Strategic Opportunities - Strategic Choices
Opening Address to the Skidmore Faculty
It’s always great to begin a new academic year—even though any of us might look back with a bit of nostalgia on the quiet campus we experienced just a few days before the return of our full contingent of students. It wasn’t quiet for the folks in Special Programs, of course. We had a wonderful season of summer programs—and, more recently, we’ve had a very smooth opening of school, thanks to the tremendous work of so many people over the summer to prepare for it:
- Admissions staff;
- Office of Student Aid and Family Finance;
- First-Year Experience—and faculty members who worked on pre-registration;
- Academic Affairs;
- Office of the Dean of Studies;
- Registrar’s Office;
- First-Year Seminar faculty;
- Student Affairs
- Residential Life Staff: arranging housing, the move-in (with great help from our athletic teams);
- HEOP/AOP staff;
- Office of Student Academic Services;
- Student Health Services;
- Business Office;
- Facilities Services, grounds, maintenance, housekeeping staff;
- Dining Services;
- Campus Safety;
- College Events, for coordinating opening Convocation;
And I’m sure I’m leaving someone out. But the point is that creating a successful transition from summer to fall requires enormous coordinated, effort on the part of many, many people—an operation only slightly less complicated than, say, staging a national political convention—especially in managing the sheer size of the on-campus student population, with a large number of triples for first-year students. (Which again points to the need to move forward in replacing Scribner Village.)
Much of the above-cited work goes on behind the scenes, where it can easily be overlooked and taken for granted, something that is true of the work of others as well. I’d like to take a moment to share with you part of a letter I recently received from two Skidmore parents, a letter that shows the power of collaboration in affecting the lives of our students. These parents write that they want “to express [their] total praise for and happiness with Skidmore College after reflecting on [their daughter’s] transcript, which shows her rather dramatic turnaround.” This young woman went from a first semester’s GPA that placed her in danger of being suspended to a second semester’s GPA in the B+ range. The parents cited, specifically, the good work of Laurie Baker in the Dean of Studies Office and Jamin Totino in the Office of Student Academic Services. The effective collaboration between these two offices helped to identify an undiagnosed learning disability that had been missed by the student’s former teachers and tutors. The parents write that
No one has done for her what Skidmore has done in such a short period of time. We are thrilled and, more importantly, so is she. At the end of the term she told us that “for the first time ever I love studying and interacting with my teachers.” She is so excited to come back to Saratoga this fall, looks forward to classes, and for the first time approaches her grading periods with anticipation.”
We tell this story to everyone we know. … Please accept our thanks and very best regards.
This letter shows how effective we can be in helping our students achieve academic excellence when we work with one another and keep our students’ best interests in mind.
The administrator who has overall responsibility for Student Academic Services and several of the other areas just mentioned is our new Dean of Student Affairs, Rochelle Calhoun, whom I’m very pleased to introduce to you here. As most of you know, Rochelle holds a B.A. in theater arts and politics from Mount Holyoke, an MFA in theater from Columbia, and is completing an M.A. in psychology from Mount Holyoke. A very experienced administrator, Rochelle previously worked for over twenty years at her alma mater, holding a number of positions in student affairs and serving on an acting basis as Dean of the College, an academic position; most recently, she served as Executive Director of the Alumnae Association. During most of her time as an administrator at Mount Holyoke, she was a member of the President’s Cabinet. They were very sad to see her go, and we are very fortunate that she has joined us. [Dean Calhoun was invited to address the faculty. Among other things, she spoke about her commitment to a developmental model for Student Affairs and about her commitment to work collaboratively with members of the faculty and with Academic Affairs.]
Over the past few months, as you may have noticed, there was a bit of construction under way on the campus. As is always the case during the summer, Facilities Services oversaw and completed quite a few projects large and small, including the general renovation of Wilmarth Hall, which included the installation of a new roof, new ceilings, improvements for life safety (primarily a fire sprinkler system), paint, carpet, upgrades to the bathrooms, and new furniture. In addition, we moved the credit union to temporary quarters and in its former space created three new classrooms; five other classrooms and offices in the same general area were reconfigured.
But of course the largest project currently under way—and, in fact, the largest and most complex building project the College has ever undertaken—is the Zankel Music Center. This building contains 750 tons of steel. To indicate the precision with which this material was fabricated in all of the beams and girders that have been interconnected, just two holes were misaligned—by ¼ inch! The building also contains 500,000 concrete masonry units, and soon we will see craftsmen beginning to lay the first of 250,000 bricks. Let me express my thanks to Paul Lundberg, from Facilities Services, who is our primary supervisor, working closely with MLB Construction. Matt Baker also has his hand in it, and Mike West has been known to pay some continuing attention to this project as well.
To remind you: This building is scheduled to be ready for occupancy sometime around the first of January 2010. The construction funding is now complete, and we have raised approximately $6 million of a projected $12 million operating endowment. The endowment is intended to provide programming funds and defray the annual operating cost of this building, which are estimated to be between $600,000 and $800,000.
Let us now turn to the topic of our newest students. I would like to ask Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Mary Lou Bates to say a few words about the class of 2012. [Dean Bates talked about the strength of our entering class and commented on the substantial progress we have seen over the past five years in “Academic Quality Ratings” (AQRs) that are assigned by Admissions counselors to each of our applicants. To relay just part of her report, during this time we have seen the percentage of applicants in the top three AQR bands (8, 9, 10) move from 39% to 52%, an increase of 13%. In accepted candidates this same percentage has moved from 65% to 85%, an increase of 20%. Most significantly, we have seen the percentage of enrolled students in the top three AQR bands increase from 49% to 69%, a 23% improvement. These figures support the anecdotal reports of so many members of our faculty who have noted a substantial increase in the preparation, ability, and focus of our students over this same period of time.]
We are entering the fourth year of implementation for Skidmore’s current Strategic Plan, approaching the halfway point of the Plan’s projected 10-year life. There is much that one could say about how far we have come. But the preamble to this year’s “Strategic Action Agenda,” tells some of that story, and I would encourage you to read that document, which will be posted on our website once it is finalized following review by the IPPC. So, instead of looking backward, let me make just one or two points that relate to the work—and especially the strategic choices—that lie ahead of us.
Many factors contribute to our incredible success in increasing the size and strength of our pool of prospective students and the strength of our admitted and matriculated students, as Mary Lou just described. But the main reason—the one that trumps all the others—is you, the faculty. Almost without exception, you understand that teaching is your primary function. Research is essential, and service is very important as well. But teaching comes first, and you approach our students with the clear intention of challenging them to achieve excellence and supporting them in doing so. Moreover, you are not possessive of our students: Departments and programs don’t act as though you own your majors in the sense of trying to keep them away from other areas of study and engagement as well. Accordingly, our students are free to pursue the interesting combinations of majors and minors that we so frequently celebrate—and, in fact, you actively encourage and help them to do so. But even more importantly, I believe that when each of you finishes a course at the end of a semester, you sit down and say: “That was great. Now, how can I make it better?” I see this attitude reflected in your teaching. I see it in your research. And I see it in your service.
The attitude that says: “That was great. Now, how can we make it better?” has driven our approach to the major goals of our Strategic Plan. It has enabled us to replace the Liberal Studies curriculum with the FYE, and it has led us to make the FYE better each successive year of its existence. It has motivated us as we have grappled with issues surrounding our need to increase both our own intercultural literacy and that of our students. It has led us to increase the diversity of both our student body and our faculty. And it has helped us stay the course as we have encountered the predictable difficulties that all colleges and universities face when they take on these issues.
(And by the way, let me say to you that I have seldom been so proud of our students as I was last evening during the discussion of issues relating to diversity and intercultural literacy. Winston Grady-Willis and Mariel Martin did a great job of framing the conversation, but the student representatives on the panel were the centerpiece of the program. They were thoughtful, honest, open, and above all smart in their comments. Frankly, I wish that every single person in this room could have been there to participate.)
This spirit of “That was great. Now how can we make it better?” is also behind the formation of our new task force on responsible citizenship, the third goal of the Strategic Plan. This effort marks yet another collaboration between Academic Affairs and Student Affairs, and it is co-chaired by Associate Deans David Karp and Paty Rubio.
But here’s the problem: As we keep getting better—as our performance in various areas gets closer to the top of the power curve—it will take greater efforts (and in some cases, greater investment of financial resources) to make each successive improvement. Moreover, the better we get, the more we are competing head-to-head with institutions that have more resources than we. And here’s the rub: Relative to those institutions—and, much more importantly, relative to our own aspirations—we will continue to remain substantially underresourced for the foreseeable future. We must be sophisticated enough to keep this fact in mind, even as we acknowledge our progress in developing additional financial resources and improving our situation in many concrete ways.
Moreover, the “perfect storm” of uncertain financial markets, rapidly increasing energy prices, and the clear prospect of continuing increases in our comprehensive fee confront us with the possibility that increasing numbers of families who otherwise would place students in future applicant pools may come to regard a Skidmore education as simply beyond their means. Schools with greater resources already are responding to this prospect by increasing the generosity of their financial aid policies—raising the percentage of their student populations that benefit from institutional aid, replacing loans by grants, and so on—to raise the percentage of their students to whom institutional aid is available. By contrast, even though over the past five years Skidmore has increased its annual commitment to financial aid by 68% (from $16.1 million to $27 million) the percentage of our student population receiving institutional aid has remained relatively constant, fluctuating between 40% and 42%. This means that meeting the likely need for financial aid for future student populations will require the identification of substantial new resources that most likely will far exceed the resources we have deployed to date. Financial aid, of course, is just one of the financial challenges clearly visible on our horizon. In addition, we are looking at increasing energy costs, continuing pressure to maintain competitive salaries, as much as $100 million of needed new construction and renovation to existing spaces, and the list goes on. Let me emphasize, however, that this is not a scenario of doom and gloom because, once again, our challenges arise primarily from our aspirations and build upon the tremendous progress we have made to date.
So what are we to do? In a word, we need to get even smarter—collectively—in making strategic decisions than we are today. The need for better collective thinking would be much less of an issue if the College were run more like a corporation, with strategic decisions emanating from the top and percolating down throughout the organization. But our deep and abiding commitment to shared governance entails that significant strategic decisions must be made collaboratively, with the widespread participation of major constituencies within the Skidmore community—foremost among these, you, the faculty. Ideally, such collaborative decision-making gives the College the benefit of many good minds and ensures that important proposals are subject to intense scrutiny before being implemented. At the same time, if the College is to be able to act both wisely and expeditiously, such strategic conversations need to be informed by a high degree of strategic literacy and must rise to the same standards of excellence, with regard to both their appeal to argument and to evidence, that characterize our best work in our teaching and scholarship. The fact that we have made such notable progress in the past speaks well of our existing capacity for collective decision-making. At the same time, the extraordinary challenges looming on the near horizon call upon us to create a climate that makes possible an even broader and deeper understanding of our strategic realities.
The essence of sound strategic decision-making is to understand the nature and implications of institutional choices. Such decision-making seldom pits good courses of action against bad ones; most often, it comprehends a range of good or even excellent options, each of which could claim a legitimate place in some possible institutional future. But no actual future can accommodate all or even most of them. So choices must be made. And they are best made within the context of an overall strategic vision; hence the utility of a Strategic Plan. Though we also must acknowledge that it is usually not possible simply to deduce the right strategic decision from even a very good strategic plan; sound strategic decisions require judgment. Moreover, every decision to allocate resources (time or money) in one way, is perforce a decision not to allocate those resources elsewhere. Accordingly, those who participate in decision-making must understand that their choices have consequences and that adequate deliberation must take account of such consequences. Above all, making wise strategic choices requires decision-makers to embrace an institutional perspective that transcends individual or group interests.
The combination of shared governance and the need to make sound strategic decisions makes for a very important conversation, one that I hope we will engage further throughout this year. But we have other business to conduct today. So let me conclude by turning to a more personal set of questions: Why are we here? Why are you here? And why am I here? What are we all about as we begin a new academic year in this premier small liberal arts college?
I won’t presume to answer for you, though I suspect your answer would not be far from mine. But my best answer to these questions takes the form of stories—stories of our students. Let me relate just four stories of our most recent graduates, stories that many of you already know well.
Jonathan Brestoff’08: Jon was involved in student government from his first year at Skidmore. In his senior year, he was a highly successful SGA president who, because he understood how to work collaboratively (with students and with the administration) accomplished far more than any of his predecessors I’ve known. He also served admirably as the student representative on the VPAA search committee. A dedicated exercise science major, he was our first Goldwater Scholar and was nominated for a Rhodes scholarship. In his junior and senior years, he worked with T. H. Reynolds on a research project that we could well hear about in the future. Upon leaving Skidmore, he had his choice among several outstanding medical schools, and chose to attend the University of Pennsylvania in a joint MD-PH.D program.
Vaughn Green’08: Vaughn was a HEOP student who arrived on campus with a picture of his mother as the screen saver on his laptop. He kept that picture there for four years as his inspiration. He held leadership positions in Residential Life and graduated as a biochemistry major. He is now attending pharmacy school.
Kabuchi Banfield‘08: Kabuchi was another HEOP student. He is a former member of the Harlem Boys Choir who came to Skidmore, at least in large part because of his experience here during several summers when Special Programs sponsored the choir in residency. Like Jon Brestoff, Kabuchi was involved in student government virtually from the moment he arrived as a first-year student. He graduated as a management and business major, but along the way he studied in Paris and continued to take electives in English and music. Upon graduating, he had his choice among several job opportunities in the financial services field.
Claire Davenport’08: Claire is a student with a truly amazing and rather unique story. At 18, she was a single mother, living for a time in a Capital District battered women’s shelter and working as a cashier at a big-box store just to put food on the table. Wanting to do more for herself and her son, she attended Schenectady Community College, where a counselor suggested that she apply to Skidmore to continue pursuing her developing interests in science and mathematics. She did apply and was awarded a full scholarship (a Palamountain scholarship). She made the most of her opportunities at Skidmore, pursuing research in both organic chemistry and behavioral science, and also continuing her work in mathematics. During her time here, she and her new partner took advantage of the Greenberg Child Care Center to help care for their (now) two children. Next year she will attend Albany Medical School and plans to specialize in women’s health and reproductive care and to provide health care to women in underserved upstate New York communities.
These young people all are enormously proud of having graduated from Skidmore. They can’t wait to become active members of the Alumni Association, and they all are looking forward to giving back to the College to help successive generations of Skidmore students.
Each of us in this room could tell other stories—and each member of our faculty certainly could tell many more than I. But it is these and other stories of what our students accomplish here that make me most proud of what we do—what you do, and what I do in my own position. In fact, I think it is important, from time to time, to let you hear me say that I personally remain enormously proud to serve as President of Skidmore College, and to tell you, quite honestly, that there’s not another college or university anyplace where I would prefer to be.
I hope that each of us in this room is equally glad to be here, and I wish each of you a most successful semester.