Ensuring student success and academic excellence

Our mission demands that we ensure the best and most affordable education possible for our students, and that we make a difference in their lives through the way our mission is lived, every day, in classrooms and outside of them. As Brother Ronald reminded us in his State of the College address, our mission must guide us during this time of global economic uncertainty.

Even as we reduce our expenses, we must continue to invest in students. We will maintain momentum on our expanded admissions and marketing efforts to attract those students best suited for a Saint Mary's College education. Once students have made the decision to come, we will continue building our relationships with them, through acceptance, orientation, and into their first year. Many faculty and staff have worked intensely over the past year to bring additional structure and focus to our programming for the first year experience of our students. This will require the renewed dedication and time from faculty, and we are prepared to offer additional compensation for their efforts.

By enhancing the quality of the student experience, we help ensure their success. Now, more than ever, we need to ensure that undergraduate students can complete their degree in four years. Although some course offerings have been reduced, we must continue to offer a sufficient range and quantity of courses for students. Every course beyond four years exponentially increases the risk that students will not complete their degrees and will incur additional debt. Our 2009 Summer Term will facilitate the timely graduation of our students. We will also continue our programming outside of the classroom and strive to improve coordination among sponsoring groups and tailor programs as much as possible to complement instruction in the classroom.

Student success is inseparable from academic excellence, and Brother Ronald has consistently identified academic excellence as a priority in budget and planning. Some common suggestions for budget reductions that directly affect academic excellence have included: increasing the time to sabbaticals from seven to eight years, increasing the course load of faculty, and eliminating course reassignments. As we consider each change to our customary practices, we must also ensure institutional stability and respect for shared governance. Changes must be based on careful, evidentiary-based analysis, and designed to preserve instructional quality and scholarly productivity.

Changing the length of time to sabbatical would make us an outlier in higher education. Similarly, increasing the expected course load for all faculty would set us back many years in benchmarking against peer institutions. We already expect faculty to teach outside of their disciplinary specialties in Jan Term and Collegiate Seminar, making our teaching load more challenging than comparable institutions. With our reduction in adjunct faculty, we should expect even more ranked faculty teaching these courses. If we experience a downturn in enrollment, ranked faculty will also have to be more flexible, teaching courses previously offered by lecturers or picking up different courses very close to the start of a semester because of course cancellations. Finally, our students have been, and will continue to require increased attention as they struggle with the demands not only of college, but also of financial security, emotional stability, and often family obligations.

Two other central features of faculty life, the flexibility of course reassignments and our carefully constructed process of promotion and tenure, will also be preserved. This year, there will be no substantial reduction in standing course reassignments. Over the coming year, however, I will be working with our deans and faculty to evaluate the allocation of all course reassignments in the event that further budget reductions need to be made.

Similarly, our ranked faculty step system, which is inextricably tied to tenure and promotion, must remain for the present. Our system requires interim reviews of faculty prior to tenure, and post-tenure review through our pre-professor and professor evaluations. Although those eligible faculty will move up in step for the 2009-10 academic year based on this system of review and promotion, the majority of faculty will not. Faculty who are not moving up in step will not see a salary increase. We have also said that there will be no annual salary increases in July, with a possible move to contract cycles that begin in January. Faculty contracts are timed to correspond with academic years of service counted toward tenure, promotions, and sabbaticals, making a move to annual contracts in January problematic for ranked faculty. So, while we know that there will be no across-the-board or cost of living increases for faculty until 2010 at best, their contract and promotion cycle for 2009 will continue to begin in July.

Academic excellence also requires that we maintain a sufficient number of highly qualified and effective faculty to serve our students. Therefore, we are continuing with the limited hiring of ranked faculty and with opportunities for faculty development, consistent with our strategic plans and guided by recent research regarding the needs of our faculty. This summer Carole Swain, Vice President for Mission and Dean of Faculty Development, will step down from the position as Dean in order to devote increasing attention to mission-related activities. We will not be replacing her with another dean. Instead, in the coming weeks we will announce a call for nominations among faculty for the position of Director of Faculty Development. Carole will serve as an advisor to the new Director, provide continued leadership for faculty fellows, and oversee new faculty orientation. We will also begin pooling existing resources and attempt to provide additional funds for faculty research and curriculum development.

Our students' education would not be complete without the work of our staff, all of whom contribute to our mission in distinct and important ways. Staff are also critical in increasing our revenue and sustaining our operations. Several suggestions from our Community Meeting focused on reducing spending and hours worked, and offering retirement incentives for staff and faculty. In some cases, such as admissions and advancement, we may be adding time rather than reducing it. We are also scaling back on the number of events we sponsor and the conferences we attend, but we must maintain a high standard for the ones that we keep. As I mentioned at the Scholar's Reception, we can hold that event as well as all of the "provost's lunches" that I host for the cost of my not attending a national conference. I would rather skip a conference and help build our community on campus.

Finally, some of the most promising developments in sustaining our mission have been the activities in support of inclusive excellence. Last week, Brother Ronald briefly mentioned the two days that he, the Cabinet, and Academic Affairs leadership spent in a workshop on "21st Century Leadership, Civility, and Inclusion." We began with a discussion of our mission and the premise that our own behaviors, as senior administrators and leaders, must become more inclusive before we can expect change from others. We discussed behaviors that should be affirmed, when to invite disagreement, and how to lean into discomfort. We also practiced ways to become more effective in understanding diversity, addressing conflict, and promoting true dialogue among the members of our community.

This work required the guidance of an outside consultant. More than one person at the Community Meeting said that we rely too much on consultants, and that this is an area of potential cost savings. We will indeed reduce our reliance on consultants. However, at times consultants are necessary and desirable. The recent Informational Technology Review conducted by Marty Ringle is a good example. His report provided an impartial, independent, and expert evaluation by someone who brought perspective, knowledge, and the ability to analyze our challenges based on comparative data from other colleges. His first recommendation was to align CaTS more closely with our academic mission, which has led to my active role in chairing the Technology Advisory Committee.

The TAC has also considered our consultant's recommendations and has agreed that the following are most urgent: filling vacant and approved CaTS positions to the extent possible; decentralizing some user support positions; prioritizing support for instructional technology; providing reliable wireless network access throughout the campus; and bringing CaTS computer rooms up to industry standards. We are currently assessing the viability of using Google mail as an email client, exploring the best common calendaring system, and developing policies on student printing and password protection. Over the coming year, we will be discussing policies and support for online instruction and drafting classroom technology standards.

Our greatest resource is the Saint Mary's community itself. The coming weeks will be difficult, as job responsibilities change, the uses of funding are reassessed, and we all learn new ways of carrying forward our mission. However, our priorities are clear, and they will help ensure our relevance and stability as we move forward.