Leaders offer forward vision for college at opening assembly

By: Mark Tarnacki

Saint Michael’s College has established a prudently cautious but innovative and optimistic “culture of change” in these challenging times for colleges, the college’s president and its top trustee both said during their 2014 Opening Assembly talks in McCarthy Recital Hall on the afternoon of August 29 – Move-In Day for new students.

The whole community has appreciated the work of new Vice President for Enrollment and Marketing Sarah Kelly in bringing in a class of more than 600 new students, including transfers, bucking all expert predictions of hard times for colleges, particularly in the Northeast, said President Jack Neuhauser. “At a time when very few colleges had good fortune, we’re very grateful,” he said.

Yet strategically, Neuhauser still believes the college will do best to become modestly and temporarily smaller in coming years in order to increase selectivity, improve finances and optimally develop programs, before gradually returning to about the college’s current size. Simply larger classes will not assure financial strength for Saint Michael’s, he said, unless the discount rate for each student can be reduced substantially, since net tuition per student has remained flat or decreased for the past 8 years.

These are financially volatile times for all colleges, said William Gallagher, who is serving in his last of four years as Chair of the Board of Trustees. He and Neuhauser each addressed assembled faculty and staff, with the president noting that  “some 31 individuals have joined us since we last convened at assembly.” Those new faculty and staff stood to be welcomed with applause. Neuhauser made special mention of the new Superior General for the Society of Saint Edmund, Fr. Steven Hornat.

Gallagher shared numbers from several important reports in recent months and years about the climate for colleges, showing pressures from growth even as revenue remains stifled by affordability concerns among families and steep competition for students driven by inescapable demographic statistics showing a sustained decline of 18-year old prospects. One in 10 colleges is in acute financial distress, he said.

“The best survivors adapt to change in this atmosphere,” Gallagher said,  and Saint Michael’s has shown adaptability as with this past summer’s Accelerated Summer College, “a risky investment and creative initiative” that was “an exciting test of a model using online resources while maintaining a vision for faculty mentoring” – to quote the words of Vice President for Academic Affairs Karen Talentino.

“We’ve shown willingness to do what’s needed,” he said, through purposeful and enhanced practices in admissions, including greater faculty participation in admissions recruiting, which he lauded. He also made special note of efforts from cabinet leaders to improve energy efficiency with a big investment in lighting improvements in major buildings. Gallagher said he also was excited to report that, pending receipt of state certification, “We will be installing a 150-kilowatt solar field on land across Route 15 that will be operational by year’s end.”

He further said that the expansion and regular use of St. Anne’s Shrine in Isle LaMotte, enhancements of the Study Abroad Office, along with greater supports for international students, a better Learning Management System for students and professors to use in classes and the creation of a new position to recruit veterans funded by alumni donations were all examples of the college’s vibrant “culture of change” even while preserving “core values” amid fiscal prudence, including a now “stable” Moody’s credit rating for Saint Michael’s. “We’re first and foremost a service organization,” Gallagher said.

President Neuhauser began his remarks by praising the Facilities Department for the painting, repairing and patching they have done all summer to make campus look so beautiful, including complete repair of fire-damaged townhouses from last year and the beginnings of a new organic garden down the bank from the presidential residence and observatory. Also repaired this summer was a Colchester sewage main line that ruptured as commencement began last spring, requiring lots of digging and noisy work this summer --  but it’s done, he said.

He noted the college is “well launched on a process to make us a tobacco-free campus this year” but more planning and training is still needed. Other important initiatives are a new diversity initiative sponsored by the Burlington Community and Economic Development Office, and emergency preparedness training for more administrators and staff to “mitigate risk in many domains.”

This year also will bring the start of a new strategic plan as the cycle ends from the last one with essentially all its goals realized. He wants the new process to look different this time, with 5 to 7 small groups of individuals --  maybe 3 to 5 members each -- tackling “less expansive, more focused projects” rather than “one large grand plan with many committees.” The groups will be populated by representatives or constituencies most affected by each given area: curriculum, enrollment, student life, mission, faculty development, etc...

Despite this year’s large class, Neuhauser said, he still thinks “modest and temporary reduction in size will be good for the college.” He said the college’s long- term health depends fundamentally on its academic reputation among families and students, which can be driven by greater selectivity in admissions. Smaller classes allow that, and also allow greater economic, geographic and ethnic diversity that are key goals for the college.

 “We need and deserve to be optimistic and adhere strongly to the centrality of liberal arts in all we do,”  he said, noting that undertaking a strategy of shrinking the college could “easily give rise to frenetic dysfunction” otherwise.  “The cautious part is easy,’ he said. “That hard part is to set our dreams on a high mark that will ultimately cause us to flourish” in every way.

The president said his  “honest assessment is that our future is very bright  thanks to the people in this room.” That’s important considering that “We  help determine the future of 2,000 young people each and every year,” he said.

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