Opening Meeting, Spring Semester 2011 - February 3, 2011

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Video testimonials of people who value WCSU

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PowerPoint slides that accompanied the Opening Meeting talk

PDF list of local legislators
A list of local legislators to contact with information about WCSU


I welcome you all to the (euphemistically named) “Spring” semester.  I know that this arctic weather has been trying the patience of everyone, and we can only hope that Pauxatawny Phil was right yesterday and Spring will come early this year.  I do also hope that, delays and cancellations notwithstanding, that you are excited about beginning work with our students as regular classes begin again. 

Let me first introduce (or reintroduce) a new colleague — Roy Stewart, who will be serving as provost while we conduct a search for a permanent replacement for our friend Linda Rinker.  Walter Bernstein is chairing that search, and we have some promising candidates expressing interest in WCSU.  Roy knows both this university and Connecticut well, and his experience both here and throughout a distinguished career in academic leadership will serve us well.

This afternoon I want to talk about why leadership and advocacy are important to us all as we face the months ahead. 

Several weeks ago I had the good fortune to spend some time with the students in our Hancock Student Leaders Program.  Two of the concepts that came up in our conversations are relevant today.

The first is that in all organizations, leadership is not a task only for those with particular titles or jobs.  Everyone can exercise leadership by taking responsibility for advancing the collective vision.  We see that here in the superb job our facilities staff has done in keeping the campus open through January’s blizzards.  We see it in the flexibility that faculty colleagues have demonstrated in recent semesters by adapting teaching schedules and class sizes to best serve our students.  That’s leadership, and we all should be grateful for it.  Given what lies ahead in our future, such collective leadership has never been more important. 

The second leadership concept the students and I discussed is an idea developed by Harvard’s Ronald Heifetz, whose writing on leadership (and especially his book Leadership without Easy Answers) is one of my favorite texts on that subject.  Heifetz talks about the importance of “going to balcony,” that is, periodically removing oneself from the details of the conflicts du jour to reflect on and assess progress toward larger goals.  His metaphor is especially relevant for us, I believe, because in the upcoming debates over the state budget, it will be very easy for us to be distracted and focus on the latest political rumor or article in the Hartford Courant.  Given the importance of our work in creating Connecticut’s future, we must not do that.

But action, and leadership, will be necessary.  We all know that some sort of resolution to the budget challenges that we have seen looming for years is coming in this legislative session.  The state’s deficit remains around $3.7 billion on a nearly $20 billion operating budget (per capita, the nation’s highest); reductions in our state support are imminent.  And these will be on top of the cuts we have already — thanks to you all — been able to manage our way through over the past two years.

We won’t know until his Feb. 16 budget message precisely what Governor Malloy has in mind.  And whatever he proposes in his budget will then possibly be altered by debates in the General Assembly.  But it is likely that we will see reductions in the range of 5 percent to 15 percent of our state allocation, which is currently around 35 percent of our operating budget. 

We have developed scenarios to bring forward when we know the size of these reductions.  In so doing, we’ve employed two priorities — minimizing negative impact on our students’ educational progress and keeping our regular workforce here at WCSU intact. 

In all scenarios, we will first focus on non-personnel efficiencies and in reducing operating expenses, overtime, designated reserves, and not filling current vacancies.  (And remember, we have reallocated over the past two years the funding in 27 non-teaching positions).  At reduction levels greater than 5 percent, we will most certainly need to reduce the number of special faculty appointments, and, also, to do further restructuring of some administrative functions.  Such reductions will have an impact on our students’ experience here.

Preliminary planning for these challenges has been underway for some time, and when we know what we face, we will work with transparency and input from across the community, with UPBC, with the University Senate and with the schools and departments, to make sure that our response is as effective as possible and minimizes damage to both students and colleagues.

At the 5 percent level of cuts, we can manage.  Our mission and operations will be constrained, but not compromised.  When we get above 10 percent, the very nature of what we do — and what we have worked so hard for over the past few years — is in jeopardy.  At that level, we would have to remove at least 10 special faculty appointments and further restructure a number of administrative functions.  This would severely impede our momentum and ability to serve our students and the state.  And the 15 percent level, to use the words of our former board chair, is “apocalyptic.” 

Okay.  That’s what we face in the weeks and months ahead.  What can we do about it now, today — Feb. 3, 2011?  That brings me to my second theme — Advocacy.

Our future funding (and perhaps the very shape of public higher education in Connecticut) will be determined in the weeks ahead in the political processes of the General Assembly.  It’s important, indeed critical, that we make our voices heard as advocates for this university, for CSUS and for public higher education.  I know that our collective bargaining units will be at work on this task, and I’m ready to help them however I can.  Our students, too, are developing plans for collective action.  That’s why I specifically invited the leadership of the Student Government Association to join us today.  But each of us can play a role by contacting our legislators.  We certainly do have friends in Hartford.  We want to keep them and to increase their ardor for us, as well as to educate others about what we have been accomplishing here. 

We are at a point in our history where we can be passive and be acted-upon by others or take action and work to influence the course of events. The way we must turn is obvious.  Your leadership task is to spread the word.

That’s our story, and I believe it has impact.  It clearly did in our first legislative breakfast on Monday.  I hope that you will share this — repeatedly and emphatically — with all who can help us.  It will make a difference. 

Now, as I said before, I suspect that it will be easy to be distracted in the weeks ahead, and that’s why Heifetz’s metaphor of the balcony is important.  We must always take time to remember, no matter what we hear proposed and what we have to do, what our work is and why it is so important.  And we must also remember that we are all — faculty, staff, students, alumni, the regional community — in this together.

In the weeks ahead, I’m sure we will be together again to talk about these matters.  And I will be keeping you informed about events as I learn them.  In the meantime, I thank you all again for your dedication, your enthusiasm and what you do every day for this university. 

See related materials in the column to the right.

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