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WestConn at a Glance

Opening Faculty Meeting August 31, 2006


Download an audio version of President Schmotter's Opening Faculty Meeting Speech.
(5MB .mp3 file)

Welcome to the Fall Semester, everyone! A university like ours really doesn’t come alive until the full faculty and student body return. That time is here now, and like me, you’re probably excited about it. In my inaugural comments two years ago, I quoted William Butler Yeats’ definition of education: “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” Certainly with all that happens every summer here at WCSU, the embers of that fire are never completely extinguished. But now it’s time to pile some more logs on and get the fire of education roaring again — and that’s what we commence today.

We do so in a setting of changing physical features — the Midtown Parking Garage, the emerging Westside Campus Center, new educational space in Higgins Hall. We welcome a large and well-qualified group of new freshmen who continue to develop our identity as a residential university. To meet the increasing demand for on-campus housing we are featuring this year “expanded occupancy” rooms, i.e. triples. This permits us to provide educational access for students who wish to attend WCSU with more convenience and affordability than our former hotel lodgings. It also builds a more coherent campus community. But it will present some new challenges, which I’m sure Walter Bernstein will tell you about.

We greet the new academic year with a new academic organization. Under founding dean Carol Hawkes, faculty from Art, Music and Theatre Arts will be working together on the first tasks in organizing our new School of Visual and Performing Arts. I know they are excited. So am I!

We also are joined by a number of new colleagues, and I direct your attention to a list of these on the back of your programs. We welcome each and every one of you to what I truly believe is one of the most vibrant, affirming academic communities in America. I do want to introduce one newcomer to you — our new Provost, Dr. Linda Rinker. Linda comes to us from Kutztown University in Pennsylvania. Those of you who’ve met her during the past eight weeks or so will agree that she has hit the ground running. I’m really delighted she’s here and will be providing the leadership in academic affairs that will enable us to achieve our great potential.

It’s about how we will achieve that potential that I want to talk to you this afternoon. Our university started as a small normal school 103 years ago; 30 years ago we organized ourselves as a university with three separate schools; and about 15 years ago we began a conscious planning process of transformation. The results of the creativity, dedication and hard work of all those involved in those endeavors is all around us — in our physical surroundings, in our burgeoning student body, in the colleagues sitting around us in this room. None of us can, or should, underestimate or diminish the contributions of those whose shoulders we stand upon. 

But we have our own particular challenges and opportunities in this first decade of the 21st century, and I want to remind us of what work we’ve been about over the past two years and to outline the course of our immediate future. 

Dr. Samuel Johnson once observed, “Sir, a man may be so much of everything that he is nothing of anything.” That goes for universities, too. So since I’ve arrived here, we’ve been engaged in a collective process of defining who and what we at WestConn are. I believe we’ve reached an important milestone in that process  

Let me first remind you where we’ve been:

  • In 2004-2005 our Values and Vision (V&V) team conducted more than 70 structured conversations with more than 650 constituents, both internal and external. We summarized and processed the main themes of these many observations in a March 2005 Stakeholders Conference led by former Wake Forest provost David Brown.
  • From these observations emerged in 2005-2006 the organization of five action teams focusing on important issues for our future: Strategic Enrollment Management, Student Success, WCSU Comparative Advantage, Costs of Partnership, and Summer and Intersessions. These groups have presented reports containing a myriad of useful recommendations for improving WestConn; many will be adopted in the near future. Their reports are available on the WCSU Web page.
  • Simultaneously last year, we established the President’s Initiatives Fund, which in its first round has funded 12 exciting projects that advance the theme “Employing Regional Advantage to Educate for Global Realities.” (A theme vividly repeated in the V&V conversations.)
  • And over the summer, the members of our administrative leadership and the UPBC have worked to marry the themes of Values and Vision with the Action Teams’ work to move to a new vision for WCSU’s future and toward the draft of a strategic plan to realize that vision. 

This has been a community effort.  Let me demonstrate that:

If you were a member of the original V&V team, please stand.
If you’re a member of the administrative groups or UPBC, please stand.
If you’ve been a member of an action team, please stand.
If you’ve been involved in one of the President’s Initiatives Fund projects, stand.
If you participated in a V&V conversation, please stand.

Based on this continuing collective work, we’ve identified a vision of WCSU’s identity — the goal we should pursue to avoid being (in Dr. Johnson’s words) “so much of everything that we are nothing of anything.” This vision emerges from our history and from our current comparative advantages. As we develop this vision, it promises to afford us a competitive niche in the higher education market of Connecticut, and the entire Northeast as well.

The vision is as follows:

Western Connecticut State University capitalizes on its outstanding faculty and its location in the greater New York metropolitan area to create a diverse university community that — in its range of quality academic programs and in its enriching and supportive student-focused environment — is characteristic of New England’s best small private universities, but with much more affordable costs.

Note the underlined words. These will form the basis for the conduct of our strategic plan. We will explicate, set goals and assess progress in each of these domains. The importance of these elements is based on the conversations I referenced earlier. The planning process we’re developing will, in a disciplined fashion, keep these areas in mind as we compare ourselves not only to other public universities in the region, but to aspirational private peers as well.

The strategic plan is being drafted by a steering committee comprised of the co-chairs of the five action teams. Their work will be available by late September and will be the focus of community input throughout the Fall Semester with an eye toward adoption in the Spring.

Now, you may ask: is this reasonable? Visions are great, but to be genuine they must be grounded in reality. (I’m still waiting for that call from the Lakers. Maybe the Knicks? That might be a vision, but it’s not a realizable one.) I think this vision for WCSU is realizable. I believe it is grounded in our current reality as well as in achievable aspirations. Let me provide some examples of how we already resemble a small private university.

  1. Our curricular approach: professional studies on an arts and science base. We do not, like many large public universities, provide very specific self-contained curricula in individual academic units. On the other hand, our strong professional programs provide a curriculum that is broader than that of a liberal arts college. We combine both, and I’m sure we can all think of private peers that do likewise.
  2. Our student-faculty ratio and commitment to faculty engagement with students is far more characteristic of the best privates than it is of large publics. We don’t teach sections of 350 students like I did at Western Michigan.
  3. We feature a wide array of active learning opportunities for students: internships, directed studies, apprenticeships, overseas trips.  All are what our private counterparts do.
  4. We feature excellent technology in the classroom.  By the end of this year we will have 100% of our classrooms technologically enabled. I’ve simply never heard of that at a public before. And we have great promise for expanding our wireless capacity further.
  5. Our faculty is indeed “outstanding.” In U.S. News we have ranked in the top 10 among all publics in the northeast in the criterion “academic resources.”  The academic base, the faculty that are the heart of any university — in short, you folks — are here. That is incredibly important to our future.

And we put it all together for our students to enable them to pursue self-defined educational objectives. To borrow a manufacturing metaphor, we do customized piece work, not mass production. Let me show you an example from last year’s graduating class: student entrepreneur Jonathan Soares, whose “Q” BBQ Sauce is now featured in 1500 supermarkets in New York and New England.

(A VIDEO DEPICTING JONATHAN SOARES WAS PLAYED)

Jonathan happened to be in the Ancell School of Business, but similar stories could be told about students from any department in any school in this university. His story demonstrates that this new vision makes sense for us. 

Let me, then, tell you what will happen next in the weeks and months ahead to develop this vision.

  1. Our Strategic Plan will be developed, shared with the community and revised as necessary for adoption in the Spring.
  2. A Facilities Master Plan process will proceed following the Strategic Plan directions for approval by the Board of Trustees in March. Consultants will be visiting us again to share ideas with the community.
  3. We will implement short-term, low cost ideas for improvement generated by Action Teams will begin immediately. The Steering Committee has presented a list of about 50 of these — many fall into the “low hanging fruit” category.
  4. We will begin investing in the strategic pursuit of our vision. The past academic year was characterized by conscious austerity in budgeting. Only four new positions were added to our budget, because we’ve been working to manage our way out of a cash flow crunch occasioned by new construction (especially Centennial Hall, the new Science Building and the Westside Campus Center), as well as dramatically increased energy costs. This year will be a repeat of that austerity, with only three new positions (custodians starting in January for the Westside Campus Center) in the budget. We will pursue other cost containment strategies as well. For example, while all faculty vacancies will be filled, we will not fill a number of open administrative slots to save funds this year.

I repeat, this austerity has been deliberate, and it has gotten us to the point where we will be able to begin investing in our vision in the 2008 fiscal year. I’ve made the decision that this investment must come first in the hiring of additional full-time faculty. Thus I’m directing Provost Rinker to work with the deans to identify and begin recruitment for at least five new faculty lines for Fall 2007. A list of priorities already exists and will inform that process.

If our financial assumptions hold, I expect that we will be able to make similar additions to our full-time staff in each of the next three years, as well as to replace all faculty vacancies. I emphasize: the primary focus will be in hiring additional full-time faculty who are able to participate in all aspects of professorial work: teaching, scholarship, advising and service. Our adjuncts provide yeoman service, but we are too dependent upon them. I expect that this investment in full-time colleagues will decrease this dependence steadily and measurably. 

Two assumptions are critical here:  1. That we experience no dramatic change in our state appropriation and 2. That we continue to meet enrollment targets. Given our momentum and the creative ideas we are generating, I have great confidence in the latter. As for the former, I choose to have faith.

All of you who stood up a while ago have over the past 24 months contributed to a process that has helped us define the next stage in the 103-year journey of this university. To repeat Paul Hines’ comment from Herb Janick’s centennial history, WestConn’s “miracle” continues — thanks to you. We have work to do, but the result of those labors, I’m convinced, will take us to new and exciting places.

I look forward with great anticipation to our working together in the months ahead, and I’ll close with some words from Hartford native Samuel Clemens. He was writing about journeys, and provides, I believe, good advice, advice we might share as well with our students:

“Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

Welcome back, everyone!

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