Roadmap to Financial Sustainability
Below is the text of President Kolison's presentation to campus December 6, 2023:
Good afternoon. Thank you for joining us for this important presentation. I would like to begin by recognizing our guests today ... thanks for being here and for your support. To our faculty, students, and others from our campus community who have taken time from their day to be here, I want to thank you for your commitment to Fredonia’s mission, academic excellence, and the future of our university.
For nearly 200 years, SUNY Fredonia has stood as a critical institution of higher education, directly serving our community, New York State, and this great nation. Our roots were planted as a teaching college, and throughout evolutions that brought us a world-renowned School of Music, internationally accredited School of Business, and diverse College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, we have always provided our students with an intellectually challenging education in a supportive and nurturing environment. And we have done it here in one of the most beautiful corners of New York State, on a campus that has recently seen significant renovations of our academic buildings, including Rockefeller Arts Center, the Science Center, and most recently, Houghton Hall - all in the name of providing students with the best learning environment and tools they need for success. Whether it is the recent 35-million-dollar renovation that connected Houghton Hall and the Science Center to create a true STEM corridor on campus, or improvements and upgrades to our programs and experiential learning opportunities, students have what they need to gain valuable experience inside and outside the traditional classroom, allowing them to fully embrace both their majors and their life’s passions.
And embrace them they have. Our alumni are educators in elementary, middle school, high school, and college classrooms across the country. They are scientists making significant discoveries and developing new technologies at prestigious universities and companies like Moog, Eli Lilly, Cal Berkeley, and IBM. They are performing on Broadway, at the Met, and in beautiful theaters and arts facilities around the world. They have been nominated for - and are winning - GRAMMY awards. And they are community leaders, making a difference, in towns and cities large and small.
Regardless of the current profession of any of these graduates, there is an educator - if not a full department of educators - who was central in guiding them to graduation and mastery of their course of study. The SUNY Fredonia faculty is where our true strength as a university lies. They, and all of you, invest in our students not just as learners, but as young people preparing to make a positive impact on the world. Our faculty truly embody our mission to “educate, challenge, and inspire students to become skilled, connected, creative, and responsible global citizens and professionals.”
Beyond the academic impact we have made for nearly two centuries, this university has always been a resilient and vibrant economic engine for Fredonia and beyond. Statewide, Fredonia’s economic impact is estimated at $330 million. Nearly half the total statewide impact - $157 million - is concentrated here in the local Fredonia-Dunkirk community. This University has - and will always continue to be - a vital asset.
I state these items to you, because it is important that we reflect on all of them as we prepare to move into our third century. Recognizing our accomplishments is not only how we carry on proud traditions, but it provides the groundwork to chart a course for continued evolution that will lead to another century of academic and community excellence.
Evolution is how we meet both the needs of today’s students and anticipate the needs of tomorrow’s students as the world changes around us. Simply put, if we can’t adapt to those changes, we’re risking our future. Please allow me to repeat this: The world is changing. U.S. Higher Education is changing. If we fail to adapt to these changes, we will be risking and squandering our future.
Over the past 10 to 15 years, several trends have emerged in higher education that I know most - if not all of you - have been following closely. Most important, downward enrollment trends nationally have resulted in higher competition to recruit or attract students.
Population trends tell the story. In New York, while census data shows that the overall population of the state grew from 2010 to 2020, almost 95% of that growth was in the 65 and over demographic. Meanwhile, the “25 and younger” population fell by nearly 260,000. This competition over a smaller base of college-bound students has contributed to our enrollment being down around 40-percent since Fall 2015. Because tuition is the single largest source of direct revenue for our campus, enrollment declines have contributed to financial challenges that have led to the structural deficit we have been grappling with for more than a decade.
In short, our base expenditures simply far outweigh our revenues. I believe you will agree that this is not sustainable.
This is something I have discussed in detail with the campus on multiple occasions since arriving here three years ago. We have adjusted our aspirational operational budgets, pared down projected spending where we could and made some hard choices through attrition and staff realignment. Recently, New York State delivered $2.8 million in additional ongoing operating funding for the 2023-24 fiscal year, representing a 25-percent increase in direct state tax support. Despite those efforts, the structural deficit has remained and unfortunately grew. As I stand before you today, our remaining deficit after applying one-time monies and non-planning revenues, and some changes that we have made, is about $10 million.
Again, this is a situation that is unsustainable. One of the four major priorities of our new strategic plan, True Blue Transformation, is financial sustainability. The plan recognizes that ensuring a brighter future is tied to a solid financial foundation. We have struggled under this situation far too long and the time has come to deal with this structural deficit. I do not believe we have any other reliable or predictable alternative but to act now and close the structural deficit. And how we act - in the best interest of our students, community and the future of our institution - will be defined by a roadmap that adjusts our spending while also magnifying our strengths and identifying areas of growth.
I want to be very clear at the outset that eliminating the structural deficit does not mean that we simply slash our operating budget or expenditures by the deficit amount. Nor, is there one-shot funding that can paper over our structural budgetary issues.
Over the past several months, my Cabinet has had dialogue with financial experts at SUNY and our shared governance leaders. Thus, working with my cabinet, we have developed a roadmap to financial stability and a brighter future for input from the campus community. This roadmap focuses on three pillars: Revenue Generation, Strategic Reductions in Expenditures, and Efficiency Enhancements. No one single pillar is the antidote for the challenges we face. Hence, all three pillars must be carried out in concert to right this ship without delay.
Let’s talk first about the first pillar: growth and revenue generation. We must optimize our enrollment by proactively adjusting our academic array to be more responsive to what students, parents, and the economy demand. Doing so will enable us to attract more students, but I want to be clear that this does not mean sacrificing our core mission.
This is not a new concept for us. We have done it right here in Fredonia before. It is how a teaching college has evolved into the diverse university we have today. And we are currently in the process of bringing on additional new programs that students and their future employers are hungry for. For example, according to the New York State Office of Strategic Workforce Development, growing sectors include biotech and life sciences, renewable energies, and electronics. Accordingly, we plan to add several new programs, such as the Master’s program in Clinical Mental Health Counseling, which will enroll its first cohort in the Spring 2024 semester. Just yesterday, we received authorization from the SUNY Board of Trustees to confer Master of Business Administration degrees. Our proposal for an MBA in Accounting will now move forward with the expectation of first offering that degree in Fall 2024.
Our enrollment target is to grow to approximately 3400 students by the Fall of 2026. We believe this goal is realistic and achievable because this is what the best universities do; regularly review and adjust their offerings to meet student demand. From the nation’s largest institutions to the smallest, strategically reviewing academic programs, their respective enrollments, and market trends on a regular basis, then making the necessary adjustments, is commonplace and best practice.
We are looking at other growth strategies tied to enrollment. Our fundraising efforts, such as the recently-launched Bicentennial Fund, are strategically aimed at making access to, and completion of a Fredonia degree more affordable.
The second pillar in our roadmap revolves around expenditure reductions. SUNY Fredonia, while investing strategically, has taken significant steps in recent years to reduce expenditures including staff reductions, leaving vacancies unfilled, and reducing spending on things like travel, and other non personnel expenditures. We will continue to evaluate all areas across campus and look for opportunities to realize year-over-year savings.
For months, the Provost’s Office utilized data-driven evidence to identify struggling programs. The office also engaged with campus shared governance leadership in dialogue regarding the criteria used. Based on that work by the Provost’s office, and reviewed by the President’s Cabinet, we arrived at 13 programs that we will be recommending for discontinuation. Those programs are:
B.A. Visual Arts and New Media, Art History
B.A. French: Adolescence Education
B.S. Industrial Management
B.S. Mathematics: Middle Childhood Specialist (grades 5-9)
B.A. Spanish: Adolescence Education
B.F.A. Visual Arts and New Media, Ceramics
B.F.A. Visual Arts and New Media, Photography
B.F.A. Visual Arts New Media, Sculpture
B.S.Ed. Early Childhood (Birth - Grade 2)
I want to be clear about what this means and what it does not. While these programs would be discontinued within the appropriate time frame, current students will have every opportunity to complete their degree and graduate from SUNY Fredonia.
I also want to make it clear that inclusion on this list does NOT reflect poorly on that program’s quality or its dedicated faculty and staff. As needed and as appropriate, courses in many of these areas will still be available to SUNY Fredonia students even after the major is no longer offered.
But low enrollment in these programs speaks volumes about what our students want and need from us in terms of academic majors. These 13 programs represent 15% of all majors at Fredonia, but yet currently have a combined enrollment of 74 students. That equals just over 2% of the undergraduate student population, with a third of those 74 students set to graduate this spring.
While our plan will involve the elimination of positions as we align our offerings with enrollment, we are committed to supporting our employees throughout the process. Projecting exact reductions and savings is not yet possible, however, due to uncertainties in retirements and attrition through the next few years. However, Fredonia will carefully follow all contractual and civil service rules as we implement this roadmap.
You may recall that in 2018, several degree programs were identified by SUNY Fredonia for potential discontinuation. While the university did not follow through at that time, it is important to note that through an independent process, the 13 programs being recommended today closely align with the programs identified back then.
To ensure that Fredonia’s academic array is positioned for future success, the Provost’s Office has been deeply engaged with our partners in shared governance to assess the relative health of our academic programs. Going forward, the program health process that we have initiated will occur on a regular schedule as part of our institutional assessment, to ensure all of our academic programs at SUNY Fredonia are strong and relevant.
One question I was asked recently: “Does SUNY Fredonia have a hiring freeze?” The answer is an emphatic “no.” As I communicated last summer, we will continue to scrutinize all hiring requests and prioritize hiring in the following areas:
- Health and safety of the campus community;
- Student recruitment and retention including required leadership of those areas, and;
- Faculty in areas of demonstrated high-need and high enrollment.
However, at this time, we believe that a blanket hiring freeze would undermine our efforts to grow in strategic areas.
The third pillar revolves around enhancing efficiencies that lead to savings in operations. The leveraging of technology will be key to enhancing operational efficiencies and improving business processes. For example, we are actively exploring emerging AI opportunities in recruitment and retention to augment and streamline our efforts. We are investing in software to enhance and simplify complex processes, aiming to address and reduce inefficiencies in key operational areas. We entered into a consortium agreement with several SUNY comprehensive universities in 2021, and we will work with those institutions to explore shared services. We will also examine office structures internally to see how we can maximize synergy. These are just a few examples, with more being developed.
There is strategic planning work underway for athletics. As a part of this work, we will look at our membership in our current athletic conference in terms of cost effectiveness. Given our location in this part of New York State, our student-athletes and coaches must travel long distances to compete, thus incurring high travel costs.
Faculty, staff, students, friends, and guests, I have presented to you a vision for our university. Let me reiterate that this vision ensures a brighter future for Fredonia predicated on growth and investment. This vision is about positioning the university to be more responsive and more relevant. It is about securing a solid place in higher education as we enter our third century. It is about ensuring that this region continues to benefit from having access to a world-class higher education institution and all the socioeconomic benefits it generates. It is about doubling-down on providing our students high quality and valuable educational experiences. It will take everyone of us to realize this vision. I cannot overstate the need for your support in this endeavor.
I know that you will have questions. So, we will have a page on the President’s website later with information, including a page with the most common questions. I will share the link to that webpage later today. The Provost's Office will be in touch directly with students later today to explain next steps, including an information session being planned for this week for students enrolled in the impacted programs. This information session will further explain how we will support them in completing their degrees.
Furthermore, during the next several weeks, we will continue to engage with shared governance leadership about these recommendations. We will also create a way for the campus community to provide feedback on these recommendations.
Fredonia’s history is impressive; its future is promising. Unlike small private universities that have been forced to close, we are fortunate to be part of an extensive and successful university system. I am pleased to share with you that SUNY administrators, including the Chancellor and trustees, have pledged their full support to this roadmap to a brighter future.
There is no doubt we have challenges ahead. But with challenges come opportunities. That is where we are. We are setting the course for SUNY Fredonia going forward. Together, we can write the next chapter in Fredonia’s long and storied history. While these are all extremely difficult things to achieve, I believe we are up to the task of achieving them.
I know this is difficult and painful for many people in our community. I know and I feel pain as well. As we journey together on this path, let me tell you what I have told our graduates during the last two commencement exercises: Our journey together to address these challenges should be and will be guided by these values - E-Dig; Empathy, Dignity, Integrity, and Grace. I look forward to doing so with you.
Thank you. God bless you, and God bless SUNY Fredonia.