State of the University Address, February 6, 2020

President Richard J. Helldobler

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Good afternoon everyone. Thank you for coming. We’re going to start things off witha pop quiz!

No pencils needed.

Instead, I’d like you all to please stand up. On the count of three, I want everyone to point to the north. One, two, three…and freeze. Now, without dropping your arm,  look around.

So this is just a simple illustration of what is really a complex point. Individually, I’m sure we’re all reasonably confident that we are headed toward the common goal of successfully retaining, educating and graduating our students.

But when we see how that really looks –well, it’s clear that we all need to recalibrate our collective GPS.

The need for recalibration couldn’t be more evident when we look at our latest enrollment and retention numbers. Overall, our spring enrollment fell short of our goal by 2.6 percent, leaving us with a projected $1.5 million budget deficit based on what we had predicted. All of which means we have a lot of work to do to begin to stabilize our enrollments so that we can, in turn, stabilize our budget.  While we basically met our new enrollment goals for the spring semester, we are down continuing students by 234, or 2.7 percent. These are mostly full-time students, which has a larger impact on the budget.

There is some good news on enrollment, so let’s celebrate the fact that we exceeded our new transfer, freshmen, readmit, and second degree enrollment goals for the spring. Full-time International undergraduate students are also up over last year, so our investment in hiring someone in international enrollment is paying off. These are no small accomplishments; let’s congratulate the admissions folks on a job well done, and give them a hand!

We know some of the reasons, like Will.Power. 101, which is showing  some modest but encouraging gains as a result. We have a 1.8 percent increase in our fall-to-spring first-year student retention rate over the previous year. The number of first-year students earning 12 or more credits has increased from the previous fall, and their overall GPA showed small increases. Also, in developmental Math 1060, for example, the pass rate jumped from an historic average of 32 percent to 59 percent this fall. That’s huge!

What we’re hearing with regard to the impact on student cohesion and engagement is also encouraging. At Pizza with the President last semester, for example, a student told me there were some positive things about the new First-Year Experience, but that he wanted more freedom of choice. We talked more about what that would look like, and when he realized it would require breaking up his cohort, he put up his hand and cried, “Oh no! These are my friends. I want them with me!” So the cohorting is having the desired impact. But much more remains to be done.

The hiring and travel freezes that I announced two weeks ago are necessary steps to treat the symptoms, namely the current $1.5 million budget deficit. And we should all be fully aware that if we don’t take these steps and if the enrollment and retention numbers for next year don’t trend in the right direction, we will need to make more cuts—and these may mean jobs.

So, the really important work for the future of this University is to confront the underlying causes of these shortfalls. If we do not, sadly, it will mean more drastic choices in the near term. But I know we can change. And I hope that we’ll all work together so that it doesn’t come down to making those drastic changes.

I’ve said all along that change is rarely easy. More often, it’s really hard. And the circumstances we are in now impose real difficulties on our people and departments. I know that, and I want you all to know that these steps were only taken after serious deliberation and consultation. And that they are being taken because they are in the best interest of this University and our important mission to serve our students.

Look, you know I wear my love for this place on my sleeve, and I’m going to do whatever I can to make it thrive. And I know that we have everything we need to do that. We have talented, dedicated people, including everyone in this room today. All we need is the will and a way. And those are the things we’re going to talk about here today.

If you want to learn more about where we are with enrollment and budget matters, I encourage you to attend the Enrollment and Budget Forum scheduled for March 12 at 12:30 p.m. in the Library Auditorium. Vice Presidents Ross and Bolyai will have lots of data and analysis to share, as well as more to say about how things are trending.

So, last fall on this stage, I talked a lot about KPIs, the 17 Key Performance Indicators that the Cabinet and I adopted to gauge our progress across our most critical measures of success. You’ll recall that on some KPIs, we met or even exceeded our goals. On others, including some of the most important ones, like certain categories of enrollment and retention, we fell short.

So, today, I want to talk in some detail about how we are going to take those KPIs that are currently in the “goal-not-met” column and move them into the “goal-met” column. And also how we will make sure that those already in that column stay there and improve even further.

But first, I want to mention some news that reflects well on our efforts to date on our accountability measures. In the fall, William Paterson received a Best Practices Award from the Commerce and Industry Association of New Jersey for our implementation of the KPI system. So congratulations to all of you for this well-deserved honor, which recognizes our commitment to making William Paterson a better university. Give yourselves a round of applause!

So, with the goal of making progress on our KPIs, we convened a series of summits, each one focused on a critical area of University operations that directly impacts student success. Those were: Course Scheduling, Advisement, the Transfer Experience, Enrollment, and Retention. I want to take a moment to thank each and every one of you who participated in, contributed to, or supported these summits in any way.

One of the most difficult steps toward changing and improving what we do and how we do it is to take an honest, warts-and-all look at ourselves. But it’s also the most necessary step. I don’t know about you, but one of the things that made me fall in love with William Paterson is that we do a lot of things very well. We should—and we do—regularly celebrate our people and our successes. And, of course, celebrate our students.

But if we stop there, if we fail to shine a light on the inner workings of every level at which our University operates, we miss critical opportunities to improve what we do and, in turn, improve our students’ prospects for success. So, that’s really what the summits were designed to do, and I am encouraged by the openness, enthusiasm, and determination that everybody brought to the task. As a result of their good work, we have a series of next-steps that we are going to act upon. 

Now, as our computer science and IT folks know, a critical job in web or app development is the UX, or user experience, designer. They are the ones who make sure that the people for whom a complex system is being designed can actually use it and find their way to what they need.

We need to think like UX designers when looking at how students and prospective students encounter the complex system that is William Paterson University. For those of us working inside the system, the logic of its workings can seem so obvious that we don’t even think about it or question it. But if we put ourselves in the shoes of our students and prospective students, we see that it’s not always obvious. And sometimes, frankly, it doesn’t even make sense to us.  

The pioneering computer scientist Grace Murray Hopper said, “The most dangerous phrase in the language is ‘We’ve always done it this way.’” So, where there are things we do that don’t make sense from a student’s perspective or where we’re not even sure, ourselves, why we do them—well, those are the things that need to change.

So—the Summit Meetings. By taking a 360-degree view of the landscape, we can get a clear sense of the obstacles to success. Most importantly, we can begin to see ways around those obstacles.

I have talked a lot about changing systems, and  I will continue to hammer away at this theme because it is fundamental to so much of what we hope to accomplish—what we must accomplish—what WE WILL accomplish TOGETHER as a University community. Our summits focused on data, processes, practices, and—my favorite—systems! Our goal was to look at these with a fresh, collective viewpoint and pick one to three data points that we would like to improve and then identify next steps for our success. 

Clearly, the obstacles we identified were not designed as such. Practically, they may have been what was best for the University as a whole at the time. Realistically, however, let’s admit that many were designed  for the convenience of people other than our students or were designed for the student population of an earlier era. That needs to change.

As I said in my January 24 enrollment and budget message, we need to make changes that: 1) make us more efficient, 2) result in new sources of revenue, and 3) do whatever’s necessary to remove the obstacles to student success, so that we can enroll, retain, and graduate more students.

So, what, exactly am I talking about? Let’s start with the Course Scheduling Summit. Course scheduling is actually a great first example of the challenges and opportunities that come with rethinking systems because it’s an incredibly complex job. 

Now, I am always confounded when people use PowerPoint and put up a slide, and the first thing they say is, “I know you can’t read this but...” Well, obviously I’m breaking my own rule with this slide, which visually demonstrates what it takes to get a course into the schedule. And the fact that you can’t read it is kind of the point, because it’s a result of how complicated the process is.

So, a lot of moving parts that are important to making sure our students can take the classes they need, when they need them to graduate on time. And to ensuring that we are making the most efficient use of faculty time and classroom space. Here are some things that we think will help improve the process for our students.

We’re no longer going to automatically roll over the course schedule from one semester to the next. Instead, we’ll create a schedule that meets the students’ needs from the beginning. Reductions or additions based on enrollment changes will be made before the schedule is put out for final development and staffing.

We’re also going to look more closely at when individual courses are offered. If a required course with limited sections is always offered during the afternoon, how does that meet the needs of our evening students trying to complete their degree? 

By making adjustments for enrollment declines, new programs, or enrollment increases and knowing that the schedule meets the budget before it goes live, we will cause less heartache for everyone. To help us in that effort, we’re going to acquire course-scheduling software, which will allow the Registrar’s Office to automate much of this process and eliminate the millions of emails that is our current practice.

We’re also doubling down on the undergraduate scheduling grid and saying that THERE WILL BE NO DEVIATIONS. Because deviations produce ripple effects that have unintended consequences elsewhere in the system which can throw our students offdtrack. 

Similarly, with course caps, we will discuss what makes good academic and financial sense, and the Associate Provost working with the Deans will set class size. And once set, the course caps will be considered sacred.=

We’ll also look at the possibility of additional common hours, which would open up new opportunities for student activities, much-needed faculty and staff meeting times, and other events that enrich our collective experiences.

As you can imagine, this topic also came up at the Retention Summit. We want to know which 1000-level courses do especially well at retention so we can figure out why that is. Is it the subject? Is it the faculty member? Is it the classroom? The cohort? The teaching style? And then we can determine which of those factors can inform other courses, so they can raise their retention rates. 

Additionally, if the Department of Basket Weaving is knocking it out of the park in terms of retention in their 1000-level courses and Widget Making, not so much, we should add sections in Basket Weaving and reduce our requests from Widget Making.  Which will boost retention rates. 

As I’ve talked about elsewhere, we are discussing with the Faculty Senate a series of steps that faculty members in every 1000-level course section can take which we know, based on the literature and research, will help with retention. I’ve talked about these steps before, but as they’re really important, I’m going to quickly run through them again.

But before I do, I want to thank the Executive Committee of the Faculty Senate and recognize Chair Murli Natrajan and AFT President Sue Tardi. The Provost and I are working with this group of dedicated faculty leadership on a number of initiatives, including the now infamous five things, and I want to thank them for their good work. I also want to congratulate all AFT members on securing a well-deserved and long overdue contract.

Now, for those five steps: 

  1. Take regular attendance and make it count. Give points for attendance and enter it in Blackboard or Starfish. If advisors or Will.Power. 101 success coaches know if students are not attending, they can be allies.
  1. Include a graded assignment within the first three weeks of class and enter it in Blackboard. The sooner we have a means of assessing where students are individually, the sooner we can give extra attention to students who need it.
  1. Require all students to visit an academic support center to create good habits they’ll carry with them throughout their academic careers. 
  1. Require all students to attend the faulty members office hours during the semester, also to create good habits.
  1. Use Starfish, our early alert system, to connect students with support services like advisement, counseling, and other assistance.

We’ll also look at the ramifications of using only Open Educational Resources in 1000-level classes to help retention by reducing textbook costs. One study cited on our own library website for OER showed that 23 percent of students didn’t buy text books due to their high cost. We know that financial obstacles are huge for our students. We have to stop complaining about the cost of education and DO something about it.

Next up, the Advisement Summit. We are fortunate to have an excellent advisement operation staffed by dedicated professional advisors. The other parts of this equation are caring faculty advisors and, of course, the students themselves.

After all, advisement is not command-and-control. It’s providing advice and counsel. It requires willing and active participation on the part of the student. Our students are hungry for this guidance toward success. The Advisement Summit yielded a dozen next steps. I’ll summarize the main themes.

First, we need to clarify and improve the process for re-admitted students so they can be brought back as seamlessly as possible. We also want to clarify the roles and responsibilities of faculty advisors and how that function is assessed distinct from teaching. We will be working with the AFT on this.

We ask a lot of our Advisement staff, and we’re going to recognize their efforts by doing more to support them. So, one of our next steps is determining exactly how to best utilize the seven new lines that should be in place in May to support our professional advisement staff and the goal of better retention. We’ll also identify a support staff position for the Advisement Center.

Let’s turn to the Transfer Experience Summit. If a key priority is to increase enrollment and we know all too well the demographic challenges for traditional freshmen that confront us, then we have to put our best foot forward for every potential new student. When it comes to prospective transfer students, we know we can do better at smoothing their path to enrolling.

Whether they’re coming from a community or four-year college, they are looking to William Paterson for something that their previous institution could not provide. Whatever their specific reason, we must show them at every step of the way that we are the right place for them to continue their education and—most importantly—earn their degree.

We think one good way to do that right from the start is to create a centralized office for all transfer student matters, and thus a one-stop shop to combine transfer evaluations, the course articulation process, advising assignments, and other key transfer matters. If we do that in a way that students can get a decision within 48 hours, I know that we will enroll more transfer students who are better prepared to succeed from the moment they step on this campus.       

We also need to double down on dual-enrollment, two-plus-two, and three-plus-one programs. It’s just that simple. If we’re going to stabilize enrollment and then grow it from there, these initiatives will be critical.

"Why did you rob those banks, Mister Sutton?” “Because that’s where the money is.” You’ve all heard that one, right? Apparently invented by a reporter, yet it endures because it makes an obvious point. Why is dual-enrollment important? Because that’s where the students are! Why are two-plus-two and three-plus-one programs important? Because these, too, are where the students are.

We know that faculty have legitimate concerns. No one wants to give college credit for high school or community college courses that don’t achieve college-level learning outcomes. But we can control for that while growing programs that create a deeper relationship between the University and the student and increases the odds of students enrolling and graduating from here.  And while we will continue to consult with faculty on these matters, I want to be absolutely clear—we will be growing these two areas. 

We’re also looking at having our advisors physically present at community colleges on a regular schedule to enroll, advise, and register potential transfer students, starting with Passaic County Community College. I know this has contract implications, which we will work through as needed. 

As for the Enrollment Summit, the biggest next step to know about is that here—and everywhere, really—we are going to focus on the data. We have access to lots of it, but unless we use it to take action, it’s of no use. All VPs, deans, other senior administrators, and chairs have access to a wealth of real-time data, and they’ve been charged with regularly looking at it, analyzing it, and using it in their decision-making process.

In the case of deans, for example, we’re asking them to become much more involved in enrollment for their college—again taking action closer to where the students are. We want to take better advantage of their expertise to enroll and retain more students in their respective colleges. I have already instituted  weekly Enrollment Huddle-Ups, where I meet with senior administrators every Friday to look at the data and make any necessary course corrections. We are encouraging deans to have weekly huddle ups with chairs to look at which programs are growing or trailing in enrollment and retention trends.   

So, now that we’ve got students here, how do we make sure they stay and graduate? That was the central question of the Retention Summit and one that is absolutely vital to our future. Remember, retention is our number one goal. When we lose a student, the University and that student are losing an investment of time and resources that is difficult, and, tragically, in some cases impossible, to get back.

Look, sometimes it just doesn’t work out. The student and the University aren’t the right fit after all. Or circumstances arise that can’t be helped. But there are so many things that can be helped that are nevertheless causing our students to leave. These are the things we need to fix. Some of them fall under traditional categories like more timely, targeted academic intervention, and helping them develop a college financial plan. Others, however, will require us to try new things, new behaviors.

Our focus with Will. Power. 101 and the entire First-Year Experience must be getting our first-year retention rate to the goal of 72.5 percent. The wisdom of data-driven decision-making in cases like this becomes clear when we realize that the seemingly small difference between 71.5 percent and 72.5 percent represents about 22 students. That’s a classroom full of students who will stay enrolled and continue working toward their degree. Or who won’t. Let’s make sure they do. Let’s do so by recommitting ourselves to the success of the new First-Year Experience program and the evidence-backed principles upon which it is based, namely a more narrow range of choices, more time on task, more support and intervention, and cohorting.

We’re also looking at peer-to peer mentoring and other ways to better support students, including those who are struggling with early math and English courses so that difficulties in one area don’t derail entire college careers.

A lot of this work relies heavily on our professional and faculty advisors, so we are going to make sure that they are getting the support and training THEY need to be successful in this important effort.

Folks, we must be bold in our willingness to change, try new approaches, and test new ideas. The bedrock foundation that must underlay all prospective changes is the data around what we know works or isn’t working to increase student success and retention. If a strong case can be made that something will do that, let’s give it serious consideration. Let’s try it, assess it, and keep it if it works, or try something else if it does not yield the desired results.

Before we move on from retention, I want to talk specifically about some strategies to improve in this area that reach beyond just what happens here on campus.

If we think of the student experience as a series of concentric circles, we know that we’ve always been good at dealing with the one at the center—teaching the student in the classroom. We also have deep experience in the next circle out, which is advisement and academic support. So, too, student life, campus housing for residential students, student dining services, athletics, and so forth.

If we’re going to move the needle on retention, however, we’re going to have to move farther out and consider factors beyond the boundaries of our campus: a student’s home life, their family dynamics, their work commitments, financial pressures, and the many other factors that influence their ability to remain enrolled and ultimately graduate. 

Too many of our students don’t have the luxury of making their classes a priority every day of every semester, from enrollment to graduation. Some have unstable home lives. Some deal with food insecurity. Some struggle to find decent, affordable childcare so that they can come to class.

We all know students who are confronting these kinds of challenges, and we need to do everything we can to help them. One idea that we are looking at closely is hiring a social worker who can build on the good work of the Pioneer Pantry and other similar initiatives to provide help to our students who need it.

Also reaching beyond those inner circles, we’re looking at how we communicate with parents and guardians regarding mid-terms and finals, deadlines for financial aid, and other important milestones, so that we can fully engage them as partners in their students’ success.  The circles I mentioned, along with these additional supports, begin to provide a cocoon of care for our students who might be struggling, but who are nevertheless bright and capable.  

So far in the series of summits, each one has had a deep and narrow focus on the topic of the day. But, of course, nothing functions in isolation. Everything is part of an inter-connected whole, so the final Summit of Summits will take a birds-eye view of the grand system that is the day-to-day functioning of William Paterson University to see where there are connections among the road blocks that we’ve identified and the solutions that we’ve proposed.

Where something that’s working well in one area may, nonetheless, be the source of problems in another. We also want to make sure we don’t come up with solutions in isolation so we avoid creating more problems than we solve.  It will also act as a progress report on those items I have discussed this afternoon and others.  

While the Summit of Summits is still to come, I can peer into my magic eight ball—remember, I am the eighth president of William Paterson—and say to you right now with great confidence that the overarching outcome—the defining result of this whole process—is change. We have to change.

I know some of us are more comfortable with this than others. But I think that even those of us who recognize the need to change might be surprised by how quickly it needs to happen. The latest enrollment and retention numbers should erase any doubts about that. 

And yet, we can’t simply come up with some new ideas, put them into action, and then hope that they work. In his lecture on campus in December, Thomas Friedman pointed out that in today’s environment, with the persistent challenges of unpredictable funding and shifting demographics, change is constant. We are in an age of what Friedman calls “multiple accelerations.” So the changes we make in response—or even better, in anticipation—have to be constant and quick, as well.

How are we going to prepare ourselves and our University not just for changes in 2020, but ongoing and indefinite change? I think adopting a growth mindset will be key. A growth mindset is something we encourage in our students. The notion that they are not limited by fixed abilities or circumstances. That our students—through hard work and persistence—can accomplish more than they ever thought possible. That trying, making mistakes—and we’ve all made them—learning from those mistakes, and trying again will always yield better results than playing it safe or accepting their life circumstances. That’s why they are here. That’s why you are here.

Now, we need to encourage the growth mindset in ourselves, as individuals and as an institution. Any institution is only as effective as its people. The professional development initiative that we launched last year for faculty and staff  is a great platform for advancing our grasp of the growth mindset concept and helping us integrate it into the work we do.

Just how important is it? I’m sure many of you are familiar with the work of Carol Dweck, the Stanford psychologist and author of Mindset, the New Psychology of Success.

The book’s subtitle is, “How We Can Learn to Fulfill Our Potential.”At William Paterson, fulfilling potential in ourselves and our students is our central purpose. Dweck’s research has shown that “the view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life. It can determine whether you become the person you want to be and whether you accomplish the things you value.”

I want to share a brief video that goes further in making some important points on the Growth Mindset. Take a look.

So, the key takeaway is that most of us don’t have either a fixed or growth mindset. We’re a combination, depending on the task at hand. And bringing a growth mindset to our work—especially our work with students—is itself a continuous process. I want to share one more quote from Dweck, specifically about the growth mindset as it applies to education:

“Often when we see kids who aren’t learning well, we might feel frustrated or defensive, thinking it reflects on us as educators. It’s often tempting to not feel it is our fault. So we might say the [student] has a fixed mindset [AKA “academically underprepared”] without understanding instead that, as educators, it is our responsibility to create a context in which a growth mindset can flourish.”

I know that in many ways, this is far from a new concept. It’s fundamental to why so many of us got into education in the first place. The change that is possible when a student overcomes obstacles and self-doubt to realize their true potential is amazing. But it needs to happen for more of our students. It needs to happen for all of them.

One way we can help to create that context in which a growth mindset can flourish is to make sure that, even in the face of challenge and adversity, we take time to celebrate positive accomplishments and be more intentional in emphasizing what’s possible.   

I say this because I was struck by two programming events last year and this year that I think we should really ponder. I have spoken with the Vice President for Student Development about them. This time last year, during Black History Month, I attended a session led by Dr. James Alford, a professor from our College of Education, and Rogernelle Griffin, director of our Academic Success Center.  It was a great session, where a lot of heavy issues were discussed and handled very well.

Then, Dr. Alford said something that really made me think. He said something to the effect – and I’m paraphrasing the tenor of his remark – that he wondered why during Black History Month, there was not more discussion about Black icons and the many contributions and achievements that African Americans have made and less discussion about marginalization, oppression, and victimization.

Fast forward to the kick-off of LGBTQA celebrations and our keynote was the individual who ran the foundation FOUNDED after the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando.  As a gay man, I struggled to see how a presentation about the work of a foundation that came about through the shooting of LGBTQA people was a celebration of this population.  

One response I heard was, “Well, we let the students decide and that is what they want.”  Well, let’s think about that for a second. If you have been conditioned to be marginalized, oppressed, and a victim your entire life—isn’t that what you know? 

This work is not easy, but we must be more intentional about how we speak with, and talk about, our students.  And, more importantly, how we get them to speak about themselves.   And we will work on that starting with our summer professional development program and throughout next year. 

Now, I’ve covered a lot of ground, so I’m sure there are questions. I’ll take as many as I can in the time available. Dr. Bannister is going to be the time keeper. Come up to one of the mic stands on either side of the room.  Please introduce yourself, and ask one question only so we can get as many in as we can.  

If you have more than one question you can always attend Office Hours with the President.  

Before we end, I want to share a telling example of how even our most accomplished students are still internalizing—sometimes in very subtle but pernicious ways—the limitations that society imposes on them. The limitations that we must help them break through by working with the idea of a growth mindset.

At last semester’s annual Scholarship Dinner, a talented scholarship recipient addressed the audience. She is a first-generation student of immigrant parents who is shining in our Honors College. She is a campus leader and an all-around inspiration for all that she is achieving here at William Paterson.  

She spoke of her desire to be successful in business so that she can one day pay for her young siblings to go to college, following the path that she as a Pioneer is now blazing. She was smart, poised, and eloquent. And no one listening that night would have doubted for a moment that she WILL BE successful. And, yet, when she shared her career ambitions, she said, “I want to be a partner in an accounting firm.”

“I WANT to be a partner in an accounting firm.” Folks, if we were at an Ivy League or other elite college, I can tell you that the student standing at that lectern would probably have made a small but powerfully different choice of words. They would have said, “I WILL be a partner,” or, “I AM GOING TO BE a partner in an accounting firm.”

Whether because of privilege or because they’ve been taught the growth mindset or were blessed with it from birth, those students know that wanting something to happen can be the same thing as making it happen. Too often, our own students treat their career goals and life aspirations as wishes that they are putting out into the world in the hope that they will be fulfilled. And that is definitely something that needs to be changed.

This is where the good, hard work of this special place and all the special people who are part of our community changes lives. We move our students from I want to be” to “I WILL BE.” And that change comes about through Will.Power. 

Our students have tremendous ability and potential. But we know that’s not enough. It’s up to us to give all of our students the tools to realize their dreams. They are open and eager for all the wisdom and encouragement we can provide.

So, it’s on us to do everything in our power, fix what needs to be fixed, change what needs to be changed, and double down and resource what’s working to ensure that they get their shot. That they get their seat at the table. And what’s really cool is that we get to be their guides along the way.

If we are going to serve them well in that capacity, we need to make the necessary adjustments. We need to make sure we all have both our personal and institutional compasses calibrated to true north. So those of you who pointed in this direction, congratulations; you passed the pop quiz.  

As I have come to know many of you, I know your true north is to make our students successful. 

I want to leave you this afternoon with words and music from the late, great David Bowie. This, of course, is “Changes.” Thank you for your time. Have a great day and a great spring semester!