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"In the Spirit of Sankofa"

Opening Convocation Address by President Denise A. Battles, August 28, 2015

I’m honored and privileged to speak with you today and share my thoughts at my first Geneseo convocation.

For me, this day was nearly a year in the making, as it was in September 2014 when I was contacted by a search consultant, letting me know that a friend had nominated me for the role of Geneseo’s President. Frankly, I was not terribly receptive to her call. I was just three years into my role as Provost at another institution, and I wasn’t actively seeking a new opportunity. The consultant asked if she could at least email me the Presidential profile and, looking to get off the phone, I agreed. But then, out of curiosity, I opened the email and was drawn in. The more I read, the more I was intrigued. Some of the points of distinction described in that prospectus or more recently achieved bear mention, not only to inform our new or recently appointed faculty and staff, but also because they are noteworthy reminders for us all of what makes this place special.

  • Geneseo is one of the most selective public liberal arts colleges in the country. This year, we received over 9,000 applications for the 1,353 first-year students in the Class of 2019.
  • We place particular value on transformational applied learning. That priority is evidenced by 2014 National Survey of Student Engagement data in which over 2 in 5 seniors reported studying abroad or working with a faculty member on a research project, a statistically significant difference compared to our COPLAC, SUNY, and national public master's peers.
  • At this past April’s celebration of student scholarly and creative work, called GREAT Day, 914 students and over 100 faculty members participated, representing every department and school on campus.
  • We strive to produce socially responsible citizens, and our students are exemplars of community engagement. In 2014-15, approximately 237,000 hours of community service were logged by an estimated 3,813 Geneseo students.
  • That spirit of community involvement extends to our faculty and staff. Because of that campus commitment, Geneseo earned from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching the Community Engagement Classification for 2015 through 2020, a distinction that is very difficult to attain. In fact, the College has been listed on the President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll every year since the roster began in 2006, earning distinction on four separate occasions. And just this week, Geneseo was again named among the top five master’s universities in the country in the annual Washington Monthly rankings, which are based on the colleges’ focus on social mobility, research, civic engagement, and the ethic of service to country.
  • Our students perform well not just in the classroom and community but also in athletic competition, as illustrated by our campus’s receipt of the 2015 SUNYAC Commissioner’s Cup.
  • We are respected for the percentage of our graduates who continue their formal educations. For example, within one year of graduating, nearly 40 percent of Geneseo students enter graduate or professional school, and the College ranks 5th among master's institutions nationwide for the number of graduates who received PhDs in STEM fields in the past 10 years.
  • Our successful implementation of the teacher-scholar model is evidenced by the large number of our faculty members who have attained national recognitions for instructional and/or scholarly excellence and, within our System, the designation of SUNY Distinguished Professor, Distinguished Teaching Professor, and Distinguished Service Professor.
  • Our College’s engagement in extramurally supported teaching, scholarly, creative, and/or service activity led to 2014-15 being a record year for sponsored awards, with over $3.6 million secured, exceeding our prior highest total by over $1.2 million.
  • We enjoy exceptional support among our enthusiastic alumni, with over 1,000 attending the 2015 reunion.
  • We also are celebrating private gift support to the college reaching more than three million dollars in 2014-15 and growth of the college’s endowment to about 30 million dollars. Income from the endowment last year generated more than one million dollars in support for student scholarships, faculty travel and research, and other worthy activities.

I could go on - and on and on - identifying our College’s distinctions, but I think you get the point. We have much of which to be proud here at Geneseo, and it was the quality of the institution that drew me - and quite likely you - to this special place.

In that this is our first meeting, it seems a good opportunity to tell you something about my background. Talking about myself is never my first inclination, but I will share the story because my experiences have shaped my educational philosophy and value system.

As many of you know, I’m a New York native. This is one of the few venues in which I have been, during my professional career, where I can make that statement without needing to disabuse the listener of mental images characterized by soaring skyscrapers, cacophonous streets, and bustling taxi cabs. Indeed, my hometown, in rural Oswego County, bears no resemblance to New York City.

The region in which I grew up was agricultural and economically challenged. Some of you may have heard me reference the Nine Mile Point Nuclear Power Plant as having been, more or less, in my backyard. In fact, our first family home came, literally, from that site. The house, located on land acquired for the envisioned power plant, was slated for demolition to make way for the new facility. My resourceful parents, just starting their family and in need of a home, purchased the structure for the princely sum of $105 and moved it down the road onto land that was part of my grandparents’ strawberry farm fields. I have fond memories of June months spent gorging myself on strawberries plucked from the land surrounding our first home.

And that place was rural. The first years of my father’s formal education took place in a one-room schoolhouse, where there was one teacher for about eight students ranging from grades 1 through 6, with just two in his class. That structure still stood in my youth, although by that time, we kids were bused to town to attend elementary school.

It’s fair to say that education was not a high priority in that area; the drop-out rate in my school was rather high, and obtaining a 4-year college degree was not a common goal among my peers. I observed early on that many people in my community appeared to have limited options in life, and whether my perception was accurate or not, I equated having options with education. I determined that I wanted to maximize my opportunities in life, which led naturally enough to the aim of becoming as educated as possible. That goal drove much of what I did as a youth.

After obtaining my high school diploma, I fed my passion for the arts and science disciplines by attending Colgate University, a small, private liberal arts school a couple of hours east of us here and close to my hometown. I graduated from that institution in three years. The speedier-than-typical timeline is not meant be interpreted as an indication of uncommon intellectual aptitude on my part. I entered Colgate with a year’s worth of freshman biology and English. I was fortunate that there were some innovative faculty members at Syracuse University who were engaged in a project that permitted the region’s high school students to take SU courses from their own schools. Through Project Advance, I was able to take Professor Marvin Druger’s excellent introductory biology courses from a distance: early distance education. I attribute my interest in science education and instructional innovation to that experience.

I attended college with the assistance of financial aid, and part of that package included work-study. As a freshman, I held the usual kinds of jobs – I worked in my dorm’s cafeteria serving food to my peers and in mail services delivering my fellow students’ mail. However, as I progressed in my studies as a geology major, I was asked to take on tasks more relevant to my future career path. A faculty member arranged for me to tutor a student who was having difficulty learning introductory geology, and through that experience I learned the joy of teaching others. I had an early exposure to administration by working in a dean’s office. But the position that influenced me most was my work as a research assistant to the geology department’s new faculty hire.

Like many geology units in the 1980s, Colgate’s was a male-dominated department. Toward the end of my college career, the department hired a female faculty member, Dr. Cynthia Evans, who invited me to work as her undergraduate research assistant, preparing samples for petrographic and geochemical analysis and even operating the X-ray diffractometer and fluorescence equipment. Dr. Evans was a hard rock geologist and geochemist, and I’m sure that it’s no coincidence that I went on to become a hard rock geologist and geochemist. That experience taught me the value of faculty-mentored undergraduate research and of having diverse role-models among the faculty. The financial assistance that enabled my Colgate attendance helped shape my commitment to college affordability.

Following my graduation, I was accepted into the geology PhD program at UCLA. That institution could hardly have been more different from my undergraduate setting: public, massive, with an urban and international character that was entirely new to me. I credit UCLA with cultivating my appreciation for diversity and global perspectives, as well as the accessibility offered by public higher education.

After completing my dissertation, I was very fortunate, given the hiring climate for hard-rock geochemists in 1990, to secure a tenure-track position at Georgia Southern University, where I served on the faculty for 15 years. It is also where I met – at New Faculty Orientation – another newcomer who would become my husband. As much as I relished the roles of university teacher, scholar, and citizen, rather early in my academic career I was asked to work in an academic dean’s office. I discovered that through administrative work, I could make positive contributions that impacted large numbers of students and colleagues, bringing to me a new and different form of satisfaction. Over time, my administrative interests allowed me to serve as a founding Dean of a new college at a doctoral/research university in the western U.S.; as the Provost and Chief Academic Officer of the designated coastal institution within the University of North Carolina system; and, now, as President of this exceptionally fine public liberal arts college. While the institutions in which I have served differ in their details, they share a strong commitment to an affordable, accessible, and high-quality undergraduate education and acknowledge the centrality of the liberal arts, qualities which, as I have described, align with my values.

So, why did I share my story with you?

By way of explanation, I will turn to the concept referenced in the title of this address, that of Sankofa. Those of you who wish to learn more about this concept may do so at the website of The Spirituals Project at the University of Denver, from which my comments are adapted.1

The word Sankofa derives from Ghana’s Akan language. Translated literally as “to go back and get it,” Sankofa is often symbolically represented as a mythical bird flying forward with its head turned to pick an egg off its back. The egg symbolizes an element of wisdom from the past and also references the future generations who will be served by that knowledge. The apparent paradox of the bird looking back while still moving forward suggests that progress relies upon an understanding of the past, which informs the way ahead. The symbol is an apt representation of the pursuit of knowledge in a collegiate setting.

I noted at the start of this address - and highlighted as I shared my background - that my experiences have shaped my philosophy of education and values. In a similar way, it is essential that we as a college community understand our story - where we have been and where we are - in order to move forward successfully. As we position ourselves to engage in an effective strategic planning effort, an endeavor I will initiate later this fall, we’ll undertake a process of self-discovery in which I will solicit - and really need - your participation. And please do appreciate the necessity of moving ahead promptly with strategic planning, for while we have a stellar record of achievements, the rapidly changing landscape of higher education - including the shifting enrollment patterns in liberal arts and professional disciplines, evolving student demographics, and growing challenges to maintaining college affordability - requires us to have a clear, focused, and truly strategic plan for how we as an institution will move forward.

Since the announcement of my appointment back in January of this year, I have expressed an intention to engage in “deep learning” about this campus, becoming highly knowledgeable about the College’s people, programs, places, and position. First as a candidate and then as President-elect, I did my homework, reviewing the College’s website and briefing documents, and seeking out and speaking with colleagues who knew the campus and community. However, as my geological background informs me, there is no substitute for getting one’s boots on the ground, experiencing the campus through being here, being part of this place.

As I have contemplated the most effective strategies in support of my “deep learning,” I have appreciated the input of many members of the campus and broader communities. I would like to acknowledge in particular members of my Transition Team, a number of whom are here today: faculty members Cathy Adams in History, David Geiger in Chemistry, and Gary Towsley in Mathematics; immediate past President of the Student Association and new Geneseo alumnus Harrison Dole; Betsy Colon in Grants Management; Wendi Kinney from the Center for Community; Paul Jackson from Computing and Information Technology; and alumnus and recent College Advancement retiree Debbie Hill. Those individuals have been extremely helpful in recommending people and groups with whom I should meet and activities in which I should engage, with an initial focus on my first 30 and 100 days in the position.

And in those first weeks on the job, I have engaged in a variety of activities in support of my deep learning. While awaiting the arrival of our full faculty, staff, and student complement for fall semester, I visited with people who are key College stakeholders: leaders and members of the College’s governance systems; elected officials from the level of the Village to the State; local and western NY community members and K-12 educators; fellow presidents from area higher education institutions; alumni and other friends of the College; members of the media; and SUNY Administration colleagues, among many others.

The summer also afforded me a marvelous opportunity to become acquainted with our places. Our colleagues in Facilities Planning, along with a number of faculty, staff, and students, have hosted me on a series of tours of our physical facilities, where I have explored everything from basement storage areas to rooftops. I even had the opportunity, on day three in my position, to travel to Beijing, China where English Department Chair Paul Schacht and I represented the College at a meeting of the Global Academy of Liberal Arts, learning a great deal about our campus’ internationalization programs and cultivating partnerships with higher education colleagues from around the world.

Now that fall semester has arrived, a new series of activities designed to continue my deep learning will commence, and this is where I will invite your participation, such that these efforts become communal opportunities for information sharing and learning.

Beginning the second week of the term, a series of four schola brevis or short course sessions will be offered by the College’s leadership to the campus community. Called “Locating the College” - a reference to the examination of Geneseo’s position among our peers, SUNY institutions, and higher education more generally – we will explore: Student Access, Recruitment, and Achievement; the College’s Financial Sustainability; Integrated Learning at Geneseo; and Engaged Geneseo, focusing on the ways in which we connect externally. Each of these 90 minute sessions will include a mix of data-rich presentations and an opportunity for Q-and-A, and I hope that you will elect to participate.

Also scheduled to begin during the second week of the term will be my Listening Tour. The tour, available to members of our campus community, will consist of multiple one-hour sessions, scheduled at various times and locations across campus. Each session will be kept relatively small, limited to the number of people who can be accommodated in a medium-sized conference room. Sessions will be publicized in advance and made available through sign-up. We will also publicize in advance the set of five questions that will provide the framework for the Listening Tour discussions. For example, the first question will be, “Why do you choose to be here at Geneseo?” My hope is to create a venue in which representatives of different stakeholder populations will engage in conversation on topics of collective interest, thereby increasing my knowledge of the campus, enabling participants to learn from others, and ultimately enhancing our preparedness to engage in planning for the College’s future.

Even as we work together to identify our institution’s next steps, we have a number of worthy initiatives that we will advance this year. I want to thank the members of the Strategic Planning Group for identifying our interim planning goals for 2015-16. They are as follows:

  • Refine enrollment principles and improve student support
  • Coordinate master plans/align campus goals
  • Enhance digital learning and data analysis learning
  • Promote civic engagement (Project for the Public Good), which relates to our community involvement practices and goals
  • Promote international and global learning (Global Geneseo)
  • Implement the Diversity Plan, and
  • Promote sustainability, which should also be considered inclusive of financial and other types of sustainability

Other endeavors in which we will engage this year include those prompted by SUNY, including the development of a Performance Improvement Plan (or “PIP”) as the System implements a funding model that promotes institutional achievement. SUNY’s Expanded Investment and Performance Fund is a related funding opportunity in which we will propose multiple projects that advance institutional and System goals. Yet other activities for the coming year will address emerging matters, such as the opportunity to enhance our alumni engagement, communications, and marketing activities. We have much of which to be proud here at Geneseo; telling our story effectively as we engage with key constituencies is a foremost priority.

And so, in the spirit of Sankofa, we look forward to an exciting year in which we will acknowledge and build upon our impressive record of past accomplishments as we move forward together to define our future and what it means to be a leading public liberal arts college for the 21st century. I encourage you to be active participants in this most important endeavor and thank you for your consideration, as well as your attention today.

1 Information about Sankofa has been adapted or derived from: http://www.spiritualsproject.org/sweetchariot/Literature/sankofa.php (The Spirituals Project at the University of Denver)