President's Remarks - August 2013

Dennis L. Hefner, Ph.D.
Interim President
SUNY Potsdam
August 21, 2013

Welcome to the start of the 2013-14 academic year!  Freshmen moving back to campus tomorrow, the funnel on Thursday, classes starting next week, and cooler nights means only one thing, summer is officially over.  Because of the earlier arrival of students, the organizers of the Faculty Research Celebration Day graciously moved back today’s forum start time so this meeting could occur prior to tomorrow’s move-in day, and I thank them for this courtesy and encourage you to find time to visit Kellas today.

It’s a pleasure for me to be here on the SUNY Potsdam campus, serving as your Interim President and working with you during this transition period.  Having served for 16 years as president of SUNY Fredonia, I’m no stranger to New York State or to the SUNY system.  However, my knowledge of SUNY Potsdam was mostly from afar, so I’ve enjoyed learning first-hand about this campus and sincerely appreciate the warm welcome from both the campus and the community.

For those gone over the summer, you may have noticed a few changes.  Crews have been busy replacing sidewalks, roads, and even a bridge; science laboratories underwent a $10 million facelift; roofs were replaced; the ice rink renovated; and the impressive new Performing Arts Center stayed on track for a December move-in.  Two weeks ago nearly every corner of this campus seemed torn apart, but with good planning and lots of hard work, campus personnel have once again performed their magic and are pulling the campus back together prior the start of the new semester. 

Summer saw a record number of youth camps involving music, drama, dance, art, soccer, basketball, football, and more.  This summer also saw the largest ever Alumni Reunion Week, with a whopping 760 registered participants.  Summer orientations, summer school classes, a SUNY “systemness” conference, a Regional Economic Development Council meeting, completion and signing of a Memorandum of Understanding with Canton to put predictability into shared services are a few of the reasons why SUNY Potsdam felt very active during the so-called summer “break.”

There was a recent change in the College Council Chair, with June O’Neill assuming this leadership position from Roger Linden.  The annual change over in student leadership also occurred following the election of SGA President Sara Behuniak, a Senior Politics major with minors in Pre-Law and Environmental Studies, and SGA Vice President Scott Turner, a senior majoring in English-Creative Writing.

Earlier this summer, I sent a survey to employees asking five questions related to the campus.  In just a few short weeks, nearly 150 completed surveys were returned, and additional ones have continued trickling in throughout the summer.  I have read every one and want to thank you for your candid responses.  It was impressive to have so many faculty and staff take the time to complete the survey, but even more impressive was the thoughtfulness of your responses. 

Confidentiality was promised, and your responses were read only by me.  It probably won’t surprise anyone in this room that what you overwhelming like most about this campus are the people—faculty, staff, and students were mentioned in the vast majority of submissions.  What you disliked most tended to be consistent with things mentioned in the question related to obstacles making it difficult for you to perform your job—lack of resources, unnecessary regulations and policies, and too many external distractions.  Some of the challenges you identified included solving the recurring cycle of budget shortfalls, turning around the declining graduate enrollment, and tying resource planning to strategic planning.  And when it came time to address the final question, what should the Interim President do during this transition period, your responses generally fell into two categories: address concerns described above and help us get a good permanent president.  I promise to do my best in both regards.

Recent news from Albany has been mixed.  The legislature and the Governor provided SUNY campuses with a status quo state budget that unfortunately does not cover the negotiated salary increases.  However, on the positive side, the new UUP contract was ratified and the Governor was able to get the legislature to pass his Start-Up New York legislation, which helps place SUNY into a stronger position to assist with regional economic development.  Anything we can do to help this region attract and create more jobs, while at the same time educate our students about entrepreneurship, is a positive step in the right direction.

I do need to take a few minutes to talk about the campus budget.  As you all know from first-hand experience, budgets have been difficult.  Unfunded salary increases, unmet tuition revenue targets, and unbudgeted spending increases meant that even after a $1 million mid-year restraint, last year’s campus budget ended with a $2.3 million shortfall.  For this year, we have developed a budget based on realistic figures that shows we will end the current academic year with another significant shortfall, and will again be forced to use some one-time fixes.  The good news is there will not be any layoffs, the bad news is one-time fixes merely push the problem forward.  During this coming academic year, we will move our budgeting process from reactionary to pro-active.

The first step is to get our payroll obligations under control, and a centralized position control system has recently been implemented campus-wide to assist with this goal.  Second, any vacancy for a permanent position funded from state, IFR, SUTRA, or Residence Hall dollars will require President’s Council approval prior to being filled.  We just can’t afford to automatically replace every position without full and careful consideration of how we can best address our needs.  Third, any refilling of staff positions will be delayed by at least six months and faculty delayed by one year, except for health and safety circumstances.  This approach will allow the campus to be strategic when filling or refilling positions, and was begun this summer with the elimination of a total of $330,000 worth of vacant positions.  And finally, during the next four months, a full review of all academic and non-academic programs will be conducted, and I suspect we will need to eliminate certain functions as we redirect resources to our core mission. 

A slogan I have always used during difficult budget times goes as follows: “Pain is Inevitable, misery is optional.”  From what I read in your surveys, there has been too much budget misery for too long.  It’s time to get us out of the one-time cycle.  Together we can do it! 

Of course, the generation of more dollars, especially through enrollment growth, is another part of the long-term solution.   An expanded Enrollment Management Committee will be formed to ensure a campus-wide approach to student recruitment and retention.  To demonstrate my commitment to this issue, I will be chairing this committee, which will begin meeting next week.

Two bright spots on the non-state campus revenue side deserve special recognition.  The first is fund-raising.  This past spring the public phase of our $27 million “Take the Lead: The Campaign for SUNY Potsdam” was launched, with more than $17 million raised.  By the time of the Alumni Reunion, the campaign had crossed the $18 million threshold and as of today, has now passed $18.4 million.  The size and success of this campaign represents a major accomplishment for a campus the size of Potsdam, and has involved so many different people on this campus.  Would everyone who has worked on this campaign please stand and be recognized?  

And the second bright spot is PACES, which generates nearly $1 million annually to support the campus in a variety of ways.  And if you haven’t heard, PACES was recently voted the number 1 food service in all of SUNY!

And for more good news, the most recent National Survey of Student Success rated SUNY Potsdam among the nation’s leaders in providing students opportunities to improve their oral communication, critical thinking, and group collaboration skills, which are highly desired by employers.  It’s no wonder that 96% of our spring 2012 graduates were fully employed or attending the graduate school of their choice by the following fall.  It also was impressive to see the SUNY Student Opinion Survey ranked Potsdam among the top three SUNY schools in providing written feedback on writing assignments, percentage of students who feel they have a faculty/staff mentor, joint student/faculty research, and advising.

Some other accomplishments from this past year include:

  • The performance of Benjamin Britton’s War Requiem was absolutely stunning.
  • Completion of the 5-year Title III grant made Potsdam a leader in the area of joint student/faculty research.
  • The STEAM project funded by Lockheed-Martin is helping the campus put the Arts into the STEM disciplines.
  • System and state approval allowed us to now offer the MS degree, beginning with the MS in Community Health.
  • Alumna Renée Fleming made her alma mater proud when she was awarded the prestigious National Medal of Arts.
  • NACUBO presented us a National Award for Shared Services—the first NACUBO award ever made to a SUNY campus.
  • A Greek Task Force was formed to both address the role of Greek organizations on campus and provide guidance on appropriate conduct.    
  • The newly created civility committee helped all of us reiterate our commitment to compliance with Title IX and the Clery Act, create a workplace free of violence, and ensure the safety of minors on campus.
  • The annual Lougheed Festival of the Arts inspired students from across the campus.
  • Potsdam student-athletes earned 3 of the 25 prestigious SUNY Athletic Conference Student Athlete awards: Katlyn Komsa for Ice Hockey, Carlene Benson for Equestrian, and Bailey Weigel for Women’s Lacrosse.
  • Campus sustainability will receive a major boost when the newly installed and long desired co-generation system is fully operational.
  • The spring Academic Festival involved a record number of campus participants.
  • SUNY Potsdam student ChaRon Brabham, a Senior Theatre major, was chosen to assist in presenting statuettes to winners at the Oscars, after taking first place in a national competition.
  • New programs to improve the experience of graduate students received high praise.
  • Crane Youth Music celebrated its 40th anniversary.
  • And two SUNY Potsdam faculty received the highest honor SUNY can bestow on a faculty member.  To receive a “Distinguished” title, a faculty member must be excellent in all three categories (research, teaching, and service) and be exceptional in at least one of those three.  Dr. Maria Hepel in Chemistry was named a SUNY Distinguished Professor, which is an honor normally bestowed to faculty at the doctoral campuses because of the high research standard that must be met.  Professor Kenneth Andrews in Music was named a SUNY Distinguished Service Professor because of his extensive service record, which includes being a founder of the Orchestra of Northern New York that just celebrated its 25th year of existence.

A number of other people earned promotions this past year:

                  Mark Campbell, Music
                  David Curry, Philosophy
                  Lora Lunt, Modern Languages
                  Anthony Molinero, Chemistry
                  Jill Pearon, Music
                  Raphael Sanders, Music
                  Douglass Schatz, Art
                  Richard Williams, Psychology

Associate Professor:
                  Marta Albert, Literacy
                  Debbie Anderson, Curriculum & Instruction
                  David Bugg, Sociology
                  Caron Collins, Music
                  Carol Cope Lowe, Music
                  James Donohue, English & Communication
                  Donald McNutt, English & Communication
                  Axel Fair-Schulz, History
                  Hadley Kruczek-Aaron, Anthropology
                  Kathryn Sherman, Music
                  Sharmain Van Blommestein, English & Communication

Assistant Professor:
                  Carol Britt, Music
                  Francois Germain, Music
                  Kristin Van Hooreweghe, Environmental Studies

                  Deputy Chief, Timothy Ashley
                  Staff Assistant, Glen Bogardus
                  Instructional Support Specialist, Raymond Bowdish
                  Maintenance Assistant, Tamela Bradish

                  Grounds Worker           
                  Christopher Burnham
                  Kimberly Helfter
                  Eric Labier
                  Dale McIntosh

                  Assistant Director, Peter Cutler

                  Christina Crump
                  Dale Larose

                  Secretary 2,  Billijean Elliott

                  Senior Staff Assistant                     
                  Alicia Flynn
                  Beth Todd

                  Assistant Director Admissions, Terry Francis
                  Motor Vehicle Operator, Roseanne Larock
                  Clerk 2, Nichole MacDonald
                  Administrative Aide, Heather O’Hara
                  Director, Annette Robbins

Congratulations to everyone on these well-earned promotions.

Two retreats were held this summer on the 8th floor of Raymond, one involved only the President’s Council and the second added leadership from the Senate.  From these retreats, six priority goals were identified for the next two years.

The first two have already been mentioned: tying together resource allocations and strategic planning, and working to increase enrollment.  For these two, I would only add that the Senate has agreed to have two of its committees, Budget and Goals & Planning, meet together during the coming year to jointly provide advice and counsel as budgeting and strategic planning are being brought together.

The four other priorities include:

  • Technology.  This area is critical for a college operating in the 21st century.  Working in collaboration with Canton, there will be movement to standardize our business processes, to ensure state of the art technology is available in our classrooms, to make the campus’ academic core fully wireless, and to improve services that support online courses.
  • Campus Climate and Diversity.  Potsdam has done an excellent job in recruiting a more diverse student body, but the Student Opinion Survey shows the need for further work on campus climate.  We want every member of this campus community--student, faculty, and staff-- regardless of differences, to feel comfortable, safe, and welcome. 
  • Communication. One of the hardest campus areas to fully satisfy is communication.  To assist with better communication, the website has been redesigned, and The Reporter is undergoing a major facelift.  In addition to internal campus communication, the focus will extend to external audiences, and how we can better disseminate the Potsdam story.
  • Innovation and Creativity.  Under a general label of SUNY Potsdam Innovative and Creativity Experiences, notice the acronym is “SPICE,” we’ll further expand student opportunities for experiences in study abroad programs, internships, joint student/faculty research, and entrepreneurial activities.  Our campus already has carved out a sizeable niche in these areas, but will work to add even more “spice” to our students’ educational experiences.

Before closing, I’d like to share two more items.  The first is a general observation I have had about SUNY Potsdam for many years.  The intimate size of this campus, the consistent high rankings on the SUNY Student Opinion Survey for those items involving personal touch, the successful Title III grant focused on expanding undergraduate student research, the strong liberal arts components in your general education program, and the liberal arts underpinnings in all of the majors, whether a liberal arts or applied discipline, make SUNY Potsdam the closest of any SUNY campus in representing what a modern liberal arts college should be.  In defining a uniqueness, Potsdam could be viewed as SUNY’s premier liberal arts college.  This concept was discussed and mostly endorsed by the President’s Council and seemed intriguing to the leadership of the Senate.  As we seek to further differentiate this campus as part of our upcoming enrollment management strategy, there will be further discussions about what our message should be.

And finally, during one of the summer orientation lunches, I sat next to a couple from downstate who said their son was the first in his family to attend college.  They talked about what this meant to them and their extended family, and the hopes and dreams they have for their son and his siblings.  After the luncheon, I couldn’t help but reflect on the conversation with that couple.  To them, and to so many people, having someone attend and graduate from college is an integral part of fulfilling their dreams.  This campus not only educates, but turns dreams into reality.  And what all of you do on a daily basis, showing pride in your jobs, treating every student with respect and understanding, creating an environment that fosters the best in all of us, is a major part of what makes this campus work.  We cannot let distractions of budgets, or shared services, or presidential searches, get in the way of our core mission.  When you smile at students, or listen to their concerns, or help them in so many different ways, you are making a big difference in their lives.  At the summer reunion, alumni continuously told me stories of how different faculty and staff from throughout the campus positively impacted them.  Thanks for what you do on a daily basis, thanks for making SUNY Potsdam a high impact, creative campus, and thanks for helping our students fulfill their dreams.

Have a great semester!