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"Geneseo 2021: Embracing our Journey"

2017 Opening Convocation Address by President Denise A. Battles, August 25, 2017

I’m delighted to have this opportunity to share my reflections on the state of our College and our challenges and opportunities as we pursue our vision of being widely recognized for demonstrating the enduring power of a public liberal arts education.

Having been privileged to serve as your President for the past two years, I have benefited from my engagement with Geneseo’s many stakeholders, among them students, faculty, staff, alumni, emeriti, community members, and other friends of the College. That engagement has elucidated the extent to which this College’s many strengths are integrally connected to and emerge from its talented, passionate, and dedicated people and the vibrant culture they engender. Allow me to share some recent indicators of those myriad strengths.

Geneseo’s dedication to teaching and learning was once again affirmed by U.S. News and World Report, which - for the sixth time in seven years - ranked us first on the 2017 Best Undergraduate Teaching list among regional universities in the north.

Our teaching quality is complemented by our passion for scholarly endeavor; U.S. News also named us a top school, number 14, for student opportunities to conduct self-directed research or creative work. That placement will come as no surprise to those of you who participate in GREAT Day, our annual celebration of student research, scholarly and creative activity, with the 2017 event involving a record 1,024 student presenters.

Our desire to inspire social responsibility in our students is a hallmark of Geneseo’s mission, and we deliver on that aim. We advanced this year to the top 15 institutions producing Peace Corps Volunteers among medium-sized institutions, alongside far larger schools like Cornell, American, and George Washington Universities. As well, Washington Monthly magazine placed Geneseo third among 634 master’s institutions for our contributions to the public good. The Geneseo Opportunities for Leadership Development program promotes this culture of social responsibility, and it is noteworthy that University Business magazine last year named our GOLD program as one of its Models of Excellence.

Fostering globally aware citizens is also core to our mission, and in this area, too, we excel. According to the most recent “Open Doors” report by the Institute of International Education, Geneseo is #26 among all master’s institutions for undergraduate participation in study abroad…and #1 among the nation’s public master’s institutions.

Our students flourish in our vibrant college community, earning last year a record number of highly competitive fellowships, scholarships and other recognitions. Among the honors earned in 2016-17 by our current students or recent graduates were:  two Goldwater Scholarships; four Fulbright Scholarships; two National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships, with one earned by an undergraduate applicant; two U.S. Department of State Critical Language Scholarships; and two Gilman International Scholarships.

Our students also shone in athletic competition, as reflected by our third consecutive SUNYAC Commissioner’s Cup and 13th place finish among the nation’s nearly 450 NCAA Division III athletic programs in the Learfield Sports Director’s Cup standings.

Multiple academic programs received external validation this past year. Significantly, our School of Business extended its accreditation by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB). As well, our Special Education program was named to College Choice’s 25 Best Special Education Degrees for 2017.

An interesting but unexpected point of College distinction was raised in a study on the composition of the System’s faculty completed this spring by the SUNY University Faculty Senate. It won’t come as a surprise that, over the past two decades, there has been a dramatic shift in the nation’s professoriate as higher education has struggled in the face of funding challenges, with the percentage of full-time faculty – and in particular, tenure-line faculty – decreasing sharply relative to non-tenure-line faculty. The SUNY UFS’s study called Geneseo a “notable exception” with regard to the relative stability in our full-time tenured and tenure-track faculty, which decreased far less than the System as a whole. In fact, with 58.6% of our academic year 2016 faculty being full-time tenure-line, we stand in stark contrast to SUNY overall at 38.7%.

Another system-level metric in which Geneseo shines has to do with our college’s finances. An important SUNY measure of institutional financial health is the percentage of unrestricted operating reserves relative to total disbursements, with the desired range from 10 to 25%. Geneseo ended our 2016-17 fiscal year at 21%, an improvement over the prior year and placing us within the top third of SUNY institutions, a testament to our prudent financial management.

While I could highlight additional campus strengths, I hope those I have shared are illustrative.

However, I do wish to emphasize that we achieved these many impressive outcomes while maintaining outstanding affordability, as illustrated by our inclusion in the top 40 public institutions on Kiplinger’s Best College Values list for both in-state and out-of-state students. We are rightly proud of our ability to deliver an affordable, exemplary liberal arts education.

Among our strengths - and essential to the health and vitality of our learning community - is our commitment to continuous improvement. That commitment is evidenced by our recently developed strategic plan, “Geneseo 2021: Seeing Beyond the Horizon,” and by the progress we have made in advancing it.

The plan is our roadmap for realizing our vision and advancing our institutional success through to our sesquicentennial year. I appreciate the hard work of our Strategic Planning Group, which has identified top priorities from among Geneseo 2021’s action steps and developed an implementation plan for them, which we are actively pursuing. Indeed, with the College Senate’s endorsement of Geneseo Learning Outcomes for Baccalaureate Education (or GLOBE) and the establishment and launch of our Curricular Design Working Group, which will propose a new curricular structure to ensure student attainment of GLOBE outcomes, we have already completed one of those priority action steps.

Another strategic plan-related accomplishment over the past year was the revision of our existing “Campus Diversity Plan” to ensure its alignment with the SUNY Board of Trustees’ recently enacted Diversity, Equity and Inclusion policy. I deeply appreciate the excellent work by the Commission on Diversity and Community, supported by the College Senate among other campus offices and individuals, to generate our well-received “SUNY Geneseo Strategic Diversity Plan.” That document is embedded within the Geneseo 2021 strategic plan and identifies our actions to advance our value of inclusivity. Also in keeping with that value and expectations specified in the Trustees’ Diversity, Equity and Inclusion policy, was the establishment of the position of Chief Diversity Officer. That role represents a reconfiguration of the vacated position of Assistant to the President for Diversity & Equity and Director of Affirmative Action. We anticipate conducting a national search for the ongoing position holder in the current year, with the goal of a summer 2018 start date.

Progress was made in meeting our strategic plan’s objective to strengthen our engagement with our alumni through the continued development of the SUNY Geneseo Alumni Association, or SGAA. The SGAA, the formation of which I announced in fall 2015, represents a harnessing of the best attributes of its two predecessor alumni organizations. Following last year’s refinement of the SGAA’s structure under interim leadership, 2017-18 will see the first year of full implementation under the entity’s newly elected leaders. I appreciate the work of the SGAA leadership, both interim and ongoing, as well as the Alumni Relations staff, to unify our alumni structure and thereby enhance our service to graduates as well as overall efficiency.

Geneseo 2021 also calls for us to advance our community engagement, and one notable effort is our renewal of the Healthy Campus-Community Coalition. The Coalition comprises local-area businesspeople and residents, local and college officials, and Geneseo students who come together with the common aim of supporting the responsible sale, service, and consumption of alcohol.  With its relaunch, the group has expanded its scope to include the prevention of drug abuse. The March 2017 convening of the revitalized Coalition was well-attended, and its efforts will be advanced by a five year, $630,000 grant from the state’s Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse. Congratulations are due to grant project director Sarah Covell, Geneseo’s Alcohol and Other Drug Program Coordinator, as well as others who contributed to its success.

Our strategic plan also recognizes the importance of new avenues for student recruitment in an increasingly competitive landscape. Accordingly, we pursued - and were awarded - the opportunity to host on our campus the 2017 Annual Meeting of the New York State Association for College Admission Counseling, which gave over 700 individuals who are chief influencers of students’ college decision-making a very positive impression of our institution.

Of course, we held off on starting our $12.5 million central campus infrastructure project until the last of the conferees departed. That badly-needed project - consistent with our strategic plan’s objective to maintain our physical facilities to support effective learning environments - will improve or update core campus systems, including electrical, telecommunication, heating, water, and sewer. While primarily subsurface, visible improvements will include walkways and landscaping.

The past year also saw another effort essential to our future:  the development and submission of our Periodic Review Report or PRR to the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, the entity that provides the College’s institutional accreditation. The document is essentially a mid-term progress report following up on our last decennial review in 2012, in which our College was fully accredited. Many individuals across the campus participated in the creation of the PRR, which attests to our continuing compliance with Middle States’ 14 effectiveness standards. While the participants are too numerous to list by name, I do want to take the opportunity to acknowledge the PRR co-chairs, Cathy Adams (Associate Professor of History) and Ken Kallio (Interim Associate Provost for Personnel and Diversity), who provided exemplary leadership and ensured a timely submission of a quality document by the June 1 due date. We anticipate hearing the final results of that process in November, but have every reason to anticipate a positive outcome.

The aforementioned is a selection of initiatives - among many more - through which we have sought to enhance our College over the past year. I trust these examples evidence our deep commitment to continuous improvement at Geneseo.

As I have outlined, our college enjoys many strengths and it is only right that we acknowledge and celebrate them. That said, we find ourselves in a time of unprecedented change in higher education and, in order to continue to build on our successes, it is essential that we understand our challenges. Allow me to highlight several, starting with our state’s demographic trends.

For years, and more specifically from the mid-1990s through to the 2009-10 academic year, New York’s production of high school graduates increased steadily. That growth in new high school graduates - our traditional target audience - translated into strong demand for admission to Geneseo. As we were not growing our enrollment, that demand led to lower acceptance rates, which is to say, increased selectivity. We now find ourselves in a sustained trough in the state’s productivity of high school graduates which, not surprisingly, affects our application numbers, acceptance rates, and total headcount. The newest projections indicate that New York will only approach its prior production of high school graduates in 2025, falling sharply thereafter, which means a sustained - and significant - student recruitment challenge for our College.

Demographic shifts in that college-bound population also have clear implications for higher education. That population is rapidly diversifying, including more women and racial and ethnic minorities. A sizeable share are first generation college students and English language learners who may particularly benefit from support services that haven’t been emphasized here at Geneseo, given the fairly “traditional” student body we have served.

Many students seeking college access demonstrate significant financial need. An exciting development that seeks to address that need only materialized over the last few months:  the Excelsior Scholarship Program, also known as New York State’s Tuition-Free Public College program. In short form, the Excelsior program provides financial assistance for public college tuition to qualifying undergraduates, supplementing federal, state and other scholarships that defray the costs of tuition. With this year’s eligibility capped at an annual family income of $100,000 and increasing to $125,000 in two years, Excelsior is expected to provide assistance to lower through middle income New Yorkers. The Excelsior Scholarship Program is truly groundbreaking, and one must applaud our state’s commitment to expanding its residents’ access to a high-quality undergraduate education. That said, the program is not without resource impacts for our college. I will outline just a few.

The new program is designed to support timely degree progress, and thus requires students to be enrolled in at least 12 credits per term and complete at least 30 credits each year. In that a minority of our first-time students enroll for 15 or more credits each fall - only 38% did so in fall 2016 - and several hundred of our students complete fewer than 30 credits within the academic year - last year, that number was 449 - we anticipate increased credit hour demand per full-time student. As Excelsior does not bring with it resources for increased staffing, either for faculty or the campus professionals who provide administrative support for the new program, that increase in student credit hour demand will likely mean a commensurate uptick in class sizes.

Another attribute of the new program is that tuition rates for recipients are frozen at the 2016-17 rate - which is to say, the 2015-16 rate - of $6,470 per year. That freeze will persist for all Excelsior recipients until it is reset to the prevailing rate in four years’ time. Thus, while a $200 per annum increase in tuition was authorized for the 2017-18 year, that increase is limited to students who do not receive Excelsior benefits, thus moderating our associated revenues. Our best projection is that we will net an additional $550,000 from the increase. And let me be clear, while I don’t celebrate tuition hikes, the costs of delivering a high-quality education increase annually and must be addressed through some means.

The Excelsior Scholarship Program may carry an additional resource-related impact for Geneseo that is relatively unique. Research conducted last year by the College indicates that the majority of our new students, had they not matriculated at Geneseo, would have been lost to the SUNY system. In fact, nearly half (43%) indicated that they would have attended a private institution instead. To quote from an Inside Higher Ed article about the impacts of the Excelsior program, “Private colleges would seem to have a few strategies available if they want to attract students who are newly considering public institutions. One is that they could throw more financial aid at students who are on the fence.” The endowments of Geneseo’s top private in-state competitors each exceed 1 billion dollars, providing them a ready resource with which to leverage scholarship awards. Our endowment, by contrast, totals about $32 million, putting us at a significant disadvantage on the scholarship front.

While the implementation of the Excelsior Scholarship Program represents a significant investment by our state in public higher education, and we are grateful for the opportunity to increase, albeit modestly, our tuition rates, it is important to note that year-over-year State support is flat, with the State no longer directly covering operating cost increases for utilities, library subscriptions, collective-bargaining, and the like. Our best projection is that those expenses amount to an additional $1.6 million in base or recurring costs in 2017-18 alone and about $780,000 in one-time costs. Thus, funding those increases implies a sizeable reallocation of our existing budget or use of our fund balance.

I mentioned at last year’s convocation an anticipated development that has now come to pass, and it represents both a challenge and opportunity for our campus. That is, a modified SUNY Cross Registration Policy has now been approved. That policy establishes a system-wide financial aid consortium, enabling students to achieve full-time status by taking courses at multiple SUNY institutions and encouraging student cross registration for courses across modes of delivery, with particular attention to distance learning. Under the revised policy, host institutions at which Geneseo students take courses may – and we expect typically will – bill our College for the associated tuition and applicable fees. These policy changes highlight the importance of our continued and timely progress in expanding our engagement in digital learning.

Another challenge central to Geneseo’s identity as a public college that aims to ensure access to a high-quality liberal arts education was highlighted in a recent study conducted by researchers from Stanford, Brown, and Harvard Universities. The Equality of Opportunity Project uses big data on students’ and parents’ salaries to analyze intergenerational economic mobility, tied to students’ alma maters.

An interactive tool developed by the The New York Times allows one to examine institution-specific project data. Those data indicate that, of the 56 SUNY institutions studied, SUNY Geneseo has the highest median family income at $125,000. For reference, that range within SUNY starts at $42,500. We also have the highest percentage of students who come from the top 20% of family income, at 59%. In SUNY, that range starts at 8.6%. For a non-SUNY point of comparison, Harvard University’s median family income is only $168,800 with 67% coming from the top 20% of family income. We are also an outlier in terms of our percentage of students from the bottom 20% by family income, at just 3.3%. In fact, of the 2,395 higher education institutions ranked by the project, we are now in 2,228th place in terms of students enrolled from the bottom 20% of family income.

The project’s longitudinal data allow examination of institutional access over time. We fare poorly relative to our study-defined peer institutions in the percentage of students from the bottom 60% of income, with access decreasing over time. Looking at our percentage of students from the top 20% of family income relative to those same peers highlights this trend; we are increasingly enrolling high-income students, a stark pattern relative to our peer institutions.

Our own institutional data point to other challenges when it comes to access and equity. For example, we know that our percentage of under-represented minority students is modest relative to the demographics of our state. And as our Equity Scorecard Project has highlighted, while we have made progress in reducing equity gaps associated with underrepresented populations, they remain unacceptably large.

SUNY Geneseo is New York State’s sole representative of the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges, or COPLAC, and we offer a truly exceptional and transformational liberal-arts centered education. Ensuring access to that experience by academically talented students - regardless of their economic circumstances - is integral to our COPLAC member status, consistent with our strategic plan, and consonant with our values. Indeed, how can we exemplify a truly great public liberal arts institution unless we serve well these students of tomorrow?

So, having summarized some of our many strengths, recent strides that build on those strengths, and pressing challenges, how shall we move Geneseo forward? The Geneseo 2021 strategic plan, with its four focus areas of learning, access and success, advancing the public good, and resilience and sustainability, guides our actions, and while the plan is a comprehensive document, I will focus today on selected emphases for the coming year.

As I have mentioned, in 2016-17 the Strategic Planning Group worked to identify our top priorities for action and develop an implementation plan for them, including the Responsible Leads, Achievement Measures, Timelines, and Resources Needed. Among those top priorities are initiatives responsive to our aforementioned challenges – as well as our opportunities. For example, initiatives addressing student access, recruitment, retention, and success include:  targeting scholarship funds to attract qualified students reflecting a diverse population; establishing an early warning system to track student progress; and increasing student internships and service-learning opportunities. Initiatives aimed at advancing our status as a premier public liberal arts college include:  revising our undergraduate curriculum consistent with the achievement of GLOBE; exploring the feasibility of and implementing new academic programs; and incentivizing faculty to utilize innovative pedagogies. All of these initiatives will require dedicated time and effort; however, some will require investment of funds.

The College is actively pursuing funding from a variety of sources to advance our efforts. For example, we submitted multiple concept papers in response to SUNY’s Performance Improvement Fund opportunity, and have been assured some level of funding on four projects in the areas of curricular revision and diversity and inclusion. We have also sought extramural grant funding, with the aforementioned $630,000 award from the Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse representing one recent success.

While we will continue to pursue such external resource streams, we cannot pin our strategic plan’s success to their availability. Thus, tapping one-time funds from the operating reserves I referenced earlier, a pool of $1 million has been identified to advance the highest priority initiatives in our strategic plan. In consultation with the cabinet, I have directed $350,000 of that sum to time-sensitive student recruitment efforts that are vital to our College’s success. I will charge the Budget Priorities Committee, working in concert with the Strategic Planning Group, to advise the cabinet and me on the allocation of the remaining $650,000, based on public presentations of the initiatives. In addition to alignment with our strategic plan, a primary emphasis in this process will be to support initiatives with high potential for return on investment. The presentations will be open to all within our campus community, and I encourage your attendance.

Accessibility, as I have outlined, is a fundamental challenge for Geneseo, and one we must address, as it is central to our strategic plan, values, and status as a public college. Scholarships play a key role in fostering access to a Geneseo education, particularly among those students with the greatest financial need. As I have noted, the value of our endowment disadvantages us relative to our top private competitors. Thus, growing our scholarships - and, in particular, our endowed scholarships - is a foremost aim, and one that is reflected in our philanthropic priorities. In fact, I am delighted to announce that our attentiveness to fundraising is already bearing fruit:  since July 1, we have secured two commitments totaling $700,000, with $300,000 directed to student scholarships.

Expanding student access to a Geneseo education should not be limited to securing new scholarships, however, as the College currently awards nearly $1 million annually in scholarships through the Geneseo Foundation. However, analysis indicates that our available funds are not always awarded when they could be, nor as strategically as they might be. To address those issues, I have asked Vice Presidents Arena and Bowles to lead a Scholarship Workflow Task Force, charged with recommending to me:  a streamlined workflow for managing scholarships that aligns with national standards and best practices, with clear roles and responsibilities for the campus partners who support this process. The task force will have representation by key campus stakeholders, including faculty and staff, and I hope that – if invited to serve – you will accept.

An ongoing effort that we will seek to bring to prompt closure is our intersession initiative. Intersession offers an opportunity for students to pursue credit-bearing activities between the close of fall semester and the start of spring semester – such as through study abroad, study away, or digital learning – that might otherwise be unavailable. That abbreviated academic term may also provide a means of supporting timely degree completion. And with the advent of the Excelsior Scholarship Program, intersession offers an additional avenue for students to earn the 30 credits per year required to maintain scholarship eligibility. As many of our SUNY sister institutions already offer intersession, Geneseo students are likely to pursue those opportunities elsewhere, should we not extend them. I appreciate the efforts of our Intersession Working Group, under the leadership of Savi Iyer, to study the potential benefits, drawbacks, and other implications of re-instituting intersession on our campus. The resulting report, which I recently received, will inform our activities as we bring our intersession explorations to closure.  

The final initiative I will mention here is also an ongoing one, the importance of which cannot be overstated. I refer to our work to revise our undergraduate curriculum in support of the Geneseo Learning Outcomes for Baccalaureate Education. I think we all appreciate that Geneseo did not become a model of distinctiveness among public liberal arts institutions by happenstance. Our talented and dedicated people are central to that status, yet our curriculum – a tangible expression of our mission, vision, and values – offers one of our foremost opportunities for continued distinction. With the implementation of our Curricular Design Working Group, under the capable leadership of Distinguished Teaching Professor Beth McCoy, we have a solid platform for seizing that opportunity.

In closing, I hope through my comments today I have conveyed the importance of our strategic plan as we seek to build on our strengths, address our challenges, and pursue our opportunities.

Earlier this summer, around the time I started penning this address, I had the opportunity to visit the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, which is celebrating the 100th birthday of our 35th president. Perusing a special exhibit, I was struck by the boldness of JFK’s inspirational moonshot challenge:  “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

Our aspirations for Geneseo are quite different than those referenced by President Kennedy; however, they are similarly bold. There is little doubt that we face uncertainties and challenges; however, at Geneseo, we have never eschewed hard work, especially when we know it is the right thing to do. And so, I have every confidence that – with the commitment of our people and strategic plan as our guide – we are well-equipped to embrace our journey, as we strive to be an exemplar of a public liberal arts college for the 21st century.

Thank you for your attendance and attention, and – above all – your dedication to our fine college.