College Initiatives in Academic Programs, Campus Facilities and Institutional Marketing

Last spring, one of many headlines in the Chronicle of Higher Education predicted: "Economy's Troubles Could Hit Colleges Unusually Hard." More recently, our higher education news headlines have repeated the dire predictions: "Student Aid is up, But the Rise in College Costs Outpaces Family Incomes"; "Tuition is up - As is Uncertainty"; "Financial Turmoil Takes Toll on College Endowments"; "Economic Downturn Puts Pinch on College Foundations"; "Private-Loan Reliance Worries Colleges"; and "Trickle-Down Economic Duress." Questions hover: "What Does the Future Hold for Low-Income Students at Private Colleges?", and "Tuition Cut, Anyone?" By last week, speculation had turned to expectation with "How the Economic Hard Times Will Affect Colleges" (Chronicle of Higher Education, November 14, 2008).

In his last Bulletin message, Brother President Ronald Gallagher wrote about the current economic climate and the implications for Saint Mary's College: "As we move forward in this semester, we are identifying particular ways and means to keep Saint Mary's College affordable, to become more efficient and economical, to protect the academic excellence of the institution and to maintain the positive momentum of current projects and planning." There are several indications that the effects of the economic downturn have been less severe at SMC than at some other institutions. To this point, undergraduate student registration for Jan and Spring Terms is in line with previous years and recruitment events have been well attended. Our momentum continues, but not without caution. As always, I would like to take every opportunity to inform and consult with you about the progress and challenges that we face.

First, we have fulfilled our Board of Trustees mandate to capture salary savings through delays in hiring. Although we anticipate the current hiring cap to be temporary, we should have a better indication of the impact of economic trends early next year. I am particularly appreciative of our deans, who have identified a 2 percent reduction in expenses with minimal impact on students and faculty. For example, we have left most academic departmental budgets, already small and without significant increases over the years, largely untouched. The majority of savings have been made in areas such as administrative travel and support. We have made no reductions in College faculty development funds, and we are committed to retaining our existing levels of service to students. I have also said publicly, in many venues, that I am dedicated to maintaining a de facto six-course teaching load for all ranked faculty despite some suggestions that we temporarily consider increasing our course load due to economic exigencies.

At the same time, we must recognize that we may need to clarify our institutional priorities across the campus. Brother Ron has stressed that all Cabinet members will be examining priorities in their individual divisions. Within Academic Affairs, this means that we must renew conversations about the most important uses of faculty time, energy and expertise. Our first priority must be to ensure that students can continue to take the courses they need on a schedule that permits them to graduate on time. I am hopeful that the summer school initiative, now facilitated by Vice Provost Frances Sweeney and supported by a growing number of faculty and staff, will contribute to our ability to meet student needs as well as provide additional teaching opportunities for faculty and eventually contribute to our revenue. Deans and department chairs may ask for increased flexibility from faculty in developing course schedules, and I encourage faculty to make use of the course "banking" process that we have established (posted as a Memorandum of Understanding on my website). Our faculty needs sustained support for their creative and scholarly achievements, and as prior commitments to our Filippi endowment funds are fulfilled, I hope to redirect some of these resources toward faculty awards that are sufficient to provide internal grants for reassigned time, summer stipends, graduate student research assistance and equipment. Finally, we have already advanced efforts to make faculty contributions to service more meaningful and less time-intensive, as evidenced in the restructuring of Academic Senate subcommittees. Efforts such as these help ensure that, even in times of economic downturn, we make the best use of the extensive resources that reside in our faculty.

Second, we must sustain progress on building our academic reputation and distinctiveness. You may recall recent challenges posed by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) regarding our graduate programs. I would like to acknowledge the work of Chris Sindt and Steve Miller in leading efforts to provide coherence to our graduate student policies and practices. In specific business and education programs, faculty have begun engaging in collaborative efforts to improve working relationships. In our Educational Leadership Program, Becky Proehl has brought faculty together and made impressive progress in clarifying the identity of and bringing new coherence to the education doctorate.

I am also greatly impressed by the work of our Core Curriculum Task Force (CCTF). The CCTF has operated with considerable openness and integrity to bring us to the point of campus discussions about new core curriculum models. We have the opportunity to enhance our strengths by designing programs that meet evolving student needs and make the most of our interdisciplinary potential. I recognize the challenges that such revisions pose, particularly to those who feel that their disciplinary expertise will be undermined or that their ability to attract majors will be compromised. However, I urge faculty to work together as a community in a spirit of renewal. We can resolve implementation details over the coming months, and I continue to hold a substantial portion of my budget in reserve so that I can support whatever vision emerges. Much depends on establishing a clear direction for the core; our academic planning cannot advance intelligently without it.

Our campus infrastructure reflects a third area that is particularly challenged during times of economic stress. Last summer, I posted a major renovation request process on my web page that has since been introduced by Pete Michell, with improvements, to the Campus Facilities and Planning Committee. That kind of process, whereby clear criteria are established, requests considered as a group, and priorities determined in a transparent and timely manner is essential at all times, but particularly when resources are constrained. We are also making progress on the Building on Strengths mandate to audit our technology services and needs. The recent visit by Martin Ringle, chief information officer of Reed College, will result in a report that should be instrumental in helping us reconsider our technology needs and priorities. Although we may lag behind community expectations and our peer institutions in some ways, we also may have the opportunity, if we are willing to make the investment, to bypass some intermediary steps at improvement and become an early adopter of new technologies.

Of all of these challenges, among the most energizing and promising for me are the steps we are taking to build an inclusive campus community that is equipped to advance organizational change. I appreciate the patience of those who have been eager to participate in the initiatives discussed by the College Committee on Inclusive Excellence (CCIE). Those opportunities have included joining discussion groups, submitting funding proposals and recommending institutional protocols. In the future, the CCIE anticipates building on existing campus expertise and offering intensive training in cultural competence and facilitation for the entire campus community so that we can lead our own, campus-wide and ongoing workshops on inclusion. At the same time, I have asked our Cabinet members, deans and associate deans to participate in a two-day January retreat in "Diversity and Organizational Change." At this retreat, we will practice techniques for communicating candidly and respectfully, and explore managing change and ways to provide motivation, accountability and leadership.

Finally, the external environment should serve to remind us of the importance of our work in sharpening and strengthening our institutional and academic identity. Several efforts - developing an institutional marketing plan, enhancing our marketing message and visual identity, developing new undergraduate recruitment communication materials, drafting a comprehensive campaign prospectus and rethinking our admissions process - are converging in promising ways. We know, based on our own research as well as that of the National Catholic College Admission Association, that Catholic colleges are not perceived as providing the academic strength and breadth, social and extracurricular vitality, preparation for careers and diverse environment of other private and public institutions. These misperceptions call on us to clearly establish and communicate that we offer all of the opportunities of an urban university from a place of beauty and safety, we value scholarship, we are selective based on the criteria of our mission, we are affordable, and we have a national, even global reach. Current and prospective students need to better understand the value of our academic programs, the personal attention they will receive, the richness of diversity that their peers bring and how a Saint Mary's education will translate into postgraduate and career success.

Our identity will drive our priorities as we meet the challenges of our times. Some resources may shrink, but others will eventually expand because of our continued efforts to ensure student success, support faculty innovation and scholarship, renew our core curriculum and create an inclusive learning environment. Thank you for your continued conversation and support as we move forward, making the decisions that will position us for a distinguished future.