President’s Address to the University Community

April 21, 2010

Good afternoon.

Every year, over the past decade, when we have gathered in April, we have noted that the times appear to be unusually turbulent.  From the events of 9/11 to Hurricane Katrina, the tragedies in Darfur, the tsunamis and volcanoes, the earthquakes and massive forest fires, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the domestic political excitations on both the federal and state fronts, one or another economic crisis and the current collapse of the national housing market, changes in federal policy that affect higher education, the external waters through which we have steered our academic community have indeed been turbulent.  As we gather this April, in the hopeful season of spring, once again, we face rough waters and uncertain times. 

For those of you who are relatively new to the University, you cannot possibly have a full realization of the effort that it has taken to realize the accomplishments we have over the last decade in the face of great odds and with very little support from the mother ship of the state.  For those of you who have been here during those years, I know how great your efforts have been, how stressed and tired you must feel.  But to the long-termers, it has to be some real satisfaction to you to see the concrete manifestations of your accomplishments. 

I was talking to some students a few weeks ago, and, with their limited temporal perspective – after all, they come, stay a few years and leave, as they should – they asked me, when are you going to do something about providing more parking and more housing and more full-time faculty and more of the things students need.  I answered, would it surprise you to know that just a few years ago there was no Village at Little Falls with 1,000 beds, there was no Red Hawk Deck or Transit Deck.  There was no Kasser Theater, no Recreation Center, no University Hall, no Cali School of Music, no renovated Panzer Athletic Center, no renovated Chemistry labs, no spiffy new space for Communications Sciences and Disorders, no Café Diem, no Red Hawk Diner, no renovations to the Clove Road Apartments which were so deteriorated we thought the only option would be to tear them down. 

There was no library and computing facility open 24/7.  There was very little at all in the way of IT infrastructure and computer labs for students.  There were no plans for a new science facility, for a new School of Business, for a new center for foreign languages and linguistics.  There was no 300-bed Frank Sinatra Hall or new 1500 car parking deck getting ready to open for September.  There were more than 100 fewer full-time members of the faculty.  There were no doctoral programs, and no undergraduate programs in about twenty major fields of study that are currently attracting large numbers of students.  There was significantly less money available for scholarships, student engagement in research, and many fewer services for students.   And, by the way, many of the students here today probably wouldn’t have been here, because our enrollments were much smaller a few years ago.  Well, it did surprise them to know that, but, for those of us who have lived through the decade here, it does not surprise us.  You have a right to be tired. 

So, we come to this day tired, but ranked by Forbes Magazine as the top public university in New Jersey, based on the value students derive from their investment in a Montclair State education.  Our arts programs have taken the lead in the region and are attracting students from a national talent pool.  Our education programs have been ranked as among the ten best in the nation, and, just this week, US News and World Report Rankings of Graduate Schools ranked our secondary teacher education program as the 14th in the nation, ahead of Harvard, NYU, UCLA, Berkeley, Texas, and Maryland and our elementary teacher education program as 17th in the nation, extraordinary numbers especially given the fact that all the other top 20 institutions are research universities.   

Our science and math faculty are beginning to make serious headway in getting federal acknowledgement of the quality of their research and educational programs.  Our business programs are holding their own against enormous competition and are continuing to develop program areas of recognized excellence.  In the humanities and social sciences, the heart of the liberal arts core of the Montclair State education, highly valued by students, we have recruited strong new faculty and the effort at revitalizing and strengthening programs and exploiting the opportunities of interdisciplinarity have begun in earnest.  

But we are tired.  We do recognize that we are fortunate compared with many other sectors of society in regard to the security of our employment and the quality of our work environment, but we are disaffected by a continuing environment of under-investment by the state and lack of recognition of the importance of what we do.  We are grim about furloughs; we are yearning for salary increases; we are worried about larger classes, about staff positions remaining unfilled, about new equipment and repairs postponed and maintenance that is deferred.   So what do we do?

In regard to the anxieties about ourselves and employment and compensation issues, let me see if I can clarify a few issues.  There are no hard decisions to be made about anything related to these matters until the State budget is adopted on June 30.  In recent years, budget language has intruded upon compensation matters in an unprecedented way, and it is possible that it will do so again, but we cannot be sure.  So, there is little we can do or say now except the following.  First, no matter what happens with the budget, there will be no layoffs at Montclair State University.  Second, no matter what happens with the budget, there will be no furloughs at Montclair State University unless furloughs are absolutely required by law, and I am almost certain that there will not be any such requirement.  Third, unless the Governor renegotiates labor agreements or takes some other action affecting the labor agreements, the salary increases for the 2010-2011 academic year called for in the current labor agreements for unionized employees will be paid.  Fourth, a decision about any salary increases for non-unionized employees has not and will not be made until the State budget is adopted by June 30. 

That is all I can tell you now, other than to say that I will continue to do my best to protect University employees and to assure that we make equitable and reasonable decisions in regard to all of our employees.  There are several units in the University that have been negatively impacted by various State actions, particularly in regard to salary compression, and Vice President Hain will be analyzing that and other issues so that we are ready to make the best and the fairest decisions we can at the appropriate time. 

Meanwhile, during this short period between now and June 30, advocacy on behalf of public higher education is extremely important for two reasons.  First, such advocacy may succeed in effecting some increase to funding in the FY 2011 budget; and, second, such advocacy sends a message to Trenton that there is a voting constituency that cares about public higher education.

  Between now and June 30, the most critical target for that advocacy is the legislature – your individual senators and assembly representatives and the legislative leadership, Senate President Steve Sweeney and Speaker of the Assembly Sheila Oliver.  Our Director of Government Relations, Shivaun Gaines, will keep you informed about any organized initiatives, but unique and individual letters or e-mails from your home addresses to legislators about the critical importance to the state of public higher education are the most effective advocacy tool.  So write letters, and get everyone you know who shares your views to write as well. 

The most telling point about the proposed FY 2011 budget for the senior public institutions, including Montclair State, is that it provides for an appropriation for operating support that is approximately what it was 15 years ago, when we had many fewer faculty, students, facilities and services.   If we just look at what has happened over the last decade, in the 2000-2001 academic year, the state provided $4,800 in operating support per full-time equivalent (FTE) student.  That was not a high number back then; it was quite modest support. 

In the proposed budget for the 2010-2011 academic year, operating support per FTE student drops to about $2,600.  That is not modest support, and especially when the effects of inflation are considered, it is so low as to be not justifiable or reasonable by any standard.  The actual dollar cut amounts to $6.8 million and the cost of the largest expenditure increase, which is for negotiated salary raises, is $6.4 million, making the size of the budgetary problem in rough terms about $13.2 million. 

As in the past, State cuts to higher education will not deter Montclair State from moving forward on its long-term strategic goals.  From FY2000 through FY2010, the University’s operating budget more than doubled, growing from $133 million to $309 million.  This increase reflected enrollment growth, increased full-time faculty positions, and enhancements to information technology, facilities, academic support, and student housing.  The expansion we have experienced is based on sound operating practices, and our budget is always balanced.  Next year, we will again bring on new faculty, complete many critical facility improvement projects, and fund State-mandated salary increases.

To compensate for reduced State appropriation, we will continue to focus on using available resources as wisely and efficiently as possible and on generating additional revenue from non-State sources wherever feasible.  To the greatest extent possible, we will observe the following principles:

  • Budgets will be developed from a long-term perspective and will protect core academic programs.
  • We will continue to recruit highly qualified faculty in response to enrollment growth.
  • We will protect the workforce of the University, which is responsible for our extraordinary achievements of the last decade. 
  • We will provide the facilities and equipment necessary for high-quality academic programs.

 To observe these principles, we will have to exercise discipline in a number of areas.  We must:

  • exercise rigorous review before filling any vacant position or creating any new position;
  • apply the highest standards to every hire we make; 
  • use every instructional, administrative, and student service resource as efficiently as possible;
  • continue to improve both academic and business practices, seeking out additional efficiencies that will also yield greater quality;
  • challenge ourselves to find mission-appropriate activities that generate additional revenue; and
  • eliminate programs and activities that, while beneficial, constitute areas for which there is less demand, or where we cannot achieve high quality, or that are lower institutional priorities.

I have asked department chairs, deans, directors, and vice presidents to exercise very thorough and careful budget discipline in regard to everything from course offerings, class sizes and scheduling to expenditures for any non-essential activities or materials.  The FY2011 budget process has begun and will continue over the next two months with the participation of all of the University’s many units.  Please feel free to bring any ideas and questions you might have to your division and department heads.

Beyond the compensation and budgetary issues, there are a number of very critical issues facing the University to which we must give our serious attention in ways that are appropriate to our various different and individual responsibilities.  Two of those issues relate to critically needed infrastructure.  First, the University is very close to resolution on the massive Capstone project.  This project, if successfully consummated, will provide two thousand beds for student residential opportunities and associated dining facilities in a complex of buildings on the north campus parking lots.  This project would be the first one undertaken under the provisions of the NJ Economic Stimulus Act which provides for public/private partnerships for the construction of revenue-generating facilities, such as housing.  The goal is to have the housing available by the fall of 2011, and the importance of the project to the University cannot be over-stated.

As State support for public higher education in New Jersey has declined precipitously, we have become increasingly dependent on tuition revenue.  Tuition revenue, in turn, depends on a large and robust pool of applicants.  We have enjoyed a strong and growing applicant pool from all of the counties in New Jersey, but, to insure the future stability and fiscal health of the University, we will need to broaden our applicant pool from the furthest away counties and from out of state.  In order to do that, we must be able to house students. 

At present, only 5% of our students come from out of state, and it would be highly desirable for any number of reasons to raise that percentage.  It is also the case that we frequently lose some of our most qualified applicants because we cannot guarantee them housing.  Such students will choose higher cost institutions in nearby states that can make that housing guarantee. Additionally, national data show indisputably that students who live on campus have higher rates of persistence to graduation and more timely graduation rates.  Higher and faster graduation rates provide substantial economic benefits to both students and to the University.  So there are very strong academic and economic reasons for the fast and substantial expansion of the University’s student housing capacity.   

The Capstone project is very complex, involving a highly complicated fabric of business negotiations, construction logistics, and governmental approvals.  It is currently absorbing an enormous amount of effort, literally day and night effort, by a number of administrative offices as we race against the clock for the possibility of housing to be available for the 2011-2012 academic year.

In the shorter term, we are pleased that construction on Frank Sinatra Hall, a fifth residential building in the Village of Little Falls complex, will be completed this summer, providing about 300 additional beds for the coming fall term.  For those of you who may have missed it, though I cannot see how you could have, since it is a colossus, a tasteful colossus, but a colossus nonetheless, construction of the new parking garage in the middle of campus will be complete by June and fully ready for the fall term rush.  The new garage will provide parking for 1,500 cars.  Following up on the playful mangling of the University’s motto, Carpe Diem, that we began with the naming of our cyber-café as Café Diem, the new parking garage will be called – yes – you’ve got it, CarParc Diem.

I said that there were two major infrastructure initiatives underway.  After housing, the second of these is the Bell Tower Project.  The Bell Tower Initiative is an expansive project to replace the University’s legacy business systems with a web-based, self-service system that provides more automated processes, robust reporting capabilities, and user-friendly portal technology. 

Among the many benefits of the new system will be real-time access to financial data; Web-based applications for procurement of goods and services; capacity to move to paperless processes in a wide range of administrative functions; intuitive screens for inputting information; and, a one-stop access point for students, allowing access to courses, accounts, and grades.  

For many months now, teams from across the University, engaging literally hundreds of people, have been working on the implementation of the system, reviewing processes and workflows, and playing a critical role in shaping and transforming the University’s business and administrative models.  I want to express my appreciation to these individuals, who are managing a challenging assignment while, in many cases, continuing to carry on with their normal responsibilities. 

The Bell Tower implementation will be a phased process, beginning this summer and extending forward through 2011.  Along with water, steam, and electricity, information technology has become the additional utility that is absolutely indispensable to everything we do, and the Bell Tower Project will assure that the University has the capacity it needs in this critical area for decades to come.

As we look to the future, it is really time again for the University to reconsider two major questions:  What kind of university do we want Montclair State to be, and what do we need to do to insure that our students succeed?

The first question will have to be answered by our next strategic plan, which continues to be a document that is under construction.  As my earlier comments about the budget suggest, the big questions about the University will need to be answered within the context of an institution that can no longer rely on governmental support for the lion’s share of its operations.  That means that the programs we offer and the way we offer them are compelled, to an increasing degree, to be market driven. 

Students need to understand why they should be taking on debt and investing their education dollars in a Montclair State University education, and, in order for them to understand why, we need to know why and to be able to communicate the answer effectively.  In many instances, our programs are very well constructed and well aligned with today’s educational needs, but not in all cases, and how our programs are shaped academically is an issue of the very highest importance.  While the first, most important characteristic that defines the University is absolutely the quality and the commitment of our faculty, the scope and nature of our academic programs certainly comes second on the list.  Rigorous assessment and reassessment of our programs is a task that is never done because new knowledge is always being created and societal needs are always changing.

As I skimmed through the various departmental and college strategic plans, a number of interesting themes appeared to emerge:

1.  We appear to be recognizing that our programs must become increasingly interdisciplinary.  Certainly, as I look at the attributes of our faculty from a central point of view, it is clear to me that we have a significant number of instances where faculty in different departments and different colleges have very significant strengths that could be combined to generate very creative centers of academic excellence in the University. 

Just to provide one example, in the cognitive sciences and linguistics we have at least three discipline areas which could constitute a multi-disciplinary nexus of excellence.  The new state-of-the-art Center for Audiology and Speech-Language Pathology has ten research laboratories and includes two sound suites for diagnostic audiology testing where  faculty, including Professors Janet Koehnke, Joan Besing, and Mary Boyle,  conduct research in psychoacoustics, electrophysiology and audiodiagnosis,  as well as all aspects of aphasia. 

The Linguistics faculty, including Professors Eileen Fitzpatrick and Mary Call, are doing funded investigations into the cognitive processes by which we understand sentences and how deception works in language.  Psychology has eight functioning research laboratories, at least five of which are focused on some aspect of cognitive processing such as Prof. Yoav Arieh’s work on the integration of visual and auditory stimuli, Prof. Debra Zellner’s work on multimodal perception and the relationship between colors and perception of odors, and Prof. Julian Keenan’s work on neuroimaging and the correlates of self-awareness and self-deception.  

Other obvious areas where we have the potential to magnify our impact by bringing together our cross-disciplinary strengths are in the field of environmental management and in the various disciplines that explore research, social policy and advocacy related to the child in society.  Combining the creative strengths resident across disciplines and colleges would enhance our ability to focus resources and visibility around a small number of distinctive broad areas where we can build the University’s reputation which would be of enormous help in attracting the financial support and applicants that will drive excellence in all of our programs.

2.  In many of our programs, the departmental plans are seeking a more rigorous approach to assuring the professionalism of the program and the capacity of the program to produce graduates who are recognized as being extremely well-prepared for employment in the relevant fields.  In order to have that kind of confidence in the preparation we provide to students, departments recognize that they must maintain active and ongoing relationships with the employing entities, whether it is preparation for the accounting profession, the broadcast industry, the schools, business, or clinical professions.

3.  That concern leads to a third general area which is the need perceived by a number of programs, schools and colleges to build much deeper and more extensive industry connections.  Such connections are recognized as required to assure adequate and current preparation of students, extensive and meaningful opportunities for internships and post-graduation employment opportunities, close alignment of program parameters to industry priorities, providing real world classroom experiences for students, sharing of resources in ways that are mutually beneficial to our programs and students and the industry, and garnering external, industry-based financial support for our programs. 

Perhaps the best example in the University of the power of such connections is the extensive fabric of relationships that have been forged between our teacher preparation programs and school districts throughout the state and, through those relationships, with the foundations and governmental agencies that fund educational initiatives.  Those relationships have contributed to the recognition of our teacher preparation program as among the best in the country, have made our graduates sought after for employment, have assured the quality of preparation provided to students, and have yielded very significant financial support for the work of the College of Education and Human Services.

4.  Not unrelated to the issue of professionalism mentioned earlier is the companion question of real knowledge acquisition, that is, competency as opposed to seat time.  Is it our goal to assure that our graduates can actually speak and read a foreign language, or is it satisfactory that they take two courses and learn enough about the foreign language to realize that they cannot speak or read it?  How much math do students in various fields of study really need to know?  How serious are we about a student’s ability to do original analysis, to use research resources effectively, to write or to speak with clarity and cogency in public settings?  The answers to these questions should have a very real impact on the decisions we make about degree requirements and on the educational methodologies we make available to our students – for example, on the mix between organized class instruction and self-paced and self-directed tools for learning.

5.  Given the realization of the global village, most programs see the desirability for the effective internationalization of their programs.  Such initiatives may begin with faculty visits to institutions abroad, and Montclair State has been particularly generous in sponsoring such opportunities, but it certainly cannot end there.  We should be making more rapid progress in exploring the potential of joint programs with foreign partner universities.  Our own courses, curricula, and degree programs should be effectively infused with an international perspective if students, such as most of ours, who have grown up in a fairly parochial environment, are going to have the knowledge base and understanding to be effective leaders in a world that will, of necessity, take them well beyond the boundaries of the State of New Jersey.

6.  Every program is engaged in the exploration of appropriate and distinctive uses of technology to improve, expand and intensify the content of their programs and the intensity of the learning experience for students.  There is so much to say in this category in regard to what we teach, how we teach, and how students learn that I will, in fact, say nothing more here than to note that this is not an area where we are in the lead among our peers. 

We have a good deal to do before we get to the level of achievement at which we should be, given the size and comprehensive nature of our institution.  So, we can perhaps regard this area as one where the opportunities are pretty much all ahead of us.  We have begun to make a good start on the road, so there is no question in my mind that we have the capacity for realizing the rich and creative and economically beneficial potential of the instructional uses of technology.

7.  Most of our programs and departments also share the desire for achieving the enhanced visibility, competitiveness, and reputation of their programs.  This goal is a laudable and, frankly, a very necessary one.  In the absence of adequate state support, if we are to continue to attract strong students and external support for our work, then we must demonstrate that we do what we do at a recognized and high degree of quality.  It stands to reason that all of the University’s programs cannot be recognized as among the best in the region or the nation, and they can certainly be very good and very strong contributors to the overall education that our students receive without being so recognized.  However, we must have some that are clearly recognized as among the best in the region or the nation, and such programs will lend their glow to everything else that we do. 

Every successful institution benefits from that strategy, and there is no reason why we should not or cannot.  We already have a program in Education that is nationally recognized as among the best.  We are getting rapidly to the place where several of our programs in the Arts are beginning to be recognized as among the best in the region.  We also have the benefit of an array of good, solid programs from A to Z with very little among them to embarrass us, and that certainly cannot be said of many institutions.  

While every program cannot rise to national recognition, every college should have one or more program fields of real and recognized distinction.  That will take prioritizing and focusing resources, and it will also require making rigorous decisions, not only about what we will build programmatically, but also about what we will not build and what we may cease to do because we do not do it well or simply because we have not been able to attract students to the program. 

8.  Finally, the last thread I want to pull out from my reading of the planning documents is a mission and value proposition.  At the heart of Montclair State University, throughout its century-long history, has been the commitment to be a democratizing force in society.  The education of students without regard to their race or gender and without regard to their economic status, the provision of opportunity to those who have the aspiration and capacity to benefit from the education we offer even though they may not have had the chances and benefits of others, the attention we pay in our programs to the needs of marginalized populations – all these principles have been and clearly continue to be part of how you are thinking about what kind of University this should be. 

These eight areas are certainly not the only themes present in all of the strategic plans, but they are the themes that seemed to rise to the top in my initial read of the documents.  There is no question that they present a hefty work agenda for us.  If we are to turn these principles into a truly viable strategic plan, we will need to get very specific about how we intend to accomplish our objectives and how we intend to measure our success.  Provost Gingerich is leading the effort toward the completion of our plan, but all of you will be asked to review the result carefully before it is finalized.

Finally, I would like to turn my attention to our students.  We continue to execute our strategic enrollment management plan, implementing retention initiatives to support student persistence and graduation.  We are working diligently to help our students succeed by enhancing our advisement approaches, providing innovative supplemental instructional programs, and increasing early intervention for first-year students and other student populations who can benefit from additional support.  

These measures are bearing fruit.  The six-year graduation rate for entering first-time, full-time freshmen continues its steady improvement and has reached about 62%.  That figure far exceeds the national average of about 46% for institutions in our Carnegie classification.  Our one-year retention rate for entering first-time, full-time freshmen also rose for the third consecutive year, with 83% of the fall 2008 cohort returning in fall 2009.  Contributing to our retention efforts, we are experiencing significantly greater success in moving students who are on probation back into good academic standing.  In the fall of 2005, 222 students were placed on probation and 129, or 58% of them, succeeded in returning to good academic standing.  In the fall of 2009, the same number, 222 students were placed on probation, but 161, or 73% of them, succeeded in moving back into good standing.

We are also looking very closely at our admissions criteria.  There is now very persuasive data that demonstrate that high school grade point average is the most powerful predictor of successful persistence to graduation in college.  Race, gender, socio-economic status, SAT scores, or even the quality of the high school all play very little part in predicting who will actually succeed in college.  However, if a student has worked their way to the top of their high school class, whether they are rich or poor, whether that high school is a good school or a poor school, notwithstanding any other factor, they are very likely to succeed in college.  These findings suggest the advisability of certain adjustments to our admissions policies, and those are being studied carefully now. 

Once students are here, it is critical that we do everything possible to assure their successful and timely graduation, and that begins by creating an environment in which the expectation that full time students will graduate in four years is part of the institutional culture.  In order for that to happen, advisors throughout the students’ career, both pre-major and major advisors, from day one and every day thereafter, must stress that objective and assist students in planning their programs so that they can in fact graduate in four years.   

A requirement precedent to success is that each program and department rigorously reviews their course offerings and assures that they have good advising information on the Web and a well-constructed and well-communicated schedule of courses that will enable students to follow a coherent plan to graduation.   Anything less than that is simply not acceptable.  The cost to students and to the institution of extended periods of time to graduation is very substantial.  We are making progress toward this goal and have been recognized as a national leader in this area, including most recently by the Education Trust for our success in closing the minority achievement gap.  However, in a number of our undergraduate programs and in our graduate programs, we still have a way to go in assuring timely completion of degrees. 

There is also considerable data that students from low socio-economic backgrounds are strongly affected by educational cost.  For that reason, continued significant growth in the funds we have available for scholarships for needy students must be an institutional priority.  In that regard, I call to your attention that this year’s Annual Scholarship Dinner will be held next week on Thursday, April 29th in University Hall.  The dinner, to which you may still buy a ticket if you have not already done so, is being sponsored by Prudential this year, and, as always, the proceeds of the gala will go toward student scholarships and a number of students will be recognized with University awards.  Perhaps you will recognize some of them:

Those faces and voices express more clearly than can I the importance of our finding with courage and with clarity the right answer to the question of what kind of university we want Montclair State to be.  However we frame the answer, the one thing of which I can be certain is that it will not become a reality without our prodigious efforts.  We have brought this institution to where we are today, and I am confident that we have the moxie to take it to where it next needs to go. 

For all that you have done and for all that you will do, for the integrity and caring and commitment you bring to your work, I thank all of you.  I thank you on behalf of the State we continue to serve though it may not serve us, on behalf of the profession to which you are all a credit, on behalf of society that will be the beneficiary of the knowledge you create, and on behalf of our students for whom you are the lifeline to the future.

Please join your colleagues at Commencement and the college Convocations for the annual ceremonies of success!