President's Remarks - August 2014

Dr. Kristin Esterberg
SUNY Potsdam President
August 27, 2014

Good morning. I can't express how delighted I am to be addressing you at this first opening day breakfast. Since my arrival here in late June, I have quickly learned that North Country welcomes are unique in their sincerity and their warmth. I want to thank all of you for the warm North Country welcome you have shown me and my family. We are loving our experiences as we explore our new campus and community, and we are looking forward to becoming fully a part of the Potsdam family.

Learning about this community is my first task. During my first few weeks on campus, I was able to meet many of our incoming students and their families during orientation, and learn about their hopes for their college experience. I was able to participate in our alumni weekend, and experience firsthand the passion our alumni and their families have for our campus. I was able to spend several weeks living in one of our townhouses, and experience directly the extraordinary residential facilities we offer our students.

I am making my way across campus, slowly but surely. Before the end of this academic year, my aim is to meet every one of you and to visit each department. I only ask for your patience as I make my way across the campus.

I want to thank all of you who responded to my survey. Although the sociologist in me has still not analyzed them comprehensively, I can say that your responses share many common themes: concerns about the sustainability of our finances. Concerns about our budgeting process. Concerns about planning: whether the campus is fully engaged in setting strategic priorities and, as a community, matching those to our budget realities. Concerns about communication. These are all areas in need of improvement.

At the same time, the greatest strength of the campus is its people, and our connection to each other.If a budget represents an organization's priorities, then it is clear that SUNY Potsdam cares about people. Your survey responses reflect the deep bonds you have with each other, and the commitment you have to our students. SUNY Potsdam is a vibrant community of people who care profoundly about each other, the campus, and our students.

Our people are our greatest strength.

If people are our greatest strength, then budget is clearly our greatest challenge. We needed assistance from SUNY in order to close out the 2013-2014 academic year, and it is clear that we have a structural deficit going into 2014-2015. Simply put, we have been spending more than we have taken in for several years, and we will need to turn this around.

With the largest portion of our revenue coming from tuition and fees, enrollment, then, is our highest priority. We are not much different from other public campuses across the country in needing to think more like our private counterparts, and focusing on enrollment. As the number of traditional college-age students declines, and our population shifts, we will need to continue to focus our efforts on attracting and retaining a diverse population of students.

I am grateful to all who have worked so hard to bring in our incoming class of nearly 1100 new undergraduate and 120 graduate students. This class is one of the most diverse in our history, with approximately one third identifying as students of color. As we welcome this wonderfully diverse cohort of students to campus, I ask that we consider how we can ensure that the campus is a welcoming environment for all of our students. We are a long way geographically from Ferguson, Missouri, but the events of this summer remind me of the progress we still need to make to ensure that all members of our society are treated with equal dignity and respect.

As our first year students arrive on campus tomorrow, we need to turn our focus now to retention (and to next year's enrollment), and to making sure that every student who starts here in Potsdam stays here and succeeds here.

I have always thought of student retention and student success as both a moral issue and a financial issue. If we accept a student, we are expressing a belief in that student's capacity to succeed. We have the obligation, then, to ensure that we have done everything possible to make certain that student graduates within a reasonable time frame.

But student success is also a financial issue.For every student who does not return, that's about $10,000 in lost tuition and fees. For each student we retain whom we might otherwise lose, that's about $10,000 gained. For every 10 new students we attract, that's about $100,000. Since 2011, our enrollment declined about 422 students (from 4,343 in 2011 to 3,921 in Fall 2014)—that's approximately $4.2 M in lost revenues just in tuition alone. And yet our spending habits didn't change. We can't continue on this path.

The good news is that we have the opportunity to turn this around and that we have the tools we need in order to do so. This campus is full of smart and talented people. We have a committed and passionate faculty and staff, a beautiful campus, and sound academic programming. We have a gorgeous new performing arts center.We have an exciting location, midway between the Adirondack Mountains and an international border.

We have the talent here on campus to do what we need to do: to develop new programs and ensure the vitality of our current ones so that we can draw students here, to think creatively and constructively about the emerging needs of students as we enter our bicentennial year. How will we serve our third century student? How will we help them prepare for the challenges ahead? What kinds of experiences can we create for students that will make them want to stay at SUNY Potsdam for their entire college career?

We will need to be innovative as we consider how our programming must evolve to continue to meet the needs of our community and region, and help more people discover the vitality of SUNY Potsdam. We will need to draw on an entrepreneurial spirit—to tap into the creative energy that is the hallmark of this campus—in order to do so.

As we consider new ways of doing things and generating revenue, attracting and retaining our students—helping them succeed—is the responsibility of all of us. Everyone from faculty and professional staff and administrators, to department secretaries, clerks, maintenance staff, and cleaners. All of us, together, have an impact on students. We can (indeed, must) all be a part of our retention team.

One of the amazing strengths of rural communities is our resilience and our resourcefulness. We are going to need to draw on all of these characteristics as we turn our budget situation around.It will take a lot of hard work, no doubt, and each of us will need to do things in a very different way. We have some very difficult budget decisions to make, but we will make them, and we will make them with the interests of the entire campus community in mind. Each of us has the capacity to be a part of the solution. And I am asking you directly and personally to do so.

While our budget is difficult, we are far more than our budget. As we head into this new academic year, we have many successes to celebrate.

Comprehensive Campaign: We have just finished year four of the Take the Lead Campaign, with $5.7 million raised last year alone.At $23.7 million, we are now 87% to goal. We are extremely proud of the alumni, friends, and campus family members who have stepped forward and literally taken the lead for Potsdam. 372 campus employees made a personal gift to the college last year. These gifts provide direct and tangible support for programs we care about, like live video streaming of student performances, support for students, and professional development.

Community health: launched a new M.S. degree program in community health this fall, developed a new B.S. degree in exercise science and obtained campus approval, and surpassed their fall 2014 enrollment target for new freshmen. This is just one example of a program striving to meet our enrollment goals and the needs of our community.

The Crane Symphony Orchestra has been invited to perform as a featured ensemble at the December conference of NYSSMA. This initiative, led by conductor Dr. Ching-Chun Lai, will offer Crane a unique showcase with top-tier high school musicians in the state attending NYSSMA, and will bolster our 2014-15 recruitment efforts.

Crane's Music Business program was listed as one of the 35 top programs in North America in Fall 2013 by Billboard Magazine, adding to recruitment strength for this growing major.  We continue this program's unique relationship with NAMM, the National Association of Music Merchants, by again taking a group of 20 students to serve as interns at the international NAMM trade show in January and co-hosting a high-profile Music Business Roundtable with NAMM in memory of Crane alumnus Sandy Feldstein.

In Arts & Sciences, Computer Science has developed a series of articulation agreements with our community college partners, ensuring that students have a seamless experience as they transfer to our program, and ensuring robust enrollments in our historic computer science program.

We also have successes in admissions and in energy conservation.

Admissions: Demetrius Dowell was honored by the SUNY College Admissions Personnel Association (SUNYCAP) with the Achievement Award for his work with the NYC population both for the recruitment of NYC students and in everything he does to assist in retaining them through graduation.

Also in Admissions: Jayne Riley was nominated by SUNYCAP for a Lifetime Achievement Award for her service to the Admissions field and her work with System Administration on making several SUNY wide processes run more smoothly.

In student life, the Women and Leadership program was initiated last year. The program provides our students the opportunity to explore a wide variety of issues related to women and leadership at SUNY Potsdam and beyond. A special feature of the program is the opportunity for students to be mentored by a successful alumna. 

In physical plant, the combined heat and power plant is now on line. The two generators are able to produce 1400 kilowatts of power each, about 70 percent of the campus' needs on a typical workday, and 100 percent of our needs during nighttime and weekends. The main purpose of the plant is to operate when electricity is more expensive to buy than it is to produce, thus reducing our energy costs. The plant will also generate enough power to safely operate all of our buildings in case of a prolonged power outage, such as the ice storm of 1998.

As we begin this new academic year together, let me thank you for all you do on behalf of our students and our campus community. We have a lot of hard work ahead of us, it's true, but it's good work; it's important work. And by doing this work together, I hope we can also make it joyful work.