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Geneseo 2021: Sustaining the Vision

2018 Opening Convocation Address by President Denise A. Battles, August 24, 2018

My theme — that of sustaining our efforts to implement our Geneseo 2021 Strategic Plan and achieve our vision to be recognized widely as demonstrating the enduring power of a public liberal arts education — should come as no surprise. Our College vision — newly created through our planning process — acknowledges our present status as a premier public liberal arts college. That status has been earned through many years of intentional work by the singularly dedicated members of the Geneseo community. 

Higher education now finds itself in unprecedentedly dynamic times. Implicit in our College’s vision is our aim to adapt to these changing circumstances, such that we are an exemplar of a public liberal arts college for the 21st century. We set high expectations and achieve exceptional outcomes. We embody excellence in high impact practices in a diverse, engaged community. And we provide transformational experiences that serve students for a lifetime.

As we enter the third year of implementing our strategic plan, en route to its culmination in 2021, Geneseo’s sesquicentennial year, we approach a critical juncture. Now is a time to take stock, examine our progress, and position ourselves for what lies ahead. Happily, the strides we have made are significant. Allow me to share a selection of our foremost accomplishments.

While selective, in aggregate these highlights illustrate our progress in the strategic plan’s four focus areas of learning; access and success; advancing the public good; and resilience and sustainability.

Geneseo is rightly renowned for our commitment to exemplary instruction. Since 2011, U.S. News and World Report has acknowledged teaching excellence through its “Best Undergraduate Teaching” list. For the seventh time in those eight years, we are ranked first among the regional universities in the north in the 2018 listing. Our commitment to the teacher-scholar model is manifested by a concomitant dedication to scholarly activity, particularly that which engages our students. That attribute, too, is captured by U.S. News and World Report; the College was included on its list of institutions (and I quote) “that are much more determined than others to provide freshmen and all undergraduates an outstanding educational experience” (end quote), where we are highlighted in the category of undergraduate research/creative projects.

Our mission statement affirms our aim to inspire socially responsible and globally aware citizens, and in these areas as well, our achievements are impressive and externally recognized. For example, Washington Monthly magazine has again ranked Geneseo as a leader in our contributions to the public good, this year placing us first among 632 U.S. master’s universities, our highest ranking ever. As well, in 2018, Geneseo moved from 14th to tenth among medium-sized institutions on the Peace Corps’ “Top-Volunteer Producing Colleges and Universities” list, with 23 alumni participants.

Our exceptional learning environment fosters positive student outcomes, and those of the past year were especially noteworthy. Among the national honors earned in 2017-18 by our students or recent graduates were: six U.S. Student Fulbright awards; a Goldwater Scholarship; a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship earned by an undergraduate applicant; five Gilman International Scholarships; and three Institute of International Education Generation Study Abroad Travel Grant awards.

In a first-ever achievement, in recognition of last year’s awards, Geneseo was named a 2017-18 “Top Producer of Fulbright U.S. Student” awards, placing third among the 742 Carnegie Master’s institutions. Notably, our College was the only SUNY institution to be named a Fulbright Top Producer in any category, inclusive of bachelor’s, master’s, research, and special-focus 4-year schools.

And speaking of SUNY-wide points of distinction, The Chronicle of Higher Education recently ranked four-year graduation rates of the country’s public higher education institutions. Geneseo was included in the top 10, alongside the University of Virginia, UCLA, Berkeley, and the University of North Carolina — Chapel Hill, and the only SUNY institution among that group.

Our students apply their learning to real-world situations, such as through entrepreneurial pursuits, with impressive results. A student team from our VentureWorks Entrepreneurship Program took home first place in the advanced technology track of the New York State Business Plan Competition.

In addition to academic achievements, our students excel in athletic competition. Indeed, Geneseo occupies a niche few other institutions can claim, offering top-tier academic and NCAA Division III athletic programs. Our College has 19 sports that compete in the SUNY Athletic Conference, or SUNYAC. Last year, a record 13 of those sports brought home SUNYAC championships. Not surprisingly, Geneseo won the SUNYAC Commissioner’s Cup for the fourth consecutive year. At the national level, in the past year, five Geneseo student-athletes earned NCAA national champion honors, the most ever. These individual and team successes led to our best-ever finish in the 2017-18 Learfield Sports Directors’ Cup standings, which rank collective excellence among the country’s 450 NCAA Division III intercollegiate athletic programs. We placed 11th overall and 1st among public institutions.  

Multiple Geneseo programs garnered outstanding national honors over the past year. Our Department of Geography received the American Association of Geographers’ 2018 Award for Bachelors Program Excellence, recognizing its “exemplary learning experience for undergraduate geographers.” As well, Milne Library won the 2018 Excellence in Academic Libraries Award in the “College” category from the Association of College and Research Libraries, in recognition of its programming and outreach efforts. Geneseo’s sustainability programs, supported by a dedicated Commission on Sustainability, received national recognition, with our inclusion in The Princeton Review’s Guide to 375 Green Colleges.

In light of these myriad successes, it should come as no surprise that Geneseo earned multiple honors reflecting overall educational excellence. We once again placed second in the category of “Top Public Schools” among northern regional universities by U.S. News and World Report, tying for 11th among the 659 public and private institutions in that category. We also appeared among Princeton Review’s “The Best 384 Colleges” and its “Colleges That Pay You Back: The 200 Schools That Give You the Best Bang for Your Tuition Buck.” And, as per Kiplinger’s Personal Finance, we accomplished all this even as we remained "a best value" for both in-state and out-of-state students

As the foregoing illustrates, our successes over the past year have been numerous and varied, and provide us much to celebrate. That said, as I acknowledged at the start of this address, these are extraordinarily dynamic times for higher education, and achieving our College’s vision requires our awareness of and responsiveness to the multiplicity of challenges we face. Among the most significant are demographic changes within the northeastern U.S. and, in particular, New York State. 

The sustained growth of the nineties and aughts in the number of high school graduates in our region and state has ceased, falling significantly since its high in 2009-2010.

We are currently in a sizable trough, and demographic projections through the year 2032 indicate New York will approach, but not attain, the previous high. The downturn heightens the competition for students among higher education institutions, few of which can afford or wish to reduce enrollments. In that Geneseo attracts a mostly traditional-aged undergraduate student body, 96 percent of which come from within our state, that demographic trend challenges our ability to maintain our student headcount. The College’s resilience in its Enrollment Management owes much to the work of Vice President Arena and her team. 

Another issue affecting our enrollment involves transfer students. Historically, transfers have been an important source of Geneseo’s new enrollees, comprising nearly 40 percent of our incoming students just six years ago. Since that time, our transfer numbers have dropped dramatically, now totaling about one-fifth of our incoming students. That decrease prompts commensurate growth among first-time, full-time students, which has implications for our student profile.

While some of the decrease may be attributable to post-Recession drops in community college enrollments, a recent in-house study indicates that some Geneseo attributes may discourage transfer student interest and highlights opportunities for us to accommodate this important student population better.  

Being an exemplary public liberal arts college for the 21st century implies serving a 21st century demographic. Demographers have highlighted the increasing racial and ethnic diversity among our state’s high school graduates, outpacing that of the northeast overall. Many of these students are the first in their families to attend college and some are English language learners. Accordingly, incoming Geneseo students may benefit from different kinds of services, structures and support, changes to which we must be responsive. And we know that — despite making progress — the diversity of our College’s students, faculty and staff is not yet reflective of the state we serve.

We have similarly made progress in narrowing the outcome gaps between under-represented and white students; however, the continuing gap in 4-year graduation rates presents a challenge we must address. There are many reasons to be attentive to our structures and programs that foster the success of all students.

Despite the many indicators of a quality learning environment leading to positive outcomes, over the past decade, Geneseo’s retention of first-time, full-time students has slipped somewhat. That represents about 75 more first-year students who are not persisting at Geneseo than would have been the case previously. Our drop in retention rate similarly affects our ability to maintain enrollment but — more importantly — represents a worrisome outcome for students who presumably came to us expecting to complete a Geneseo degree.  

The challenge of the increasing cost of higher education and the associated issues of affordability will come as no surprise, as it is a national phenomenon. NY State has sought to make a college education more affordable to the middle class through the Excelsior Scholarship Program, commonly referred to as tuition-free public college for qualifying full-time resident students. The program, which became available in fall 2017 to families earning up to $100,000, has a three-year phase-in period, with income eligibility rising to $125,000 next year. I commend the state’s willingness to invest in public higher education through this groundbreaking program, which provides welcome financial relief for students and their families. That said, the program has implications for our College.

Excelsior incentivizes timely degree completion, requiring recipients to enroll in at least 12 credits per term and complete at least 30 credits each year. That requirement drives an increased credit hour demand per student. Over the past year, we have observed that increased demand, which is expected to grow as program phase-in continues and more students participate. It is essential that Geneseo support our students’ continued eligibility for this welcome financial assistance, and so I wish to express my gratitude to our faculty for accommodating this need. 

Excelsior has also prompted a variety of responsive actions from New York’s private institutions, who fear an enrollment downturn by in-state students attracted to the prospect of free tuition at public schools. Among those actions have been tuition-cutting, new scholarship programs, and timely completion and scholarship guarantee programs. Based on our research, we know that a sizable proportion of our students, had they not enrolled at Geneseo, would have attended a private institution instead.

Thus, the responsive actions by our private school competitors — many of which have endowments which dwarf our own, giving them flexibility we don’t enjoy — present an enrollment management consideration. 

An important development over the summer came when the UUP reached a tentative agreement with the state on its new contract, the most recent one having concluded in 2016. Although ratification is pending, the endorsement of the six-year contract is widely expected. Similar to other recently settled agreements with collective bargaining units representing college employees, the UUP’s tentative contract includes 2 percent salary increases for each of the six years. That includes two years of retroactive increases, as well as Discretionary Salary Increases. Salary adjustments for our hardworking and dedicated faculty and staff are welcome news, allowing us to make much-needed progress on our compensation.

While we are pleased that the state was able to negotiate an agreement, the funding for those salary increases was not provided for in its budget.

It’s true that this year’s tuition increase of $200 per in-state resident undergraduate student, exclusive of Excelsior recipients, will yield additional tuition revenue. That said, when one accounts for the negotiated salary increases, our calculations indicate a funding gap in the current year of about $600,000, with that number expected to grow going forward. Absent dedicated funds to address this gap, SUNY institutions are put into a difficult position, requiring redistribution of current funding allocations.

We and SUNY are working hard to inform legislators about this deeply impactful issue and advocate for responsive action.

As it stands, the funding gap represents one of our most serious challenges to achieving the financial sustainability called for in our strategic plan. 

In sum, while our achievements and successes are many, there are substantive challenges we must address if we are to maintain and extend our excellence and ultimately achieve our stated vision.

One of the joys of being a college president is the opportunity to experience the successes of those in our academic community personally. For example, during SUNY’s Distinguished Academy dinner held each May, the system’s newest distinguished faculty inductees are honored. While attending this year’s event, I met a distinguished faculty member from a sister institution. He co-edited the book, SUNY at Sixty: The Promise of the State University of New York, and was kind enough to send me a signed copy of it. 

My dinner companion included with his gift a note directing me to a Geneseo-specific article contained within, authored by Geneseo Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus Wayne Mahood. I read that article and found it interesting, informative, and revealing. It addressed a critical period in Geneseo’s history, nearly 50 years ago, as our state and system shifted from a time of general prosperity, characterized by baby boom-fueled population growth and investment in public higher education, to the serious economic slowdown of the 70s. 

Mahood detailed the dire circumstances. The state issued ominous statements about operational austerity, and serious budget reductions, including to Geneseo, soon followed. An ambitious SUNY capital construction plan was interrupted, halting needed building projects on our campus as well as many others. Demographers projected a serious drop in the state’s public school enrollments as the baby-boom era ended, with our College subsequently experiencing an unanticipated and precipitous 18 percent drop in applications in a single year. An enrollment decline of 17 percent through the 1980s was projected, with expectations for a sizable reduction in Geneseo’s faculty.

Indeed, the College’s situation, and its prospects, were bleak.

Characteristically, Geneseo decided to face its issues head on. The campus’ leadership tapped its most precious resource — its people — to engage in a major planning initiative that included the refinement of Geneseo’s mission and the establishment of its long-term priorities.

Among the outcomes of that planning were:

  • identification of the College’s distinctive niche, as a public liberal arts college with selected professional programs

  • a concerted focus on student recruitment and success, with faculty and staff playing a central role

  • heightened attention to admissions and marketing of the College

  • creation and implementation of a revised and distinguishing core curriculum

  • development of new academic programs responsive to student demand accompanied — more painfully — by the cessation of programs and activities that were not in keeping with the institution’s refined mission or changing circumstances

  • increased emphasis on external fundraising, facilitated by the newly-created Geneseo Foundation

Those efforts set the stage for our institution’s development into one of this country’s finest public liberal arts colleges.

So, why do I take time today to mention this difficult period in our institution’s history? While the College’s challenges then and now may differ in their details, the common thread is the intentional response: engaging our people in focused planning and then exhibiting perseverance in implementing that plan. In creating Geneseo 2021: Seeing Beyond the Horizon, we undertook as a community the important work of refining our mission and values and establishing our vision and goals through our sesquicentennial year.

And as Geneseo did nearly 50 years ago, we must again persevere in sustaining our efforts to achieve that vision. Thus, the Geneseo 2021 strategic plan continues to provide our roadmap forward.

To date, we have identified our foremost priorities and made solid progress in addressing them. Allow me to outline some ways in which we have advanced our plan and how we will move ahead. 

Learning is the first of our four focus areas. Among our most important endeavors in support of learning is the revision of our curriculum in alignment with our Geneseo Learning Outcomes for Baccalaureate Education, or GLOBE. Considerable progress has been made toward this end under the leadership of the Curricular Design Working Group and participation by stakeholders from across campus.

Our curriculum, a powerful expression of Geneseo’s mission, vision and values, is among our foremost opportunities for continued distinction, and thus I encourage everyone’s active engagement in this important endeavor. 

Another exciting advance in support of learning is the creation of the Center for Integrative Learning, under the leadership of Provost Robertson. The CIL, a strategic reimagining of our Center for Inquiry, Discovery and Development, will promote integrative learning experiences as defined by the GLOBE learning outcomes. With the naming of the CIL’s director, I am excited to see its continued development.  

Next, our work to implement an enhanced intersession also supports student learning, particularly that which involves study abroad, study away, and other applied learning activities.

Intersession also helps address the needs of our Excelsior Scholarship recipients for additional credit hours. Following a thorough analysis by our Intersession Working Group and the thoughtful work of the College Senate’s Calendar Committee, the Senate endorsed in May a revised academic calendar, enabling the offering of an enhanced intersession in the current academic year. I invite faculty and staff with interest in participating in this year’s intersession to please make that interest known to your department chair or dean so that we may develop a robust set of offerings.

To position us for success and full implementation in the 2019-20 academic year and beyond, I have constituted and charged an Intersession Implementation Team and look forward to receiving its recommendations by November 1 of this year. The enhanced intersession also aligns with our strategic plan’s objective to pursue curricular innovation through expanded digital approaches.

The identification of an Assistant to the Provost for Digital Learning and Scholarship, under whose leadership we offered a very successful two-day professional development workshop on “best practices in online design and instruction,” marks noteworthy progress in this important area.

Our development of new and innovative academic programs is another of our plan’s identified priorities in support of learning. We are pursuing these opportunities with the support of our Faculty Fellow for Innovative Program Development, even as we advance new program proposals through the approval process.

As the College has added only four baccalaureate academic programs in the past 20 years, it is notable that we now have the BA in Sociomedical Sciences and MS in International and Community Action at the SUNY level of the review process.

Student access and success, the second of the focus areas, is central to our plan. In support of access, at last year’s convocation, I announced the creation of the Scholarship Workflow Task Force to ensure our strategic utilization of scholarship funds. That task force has been working apace, and I look forward to receiving its recommendations this fall.

As you may know, Academic Affairs has undertaken a focused — and ongoing — “Wildly Important Goal”: to increase retention of first-time, first-year students from 86 to 88 percent by October 2019. This is a goal we must all embrace.

Among our associated efforts is the investment in an early alert system, which we expect to implement in the coming year, to support student achievement. We also have expanded our residential learning communities, which are known to foster the transition to college, nearly tripling student participants over the past six years. 

Both our strategic plan and Strategic Diversity Plan place much emphasis on diversity, equity and inclusion. Over the past year, we have advanced those efforts through the establishment and staffing of the Office of Diversity and Equity, recruiting robbie routenberg as Geneseo’s first Chief Diversity Officer. We revised our personnel recruitment practices to be more equity-minded and modified our Statement on Diversity and Community, which is now under College Senate consideration en route to my own.

With support from the LGBTQ Issues Working Group, our Safe Zone activities were enhanced through expansion and updating of programming, development and delivery of a train-the-trainers academic course, and identification of dedicated funding.

Our hardworking Commission on Diversity and Community made progress on initiatives including Equity Scorecard, aiming to reduce further the outcome gaps among underrepresented students and looking at student support and gateway course experiences, among other factors. The commission also has collaborated with many campus stakeholders to expand opportunities for cultural competency professional development and expects to launch a pilot version of a certificate program this fall.

We were also successful in securing over $1.1M in federal funding through the McNair Scholars program to foster the pursuit of doctoral degrees by first-generation, low-income, and other underserved students.

Consistent with our strategic plan’s focus on advancing the public good, we worked closely with our community partners to rethink our Healthy Campus and Community Coalition, which works to deter the illegal and high-risk use of alcohol and other drugs. Following an in-depth study of this long-standing coalition, overseen by Vice President Bonfiglio, the revitalized entity, bolstered by our $630,000 grant from the state’s Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse, is thriving.

As well, we again supported our local community by providing summer housing for students volunteering with the Geneseo Fire Department.

We have also exhibited progress on priorities in support of institutional resilience and sustainability, our strategic plan’s fourth and final focus area. Given our budgetary realities, the need to establish a sustainable financial plan is paramount. As a college, we have limited authority to control both our revenues — for example; we cannot set Geneseo’s tuition rates — as well as certain expenditures.

One of our best opportunities to bolster our financial sustainability while pursuing our vision is through fundraising.

Under the leadership of Vice President Bowles, we have placed considerable effort in refining our advancement policies, procedures, organization, and staffing, with noteworthy results. Specifically, fiscal year 2017-18 marked our most successful fundraising year ever, in terms of total dollars raised. Our cash revenue net of bequests increased year-over-year some 77 percent, from $2.4 to over $4.2 million, Geneseo’s all-time record. We similarly saw a strong increase (up 16 percent) in the number of donors, and percentage of alumni donors, from 8.8 percent to 10.1 percent, just short of a record.

With fundraising objectives developed to align with our strategic plan priorities, we gained support for key initiatives, including over $2 million for future scholarships, more than $250,000 of which is designated for international experiences. External grants are another means of enabling important scholarly, teaching, and/or service endeavors that would be challenging to fund institutionally.

In this area too, Geneseo shone.

The dollar amount awarded in 2017-18 topped $3.5 million, our second highest ever, and only $61,000 shy of our record, while the number of awards, at 34, set a high-water mark for Geneseo. In keeping with our plan, we will continue our efforts to secure such philanthropic and grant support.

Recent efforts to enhance our profile and public awareness of Geneseo are also key to our resilience and sustainability. Our brand image and identity initiatives, overseen by Chief Communications and Marketing Officer Glover, will create a graphic icon to augment our established Geneseo wordmark.

I’ll take this opportunity to invite your participation in the brand survey you should have received recently.

As well, we have incorporated feedback on key audiences’ perceptions of the College into our admissions materials and website, among other outlets. Assurance of effective learning environments is another strategic plan element. Excitingly, under the careful stewardship of our colleagues in Finance and Administration, we have made solid progress in the program planning for renovating Sturges and Fraser Halls, which will house academic and community program elements as well as the Center for Integrative Learning. Final concept approval and schematic design work will follow.

These are some of the many ways in which we have made progress on our strategic plan.

That said, to be effective, plans must be living documents that respond to changing circumstances, and as I have outlined, we live in singularly dynamic times.  For example, the Excelsior Scholarship Program, with its profound impact on our state’s higher education landscape, had not even been proposed when we finalized our strategic plan two years ago.

Thus, this fall, I will charge the Strategic Planning Group (or SPG) to refresh our plan to address any new circumstances or opportunities and assure the plan’s alignment with our three-year timeline for its completion. Particular attention will be paid to identifying our foremost priorities, ensuring each has measurable and time-based outcomes with identified responsible parties.

Those outcomes will be the basis for our development of a strategic planning dashboard. To support efficiency and transparency in our work, we will shift from our current Wiki-based platform to a more user-friendly one. Throughout, we will ensure connectivity to budgeting and assessment, bolstering our institutional effectiveness and thus supporting our institutional accreditation through the Middle States Commission on Higher Education.

Continued responsiveness to our plan certainly requires effort but also, in some cases, investment of funds. You may recall that last year we identified $1 million in one-time funds for those investments, the allocation of which was facilitated by public presentations to the SPG, Budget Priorities Committee and, in fact, the greater campus community. This year we have identified an additional $500,000 in one-time funds that will be allocated in support of our refined plan.

In closing, Geneseo has much to be proud of.

Our successes, which are many, varied, and often externally validated, attest to the fulfillment of our mission, adherence to our values, and — ultimately — the strength of our community. We understand our challenges and opportunities, and through our strategic planning efforts, are well-positioned to address them.

What is called for now — as it was during our College’s crises of a half-century ago — is our perseverance in executing that plan.

In his best-selling book, Drive, author Daniel Pink examines the science behind human motivation, identifying the importance of intrinsic qualities — autonomy, mastery, and purpose — in propelling us. At Geneseo, we enjoy a significant degree of institutional autonomy by virtue of the unique niche we have carved for ourselves within higher education — even if that autonomy is not unlimited.

Our mastery of what we do and commitment to continuous improvement are unquestionable.

Finally, we at Geneseo are unified by a keen and rare sense of purpose — a purposefulness that has everything to do with our people. In recent months, Geneseo has been fortunate to host the SUNY System Chancellor and Vice Chair of the SUNY Board of Trustees. Both of them clearly emerged from their visits deeply impressed by Geneseo’s people and our unwavering commitment to our public liberal arts-centered mission.

In pursuing our vision to be recognized widely as demonstrating the power of a public liberal arts education, we seek nothing short of greatness. And as summed up by Daniel Pink, “Greatness and nearsightedness are incompatible.  Meaningful achievement depends on lifting one’s sights and pushing toward the horizon.” I urge you to join in that push to sustain our vision.

Thank you for all you do to contribute to the continued success of this fine institution. Let’s have a great year.