Fall Community Letter - December 2, 2009

 

Dear Laurentian Friends,

Maps of the North Country exist in multiple versions. As a new North Country citizen, I am the glad recipient of a half -dozen different maps of county roads, hiking trails, and bike routes.  Some even show the Conrail tracks, the original New York Central line that in its heyday carried St. Lawrence students at the rate of a penny per mile; alternatively, other maps emphasize the local camp sites, golf courses, and boat launches as if our Canton exists solely for the pleasures of gentler recreation.

Clearly then, it takes more than one mapmaker to chart the community’s complex story crowded upon the same coordinates.  A University of Chicago historian in the 1970s developed a landmark approach to comparative cultural studies based on the carefully chosen premise of philosopher Albert Korzybski: “map is not territory.” In other words, even well-known places are never fully mapped by just one drawing.

By these terms, St. Lawrence University occupies an expansive territory. Much of it can surely be located on a North Country map or even a New York State atlas. But how does St. Lawrence in Nairobi, London, Shanghai, Rouen, or Chiangmai get expressed? How do the 44 home countries of our international students on campus fit on a map of the northeast states? They also come to us from Poland, Pakistan, and South Africa.

***

St. Lawrence is a significantly different place from the campus map I knew as a student. It finds itself and defines itself in the 21st century, as an importer and exporter of people and their ways. Our presence in Kenya today has two parts, first as a historic direction for sending American university students there before anyone else did and now accompanied by the foresight of recruiting young people from Kenya and the region to live and learn the map of the North Country. We continue to seek paths not yet on anyone else’s map, which our extraordinary Francophone program does every spring (St. Lawrence students experience three geographically different French-speaking cultures when they study sequentially in Quebec City, Rouen, and Dakar).

St. Lawrence is on the national map in so many ways.  My classmate, Maine’s Senator Susan 
Collins ’75, returned to campus as a participant in the Inauguration as keynote speaker for the installation ceremony.  In her remarks to a Gunnison Chapel audience, Senator Collins described 
St. Lawrence as a beacon for the nation: “…if I were to name the single greatest strength of St. Lawrence University, it would be the powerful sense of community here. Regardless of their specific field of study, Laurentians learn a common language of conduct and character.  They develop the common skills of respect for other points of view and appreciation of different perspectives...  That is the beauty of a liberal arts education.”

Skills of respect for other points of view are much in demand in every dimension of our lives, perhaps no more so than with politics, as Senator Collins knows and exemplifies. We in the North Country were in the national political spotlight recently because of a special election to choose a new representative from New York’s 23rd Congressional district. Reports from North Country Public Radio, whose license is owned by St. Lawrence University with the Canton call letters WSLU, were regular features on “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered,” each serving a national listening audience that exceeds the total of daily viewers counted by all cable and network television news organizations. St. Lawrence professors were frequently interviewed for news analysis and our students witnessed a living case study in national politics that will continue to be discussed for years.

Our athletic teams and individual students put us on the big map from time to time. In late November, our men’s and women’s cross country teams were invited to compete in the NCAA National Finals (Division III) at Baldwin-Wallace College near Cleveland. The men placed 11th in the nation as a team and junior Dan Ramsay finished fourth. Our women’s cross country team placed second in the NCAA finals. And there is even more good news.

Wendy Pavlus ’11 took first in the nation winning her race by an extraordinary lead of 17 seconds. She grew up in Tupper Lake, New York, and has put the North Country and her college on the national map as only few Laurentians have ever done. There is tremendous pride in these several achievements, but I also hasten to note the cross country team’s cumulative grade-point average is over 3.4 (actually, the total student-athlete GPA at St. Lawrence is a very respectable 3.0), which also demonstrates championship talent. I met Chelsea Nuffer ’10, the captain of this amazing cross country team, over the summer when she interned in our Communications office. She continues as the producer and host of the weekly StudentViews videos on our Web site, on our Facebook site and on YouTube.  She is another North Country native from Castorland, New York, putting St. Lawrence on the virtual map, too. 

These report items, naturally, invite a wider question—how else is St. Lawrence known on the national map? We enjoy an outstanding reputation, consistently placing us in the lists and rankings of the best liberal arts colleges in America; and our alumni have fanned out all over the world to make their own success a happy reflection upon St. Lawrence. And yet, the competition for top students and the best teachers does not rest on past assumptions for long. In fact, I want us to test a recurring observation—that St. Lawrence is much better, even superior by comparison to well-known colleges, than many people today may realize.

Consequently, one of the major initiatives of the current year will be a comprehensive market research project to be organized and completed by a national firm, in consultation with key standing committees on campus, such as ISAC (Institutional Strategy and Assessment Committee). St. Lawrence has not conducted this kind of survey in more than a dozen years; it will also serve as the foundation for a long-range strategic planning process we hope to begin in the fall of 2010. We have fundamental questions to address (again) as every era must constantly ask: What will students expect? Do we have what they value and need? Will they believe the St. Lawrence experience is worth it?

***

The St. Lawrence territory that is regional and local brings the mapping exercise to the point of discussing the financial landscape. The other side of the economy’s historic recession may be called “the new norm,” which means that higher education, among many business sectors, will not be the same again. The dials will be reset and many campuses will operate differently. Many already have put into place significant operating cost reductions, delays in building projects, salary freezes, and limited or halted personnel searches. St. Lawrence’s financial situation is different only in degree, not in kind. Our outlook for the current year forecasts a deficit that we are working hard and with good will to reduce through innumerable economies; our operating budget for the next five years will give way in very large dimensions unless we plan now and take action soon. To address this financial reality, fourteen members of the faculty and staff have been asked to work as the “Recession Response and Planning Task Group” to gather findings based on budget history and University data; and to make recommendations.  Their charge is to undertake the effort in ways that will “strengthen, not unravel, the fabric of the community through respectful, informative, and wise campus discussions.”

The Task Group has sponsored numerous meetings throughout campus for students, faculty, and staff. Hundreds of ideas were submitted. I also met in an afternoon assembly open to all faculty and staff members in mid-October to take questions and will be inviting similar meetings in the next several months to keep the campus community informed and hear thoughts and further ideas. The Recession Response and Planning Task Group will submit its report to me at the end of the semester.

After I and the senior staff have had time to review the recommendations, our next step will be to formulate budget plans, policies, and priorities in consultation with the Board of Trustees. This round commences in January and will be an important part of the Board’s February meeting agenda. We will continue to listen carefully, reflect deeply, and communicate frequently with the campus community, University committees, and the Faculty Council.

***

We undoubtedly face some very difficult decisions that can easily be glimpsed and imagined by the general map of American higher education today. Among several sensitive topics that we must carefully examine with our trustees is the question of St. Lawrence’s tuition and comprehensive fees for next year, which is, of course, coupled with our impressive commitment to financial aid availability (more than 80% of our current students benefit from these finite resources). Put differently, all three of our major revenue streams—funds contributed, income from endowment earnings, and net student fees—are producing less.  Our spending needs, most particularly for financial aid, are increasing. The lines of operating resources perhaps once resembled the elasticity of a bungee cord, but in the truth of the moment, they seem to have little play in them for being simultaneously taut and contracted.

Fortunately, as with the economy, the situation has stabilized.  St. Lawrence donor support remains strong, but the current pace of our annual giving and Momentum Campaign correlate, as you would expect, with individual portfolios and the general up-and-down patterns of the stock market. Momentum St. Lawrence has just passed the 75% mark, with $154 million raised toward our goal of $200 million. Our endowment values have returned to the waterline above $200 million, still a long way from the high of $270 million. Our current St. Lawrence families, in spite of their own anxieties, are staying with us; even as loan money tightens (our first-year to sophomore retention rate has now risen to the category of excellence at 92%).  

Strong retention, and its consequent impact on residence life, is one of the factors that encouraged the Board of Trustees to approve the renovation of the second floor of 21 Romoda Drive (now the Arts Annex and formerly the Pi Phi house) for student housing, beginning fall 2010.  Faculty offices that now occupy that space will move into an expansion of Griffiths Hall now under way. Fall 2010 also will see the opening of Peterson-Kermani Performance Hall, in the location of the former Gilbert Recital Hall, thanks to a generous gift from Karen Kermani Peterson, of Horseheads, NY, in honor of her late husband, Donald Peterson ’62. Donald Peterson had a life-long appreciation of music, especially classical music, and following his death, Karen Peterson gave his extensive music library and audio equipment to the University. While an undergraduate, Donald Peterson was a roommate of Karen Peterson's brother, Peter Kermani ’62.

What happens this year in recruiting the Class of 2014 is yet a matter of caution. Our applications for the first round of Early Decision admittance are on par with our best recent years. It is too soon to tell, however, what effect the economy will have on this year’s total applicant pool. We have been going full throttle in our efforts on the road this fall and constantly hear that our campus visit experience for prospective students is one of the best on the circuit.

About the job market for current St. Lawrence students, I find encouragement from recent data reported inBusinessWeek (December 7, 2009) that while there were 15 million people in the U.S. without jobs this fall, there were also 2.5 million job openings in September that employers were actively trying to fill. Labor economists and recruiters suggest that this discrepancy represents a mismatch between worker skills and employer needs. Much of higher education is falling short in preparing students for the 21st century workplace. The argument for a liberal education, however, tightens in its power because it secures the most adaptable, productive, versatile, confident, and enterprising graduates for our society and workforce; this compelling record is also strengthening the high value proposition of a 
St. Lawrence education.

***

This is not a time for superficial optimism. And it is definitely out of place to entertain thoughts of a morbid, even sophisticated, pessimism. Rather, it is a moment of a particular paradox—getting stronger in circumstances that seem threatening, undercutting, and even unfair. I have said throughout the semester, from remarks at Convocation to thoughts expressed at Inauguration, that St. Lawrence already knows a history of success over adversity and that through its own creative energy and spirit of sacrifice the better way will clear and our best days will lay ahead of us. Watching how our community has recently responded to an intense week-long outbreak of H1N1 flu-like illness with 180 students requiring isolation and special care is the latest example of doing whatever it takes to get them and ourselves through it all.

The founders and builders of St. Lawrence traced and marked all the pleasant lines of a beautiful campus; they dug wells of inspiration for us that run deep. In the work ahead, we have an opportunity, not yet on the map, to discover something new about ourselves. All the facts we have to address do not preclude the ultimate optimism I hold about our special Laurentian feeling of place. It’s on the map of our hearts.

Lynn joins me in sending our good cheer for holiday joy wherever you live or go.

Sincerely,

William L. Fox
President