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“Geneseo 2021:  Planning for Our College’s Future”

2016 Opening Convocation Address by President Denise A. Battles, August 26, 2016

I’m delighted to join you here today, having had the honor and privilege to serve as your president. This occasion provides an opportunity for reflection upon the close of my first year in the role.

You may recall that an initial personal priority during that period was to engage in “deep learning” about the College, an activity in which many of you participated. While the past year brought any number of unanticipated events, the outcome of my own deep learning is an affirmation of just how very impressive our College, people, programs and qualities are.

Let me share with you just a sampling of indicators that bear out that assessment.

Recognizing the collective excellence of our faculty in instruction, we were ranked number one - again - in the 2016 U.S. News and World Report’s “Best Undergraduate Teaching” category among regional universities in the north.

Notably, we achieved that status while ranking - according to the Kiplinger’s Personal Finance list of the Top 300 Best College Values - 13th among public colleges for out-of-state students and 37th among public colleges for in-state students.

We deliver on our mission to educate “socially responsible citizens.” Washington Monthly placed Geneseo fifth overall among the nation’s 673 master’s level universities for our contributions to the public good. That ranking considers three broad categories:  improving social mobility, producing research, and promoting public service.

Further validating my assertion is Geneseo’s status as 18th nationally among medium-sized schools for numbers of Peace Corps volunteers. “Medium-sized” on that list is defined as 5,000 – 15,000 undergraduates, placing us among far larger institutions like George Washington University, Cornell, and the University of Virginia.

Prestigious individual student recognitions included a first-in-college-history receipt of a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship by an undergraduate; the College’s 18th Goldwater Scholarship for achievement by a STEM undergraduate; the award of a Phi Beta Kappa Writing Internship to a Geneseo undergraduate; and the award of a LAMP Fellowship to one of our international student graduates to spend a year as an aide and research assistant to a member of the Indian Parliament.

In the three years since its founding, our VentureWorks Entrepreneurship program has had 21 student teams advance to the semi-final rounds of the New York Business Plan Competition and 16 advance to the state final rounds, where nine awards have been won.

That level of achievement is incredible for a primarily undergraduate college competing against far larger research universities.

It is noteworthy that our academic excellence is complemented by stellar achievement in athletics.

A conference-best 178 SUNY Geneseo student-athletes were recognized for their academic accomplishments by the State University of New York Athletic Conference (SUNYAC) with the release of the All-Academic Team and the Commissioner's List for the 2016 spring semester.

Geneseo won its second-consecutive and third overall SUNYAC Commissioner's Cup, which calculates the regular-and post-season finishes of the conference’s 10 member schools.

Moreover, the athletic program finished 16th in the 2015-2016 Learfield Sports Director’s Cup standings, which looks at overall excellence among the nation’s 450 NCAA Division III athletic programs.

Beyond these facts and figures, reports and rankings, Geneseo also excels in areas less easily measured:  the strength and spirit of our community.

Nowhere were those attributes more evident than when we experienced last January the most difficult of tragedies. The power and passion of our community shone through, demonstrating without a doubt the special nature and resilience of our Geneseo family.

In the past year, we have undertaken some important initiatives to strengthen the College.

For example, Geneseo’s dedicated alumni enthusiastically engage with the College, so much so that we have supported two distinct alumni organizations, the long-lived Geneseo Alumni Association (or GAA) and the more recently constituted Alumni Council.

While the entities differed in their origins, leadership, and foci, they shared an unwavering commitment to serving our alumni. That said, the presence of two distinct associations proved confusing to our graduates, and supporting multiple alumni organizations was challenging for the College.

Such considerations led to my October 1, 2015, announcement that we would move toward the establishment of a single, unified alumni entity, the SUNY Geneseo Alumni Association, or SGAA, so that we may serve our alumni more efficiently and effectively and enhance our service to and engagement with this valued population.

Following the excellent work of an SGAA Implementation Committee composed of alumni and Geneseo personnel who drafted the new association’s constitution and bylaws, we are now implementing the SGAA, with interim leadership appointed to serve during the 2016-2017 transitional year.

I want to thank those who served on the Implementation Committee, chaired by Debbie Hill ’75, assistant vice president emerita for college advancement, as well as the leadership of the GAA (Eddie Lee ’76), Alumni Council (John Gleason ’87), and Geneseo Foundation Board (Kevin Gavagan ’75) for their support of this endeavor.

Another key initiative implemented during the past year pertains to our College communications functions. As I outlined in my inaugural address, our College, by myriad measures, is among this country’s finest public liberal arts institutions, but that excellence is not widely known.

As a native of this part of the world, I recognize upstate New Yorkers’ innate sense of reserve - a humble disinclination to appear proud or boastful - which has perhaps contributed to a reticence in sharing our story. That reserve, though, does not serve us well in this time of media omnipresence and sophisticated marketing, particularly among our higher education peers with whom we must compete to recruit and retain students.

Acknowledging the need to tell better our story and serve more effectively the campus’ divisions and offices, in late November 2015, I announced a plan to reorganize our Office of College Communications, renaming it the Office of Communications and Marketing and moving it from within the Division of College Advancement to become a presidential report.  

Filling a vacancy in the Communications leadership position, we recruited our first Chief Communications and Marketing Officer, Gail Glover. The reorganization was effected upon Gail’s May 5 start, and I am excited by the initiatives the office has undertaken or has in the pipeline, including a long-awaited overhaul of our College’s website, coverage of positive campus stories that have been distributed by the Associated Press, and development of a marvelous College Annual Report.

I hope you’ll join me in supporting that office’s efforts to unveil the “hidden gem” to which our College is so often compared.

Under the leadership of the faculty and colleagues in and beyond Academic Affairs, we recently positioned the College for a long-awaited revisiting of our general education curriculum and, in fact, our broader undergraduate student experience, through the College Senate’s spring 2016 endorsement of the Geneseo Learning Outcomes for Baccalaureate Education or GLOBE.

GLOBE, which has been in development for several years, establishes a framework for that redesign, encompassing general education, academic majors, development of skills, and integrative and applied learning.

That framework identifies student learning outcomes that are both long-established – such as critical-thinking and communication – as well as those that have emerged more recently but are no less essential, such as information and digital literacy.

Indeed, expanding our campus’ engagement in pedagogical and scholarly methods that use digital technologies offers exciting ways of advancing our academic mission.

I want to thank the many individuals who worked to develop the baccalaureate learning outcomes, with special thanks owed to the members of the General Education Committee and in particular its chair, Distinguished Teaching Professor of Mathematics Gary Towsley.

We concluded the 2015-16 academic year with the announcement of another structural change, this one focused directly on enhancing our advising and student support functions.

The former position of dean of curriculum and academic services was recast to become assistant provost of curriculum and assessment, a move that will assist in both the aforementioned curriculum redesign work as well as our efforts in assessment and institutional effectiveness.

The latter areas are of central importance to our institutional accreditation by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, particularly this year as we develop our Periodic Review Report in support of that accreditation.

They are also important to our efforts to set our own goals as an institution, and then measure progress and adjust course as necessary to realize our vision of excellence.

Savi Iyer has already transitioned from the dean to the assistant provost role and is hard at work in these areas. The former position of dean of residential living, which was previously housed in Student and Campus Life, migrated to Academic Affairs to become the dean of academic planning and advising. That move allows greater attention to academic advising and student retention, and I’m pleased that Celia Easton is bringing her expertise to that reconfigured position.

The merger of the Departments of Student Life and Residential Life within the Division of Student and Campus Life completed the organizational change, with Director of Student Life Chip Matthews retaining his title while taking on broader duties.

In all, this reorganization advances our work to support student retention and completion, as well as align more closely our academic and student life functions.

And so, building on our many established qualities, we have made strides over the past year to enhance our College.

It is important, however, to acknowledge that we, at Geneseo, do not exist in an idyllic state, free from the myriad pressures and problems that are endemic in contemporary higher education. Many of these issues were raised throughout the “deep learning” period in which I engaged -- alongside many of you who participated in our Schola Brevis and listening tour sessions -- in the months preceding the inauguration.  

I will now outline some of the challenges that are particularly germane to our College at this time, as they highlight the importance and urgency of another initiative we have undertaken in the past year:  the development of “Geneseo 2021, Seeing Beyond the Horizon,” our College’s five year strategic plan.

First.  Geneseo has long enjoyed strong demand from prospective students, with the number of applications often topping 9,000 to achieve an incoming first year class of about 1,300.

The vast majority are state residents. While we certainly continue to be a college of choice, the steady growth in New York state’s high school graduates has leveled off, with some downturns projected before a return to prior highs about five years from now.

Although the state as a whole may show limited population growth over that time - and that projection is the subject of considerable debate - unsurprisingly, much of the potential growth centers around the New York metro area, while western New York is experiencing population declines.

These trends impact our enrollment management efforts, particularly as competition becomes far keener from other higher education institutions, public and private, that seek to address their financial constraints through increased student headcount.

Geneseo is especially challenged because, given our student profile, we often vie with better-endowed institutions, who with deep discounting can provide more affordable aid packages, even at our College’s relatively modest tuition.

Second.  We’re now seeing the demographic shifts among prospective students that population prognosticators have anticipated.

A U.S. News and World Report article put it bluntly, (and I quote) “The 'traditional' college student - young, white, male, wealthy - is a thing of the past.” (end quote).

The country’s college-going population is increasingly female and racially and ethnically diverse. Many are first-generation college students, demonstrate significant financial need, and/or seek new kinds of support services. As Geneseo has served a fairly “traditional” student population, these demographic shifts prompt us to revisit our student support practices, particularly as we work to both diversify and address identified attainment gaps among underrepresented student populations.

The aforementioned reconfiguration of academic advising and student support functions represents one proactive response to these needs; however, continued innovation is in order.

Third.  Our College’s funding model represents a key challenge. The SUNY System’s recent efforts to promote the continuation of SUNY 2020, with opportunities for modest annual tuition increases (called “Rational Tuition”) and support for mandatory operational cost increases (termed “Maintenance of Effort”), were unsuccessful.

The five-year period in which the system operated under SUNY 2020 allowed students and parents to anticipate the costs of their education, and similarly permitted the campuses to develop multi-year plans based on a largely known financial picture.

The outcome for Geneseo for 2016-2017 is a net reduction in state allocation relative to last year. However, our reduced state allocation does not tell the full story, as it doesn’t take into account the impact of an increased minimum wage nor major changes to the Fair Labor Standards Act, which provides rules on who is and is not exempt from overtime compensation.

There are also the effects of the past year’s hiring, and increases in salaries and the cost of our operations. The cumulative effect is more than a half million dollars, year-over-year.

Our campus’ mandated tuition freeze exacerbates our $2 million-plus structural budget gap, which arose in large part from unfunded salary increases. The tuition freeze impacts our ability to shore up staffing in the many areas of campus in which there are pressing needs.

As well, in that the state was able to fund only a fraction of the SUNY System’s Critical Maintenance request and provided no Strategic Initiative funds for new capital construction, the System and College will continue to struggle with deferred maintenance and delays in planned construction.

In recent years, we have managed our budget gap with recurring one-time distributions to the campus; however, future distributions are uncertain, a situation that requires heightened fiscal discipline and creative approaches to generating new revenue streams.

Fourth.  The rapid expansion in online learning and alternative credentialing, and the increasing expectations for technology-enriched instruction by a digital generation of learners, also pose a challenge - and a distinct opportunity - for a campus that has embraced a more traditional instructional model.

Anticipated revisions to the SUNY Cross Registration Policy may be particularly impactful in such a model. This modified policy is expected to establish a system-wide financial aid consortium to facilitate students achieving full-time status by taking courses at multiple SUNY institutions and encourage student cross registration for courses across modes of delivery, with particular attention to distance learning.

The envisioned model has financial implications for both the home and host institutions. Under the revised policy, we anticipate that full-time Geneseo students taking online courses at other SUNY campuses during the academic year will trigger an obligation for our College to transfer the associated tuition and applicable fee dollars to the institutions delivering the courses.

These policy changes affirm and make even more necessary our continued and timely progress on the promising efforts we have initiated in the digital learning realm.

Finally, not least among our challenges, as described in my inaugural address, is our status as a public liberal arts college in an environment that so often promotes a false dichotomy, pitting liberal education against career preparedness.

There’s little doubt that the open disparagement of the liberal arts affects public opinion and, in turn, our recruitment efforts. Thus, our work to articulate the enduring power of a public liberal arts education has never been more important.

All of the foregoing leads me to the following conclusion. While the current state of our College is comparatively strong, in many ways we have arrived at an important crossroads, with the five years leading up to our 2021 sesquicentennial representing a pivotal period in Geneseo’s evolution.

The decisions we make, the priorities we set, and the actions we undertake during these next five years will have a profound effect on charting our collective future.

Geneseo has earned its status as one of this country’s premier public liberal arts colleges. That status was actively sought and it’s well-deserved, but in these unprecedented dynamic times for higher education, it is not one that will be readily maintained or assured. Indeed, that status cannot and will not be sustained through stasis.  

As we move forward, we must address the question -- what does it mean to be an exemplar of a public liberal arts college for the 21st century? I posed that question in my inauguration address last October, when I announced the launch of our College’s strategic planning endeavor. That question has guided the ensuing excellent work of the Strategic Planning Group (SPG), in collaboration with many in this room, on campus, and beyond.

I began my comments today by referencing my first year as Geneseo’s president and by acknowledging the opportunity for reflection presented by this occasion. One of the more unusual aspects of assuming the president’s role on this campus is that it comes with the expectation to live in a state-owned building, the President’s residence. It is a lovely historic structure, and it is a real privilege to live in such a grand edifice.

However, for someone who had been a homeowner since her 20s, the cessation of that role represents a fundamental change.

I mentioned in last year’s address my upstate New York roots and, in particular, my family’s history in farming. Given that familial background and my identity as a geologist, that I feel a strong connection to the land won’t be a surprise.

It is perhaps because of that bond that I decided to install this spring a vegetable garden at the residence – a way, perhaps, of instilling a sense of ownership in my borrowed living space. I have gained much satisfaction from planning, planting, and cultivating that land, and tending the garden presents a time for thought and reflection.

And as I worked in that space and contemplated today’s address, it occurred to me that there are significant parallels in the gardening process and the strategic planning endeavor we have initiated. Establishing a thriving garden requires a knowledge of one’s circumstances:  the existing resources, climate, and current conditions. It also involves prognostication: an assessment of potentially available resources and anticipated conditions. Planning, seeding, and continual tending are required. And choices must be made about which outcomes will be pursued and which will not.

Through the work of the SPG, we have undertaken similar steps, and I am delighted to announce that the core of our strategic plan is now in hand, with work on its implementation to start immediately.

I want to take this opportunity to express my gratitude to the members of the SPG for their outstanding and timely work, with copious engagement of our stakeholders, to develop and recommend the plan to the cabinet. Following modest refinements by the cabinet, the document that you will find posted on the strategic planning website – and I urge your review of it – establishes our foremost priorities through our sesquicentennial year of 2021.

Ultimately, the plan responds to the question I posed earlier - what does it mean to be an exemplar of a public liberal arts college for the 21st century?

I’ll take just a few moments to discuss how we will operationalize the plan and to highlight selected priorities for implementation in the coming year.  

The core of the strategic plan, which has been approved for implementation by the cabinet, features a refreshed mission statement that references our liberal arts college status and our professional and graduate programs.

It also articulates our values and a new College vision. It identifies four thematic focus areas:  learning; access and success; advancing the public good; and resilience and sustainability. Underlying each thematic focus area are objectives and selected action items.

The work that the SPG will now undertake is to develop the implementation plan for those objectives and action items. That includes establishing the highest priorities among the action steps and, for each, recommending the responsible leads, achievement measures, timelines and resources needed, the last of these in consultation with the Budget Priorities Committee (BPC).

With the goal of identifying resources that may be used in support of strategic plan implementation, the BPC will also review, analyze and make recommendations on opportunities for the College to generate new revenue streams, contain expenses, and/or reallocate funds.  

Once the strategic plan’s responsible leads have been charged, they will report regularly on their activities and outcomes. The SPG’s review of those reports will inform and help assure our progress.

It’s important to note that the strategic plan will be a living document, as the SPG will regularly assess the currency of the plan and recommend changes to it. The SPG will be aided in that work by the College Assessment Advisory Council, whose functions are currently being refined in consultation with that governing body.

As I mentioned, the work of the SPG will include identifying our highest priorities for action. However, some of them are evident.

Given the fiscal challenges I have outlined, establishing a sustainable financial plan is among our foremost needs. We must work to close our structural budget gap, through generating new revenue streams, containing expenses, and/or reallocating funds from lower to higher priorities.  

The greater campus community will be encouraged to engage in this process by generating and submitting proposals that will advance our mission and strategic priorities while also addressing our financial sustainability goals.

Please look for a request for proposals to be issued in coming weeks. The aforementioned work of the BPC to review, analyze and make recommendations on such opportunities will assist in our efforts to engage the campus in these important activities.

I noted earlier the Senate’s endorsement of the Geneseo Learning Outcomes for Baccalaureate Education and its  importance in guiding our curricular revision work.

That approval represents an important step in a process that has been nothing if not deliberative. As I read about Geneseo’s history in the informative volume authored by Professor Emeritus Wayne Mahood et al., I was struck that elements of our current general education curriculum date to the 1970s. That longevity prompts a couple of thoughts.

First, one presumes that those elements would not have been so long-lasting had they not supported our core mission and provided a solid grounding in the liberal arts, preparing students to enter life after college with the broad skills and knowledge befitting citizens of a democracy and necessary for success in life and career.

That said, the exceptional dynamism in our world and society over the past four decades has been such that a focused review of our curriculum is undoubtedly merited, to ensure we continue to realize that aim going forward.

An institution’s mission, vision, and values are expressed through its general education and overall curricula. Indeed, that is where our College’s foremost opportunity for continued distinctiveness resides.

With GLOBE as our unifying framework, it is now time to undertake the important work of revising Geneseo’s curricula, and I look forward to timely action to that end by our faculty, under the leadership of Interim Provost Schacht.

Another priority initiative for us in the coming year and beyond is our ongoing work on diversity, equity, and inclusion. With a well-established and hardworking President’s Commission on Diversity and Community, a campus diversity plan and a broad campus commitment to the value of inclusivity, Geneseo is well-positioned to make progress in these important areas.

The Commission deserves our thanks for its work over the past year to recommend refinements to our campus diversity plan consistent with the SUNY Board of Trustees’ recently approved Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Policy.

Over the coming year, we will be implementing responsive actions consistent with those refinements, such as the appointment of a chief diversity officer. The embedding of that refreshed campus diversity plan into our strategic plan will help ensure our continued progress.

Our College has long enjoyed a strong relationship with the Village that championed our creation; however, our work to maintain and enhance community relations is never “done.”

In spring of this year, Mayor Hatheway and I signed a renewed Geneseo Village-College Relations Compact. A week later, we jointly hosted a first-ever Community Chat, providing local area residents the opportunity to engage us in conversation about topics of mutual interest.

Efforts to refresh our Healthy Campus-Community Coalition are already underway, as are new initiatives to engage with our community. I encourage you to participate in these exciting endeavors.

In closing, our College has a great deal to celebrate as we open our new academic year. We also have much to do to respond to the challenges facing us as we move forward.

Yet, these challenges become opportunities when we, as a College community, tap our collective intelligence, talent and creativity and work toward a common goal.

I want to express my gratitude for all that you do to make Geneseo special and invite you to support our continued success by participating fully as we plan for our College’s future.

I am as excited today about that future as I was on my appointment, and I hope you will join me as we strive to be an exemplar of a public liberal arts college for the 21st century.