Opening Faculty Meeting January 26, 2006

Welcome to Spring Semester 2006! I trust that we’ve all re-energized our intellectual and physical batteries and are ready for a great academic term. This afternoon, I want to share some of my thoughts about where (and who) we are as a university, provide an update on our Action Teams, and have my vice presidential colleagues report on happenings and plans in their areas.

First, though, I want us to remember some of our colleagues who aren’t with us today. It’s been a tough winter so far, and we’re today missing Rich Montague and Harry Schramm due to successful heart bypass surgeries and Jim McNiff due to kidney surgery. We wish them speedy recovery, and we especially send our thoughts and prayers to Ed Hagan, who is recovering from serious injuries received in an auto accident in late December. To use a baseball metaphor, these are injuries to the heart of our batting order, and we can’t wait until these heavy-hitters return to the lineup.

Let me start with the story a student, whom I’ll call “Jennifer,” told me a couple of weeks ago. When the semester began, she found herself — through domestic abuse that was no fault of her own — homeless and sleeping in her car. Faculty and staff from at least three different departments stepped up to help her. They got her a locker in Berkshire Hall to shower, supplied her breakfast, spent hours in the office helping with coursework, sometimes just crying alongside her. And this work is in tough science courses, because Jennifer’s determined to become a nurse. She received support from Student Life, and help from the University Police. Now she’s got an apartment, will soon have enough part-time employment to cover tuition, and apologizes for her academic performance — which isn’t all that bad, really. She did not give up on her dream, and those WestConn people who met her didn’t let her.

That’s an amazing story, and it tells volumes about who we are and what our institutional values are. But at the same time, I also occasionally get very angry letters from students and alumni who’ve been disappointed by the help they received here. Somehow they’ve fallen through the cracks — and this may be reflected in what we all would agree are our unacceptably low retention and graduation rates. We need to understand this phenomenon better, and also to systematize better how we help students. Jennifer was lucky; she reached out. Not all students know how to do that — and we can’t ensure student success by depending on the “kindness of strangers,” like Blanche DuBois in “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

Understanding better what WCSU is known for and why our students choose to come here, and developing appropriate strategies to ensure that they continue on successfully here, are the charges of several of the Action Teams that have been operating this year. These teams have produced interim reports, and I want to focus on three of these: Strategic Enrollment Management, Student Success, and Comparative Advantage. (Action Teams on Partnerships and Summer Sessions also are continuing work.)

Strategic Enrollment Management
(Co-chairs: Vice President for Finance and Administration Maribeth Amyot and Assistant Professor of Psychology Patricia O’Neill)

The team’s charge is to develop a strategic enrollment management plan for WCSU. This will be based on the university’s mission and will set forth long-term principles and goals as well as short-term objectives. This plan will assume a commitment from the entire university community and the allocation of appropriate resources. It will focus on both recruitment and retention, which bring into play the academic, financial and physical resources of the university. It will be data-driven (note the importance of data in understanding retention). And it will provide a foundation for both a comprehensive marketing plan for the university and for continuing effective communication to the WCSU community of our priorities and progress in enrollment management.

Here are the highlights of the team’s SWOT analysis:


  • Strengths: Value/cost, faculty, class size, accredited programs, location
  • Weaknesses: Lack of name recognition, lack of strategic enrollment planning tied to academic goals, relatively low levels of financial aid, two campuses
  • Opportunities: Cost of private competitors, dynamic nature of Danbury region, job market for professional degrees, experiential education opportunities
  • Threats: Increasing competition, academic preparation of student pool, Connecticut State University (CSU) System funding, public policy regarding financial aid


  • Strengths: Dedicated faculty and staff, affordability, small class size, range of programs offered
  • Weaknesses: Advisement services, percentage of students requiring remediation, lack of coordination in student services and scheduling of courses
  • Opportunities: Location, cultural diversity of Danbury, partnership opportunities
  • Threats: Lack of name recognition, students’ financial need, budget restrictions, increasing numbers of high school graduates requiring remediation

Next Steps

  • Recommend objectives, identify strategies, determine resource requirements needed, communicate to campus community. In short, build a strategic enrollment management plan on the analysis performed.

Student Success
(Co-chairs: Dean of Arts and Sciences Linda Vaden-Goad and Vice President for Student Affairs Walter Bernstein)

This team is building proposals in five areas to provide strategies that will have a positive impact on student success. These include:

  • Improving connectedness of students to WCSU; building greater community and promoting more functional and positive attitudes toward academic endeavor
  • Strengthening our recruiting and conversion of target, best-fit students
  • Providing appropriate levels of student support and encouraging better levels of student preparedness and participation
  • Improving academic advisement
  • In concert with the Senate’s general education committee, creating a complete and effective First-Year Experience for entering students

Specific draft proposals include:

  • Addressing students’ on- and off-campus employment issues
  • Increasing events that encourage the interaction of faculty, staff and students in interesting, goal-directed ways
  • Developing inquiry-based First-Year Learning Communities with interdisciplinary linked courses
  • Re-conceiving the Tutoring Resource Center with a view to taking a fresh, holistic approach to student needs
  • Creating First-Year Seminar modules that can be dropped into any first-year course

Specific proposals in these and other areas will be presented formally this spring.

Comparative Advantage
(Co-chairs: Dean of Graduate and External Programs Ellen Durnin and Associate Professor of History Burton Peretti)

This group looked at what makes WCSU different based on SWOT analysis of:

  • Geography/demographics
    • Fund-raising opportunities
    • Development of partnerships
    • Increasing diversity
    • Utilizing proximity to New York City
  • University’s image and role
    • Need more coherent image
    • Need to differentiate from similar institutions
    • Reputation has not kept up with reality
  • Value
    • Key advantage
    • “You get what you pay for” issue must be overcome
  • Commitment to student success
    • Small class size
    • Strong faculty with excellent qualifications
    • Program development  (e.g., Midtown Coffeehouse)
  • Programs
    • Identify and advance notable programs: sciences, humanities, professional programs, visual and performing arts
  • Faculty
    • Over-reliance on adjuncts is a weakness
    • Salary structure is a problem in some fields
  • Facilities:
    • Most facilities are strengths
    • Two-campus situation is still an issue
    • Importance of master planning
  • Affiliations and partnerships
    • Outline ways to follow the Four Pillars

Next Steps

The team will conduct comparative studies of neighboring institutions in the region, peer institutions nationally and “aspirational” peers.

As we think of our comparative advantages, I return to the idea of “Employing our Regional Advantage to Educate Global Realities.” 

This, of course, is the theme of the President’s Initiatives Fund, and I’m very pleased by the response this initiative produced.

We received 22 proposals, and 12 were selected for funding.  I intend this program to continue next year, and I hope that disappointment in this competition or the lack of time to prepare an idea won’t deter future applications.
These are some of the interesting ventures funded:

  • An interdisciplinary student/faculty study tour of the Red River estuary in China and Vietnam
  • An oral history project focusing on Danbury’s immigrant history
  • A language and culture immersion experience in Puerto Rico for education majors
  • A guided weekend student study trip to New York City focusing on the United Nations and women’s issues
  • A study trip for theatre performances and workshops in Ecuador
  • A series of “World Music, Dance and Culture” events in collaboration with the Danbury Folklife Project

But I don’t want to emphasize these university-wide initiatives at the expense of what’s been happening day-to-day, week-to-week in our schools and departments. Fall was a busy semester, and spring promises to be equally so. So let me introduce our vice presidents for updates.

(Interim Vice President for Academic Affairs Roy Stewart spoke.)
(Maribeth Amyot spoke.)
(Walter Bernstein spoke.)

Since Koryoe Anim-Wright (Interim Vice President for Institutional Advancement) is out of town, I will provide an update in this area.  

  • A University Advancement Group has been organized to develop priorities at the department and school level, taking a “bottom-up” approach.
  • The Annual Fund is running well ahead of last year’s pace, within $1,000 of last year’s total with five months to go. The average gift to the fund has increased 80 percent from the level last year.
  • The WestConn Society event last week honored Neil and Carolyn Wagner. The University Ball will honor the Young family.
  • Scholarship and other gifts received recently include:
    • $124,000 from the estate of Valerie Cunningham for music scholarships
    • $25,000 for communication scholarships from The News-Times of Danbury
    • Generous gifts from the Connecticut Choral Society, Tek-Air Systems and Johnson Controls
  • Recent marketing initiatives include a new Institutional Advancement Web site, a revamp in the focus of Alumni News, and ongoing successful media placements in The News-Times and elsewhere. Paul Steinmetz, editor of The News-Times, will be joining us on an interim basis to help with public relations efforts.

These reports reflect the effort and dedication that our faculty and staff exhibit every day. And that is an important element of making a successful university. It’s also emblematic of what we stand for, because expending effort to grow and achieve is what higher education is about.

I was reminded of that at David Smith’s percussion concert last fall, contemplating how many hours of practice the students had completed to put on a magnificent performance. Now, at every concert or athletic event, I reflect on how many hours of preparation have gone into the performance. Of course, the same is true for our theatre students, for the debate team and for all students working on projects and papers or preparing for tests in our courses.

We celebrate and model hard work and effort on this campus. That’s a central component of our identity. What results is worth the effort — for it makes our academic community what it is, and sometimes that is magical!

I’ll close by reminding you about the provost candidates’ visits next week. Participate in them! And this leads to the question one candidate asked a colleague: “What’s the most important thing for me to do?” My colleague answered, “Don’t let us lose our culture — we are a special place.”

This takes me back to Jennifer’s story. We are a special place, and I thank every one of you for what you do to make it so. Welcome back!

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