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President's Remarks - August 2017

Dr. Kristin Esterberg
President, SUNY Potsdam
Opening Meeting Remarks
August 24, 2017

Good morning. Thank you for being here today.

For those of you who have been traveling this summer, welcome home. For those who have been here all summer, I hope you had a little opportunity for rest and relaxation. I know that for some of you here on campus, summer is among the busiest of times. For those who are new, welcome.

There are several purposes of this opening address. One is to gather us together, to remind us of our purpose, and to help set our course for the upcoming year.

Another is to say thank you, to recognize publicly the important work that members of our community have accomplished.

Another is to give information about the state of the campus. And finally, to introduce the new members of our community, and to make sure they feel the warm Potsdam welcome that is the hallmark of our campus.

So let me begin with the appreciations.

First, for all those who worked hard to bring our incoming class of first year and transfer students in, thank you. We are set to welcome 784 new first-year, 256 transfer, and 111 new graduate students. I am grateful for all who helped them find their way home to Potsdam. My thanks to all who packaged and repackaged and maybe repackaged again their financial aid, so that they could afford to come here.

My thanks to all who advised and oriented and ensured that our new students are ready to make a strong beginning.

My thanks to all who reached out to our continuing students, who helped make sure they could come back to complete their studies, and to those who made it possible for our students to complete an applied learning experience. The economic impact of our student interns totaled almost $1 million in 2016-2017.

My thanks to all who made our grounds look beautiful all summer long, who labored on renovation and construction projects, and who ensured that our classrooms are ready for learning. And my thanks to all who helped our recent graduates make the transition to alumni, and who
helped raise the funds so that we can continue our important work.

This year, we are beginning a new award, a special award for those who have contributed significantly to our recruitment and retention efforts. I am proud to say that we had nine excellent nominations. I am extraordinarily proud of all of our nominees, including:

  • Linghong Li, Department of Physics, for the 3-2 Dual Engineering Degree program
  • Rebecca Smoke, Office of Native American Affairs, for the College Prep Workshop
  • Chris Lanz, for the Computer Science Mentoring Program
  • David Heuser, for the Crane Open House for Accepted Students
  • Mark Millward, TRIO, for the Cub2Max Cub Pilot Program
  • Tom Nesbitt, Admissions, for Office of Admissions Initiatives

We are extremely proud to announce three winners of our recruitment and retention award.

  • Tim Morse, Academic Advising & Support, for the Academic Mentoring Program
  • Hadley Kruczek-Aaron, Anthropology, for the Akwasasne 2+2 Program
  • Tony Betrus, Business Administration Department, for the India Skill Development Program

Can I ask the winners to come up to receive their certificates?

Now, the two bookends of our academic year are Convocation and Commencement. It was just a few short months ago, on a beautiful spring day, that we saw our students cross the stage. Some with assurance, some with amazement. All with pride at their accomplishments.

Today, we begin the new academic year. I want us to keep that image of Commencement in mind as we begin our year, for our goal is not simply to bring students here to SUNY Potsdam, but to have them complete. To finish. To succeed.

As we open this academic year, I am deeply troubled by our national climate. By the open resurgence of hate groups, and the images of violence on a public college campus in some ways much like ours, in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Our students come from all over New York State, and even from across the country. They bring with them different ideas, experiences, and identities. Some have been engaged in activism, others hoping not to see the turbulence that is around them. We ourselves, as faculty and staff, come to our work with different beliefs, experiences, and identities. That is what makes us strong.

That is why we must focus on creating an environment where all of us can learn. And recommit ourselves to the Potsdam Pledge, and to making our campus a living embodiment of those values.

The annual survey of first year students conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute tells us that our students are more polarized than ever before, in the fifty years of conducting that survey. More than ever, we will need to challenge ourselves to create an environment where we uncompromisingly protect freedom of thought, belief and expression; where we treat all individuals with consideration, decency and respect; where we celebrate our differences and learn from our diversity, and where we remain ever-watchful and prepared to combat the threats posed by hatred, intolerance and injustice.

This year, we began a new budget process, one aimed at helping us achieve greater transparency and greater accountability for our finances. I am grateful to Barbara Montour, our new budget director, Amanda Prescott, and John Homburger, our interim chief financial officer for leading this process and for giving us the data we need to make good decisions.

I recognize that this budget process was difficult—our campus had not undertaken a process like this before, and it required a lot of work in a very short period of time. I am grateful to all of those who engaged in this effort (and I think I can say with some assurance that the process will be easier next year, and each year after, as we become accustomed to it). But this process unearthed some gaps and challenges that we will have to address.

I want to remind you that our budget has two main drivers: enrollments, and personnel. And over the last three years, we have worked with SUNY to bring our budget into alignment. Through our own efforts, by continuing the holds on positions, by reorganizing when we have retirements and vacancies to become more efficient, by holding overtime costs very carefully, we have made an impact: over half a million dollars in savings through our VSP and retirements, and a 25 percent reduction in overtime. The six month holds have saved us over $300,000 in each of the last three years.

The difficult news is that our enrollments have not increased over time. And while we have worked hard to bring our costs down, we have significantly more work to do.

I want to remind the campus that our situation is much like other campuses within the SUNY system and across the country. We are not unique in facing enrollment pressures and stagnant state support. But as I have said repeatedly over the last three years, we have the tools we need to right ourselves, and we have made significant progress.

SUNY is confident in our ability to achieve budget stability. This summer they invested significantly in our capacity to become more efficient and to attract new students. This summer, they invested over a half a million dollars for us to upgrade our teaching and learning spaces, over a three-year period, so that every classroom will have appropriate classroom technology. This is a significant investment in the work our amazing faculty do with our students.

SUNY has invested $135,000 for a web redesign, so that we can reach potential students more effectively, and funds for our new exercise science and GIS programs. We have advanced to the next stage in the Performance Improvement Fund process, for our peer mentoring program and our micro credentialing proposal. All told, SUNY’s investment in us—and this is over and above our SUNY allocation—totals over $1 million dollars.                       

But we have more work to do. To counter our enrollment trends, I have charged a small group with creating a strategic enrollment plan, to be completed by the end of the fall semester, to guide our efforts more effectively and to create new strategies to turn our enrollments around. I have asked Rick Miller, our chief enrollment officer, Bette Bergeron, our provost, and Mindy Thompson, AVP for Communications, to lead this effort.

I want to remind you that we submitted to SUNY, three years ago, a five-year plan for financial sustainability. As we begin year four of that plan, we are committed to balance by the end of year five. We have much more work to do to control our expenses and bring ourselves into balance.

Throughout the summer, Interim CFO John Homburger and I have led a budget working group, representing all vice presidential areas, to create solutions to our budget shortfalls. We shared the draft financial plan with the Faculty Senate Executive Committee this week in our annual retreat. As we work on our budget challenges, please know that I am committed deeply to the model of shared governance
we have developed here at SUNY Potsdam, and we will continue to work closely with Faculty Senate leadership to create solutions.

You will be learning more about this work in the weeks ahead. My commitment to you is that where difficult decisions must be made we will be strategic in this effort. We must continue to invest in students, and in the talented faculty, staff and new programs we have here on campus. A key guide will be our strategic plan, which will be completed this fall.

The strategic planning group continued their work over the summer, and they will convene in a day long summit in October, with the intent of finalizing the plan to present to the full Faculty Senate meeting in November. I’m grateful to all who have contributed to this work, and I look forward to the results.

In my inaugural speech three years ago, I likened our work to an ultramarathon. I want to return to that theme today, because we are in the middle of an arduous task. Let’s acknowledge that it’s hard. In a marathon, you reach that place where it’s no longer easy. Even though you’ve trained hard, and you know you can do the distance, everything hurts. Your feet hurt. Your legs hurt. Your back hurts. Even your hair hurts. This might be the time when you think you want to stop, to sit down. This might be the time when you think you might give up. But you don’t. Because you have that finish line in mind. And even though you can’t see it yet, you know it’s there. You know you can do it. So you persist.

I want you to keep in mind our own finish line, here at SUNY Potsdam. The commencement of our students. Those proud families. Those amazing graduates. That is our finish line. That is what we need to keep in sight. And so when it’s hard, and we wonder if we can do this… We know we can. We must. For our students deserve it.

Thank you.