Opening Meeting, Fall Semester 2010 - August 26, 2010

“Concentrating Our Minds Wonderfully”

Welcome to the new semester, everyone.  Tomorrow, our students will begin arriving and the academic year will begin in earnest.  I know we are all ready for what that brings. 

These opening meetings are always an occasion of new beginnings, of looking forward through our collective windshield to the next leg of our journey.  But we also have a rearview mirror that shows us where we’ve been.  And we should be proud, as we look back at the last year, at what we see.  The singer Meatloaf once observed in a song that “objects in the rearview mirror may appear closer than they are.”  His song’s theme was the torment of youth, but the perceived closeness of objects from the past can also engender pride and inspiration.  That’s the case for what we all at WCSU accomplished in the past year.  And it’s important to remind ourselves of the fact that, despite budget constraints and position vacancies, working together we accomplished many great things.  Here are just a few:

  • Accreditation success in Education (NCATE), Music (NASM), Nursing (CCNE) and Business (AACSB);
  • Gifts to WCSU increased by 27 percent over FY2009;
  • Physical improvements in Pinney Hall, on University Boulevard — and White and Higgins Hall repairs are progressing;
  • Schematic design phase for Visual and Performing Arts building near completion;
  • Celebrated our second Fulbright Scholar — Ashley Hyde;
  • 3 WCSU teams won LEC championships and advanced to NCAA postseason play;
  • IMPACT Club’s Multicultural Fair in May demonstrated student initiative;
  • Closed Fiscal Year 2010 with a balanced budget and showed same in FY11 Spending Plan;
  • Graduated more than a thousand students at two memorable commencement ceremonies.

That’s a look in the rearview mirror.  What do we see as we look ahead through windshield at the academic year ahead? 

  1. We see continuing enrollment trends that are encouraging.  We’ve met the 4 percent enrollment growth target of our spending plan — and what’s most encouraging is that much of this increase has come from retention of students; our entering class is actually slightly smaller than last year’s.  Improved retention has been a goal of our strategic planning efforts since 2005, and all of the hard work that teaching and administrative faculty and support staff have done to effect improvement is starting to show results.  At this moment, our first-to-second-year retention is 74 percent — as compared to 70 percent last year.  Our six-year graduation rate is at 43.5 percent.  Six years ago, it was 33.1 percent.  That’s a 30 percent improvement — and while we can (and will) do better, the direction is something to celebrate.  Anecdotally, we’ve also seen unprecedented student engagement with their university, an indicator of happiness and retention.

    This increased enrollment, however, has produced pressures and stresses in our organizational life.  We have been forced to rely on special faculty appointments.  Non-teaching positions remain vacant, and the funding of the 20 to 30 of those we’ve experienced in recent years will not soon return.  We will need, going forward, to continue to address critical needs primarily through reallocation.

    These pressures and stresses have, I know, been difficult.  Many colleagues have taken on additional responsibilities.  Some have literally been doing more than one job.  I celebrate this, and I sincerely thank those who’ve stepped up in this fashion. It demonstrates your commitment to the success of our students and defines what makes WCSU great.
  2.  As we look ahead, we see additional financial challenges.  All political rhetoric aside in this campaign year, we know that Connecticut’s $20 billion state operating budget will show a budget deficit of at least $3 billion in Fiscal Year 2012.  This is a matter that must be addressed, though exactly how is still a mystery.

    We are in a political season where many candidates and voters are following the practice of W.C. Fields — “I never vote for anyone.  I always vote against.”  We’ve heard the campaign ads, and we know that the cost of state government is an issue — we are part of that.  We know also that the cost of our public employee workforce has also been an issue — we are part of that.  And we know that the cost and the structure of public higher education in Connecticut has also been much in the news.  And we are part of that.

    We don’t yet know how this will all turn out, but we would be naïve not to contemplate, and plan for, probable reductions in our state support.  Note that I did not say “possible”; I said “probable.”  We spent time in many venues discussing various alternatives last spring, with Provost Rinker, Controller Sean Loughran and representatives of the University Planning and Budget Committee visiting nearly all units of the university.  Some good ideas were generated.  That approach will continue.  We will not surprise the community when we have to make difficult decisions.  As we proceed, four strategic principles will guide us:
    1. We will put students’ academic experiences first.
    2. We will be guided by the WCSU strategic vision/plan
    3. We will do everything we can to keep the current regular WCSU workforce together.
    4. We will maintain enrollment with only modest increases.
  3. In the recruitment of three new academic deans, we see a juncture of important transition in the university’s leadership.  I am very grateful to Abbey Zink and Paul Hines and to Maryann Rossi and Ellen Abate for agreeing to provide interim leadership in the Schools of Arts and Sciences and Professional Studies.  Likewise, I thank Burt Peretti for accepting the role of Interim Dean for Graduate and External Programs.  And I am especially grateful to Carol Hawkes for agreeing to stay a bit longer in her role as dean of Visual and Performing Arts.  These colleagues are providing stability as we search for permanent deans, and they are doing so on strong foundations.  Our departed colleagues all served longer than is typical for deans, and we look forward to good work by our search committees in attracting and recommending excellent candidates.

    We have engaged the search firm of Perez-Arton to help in this endeavor.  You may ask why.  We want the best possible pools of candidates, and, while these are attractive leadership opportunities, we will face some challenges in assembling our pools:
    1. This is a high cost-of-living region of the country.
    2. The economy has reduced mobility nationwide because of the difficulty of selling houses.
    3. Because of contractual requirements, we cannot offer deans from outside CSUS faculty appointments or tenure, which is common practice elsewhere.
    These challenges require us to cast our nets as widely as possible, and that’s what an experienced search firm — in this case Perez-Arton (who by the way brought us Roy Stewart and Linda Rinker) will do.  It’s important value-added service that’s worth the price, because this is a very important endeavor.  We miss and remember fondly those who have gone on to pursue other opportunities, but we also now have opportunities to shape our future.  We should be excited about that.

So that’s what I see when I look forward through the windshield at the year ahead.  Some of this we can control; much we cannot.  And it’s the ambiguity of the latter that probably weighs heaviest on our minds.  That ambiguity has the potential to worry us and distract us to the point that it diminishes our effectiveness in achieving our vision.  We cannot let that happen.  As I’ve said before, what we do — creating through our graduates the future of Danbury, of Connecticut, of the nation and of the world — is simply too important. The accomplishments of last year demonstrate that we have not let this happen in the past.  I have every confidence that we won’t now.

But we must actively confront the realities we face. How will we do that?  One of my favorite 18th-century men of letters, Dr. Samuel Johnson, provides some advice.

Dr.  Johnson once famously said, “Depend on it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

Now, please don’t take this to mean that I think any of us is going to be hanged.  But the challenges of the year ahead and the decisions that will face us will demand that we “concentrate our minds wonderfully.”

We must: 

  • Continue to work together, exercising patience and understanding, especially with areas like facilities and IT, which are under-staffed and over-demanded. 
  • Continue to employ open, transparent lines of communication and ignore gossip and rumor.  We simply don’t have time for it.
  • Work to build trust among all in the university community.  For all of us — from the most well-published faculty colleague to those working on the building maintenance second shift — are members of an educational community focused on students.  We all make a difference for them.  And we are all on the same team.
  • Continue to follow the directions of our strategic vision and plan.
  • And, above all, we must continue to PUT STUDENTS FIRST.  That’s why this institution exists.

Now, while Dr. Johnson talked about hangings, he also said this:

“From torpid despondency can come no advantage; it is the frost of the soul, which binds up all its powers and congeals life in perpetual sterility.  He (or she) that has no hope of success will make no attempts; and where nothing is attempted, nothing can be done.”

Responding to this observation, I would assert that the recent history that we have created together for this university vividly demonstrates:

  1. That we continue to attempt — and achieve — great things. (There’s no “perpetual sterility” here!)
  2. That we have not only the hope, but also the virtual certainty of success.  That’s our track record.

Let’s remember all of that as we go forward to what I know will be another great semester.  I thank you for what you have done, I thank you for what you do and I thank you for what you will do.

Thank you for listening.  And, again, thank you for what you do for Western!

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