Tuesday, October 20, 2020
Faculty and Staff Recognition
In lieu of our annual Faculty and Staff Recognition Ceremony, we will honor this year’s recipients of the President’s and Chancellor’s Awards for Excellence online. We celebrate the individual accomplishments of our campus colleagues.
Fall 2020 State of the College Address
It is my pleasure to provide my fall 2020-2021 address. Although I have had a long tradition of convening faculty, staff, and campus supporters in a physical campus location to share my remarks, today, out of necessity and health precautions in response to COVID-19, I offer my comments virtually.
By this time in the semester, we have somewhat adjusted to the year and the many changes that have been instituted to allow us to open and maintain our campus safely and responsibly. We continue to fulfill our mission as an outstanding urban-engaged higher education institution with a diverse and dedicated student, faculty, and staff.
I must admit that today’s address is like no other. After over 35 years of commitment to the academy, I have a well-worn arc that I have followed each year. This arc begins with my great excitement as new students join campus, returning students come back, and faculty and staff settle into their individual roles to help students achieve this dream we call education. These portions of the calendar have been predictable and have been mostly steady for all the years each of us have been a part of a college community regardless of what part you play in delivering the mission of the college or how long you have been a part of the academy. Before this year, from my time as a faculty member to varied academic leadership roles to being your president, the path has been clear and mostly consistent. Before this year, the problems to tackle were predictable, although seldom welcomed, deviations from our established norm. The many ups and downs we have faced have been troublesome and required adjustments and changes, but did not significantly alter our basic work.
The beginning and the continuation of this academic year is off script from our normal and we have all had to adjust, change, and pivot in ways that are required, essential, but nevertheless exhausting at times. No one expected to find our world turned upside down and the need to learn new patterns to do everything we had done effortlessly before. We had all habituated to a way and a rhythm of campus life and that rhythm has been not just disrupted but totally replaced with new ways to meet the needs of our community.
Navigating the consequences of a pandemic has not been easy for any of us. Our current level of disruption requires skills and responses that are new to some and difficult for all.
I stood before you last year and I asked you to ignite your innovation. Does anyone remember that? I evoked the changes that other industries have seen and the many ways higher education institutions must adjust to the ever-changing conditions before us. In fact, I characterized change as the following:
“Change that forces us to look at what we are doing and how we are delivering on our mission. (I said) We are in a marathon that has no end in sight. We must not only adjust, rework, and modify how we educate students, but we must make revising and adapting our norm.”
Last year and before, I knew that we needed to increase our pace of change, but no one imagined what we currently face and how it continues to challenge what we do and how we educate students. The reality of our current world was beyond my field of vision. We were facing demographic shifts that were impacting the numbers of students completing high school and thus coming to college. Many of us have been observing the changes in demographics for the last decade and encouraging campus wide adaptations. We were already confronting students who were born into a digital age that requires college campuses to rethink how we were teaching students, engaging our constituents, and enhancing learning. We are challenged to explore changes in the curriculum and program mix that prepare students for an ever-changing world. We are educating the most diverse group of students that higher education institutions have ever seen within our classroom and Buffalo State leads SUNY in that diversity. We knew that these aspects challenged us to think differently about all aspects of our campus community, our learning environments, and our pedagogy.
Yet here we are, faced with the greatest disruptive force of our lifetime, a force beyond those we’d been discussing and addressing for the last decade. Today’s challenges are well beyond anything that was on our radar last year. How we meet the challenges of today and tomorrow will define our reality today and our existence tomorrow.
Before I tackle the issue of where we are currently and what we are handling now and as we move forward, let’s look back into our 2019-20 year and remind us of the “before time”—before the pandemic as well as our spring semester when the pandemic was first hitting our campus, our community, our state, our country, and our world. Let’s go back for just a few minutes before the ugly reality of racism and discrimination burst into our collective view in a way that could not be overlooked and that has galvanized the young and old of every background across this country.
Let’s remember last fall. Fall 2019 started off with 1,688 new first-time students joining our campus and with great excitement we held our normal in-person convocation officially welcoming new students into our academic community. Everyone was back in place and we smoothly settled into our focus on the education of Bengals. We moved into our normal recruitment phase for the next fall and hosted over 1,600 prospective students and visitors to campus, a record number. It was clear that our Buffalo State story was appealing to many New Yorkers and students and prospective family members were visiting campus to explore our programs, academic departments, athletics facilities, academic spaces, and all the support areas that enrich a student’s academic time with us.
In October of 2019, I constituted the President’s Institutional Innovation Advisory Council and asked them to explore how best to advance innovation on campus. I wanted them to make recommendations for review that might lay the foundation for Buffalo State to ignite our innovation. To do this work, I asked them to assess campus strengths, challenges, opportunities, and threats related to workforce agility and campus cultures. I sought to learn more about how we can improve our institutional performance and thus charged the council to explore how can we be more intentionally innovative and agile as we meet the challenges we face. To begin, they conducted a survey of our campus community. This fall they will share information with the campus community regarding their observations. And together, we will review those observations, make necessary improvements based on the findings, and look to leverage our strengths in new ways.
So, we started the fall of 2019-20 in a reflection place, so we could best develop and launch greater innovative strategies.
Fall 2019 also brought recognition to the campus in many ways. We again received the HEED Award from Insight into Diversity magazine recognizing our attention, focus, and support for diversity, equity, and inclusion on campus. We take great pride in the many ways that our Buffalo State community supports the public good including the importance of a Buffalo State education to advance the economic and career possibilities for families. In this regard, our campus moved up 50 spots on CollegeNet’s Social Mobility Index and we now rank 32nd nationally out of 1,458 campuses. We were again named a “Best Bang for the Buck” campus by Washington Monthly magazine, receiving the highest ranking of all campuses in Western New York. Buffalo State continues to be a bridge to economic advancement for our graduates.
The academic community forged ahead to continue to provide outstanding curriculum to support majors, minors, and special areas of interest throughout the Schools of Education, Arts and Humanities, Natural and Social Sciences, and the Professions. The 2019-20 year included 14 academic programs undergoing review including the B.S. in Urban and Regional Planning, the B.A. in both French and Spanish, the B.A. and B.S. in Psychology, several master’s programs and the review and reaccreditation of our B.S. in Social Work.
We also continued to provide a rich environment outside of the classroom and our NCAA Division III sports provided a strong and enjoyable season during the fall while celebrating our longtime football coach and Athletic Director Jerry Boyes as he decided to retire and proceed to other adventures after more than three decades of dedication to our campus. But before he left, he had the opportunity to see the new turf on Coyer Field that provides a dazzling and visually appealing field for athletes to train and compete.
The fall also was filled with many construction and renovation projects across campus including the final phase of the Science and Math Center, including the initial work on the new Whitworth Ferguson Planetarium, and the greatly anticipated completion of the Academic Commons in E. H. Butler Library. The Commons provides a carefully designed, modern, and inclusive space to support student academic study.
After many years of hearing me discuss the possibility of collaboration with the City of Buffalo to transform what we call the impound lot, Buffalo State was assigned as the designated developer for the 8.8-acre property adjacent to campus on Dart Street and our staff began a process of opening this property for potential designers to provide concepts. We continue to be excited to facilitate a plan to uplift that area on the West Side of Buffalo and to secure a neighboring project that meets a community need while appreciating connections to campus and the surrounding areas.
Our connections and partnerships continued to grow as our Center for Civic Engagement worked with faculty to see another increase in the number of students taking service learning courses, managed the largest Dare to Care community service day yet with over 800 participants, and strategized and implemented programs to increase student voter registration and to urge community members to complete the United States Census materials and thus be counted. Buffalo State’s civic and community engagement continues to shine brightly.
Many other notes of acclaim occurred last fall including the American International Recruitment Council naming Buffalo State its “Institution of the Year” in recognition of our innovation and commitment to international student recruitment, faculty grants for research, the launch of the state funded Teacher Pipeline Program, and exceptional outreach by the Small Business Development Center with local small and developing businesses. So, the fall was very strong on all levels and then in early spring the pandemic hit the world.
I, like you, were following the emerging COVID-19 crisis across the world when we were advised by SUNY to bring students studying abroad home to avoid contracting the coronavirus. I communicated to the campus community on March 7th that students would be required to come home. The list of international countries affected grew with increasing and troubling numbers of coronavirus cases in European and Asian countries until all students studying abroad were encouraged and then required to come home. SUNY began to arrange transportation to return students and any faculty or staff accompanying them back to New York as soon as possible.
Students returning from abroad needed to be quarantined before reentering their campus communities to prevent possible spread of the virus. We were asked by SUNY to utilize a residential space that was offline for renovations and thus we readied Tower 2 for use as a possible quarantine site. Ultimately, our space was not needed, and other campuses provided needed isolation space.
As cases began to increase in New York and across the country, the reality of moving in-person teaching on campus to remote instruction became first a possibility and then a probability and then a reality. I extended spring break a week and academic leaders worked with faculty to convert all spring classes to remote for students to complete their semester. This amazing task of moving all classes to remote by the faculty was supported by the Academic Success Collaborative which consists of 26 directors, associate deans, associate vice presidents, and others from across all divisions who met daily beginning March 11 to explore the logistical issues, our learning management system, and technological supports to ensure curriculum continuity for our students. Instructional Design held 132 workshops attended by 386 faculty to prepare faculty to deliver courses remotely. This shift included working with several campus partners and assistance from off campus and SUNY supporters to make computers and technology available free of charge to all students without personal equipment.
Concurrently, the leadership in the Student Affairs division was developing new protocols to send students home from residence halls as classes went remote. However, there were over 400 students who needed to stay on campus because of extraordinary circumstances. The depopulation of the majority of students was a campus-wide effort and required unbelievable coordination. The 400 students who remained needed all services provided to handle their daily needs in a manner that maintained isolation.
Behind the scenes and perhaps invisible to many of you was our IMT, incident management team. This team of nearly 40 people oversaw and steered the campus through the adaptations that were needed in the academic area, the student life area, student support areas, health, environment and safety, facilities, and business practices. The heavy lifting that was done by this team as guidance was changing sometimes several times a day is difficult to fathom. While all this was happening, we were pulling in campus leaders to share information and seek advice. The communication team worked with campus leaders to develop, discuss, and share information to keep the campus community informed. All of this was done while completing the normal tasks of keeping our campus moving forward and developing a fall reopening plan, so we could gain approval and begin in the fall with an approved plan that adhered to the local DOH, NY State guidance, SUNY guidance and Center for Disease Control guidance.
The switch to remote instruction, the pivot to virtual support services, the depopulation of our student population, the move to remote work for staff not essential to be on campus, and the institution of new cleaning and health protocols were all daunting to consider and impossible when first described, but we made the impossible “possible” and the spring semester was completed with the major goals of our outstanding urban-engaged educational institution met.
Even as I recount the basic skeleton of what was done, I just cannot do it justice. Many were working 12- and 14-hour days and weekends to meet the needs of our community. I ask forgiveness if I neglected to mention all the shifts that occurred, all the tasks that were performed, and all the changes that occurred during the spring semester to respond to the pandemic that held and holds us all in its grip.
I was privileged to be appointed by Governor Cuomo in early spring to our NY Forward Advisory Reopening Board. This allowed us to include our campus perspective within the broad New York reopening plans. Ultimately SUNY was able to provide guidance that augmented New York State guidance as we developed our plans for the fall reopening. There are many people to thank as we developed and received approval for our reopening plans. The IMT leadership, the workgroups within each area who crafted details and science-based plans, the Senate leadership who met regularly with the Provost to provide insights, our union leadership who was engaged in reopening discussions, our sector leadership who shared good ideas, higher education leaders across the country who generously shared plans, experts throughout the SUNY family, and members of the general campus communities who were involved in multiple discussions and asked good questions. All of these individuals and groups were helpful in the development of our reopening plans that were approved and provided the framework for campus to open this fall.
While meeting the needs of the spring semester and preparing for the fall, we were able to move all necessary events, programs, and activities to a virtual platform. The events that were provided virtually are too numerous to note, but examples include spring accepted student events, the Runway show, the Bengalathon our largest scholarship fundraiser, first year convocation, and commencement 2020.
What we know about the virus and the necessary precautions to minimize risk continue to evolve. Our many plans and the changes that we made over the months reflect the evolution of knowledge about the spread of the virus, the kind and level of testing needed on campus, the use of tracing as a tool to contain spread, the importance of isolation and quarantine as a tactic to reduce the spread of the virus, and an evolving understanding of general precautions including universal mask wearing and social distancing.
With approved plans in place, our 2020-21 year started implementing the requirements that are articulated in our published reopening plans. More than 75% of our classes are remote, we have reconceptualized our spaces following guidance, our ventilation system has been enhanced, and utilization patterns have been developed to follow the health standards guided by science. We have adopted a requirement of universal wearing of masks to keep ourselves and all members of our community safe. We have developed and instituted symptomatic and surveillance testing for COVID-19 for students, staff, and faculty who are on campus. We have processes in place for tracing and screening for COVID-19. Our Weigel Health Center is not only overseeing and implementing the herculean health screening and testing process, but is working with local, county, and state health officials to review and include new information as health officials’ knowledge of COVID-19 evolves. We are communicating with the campus the state of the college related to the coronavirus and we are maintaining a repository of information on the Buffalo State website as well as a COVID-19 dashboard on any positive cases. The dashboard is updated daily.
This massive amount of work is being done by existing leaders and members of our campus community. Please stop to appreciate the work of our entire campus community. These tasks are being completed in addition to all the normal work that is required to meet the educational and support goals of our campus. If we can be anything right now, I encourage us to be grateful for the amazing work that has and is being done and forgiving to anyone who might miss a deadline, is slow to respond to you, or seems a bit impatient. This is not a normal time.
So, given the extraordinary year we just concluded and the unpredictable year we are navigating, what should be at the top of your mind?
Please remember, this is an extraordinary and taxing year for our campus and all higher education. The consequences of the pandemic have hit hard many sectors across the country. Only a few businesses and sectors have not experienced a significant upheaval. Over 210,000 people to date have died in the United States from the virus, over 33,000 right here in the state of New York, we have seen losses directly and indirectly in our campus community and many of our students are from the New York City area where the illness and death toll were staggering and just a few months ago New York was the epicenter of the COVID-19 cases in this country. The unemployment rate is high and the most vulnerable of us have been hit the hardest. Black and Brown people and people with compromised immune systems due to disease are more vulnerable and disproportionately impacted. And we have all felt the impact of the need to adhere and maintain precautions that have kept us isolated from many of our normal supports to reduce the spread of the virus. We have done what was needed and we have bent the curve and today have one of the lowest infection rates in the country. None of this has been easy to do or to maintain, but we have placed health over personal convenience. The changes and consequences we see and experience on campus are only a portion of the significant concerns we are facing within our campus, our families, and our communities.
If you are not feeling stressed, you are not human. So please recognize these are stressful times. Personality attributes influence how people respond to stress. I ask you to remind your colleagues that these are stressful times and to realize that the flexibility and fluidity that will be needed now more than ever may not come as easily to some. I suggest when this occurs, name it. By recognizing and acknowledging the stress, it will help those having most difficulty own their response and provide the best potential for them to move beyond it. And please tap into the strategies that are important to you to reduce your personal stress.
The past financial challenges that the campus has experienced caused by demographic shifts, significant decreases in transfer students, lower retention rates, and unfunded mandates have been exponentially increased by the reality of the pandemic. The state tax base has been negatively impacted and we will see a decrease in state supported funds to all state campuses. The many forces impacting our budget include costs of personal protection equipment, testing, modifications to our campus facilities, and the need to decrease the density of our campus. This is our reality and it is the reality of our entire SUNY family. Consequently, we are facing a projected deficit of $14.8M for the 2020-21 academic year. I provided an update on the state of our budget and our serious deficit just last week; I encourage you to review that message for greater details.
This is not the time to be divisive, we must unite to tackle the issues our campus faces.
The need to work together as a campus has never been more important that it is today. We cannot afford to be divided in our work to move through these difficult situations if we hope to come out standing on the other side. We have tough decisions ahead of us in the next few months. We will need to strategically address closing our deficit and it will not be easy. Our expenses are principally in salary and significant changes will need to be made. We must do this work collaboratively and as humanely as possible.
As I asked you to innovate last year, it is now absolutely essential. We must invest in areas that will maintain and gain strength post this crisis. So, we will need to elevate innovative ideas to the front while we stop or sunset projects that have served us well in the past but will not in the future. We will face this reality and make difficult choices. All choices will be strategically and carefully analyzed and weighed. We will realign our priorities and prepare for today and tomorrow. We will convene in the spring to develop and codify our next strategic plan that will be our guide for further work.
We will become better at telling our story as an urban-engaged campus. We must celebrate our distinct and excellent programs, our engaged curriculum, and our engaged co-curricular experiences. We have started this work and it is making a difference. We will need to stay on this path. Our success can be seen in the enrollment this fall even in these difficult and unpredictable times. We must stay the course and elevate our work, as necessary.
Our virtual connections and heightened interactive mediums have significantly increased as we have managed the pandemic space. This has proven to connect with both prospective students and today’s parents. We will need to accelerate our planning to capitalize on what we’ve learned this year to gain the interest and attention of future students. Living within virtual spaces, increased online teaching, communicating in interactive and remote fashions must become a part of our new normal.
Buffalo State has been committed to social justice, equity, and inclusion for many years. Today the issues of the Black Lives Matter movement, equity for all underrepresented groups within the U.S. and all marginalized people is salient. This last spring, the deaths of multiple men and women of color over a short period of time awakened the broader population to the injustices faced by many people of color especially by the unjust treatment by some police officers. The George Floyd killing was a tipping point for many and we see that for months people have taken to the streets protesting police brutality. Although Mr. Floyd was killed by police in Minnesota, we saw other examples of police shootings of unarmed men and women across the country. These widely published killings galvanized many to stand up and keep standing up to protest this injustice. Protest and concern are also happening here in our city and just down the I-90 freeway in Rochester. Members of our community are saddened, angry, and dismayed by the continued reality of such brutality. It may be new to some, but this is not a new story. When I was just a young girl back in 1963, Ella Baker, a Civil Rights leader, said “Until the killings of Black men, Black mothers’ sons, becomes as important to the rest of the country as the killing of a white mother’s son, we who believe in freedom cannot rest…” This is an eerie reframe to the mothers who stand up and cry because their sons have been shot and killed during a routine traffic stop or a mother who cries when her daughter is shot in her own home… I will say her name Breonna Taylor.
As we move through this year, we must remember that members of our community are feeling renewed pain at the events that are occurring and the hope they once felt being eroded as the lives of Black, Brown, and other marginalized people are at risk or taken with impunity.
And let us not forget that we lost champions for social justice this year with the deaths of Congressman John Lewis on July 17, who fought tirelessly for the civil rights of all, and Chief Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg who lost her battle to cancer on September 18 after fighting for women’s rights and social justice her entire career. They each left a great legacy. Both stand as examples of commitment, dedication, passionate struggle, and how servant leaders can make a difference in our world.
We stand on the shoulders of John Lewis and RBG as we move forward.
This year, we will deepen our work in the social justice space as we meet this moment. We have already constructed a Social Justice website where we will aggregate our committed work in this area, but this is only the beginning. Our campus Senate will review our curriculum to assess how we can deepen our students’ exposure to and understanding of social justice both historically and in its present manifestations. As a campus, we will investigate and challenge our community to define how we can create a permanent representation of our commitment to social justice and we will elevate our programming to allow all members of our community to have a forum to discuss, debate, explore, and define appropriate actions that allow us to continue to be leaders and champions for social justice. I believe we can ring the bell of social justice in ways that will guide our community and others to embrace social justice in all of our work and in all of our actions.
Not only are we stronger as a community when we work together and not splinter into factions, we will thrive as a campus when we can enhance our external partnerships as well.
We will continue to connect with donors to provide scholarships and programmatic resources for our campus. We exceeded our goals for fundraising last year, but our ability to thrive will be dependent on new partnerships with individuals and foundations that believe in our mission and the Buffalo State story. We will elevate our connections with potential partners in ways that will support campus goals.
We will connect with other campuses to explore ways to leverage our resources to meet our campus needs. Systemwide discussions on shared services have begun and we will seek ways to meet campus needs through appropriate SUNY collaborations, thus leveraging our existing resources.
As a member of the WNY Higher Education Consortium we will elevate our discussions on programmatic partnerships that can allow campuses to share expertise, programs, or services that benefits our campus.
We will increase our partnerships with our city and state in ways that serve to broader the needs of our community while meeting our goals as an anchor institution.
As many of you know, I grew up in the Midwest where tornados are common and rebuilding after a big storm is just a way of life. Throughout my years in higher education, I have seen many storms and have weathered many difficult situations. Today we are somewhere in the middle of a severe tornado. We have done much to weather the tornado, but we are not out of it yet. I believe if we work together we will not only make it through the tornadoes we are facing, but we will thrive on the other side. It will not be easy, it has not been easy. We cannot be distracted, we must do the difficult work ahead.
I believe we will not only survive this tornado, but through innovation and creativity we will find a new strong foundation that will be established and one that will allow Buffalo State to thrive.
As philosopher Albert Camus said, “In the midst of chaos, I found there was within me an invincible calm.”
I ask you to join me to seek your calm in the middle of these trying times and from your calm you will be able to engage in a collaborative and creative process that will allow us to move forward. I need all members of the Buffalo State community to bring your energy and best selves as we move through and beyond the tornado we are now weathering. We are in this together and I can think of no other group of people I’d rather have on my team than members of the Buffalo State community.
Thank you for listening this afternoon.