State of the College - 2010

Opening Convocation
August 26, 2010

Welcome to you all.  It’s good to see you all and take this opportunity to report to you about the State of the College as we begin the 2010-2011 academic year.

In my spare time, I like to read three kinds of very different works.  I like detective fiction; I read about science issues (especially Scientific American and the Tuesday Science section of the New York Times); and I read some theology.  One of my favorite authors in the field of spirituality and the relationship of science and religion is M. Scott Peck.  As I recall, it was in his book The Road Not Taken (a title taken from the famous poem by Robert Frost) where Peck wrote:

“The truth is that our finest moments are most likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable, unhappy, or unfulfilled. For it is only in such moments, propelled by our discomfort, that we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers.” 

Let me paint a verbal picture and perhaps you will recognize what I am describing.  The economy was in a shambles.  The war and excessive speculation had taken a terrible toll on investments and property values.  New policies from Albany made it quite clear that the school would lose most of its state support.  A completely new funding system meant that very few programs would be supported in the manner in which they had been in the past.  In the face of what seemed to be imminent disaster, local leaders here in Potsdam came together and resolved to change the very nature of the school.  They petitioned the state government in Albany to approve a radical change in the curriculum.  The effort was successful and the school was transformed.  In 1867 what was St. Lawrence Academy became the State Normal School at Potsdam. 

The war was the Civil War.  It had created a classic period of boom and bust.  The agricultural interests here in the North Country were especially hard hit in the aftermath of the war.  Population was beginning to flee westward into the Midwest and Great Plains.  Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote at this time “Can anybody remember when the times were not hard and money not scarce?”  (Society and Solitude, ch. 7)  To compound matters the State was no longer going to provide educational subventions to local academies for the preparation of teachers.  Since 1834, this had been an important source of funding for St. Lawrence Academy.  Instead the state had decided to create a set of state normal schools and support them with the money previously spent in the academies.  Confronted with what was surely the death knell for St. Lawrence Academy, the leadership decided to make a proposal that one of the new normal schools be located here in Potsdam.  Although unsuccessful in an early attempt, Potsdam was chosen for the second wave of normal schools.  A dramatic change came to Potsdam, and the result of it was what we know as SUNY Potsdam.  In Spanish we have an expression which covers this scenario, “No hay mal de que bien no venga.”  “There is nothing bad from which good does not come,” or simply “Every cloud has a silver lining.”

As a result of our very own Great Recession and its impact on the finances of the State of New York, we have had to change many of the things which we do.  Our budget for this year is much thinner than previous years because of dramatic cuts in our state support.  At the same time we are expecting one of the largest first-year classes in the history of the College.  Yet taken as a whole, the state of the College is strong -- hobbled, put upon, and constrained – but strong. 

The SUNY central administration joined Governor Patterson in seeking a measure of independence from the State, urging the passage of the Public Higher Education Empowerment and Innovation Act.  While this became one of the core issues of the Legislative session, it was not enacted.  Not only did the Legislature fail to approve the modest tuition increase sought by the Trustees, it further reduced state support to SUNY.  Chancellor Zimpher has indicated that she will continue to advocate vocally for the passage of the Empowerment Act, and I endorse her efforts.  The act is the best chance which SUNY has to finally take control of our own future.  I urge you all to join me in pressing for this reform measure.

On the other hand, we have much to celebrate.  This year well over 900 new first-year students have registered, some 13% higher than our goal.  For those who presented SAT scores averaged some 100 points higher than last year’s class.  We have seen strong retention of our continuing students.  The retention rate for last year’s freshmen has topped the 80% we established as an interim goal several years ago.  Registrations by new transfer students are consistently meeting projections.  Nevertheless, we continue to have lower than expected graduate enrollments.  As a result, our overall enrollment picture must be characterized as mixed this year. 

I want to extend my deep thanks to the faculty and staff summer advisors who worked so hard to assure that our new first year students found courses to fill out their schedules.  Thanks to the department chairs and deans for adding sections where needed, and especially to teaching faculty who have allowed for increased seats in their sections.  Thanks also to the dedicated staff of the residence halls who have worked hard to accommodate this bumper crop of students.  This was a team effort, ably assisted by the Registrar and our Office of First Year Transitions and Orientation.  Thanks and congratulations to you all.

I also want to thank those faculty and staff who have begun work on the self-study for our upcoming Middle States accreditation visit.  The self study will occupy many members of our community for many hours.  It is important work and it helps us tremendously as we study what we do well and identify where we need to put some additional effort.  Your participation and cooperation in the process is essential.

During the last academic and fiscal year we have much of which to be proud.  Seventeen new faculty and staff members are joining us this year.  A total of 30 faculty and staff received tenure or continuing appointments.  Twenty four faculty and staff were promoted this year.  In a few moments we will take time to recognize these persons individually, but for now please join me in offering our congratulations to them all.

As a result of consultations with various groups on campus over the last few months, I have reorganized the administrative bodies that advise me.  The former Administrative Cabinet has been replaced by the President’s Council consisting of all the members of the Administrative Cabinet along with the deans of the three schools and the dean of students.  The Leadership Council which consisted of an assortment of directors, the deans, and the Vice Presidents, has been replaced by a larger body, the Leadership Forum, which I hope will serve as a vehicle to enhance communication on campus.

Our Advancement staff, the fund raising office on campus, had a very good year.  Last year we received some $2.6 million in charitable giving for scholarships and to enhance the programs on campus.  That was 14% over our goal for the year.  Furthermore, in May the Board of Trustees of the Potsdam College Foundation approved a comprehensive campaign for the next 6 years, with a tentative goal of $25 million.  We are currently engaged in the preliminary phases of this campaign, testing our goals and visiting donors to gauge their receptivity.  As we reach about 60% of our goal, we will begin the public phase of the campaign and reach out to all our friends and constituencies.  I am pleased to announce that we have already received $4.5 million in early pledges.  These gifts do so much for our campus.  They provide for scholarships for our students, help to renovate classrooms and purchase specialized equipment, provide professional development funds for specific departments, and enhance what we do in so many ways.  The campaign priorities are taken directly from the Bicentennial Plan which is in turn the fruit of several years of strategic planning on campus.  As a result, the campaign will address what have been identified by us all as the most pressing needs. 

Over the course of the year I will be sharing more information about the comprehensive campaign and its priorities.  The gifts and pledges which we have received so far reflect the deep and abiding love which you, our alumni, and friends have for this College.  What stands out in the conversations which I have been honored to have with these folks is the way in which their lives were touched by the faculty and staff of this College.  You all are our best ambassadors.  When alumni return to campus it is you they wish to see.  I want to thank all faculty and staff who have assisted out with fund raising and ask that we all work together to ensure our future success.

One of our tasks last year was the creation of the budget blueprint.  While not all parties agreed with the final parameters of the budget blueprint, we were able to meet and discuss our differences and clarify the implications for the cuts.  I recognize that the reductions made over the last two years have been painful for so many members of our campus community.  Of great importance, we achieved our budget reductions while protecting as many full-time positions as possible.  Circumstances mandated that we be opportunistic in holding on to many vacant positions.  As we proceed from this point, vacant positions will be considered in light of the overall needs of the College.  Since the budget blueprint was drafted I have authorized the return of nearly half a million dollars to academic affairs to provide courses essential for graduation and sufficient sections for our incoming freshmen.

For the last two years I have asked all of you to help as we confronted unprecedented adversity.  We all knew that hard times were coming.  Last year we had to plan for the full impact of a greatly reduced budget.  This year, I hope that we have arrived at the nadir of the crisis, or at least very near to it.  This means that from this point on we must be about the creation of the College of the future.  As I said last year, we are all now the founding mothers and fathers of the SUNY Potsdam of the future.

In remarks last spring I pointed out that our College has a history of thriving in times of adversity.  We were founded amidst the turmoil of the War of 1812.  We were transformed from St. Lawrence Academy into the State Normal School in the wake of the Civil War.  Helen Hosmer took over the reins of the Crane School on the eve of the Great Depression and achieved marvelous things during the worst economic crisis to hit the country.  Also during the Great Depression, we began our transformation from a primarily teacher’s college to a comprehensive university.  During the financial crises of the 1970s we became one of the leading schools offering computer science.  Although there are many other examples, a look at the history of our College demonstrates that adversity offers us an opportunity to engage in transformational thought and action.  Most recently as a result of the delicate financial situation in which we find ourselves, the departments of Instructional Communication Technology and Computer Science have just concluded discussions and will be merging into a single department, housed in Arts and Sciences, with programs at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.

Upon becoming President of SUNY Potsdam four years ago, I embarked on a listening tour for my first year or so.  I listened to folks on campus: students, faculty, staff, and emeriti.  I traveled around the country to talk to alumni and friends of the College.  The lessons that I learned were embodied in my inaugural address, the cornerstone of which was that here at SUNY Potsdam we offer a handcrafted education.  The basis for that characterization lies deep within the history and traditions of the College.  It was recounted continually by alumni from the 1950s when they recalled moving the College from downtown to the current location, from students of the 1960s and 1970s who saw this College transformed from a small regional teachers college into a true university, with strong programs beyond just education and music.  The campus was a continual construction site; mud puddles dominated the Quad; boardwalks were the order of the day.  It was also the theme of alumni from the 1980s and 1990s who saw the completion of the transformation into a liberal arts college with outstanding graduate and professional programs, by students who suffered through the financial crisis of the 1980s and the one of the mid-1990s.  And so I concluded that obviously the deep concern which our faculty and staff have for the success of the students is deeply and intimately associated with the very nature of the College.  It is independent of student-faculty ratios, of state funding, tuition levels, or even the state of our physical plant and facilities.  It is a deep and abiding dedication which we have here on this campus for our students.

We must now build upon the foundations which previous generations have lain here.  As financial conditions improve -- and I am certain that they will improve, the only question is when -- we must build the campus of the future.  Each decision about the allocation of resources must occur in the context of whether or not it will assist us in becoming the campus we wish to be in 2016, our Bicentennial year, and beyond.  This will mean that some aspects of what we do will return to the way they were before this crisis, because they are essential to building the campus we want for the future.  Other things which we have done in the past will be abandoned.  There are two broad areas which demand our attention when we look to fund allocation on campus.  On the one hand there are areas which we have reduced that must eventually be restored.  For example we had to suspend the computer replacement cycle for a year.  We have restored that.  Similarly, we had to suspend or greatly reduce our equipment purchases.  We cannot continue to forgo equipment purchases for very long.  As I have already noted, while the budget blueprint called for the elimination of most adjuncts, over the last four months I have restored approximately half a million dollars to academic affairs in order to provide courses which are critical for graduation and for courses for entering freshmen.  There are other areas which demand our immediate attention, and I will continue to evaluate our budget situation, consult with campus constituencies where possible, discuss the issues with the President’s Council, and then make appropriate decisions as we move forward.  As we address the pressing needs of the campus, we must also be mindful of how we can move the campus strategically to implement the Bicentennial Plan.  The Bicentennial Plan is based upon the strategic planning process which preceded my arrival on campus, augmented by conversations I had with a wide range of constituencies once I was President, finally approved by the Administrative Cabinet and representatives of the Faculty Senate.  Broad consultation on campus characterized each step of the planning process.  This document truly reflects our collective goals and aspirations.  As we move forward, those goals will inform our decisions about the allocation of resources.

Over the summer the President’s Council has begun to look at the specific goals of the Bicentennial Plan in order to develop mechanisms and strategies to pursue in order to achieve them.  Just last week, the Council met with representatives of the Faculty Senate to continue that process and to imagine what the College of the future will look like and how we can make those dreams become a reality.  The specifics of how we achieve the Bicentennial Plan will be a topic of conversations and consultations this year and beyond.

For a few moments join me in imagining the Opening Convocation and State of the College address which will be given by one of my successors some thirty years hence, let’s say in 2041.  The President will look out over the room, filled with 400 faculty members and a similar number of classified staff and professionals.  She will discuss the success of the festivities surrounding the 225th anniversary of the College.  The College will be embarking on its 5th comprehensive campaign and the endowment will be hovering around $500 million.  Enrollments will have settled at around 7,500 students.  In discussing the implications of dwindling state support for the operational budget of the College, she will look back at the history of the College to help to explain how we have coped with similar times of adversity in the past.  She will praise the administration, faculty, and staff of the College who back in 2010 began to put the institution on a sound footing in the wake of the Great Recession.  She will proclaim that it is clear that what she calls the “new SUNY Potsdam,” which already has enjoyed such success, had its beginnings in the decisions which were made in 2010, 2011, and 2012.  The transformation of the College, the reinvigoration of programs aimed at developing well-rounded students, the facilities master plan, and the visions for the future from that period, became the ground work upon which the College of 2041 developed as a unique and exciting place to learn and work.

Friends, colleagues, please join me in a process which will create something of which we all can be truly proud.  We have just begun to see the possibilities which lie ahead for us; let us join together and achieve them.