Opening Meeting, January 28, 2009

All across this nation, on campuses, in local government, in non-profits, in businesses and in families, we are facing an uncertain economic future.  Even if we haven’t been directly affected in our own pocketbooks by the recession, we know others who have.  We read the news; we observe. 

We’ve been hit here at WCSU — by our 3.4 percent budget reductions, by shortages of staff, especially among our administrative and clerical colleagues, resulting from the hiring freeze, and by decreases in operating and equipment budgets.  The question you probably have is:  How much worse will it get?

I don’t, at this point, know the answer to that question.  But let me share with you some thoughts about our situation.

First, I do think the state’s budget position will worsen — deficits will be the billions over the next two years.  Connecticut has a history of being late into and late out of economic downturns; we’re seeing that trend today.  This is compounded by what’s happened in the financial services industry and on Wall Street. That downturn is historical in  dimension and is having a significant impact on tax receipts.

I expect that we will be required to take between a 5 percent and 10 percent reduction in fiscal year 2010 in our state allocation, which accounts for 39 percent of our total $107 million budget.  That 5 percent would be $2.4 million; 10 percent, $4.8 million.  And 2011 may be even more challenging.  The governor’s budget presented today includes a 5 percent cut, which is good news, but we have a long way to go in what promises to be a complex political process in Hartford.

The sizes of these reductions, however, are but one of at least three important elements of the budget puzzle.  Two other important ones are enrollment numbers and tuition rates.  We have a sense, from all indicators, that our enrollment can grow.  Our cost/quality proposition is very attractive.  Tuition rates, will be a product of a political process that has just begun and will play out during the spring.  How these three moving parts — reductions, enrollment, and tuition — (and other variables as well) fit together will determine just how difficult the choices we will have to make will be.

I — and this university’s leadership team — remain committed to several principles as we proceed to make the decisions necessary to manage our future:

  • We will do everything we can to ensure that our students’ experience is not diminished by these financial challenges.  This may require us to rethink long-established practices and conventions. 
  • We will do everything within our power — on this campus, at this university — to avoid lay-offs.  We may be forced to curtail hiring further, but we will, I repeat, strive to keep this community together.
  • We will search for creative ways to continue the momentum we have achieved in implementing our Strategic Vision.  This, too, will require us all to think differently about how we accomplish our mission of educating the future citizenry and workforce of Connecticut.
  • We will actively seek to identify and implement new revenue sources consistent with our identity and vision to maintain this momentum.

As we pursue these principles, we will be facing uncertainties in the weeks and probably in the months ahead.  Permit me to suggest some more concrete actions we can take to manage these uncertainties (and also to maintain our own composure and equilibrium).  I encourage you to:

  • Continue to assess your environment, policies and practices to identify ways to decrease expenditures and increase efficiencies.  Send these to the WestConn$erv Team.  Little suggestions can add up — fiscal year 07/08 WCSU consumed 15,820,932 kilowatt hours of electricity, the equivalent of 1,000 single family homes in a year.  So turn off those computers and lights!
  • Think about possible new ways to generate revenue and send them to me or to your vice president.
  • Be willing to experiment.  Try new approaches.  Don’t fear failure.
  • Don’t be distracted by what may (or even probably will) happen.
  • And, above all, continue to be positive.  There are a myriad of reasons for doing so:
    1.  We enjoy in our environment here at WCSU much more job stability and budgetary flexibility than the majority of the American workforce does.
    2. We are a community that has been through worse; we have a history of supporting each other in difficult times.
    3. Others — our students, our community — are depending on us.  We cannot let them down.
    4. And this downturn will, eventually, end. 

      • Connecticut unemployment is now at 7.1 percent
      • Foreclosures in 2008 were up 71 percent over 2007
    • But:
      CT has the nation’s fourth-most educated workforce; the nation’s highest productivity; and has been rated the sixth-best prepared state for the “new economy.”

Those are fundamentals upon which we will build when this economic cycle turns upward.

Today, we are bombarded daily by scary, negative news.  We are implementing reductions in state travel, in hiring, in vehicle usage, and in spending of all kinds at all levels.  Rumors about special retirement plans, wage freezes and lay-offs abound.  This barrage, when added to daily news about corporate layoffs or a quick glimpse of your retirement account, can make one frightened, cynical or catatonic.  None of these, I would submit, is a good coping mechanism.

As a university, we could hunker down and crawl into a crouch — add no new students, hire no new colleagues, pursue no new programs, wait it out.  And if we did that, we would most certainly fail in our mission.

We would fail because what we do is too important.  Because, simply put, we create the future.

As Frank H.T. Rhodes, president of Cornell from 1977 to 1994 and one of higher education’s great statesmen, has written:

“The positive qualities universities seek to impart to their students are not simply cultural adornments to personal lives and professional careers; they are the basis of the future well-being of our society.  Neglect that, and all the administrative committees, research proposals, conference papers, and scholarly books in the world will not save us.”

And, perhaps even more importantly, we create hope for that future: 

Our undergraduate commencement speaker this May will be Jonathan Alter, senior editor of Newsweek and author of a number of books, among them the best-seller, “The Defining Moment:  FDR’s 100 Days and the Triumph of Hope.”  This book was required reading for the Obama transition team and provides messages for us as well. 

Alter describes how no one was better equipped in terms of resume and experience to lead in the Depression days of 1932 than Herbert Hoover, but how he could not inspire confidence or hope.  One observer famously noted that a “rose placed in his hand would wilt.”

On the other hand, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who Oliver Wendell Holmes famously observed had a “second-rate mind and a first-rate temperament,” was able to inspire hope through his own attitude and words, especially his 1933 inaugural address with the famous “we have nothing to fear but fear itself” line.  And he followed this up with the effective regular “fireside chats” that gave the nation hope that better days would return.  FDR created hope for the future.

Alter describes one notable example of how this played out on the night of the inaugural address, when Bing Crosby, then America’s most popular entertainer, was playing Loew’s Journal Square Theatre in Jersey City.  In the audience was a 17-year-old young man who decided then that he would try a career in music.  His name was Francis Albert Sinatra.

We in American higher education and here at WCSU do what FDR did for the young Sinatra.  We create hope for the future.  We are a vehicle for investment in the future.

Times will, I believe, remain tough for us.  But, together, we will persevere.  As president, I will continue to explain our reality to you, even if that reality is unpleasant.  But I refuse to indulge in depression, pessimism, cynicism or panic. I hope you’ll join me in that attitude. 

Our strategic planning process has established priorities that bring us together; our financial foundation is fundamentally sound; we are becoming more efficient and effective in doing our jobs with every passing week.  These realities will help us persevere, but even more important are the values and common culture we share.

Ours is a university community that for more than a century has been characterized by cooperation, fellowship and genuine concern for colleagues.  I saw it in the hard work on accreditation last fall by faculty in Nursing, Education, Business and Music; I saw it in the willingness with which many of you volunteered to help parents and prospective students learn about financial aid opportunities at the recent College Goal Sunday program; I saw it two weeks ago in the enthusiasm at the opening Arts and Sciences faculty meeting; I saw it as we joined together in grief at the loss of our friend Jim McNiff in November.  And I see it every day in the way we treat each other. 

It’s that sense of community, more than anything else, that will ensure that we continue to create hope for our students’ future.  I look forward to our doing so, together, with joy, in the semester ahead.

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