Plymouth State University: Partnership in Action

March 9th, 2011 by Bridget
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State of the University Address
President Sara Jayne Steen
Plymouth State University
9 March 2011

Good afternoon and welcome. I appreciate the opportunity to address you. This year has been and will continue to be a challenging one, as we manage the effects of global, national, and state economic issues and face the uncertainty of potential reductions in state support and in federal financial aid for our neediest students. I am grateful to you for coming together as a campus and employing our intellectual resources on issues from energy efficiency to wellness and more. That spirit of community and mission will be needed if PSU is to continue to respond creatively and nimbly to rapidly changing needs and opportunities, some of which may require difficult adjustments. That strong spirit also is why, despite the financial realities, Plymouth State University continues to thrive. Our students are succeeding at the highest levels, guided by talented and energetic faculty and staff mentors; new academic programs have been developed, and two deans, Gail Mears and Cynthia Vascak, have been selected to guide and support newly formed colleges. Innovation flourishes across the campus. A new building has opened, and others are being remodeled to accommodate evolving technologies and better serve students. And PSU is receiving recognition for engaged partnerships that are helping to sustain us.

This autumn, we had a number of firsts for the new Eugene and Joan Savage Welcome Center and Hanaway Rink—the first phase of the Active Living, Learning, and Wellness (ALLWell) Center. Campus and community members enjoyed synchronized skating demonstrations and cheered as former University System of New Hampshire trustee Merle Schotanus and Health and Human Performance department chair Linda Levy dropped the first pucks for the men’s and women’s opening hockey games. Alums even shed a few tears as they heard, “And now, for the first time on home ice, the Plymouth State University Panthers.” Students have established new traditions. New courses in ice sports are being offered, as is a new major in Sports Management: students in Eileen Bennett’s Sports Marketing class hosted the Bruins Alumni to a sell-out crowd, raising thousands of dollars for a local charity. Ice ArenaAthletic training students led a workshop for area emergency medical technicians on spine boarding and helmet removal on ice that is being emulated elsewhere in the country. The facility is enhancing opportunities for healthy activity for the campus and the community; approximately 400 children attended a Skate with Santa, and 200 area youth come to Teen Nights each Friday. An independent economic development report projected that increased visitation will mean 17 new ongoing jobs in the region and $2.3 million per year for the community. And the facility already has earned national recognition, with magazine cover stories on environmental sustainability and on the combination of an ice rink with a welcome center designed to introduce visitors not only to PSU but also to Plymouth and Holderness, to the Lakes Region and the North Country of New Hampshire. Many, many people across this University and our host communities have worked to make this achievement possible. Thank you to all.

This facility is one example of an innovative, integrated, strategically planned project that advances the University in multiple aspects of its mission and illustrates partnership in action, one of today’s central themes. The building was funded by a combination of student fees; revenues through its operations; and sponsors, donors, and grants, including New Hampshire Community Development Finance Authority tax credits that encouraged public-private partnerships. Area businesses have joined us, as have alumni and community members, with leadership from the President’s Council and University Advancement. (As I speak, I hear Laure Morris, interim director of University Advancement, reminding us that Seats and Lockers are available for naming, and dollars for programming needed.) And successful partnerships encourage more partnerships. The proximity of the Savage Welcome Center was a reason for the Plymouth Regional Chamber of Commerce to locate nearby, offering additional opportunities for students, especially those in the new Professional Sales Leadership program. The Small Business Institute and the College of Business Administration have announced a partnership with the Grafton County Economic Development Council in which the Council will purchase a nearby building for a business incubator and accelerator, with academic leadership from PSU. The Enterprise Center at Plymouth, as it is being named, will develop businesses, many of which are likely to locate here, and undergraduate and graduate students also will benefit through applied hands-on learning.

Similarly, the Hanaway Rink is one among PSU’s wellness initiatives, and we already are planning for ALLWell’s next phase. In addition, a Healthy PSU project led by Steve Barba, executive director of University Relations, and Barb McCahan, director of the Center for Active Living and Healthy Communities, is working with Speare Memorial Hospital and the local medical community on health care efficiencies, coordinating with the Wellness Works committee co-chaired by Wendy Burnham (Wellness Center) and Karen Schaffner (Human Resources). The Center for Active Living and Healthy Communities is bringing students to the study of rural health, to learn about small towns and, for example, their obstacles to active living—even in New Hampshire, with its emphasis on outdoor activity. Under the leadership of Provost Julie Bernier and Frost School Dean Nancy Betchart, PSU has been approved to add the Bachelor of Science degree in Nursing, a significant contribution to health care in the region, with encouragement from area hospitals and medical centers whose professionals will support clinical training for students. And in 2010, PSU received a grant of $1.5 million from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) through NIH’s IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence for projects led by faculty members Chris Chabot, Katie Rose Boissonneault, and Marjorie King involving biological clocks, toxin production, and the risk of falls in older adults, all with student participation in the research.

Another recent initiative is the White Mountains Institute, an interdisciplinary project involving ecology, history, tourism, art, and culture that is being developed by people across campus, with support from across the region. The Institute will involve coursework, research, and partnerships and is especially appropriate for a campus at the gates of the White Mountains. Last year PSU received from the late Daniel Noel an extraordinary founding collection for a planned Museum of the White Mountains. That Museum will be located on Highland Street, and Catherine Amidon will become its director. The first related exhibit, “As Time Passes over the Land,” is a temporary display at the University’s Karl Drerup Art Gallery of historic White Mountain art, with pieces on loan from private collectors and with a catalog essay by PSU hydrologist Mark Green and historian Marcia Schmidt Blaine. The White Mountains Institute is leading efforts to create a summer White Mountains Hostel program, and the Center for Rural Partnerships, in combination with other collaborators, is coordinating the related 2011 centennial celebration of the Weeks Act, in which New Hampshire led the nation in conservation through the federal act that established the White Mountain National Forest.

As we consider the past year, vibrant images come to mind. As part of PSU’s sustainability efforts, students at EcoHouse partnered this summer with the Plymouth Area Renewable Energy Initiative to design and install a solar thermal system at their residence located at the traffic circle on Main Street in Plymouth. EcoHouse brings together environmental sustainability with historic preservation to allow students to become leaders in “green” residential living and to teach others about it. Students also made the national Recyclemania program a PSU residence hall success. In November, PSU undergraduates lined the alumni green with thousands of luminous flags, each of which represented 800 Pakistanis displaced by floods, in a fundraiser to support PSU alums of the federally funded Pakistani Educational Leadership Project. This past summer, as members of that graduate institute were preparing to return to Pakistan, floods devastated the country. During International Week, undergraduate students led by Bryan Funk and Sam Wisel took time to raise consciousness about their Pakistani colleagues. Those of you who walked alumni green know how moving the experience was. A few weeks ago, the student Diversity Fellows, in combination with the Office of Residence Life, the S.A.G.E. Center, and the New Hampshire Inter-Tribal Native American Council, hosted a Veterans Powwow, bringing hundreds of people from across the region to gather in honor of Native American veterans. Each of these initiatives in sustainability, internationalization, and diversity demonstrated strong student leadership.

On all levels, recent accomplishments of PSU students, staff, and faculty are impressive. Here are a few samples:

  • Undergraduate Brian Pevear (Meteorology) was the overall first-place winner among undergraduate and graduate students, professors, and professional meteorologists in a nationwide weather forecasting competition. Graduate student Alexander Jacques also finished in the top 16 of nearly 2,000 participants. Jacques is finishing his master’s degree, doing research on lightning strikes that already is of interest to Kennedy Space Center.
  • Tori Cash (Social Work) was named New Hampshire’s Student Social Worker of the Year based on her leadership and wide range of activities exemplifying PSU’s motto, Ut prosim (That I may serve).
  • Senior Daniel Brevik (Music, Theatre, and Dance) won the People’s Choice Award in the national American Traditions Vocal Competition in Savannah and placed first in his age division at a recent Song and Aria Festival in Boston.
  • Eight students attended the World Model UN Conference in Taipei, with more than 1800 students from around the world. Kendra Bumpus (Political Science) received the Best Delegate Award for her work in debating global health policy.
  • Professors Stephen Gorin and Cynthia Moniz (Social Work) were invited participants to the Social Work Congress held in Washington, DC. The congress was sponsored by 12 leading national organizations to establish 10 imperatives for the profession.
  • Sports Information Director Kent Cherrington was awarded the Irving T. Marsh Service Bureau Award by the Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference Sports Information Directors Association; Barbara Rawlsky-Willett, women’s tennis coach, was honored by the NH Interscholastic Athletic Association; and Jim Aguiar, assistant wrestling coach, was inducted into the Maine Amateur Wrestling Alliance Hall of Fame.
  • Kerry Keating, associate director of the Hartman Union, was selected as the Outstanding Mid Level Professional for a region comprising New England, the Maritime Provinces, and Europe by the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators.
  • Senior Cecilia Leonard-Popescu (Graphic Design) created the environmentally conscious logo selected by the North Country Council and the North Country RideShare Advisory Committee in their design competition to promote NH RideShare.
  • Gail Mears, chair of the Counselor Education and School Psychology department, received the 2010 Presidential Service Award of the American Mental Health Counselors Association; Pat Cantor, professor of Education, was named one of the Early Learning NH 2010 Champions at the Excellence in Child Care Awards Ceremony; and Dan Lee and Vedrun Lelas, professors of Business, have implemented an online North Country Economic Index that is the first such index for a small rural county in America.
  • Graduate student Angie Miller, a Holderness Central School teacher who involves her students in community service projects, is New Hampshire’s 2011 Teacher of the Year. She graduated in 2002 from PSU with a Bachelor of Arts in English. Alumnus Chris Belmont last spring was named the 2010 Massachusetts Association of Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance Teacher of the Year.

Through these samples of recognition run the themes of service and academic engagement. One of the highlights of this autumn was that PSU was recognized by the Carnegie Foundation with its Community Engagement Classification, making PSU one of only 311 institutions, out of approximately 4,500 nationwide, that have applied for and received that designation. The classification indicates that teaching, learning, and research are done in “collaboration between institutions of higher education and their larger communities (local, regional/state, national, global) for the mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge and resources in a context of partnership and reciprocity.” PSU’s Carnegie application process was led by Daniel Moore, Julie Bernier, Steve Barba, Scott Mantie, Linda Dauer, and members of the PSU Service Learning Task Force. I am grateful for their good work, as I am for that of the many people at PSU who are bringing higher education to bear on behalf of people, culture, the environment, the economy, and communities. I am grateful as well for those who partner with us. Last year, PSU students contributed approximately 220,400 hours to service, and that is a number of which to be enormously proud. Senior Kelly Donovan wrote this week about PSU service:

I wanted to let you know how grateful I am to attend a university that is dedicated to service learning. … In my years here at PSU, I have had the opportunity to connect with professionals both locally and internationally. … It is rare to find an institution that has such a passion for the students, and confirms that choosing to attend PSU was one of the best decisions I have made. … I am confident that PSU students will continue to do great work across the globe!

Think also of PSU’s leadership, through faculty members Pat Cantor and Mary Cornish, of the Tillotson Trust’s Early Childhood Development Initiative for North Country children under the age of 6; of PSU’s partnerships with the K–12 schools through the PSU Education Department’s cohort program and through workshops with teachers conducted by faculty from Education, Environmental Science and Policy, and the College of Graduate Studies on earth system science; of the Educational Theatre Collaborative’s production of Peter Pan and the TIGER programs involving children and their learning and wellbeing; of the Operating Staff’s holiday Festival of Trees that brings the community together and raises thousands of dollars for student scholarships; of the Community Service Center that connects students with opportunities for local, national, and international service; of the Center for the Environment’s collaborative work on behalf of water quality on Squam and Newfound Lakes; of the Center for Rural Partnerships and Institute for New Hampshire Studies course projects in which students are learning while helping area schools, businesses, and non-profit organizations. This is what it means to live the mission of a regional, comprehensive university: to offer exciting opportunities for engaged learning that also make a difference. PSU is, as Steve Barba often phrases it, higher education working on the ground.

Despite the occasional theoretical allure of the medieval university removed from society and devoted to scholarly contemplation, I have never believed that good universities are ivory towers set apart, above the fray. Certainly that is not true today, when technology is changing the way that education is offered, when the social contract for public higher education is threatening to unravel ever more quickly from the effects of a global economic recession, and when innovation, collaboration, and partnership will be increasingly important if we are to fulfill our mission, because, quite simply, none of us can do it alone. The future of higher education will not be a slightly updated version of today. Higher education is linked with economic stability and even prosperity, but higher education also will require alliances, and people at PSU are actively creating them. PSU is collaborating with the NH Community College System to provide access and transferability for New Hampshire residents; offering online programs across the globe and in partnership, from Shanghai to Romania and Antigua; and collaborating with schools, businesses, and non-profit organizations. Partnerships at PSU are made with care; and working better together, both on campus and with external partners, allows us to shape our future and enhance our students’ futures as well as to serve.

It has never been more clear that the University is integrated with society than during the recent recession. Working together, we have achieved balanced budgets in a difficult economy. The Division of Finance and Administration, led by Vice President Steve Taksar, developed approximately 75 budget models last year, and both the cabinet and the Planning and Budgeting Leadership Group (PBLG) have been actively involved in cost containment and revenue enhancement. Careful stewardship long has been integral to the University’s management. For example, we have employed energy efficiencies, slowed reclassifications, left positions vacant, and reduced non-personnel operating budgets. We have been leaders in sustainability. We also have invested carefully in focused projects that enhance the University, such as new and remodeled facilities, new academic programs, or the collaboration across admissions, IT, and university relations to enhance our web presence and effectively employ social media; and investment in the University is crucial if we are to prepare for a future that looks different than today. Faculty members have developed a calling program, personally connecting with potential students and their families. People across campus have submitted ideas through PSU-great-ideas@plymouth.edu.

This autumn, we saw the largest applicant pool of first-year students in PSU’s history, in spite of declining numbers of high school graduates in New England, and that is a credit to many people. Students continue to be attracted by PSU’s friendly campus atmosphere in a wonderful New England community—and I offer special thanks to physical plant employees who keep the campus beautiful and safe even when snow turns to sleet—and by strong academic programs, thanks to PSU’s outstanding faculty and staff. According to Vice President Rick Barth, that level of academic excellence is the number one predictor of potential student interest.

In order for everyone to understand the fiscal steps the campus is taking this spring, I want to provide some background. Our budget is based in student tuition (approximately 70 percent) and state appropriation (approximately 13 percent); the rest comes from varied sources. Anything that affects our students’ ability to attend or our state appropriation, then, impacts our budget and planning. This year, there are an unusual number of uncertainties, both for us and for our students.

First, the state is in deficit, struggling like most states across the country, and predicting lowered revenues. The Governor made his budget recommendations and held USNH’s state appropriation to 95 percent of its current $100 million, or $95 million per year of the biennium, and we are grateful for that support. The NH House and Senate have yet to make their recommendations. This is a difficult time for the state, as you well understand; and we will not know our actual level of state funding until June.

Compounding the uncertainty is a potential reduction in federal funding for students to attend college. The US House of Representatives has passed a bill that would substantially lower Pell grants, which aid needy undergraduates, and eliminate other programs on which students rely. Forty percent of our undergraduates this year are first-generation college students, and theirs are the families most apt to be harmed because they have fewer resources. To help qualified students who have need, we have increased financial aid by 12 percent, 14 percent, and now a projected 27 percent over the last three budget cycles. The campus remains committed to supporting students, and will increase funding for financial aid as much as possible within our limits. Like many of you, I am first-generation college and know first-hand what education has meant. The Office of University Advancement is asking friends and alumni to help our students now with direct scholarship support.

At the same time, some costs have risen substantially, such as increases in employee health care of nearly 10 percent per year over the decade—costs that cannot be sustained. As a result, the Board of Trustees engaged a firm to explore options for reducing costs in ways least damaging to employees so that we remain an employer of choice. Many of you participated in a survey to determine what most matters to you. With that information, the Board of Trustees set guidelines for reduction and has asked campuses to determine the best ways to reach those goals. Those discussions will proceed under the leadership of the System Personnel and Policy Committee and the Office of Human Resources, working closely with constituency speakers and welfare committees. All benefitted employees share the same plan, so all will be affected.  Please join your colleagues in upcoming meetings.

In addition, I have asked that the campus Planning and Budgeting Leadership Group begin discussions to prepare for a range of potential cost-saving alternatives that would coincide with the FY12 budget. The cabinet and I do so not because we anticipate any specific level of reduction but precisely because of the uncertainty. We want the campus to have adequate time to develop thoughtful responses to a range of potential changes.

As always at PSU, we will put people first—students and employees. Students succeed because of the extraordinary commitment of faculty and staff, including PSU’s excellent adjunct faculty and staff. No one can promise that there will never be layoffs, but they would be a last resort. In the meantime, communication will be regular, and we will be transparent and open. There may be difficult decisions over the next year, and we will make them. In doing so, we will draw on everyone’s creativity. But there will be an economic recovery, and while we think of the short-term issues of balancing the budget and helping students enter and remain in school, we also are focused on long-term goals, on investing in our mission, on advancing PSU’s depth, quality, and dreams.  We will emerge an even stronger and more focused institution, continuing to work in partnership with our region.

Similar pressures with regard to the state and federal budget reductions also will impact our host communities, as costs are returned to them, and we want to communicate regularly about how we work with the leadership in Plymouth and Holderness to keep our communities vibrant. We will do our best to be good neighbors. We benefit from living in a beautiful area where residents work on behalf of students and where alliances are strong and mutually beneficial.

Much has been accomplished this year. The National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) review team has just left campus, and I would like to thank the teacher certification faculty, and the leadership of Irene Cucina and the Office of Teacher Certification, for three years of hard work in preparation for the visit. The Office of Online Education completed a transition to Moodle and Mahara, a transition that was well researched and thoughtfully executed, and online growth will be an important strategic priority and opportunity for PSU. Among other important academic initiatives is a curricular review to improve students’ time-to-degree, which could increase the graduation rate and reduce students’ loan indebtedness. We already have made strides; we need to do more.

Next year we will continue to prepare for the overall institutional review scheduled for 2013 with the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC). This is an important process, and the campus team, led by Nancy Betchart, will be asking many of you to provide information and help with assessment. And, even though it was only last year that we examined our mid-plan progress on our strategic plan, the PBLG is preparing to begin the next strategic planning process, asking what we do well, how we can improve, and how we envision PSU evolving to meet the needs of future students in a rapidly changing world. More information on this process will follow in upcoming months.

As many of you know, I often like to close with stories that illustrate something about PSU. During a question-and-answer period at a reception in Massachusetts hosted by a member of the President’s Council two weeks ago, an alum asked what PSU does on behalf of students who, like her some years ago, are “without two nickels to rub together.” All of us talked at length about some of what we have discussed here today—potential reductions in state and federal support, campus increases in financial aid, the Imagine A Way campaign and the pressing need for scholarships, and what faculty and staff members quietly do each day to ensure student success, which is the heart of our mission. The alums began to speak of their experiences as students, of those who had helped them—one recalled a former faculty member who one semester even helped pay her tuition—and of how, as alums, they pay that kindness forward. At a similar event in Washington, DC, this week, alum after alum spoke enthusiastically of the faculty members who had guided them, and finally one said, “I always thought that my experience as a student was unique. Now I know it is a part of the campus culture.” Commitment to students is a Plymouth State tradition.

Recently PSU received its third award in three years as a wonderful place to work, this one the NH Business Magazine award as one of the five best large employers in the state. Interim Human Resources Director Elaine Doell led the process, and PSU faculty and staff members met with a state team and talked with passion about students, about commitment, about respect, about community. What binds us is a belief that people matter, that education can transform lives, that collaboration and service are active verbs, and that the value of education is well beyond the cost.

Thank you for being part of this community, for sharing that belief, and for allowing me to be part of the enterprise with you.

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