Dear Laurentian Friends*:
Last year, I received a thoughtful and still memorable note from an alumnus who took me to task for being too candid about the operational status of St. Lawrence in the context of the Great Recession. I had given explanation in a community letter to our necessary and difficult decisions about the University’s budget.
He said, in effect, he didn’t want this kind of news from St. Lawrence—pleading that he be spared the details, even though he understood St. Lawrence could not claim an exemption from the global economic crisis and recession. He had his reasons and they were actually reasonable. He wrote that, for him—over the last 25 years of his life since college—whenever he was stressed, worried, or anguished, he thought back to his campus days when such feelings had not yet formed, at least not with the weight and burden he came to know later in life. St. Lawrence, in his mind, was a kind of sanctuary, escape, or shelter when life got tough—and he didn’t want it to be spoiled by knowing that life could even be tough at St. Lawrence—for its President, Board, Faculty or Staff.
I completely understand this perspective and recognize it in my own personal terms—“The mind is its own place,” says Milton in Paradise Lost.
Long before English was a language, Homer wrote of places in the mind that Ulysses escaped to in his dreams—Ithaca or Troy—and an even earlier writer in Egypt speaks of a journey “as when a man desires to see home.”
All the great literary and religious traditions express this aspect of human psychology. Shakespeare opens The Merchant of Venice with the concept of seeking “a trusted place.” Theologians in the West may submit that the two greatest words in Greek are τοπον ὑμιν (topon humin) “a place for you”: – Zion, Jerusalem – and pushing east, Mecca, the Ganges, and Angkor Wat. The idea of a garden in the wilderness was central to the Universalist founders of St. Lawrence.
St. Lawrence is and has been “a place for you” —holding memories, giving each a sense of belonging, keeping traditions alive, and leaving untouched the touchstones of wisdom, human values, and a penetrating decency. And yet, St. Lawrence cannot be “a place for you” as J. M. Barrie’s "Never Never Land" would offer. Let me, therefore, burnish, not diminish, St. Lawrence as “a place for you,” for us all with a few observations about our work, our vision and our program, that keeps our alma mater ever the same and ever new.
A strong vision appreciates what is firmly anchored, considers the shared experiences and histories all of those who constitute the college community and takes time to see what could be if its full potential is reached. Presidents are the midwives, not the mothers, of the ideas making up a vision. And presidents who are historians use their training to read the sources of the culture and build upon that narrative.
At St. Lawrence, the text of our core story reveals a shared, collaborative planning process. Our success is in knowing and celebrating our ability to work together, forming and maintaining relationships that encourage candid and respectful discussions. Laurentians know how to be on a team, we know how to make connections, we know that friendships matter. Our vision must include belief in and expression of this special trait.
Together, then, we have tackled two years of “recession response” to position St. Lawrence for a secure and strong future. Here’s what we learned and what we value:
- We are transparent with facts and evidence.
- We have a strong sense of identity.
- We want to be a great St. Lawrence, not a second-rate Amherst or Williams College.
- We have “buckets” of new ideas.
- We are building a large audience for our work. Alumni pride is strong, growing, and our potential to harness that pride is tremendous.
- We honor principles of planning and governance drawn from our original mission—that the flicker of candlelight in the wilderness is our Polaris.
Emerging from two faculty-staff task groups in 2009-2010 (to reduce expenses in response to the recession) and 2010-2011 (to imagine the optimal size and structure of the University), whose work was enhanced with discussions with students, alumni, parents, and trustees, here’s what we have accomplished:
- Continue to adjust to effects of economic recession, with $5 million budget reduction, for balanced operating FY11 budget and plans for balanced operating FY12 budget, with a plan for long-term financial sustainability being developed through campus-wide process. Financial and operational equilibrium is doable over the next few years.
- Launched process to identify optimum curricular and administrative staff structure, informed by market research project and by our economic environment.
- Completed Momentum St. Lawrence comprehensive campaign, raising $172.1 million, the largest total in St. Lawrence’s history.
- Endowment market value at $242 million as of April 30, a 22% annual return.
- Introduced new exempt employee health care plan to avoid cost increases that would have added $1 million to the University’s budget deficit, while adding a Wellness Program for employees.
- Razed the old bookstore and old health center in fulfillment of the last Campus Master Plan.
- Opened new music performance hall. Recent guest artists described the hall as “playing like a Stradivarius.”
- Renovated and opened Java Coffeehouse for student bands to perform and social space.
- Replaced artificial turf field and built a new spectator stadium for North Country Field.
- Renovated and opened new football team locker room.
- Completed the Climate Action Plan for carbon neutrality by 2040 and received approval from all governance groups, including the Board of Trustees at its May meeting.
- Reduced our University’s carbon footprint this year to lowest levels in 6 years.
- Announced new off-campus program, the New York City Semester, and reassigned staff to assure success.
- Announced new articulation agreement with NYU, to facilitate a second bachelor’s degree in nursing and master’s degree studies in nursing.
- Announced new combined major in environmental studies and mathematics.
- Hosted conferences on climate change and the study of China.
- Funded over 100 students to conduct research with a faculty partner.
Management and Enrollment
- Recruited from national searches two senior leadership positions, Vice President for Communications and Vice President for Admissions and Financial Aid.
- Expect one of the largest (over 7% larger than last year) and the strongest classes of matriculants ever. The Class of 2015 will have 13% of its members from the North Country, 10.5% of its members representing US diversity and 5.5% representing other nations.
- Realized highest first-year retention rate and highest six-year graduation rate in 20 years.
- Received and analyzed market research results and developed new financial aid plan with a national firm, Hardwick Day.
- Sponsored 20 forums this academic year to listen and to express perspective on key strategic issues.
- Introduced the Innovation Grants program, awards to seed new ideas for campus life improvements. With $50,000 available in two proposal rounds, we received 51 proposals from 96 faculty, staff and students and funded 17 proposals.
From the collaborative work that involved faculty, staff, students and the Alumni Council, and with the accomplishments of the past two years, we are developing a shared vision and I see emerging themes for St. Lawrence’s future:
- Affording the opportunity: with new creativity and new dimensions of the discussion, we need to work to make St. Lawrence affordable for new students and for those about to graduate. Could we imagine, for example, a loan forgiveness program if graduates remain in the area and work at regional schools, hospitals or non-profits for a period of time?
- Enhancing the liberal arts education: what experiential learning opportunities and guarantees might we imagine and how can we encourage faculty leadership in this?
- Green is the third school color: we have an ethos that supports sustainability and a love of the outdoors.
- We build lives of consequence: once our students become alumni, we need to continue to serve their evolving needs and help them find new ways of giving back to SLU and to the world.
- We need to explore potential new states of being a Laurentian, not just on campus: can we have off-campus institutes?
Can we have more 4 + 1 programs? Can we develop programs that confer second bachelor’s degrees? Can we develop new articulation agreements, such as the new program in nursing with NYU? Can we consider niche graduate programs, such as environmental ethics?
This summer, we will convene a Strategic Mapping Council of faculty, staff, students, alumni, community, and trustees to develop a succinct, visionary strategic map that will be the topic of campus and alumni dialog in September. Our goal is to present a new Strategic Plan (or “map”) to the Board of Trustees at its October 2011 meeting.
With this strategic map, we begin to shape St. Lawrence’s secure and growing future, a shared vision that must be promising, ambitious, and reachable. The Strategic Map also informs the development of a new Campus Master (Facilities) Plan and fundraising priorities. The work, then, will shape St. Lawrence’s next decade.
This generally describes this place, “this place for you.” The Chinese have a wonderful saying: “If human beings take no thought about what is distant, they will find sorrow near at hand.” Our St. Lawrence is simultaneously vivid now and as a distant place.
Perhaps more homespun from my days in Missouri, this “place for you” draws us together in one bundle of past and future. Burt Lancaster’s character in the film A Field of Dreams expresses what we are thinking: “when a place has touched you, the wind is never again cold.” That’s what I want to tell my correspondent who keeps St. Lawrence as a sacred memory. We have felt the heavy, cold wind of tough issues and challenges, but we’ve also been touched in even deeper ways by this place. And we will see it through. St. Lawrence abides, I assure you, as “a place for you.”
William L. Fox
*This letter originated as a speech delivered at Reunion in early June.