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President's Remarks - August 2016

Kristin G. Esterberg, Ph.D.
President, SUNY Potsdam
Opening Day Speech
August 25, 2016

Good morning, and welcome to the 2016-17 academic year! I hope you all had a great summer. We certainly did, with successful Orientation sessions and a record-breaking number of alumni returning for our Bicentennial Reunion.

This year will mark our transition from the bicentennial to our entry into SUNY Potsdam’s third century of excellence. It’s hard to imagine now, but 200 years ago, the founders of St. Lawrence Academy were preparing for the very first entering class. We still have one last bicentennial party left this year, to celebrate the incredible success of our comprehensive campaign, which surpassed its final goal to raise $33.5 million for the College. But as we complete our 200th year and enter into our 201st, this will be a year of planning, strategizing and setting the course for our third century.

We have so much to be proud of, and yet, of course there is much more to do. I know I speak for the entire leadership team when I say that we are looking forward to working with each and every one of you, our faculty and staff, to make this year a memorable and productive one.

You won’t be surprised to hear that we still have work ahead of us to continue to stabilize and grow enrollments, balance the budget and collectively work on shared governance. I also want to work on the ways in which we collaborate and support each other, recognizing that these past few years have been trying ones for many. Looking forward, we also have an extraordinary opportunity to envision a path for Potsdam’s future, and to create a roadmap for reaching our shared goals.

Let’s begin with looking at the state of our budget. Over the last two years, we have worked hard to stabilize our finances, and we are making steady progress toward sustainability, thanks to the hard work of the entire campus.  We are now entering into the third year of the financial plan that we submitted to SUNY, and while it will be a challenge for us to meet our financial targets this year with essentially flat enrollments, I am confident that we are on the right track.  Over the last two years, we have either hit or exceeded our financial targets, again, thanks to the hard work of the entire campus. 

I want to remind the campus that the financial challenges we face are not unique to SUNY Potsdam, or even to the comprehensive sector within SUNY, but are indicative of the larger trends facing higher education: The extreme competition for students, made more difficult by challenging demographic trends.  The declining state support for public higher education.  The increased regulation, not just by the state, but by the federal government.  These are trends we are all facing, and will need to continue to work on together. 

A major goal for this year is to continue work on budget transparency.  Toward the end of the last academic year, Business Affairs began posting on the campus website financial dashboards, allowing the entire campus to view campus spending. We are currently searching for a new budget director, and I have charged Vice President for Business Affairs Gerhard Voggel with developing, in concert with the Faculty Senate, a more consultative budget process, inviting feedback and collaboration.

I am committed to working on improved campus communication, seeking out ways to both share information with the entire campus but also to receive input.  Our strategic planning process, which I’ll come to in a moment, is an incredibly important opportunity for you to weigh in on the direction of the campus. President’s Council is working on additional ways to get information out and to get feedback on the more day-to-day decisions affecting campus as well.  For example, our new streamlined purchasing procedures came from small group meetings with CSEA staff. The reconstitution of our Space Committee came from feedback from faculty. This is the kind of collaboration that benefits everyone.

Most importantly, this is a year for us to work on a shared vision for our third century.  I bring to this work my experience working in other university systems, as well as my own research on leadership and change in public higher education. So with that background, I bring a healthy sense of skepticism to the table.

Some of you may know that I am deeply skeptical of leadership that comes in with a brand new vision and takes a campus in a direction that may not be authentic to the institution’s vision for itself.  Of leadership that comes in to “fix” what may or may not be broken.  I’m skeptical of leadership that comes in and says, “We’re going this way,” when for 200 years the campus has been steadily and successfully going this way. 

We should never forget that we have been innovating now for 200 years. We cannot forget that we are built on the legacy of Julia Crane.  We are the birthplace of music education.  Nor can we forget that we developed one of the first computer science programs in the country.  That our math department has produced more women and diverse math majors than most others in the country.  That we have been providing extraordinary training for teachers now for two centuries.  And that we have always evolved to meet the needs of our region, the most recent being our community health program, which provides a much-needed service to our medically underserved region. We have many successes to be proud of.

Throughout our history, we have excelled in highly intensive, transformational learning experiences, where faculty and students work closely together.  This is the hallmark of a Potsdam education.  Our Student Opinion Survey and NSSE survey data bear this out.  We teach dance not just by reading about dance, but by dancing.  We teach music not just by reading about music, but by practicing.  We teach anthropology in the field, as well as in the classroom.  Our future teachers practice what they are learning in classrooms full of children, in real field settings.  Our new efforts in applied learning simply build on this legacy.

So as we look to our third century, we will build on this history.

My ambition for this campus is that we will build, together, a vision based on our 200 years of grit and resilience.  And success.  Success at creating life-changing intellectual experiences for our incredibly diverse and eclectic student body.  At providing an extraordinary sense of community.  Success building on the amazing creativity of our faculty and staff, creating distinguished and path breaking academic programs.  And providing opportunities for extraordinary engagement between faculty and students. 

We will challenge our campus community to creative innovative programs, programs that support our vision and enhance our reputation.

We will challenge our campus community to make bold moves that highlight our creative and performing arts, and leverage our number one position in student satisfaction with our arts environment. 

We will prepare our amazing student body for productive lives after graduation, because they have had those transformative academic experiences on our campus and been a part of a fulfilling and inclusive campus community.

We will be fully engaged within our region, building on our reputation as a premier institution of the arts and using to their greatest potential our outstanding fine and performing arts facilities.

And most important, we must work together to execute that vision.  To show that we do what we say we will do.  A strategic plan that sits on the shelf is no better than a strategic plan that we didn’t create at all.

And that's what we're going to do this year. 

In a few weeks, on Monday, September 12, we’ll be holding an all-campus forum, to share with you a planning document that the President’s Council, Leadership Forum, and Faculty Senate Executive Committee have been working on over the last six months. 

We began by looking at the planning and visioning documents from the last 15 years, including last year’s “Looking to the Future” visioning exercise.  We looked at what we had done, and what we had not accomplished from those goals.  And we considered what we still need to do, as we enter our third century of educating students. 

The goal now is for you to weigh in on the strategic direction of the campus.  After that campus forum, we’ll be holding meetings all across the campus, using existing groups such as the Council of Chairs, which Provost Bergeron is reconstituting, the Arts & Sciences Council, the Crane Faculty Forum, the Student Affairs Directors, and others, so that everyone on campus will have a chance to respond and bring their ideas forward.  We will track our progress on the website and offer online surveys, so that everyone can weigh in, even if they can’t come to a meeting.  This will be concluded by a second, all campus forum at the end of the semester, so that we can share all of the feedback we have received and bring back to the campus a revised strategic plan, to be finalized by December.

We want everyone on campus to be included in this process.

At the same time, and as a critical part of our overall strategic planning process, our new chief diversity officer, Dr. Bernadette Tiapo, is leading a strategic planning process for diversity, equity and inclusion, following the new requirement from SUNY and our urgent need to work together on these important issues.  A broad-based task force began the work this summer. They will be following a similar timeline, and will also be offering open forums and opportunities for everyone to weigh in.  The work of our strategic planning for diversity, equity, and inclusion is crucial for the entire campus, and an integral part of our visioning for the future.  I want to thank all of the campus community members who have stepped up over the last year to do this important work, as well as the task force members who jumped in wholeheartedly over the summer. 

As you leave here today, I hope that you are excited about creating our vision for a third century together.  I hope that you leave here today ready and unafraid to share your hopes and dreams for what SUNY Potsdam can become.  I hope you leave here feeling determined to participate and have your voice heard. Because in order to be successful, we must work together.  

One of the things that I have come to love most dearly about the Potsdam community is our warmth and our shared passion for student success. So, I thank you for being here today.  I thank you for the ongoing work you do on behalf of our students. And I look forward, with you, to an amazing academic year…the first of our third century.