State of the College - 2011

August 25, 2011

Summer is a time to refresh, relax, get some research or creative activity done, mostly enjoy the change of pace and take time to look at things from a slightly different perspective.  I had hoped that this would be the way I could spend the latter part of the summer.  Of course, those of you who read the papers or watch TV might know that things did not work out exactly as I had planned.  Let me start by sharing a pair of recent events with you all:

Imagine with me. The room is rather dark, considering the bright sunshine outside.  We are gathered at the 1844 House for lunch, a lunch unlike any I have attended before.  As I enter the room, most of the members of the Potsdam and Canton college councils, including the student representatives, from Potsdam and Canton are milling around. A TV reporter, camera running, is in one corner and reporters from NCPR and the Watertown Times are in another.  The luncheon guests, huddled in small groups, are milling about in quiet conversation.

The representatives from SUNY arrive, led by Provost David Lavallee and Chief Counsel Bill Howard. Folks find seats at tables that are arranged in a U shape, as it happens, facing the reporters.  President Kennedy and I sit on one side of a far corner.  We make polite small talk.  

When most people have finished lunch, Provost Lavallee stands and begins to describe the Campus Alliances in general, and then to focus in on Canton and Potsdam.  SUNY is asking us to build administrative collaborations so that the money saved from administrative salaries can be invested in the student experience: more classes, more student activities, more services for students.  Lavallee, certain that he has everyone’s attention, states, “At the end of this academic year, there will be one President for SUNY Potsdam and SUNY Canton.”  With that, the room erupts.  Members of the Canton College Council express outrage that such a suggestion would be made, particularly without broader consultation. While agreeing with the general principle of saving money, they cannot accept the premise that the two campuses can share a president.  A few members of the Potsdam College Council echo these ideas.  When Provost Lavallee brings the meeting to a close, promising to return to continue the conversation, feelings are still running very high.

Twenty minutes later, the SUNY officials and I arrive at the Campus Center on the Canton campus, where members of the Potsdam President’s Council, many administrators from Canton and student leaders from both campuses are assembled.  The introductions of over 50 people takes some time, but gives us a good sense of the areas represented.  Provost Lavallee launches into the same presentation regarding the campus alliances that he had given to the College Councils.  Yet this time, something very different happens. No uproar overtakes the room.  Instead, a few staff people from Canton ask questions about whether they will lose their identity.  Provost Lavallee reassures them that the intent of the plan holds both campuses distinct and unique in mission and curriculum. The consolidation is focused solely on administrative level functions and operations.  We feel the room change as a noticeable exhalation comes from the assembled group.  Then something remarkable happens.  The questions turn to how we can cooperate and collaborate.  Where can we start?  What areas make the most sense to consider?  The tone is respectful and engaging. People really want to know what is expected of them, to learn more from their counterparts about how they do their work, and to begin to explore the synergies that exist.

Such different meetings, and yet the message at each was the same. The first was full of discomfort, raw emotion, even pain. But the second, after the first few awkward moments, was something quite different. Colleagues came together in a spirit of cooperation, exploration and possibility.  It was tenuous, of course, but the energy was very different.  The difference between fighting change and exploring change was palpable. Over the last two weeks the various vice presidents and other administrators have continued to meet with their counterparts at Canton.  The discussions are moving along very well.   I am excited about the possibilities, which I’ll describe in a bit more detail in a minute.

For the last nine months, Chancellor Nancy Zimpher has been asking campus presidents to begin to consider how they will share services with other campuses in order to reduce administrative costs and increase resources to academic and student affairs. The Board of Trustees passed such a resolution at their June 15 meeting.  Announcements were made about Potsdam and Canton, followed by news about Cobleskill and Delhi, and SUNY IT and Morrisville, which will also share presidents. The idea of cooperation with Canton is not new.  Since the mid-1990s, there have been three separate studies regarding our two campuses.  

The first of these occurred in 1994 – 95.  The country was in a tight economic situation, and rumors about closing one of the two campuses in St. Lawrence County abound.  A study, commissioned to look at closure or other alternatives, recommended that the two colleges be merged in order to continue to provide a broad range of academic services to the region.  In particular it envisioned that SUNY Canton become a school within SUNY Potsdam, taking on some of Potsdam’s education curricula while still specializing in technical and professional programs. All of the schools of the College would have a strong focus on service to students and the region.

In the economic downturn of 2003, again rumors flew about closing one of the campuses.  SUNY commissioned two noted scholars, Drs. James Samels and James Martin, to study the alternatives for Canton and Potsdam.  Again, the recommendation was to merge the two campuses to provide better services to the students and to save money from administrative overhead.  The proposed new entity would have been SUNY St. Lawrence, a place where the strengths of the two constituent campuses enriched and diversified the academic programs.  The Canton campus would continue to specialize in technical curricula and also provide the first two years for many of Potsdam’s programs.  The new entity would continue to deliver what the authors described as “high tech, high touch” services to students.

Just last year President Kennedy and I asked our vice presidents to look at shared services.  This study concluded that merely sharing services does not provide significant savings.

The online newspaper, Inside Higher Education, in an article about the Chancellor’s plans, reported on Friday, August 19, 2011, “Merging administrative services such as technology or human resources has been a tactic floated by several systems to help cope with decreased revenues and increased administrative costs. Several systems have proposed merging entire institutions or shutting down campuses. But wedding the senior administrations of two universities while letting each campus retain its separate identity in the way that SUNY is proposing is a relatively new tactic.”  Two unique campuses led by one administrative team – this is a new conceptual model in higher education, and we will be on the cutting edge.  

The Campus Alliance with SUNY Canton is a work in progress.  Right now, there is more that we do not know than we do know.  There is a long series of questions we might ask:  How do we create a single administration from two?  What are the implications for human resources?  How can a comprehensive IT function serve both campuses?  How are the needs of students on each campus unique? And how are they alike?  What best practices and benchmarks can guide us?

Even with so many questions, I see that there are fantastic opportunities that an alliance with Canton provides for both of us.  One of the biggest benefits is working with our colleagues there in a collaborative rather than competitive model, focused together on creating a rich and meaningful experience for our students.  That is my goal.  Let’s ignore all the money issues.  An alliance with Canton can provide a seamless educational opportunity for students.  Imagine with me a student from Brasher Falls whose academic aspirations are frankly uncertain who starts at Canton.  In her second year, she cross-registers for a course in politics at Potsdam.  A new world opens for her, one that we know well.  Upon completing two years, she transfers to Potsdam and earns a bachelor’s degree in politics.  Or imagine the student from Dekalb who studies Graphic and Multimedia design at Canton and then comes to Potsdam for a master’s in Leadership and Technology. Or a four-year degree recipient at Canton whose education is enriched by having taken liberal arts courses at Potsdam; a Potsdam student who benefits from the online and technical courses offered at Canton.  The broad range of degree programs offered by the two campuses provide students with a panoply of opportunities, some that they never knew existed. There are many such opportunities, some of which we can barely imagine now, that will be revealed as we continue to investigate the possibilities.

The Campus Alliance with Canton is just one of many changes our campus faces in the year to come.  The good news is that “We do change well.”  This college is not just surviving, but thriving, in many areas in these times of great change.  We have become skilled at managing change and transition. Let’s just briefly consider the last few years.  Before I arrived, the College budget was severely restrained.  A brief shift in the national economy allowed us to dream as restraint was lifted and plans were made to achieve some long desired goals around the issues of workload and compensation.  Then the other shoe fell. In the last three years, we have lost $13 million in state support and seen our workforce decline significantly.  Through it all, we have maintained a level of professionalism and quality that our students, their parents and our alumni recognize and praise.  

Scores of faculty and staff continue work on the self-study for our up-coming reaccreditation visit from Middle States.  Our Admissions Office is doing a fantastic job of recruiting an excellent first year class.  For the second year in a row we welcome 900 new first-year students and 340 new transfer students. We celebrate the 125th anniversary of the Crane School of Music.  We begin to offer the BFA in Creative Writing, validation of our status as the premier arts campus in SUNY.  Our program in Business Administration is reaccredited by the International Assembly for Collegiate Business Education.  We surpass our goal for charitable giving by over $600,000, bringing in well over $3 million last year, despite the sluggish economy.  The Performing Arts Building is under construction and the study for the renovation of the Student Union is complete.

The Association of American of Colleges and Universities features our Freshman Interest Groups as a model program.  Sixty-seven different faculty and staff members and 52 students collaborate on 106 projects as part of the Title III Undergraduate Research Grant.  And the Center for Undergraduate Research awards Kilmer research grants to 41 students working with 25 faculty members on research projects during the academic year and this summer.

I am so proud of all your fantastic accomplishments.  The great energy of our campus is not diminished by our challenges. In many ways, the challenges are proving to be the catalyst for growth, for innovation, for thinking beyond what is…. to what is possible.

We will rely on that energy and innovation as we start a new academic year. There is a new reality that we must face.  We have permanently lost about $13 million of state support. We have received a tuition increase of $300 per student per year for the next five years.  Even as it compounds, this will barely recover half of what we have lost and will hardly help us keep up with inflation.  We must grasp our new reality and move forward. In considering our strategic goals, we need to first assess what is feasible. We must also know what is critical for the essential functions of the College.  Understanding these, we can consider what is desirable.

At the top of the list of challenges is living within our budget as we plan for the year to come.  Campus budgets have been restrained for several years now.  As I promised last spring, I have determined that the current level of allocation is our new reality.  The budget with which we begin this year is the new base budget.  That budget reflects the reductions we have absorbed over the last few years but also the additional funds allocated to Academic Affairs, Business Affairs, and Advancement at the end of last year.  

We are beginning the year in the black.  Our immediate mandate is to stabilize the institution.  We have relied on short-term solutions that are not sustainable and we must wean ourselves from these strategies.  For example, last year and this year we have committed our contingency reserve of $1 million to closing the budget gap.  While we still have other ways of responding to an emergency, it is not wise or prudent to continue to operate without a contingency reserve.  In weathering the fiscal storm, we took some actions because they were opportunistic but not necessarily strategic.  These actions must be undone in order to build a strong framework for the future.  Fiscal stability must be one of our operational goals moving forward.

Starting in late September, leaders of the Faculty Senate and members of the President’s Council will begin to develop the broad strokes of the budget for next year.  Following that meeting, I will communicate in greater depth about the process we intend to use to engage the campus in budget deliberations.  Throughout the semester, I will consult regularly with the Business Affairs Committee to share information and to seek their insights and opinions.  We intend to have a concrete budget plan in April, pending the actions of the Legislature.

The campus budget deliberations are part of a larger planning process.  In the full faculty meeting last May, I promised to engage a broad cross-section of the campus in looking at our strategic plans.  The first step in that process will be the retreat that the President’s Council will hold with the leadership of the Faculty Senate.  In that time together, we will work to understand how our long-term plans, evidenced in the Bicentennial Plan, and our immediate goals, seen in the work of the Goals and Planning Committee, are impacted by our new fiscal reality.

I place a high priority on consultation. The Faculty Senate, particularly the standing committees, will be the vehicle for the give and take of information and ideas. I also am scheduling meetings with divisions, administrative departments, and schools to engage in a focused dialogue about the state of the College and our collective future.

We are creating better methods of communication. The Office of Public Affairs is hard at work on an electronic magazine that would replace The Reporter.  My President’s Notes will be posted in this new e-zine along with other important campus news and happenings.  Attractive and easy to use, more people will rely on it as a regular source of current information.  Staff members are also creating a web-based report on the budget that provides data and graphics that explain the sources of our funding and how they are allocated.  It will contain a wealth of information about our budget in an easy-to-use format.  Our goal is to have these tools operational by mid-year.

We begin a year filled with changes and challenges.  We did not choose this new reality yet we do have choices about how we take up the challenge.  I see tremendous possibilities.  Each of you sees a different college and a different set of challenges and opportunities than I do.  We all have challenges to confront.  AND We all have hopes and dreams for the college.  We are all united by a common goal – to create a rich learning experience for each and every student.   The handcrafted education is our bond and our purpose, the source of our greatest pride.  

Kaitlyn Beachner followed in her father’s footsteps when she came to Potsdam.  She visited other colleges, but claimed Potsdam as her new home despite the cold, grey February day.  Her intellectual curiosity was sparked by the study of history and anthropology, Kait formed strong bonds with Dr. Stannish and Dr. Hersker.  She engaged fully in her classes, whether small discussion or large lecture, grabbing opportunities for investigation and discussion.  Supported by her faculty members and a cadre of professional staff, Kait led the Student Government Association with confidence and integrity.   The special bond she developed with Maureen Taylor, long-time SGA business manager, gave her the encouragement and support to pursue her calling to work with college students.  Kait is a graduate student at Buffalo State in the Higher Education and Student Affairs master’s program.  Elected last spring as the President of the SUNY-wide Student Assembly and member of the SUNY Board of Trustees, Kait rarely speaks without acknowledging the challenge and support she found in her relationships with faculty and staff at SUNY Potsdam.  She is the product of the handcrafted education.

Just as Kait discovered the handcrafted education through the efforts of Professors Stannish and Hersker and her work with Maureen Taylor, so I hear of from so many other students and alumni about faculty and staff members who exemplify the handcrafted education.  Professors like Carol Rossi-Fries, who serves as an exemplar of a fine teacher for so many of our EOP and Bridges students.  Or Lisa Stewart, who personally advises over 150 students annually and helps each succeed given their unique circumstances.  Or Robin Hosley, who for years has both served as co-chair of the music education department but also takes such a deep and personal interest in her students, their progress, plans and future.  Or like Michael Rygel, whose love and enthusiasm for rocks is so contagious that he convinces students to confront black flies and ocean currents to study geological formations in Canada.  The handcrafted education has to do with passion and dedication: the deep connection between a staff member or a faculty member and the student which has the power to transform the student’s life and horizons.

Promise lives in each of our students, waiting to be uncovered by you in the unique environment we create together.   Let us view this moment as a creative opportunity instead of a critical juncture.  What do the challenges and constraints of this moment inspire in you?  What new collaborations can we embark upon together?  I invite those conversations and welcome your innovative ideas.  While we all have our concerns, fears and frustrations, let’s pledge to move beyond them to work constructively and to forge a more effective partnership.  With that as our daily experience, we will once again demonstrate an essential aspect of our institutions character:  “We can do this.”  We do change well.