Academic Year Opening Remarks 2006

Opening Breakfast Remarks by President John F. Schwaller
August 24, 2006

Perfección por Jorge Guillén 

Queda curvo el firmamento,
Compacto azul, sobre el dia.
Es el redondeamiento
Delesplendor: mediodia.
Todo es cupula. Reposa,
Central sin querer, la rosa,
A un sol en cenit sujeta.
Y tanto se da el presente
Que al pie caminante siente
La integridad del planeta.

[Cántico (1928-1950)] 

Perfection by Jorge Guillén

The firmament remains curved,
A compact blue over the day.
It is the rounding out of
 Splendor: mid-day.
Everything is a cupola. The rose,
Central without wanting it, reposes,
Subject to the sun at its zenith.
This much the present time gives,
That the walking foot feels
The integrity of the planet.

All of us instinctively understand the beauty of the cupola of the rounded firmament, the blue dome of heaven.  This poem by the Spanish poet Jorge Guillen is one of my very favorites.  It symbolizes for me the perfection of a single rose as the focus of all the cosmic energy of the universe.  It is a spare yet moving description of perfection, a perfect alignment of the sun, the heavens, and a single rose.  At that moment we can truly feel the wholeness of the planet.  It probably stretches the point, but I think that it can also serve as a metaphor for SUNY Potsdam: a single, compact, institution, under the high vault of heaven.  It certainly does emphasize the unique quality of Potsdam.  I like to think that it also gives us something towards which to strive.  While we'll never attain perfection, we can radiate the beauty of perfection in the success of our students and the accomplishments of our faculty and staff.    So perhaps we are just a simple rose, stopping the sun for a moment in its course.  At that moment we feel the integrity of the whole planet, and the integrity of our whole mission.

The concept of integrity is central to the message I have today.  Integrity, of course, has two meanings.  On the one hand the less common meaning used here is something which brings disparate units into a single whole, "the quality or state of being complete or undivided." (Merriam Webster Dictionary) It is formed from the same root as the word integer, meaning a single whole number. The other meaning, and of course the more common meaning, speaks to ethics and morals, it is a "firm adherence to a code of especially moral or artistic values." (Merriam Webster Dictionary)  The work that we are about should be guided by the second of the definitions, while it is marked by the first.  It is complete and undivided.  There is no seam between the activities of the College.  The work done by academic advisors blends seamlessly with that of the faculty, which in turn blends with the work of the residence hall staff, and the grounds crews and custodial staff.  We all serve the needs of the students.  WHAT we each do, in turn, compliments the actions of others.  As John Donne wrote, "No man is an island entire of itself, every man is a piece of the continent."

In a very similar vein the life of the students should demonstrate integrity.  The lessons they learn in a psychology course should be immediately applicable in a Spanish course, or in late night conversations in the residence hall, or gathered around a dining table in Lehmann.  Likewise their experiences on the soccer pitch should also carry into the recital hall, and the biology classroom.  We strive for an integrated experience for all of our students.

The question becomes, then, how do we achieve this integration?  Given the last five years of strategic planning, and the current process of developing a Memorandum of Understanding, it is quite clear to me, as a relative outsider quickly integrating himself into the campus, that the ground work has been done.  We need spend no more time on visioning, or re-visioning or refocusing our vision.  What remains to us now is to follow up on the plan. 

Over the last few months I have listened intently to scores of people on campus about where we are and where we want to go.  Over the summer I held a series of mini-retreats with the Administrative Cabinet to get myself up to speed on the issues confronting the campus.  Just a few days ago the Leadership Council and members of the Faculty Senate had a day and a half retreat in which we studied all of the documents I've mentioned, looked at the issues confronting liberal arts colleges today, considered the recommendations of the Goals and Planning Committee, and established a set of priorities for the coming year.  Those priorities will form the bulk of my comments today.  Let me emphasize that while these priorities flow from the strategic planning that has occurred on our campus over the last few years, before they are implemented, I want the full campus to have a chance to react.  But more about that in a moment. 

Before I look at the strategic goals for the year, let me reflect a bit on what I have learned about the campus.  First of all, this is a wonderful college.  As a relative outsider I can tell you candidly that this campus can be considered a leader in General Education, assessment, first year programs, advancement, and in fiscal responsibility.  The General Education curriculum is well developed, inclusive, and furthers the strategic goals of creating a strong liberal arts core for the College.  The assessment program of the campus is extensive.  It allows us to quickly determine the effectiveness of programs and provides us with ample evidence to demonstrate our excellence.  In the area of student affairs, we have a well integrated First Year Program that can serve as a model both regionally and nationally.  In the area of development we rank 12th nationally among colleges of our type for alumni giving, and are near the top compared to our SUNY peers.  Our endowment is also one of the best performing among our peers nationally and sets and example to others.  Lastly, while it has been hard, you all have gone through a few very difficult years, made some very hard decisions, and have emerged stronger and more focused.  I am very impressed by the strong fiscal management of the campus.  I can report that the system administration finds us to be very well managed and uses our practices as a model for our SUNY peers. 

On that note, I am happy to announce that we are beginning the academic year with our operating budget in the black.  This has some terrific implications for us.  Working with Vice President Lewis, the Cabinet has resolved to try to recover some lost ground.  Because we are beginning the fiscal year in the black, none of the old budget restraints need to be implemented.  When vacancies occur, in nearly all instances, we can recruit to fill them.  Offices can anticipate some needed increases in their base budgets.  Lastly, we will be able to again have academic equipment replacement funds.  All of these are very welcome I know for a campus that has been operating under some significant constraints for five years.   I also want to point out that our undergraduate enrollments are holding strong.  Our Admissions office has met its target for new freshmen and we have slightly improved the over-all quality of our entering class.  Our retention efforts are proving successful and thus the number of returning students is quite high.  We will have generally the same number of new transfer students as we did last year.  Unfortunately we will have slightly fewer graduate students.  Taken as a whole, then, our total enrollment should be comparable to last year.  That is very good news indeed.

   Now allow me to present the operational plan that the Leadership Council and faculty representatives have drafted.

The draft goals for this year that I wish to share with you today fall under five general categories.  These are Enhancing Student Experiences, Faculty and Staff Worklife, Communications, the Budget, and Enrollment Management.  Each of these large headings has from two to four actions points, making a total of fifteen items.  While we may not be able to accomplish all of these goals this year, each has surfaced as an area of concern and to quote an old adage "the longest journey begins with the first step."

In the area of Enhancing Student Experiences we have focused on five specific action points.  We wish to improve support for facilities and equipment for student learning.  This includes working on our classrooms and providing improved equipment in them, and in other sites of student learning.  As our enrollments increase we will work to see that departments have additional funds to support teaching and to hire faculty to maintain our excellent student faculty ratio. We hope to increase student engagement through curricular and co-curricular activities.  As a public liberal arts college we must take very seriously our compact with the public and train students to be engaged with the community and society that surrounds us.  Along another theme, we wish to make campus beautification a high priority to better attract new students and to retain the students that we have.  Besides it's simply more pleasant to work in an attractive place.  We will begin implementation of the recommendations of the diversity task force.  Again, as a public institution we need to work to see that we reflect the diversity of the society in which we live and to train our students to succeed in a world of many diverse cultures.  The other main issue within this topic is that we need to be ever vigil that we not only maintain but enhance the academic core of the institution.  Our central activity is the education of our students.

In the area of Faculty and Staff Worklife, several issues are of tremendous importance.  First among these is a mandate to address the balance of teaching faculty responsibilities.  Working with Provost Madden and the Faculty Work Load task force I hope that the deans, in consultation with individual departments, can begin to explore ways to reduce the teaching component of faculty members' workload.  Closely related to this we must also work to see that there is an appropriate balance in the worklife of our librarians, non-teaching faculty, and classified staff.  Next, we will review the support that exists for professional development for teaching and non-teaching faculty in order to make the process more transparent and to work to provide additional resources for faculty development.  Lastly, we will continue to adjust the level of teaching faculty compensation in comparison with our peers.  Again, for many of these issues we are in the midst of a long journey.  We have already begun to make some strides.  Now we need to move forcefully along the path

In the area of Communications, we will refine and finalize the draft college mission statement.  The committee that worked so hard last year on creating the draft statement is to be congratulated for an excellent process and a fine work product.  The Leadership Council and Faculty Senate representatives at our recent retreat studied the mission statement.  We have a draft ready to present to the campus for final discussion.  This will be posted on the campus web pages.  I am also presenting a few short, pithy vision statements that we can use to more clearly identify the goals of our College, for use in both external arenas, such as recruiting students and faculty, and internally as a touchstone as we continue to work on strategic planning.  Some of these developed at the Leadership Council Retreat, which included representatives of the Faculty Senate, are:  Potsdam is:

   • SUNY's most personal educational experience

   • Connecting scholars, educators, and artists for 200 years

   • Students enriched by critical thought, creativity, and discovery

   • The birthplace of public higher education in New YorkState 

Lastly, we need to communicate our excellence to ourselves and to our external constituencies better.  I do not wish to imply that we have not been communicating our success, but rather we need to exercise a greater singleness of purpose in our communication both internally and externally.  Simply put, as I noted earlier, there is so much to be proud of at this College.  We need to better communicate that internally and externally.

Focusing on the Budget, we stand at a point where we can begin to think about how best to develop our financial systems to deal with growth.  Central to this will be the development of a system that will provide incentives for efficiencies to strengthen us in the future.  While it is too early to predict the exact nature of this system, I strongly support increasing the responsibility (and accountability) of vice presidents, deans, and directors in controlling nearly all aspects of their own budgets, at the same time that we have sufficient funds centrally to accommodate growth and to be prepared for financial uncertainties.  Because of the series of budget crises over the last few years, we have abandoned an integrated budget planning system.  I propose that we develop a calendar whereby the budget is developed.  Requests will be made for new funding or increased funding.  These funding decisions will be made once a year, not willy-nilly or first come first get as we go along.  But since I propose to grant greater flexibility to vice presidents, deans, and directors, many of these funding decisions can be resolved at the departmental or school level.  Lastly, we need to continue to work to enhance our budget through internal and external resource development.  Part of this is will be the development of the budget system that provides incentives to budget managers; another important part, for me as President, is to work with the Legislature, System Administration, Congress, and individual donors to secure additional funding for the institution. This endeavor will become increasingly important and in the coming years may frequently take me off campus, but with our strong team here on campus, I know the campus is in good hands and this that it is a reasonable initiative that I must pursue.

Lastly, Enrollment Management must be a priority for us all.  As a public institution, we are heavily dependent on tuition.  Each of us must do all in our power to recruit and retain students.  To provide us with some of the funds we need for the future, and to demonstrate our credibility to the System Administration, we must meet the modest new enrollment targets outlined in the MOU.  This trajectory will have us grow slowly to and enrollment of 5,000 in five years.  While a challenge, this should not be an impossible task.  Moreover, as part of the strategic planning process we must also plan for that growth in terms of faculty and staff to serve and support those students. This is an area in which we must also have a clearly defined leader.  Currently there is no one person responsible for the success of our enrollment management program.  The Provost, the Vice President for  Student Affairs, and the Associate Vice President for Institutional Effectiveness have proposed the appointment of a person who would coordinate all our enrollment management efforts including admissions, financial aid, and retention, supervising some areas directly, acting in liaison with others.  We have had some preliminary discussions on how to integrate this position into the campus organization and I look forward to a broader campus discussion of this proposal. 

In addition to the issues raised in the plan developed by the Leadership Council and representatives of the Faculty Senate, there is one further area that in my capacity as President, I would like to suggest.  SUNY Potsdam is poised to become a leader in higher education in New York and, I would posit, in the nation.  One area where I believe we can make great strides and which will enhance our students' educations immensely is in the area of internationalization.  I would very much like to see a proliferation of courses dealing with international topics.  I realize that we already have many such courses, but I would like for there to be even more.  Furthermore, I would like for all students to be able to seriously consider studying abroad at some point in their curriculum here at Potsdam.  I will personally work to see that we can develop scholarship funds for those who may not be able to afford that option.  Study abroad, along with other individualized student educational experiences, is a significant component of quality collegiate experiences.  In short, I would also like to see that each of our students engages in some form of individualized experience in their time here, be that study abroad, an internship, a cooperative education project, service learning, recitals, performances, or exhibits of their work.   This latter goal is well within our reach, and I would imagine that we already do it for the vast majority of our students.

Over the next few weeks I hope that you all take time to consider the mission statement that we have drafted.  The original proposal was submitted to the Faculty Senate by a special committee formed for that purpose.  The Faculty Senate approved that draft and forwarded it to me.  The full Leadership Council, with representatives of the Faculty Senate, met and made some revisions to the draft.   I now am looking for campus comments.  Similarly, the Leadership Council and representatives of the Faculty Senate drafted the Operational Goals I have just outlined.  I hope that everyone will take time to read these documents and send me their comments, or attend one of the opening meetings I am calling.  All these documents will be available on the web.

These annual goals should be considered in the context of the strategic planning that has been accomplished, in terms of the mission of the College, in terms of the core values outlined in the Potsdam Pledge.  I propose that in all that we do we become more thoughtful and integrate all our efforts around these principles.  The mission, vision, values, and goals should all be tightly linked to provide us with integrity of purpose.  One of the concerns raised to me by many on campus is that we try to do too many things and we end up not achieving our potential.  I propose that by being integrated in our thinking, by pursuing the integral system of mission, vision, values, and goals, we can identify those things that are essential to the College and thereby better concentrate our efforts.  SUNY Potsdam can become that single rose caught by the rays of the sun at its zenith.  And our walking feet can feel the integrity of this place, perfect and shining, an example to all.