SUNY Potsdam President Dr. Suzanne Smith
September 19, 2023
Good morning and thank you for coming.
As most of you know, I’m Suzanne Smith, and I am proud to serve as SUNY Potsdam’s 18th president. Six months in, my admiration for this campus and community has only grown. My decision to join this college grew out of the deep and immediate connection my husband, Brett, and I felt when we visited Potsdam, and that bond has only grown stronger since we joined the Potsdam family. My love for the college and the region has only deepened, and I’m privileged to work alongside such extraordinary faculty, staff, and administrators, and to serve such amazing students.
Since its establishment in 1816, SUNY Potsdam has proudly stood as one of the nation’s pioneering institutions. In 1948 we took another historic step, becoming the founding, cornerstone member of the newly developed public system known as SUNY. We are known as the nation’s birthplace of public music education, thanks to The Crane School of Music. And as one of St. Lawrence County's principal employers, our impact isn't limited to education. We inject an estimated $350 million annually into the regional economy.
Thousands of Potsdam alumni across the country in a wide variety of disciplines are leaving their mark in our world, and are making this institution proud. We have at least four alumni currently working for NASA, and our graduates have collectively been nominated for 35 Grammy Awards—that we know about! Our alumni are award-winning educators. They are CEOs in fields from music business to hospitality to cybersecurity. They lead non-profits, practice medicine and write bestselling novels. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I could spend hours telling you about the amazing things our alumni are doing, as well as the accomplishments of our incredible faculty and staff.
Our alumni’s diverse talents and unparalleled achievements testify to the quality and richness of the SUNY Potsdam experience. Through their stories and journeys, we see the legacy of our institution brought to life. When I participated in Reunion this summer, one sentiment was echoed time and time again: SUNY Potsdam is a special place.
It is a place where creativity flourishes and inclusivity isn’t just a buzzword – it’s woven into our very fabric. A place with long standing traditions, and that establishes new ones every year. A campus that is not frozen in time. A college that respects and honors our history, but is unwavering in its commitment to ensuring future generations of Potsdam students enjoy the same growth and fulfillment.
I chose to be a part of this legacy to help nurture SUNY Potsdam’s traditions, champion its values, and propel it to new heights, ensuring that our beacon of excellence never dims. As we face difficult decisions, know that my commitment remains unwavering.
While our institution’s history of excellence runs deep, the national landscape of higher education has changed, and we have felt that shift. Since 2010, our enrollment has declined 43%, but our workforce has diminished far less.
Indeed, many private institutions around New York have faced similar declines, and, regrettably, some have even closed their doors. The aspirations of our students, the degrees they want to hold and the careers they wish to pursue, have evolved. Now, we must realign our academic programs with these changing student and market needs.
This brings us to our present circumstance. SUNY Potsdam is grappling with a structural, recurring deficit of $9 million annually. Last year we brought in $38 million total revenue, against $47 million dollars in expenses. What that means is that to balance our annual budget, we need to find a way to spend $9 million dollars less each year. Once monthly salaries are paid, Potsdam is already in debt, with nothing left to fund other day-to-day operations. This is clearly not sustainable, and we have failed to address the problem in any substantial way for far too long.
Yes, I recognize that state support has not kept pace with our needs. Yes, I understand that we're facing increased costs in the coming years. We must confront this stark reality: there will be no bailouts. This challenge is ours, and ours alone, to solve. Today, we stand at a crossroads. Without immediate action, the future of this institution that we all know and love is uncertain. These are difficult words to say, and hard ones to hear, I know. But there is a way forward.
Over the past several months, The President’s Council, in partnership with experts at SUNY, have developed a roadmap to guide this campus onto a path of financial stability. It requires difficult choices, but I firmly believe that it will enable SUNY Potsdam to lean into our strengths and secure our future. We have limited the negative impacts on students wherever possible, because Potsdam’s students are why we are here. Maintaining existing enrollment and attracting new students is central to our long-term success.
As a first step, we need to reimagine our campus as serving a steady enrollment of 2,500 students, with hopes of growing to 3,000 or more one day, reflecting the reality of the higher education marketplace—instead of building a budget around unrealistic expectations of returning to historic highs. This is our reality, and there's a successful, prosperous future that can grow from that reality. This means reallocating our faculty to where students are, and right-sizing our programs and departments to better match the current student and workforce needs.
Over the past decade, SUNY Potsdam has taken steps to reduce costs, but we still haven’t closed the gap. During this time, operational budgets were pared down to their bare minimum, and staffing cuts have been made solely through attrition, with disproportionate impacts to different areas of campus. This plan takes a whole college approach.
An essential element of our strategy involves recalibrating our academic offerings, including reviewing 14 programs currently being recommended for discontinuation over the course of the next few years, in addition to the 4 that were discontinued earlier this summer. I want to stress that this plan is evolving. While there is still some room for conversation and exploration, at this time the programs being recommended for discontinuation based on enrollment declines are listed here.
This will lead to a notable reduction in faculty roles in these areas. In addition, in order to ensure the continued viability of our other programs, faculty positions in other areas will be reduced as we adjust our workforce to serve our existing enrollment.
Nothing about this is easy, because all of our faculty and staff are valued. It’s important to understand that a reduction or elimination of a content area does not reflect poorly on that program’s quality, or its dedicated instructors. We are making difficult but necessary decisions for our campus as a whole, based on hard facts, given our limited resources.
As you may remember, I followed a traditional path to the presidency, meaning I worked first as a faculty member, then moved up the administrative structure on the academic side. Before coming here, I have worked at institutions facing challenges similar to those we are currently addressing and have navigated them successfully. I share this to emphasize that I understand the impact of modernizing our academic offerings and faculty reductions on a campus. This is not a decision made lightly, but it is a decision that must be made if SUNY Potsdam is to survive into the next century and to thrive – as I know we can.
I want to make three points about these programs and this decision.
One: every student in these programs will have the option of completing their degrees here with the SUNY Potsdam name across them. I make that promise today.
Two: We will work to ensure that a proper and appropriate teach-out plan is implemented. To do this, I will need your help and guidance.
And lastly: It’s also important to note that just because a program is being discontinued, does not necessarily mean all positions in that area will be cut. Most importantly, we remain committed to our General Education curriculum.
Even though some of these changes may not be completely unexpected, I know they may still come as a shock. I want to reiterate that this is not a reflection of the value or quality of these programs. We have simply have more programs than are supported by enrollment revenue. There was no “good” choice available—just choices supported by the reality of our students’ aspirations and areas of focus.
Every facet of the campus will be impacted. Our plan will also be evaluating the elimination of some clerical positions as we transition to a model across Academic Affairs and other divisions that aligns work needs and capacity. This transition will enable us to streamline our workforce while providing the levels of service students deserve and expect.
While projecting precise reductions is impossible due to uncertainties like retirements and attrition, I promise we will follow the contract, and civil service rules where applicable, and will assist and support people throughout that process as best we can.
To help us with personnel reductions, the Foundation has graciously allotted funds for a voluntary separation program to be implemented as a part of our plan. Retirements and attrition will significantly impact the number of reductions that take place, so this program will be key to our success. Details about this incentive, as well as the process to apply, will be released today, and we are grateful for their support and their faith in our future.
As we look ahead, we are evaluating every corner of our campus to determine how it can align with our evolving operations and program offerings. That starts with me. I will not fill the roles of Chief of Staff or Vice President of Enrollment in my office. I am asking my cabinet to do more than any Administration has ever had to do, with less. In addition, several areas are already beginning to restructure or reorganize their operations in order to find efficiencies and respond to the changing needs of campus.
With changes to our academic offerings, we will also need to adjust planning for facilities usage going forward. This will include examining our campus footprint to see if we can identify ways to better utilize our infrastructure, minimize costs and increase revenue by bringing in community groups and other third-party events. Collaborations with our Space Committee, the SUNY Construction Fund, and with YOU—our campus community—are crucial. For instance, Dunn Hall is currently under consideration for closure. Those now in that space would be reassigned to other- better- spaces. We’re also exploring eliminating Knowles South, East and West, but investing in better utilization of the Knowles Conference Center and Knowles North.
I share this information with you because I strongly believe transparency is critical. But I must also stress that at this point we are simply in the conversation and exploration stage related to Potsdam’s physical footprint and will collectively, as a community, determine the most efficient and effective path forward.
I ask you to remember that the overall purpose of this plan is to allow us to provide a sustainable path for SUNY Potsdam to thrive for years to come. While we are in a moment of great challenge, we are also in a moment of great opportunity. As we refocus our resources in some areas, we will be investing in others. An important part of moving forward will be to determine our strengths and growth potential - such as our graduate programs in education and management that are thriving - and invest resources in their continued success.
Thanks to the Governor, members of the State Legislature, and SUNY System, SUNY Potsdam was given an infusion of $3.6 million of increased operating aid this year - $2.5 million of which is ongoing. This 25% increase in direct state tax support is the largest single year increase in state investment in many years, and a significant commitment to bolstering our vision forward. These designated funds will allow us to expand in critical areas through SUNY-targeted initiatives that will contribute greatly to student success on our campus.
With the support of the SUNY Transformation Grant, we will invest in the ACE Initiative which will elevate support for disadvantaged, highly resilient undergraduates to achieve excellence in personal, social and academic pursuits. With an initial cohort of 150 students planned for Fall 2024, this refocus on comprehensive support will increase graduation rates and decrease transfer and dropout rates.
We also plan to increase our online offerings in areas focused on our strengths to increase enrollment. We are exploring innovative academic programs in areas of proven expertise and student demand and will invest in their development.
Micro credentialing is another potential area of growth that has been yet unexplored. This is our opportunity to be creative, work with colleagues from other disciplines, and develop programming that is in high demand by today’s workforce. This is also an opportunity to explore potential partnerships to benefit the community and our graduates alike, while raising revenue.
Increasing enrollment for our campus is the most accessible way to increase our revenue, allowing us to better support and strengthen our existing programs. We have in the past been overly optimistic about our enrollment growth potential, and are now more realistic about our goals. I am firm in the belief that if we lean into the areas where we are strongest, students will continue to want to come here.
My future-focused vision for Potsdam is about investing and growing in the areas where we know we excel. We launched our strategic planning process last month, and this process can help us innovate, inspire, and have an impact on our students and in our region. This process is paramount to our success moving forward and will allow us to recommit to a vision that celebrates who we are and what we do at SUNY Potsdam, and to support each other along the way.
The fact that SUNY Potsdam is a small, tightly knit campus community is one of its greatest strengths. The sense of family we all cherish will make these changes hard, as each of us will be personally impacted in some way. But that sense of family is also what will enable us to meet our challenges and overcome them. We’ll go through this together, and I will be seeking your collaboration and input. I believe this plan will put us on sound fiscal footing and on a path toward a brighter academic and fiscal future.