State of the College - 2012

August 23, 2012

Cultivating an exceptional garden in higher education

Let’s take a few moments to welcome our new colleagues, who were hired since last September.  I will read their names by division and ask that they stand.  Please hold your applause until everyone has been recognized.

Over the summer, I began to write an occasional blog for the Huffington Post.  In the last one, I reflected on a line from Candide in which Voltaire tells us "we must cultivate our garden." It comes near the end of the work, when it becomes obvious that the moral lesson of Candide's tutor, Dr. Pangloss, namely that "we live in the best of all possible worlds," is in all likelihood incorrect.

As many of you know, my wife, Anne, is the head gardener in our family. I may have the great honor of being president of this exceptional institution, but in our yard, she outranks me. She is a certified Master Gardener, well adapted to the rigors of gardening here in the far reaches of Northern New York. I provide the manual labor for her creativity in the flower garden.  I like to think through our gardens, we enrich more lives than just our own.  Each summer, we entertain hundreds of alumni and friends of the College in the garden.

Higher education is a lot like gardening: In general, we confront each student wherever he or she might be on their educational path and help our students reach their educational goals. It is a fairly intensive and hands-on relationship when done well.

The individual plants need to be nurtured, watered, pruned and then allowed to flourish. Likewise, in higher education, the college can only provide the learning environment. At some point, it's up to the student to take those nourishing lessons and find success.

Anne and I buy seedlings from the nursery and then prepare them for our garden: harden them off, and trim the roots and top growth. Students come to college from their home "nursery" and go through a similar process of molding to the new environment. We provide advisors, counselors, and peer mentors to help them in their adjustment.

The really difficult part of the equation is "knowing when." In the case of the garden, we must know when to plant, water, prune, and cultivate -- and when not to. With college students, we must know the best way to provide the support structure, the curriculum, and the essentials of life to encourage wellness and success.

Despite the volatile environment and having to weather the financial storms of the State of New York, SUNY Potsdam has a lively, vibrant garden.

At our core, we have the finest of the arts and sciences.  We were designated as a Normal School, that is, one geared towards the preparation of teachers, way back in 1869, but we have since recognized that the best of teachers and the best teaching is rooted in a strong liberal arts and sciences foundation. 

When we look at our science programs, we also see excellence.  Just this year, the first person in the history of the College to be named a Distinguished University Research Professor is Dr. María Hepel from Chemistry, one of only a handful of Distinguished Research Professors from a comprehensive campuses.  Congratulations, Maria, on this achievement.

It is well known that our campus was the home of one of the very first Computer Science programs in SUNY and possibly the nation.  Recent innovations in that program have brought about a dramatic increase in enrollments.  Our Biology department annually places students in some of the finest graduate and medical schools in the nation, and has won several prestigious grants for their research.  Our Geology department is a powerhouse.  Their students become interns at leading corporations and then go on to very successful careers.  And those are just a few examples of our scientific successes.

It is not uncommon nationally for around a quarter of students to graduate in the Social Sciences, as we do with our excellent programs in politics, psychology, sociology, anthropology and more.  What is uncommon is for a quarter of students to graduate in the arts.  We are unique because we provide an excellent liberal arts education across the board to all of our students, the vast majority of whom do not major in the arts, but whose curricula are enriched by these outstanding programs.

Our Bicentennial Plan calls for the college to be “the leading arts campus” of the SUNY System.  This does not mean that the campus should place any less emphasis on the sciences, social sciences, humanities, education or professional programs.  It recognizes that for well over a century, SUNY Potsdam has been a leader in arts education in the United States, and that we cannot rest on our laurels, with far more left to accomplish. 

The reality of the situation is that each year, nearly a quarter of the students who graduate from SUNY Potsdam receive degrees in the arts (including Music, Art, Theatre and Dance, and Creative Writing).  There are very few colleges or universities in the United States which can boast such numbers. More importantly, ALL of our students have exposure to the creative disciplines and prolific cultural offerings of this campus. This is truly exceptional and we should be very proud.

It is not surprising that the number of Theatre and Dance majors has nearly quadrupled over the last seven years, or that our Bachelor of Fine Arts program in Studio Art is bursting at the seams. Crane continues to be an internationally recognized school of music returning to perform in renowned venues such as Lincoln Center, and our new creative writing program adds tremendous depth to our arts offerings.

Given the incredibly versatile skill set with which our students in the arts are endowed, it seems odd that in the popular imagination majors in the arts are seen as dead-ends. How many times have pundits laughed that students majoring in art or music or (heaven forbid) theater don’t have a chance in the world of securing a job upon graduation?  

I've always found this odd, given the unique aptitude that graduates in the arts possess: the ability to improvise. Our students—whether art majors or simply those taking a requirement or soaking up a show—understand the importance of improv.

Even the best actor will occasionally make a mistake. The other actors must then improvise, and somehow move on, without leaving out information needed by the audience. This capacity, essential for actors, in business and industry is called "thinking on your feet."

For musicians of all types, from classical through pop and of course jazz, improvisation is essential. Taking a theme and learning to manipulate it is a skill one could translate to many fields.

Visual artists make hundreds of moment-to-moment decisions about how best to bring a piece to fruition, whether on the canvas, potter’s wheel or computer screen. That shows precisely the dedication and decision-making wherewithal most employers seek.

Writers learn to coax meaning and poetry from a spark of imagination. The ability to communicate that vision is valuable in many venues.

Now, this is not to say that students of science and the social sciences are not also equipped to deal with change and ambiguity, because they are. But unique among the liberal arts and sciences, students in the arts are specifically trained to deal with failure, or more precisely how to avoid failure: to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

Increasingly employers seek graduates with tremendous creative skills and the capacity to cope in an atmosphere of rapid change. We have the edge—our graduates, enriched by experiences in the arts, have this in spades.

So I say again, SUNY Potsdam is quite a unique and diverse garden.  I am thrilled to be working in these fields with all of you.

Today, we have already welcomed some 40 new professional employees and faculty members who have been hired since last fall.  Would all of our new colleagues please stand and be recognized again? We are also pleased that 69 employees have been promoted or achieved tenure, permanent or continuing appointment.  Would everyone who was promoted or received tenure, permanent or continuing appointment please stand and be recognized?  Unlike many of our peer institutions who have come to rely even more heavily on part-time or contingent employees, we still believe that full-time and tenure-track employees will best allow SUNY Potsdam to provide the handcrafted education for which we are so well known.  But this decision is a significant and deliberate investment. 

Those of us who work in higher education know that our resources to tend our garden are, unfortunately, limited.  We do, in fact, live in a world of limited good.  Our budget is severely constrained, and we do not have a pot of money hidden away to shower on everything we wish we could.  We do have a mechanism to address the pressing needs of the College.  Each year, the President’s Council consults widely with campus constituencies to determine where we need to make investments.  These decisions are also informed by the College mission, the Bicentennial Plan and our biennial strategic goals.  We know that we need to restore funding to many areas that were severely cut, and to deal with unexpected needs as they arise.  As a result, it sometimes feels as if we are treading water.  But, I assure you that we are not, and we are progressing slowly but surely toward the attainment of the goals of the Bicentennial Plan.

As most of you know, SUNY Potsdam and SUNY Canton presented a long and detailed report on shared services to the SUNY Board of Trustees on July 16.  A copy of that report is available on the web. The immediate implication for our campus is that we will continue to do what we do well.  We will also seek to cooperate with SUNY Canton on a wide variety of issues, from purchasing to curriculum development.  This fall, I will be visiting all three of the Schools on our campus in order to consult faculty regarding the report, and our plans for the future.  In that same vein I will meet with all the committees of the Faculty Senate.  The President’s Council and I will create a steering committee and working groups to consult and assist in the shared services discussions.  It is essential that this process be as open and transparent as possible.

Of course, one of the major reasons why the SUNY Board of Trustees is asking us to pursue shared services is because of the continuing fragility of the state budget, and by extension our own.  In the future, we will become even more reliant on student enrollment than we have been in the past.  As a result of the drastic budget cuts of three years ago, our state support has dwindled.  When I arrived in 2006, we received about as much in state support as we collected in tuition.  This year, state support is less than half of what we receive in tuition. The increases in tuition have shifted our reliance dramatically to our students.  Consequently, in order to improve our budget, we must look to increasing our enrollments. 

One of the challenges the campus faces is the limited repertoire of degree programs, especially at the graduate level.  Alongside that, we have several programs that can serve more undergraduates than they currently educate.  Lastly, our conversations with SUNY Canton have indicated that there are potentially several areas where our programs can significantly enhance the curricula offered there.  Conversely, they have courses and programs that could enhance the educational opportunities of our students.  In short, by cooperating with our colleagues in Canton, we might well be able to not only develop curricula to greatly benefit our students, but also to create new programs to attract new students to both campuses.  In all of these discussions, it is important for faculty members from a wide range of disciplines to take the lead.

Our campus Financial Plan for this 2012-13 academic year differs little from last year.  We expect to collect less in tuition than first projected, because graduate enrollments continue to be weak.  This is of concern not just on our campus, but around the System as well.  Nearly all of our peers are experiencing declines in graduate enrollment.  At the same time, most of them are also seeing flat or declining undergraduate enrollments too.  SUNY Potsdam is fortunate to have strong undergraduate enrollments, however.  We are welcoming around 900 new first-year students this weekend, the fourth year in a row in which we have had a first-year class of 900 or more.  In addition, all things suggest that our retention of continuing undergraduate students is stable.  Transfer students are also right on target.  Consequently, except for graduate enrollment, we continue to make our enrollment targets.  Yet at the same time, some of our base operating costs have continued to increase, leading to no major increases or decreases in our Financial Plan for this year.  Provost Madden and I continue to seek ways to improve departmental expense budgets and also to secure funding for professional development and academic equipment.  I will continue to seek broad campus opinion as we study the funding priorities moving forward.

In the most recent visit by the team from the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, we received a glowing report.  Provost Madden and I have served on many teams to different campuses and neither of us has seen such a positive report.  The team gave us 26 commendations.  There were slightly fewer suggestions (23): ideas which might allow us to do some things better.  There were only four recommendations, that is, things we must do in the next ten years.  All of those had to do with the larger issue of institutional assessment.  This recommendation has become common, as many colleges have established solid assessment plans for student learning and now need to spread the culture of assessment into all offices on campus.  We have been asked to file an interim report in two years on these issues.  To that end, we have been asked to create a broadly representative task force to review the issue and make recommendations about how to improve.  I am very proud of our campus and the findings of the visiting team.  I want to thank Dr. Jim German and Dean of Students Chip Morris for their work as the co-chairs of the self-study committee.  Our self-study quite simply “knocked it out of the park.”  It was so well done and so thorough that when the visiting team arrived on campus it only took them a day to confirm the essential details of the report and then the team had little more to do.

The report of the Middle States team confirms what we know: ours is a remarkably successful institution.  In particular, we were praised for our financial management in the face of the budget crisis which hit us three years ago.  They singled out the fantastic budget book which outgoing Vice President Mike Lewis produced for all campus constituencies.  I have asked Natalie Higley, our new Chief Financial Officer, to continue that publication.  The team also praised our general education curriculum as being exemplary.  In their words: “it is a model for other institutions to emulate.”  Our faculty members were also a target of praise, noting their professional accomplishments, engagement with students, and dedication to the institution as a whole.  In short, we have much to be proud about.  This is not to deny that we face challenges.  But taken as a whole, SUNY Potsdam is a terrific place to work. 

This coming academic year is ripe with possibility. I continue to be hopeful that through collaboration with SUNY Canton we can enhance academic offerings for our students, and find administrative efficiencies in order to invest more in instruction and direct student services.

In addition to the continuing conversations regarding shared services, there are other important things to prepare for.  This coming spring, the campus will be the scene of much activity.  Not only will we have the second annual Lougheed Festival of the Arts from April 26 to May 4, we will also celebrate our triennial Academic Festival from April 10 to April 13.  These events have the potential to draw a considerable amount of positive attention to the campus and also provide some unique and rich experiences for our students and the community. The organizers of both festivals are actively seeking proposals. 

The Academic Festival has the theme of “Making the Future.”  Martin Walker of the Department of Chemistry is the coordinator.  The festival is a wonderful opportunity to bring in a special speaker from off-campus, or to organize forward-thinking departmental activities centered around the common theme.

The Lougheed Festival of the Arts seeks to expand the arts on the SUNY Potsdam campus.  Proposals can come from any department or student group, not just those focused on the arts.  These can include speakers, special performances, educational outreach opportunities, in fact just about anything that helps to expose the entire campus community to the full breadth of the arts. The Festival will culminate with a Crane Chorus and Orchestra performance of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem under the baton of Cristof Perick.

Student Entertainment Services is coordinating with the Academic Festival and the Lougheed Festival of the Arts, in launching their second annual Spring Festival from April 20 to April 27.  This will bring nearly a score of bands and other groups to perform on campus. 

For 20 days in April and the first few days of May, we will see our campus rocking and rolling, studying and celebrating academics and the arts.

One of the initiatives I am quite excited about this year is a partnership between Human Resources and UUP.  We will be offering a year-long Civility in the Workplace initiative, full of workshops, a book club, panel discussions and outreach.  Please join me in reaffirming the Potsdam Pledge and a commitment to a positive, polite, productive and professional workplace.  This parallels an initiative of the Student Affairs Office of Campus Life: the Community Civility Initiative.  The initiative uses the motto “Be Ethical And Responsible,” the acronym for which is BEAR.  On October 18, the Civility Initiative will host a “Civility Sit-in’ which has as its goal bringing faculty members, staff, and students together to silently protest behaviors for which folks will not stand while here at SUNY Potsdam.

So looking to the future, we have much to do. The Bicentennial Plan and our mission statement continue to be our compass and guide in our deliberations about the future.  Part and parcel of who we are and who we wish to be is our status as the leading arts campus within SUNY.  Nonetheless, that status should not mean that we are any the less committed to being the best education campus within SUNY, or offer the best programs in social sciences, or in the sciences and math.  Indeed, all of this can now take on even greater importance in the context of increased administrative cooperation with SUNY Canton and new opportunities for the creation of academic programs to enhance each others’ curricula.  In short, it is a brave and exciting new world into which we are entering.  I hope to enlist your assistance and counsel as we move forward and take on these challenges.

So, at the end of the day, Candide was right. We must all cultivate our garden. Nobody is going to do it for us. In higher education, we must be aware of all those factors over which we have control in order to provide the optimal environment for student learning. Then, as in our gardens, we pray for good weather (or a favorable economy) and watch as our young people grow. In that way, the success of our students becomes the bouquet of flowers that greets us every day.