State of the College 2009

Opening Convocation
August 27, 2009

“There is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.”  Julius Caesar, Shakespeare

When Brutus spoke these lines in Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar he articulated an idea that fortune, like the tides, is cyclical.  He believed that as the tide rises, and reaches its flood, one could thus grasp events in human existence at their greatest expanse and leverage that into victory.  It is not surprising that humans have been fascinated by the tides, the pull of our moon on the mass of the oceans causing water to bulge out and thus expose more of the shoreline.  I think that the metaphor is not correct.  When the tide is captured at the flood, it only leads inevitably to the ebb.  The water flows back into the ocean.  The contrasting image frequently used in higher education and business is that a rising tide lifts all boats.  As conditions improve generally, each institution sees improvement. I think we need to revise Brutus’ saying to read, “There comes a tide in the affairs of men which, when taken at the ebb, leads on to fortune.”  The time to buy is when a market has reached its lowest point, not the peak.  Any surfer knows to prepare for a wave while in the trough, not once the wave is upon you.  Additionally, entrepreneurial wisdom says that the best time to start a new business is in a recession.  There’s empirical data to prove this.  It’s the best time to unleash your creativity and defy both conventional mindsets and fears.  Similarly, now that we are in the worst part of the economic crisis we have begun preparing for the economic recovery.

When I was interviewed for my position here I was asked what I envisioned for the College in fifteen years.  My response was that: when asked by a friend where I worked, my proud reply would be SUNY Potsdam.  At this my interrogator would reply, “You work at SUNY Potsdam?  Everyone knows what wonderful things have happened there in the last few years.  It’s been the topic of numerous case studies.  Tell me about what really happened!”  When I first addressed you three years ago, I depicted my vision of a bright future for the College.  I am still firmly committed that the best years of the College are yet to come.  Today we stand at the edge of a transformation of the College that will build the foundation for that bright, successful future. This is a time when we MUST make tough strategic decisions that ensure a stronger, brighter future for Potsdam.  This is the ebb.   

In the last 16 months, our campus has had to confront a seemingly endless series of reductions to our State support.   The realities of our immediate future are harsh. You deserve to know the gravity of the economic impact on this college and what it means because you are integral to the success of our efforts.  

No sooner had the Legislature ended its 2008 session than the Governor began to cut our budget.  When the Trustees of SUNY approved a tuition increase, the State responded by taking that as well.  We have campus obligated funds, money we have set aside from fees, tied to specific obligations.  These include health care for our students and the maintenance and renovation of our residence halls. The Legislature has taken some $40 million of these system-wide and is threatening to take more.  Right now, in spite of enjoying near historic enrollments, we find our base budget, those funds derived from state support and tuition, to be nearly $6 million below last year.  The news out of Albany regarding tax collections indicates that further reductions are coming our way.  Although the national economy seems to have reached a turning point, it will be quite some time before this has any effect on the revenues of the State of New York, and in turn on our budget.

In the spring, Vice President Mike Lewis outlined for the full Faculty meeting exactly how we reached our current economic situation, and those things we have done to help balance our budget.  Thanks to the Vice Presidents, Deans, Directors and all of you, we have a balanced budget.  It will be a difficult year, but if we follow our spending plan we can stay out of financial trouble.  The challenge we confront is two-fold.  The reductions we have imposed for this year are largely one-time only. They generally cannot be repeated.  Only about $2 million of the reductions can be considered as repeatable, hardly any are permanent.  We pledged our rainy day fund of $1 million to resolve the problem, but once it’s gone, it’s gone.  We have suspended the computer replacement cycle for one year, going from a three-year to a four-year cycle; we cannot extend that another year.  We have suspended the purchase of academic equipment for one year; we cannot suspend it for another year without serious deleterious consequences.  As a result, we must now replace these one-time cuts with permanent ones and reduce our spending permanently by $6 million. If the State cuts our budget more, as is possible, that will only increase the permanent cuts we will have to make.

As I outlined in last year’s State of the College address, 82% of the money which we receive in tuition and State support is spent on salaries and wages.  We have tried to protect our employees as much as possible during this difficult time.  We simply cannot continue to do that.  In order to make $6 million in cuts, we need to reduce our work force; there simply is no other way.  We will have to reduce the number of employees in a rational manner.  This means focusing on strategic reductions based upon historic staffing data and on the long-term goals of the College.  We will make the cuts in accordance with contractual agreements and procedures established by the State of New York and with the appropriate consultation and notification as provided for in contract and law.  

The College has seen a dramatic growth in its work force, in the last 15-20 years.  Technology has experienced significant growth.  CTS has expanded in response to our increasing and expanding reliance on technology.  Similarly, Admissions and Advancement have experienced greater than average growth, because of the increasing importance of enrollments and charitable giving to our overall financial stability.  The other area of significant growth has been among faculty and academic support personnel.  We have added several dozen faculty positions over this period.  Yet classified staff, specifically grounds keepers and janitors, has declined.  Overall, we have added employees faster than our enrollments have grown.  Our College has gone from being one of a few comprehensive colleges with a low student faculty ratio to being by far and away the college with the lowest ratio.  We have seen a nearly 6 point drop in the student faculty ratio in the last 16 years.  This translates into a decrease from 21.5 to 15.8.  Each point drop in the student faculty ratio costs us approximately $1 million.  While we all prize the importance of a low student faculty ratio, in the current financial situation it simply is not sustainable.  We must find a suitable balance between a low student faculty ratio and the fiscal reality.

We must reduce the number of employees. We simply cannot reduce our buildings and grounds staff to any great degree since they are already far understaffed.  We should be wary of reducing either Admissions staff or Advancement staff since these two areas contribute significantly to maintaining what little financial stability we do enjoy.  In CTS we cannot accomplish all that needs to be done in a timely fashion even with the staff we have now.  As a result, we must look principally at faculty positions and consider eliminating some of our program offerings.  We simply cannot sustain ourselves with the current size of our workforce. We cannot continue to offer and support some of our academic programs.

The campus has gone through previous budget reductions. Historically, we simply have chosen to impose across the board reductions to balance the budget.  When things got more serious, positions would be frozen when they became vacant.  Unfortunately neither of these responses will give us the solution for a base reduction on the order of $6 million. Across the board reductions and blanket freezes are not strategic; they punish some departments more than others, and they are unpredictable.  In order to become the institution we wish to be, we will have to jettison some areas.  We will have to reduce or eliminate some academic programs.

The Cabinet and I are looking at our strategic goals as outlined in the Bicentennial Plan.  This plan is the fruit of several years of consultation and dialog on the campus.  It began some seven years ago and concluded last year.  Based on discussions at the Leadership Council Retreat, with faculty representatives, I have concluded that our core academic missions are three-fold. We will become the leading arts campus of SUNY. The Crane School is undoubtedly the finest school of music in the system. With the completion of the new Performing Arts building and the growth of the curriculum, I am confident that we will have one of the leading programs of theatre and dance.  We have a solid Creative Writing program.  Our Studio Art department already is recognized as one of the best in the state, one of the few offering the BFA.  When the spaces in Satterlee Hall are renovated, a portion will be used for Studio Art.  What is truly important is that the vitality of the arts programs is not just for the majors in those disciplines but is an important component in the educational experience of all our students.  I am confident that we will become the leading arts campus of SUNY.

Our second academic mission is to provide teacher preparation programs of unquestioned quality.  We have a long and proud history.  For nearly two hundred years we have trained teachers for our region and beyond; for 175 of those years we have been a state supported institution.  It is what we do; it is who we are.  Furthermore, our programs, unlike many others within our sector, are accredited by NCATE, the gold standard for accreditation of teacher preparation programs.  This is an integral part of our identity and one we must continue.

Thirdly, we are grounded in our programs in the sciences and liberal arts.  We provide all students with a strong curriculum based in the liberal arts and sciences. As our history, and physics, and English majors go on to become classroom teachers in high schools around the state and nation, those departments play essential roles in teacher preparation.  Our strong general education program rooted in the liberal arts and sciences provides the basis for all that we do. 

Using these three core mission areas as a touchstone, we will look at everything we do to determine how strategically to reduce programs.  Ours is a teaching institution. We prize teaching and learning. Furthermore, like all of higher education these days, public and private, we are heavily dependent on student tuition and fees.  Consequently in addition to evaluating which programs are core to our mission, we must look at which departments best serve student academic needs. We must examine the overall student faculty ratio per program, credit hour production per faculty member and staffing levels.

In the area of graduate programs, we have seen a decline in enrollments over the last four years or so.  This is in sharp contrast to many schools which are increasing their graduate enrollment.  We must analyze which programs are most closely related to our core mission.  Our graduate programs should build upon our core academic missions and articulate easily with our undergraduate degree programs.  We must be prepared to abandon programs which no longer respond to the needs and demands of our service area, and be prepared to develop new programs to build upon our many strengths.

The Cabinet and I have articulated a philosophy regarding some activities not as closely related to our core academic mission. We have concluded that activities such as non-credit programs, Athletics, and sponsored research should be self-supporting.  The Cabinet members are working closely together to initiate the process. For instance, we have reduced state support for Athletics by $100,000, to take one example.  This cannot occur overnight. It will take many years to reconfigure all of these areas.  But a perspective and a precedent have been set. This allows us to better evaluate the costs and benefits of these programs while focusing tuition and state funds more closely on academic programs.

Our financial situation can improve by addressing enrollment.  I am extremely proud of our Admissions Office.  Over the past seven or eight years they have dramatically changed the enrollment patterns of the College.  Knowing that North Country student populations were poised to decline, we have aggressively marketed the College in the Metro New York City and Long Island region, the Capital district, Central New York and even the southern tier.  The majority of our students no longer come from the North Country.  In response, we have dramatically increased the number of first year students.  Today we have a first-year class that is potentially the largest in the last twenty-five years.  Selectivity remains high.

At the same time, we suffer from higher than expected attrition.  For several years our retention rates had some modest gains.  Nevertheless, in the past two years those gains have slowed or declined. We need to work even harder to retain the students we have. By improving our retention by just a few percentage points we will see an improvement to our budget by hundreds of thousands of dollars.  Retention needs to be one of our highest priorities.  I am charging the Provost, Vice President Miller and Vice President Strong with pursuing initiatives with this task.  I challenge everyone to do what they can to improve retention.

Providing high impact academic opportunities to our students is a key to improving retention.  Increasing selectivity will also improve retention. Students with better high school averages complete their degree programs at higher levels.  The Cabinet will work with Admissions and Financial Aid to explore initiatives that will attract top students and expand class size to provide us with financial stability.  We will continue to study our limited scholarships and financial aid offerings to determine if they are being used effectively in our recruitment strategies.

We can further improve our financial status through charitable giving.  Since my arrival we have been exploring a comprehensive campaign.  Referencing our Bicentennial Plan, we wrote a case statement.  This is a succinct outline of the areas of highest priority.  It includes support for scholarships, arts programming, individualized instructional opportunities, and faculty excellence.  It also encompasses gifts to complement our building projects, such as the new Performing Arts Building.  Last winter a consultant conducted a feasibility study privately with 50 friends of the College and potential donors.  The consultant evaluated how our case statement resonated with them which helped determine our readiness for such a campaign.

Our friends and donors are enthusiastic about the priorities of the campaign.  They are concerned that we might not have the personnel to accomplish it, however.  Mostly they worried that the economic situation last winter, when the interviews were conducted, did not lend itself to the initiation of a major campaign looking to raise tens of millions of dollars.  At the same time, we believe that within a year or so friends and donors will again consider charitable giving.  We intend to use this year to extend our planning and preparation, while continuing our work on maintaining our current relationships and cultivating new friendships.  We have reorganized our development and alumni affairs offices in anticipation of our work ahead.  Staffing in this area remains critical, especially if we wish to generate the level of charitable giving that can have a positive effect on our financial stability.

I am strongly in favor of a campaign.  It offers to us one of the few ways we can control our own fiscal future.  A comprehensive campaign has two major purposes.  One is to raise a large sum of money in a fixed period of time.  We are considering a goal of $25 million by 2016.  It also has the secondary effect of increasing the level of annual giving to a new and significantly higher level.  Why?  Because it heightens people’s awareness of the needs of the College and appeals to broad goals of philanthropy.  A campaign will occupy a significant portion of my time.  But the benefits to the campus are real.  The campaign will be most successful if we all pitch in.  Alumni are far more interested in connecting with a former professor than with a development officer.  I ask each of you to consider reaching out to alumni and friends of the College.  Let’s make this a team effort.  The relationships we build and foster now with our friends and alumni will add to the solid foundation of the College as we move forward.

I should inject one note of caution regarding a campaign.  A campaign will improve our financial stability for the future.   It will not provide a solution to our immediate needs.  The pledges and gifts which we will receive as part of the campaign will be realized over as many as 10 years and potentially longer in the case of planned gifts and bequests.  I am constantly reminded of the forester who was asked “When is the best time to plant a tree?”  The forester replied, “Ten years ago, and today.”  Lay the foundation for a financially secure institution today -- and we will accomplish those things we truly hope for the College. Even though we find ourselves in a period of extreme austerity, now is the moment to lay the groundwork for our future growth.

“There comes a tide in the affairs of men which taken at the flood leads on to fortune.”  It should read, “There comes a tide in the affairs of men which taken at the ebb leads on to fortune.”  We are at just such a moment in the life of the College.  Everything that we have done in the past has led us perfectly to where we stand today.  As Shakespeare wrote in The Tempest, “The past is prologue.”  We are grateful to the founding mothers and fathers of this fine institution for what they have given us.  But we must move forward. We must act decisively.

We are creating a new SUNY Potsdam.  As we move beyond this period of financial difficulty, our new institution will be a leader in providing an integrated arts curriculum unequalled in the state and a model for the nation.  We will have programs of exceptional quality in Music, Theatre, Dance, Studio Art, and Creative Writing.  Leading authors, musicians, actors, dancers, sculptors, painters and ceramists will be trained on our campus.  We will enrich the lives of everyone on campus with the high quality of our arts programs.  We will provide teachers for our public schools in all of the arts.  We will also train scholars who study the history and theory of the arts.  And to complement these programs, we will seek to develop an arts management program and enhance our already successful Music Business curriculum.  In all of the arts we will have programs for the making of the art, the study of the art, the teaching of the art, and for the business of the art.

We will continue to be leaders in teacher preparation programs, training generations of teachers for the twenty-first century.  We will expand our teacher preparation programs both in content and in geographical reach.  As Watertown continues to grow, we will provide a larger repertoire of programs at our branch campus located there.  Our MST program in Ottawa will provide the model for program development elsewhere.  We will propose a new curriculum to train teachers of Mohawk and other native languages to help stimulate cultural awareness in the North Country.

We will expand our programs in the sciences and liberal arts in response to the needs of the region and nation and, as new areas of scholarly inquiry develop, we will seize on these to become leaders in a manner similar to how we gained national recognition with our Computer Science program several decades ago.  We have an outstanding general education curriculum of uncompromising quality fully grounded in the liberal arts and sciences which will continue to serve as the strong backbone of our curriculum.  Our graduate programs while responding to the needs of the state and nation will grow organically out of our exceptional undergraduate curricula.  But most of all, we will continue to provide a high quality, handcrafted education for our students.  

We stand at the brink of a new era for our College, indeed the brink of a new institution.  Two hundred years ago several foresighted citizens proudly founded this college.  Today we are called upon to become new founders of the institution of tomorrow.  We all are the founding mothers and fathers of that new SUNY Potsdam.

Please join me in this challenge.