President’s Report to the Academic and Professional Faculty

May 9, 2022 (in advance of May 11 Faculty Senate Meeting)

This is my final (and 92nd!) monthly report to the Academic and Professional Faculty. Writing and sharing these reports has been a part of the rhythm of my presidential life, reflecting advice of former Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust that “communication is arguably the essential act of the presidency.”  I always found writing these reports a good way for me to stay familiar with key issues and important campus developments, understand important data and trends across the College, and articulate clear language. I tried often to express my pride in faculty, staff and student achievements and my gratitude for your dedication to the life and success of the College, to our students and their learning, and to your scholarship and creativity activity. I know that a president can never say thank you enough, especially with all that we have lived through these past two years, so I will do so again here. THANK YOU! As this year and my presidency draw to a close, I will share again my gratitude for the support you have given me and the collegiality you have shown throughout my time at New Paltz, even when we have disagreed and I have made decisions and taken actions that not everyone liked. This is the job of a college president, and I certainly learned long ago that you cannot please everyone all of the time! My compass has always been the mission of the institution – doing what I thought was best for students. It has been a reliable compass.

It is difficult for me to articulate right now all that I will miss about university life, the presidency, and SUNY New Paltz, even as I look forward to a slower pace and engaging more in some of my favorite activities and trying new ones. I imagine that will all become clearer as I settle into retirement!

I want to thank those who joined yesterday’s reception honoring Sandy and me and our time here. I enjoyed sharing laughs and memories with you. I am humbled by the kind words that Shana Circe (as emcee), David Eaton, Catherine Dougherty, Rennie Scott-Childress, and Anne Balant offered as speakers, and the so many kind words I heard from others who stopped by. With the successful outcome of our presidential search and the semi-closure brought by yesterday’s and last week’s farewell events with external friends and donors, I can now focus more fully on remaining responsibilities – including today’s comprehensive sector presidents’ meeting with the Interim Chancellor, moving our budget understanding and planning forward, traveling to NYC to announce a new program endowment initiative, participating in several student recognition ceremonies, our May 20-22 commencement ceremonies, and supporting the transition of Dr. Wheeler into office. Maybe June and early July will be slower!

Dr. Wheeler and his husband Donovan and grandson Tykell came to campus this weekend for a tour and to prepare for their move into the president’s residence. Dr. Wheeler and I had a serendipitous and wonderful conversation with several Admission Ambassadors in the Atrium Saturday as they offered their final tours of this academic year. Together he and I spoke and responded to student questions about leadership, our respective career paths, career advice for students, and the student experience. We even engaged in a “Fun Fact Friday” Instagram video to share with prospective students! Although unplanned, this was a fun, heartening, and at least for me, a magical way to begin “passing the baton” to him. This interaction with students and our next leader reinforced my confidence that the campus will be in good hands with Dr. Wheeler, and I hope you will welcome him and his family with open arms as you did Sandy and me.

At a personal level, we move out of the president’s residence and into our new home in Plattekill during the week after commencement. As I shared at yesterday’s event, I look forward to a slower pace, spending more time with family – spoiling my grandson Emilio, growing a garden, fishing more often, and pursuing my other hobbies and interests. Especially as Dr. Wheeler is getting established as president and for the longer term, I intend to minimize my presence in New Paltz, but I am available to answer questions! I am sure I will run into some of you from time to time and will look forward to it. I may welcome your updates about the campus even as I vow to stay out of College business and remain neutral about new directions and approaches that President Wheeler may pursue!

Here, I provide several updates and developments.

Table of Contents:

Chancellor’s Awards for Student Excellence – Congratulations to recipients of the Chancellor’s Awards for Excellence in Scholarship and Creative Activities, Teaching, Faculty Service, Professional Service, and Classified Service (names and details below).

Commencement – Speakers, honorary degrees and more.

Academic Year 2021-22 Accomplishments – I provide detail below about progress on goals for the year that I articulated in my final State of the College address. These include:

  • a successful presidential search and transition;
  • COVID-19 management;
  • DEI initiatives;
  • new enrollment management structures and processes;
  • budget management.

Chancellor’s Awards. It is always rewarding to announce each year’s recipients of the Chancellor’s Awards for Excellence in this final report of the year – and to have spoken with each last week to share this good news directly. Please join me in congratulating each of these colleagues for their selection as this year’s awardees. Our tradition has been to present the academic and professional awards at the first faculty meeting of the following fall semester, and the Classified Service Award at the fall Classified Service annual gathering. You can learn more about the accomplishments and contributions of each awardee in an upcoming Daily Digest:

  • Andrew Bruso, Director of Communication, Office of Communication and Marketing. Excellence in Professional Service
  • Glenn Geher, Professor, Psychology. Excellence in Faculty Service
  • John Oles, Assistant Director of Marketing and Social Media, Office of Communication and Marketing. Excellence in Professional Service
  • Richard J. Ordway, Jr., Director, Student Health Services. Excellence in Professional Service
  • Anca Radulescu, Associate Professor, Mathematics. Excellence in Scholarship and Creative Activities
  • Tom Welch, Facilities Operations Assistant 2, Grounds Shop. Excellence in Classified Service

Commencement. Our commencement ceremonies will be held outdoors on Friday, May 20 (graduate), Saturday, May 21 (College of Liberal Arts & Sciences), and Sunday, May 22 (Schools of Business, Education, Fine & Performing Arts, and Science & Engineering). Student speakers will be Chancellor’s Award for Student Excellence winner Mackenzy McMorris (Finance, Black Studies) on Saturday, and Valedictorian Martin Benesch (Theatre Arts), on Sunday. We will award Honorary Doctorates on Saturday to Dr. Lily McNair, a former New Paltz faculty member and retired president of Tuskegee University and to Edward Carroll ’85 (Communication & Media), and on Sunday to Everton H. Henriques ’78 ’83 (Chemistry). Faculty Grand Marshals will be Anne Balant (Communication Disorders) on Friday, Heather Morrison (History) on Saturday, and Narcyz Roztocki (Business) on Sunday.

I encourage faculty and staff participation because it means so much to our graduating seniors and their families to meet those who have supported and mentored our graduates.

Academic Year 2021-22 Accomplishments. In my August State of the College address, I laid out several priorities for the year. Here I report on progress and completion.

Presidential Search and Transition. Our very successful presidential search resulted in the appointment of Dr. Darrell P. Wheeler, currently Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs at Iona College, as the College’s next president. I called to congratulate him the day of the announcement, and he clearly is excited and looking forward to this opportunity. I have shared in my remarks how pleased I am to be passing the leadership baton to him, how impressed I am with his background, experience, and abilities, and how confident I am that he will keep the College moving forward in this ever-changing higher education world. I will do everything I can to help him be successful – including staying out of his way!

I thank all members of the search committee for your excellent work in identifying and bringing forward a strong slate of finalist candidates. We owe a collective note of gratitude to search committee and community members who engaged candidates so well during the on-campus interviews and provided the search committee with insights about each candidate. Shelly Wright, Chief of Staff and VP for Communication and campus liaison (non-voting) to the search committee, received strong praise from the SUNY liaison about the care, commitment, and integrity that were so apparent in our campus process. And we are grateful to the SUNY liaison, Zulaika Rodriguez, Assistant Vice Chancellor for Presidential Recruitment, for bringing her many talents and experiences in presidential recruitment to her work with the Presidential Search Committee.

You will have a chance to meet Dr. Wheeler when he joins us for the end-of-year staff appreciation picnic and BBQ on May 24. He will begin his appointment on July 18; I have agreed to remain as president until July 17.

COVID-19 Management. We began 2021-22 knowing that the pandemic would remain a challenge, and it has. The fall semester opened with the contagious Delta variant emerging as the dominant variant, about two-thirds of students and employees had provided documentation of vaccination, and FDA approval was not in place for SUNY to mandate vaccination for all students. The absence of any in-class transmission during the previous year gave us some confidence that continuing an indoor masking requirement would afford considerable protection, as it has. The FDA approval came shortly after the start of the semester, and we had strong compliance with the student vaccination mandate, as we have with the student booster mandate. Our case counts remained in the single digits, and on some days they were zero.

Our management challenges evolved as the Omicron variant replaced Delta around the winter break. The milder to no symptoms experienced by infected but vaccinated people led the CDC to change its masking guidance, prompting SUNY in March to give campuses latitude to relax our indoor mask mandate, and we did so during spring break. We have seen an uptick in cases as we approach the end of spring semester, as the ba2 variant becomes more prominent. But as the dominant variant has evolved over time and more people receive boosters, case counts mean much less than they did earlier in our management of COVID – seen by some as early stages of movement into an endemic phase. We remain optimistic that we will make it through spring semester and successful outdoor commencement ceremonies.

In the spirit of saying thank you, I want to express my deep gratitude to members of the COVID-19 Cabinet Planning Group for their dedication to managing our path through the pandemic. At the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, this group met daily, sometimes on weekends, shifting to three days a week, then weekly, then biweekly, and most recently as needed. Members shared diverse perspectives and expertise to develop strategy, assess current conditions (real and perceived), communicate most effectively, pivot in response to changing conditions, and respond to SUNY and other reporting requirements – all while maintaining their “day jobs.”  The nearly 30 members of this group included deans other academic leaders, the President’s Cabinet, and representatives of faculty governance, Records and Registration, Student Affairs, Human Resources, Diversity & Inclusion, Communication and Marketing, Student Health Services, Emergency Management, Environmental Health and Safety, and Information Technology Services (ITS). The Testing & Tracing Group also deserves a special shout out for their many contributions, including their expertise and time, to our successful COVID-19 management. This group, led by Vice President Stephanie Blaisdell, included representatives from Athletics, Student Health Services, Residence Life, the President’s Office, Facilities, Academic Affairs, Information Technology, Emergency Management and Communication & Marketing.

The frequent praise directed at me for the College’s handling of the pandemic really belongs to members of these groups and other subcommittees of the COVID-19 Cabinet, and to students and employees who dealt patiently with shifting directives and lived a “We Not Me” approach. Thank you.

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Initiatives. The plan to relocate the Black Studies Department from its long residence in the “temporary” Faculty Office Building (FOB) to Old Main has begun. The Old Main space has been vacated, is being “spruced up” by Facilities now, and will be ready for occupancy after the end of spring semester. The goal is to have faculty be able to move during the summer and be settled in well before the start of fall semester. This move will provide more appropriate space for the department and will increase the visibility and support for one of the oldest Black Studies departments in the nation. I am grateful to Dr. Weldon McWilliams IV, Black Studies Department Chair, for helping us understand departmental needs and priorities and for providing input on options we considered, and to Deb Gould, Assistant Provost, and Megan Smailer, Director of Design and Construction, for guiding the plan for this move.

In my State of the College address, I spoke about plans to install a sculpture of Sojourner Truth near our library that bears her name – what we had seen as a positive step to celebrate the Library’s 50th anniversary and further recognize her as a leader and role model for all. After Black Studies faculty raised concerns about the lack of inclusion and consultation in planning that installation, we canceled the installation and apologized publicly for the serious deficiencies in our process. As shared in my March Faculty report, we have gathered input from the Black Studies faculty on guidelines and “lessons learned” to develop more inclusive approaches for future projects like this (as well as other endeavors). We are gathering further input from others – Art History, Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies, Latin American & Caribbean Studies – and will prepare a draft document that Dr. Wheeler can use to guide next steps on this sculpture as well as a general process guide for other decisions. The President’s Cabinet is currently reviewing draft guidelines from the “Arts and Aesthetics” Committee that re-define the role of that committee (and suggest a different name); these guidelines are directly relevant to the process issues at hand. In the meantime, the sculpture is securely stored; no immediate action will be taken on its installation, on campus or elsewhere. Any such action will be guided by Dr. Wheeler and his leadership team -in consultation with others – at the right time.

The Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Council has made progress on securing a campus climate survey, as SUNY is no longer acquiring an instrument for all campuses. The Council has been evaluating the broad array of surveys available commercially and what they offer, with the goal of having the survey ready for implementation during the coming year. I am pleased and proud that several of the School-based DEI working groups have been active and engaged, helping to focus more initiative and progress at faculty, department, and school levels. I am also aware and appreciate that other campus units, such as the Faculty Development Center, academic departments, and the Black Lives Matter at School provided further programming to this community effort.

The actions this year of an unrecognized student group created concern about antisemitism on our campus and generated important follow-up conversations about this issue. After an initial (Feb. 10) campus message that we were working to understand this situation more fully before responding in full, in a message of Feb. 16 to the campus community I condemned antisemitism, called out the actions of this student group as antisemitic, and emphasized that excluding any campus member from institutional events and activities on the basis of religion, racial background, national origin, sexual orientation or gender, or other dimensions of personal identity is incompatible with our campus values and the learning and inclusion goals of a public university. We must expect community members to respect these principles and air differing viewpoints on important topics respectfully and with a goal of increasing our shared understanding of the world around us.

This action spurred the Jewish Student Union to host on March 8 a well-attended and very informative session on antisemitism. I and other campus and community leaders, including Rabbi Moshe Plotkin and Rabbi William Strongin, several emeritus faculty, Town Supervisor Neil Bettez and Mayor Tim Rogers met with representatives of the Ulster County Jewish Federation to address their concerns about antisemitism on our campus and in the region. I believe we reassured them that – this precipitating incident aside – Jewish students and employees at New Paltz are well served and feel safe, points that the Rabbis in particular reinforced. We also helped them understand the limitations that as a public university we face in exercising prior restraint on free speech. I am grateful to the Jewish faculty, including emeriti, and the community rabbis for assisting me and others on my leadership team to understand Jewish student sentiments and inform my response.

This year I have outlined the substance of a one-semester, post-retirement project I will undertake for SUNY System Administration, researching and developing a framework and guidelines for strong relationships between campus presidents and chief diversity officers (CDOs). This project will support the SUNY 25-point DEI Action Plan and reflects the spirit of recent SUNY Board of Trustees action mandating that (with few exceptions) the CDO report to the president. This project grew in part out of conversations with our CDO Tanhena Pacheco Dunn, who shared with me that our working relationship and the connections we have built between her work and other campus areas such as Academic Affairs and Communication & Marketing are points of envy for many of her CDO colleagues across SUNY. CDOs across higher education face major challenges, deal with many frustrations, and have a high rate of turnover. The final product will be a written set of well-defined, research-informed best practices for campus presidents to work most effectively with and support their campus CDOs. The document would include appendices outlining basic methodology, based in part on conversations with and surveys of SUNY presidents and CDOs, key results and recommendations, and relevant literature sources. After using some accumulated vacation time this summer, I will be working later in the summer and part of fall semester on this project.

Other DEI-related initiatives included a student-led presentation and discussion on Asian and Asian-American hate in our country and our fall semester Distinguished Speaker Series presentation by Dr. Darnisa Amante-Jackson on “The Culture of DEI: Creating and Manifesting Belonging.”

Enrollment. Presently, our projected fall semester new undergraduate and transfer numbers are slightly ahead of last year, but lagging behind our aggressive goals, which were set to have a significant impact on tuition revenue. Graduate enrollments are overall sound but also not showing the growth that we had hoped. Clearly, growing enrollment – through recruitment and retention – is essential to our future financial welfare, the College’s capacity to develop, invest in, and deliver new programs, and fulfill our mission, especially as we and other colleges and universities face a “demographic cliff” that will begin in 2025 and extend until about 2037. Year-to-year comparisons in enrollment trends have been challenging due to pandemic impacts on numbers the past two years and seemingly different student and parent behavior and decision-making this year.

In previous monthly reports, I have shared progress in the Enrollment Management division to improve processes and outcomes, focused in part on new outreach and communication to potential prospects and applicants, on increasing yield (the percentage of accepted students who choose to come to New Paltz), improving the data and analyses to inform enrollment-related decision-making, and enhancing on-boarding of new students. Vice President Jeff Gant and his team have been assessing what is working well and where we can improve, to set the stage for a strategic enrollment management planning process. The College recently consulted with Ruffalo Noel Levitz (RNL), an enrollment and fund-raising consulting firm (at no charge!). The RNL report highlights areas where we perform well, along with areas of needed improvement to meet industry best practices that are shifting dramatically in a post-pandemic era. Those include competing for a declining pool of applicants, how to best showcase our offerings in a social media-driven era, new data-informed models for allocating institutional financial aid, and strategies to respond to heightened expectations from prospects and parents for prompt responses and actions. That report provides an excellent framework for the planning process.

Both in the face of declining numbers of high school graduates (the pool for our undergraduate student body) and to support Gov. Kathy Hochul’s priorities for SUNY (see my April 4 report), our enrollment planning must include expanding graduate education. There are numerous changes we can make to grow our graduate enrollments. Some are relatively straightforward and may be readily implemented. For example, national studies show that 89% of masters-level graduate applicants choose to attend the first institution that accepts them. Adopting a more aggressive timeline to review and accept graduate applicants quickly is responsive to that reality. Some changes may require more significant adjustment and planning.

Budget. I commented at last week’s Faculty Senate meeting that I hoped we would have more insight into the 2022-23 SUNY budget that I could share before tomorrow’s full faculty meeting. A message last week from the Interim Chancellor applauded elements of the enacted budget that we have shared before, but gave no further insight into specific allocations to each sector or campus – so we have little clarity at this time on next year’s budget, beyond our own estimates that the elimination of the “TAP gap” and the re-set of the Excelsior Scholarship tuition rate to current levels would mean a restoration of up to $4 million to our budget. Those funds are not sufficient to right our current structural deficit, let alone provide resources to invest in new initiatives — and both depend on enrollment and student financial profiles.

Interim Chancellor Stanley’s message included the following: “…we know the context for higher education is changing and we should be receptive to adjusting our way of thinking and serving our students. New Yorkers… have been focused on student costs and the potential accumulated debt related to educational expenses and so should we.”

That message was a cautious prelude to affirming that next year’s tuition would remain at 2021-22 levels, and to letting us know that SUNY and the Board of Trustees will be reviewing student fees. Our primary broad-based fees (athletics, technology, health services) amount to more than $9 million each year. New Paltz has been poised to request an increase in fees to cover inflationary increases and provide resources to expand services that benefit students. We do not know if SUNY will allow this and that carries serious financial implications.

We do know that the $53 million allocated for new faculty positions for SUNY is really $32 million in salary because advocacy to have fringe benefits covered separately was not successful. No detail is available yet about how funding for new faculty will be allocated to sectors or campuses. SUNY was not successful in another key element of budget advocacy: realizing a true “maintenance of effort,” so that term would mean more than receiving the same dollar amount the following year (the traditional recent State definition, as opposed to a budget cut) but instead that new state funds would be provided to cover increased costs (especially inflation and negotiated – and well-deserved – contractual salary increases). Thus, it will remain the reality that these cost increases will be funded out of existing campus budgets, signifying a cut. It may be worth a reminder that just as our personal and family financial resources are significantly impacted by current rampant inflation, so too is the College’s budget.

These factors add to our structural budget deficit that was compounded by pandemic-driven loss of revenue; uncertainty about both the feasibility and the timing of growing enrollment and tuition revenue; and the desire to have resources to invest in new initiatives. We have made excellent progress this year in reducing expenditures, partly offsetting the loss of tuition revenue. We are now projecting drawing down campus reserves only $6.7 million this year, less than our start-of-year projection of $8.1 million, thanks to continued belt-tightening by the campus. But campus reserves are finite, and balancing revenues and expenditures in that way is not sustainable for the long haul.

Based on this array of considerations, we will continue to plan and implement a reduction of campus expenditures for the coming year. If we see that the SUNY budget is favorable to our campus, we can ease off on those plans, but it would be imprudent to do otherwise at this time and with current knowledge.

The first year of my leadership of SUNY New Paltz included planning and implementing a major budget cut as New York State was still reeling from the financial impacts of the recession that began in 2008. I wish for Dr. Wheeler and the campus a different financial reality and am responsible to pass to him as solid a financial footing as I can.

I will end this report by reiterating how much I have valued serving as your president these last 12 years, supporting our great progress, and engaging with you personally, professionally, and intellectually in so many different venues and initiatives. I wish each of you all the best for future success, satisfaction, and reward, and pledge my everlasting support of this College, its continued progress, and for Dr. Wheeler as I pass this baton to him.

I look forward to seeing you at tomorrow’s faculty meeting and responding to your questions or comments.

Donald P. Christian