Welcome to the Spring semester! I want to start my welcome back message with heartfelt thanks to everyone who helped to make the return to campus process run so smoothly—from our pool testing volunteers and coordinators, who worked all weekend, often taking on double shifts, to our Hazen staff for conducting antigen tests for those students who hadn’t been able to access pre-arrival testing, to our facilities colleagues for working so hard to clear the campus pathways and ensure that the residence halls were ready for their returning occupants, to the Bringing Brockport Back team who planned and executed a visit from the Chancellor on Friday with less than 24 hours’ notice, as did the leadership of REOC. Many others have answered innumerable questions from parents and students via social media, email, or telephone calls as we prepared to welcome our students back. I know that faculty worked hard to ensure their students knew which of their classes were fully intact and face to face versus those which took an A/B or A/B/C schedule, and that our colleagues in Records and Registration found classrooms to fit most needs. I’m grateful to the deans’ offices and the Vice Provost’s office as well as the Academic Success Center and Residential Life for working together to solve student concerns, and to ensure that schedules were appropriate and in the right mode. All of this reminds me how invested our whole academic community is in ensuring that our students have a safe and successful semester.
The pandemic is certainly continuing to take a toll. Far fewer students registered and returned to campus than we had hoped, some because of financial concerns, others because of the desire to pursue a gap semester in the hopes that by this fall, we’ll be closer to the Fall 2019 environment than the Fall 2020 one. Others chose to return home and continue their studies virtually, and I’m grateful to our faculty for creating opportunities for some of our students to pursue their work fully on line, while also making sure that we had sufficient face-to-face classes for those who feel they learn best in this mode. Amongst the many frustrations of the pandemic, we have seen great initiative, creative new ways to instruct our students, and a real sense of community regarding how best we can find ways to support student success.
There is the risk that our lack of connection can lead to fragmentation, but I remain hopeful that we will continue to find innovative and creative ways to connect—to each other, to our students, and to the wider community. Those of you who have volunteered at pool testing have seen firsthand the sense of community that develops when you are able to see the students again in larger numbers, and to work alongside colleagues you haven’t seen much of over the last year. I know I have been happy to see people that I have only seen on Zoom calls or corresponded with over the last semester.
While there is joy in our return to campus, there are also hard things that lie ahead. The Provost outlined some of the tough factors we’ll be facing over the next several years in her return to campus address, including a large and growing budget gap. Her message reiterated and extended the messages that we’ve been articulating all year, from my opening convocation in the fall, where I addressed these problems head on, to our regular budget town hall and budget communications, to Joint Planning and Budget meetings and task force meetings that are seeking solutions to what now amounts to a $10 million gap.
What I wrote in my Fall convocation speech is even more true than it was then and I include it here as a reference point:
“The fiscal impact of COVID-19 has hit SUNY campuses at a time of already declining enrollment, due to demographic shifts that we have not been able to continue to counteract, and that means we have fewer and fewer resources to do the jobs we do. The likelihood is, our campus will shrink over the next few years, both in terms of our student numbers and in terms of the offices, departments and programs that support them. We’re fortunate that we have had a strong focus on our campus’s fiscal health over the last five years, and we proactively put in place a number of safeguards that stemmed the initial budget deficit problems we faced in 2015—but no one could have predicted what 2020 would bring, and faced with a global pandemic, our efforts have not been enough. We have reserves—thankfully, since so many campuses, both public and private, do not—but they will be depleted if we use a business-as-usual attitude. The next few years will not be business as usual. There will be fewer vacancies filled; fewer new initiatives funded; and fewer opportunities to travel or get off-campus professional development. That’s why our Joint Planning and Budget Committee instigated a task force over the summer and that’s why every spending decision will be scrutinized this year like no year before.”
It’s difficult to continue to reiterate this message, and I know that it is difficult to hear it. But history tells us that avoiding painful subjects leads to a worsening situation, and that we must be proactive in our approach to our fiscal situation. Each week, JPBC or its associated task force meets to review opportunities to make savings and ultimately to make recommendations to Cabinet. And each week, Cabinet meets to review COVID-19 expenditures, requisition requests, and our vacancies list. We meet to consider ways to combine positions or tasks, streamline processes, and review the budget projects that the JPBC task force is actively working on, including in relation to expenditures for travel, computer labs, and other areas. Most recently, Jim Wall, VP for Administration and Finance, has commenced a project to review all Other than Personal Services (OTPS) spending and recommend a division-by-division reduction of around 9%; as well as a review of all budgeted lines (including those currently vacant) to see where there are opportunities to makes the necessary budget cuts.
What a hard message to start the semester with—for those who have to hear it, and those who have to say it. But I am confident that together, we can find ways to reduce our expenditures until such point that our finances rebound. To give some examples of recent decisions made by Cabinet: we have made the hard decision to drop our national memberships of the Council of Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA); the American Council on Education (ACE); and the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), decreasing our annual institutional membership costs by almost $25,000. We also made a collective decision that we would not seek temporary staffing to back fill a current executive assistant vacancy that supports one of the VPs, and we are scrutinizing and reducing every element of our OTPS funds. Projects like managed print services are helping across campus—as are projects related to lease vs. buy for vehicles, space utilization, energy savings projects, and a review of our computer purchase processes. This hard work will continue for the foreseeable future, and it will mean that greater scrutiny of expenses will be the norm going forward. That’s not because of a lack of trust or a desire to centralize decision making; it is a necessary outcome of the fiscal straits under which we are operating.
It can be disheartening to hear this, and I understand that individuals may feel powerless as a result. But there are things we can do individually and collectively. We can continue to support our students, connecting them to the resources we have on campus, and showing them that we care about their futures and their success; sometimes the smallest gesture means the difference between a student leaving campus for good or staying and working through their struggles. The loss of 100 students means a loss of $1 million to our campus, which is why both recruitment and retention remain a strong part of all of our plans for fiscal health. And we each have a part to play in supporting student success.
We can continue to suggest innovative solutions to long standing problems, through the Get Rid of Silly Stuff (GROSS) project or with suggestions to JPBC about avenues to explore for fiscal savings. Streamlining our processes and reducing duplication of effort has to be key to our future.
We can continue to explore ways to reduce expenses at each level of the college. This is not about not feeling pain: budget cuts are painful. This is about each area of campus taking part in discussions about that pain, and being invested in helping to find solutions. Please, have conversations in your departments, your schools, your offices, and your divisions. The solutions are not easy, but they are better arrived at when we have the involvement of our wider community.
Later this week I will be writing to you again to outline the progress the campus has made on issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion, and this will continue to be a regular part of my monthly emails. Mr. Jim Wall and I will endeavor to keep you updated about our budget on a more regular basis, likely through The Daily Eagle and our continued town halls. And I will be gathering with faculty in separate meetings this spring in a virtual format to continue these discussions collectively. Finally, my open office hours continue, and will be announced in The Daily Eagle, or you can contact me through Hey Heidi or via firstname.lastname@example.org. The volume of emails the office is currently receiving is higher now than any previous academic year, so please be patient if it takes a little while to respond to your queries.
As I close this already too long email, please know that your work on campus is truly appreciated. It’s hard work, and it’s hard to do it during a pandemic. Many of you have dependents, either children or elders that you care for; sometimes you have both. That makes time and energy precious commodities as well. So during all of this, do please take care of yourselves, and avail yourselves of all of the resources that are out there to support employees, such as EAP. Talk to your chair, supervisor, or HR if you have concerns about your workload. And of course, please keep practicing all of the things that keep us safe during the pandemic: social distancing, masking, frequent handwashing, and disinfecting surfaces.
We are fortunate to be part of a larger system: SUNY. And with that relationship comes other responsibilities. This semester we will be testing everyone who comes to campus every week. We will be implementing the SUNY universal masking policy. And there may be other policy adjustments led by SUNY that we will implement as they are unveiled. The Chancellor visited REOC to highlight auto enrollment in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits for students in NY State attending SUNY’s Free Online Training Center, EOC, or ATTAIN Labs. He then visited Brockport on Friday afternoon, and he was impressed by our testing process in SERC, our plans to be a vaccine site, and our commitment to the safe delivery of instruction and extra-curricular activities this spring. He knows—and I know—that together, we will Protect the Nest.