to increase yield of accepted students.

Sojourner Truth Sculpture – Building on Vice President Erica Marks’ and my apology and acknowledgment of our errors in process as we launched this project, we will be undertaking discussion this spring about that process. Those discussions will focus on lessons learned, how as a campus we can do better in the future, and a hope for achieving some reconciliation before any discussion about the sculpture itself. We have begun that conversation with Black Studies.

Fulbright Top Producer – SUNY New Paltz has been included on the U.S. Department of State 2021-22 list of “Top Producers” of U.S. Fulbright Scholars.

Mid-Hudson Regional Economic Development Council – As part of my runway to retirement, I am stepping down as Chair of the Council; below I outline some of the work of the Council and its relationship to the regional role and profile of SUNY New Paltz.

Upcoming Events – See below for events of interest to faculty and to share with students.

SUNY Budget Advocacy. I shared in last month’s report key elements of Gov. Kathy Hochul’s Executive Budget that is more favorable to SUNY than any I have seen during my time as president. The Executive Budget is the first step in the development of a final (“Enacted”) New York State budget. Most recently, we have been advocating with NYS legislators to support – and go beyond – Gov. Hochul’s proposed generous support for SUNY. Given the anticipated demands of the presidential search on my time, we scheduled meetings with our Senator and Assemblymember early, before finalist campus interviews began. We met on Feb. 11, ahead of the legislators’ deadline for submitting letters to the relevant budget committees. As a result of redistricting, our campus next year will move from current Sen. Mike Martucci’s district to that of Sen. Michelle Hinchey, daughter of alumnus and late Congressman Maurice Hinchey; we anticipate speaking with her soon to advocate for her support this year and in the future. I also anticipate attending a SUNY legislative reception in Albany in March – in advance of likely legislative action on the budget – to continue this advocacy.

In those conversations, I encouraged support for all major parts of the proposed Executive Budget that will benefit our campus, highlighting in particular the $2.5-3 million annual benefit of accelerating the elimination of the “TAP gap” along with readjusting tuition reimbursement rates for Excelsior Scholarship recipients to current year tuition, leading to more campus revenue.

Beyond the Executive Budget, I also endorsed and supported SUNY advocacy for funding items particularly relevant to state-operated comprehensive campuses like New Paltz, including:

  • Fund additional faculty positions as proposed by the Governor, but require the State to pay the full cost of employee benefits (rather than having benefits, along with salary, funded from the Governor’s proposed allocations, which would greatly reduce the number of faculty SUNY could hire);
  • Invest $500 million in additional State-operated capital funding to support new construction and critical maintenance, including enacting a funded five-year capital plan (rather than year-by-year capital funding). You’ll recall how New Paltz campus infrastructure benefited from the 2008-2013 5-year plan;
  • Stabilize the funding floor and expand taxpayer support for community colleges, of broad educational relevance to New Yorkers and critical to our recruitment of transfer students;
  • Provide $25 million in further direct taxpayer support for state-operated campuses to support ongoing costs, replacing the revenue that would be generated by a $200 resident undergraduate tuition increase (if historical SUNY allocation patterns hold true, this would generate >$1 million for the New Paltz campus budget);
  • Increase support for Opportunity Programs by 20%, rather than the 10% included in the Executive Budget;
  • Provide an additional $1 million for SUNY mental health services, to total $2 million;
  • Provide an additional $1.5 million for SUNY services for students with disabilities, to total $2 million.

I also highlighted our campus priorities for new construction and critical maintenance, including renovation of College Hall from a combination residence hall/academic building to entirely academic; renovate Elting Gym and replace the aging pool that is critical not only to campus programs but also the broader New Paltz community; and construct a new academic building to chip away at our outsized academic space deficit.

We will continue to advocate and respond to requests for further information from our elected officials and their staff through the remainder of the budget process.

Indoor Masking Policies. As communicated last week, SUNY modified its spring semester COVID-19 guidance to allow campuses to consider lifting indoor mask mandates. The revised guidance is also clear that campuses may decide to retain these mandates, as a number of SUNY campuses are doing. We announced last week that our indoor mask requirement would remain in place for now.

That message preceded the CDC announcement last Friday of new COVID-19 management guidelines. The new CDC guidelines focus on reviewing county-level COVID-19 metrics that include hospital beds being used, hospital admissions, and total number of new COVID-19 cases in a county. Counties are classified as low, medium, or high risk, with different masking or other recommendations; for the “low” classification, recommendations include staying up to date with COVID-19 vaccines and getting tested if you have symptoms, but no indoor mask-wearing recommendation. Ulster County is classified as “low” risk, as are counties from which we recruit most of our students. Those include nine counties in the Hudson Valley (broadly defined), Nassau and Suffolk counties on Long Island, and counties representing the New York City boroughs. A number of other New York counties fall into the “medium” or “high” levels.

A possible change in our indoor masking requirements consistent with these new guidelines will be a primary topic of discussion at this week’s COVID Cabinet meeting. We will work to understand the guidelines fully, and assess implications of a change in our masking policy. SUNY guidelines are explicit that any change in such practices must be determined in consultation with county health officials, and communicated with SUNY before implementation. We are beginning those conversations.

I ask your continued patience as we consider these next steps. One aspect that must be considered is the potential impact of student spring-break travel to parts of the country where risk levels may be higher. Several of my SUNY presidential colleagues expressed the same concern – will COVID-19 metrics two weeks after students have returned to campus after spring break be similar or vastly different than now? As in the past, our immediate campus decision will be based on our best judgment about how to enable all members of our community to enjoy a safe and productive end of the 2021-22 academic year, as will any possible changes later in the semester.

The mixed reaction to my message that we would be continuing our indoor masking requirement reinforces the uncertainty around a change in policy. This language from a Friday afternoon New York Times report captures some of that sense:

A growing number of political leaders, public health experts and ordinary citizens now support the easing of restrictions — at least temporarily. But others are still wary, noting that millions of people in the United States — including children under 5 — and billions elsewhere remain unvaccinated, making the emergence of a dangerous new variant not just possible but likely.

The White House has been working on a pandemic exit strategy that would help Americans live with the virus. But Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky, the C.D.C.’s director, said just two weeks ago that it was not yet time to lift mask mandates. And officials in the C.D.C. and the Department of Health and Human Services are nervous about the changing guidance, according to an administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

We will certainly be mindful of the varied perceptions in our community as we consider a possible change in masking policy, even as the best and latest CDC guidance must be given full consideration. Of course, we will share new information and guidance as it is available.

SUNY spring semester policies and mandates for vaccinations, booster shots, and testing remain unchanged and will continue throughout the semester.

Senate Resolution on Strategic Plan Essential Initiatives. I appreciate the spirit behind the resolution passed by the Faculty Senate at the previous meeting to add “Sustainability” and “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI)” to the essential initiatives of the strategic plan. These are core values of the College, and areas where we have been making considerable progress on multiple fronts. Nonetheless, I have decided not to support this resolution and will not be modifying the strategic plan to incorporate those elements as essential initiatives in the final months of my presidency. I have made this decision for the following reasons:

The stage of my presidency: It would not be appropriate for me, with only four months before I step down, to modify the strategic plan that has informed and guided key elements of our institutional progress since our extensive and inclusive planning process in 2012-13 and my approval of the plan in 2013. We reviewed the plan in 2018 and with one exception (positioning of “online programming”) assessed that the priorities remained appropriate for our continuing success in a changing higher education world. With my presidency nearing the end, I held back from instituting a new planning process or further wholesale evaluation of the plan, beyond embracing and endorsing the work of the Strategic Planning and Assessment Council – charged with overseeing implementation of the plan – of “mapping” the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals with essential initiatives of the current plan. The pandemic, along with redirecting considerable attention to last year’s successful Middle States reaccreditation process, has no doubt shifted attention given to some strategic plan priorities.

The structures and processes that support ongoing planning and whether the current plan continues to evolve – or instead is replaced with a wholly new plan developed through a new planning process – are important issues for the College’s ongoing success. The next president should guide these decisions in consultation with the Strategic Planning and Assessment Council and lead this process after they are settled into the role.

Structure of the plan: The Faculty Senate resolution seemingly is predicated on the assumption that having “Sustainability” and “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” listed as separate essential initiatives is the best way to support and advance our goals in these areas. We already have a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Plan mandated by SUNY and being supported by the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Council and the academic school-based councils. Separately, the College has a distinct Sustainability Plan whose implementation is supported by the Office of Sustainability.

In major respects, DEI and Sustainability are “cross-cutting” themes that relate to more than one essential initiative in the current plan. It is quite possible that focusing on opportunities to advance and amplify these values within each of the current essential initiatives could have more significant, long-term impact than identifying them as separate initiatives. This approach, for example, would exemplify that DEI work must involve the entire community, those in multiple roles and responsibilities, and many aspects of our mission. It also avoids the pitfall that responsibility for DEI or sustainability instead falls on a narrow subset of our community to advance. I do not believe that alternatives such as this were considered by those who brought the resolution forward.

After my successor is named, I will share insights on important history, opportunities, challenges, and other information to help with their orientation and onboarding. The information about planning and the strategic plan will certainly include information on this resolution and my decision.

Accepted Students Open Houses, March 26 and April 2. Indicators for fall 2022 new undergraduate enrollment continue to be strong even at this early point, with deposit rates trending ahead of the last two years by double digits (>30% above same date in 2020, which was still pre-pandemic). Even still, the importance of recruiting a strong class of qualified students has never been greater, given the continued impact of the pandemic on our operating budget and the intense competition for students in our region.

While the digital yield campaign developed by Undergraduate Admissions and the Office of Communication and Marketing has likely had an impact on current positive numbers, the upcoming Accepted Students Open House events are key to our success in helping accepted applicants decide to enroll at SUNY New Paltz. We know from feedback in previous years that faculty and staff presence and engagement at these key events is critical for helping prospective students and their parents understand the distinctive educational opportunities and programs and the very special community that SUNY New Paltz provides. Some accepted applicants have not visited the campus, and this is an opportunity for us to create a positive first impression. Others may have visited the campus before (some multiple times!), and this visit is an opportunity to learn more as they wrestle with multiple attractive choices, or sometimes to affirm that New Paltz is where they want to be.

As they did for the fall Open House, the team in Undergraduate Admissions has taken special care to limit capacity for these events, optimize spacing for social distancing, and inform our invited guests of our policy on masking at all times. Of course, we will inform participants of any change in masking requirements as early as possible. We look forward to two safe and enriching Accepted Students events. I am grateful for your participation in these events and thank you in advance for your contributions this year.

Sojourner Truth Sculpture. In the fall, Vice President Erica Marks and I acknowledged and apologized for our failure in process for this project and its negative impact on members of our community, notably but not limited to the Black Studies Department. We and other campus leaders have been quietly considering the most appropriate next steps. We believe that before we have any conversations about the sculpture itself, there is value in thoughtful discussion about that process and what it represented, lessons learned, how as a campus we can do better in the future, and a hope for achieving some reconciliation.

Vice President Marks and I met recently with Dr. Weldon McWilliams, chair of Black Studies, to ask how Black Studies faculty and students would want to be part of such a discussion, and their thoughts about structuring such a process and who else should be included. This will be a topic of discussion at their next departmental faculty meeting.

We suggested that Dr. McWilliams and his colleagues offer suggestions for a best approach – perhaps facilitated small-group discussions –to keep a focus on our core purpose of education and learning. We discussed desired outcomes of these conversations, such as a statement, guidelines, or checklist for practices that could become part of the way the community discusses and plans future initiatives or projects. This creates structural and cultural shifts in thinking that embrace and advance our inclusion and anti-racist goals.

The spring is very busy with the presidential search, the challenges and distractions of Covid-19 management and teaching during the pandemic, and work to wrap up several other matters on my agenda in the final months of my presidency. I recognize that so many already carry full plates but am hopeful that if we get a process underway before spring break, we should be able to have good conversations that we may view as progress before the academic year’s end. This would serve future DEI planning and school-based DEI working groups, as well as planning and guiding future projects like public art on campus.

We want to be sure to allow enough time for these conversations to be meaningful. The sculpture may end up organically as part of the discussions, but we want to keep the primary focus on process, healing, and building trust across our community. Whether the Sojourner Truth sculpture becomes part of our campus is a decision that would have long-lasting impact on our campus. I am almost certain that this will not be finalized during my remaining time as president. This is also true for the dedication of the contemplative space, a recommendation of the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Council as part of our building renaming endeavor. That project also requires a thoughtful, inclusive process for signage and educational messaging as well as for the dedication of this space. It is my hope that the discussions we envision could provide the next president a clearer understanding of a way forward for these projects, drawing on the many voices of our community.

In the meantime, we are having conversations with the sculptor, donors and other supporters of this project so that all understand the significance of these process issues and the need not to rush a process of reflection and repair and the value we place on “getting this right” in the future.

Fulbright Top Producer. I am proud and pleased to share that SUNY New Paltz has been included on the 2021-22 list of U.S. colleges and universities that are “Top Producers” of Fulbright U.S. Scholars. This list is announced each year by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. The Fulbright Program, the U.S. government’s flagship international educational exchange program, was established more than 75 years ago to increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and those of other countries. The hard work and success of New Paltz academic and professional faculty who have received Fulbright Awards, in 2021-22 and earlier, is consistent with and amplifies the global interconnectedness that is such a core of the SUNY New Paltz ethos. We were previously named to this list in 2013-14.

Regional Economic Development Council. As part of the runway to my retirement in June, I have stepped down as chair of the Mid-Hudson Regional Economic Development Council (MHREDC), effectively handing over the reins to two new co-chairs in a meeting today. I have been a member of the Council since 2016 and was appointed as chair in 2018 by then Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul. Leading the Council, working with Empire State Development officials, and meeting and interacting with business, civic, and government leaders has been an enjoyable, rewarding, and visible role, and I believe has highlighted the College’s diverse contributions to the region and beyond. For example, I attended and spoke at numerous ribbon-cutting and similar events, several along with current Gov. Hochul. The 10 regional councils established in 2011 are at the core of a community-based and performance-driven framework to review and prioritize proposals and make recommendations for major state economic development funding. This replaced a previous fully “top down” model of allocating such funds. In ten rounds of economic development competition, the Mid-Hudson Region, through the work of the MHREDC, has delivered more than $815 million for more than 1,000 projects, and the region has been designated a “top performer” multiple times.

Upcoming Events. I call your attention to several upcoming campus presentations and events as we enter Women’s History Month:

  • The Jewish Student Union is hosting a forum to help our community learn about antisemitism and its forms (Tues., March 8) 7:00 p.m., LC 104 or LC 102).
  • “Indulge Your Senses: Scaling Intimacy in a Digital World.” Michael Dorf, CEO and founder of The Knitting Factory and City Winery, two iconic music and dining venues. Distinguished Speaker Series, Monday, March 28, 7 p.m. (LC 100 with hybrid option).
  • “From Inner Strengths and Passion: Achieving Your Professional and Personal Success.” 7th annual Women’s Summit, Wed. March 30, 2-3:30 p.m. (5 p.m. start time if virtual pivo is necessary). More than 25 successful SUNY New Paltz alumnae and thought leaders who have earned distinction in their professional careers will offer advice on accelerating and achieving professional goals. Please encourage all students and recent graduates to participate.
  • Dorsky Museum Spring Open House, Sun. April 3, 2 p.m., a community celebration of spring exhibitions.

I look forward to seeing you at this week’s Faculty Senate meeting and will respond to questions and comments about this report or other topics.


Donald P. Christian