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Open Houses

WestConn at a Glance

Opening Meeting, August 30, 2012

Welcome, everyone!

Let me begin with a brief review of FY12 v. FY13: A year ago we were faced with instability—interim deans, dozens of special faculty appointments, hiring freezes on needed administrative and clerical support roles.  A new Board of Regents, which brought a new governance structure and relationships with other institutions.  Many, many questions!  That was fall 2012.

Now, fall 2013:

  • Stability in academic leadership—new deans:  Missy Alexander in the Macricostas School of Arts and Sciences  and Jess House in the School of Professional Studies
  • Relative stability in budget
  • Increasing stability in governance at state level
  • Many new faculty colleagues across schools and other new colleagues as well; look at the program of this meeting
  • New sponsored programs officer and associate provost
  • New football coach--Joe Loth
  • Augmentation of our fundraising staff in Institutional  Advancement
  • And valuable help from a dear friend who’s temporarily rejoined us in admissions:  Bill Hawkins.

 

And we have much of which to be proud.  Just a few examples:

  • New Ed.D. in Nursing Education, which kicked off with a residency two weeks ago   
  • Recognition of Mary Ellen Doherty's scholarship on nurses in war and of Kevin Gutzman’s new work on James Madison
  • Continuing recognition of and external funding for the “Building a Bridge to Student Success” program
  • The Visual & Performing Arts building on schedule
  • New fuel cell will power the Science Building by semester’s end.
  • Our university’s service to the community was notable last year:  hosting the CT Supreme Court, providing social media expertise for nonprofits; providing space for the Mission of Mercy and the Homeless Connect project; Ives Concert Park partnership with the City of Danbury; research for the Community Health Report Card; storm sheltering last year.  We are directly touching the lives of thousands in our community.  We should be proud of that.

 

Recent alumni of whom to be proud:

  • Jennifer Caraluzzi—St. Louis Opera
  • Hernan Berisso—St. Louis Opera  
  • Forrest Robertson—Dartmouth Ph.D., Yale post-doc
  • Kevin Gaughan—acceptance to Oxford doctoral program
  • Kelley Bradley—acceptance to Texas A&M doctoral program

But while we do have more stability, much to be proud of and much to be encouraged about, we must continue to manage through challenges:

  • Economy still weak—nationally, borrowing for higher education is 20% higher this year than last.  Our $18,000 average loan debt is lower than the national $25,000 average, but still a challenge for many students.
  • Public higher education in this state is still evolving in terms of strategic direction and governance; important conversations about statewide strategy will be taking place.  New mandates on transfer and articulation policies and remediation have already been put onto our plate.  And we have to make sure in this evolution that both processes and outcomes are appropriate and effective.  The workshop that Provost Gates just organized on this topic was very relevant.
  • Competition is everywhere—from our sister publics, from aggressive privates and from for-profits.  And negative stories about higher education outnumber positive ones.  The cost and, indeed, the value of what we do is being challenged. (More about that later.)

And

  • Our institutional effectiveness continues to be affected by hiring freezes of recent years. 

 

To respond: 

We must be continually and proactively on message in presenting our institutional vision, which, as a reminder, is printed on today’s program.

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.”

And we must continually improve all we do to demonstrate the validity of that message—we must walk the talk of high academic performance and quality standards.

Over the past months, dozens and dozens of colleagues have engaged in two endeavors that will help us greatly in doing that, and I am very grateful to them for that service.  These are:

  • Preparation of NEASC Self-Study, with a Steering Committee and teams writing on each of the 11 NEASC Standards.  Provost Gates and Vice President Bernstein are leading that effort and will be happy to answer questions later.  The draft report of the Self-Study will be available for public comment by our community in the months ahead.  The NEASC process provides us an opportunity to evaluate where we are and to make improvements.  We should treat it as such an opportunity, not as a tedious task that we phone in.

 

  • Simultaneously, six Strategic Assessment Teams last spring evaluated our progress in achieving goals.  They confronted:
    • How well we capitalize on our location
    • To what degree we are incorporating best practices from private institutions
    • How successful we are in hiring and retaining outstanding faculty and staff
    • How student-centered we really are
    • How well we are measuring academic success
    • AND, over-arching all:  an assessment of our financial model

The thought-provoking reports of these groups are online and they informed the retreat the university’s leadership held last week. The URL to find these reports also appears on your programs.  (http://www.wcsu.edu/strategicplan/strategic-assessment-2012.asp) They provide a road map for our efforts in the year ahead. Overall, their collective conclusion is that, while we have made progress on our vision, we still have considerable opportunity for continuing improvement.

Probably most importantly, they demonstrate that we must address the inherent weakness of our university's financial model.  Enrollment and corresponding tuition revenues are the foundation on which that model currently rests, and they are the elements of that model that we (as opposed to entities in Hartford) control. We must either compete more effectively in traditional student markets or develop new ones.  We must do better with retention.  We must increase other revenue streams, be these from increased enrollment in current academic programs, new academic programs, or increases in grants and contributions from donors.  If we cannot accomplish that over the next couple of years, we must consider how we should shrink our enterprise. If we do nothing, the scenario of the current budget trajectory we are on leads to annual deficits and institutional irrelevance.

Paul Reis will be happy during the Q&A session to explain this with more specificity. And we will be conducting town hall meetings and other gatherings to explicate the financial scenarios his team has constructed. 

But, above all, it is to the strengthening and stabilizing of enrollment that we must attend in the year ahead.  To address this in the coming year, we will be focusing renewed attention on academic advising, on customer service, on aggressive recruiting of new students, on how we can improve retention through course redesign, and on developing a comprehensive First Year Experience Program. 

All of these initiatives will require the attention and engagement of the entire university community.  We will need to confront these and similar tasks with energy, transparency and collegiality this year and in the years ahead. 

But I emphasize:  we must act! We do not require more studies, but rather action here and now to stabilize enrollment.

In addition, in FY13, we will need more specifically to:

  • Continue the preparation for our Fall 2013 NEASC visit, especially by producing in the months ahead a robust and accurate Self-Study to guide our visiting team.
  • Reach a decision about whether to act on the recommendations of the capital campaign feasibility study.  A consulting firm did a study for the WCSU Foundation over the past six months and suggested that such a campaign was feasible.  It could bring an 8-figure improvement in our endowment and also elevate our game in fundraising.  But investment and work will be required for such a campaign to be successful.  If it is, that can obviously help our financial situation as well.
  • Implement other recommendations that emerged from the six strategic assessment teams; some of these are quite concrete and easily attainable.
  • Comprehensively evaluate the effectiveness with which our enrollment management function operates and how well we implement communication of our institutional personality and comparative advantages.
  • Meet schedule deadlines on the work on Transfer and Articulation policies that the Board of Regents has mandated and address also the new statewide policy on remediation that was passed in Senate Bill 40 last spring and signed by Governor Malloy yesterday.
  • Revisit our 2007 Facilities Master Plan; things have changed over the past five years.
  • Continue to make progress in both maintaining and achieving accreditation in important professional areas such as teacher education, business, the arts, social work and nursing.

 

These tasks are interrelated, and progress on each will leverage the others. 

The work that lies ahead for us represents the next passage on this university’s journey of improvement.

That journey, and that improvement, have been continuing—just look around at all we have done and are accomplishing.  More and more stakeholders are recognizing this as well, and we should feel very proud about where we are.  If you look across the landscape of American higher education, it’s impossible not to argue that we are in the top quartile or perhaps even the top tenth of institutions in terms of stability, in terms of collective agreement on mission, and in terms of commitment to our students’ success.  That is a very, very good place to be!  And we all want to stay there.

Now, let's return to the aforementioned negative narrative about American higher education.  To the degree it has validity (and it does), I would argue it applies far more to others than it does to us here at Western.  That narrative goes something like this:

  • Higher education is overpriced, ineffective, and characterized by bloated administration.  We remain relatively affordable, work hard to improve, and despite serious financial challenges have over the past six years invested in faculty.  Over that period the number of non-teaching positions has been held constant while faculty lines have increased by 14%.  This has occurred in a period when FTE enrollment has increased by 14.5% and fulltime undergraduate enrollment by 19%.
  • Student borrowing is out of control.  Nationally, that may be accurate; student loans now exceed consumer debt.  But while private institution graduates are leaving campus with six-figure debts; our average is $18,000, below the overall national average of $25,000.
  • Faculty don’t care about students, only their own research.  I beg to differ.  Look at how our music and theatre arts students work with faculty; look at the projects our business students complete for local organizations, look at the clinical supervision we provide in nursing or the internships in HPX.  Look at how our Honors Students have created their own think-tank on public policy issues.  Look at the research our science students do with faculty mentors.  Scholarship is important here, but it informs and complements the education we provide.
  • Public employee unions produce mediocrity and inefficiency.  I dare anyone to look at the work of collective bargaining unit members here who advise students, manage the university’s finances, tell our story to stakeholders, maintain our buildings and grounds, and help students create their community—and argue that with a straight face.  The extra efforts they all put into their work, and the pride they take in it, is essential to Western’s success.
  • Intercollegiate athletics are corrupt and overwhelm academic mission on many campuses.  I cannot speak for NCAA Division I institutions, but I would reflect that student-athletes here at Western demonstrate higher academic performance than the overall student body and participate in the total student experience just  like their non-athlete peers.  That’s an important element of the NCAA Division III philosophy, and we live it here; we put our student-athletes experience first; our coaches and athletics administrators do not cut corners.  The interests or reputation of no one specific area is more important than that of the university.

 

Finally, this narrative asserts that traditional higher education isn’t relevant any more.  My view is that we on the American campus, and especially at public 4-year institutions like ours, have never been more relevant.  We know that income disparity is increasing and that social and economic mobility in this country is declining.  We now trail a number of other developed economies on that traditionally American metric.  A recent Pew Foundation report has eloquently (and troublingly) charted the decline of the middle class in our country. And we also know, from mountains of research, that a 4-year degree continues to be the main portal to social and economic mobility.  It remains the passport to the middle class.  Because of our traditional commitment to access, because of our cost structure, because of the institutional approaches we take, regional public institutions like ours continue to provide the means to demonstrate the reality of the American dream.  If that’s not relevant today, I simply don’t know what is.  That’s the business that we at Western have ALWAYS been in!

We’ve faced many challenges and uncertainties in recent years, but we’ve done so with remarkable success.  That’s largely because of the character and culture of this university and the people who work here.  We roll up our sleeves and get things done.  And we’ll continue to do so.  You new colleagues will very soon recognize that, and we will welcome your contributions. 

So, for all of us, another exciting, productive year lies ahead for Western Connecticut State University.  This fall semester, we’ll be hearing from His Holiness the Dalai Lama, from composer Philip Glass, from Commonfund CEO Verne Sedlacek, and will also be able to enjoy our Theatre Arts Department’s performances of Shaw’s Major Barbara and Sondheim’s Into The Woods. And we’ll all have the joy of helping our students in their intellectual, personal and career growth.  As I start my ninth year here, I’ve never been more optimistic and enthusiastic.   I hope you all are, too!

I thank you all for what you’ve done—and what you will do—for this university and for our students.

Ignorance, which Dererk Bok so accurately observed is more expensive than education, is our enemy.  Let’s resume the battle!

 

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