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"Seeing Beyond the Horizon"

Inaugural Address by President Denise A. Battles, October 22, 2015

Thank you, Chancellor Zimpher. I am deeply appreciative of your attendance today as well as many of the College’s stakeholders. It is with profound gratitude and deep humility that I accept the presidency of this fine institution, SUNY Geneseo. I pledge to do my utmost to advance the College and fulfill its abundant potential. I am cognizant of the responsibility being granted and am grateful for the trust placed in me by the SUNY Chancellor and Board of Trustees, Geneseo College Council, and members of the College’s community.

I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge and thank those here today, including Chancellor Zimpher, Trustee Lichtman, College Council Member Hopf, Director Esposito, and other distinguished members of the platform party; visiting college and university delegates; my new Geneseo colleagues and students; and other friends of the College. While he was recognized earlier, I want to thank personally President Emeritus Chris Dahl for his presence and exemplary service to Geneseo. A special thank you is due to my husband, Dr. Michael Mills, our parents, and other family members and friends who traveled to join us. I would also like to acknowledge the Inaugural Planning Committee and the many others who have worked behind the scenes to make the inaugural events a success.

A college inauguration is occasioned by the appointment of a new president and, as Dr. Hopf indicated earlier, is a relatively uncommon event for this institution. In our 144 years, mine is only the 13th such ceremony. While my appointment prompted today’s event, I believe firmly that an inaugural ceremony should be a celebration of the institution, and not of an individual. And so let us celebrate our College, starting – fittingly – with our rich and storied history.

My reference to this being our 144th year implies that our College’s story began in 1871. While that year marked the initiation of the institution then known as the “Geneseo Normal and Training School,” our beginnings extend several years prior. As we have with us today representatives of the Village of Geneseo, it is appropriate to acknowledge the local community’s vital role in our establishment.

In 1866, New York solicited proposals to establish four normal - or teacher-training - schools in the state, adding to similar institutions in Albany and Oswego. Fourteen communities, Geneseo among them, vied for the opportunity. Disappointingly, Geneseo lost out to four other venues. However, the determined Geneseoans persevered by tapping personal connections to appeal to state officials and pledging and raising substantial funds to launch the envisioned school.

Remarkably, the villagers did so despite profound challenges. Two fires, in 1864 and 1866, had devastated the downtown area, incurring substantial losses. There were also sizeable financial obligations associated with bridge construction and the recently concluded Civil War. We are indebted to the tenacity exhibited by those villagers, as it led to the legislature’s 1868 authorization to establish a normal school in Geneseo. Following the acquisition of land and construction of the campus’ first building, the Geneseo Normal and Training School opened its doors to 354 students in September 1871.

The phrase “normal school” may prompt a few questions among those most familiar with our institution’s contemporary focus. While SUNY Geneseo is best known today as a liberal arts college, our origins are rooted in the education of future K-12 teachers. Indeed, it was in our 80th year, 1951, that the College was instructed by the SUNY Trustees to modify its mission and become a liberal arts institution. That directive marked another step in a lengthy and somewhat circuitous process of mission and curricular transformation leading ultimately to our status today as one of the nation’s premier public liberal arts colleges.

Our pathway to where and who we are today, in other words, was in no way preordained or even foreseeable on that day in the latter half of the 19th century when the institution welcomed its first class. And today we find ourselves at a critical juncture - one in a series our institution has encountered - in which we must once again define our way forward into a future that is not entirely knowable. For while we take enormous pride in our identity as a renowned public liberal arts college, the worthiness of a liberal arts education is facing unprecedented questions, doubts and challenges, some arguably bordering on attacks.

One of 724 institutions identified as master’s colleges and universities by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, SUNY Geneseo is distinctive in its designation as a public liberal arts college. In fact, we are unique in our status as New York’s sole member of the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges, or COPLAC, an organization with just 29 institutional members in the U.S. and Canada.

As a concept, the liberal arts in western society have a rich history, with origins traced to ancient Greece and Rome. In the medieval university, the study of the trivium - consisting of grammar, logic and rhetoric - and the quadrivium - arithmetic, astronomy, geometry and music - comprised the seven liberal arts, a curriculum deemed essential to master as a free (or liberated) and learned person. That the liberal arts and sciences have been considered for centuries the cornerstone of higher education speaks to their enduring value. Of late, however, that concept has been in dispute. A false dichotomy has been advanced, one that pits a liberal arts education in opposition to career preparation and readiness for a productive life.

In a recent New York Times Magazine piece entitled “What is the Point of College?”, New York University Professor Kwame Anthony Appiah characterizes the dichotomy by describing two competing visions that respond to that question. One emphasizes the usefulness of college to the individual and society - measured perhaps by alumni salaries, return on investment, job creation, and economic development - a concept he dubs “Utility U.” The other focuses on preparation of people for life in a free society - centered on the development of intellectual capacities as well as skills - a construct he calls “Utopia U.” As Appiah puts it, “If Utility U. is concerned with value, Utopia U. is concerned with values.”

Allow me to illustrate through some examples this questioning of the liberal arts.

Recently, some prominent politicians have debated openly the value of a degree in, say, English, anthropology, philosophy or art history. They include – ironically – successful individuals who have themselves earned liberal arts degrees. In a discussion referencing liberal arts education, a governor of a state outside our own posed the question, "What are we teaching these courses for if they're not going to help get a job?"

The past two decades have seen the rise of robust assessment systems that examine the efficacy of a curriculum in achieving student learning outcomes – what graduates should know and be able to do. While it took some time for assessment to become embraced in academia, its institutionalization is a good thing. As a practitioner will explain, however, communicating the results of such assessment requires nuance and explanatory narrative, rarely reducible to a single number or sound bite. Despite the increasing availability of quality assessment data, we are too often confronted with simplistic college ratings schemes doing just that, ranking institutions based on a single dimension such as projected future salaries of graduates.

And, of course, there are the jokes that have become common in popular culture. We have all heard the line, “Would you like fries with that?”, uttered dismissively about a program of study – often within the liberal arts – deemed insufficient for career preparation.

These illustrations are sobering commentaries on the way in which a liberal arts education is too often perceived.

That SUNY Geneseo is a public liberal arts institution was immensely appealing to me as a candidate for the presidency and is even more so, now that I have transitioned into the role. To me, the public liberal arts college model represents the enviable intersection of the best of what I experienced as an undergraduate geology major at a small private liberal arts institution and as a graduate student at a large public research university, offering affordable, accessible excellence in a student-centered environment that promotes personal relationships with dedicated faculty and staff. I have contemplated these critiques of the liberal arts, particularly in the months following my January 2015 selection as president, and as a liberal arts alumna myself. However, it was on the third day in my new role that I experienced a vivid counterpoint to the critiques of a liberal arts education.

On July 3rd, I travelled with a Geneseo faculty colleague to Beijing, China, representing the College at the annual conference of the Global Academy of Liberal Arts, or GALA, an international network of higher education institutions that aims to “bring together Liberal Arts providers from around the world.” It struck me as somewhat ironic that I was travelling to Beijing - arriving no less on the 4th of July - to celebrate with colleagues from Chinese, Russian, British, Italian, Mexican, and Australian universities our shared passion for the liberal arts and liberal education more broadly.

China… Russia…these are not countries known for embracing - at least in recent times - a liberal arts education for their citizens. Yet there was tangible enthusiasm for the conference’s subject matter by all in attendance. For example, while only two Chinese mainland institutions are official GALA members, the conference attracted participants from a number of other universities from that country. The participating Russian college is one of two liberal arts entities recently designated as such within that nation, and its attendees were eager to discuss possible teaching and scholarly collaborations with us Geneseo representatives.

Why are these countries embracing a liberal arts education?

I will quote the dean of the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Russia’s first designated liberal arts college, as reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education. “Critical thinking is important to grow in Russia…. It’s important to Russia’s advancement.” Similarly, China finds appealing the critical thinking skills and creativity that are fostered by a liberal arts education, viewing those competencies as sparking innovation to fuel its economy. That nation’s ten-year educational reform plan, launched in 2010, calls for a move away from narrowly focused academic programs and memorization-based instruction to disciplinary breadth and pedagogical approaches more characteristic of Western institutions.

Those countries are on to something, as a growing body of evidence documents the value of a liberal arts education.

Consider, for example, a July 2015 piece in Forbes magazine, entitled “That 'Useless' Liberal Arts Degree Has Become Tech's Hottest Ticket.” That article describes the attractiveness of a liberal arts education in the tech sector, concluding that “software companies are discovering that liberal arts thinking makes them stronger.” Employees educated in the arts and humanities are perceived as a desirable complement to their technically-trained colleagues.

An article from that same publication documented “The 10 Skills Employers Most Want in 2015 Graduates.” Foremost among them are the abilities to work in a team structure; make decisions and solve problems; communicate verbally with people inside and outside an organization; plan, organize, and prioritize work; and obtain and process information. In the words of the author, “The good news for grads: No matter what you have studied in school, whether anthropology or French or computer science, you will have had to learn the top five skills on the list.” The writer, in other words, is acknowledging that the skills most sought by employers coincide with the learning outcomes of a liberal arts education.

These results are particularly salient when one considers the number of jobs an average person will hold during a lifetime. According to a recent U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics study of younger Baby Boomers, individuals with bachelor’s degrees held on average 11 to 13 jobs between ages 18 and 48. With such job mobility, an education that is narrowly tailored to a specific job is unlikely to prepare a person for the arc of his or her career.

There are also data that suggest the benefits of a liberal arts education as perceived by alumni. New York Times columnist Frank Bruni recently reported on analyses derived from a survey conducted by Gallup and Purdue University of approximately 60,000 U.S. college graduates, writing that “while only 29 percent of all graduates and 33 percent of graduates of top 50 national universities strongly agreed that their schools prepared them well for life, 40 percent of graduates of top 50 liberal arts colleges did.”

And for those who prefer to focus on job-related compensation, there are affirming data on that aspect as well. According to a recent report by PayScale, Inc., the mid-career median salary for philosophy majors exceeds that for marketing, financial management, engineering technology, nursing, and information technology majors.

It is for these reasons and more that I feel comfortable asserting that a liberal arts education is among the best preparation for the careers of tomorrow as well as a satisfying and fulfilling life.

In that I am a geologist, it probably won’t surprise you that the concept of “place” – that is, one’s physical setting – holds great importance for me. I shared with those of you who attended this fall’s Opening Convocation a bit of my backstory, and how it is inextricably tied to place, that being rural Oswego County in Central New York.

My family’s first home was directly linked to that place. My parents, as young marrieds just starting a family, were in need of a home. Being resourceful and of modest means, they looked to the nearby land that had been identified as the future site of the Nine Mile Point Nuclear Station and, more specifically, a lakeshore house that was slated for demolition to accommodate the new power plant. For the princely sum of $105, they purchased that house and relocated it a short distance onto the strawberry fields of my grandparents’ farm, transforming it into our home.

Place also inspired my interest in higher learning, particularly as I observed the struggles of many in that rural setting whose limited access to education constrained their options. The dilapidated and shuttered one-room schoolhouse in which my father received his first six years of education, located just down the block from our home, was a daily reminder of the opportunities afforded by education.

My passion for geology is also attributable to place. Growing up where I did, one of my favorite pastimes was to collect samples from the rocky shoreline of Lake Ontario. Those rocks, far-travelled and exotic, transported by massive and long-since-gone glaciers, spurred my imagination and shaped my decision to become an earth scientist.

Place is a similarly powerful force for this college and community. Perched high above the valley floor, our dramatic setting was shaped by glacial and other geologic processes that, together, created a landscape that literally provides us with the long view. That distant and expansive horizon is integral to who we are.

As I mentioned before, our college is at a critical juncture, a time of great change when we must look to and, indeed, look beyond that skyline. We possess a strong sense of tradition and self-understanding. We know our roots – nearly 150 years old – with normal school origins and a more recent liberal arts designation, leading to our current status as a prominent public liberal arts college.

So…looking to and seeing beyond that horizon… who are we to be?

Since becoming a candidate for the presidency one year ago, I have taken the time to learn about this college. Subsequent to my July 1 start date, I invited the campus community to participate in my “deep learning” process, with the aim of building a broad knowledge of who we are, where we have been, and where we might go next. While my learning about the College isn’t “done” and never will be, with the capacity-building that has been enabled through the “deep learning” process, it is now time to move to planning and action. We will launch immediately a strategic planning endeavor, to be completed this academic year, to articulate who we shall be as we move forward and how we shall get there. I will tip my hand and share my own, concise response to what I would like to see as our vision…and that is to be an exemplar of a public liberal arts college for the 21st century, and widely known as such.

Today, I would like to pose a series of questions – and some may well represent challenges – that I believe we must address to realize that vision.

The first question is central to our status as a public institution, one with a tradition of providing access to an outstanding education. We have a continuing obligation to foster access to Geneseo. Approximately one of every six new students who matriculates at this institution each year is a first generation college student. As an individual who was the first in my immediate family to receive a four-year degree, the topic of access is profoundly important to me. As a high school student, I was driven to pursue a college education and, in my search for the “right” institution, my parents endured visits to a large number of schools. At one private, selective liberal arts college, my parents and I found ourselves in the admissions waiting area when we overheard a conversation between two admissions counselors, about a prospective student who had just been interviewed. One counselor commented excitedly about the appropriateness of the candidate, noting that she was the child of a lawyer and a doctor. My father later shared with me his internal reaction to that overheard conversation, which was one of concern that the admissions process might privilege children of professionals, which would, in turn, disadvantage me. How many prospective Geneseo students – perhaps individuals without a family tradition of higher education, or with limited financial means, or from under-represented groups – do we lose because they perceive they don’t have a place here? In generating our strategic plan, then, we must address the question, “How do we assure and enhance access to the exceptional education provided at Geneseo?” And thank you, Dad, for your permission to share that story.

A second question is integrally related to the first, and it has to do with affordability. It will surprise no one in this audience that the cost of achieving a baccalaureate degree in this country has accelerated rapidly. A recent study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that median tuition across all public colleges increased 55 percent from fiscal year 2003 through 2012, coinciding with a reduction in state funding for higher education. As the nation’s public higher education funding model has shifted from one principally supported by the states to one more reliant on tuition revenue, college affordability has suffered. While we are rightly proud of our campus’ regular appearance on lists identifying our institution as a best value for both in-state and out-of-state students, that reputation does not translate to affordability for all who matriculate here. In fact, more than one in every five of Geneseo’s degree-seeking undergraduates is a recipient of a Pell grant, a type of federal funding awarded on the basis of financial need. Thus, it is essential that our strategic plan address the question, “How do we maximize the affordability of a Geneseo education?”

Educational excellence is at the heart of the third question. SUNY Geneseo enjoys a well-deserved reputation as an institution of exceptional quality. Our outstanding faculty and staff embrace the teacher-scholar model and value their close relationships with our bright and talented students. Indicators of those connections include faculty- and staff-mentored applied learning experiences like undergraduate research and entrepreneurial projects, internships, leadership development programs, and service-learning projects, consistent with our liberal arts focus. Those relationships are fostered by modest class sizes and student-to-faculty ratios. However, our fiscal realities have challenged us, and we have seen a recent uptick in our class sizes and student-to-faculty numbers. Innovative approaches will be required as we seek to enhance both educational excellence and affordability. We will need to explore and pursue strategies for expanding our revenue and sources thereof, even as we identify ways to contain and reduce costs. Our strategic plan must address the question, “How do we continue to provide an education of exceptional quality in a manner that is also maximally efficient and cost-effective?”

A fourth question speaks to our need to honor our strengths and tradition as a liberal arts college while embracing the learning opportunities made possible through pedagogical innovation and instructional technology. The creation and use of digital media and online educational resources offer exciting opportunities to expand student learning, unbounded by location. Pedagogical methods such as the flipped classroom, in which in-class content delivery and out-of-class problem-solving are reversed with the support of technology, have been used effectively to support individualized learning. Integrating the best that digital learning has to offer, where it makes sense to do so, is not inconsistent with being an exemplary, primarily residential liberal arts college. In fact, providing our students with access to and competency in quality digital learning is arguably essential to their preparation as lifelong learners and citizens. Our strategic plan therefore needs to answer the question, “How do we continue to embrace our identity as a premier liberal arts college while ensuring our relevance and appeal to a digital generation of learners?”

Our status as a public institution prompts a fifth question. As such, it is important that our campus community – inclusive of students, faculty, staff and administration – is reflective of the populace we serve. Examination of our institutional demographics illustrates a gap in that regard. Moreover, our state’s demographic trends suggest increasing racial and ethnic diversity, particularly among young people. Our goals must extend beyond merely enhanced diversity, however, to incorporate considerations of campus climate. Thus, our strategic plan must respond to the question, “How do we enhance diversity, equity and inclusion at Geneseo?”

The increasingly globalized society for which we are preparing our students to lead productive lives inspires the next question. A hallmark of our College is our students’ participation in study abroad experiences, with approximately 40 percent having done so by the time they graduate, a percentage far exceeding that seen at many public comprehensive campuses. While the participation rate is admirable, that percentage indicates that the majority of our students do not have a study abroad experience. And while the number of international students at Geneseo has increased over time, from three in 1990 to about 160 today, we have incredible potential for growth, as we do for hosting international scholars, recruiting international faculty and staff, supporting exchanges, and enhancing global perspectives in our curriculum. Consistent with our participation in the American Council on Education’s Internationalization Laboratory, our strategic plan must address the question, “How do we ensure that all students are reached through our efforts to internationalize the Geneseo experience?”

Central to the next question are the College’s role in the larger community and stated mission of producing socially responsible citizens. As I noted earlier, our institution owes much to the Village for our founding. Likewise, as a public institution, we have an obligation to our state as well as society at large. SUNY Geneseo has a fine tradition of partnering with our community; our College recently earned the highly regarded Community Engagement Classification by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Yet, we have ample opportunity to expand the number, breadth, and depth of our partnerships with external stakeholders. Accordingly, our strategic plan will respond to the question, “How do we engage more effectively with our community?”

The final question is similarly outward-looking and considers our institutional identity and reputation. Those topics emerged clearly in discussion with the students, faculty and staff I met on my recent listening tour. On myriad measures, Geneseo is among the finest public liberal arts colleges in the country. However, our story and successes are not well-known beyond campus, challenging our recruitment efforts in an increasingly competitive environment. Indeed, our College has been called repeatedly one of the nation's "hidden gems.” Well, as a geologist, I have some experience with gems, and I have a strong preference that they be celebrated rather than secreted. Thus, our new strategic plan must address the question, “How do we become recognized for our excellence?”

Addressing these questions – and no doubt a few others – will provide a solid foundation for our strategic plan and our future.

Geologists are fond of exploring phenomena over time, seeking to decipher the past and understand the present to anticipate the future. This institution’s rich history and our outstanding contemporary qualities drew me here and, I feel certain, were drivers for many of you. But what is truly compelling are Geneseo’s promise for the future and potential to define what it means to be a leading liberal arts college for the 21st century. We acknowledge our challenges, but we have the indisputable strengths of character, passion and intellect to move forward with optimism and perseverance. I am privileged and humbled to serve as your new President and am excited to undertake that journey. I invite you to join with me as we endeavor to see beyond the horizon.