Board Chair's Report -- spring 2021

It was my distinct honor to represent the Board of Trustees at not one but two in-person Commencement ceremonies in June. We celebrated the Class of 2021 on June 13. A week later, we welcomed back the graduates of 2020 for a long- awaited ceremony of their own.

It was simply heartwarming to see all of our graduates – new and old – together to celebrate these important milestones. Of special note, the nearly 350 members of the Class of 2020 who returned to campus from busy lives around the world was a powerful reminder of what it means to be a part of the Union community.

I would like to thank President David Harris for his steadfast resolve to ensure all grads (especially the Class of 2020, who were forced to finish their final spring term remotely) had the special memory of participating in a graduation ceremony. I also would like to thank the faculty and staff for their ability to pivot from a residential learning environment to an online community in the spring of 2020 and for arranging two Commencement ceremonies in the span of one week.

For coverage of both Commencements and other recent news, visit here.

When the Board of Trustees met virtually this spring, we thanked three trustees for their invaluable service as they leave the board:

  • Faculty Trustee Rebecca Cortez of Mechanical Engineering – College Relations, Facilities & Environment and Student Affairs committees.
  • Student Trustee Brian Huang ’21 – Academic Affairs, Facilities & Environment, Student Affairs, College Relations and Admissions committees.
  • Ellen Smith ’80 – who served on Administration & Finance, Executive, Trusteeship, College Relations and Chair of Facilities Committee, will transition to a Trustee Emerita.

We also bid our thanks and best wishes to two administrators: Michele Gibson, vice president for finance and administration, who is retiring; and Leah Rosen, vice president for communications and marketing, who is taking on a new role as chief marketing officer for the College. Both Leah and Michele played vital roles at Union, particularly over the last year as we have pivoted during the pandemic.

President Harris recently announced that two experienced professionals will succeed Michele and Leah: Scott Jones as vice president for Administration and Finance, and Mark Land as vice president for Communications and Marketing. We look forward to welcoming Scott and Mark in early August. You can read about them here.

Sadly, this spring we lost four esteemed emeriti faculty members. Jim Underwood, who over 40 years served as professor, department chair, dean of faculty and interim president, passed away April 23, 2021. Peter Heinegg, an English professor of 42 years with a reputation as an engaging and energetic lecturer who brought together an astonishing range of ideas, passed on June 1, 2021. Thomas Kershner was an economist with broad intellectual interests, a colleague with a keen sense for college service and a generous mentor. He passed away on June 19, 2021. Charles F. “Chuck” Weick, professor of chemistry emeritus, was a dedicated teacher, researcher and mentor who passed on March 21, 2021.

Academic Affairs

The Trustees were pleased to recognize some of our outstanding faculty by approving tenure and promotion to associate professor for five women: Ellen Gasparovic, Mathematics; Jennifer Mitchell ’04, English and Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies; Nelia Mann, Physics and Astronomy; Laini Nemett, Visual Arts; and Heather Watson, Physics and Astronomy.

Among many recent distinctions of our faculty, Shena McAuliffe, assistant professor of English, received the Pushcart Prize for her essay, “Marceline Wanted a Bigger Adventure,” one of 16 essays in her collection, Glass, Light, Electricity. Mark Dallas, associate professor of political science and Asian studies and director of Asian Studies, has received a prestigious one-year fellowship from the Council on Foreign Relations to examine the globally integrated 5G telecommunications ecosystems and the changes to U.S.-China relations over technology such as semiconductors.

The Templeton Institute Planning Committee has been charting the future for a new program to promote campus-wide and community access to engineering and computer science. This is an exciting initiative made possible by the generosity of Mary and Rich Templeton of the Class of 1980. A search for the inaugural director is to begin next year.

This fall, faculty will consider a new version of General Education that will include a first-year course on critical thinking, inquiry and analysis. Other courses will emphasize Race, Power and Privilege; and Global Challenges.

A new residential curriculum will help students develop well-being and life skills, cross-cultural competencies, decision making skills, a sense of community involvement and an ability to reflect on their life’s journey.

Administration and Finance

To meet challenges facing all of higher education – specifically to admissions, giving and budgets – Union last fall launched the Administrative Excellence Project to improve effectiveness and efficiency of our administrative processes and systems.

To help chart our future, a working group of students, faculty and staff – Planning for Multiple Tomorrows (PMT21) – has surveyed the campus community for emerging trends. The group is making recommendations on how Union can become a more flexible, agile and enjoyable living-learning-working environment. We are developing policies for the use of new technologies as a complement to our residential model.

Admissions

We are pleased that during a challenging admissions year for all of higher education, the number of deposits exceeds the budgeted first-year student body expectation. However, it comes in at a higher than targeted discount rate. Of note for the current class profile is an increase in the number of students enrolling from outside the Northeast. Among encouraging signs of progress, we have seen more women accept our offer of enrollment.

Admissions, in tandem with Communications and Marketing, is hiring a marketing and outreach manager who will assist in our ongoing effort to bring the Union name to more markets in the U.S. and beyond.

College Relations

Thanks in large part to the generous response of our donors during the Day4U one-day giving challenge this spring, the Annual Fund surpassed $7 million in for the fiscal year 2021. I am pleased to report that we have raised close to $250 million of the $300 goal for the Powering Union campaign. Of particular note, we raised more than $25 million in total gifts over the last year, including $3.4 million in unrestricted gifts to the Union Fund. Once again, we are indebted to the many alumni and friends who share a passion for our mission. Thank you.

College Relations launched the new Union Financial Network with a Zoom webinar featuring Tom Connolly ’89, Eros Marshall ’96 and Sarah Pontius ’04. We are recruiting an advisory board and planning 2021-22 events.

As a silver lining to the pandemic, we were able to offer programs to a wide audience. Alumni and Parent Engagement (APE) organized 111 virtual events in the last year that were attended by 7,022 individual alumni from the U.S. and around the world.

Communications and Marketing

Communications and Marketing continues their concentrated effort on three priorities: improving Union’s reputation, increasing enrollment and supporting the Powering Union campaign.

We are identifying opportunities to improve in various rankings, targeting social media ads to influencers, supporting Day4U and promoting stories that highlight the key priorities of the campaign.

In support of Admissions’ efforts to recruit a diverse and high quality class, we produced the “Why Union” video ad, which had nearly 15,000 views on YouTube. Admissions campaign materials include a redesign of the “Make Union Yours” page, Instagram messaging and paid social media focused on video content to accepted students.

On messaging and branding, we have collected perspectives from members of the Union community and held messaging workshops with key communicators to identify differentiators including community, opportunities from trimester system, integration of disciplines, life beyond the classroom and location. While we refine our messaging, we are developing a framework for branding and visual consistency.

We are developing a dashboard to highlight alumni success with categories such as industries, advanced degrees, top employers and locations.

Facilities and Environment

We owe much to the College staff who have worked so tirelessly this past year to ensure that our residential learning community can thrive. We had weekly testing, a vaccination center and redesigned facilities to provide the safest possible environment. Tents served as outdoor classrooms. Fire pits, Adirondack chairs and picnic tables served as outdoor gathering spaces.

An ad hoc committee is exploring options for possible new facilities for our men’s and women’s ice hockey programs. Future meetings were to consider a joint project with a local developer, city and county.

We are pleased that the Integrated Science and Engineering Complex has been completed nearly on budget, a remarkable achievement given the work stoppage due to COVID. We sincerely appreciate the support of alumni and friends for a project that already has transformed the College. For a virtual tour of ISEC, visit here.

Investment

I am pleased to report that the College’s endowment grew about 20 percent over the last year. Through the careful work of the Board’s Investment Committee, the total market value of Union’s portfolio is about $528 million.

Student Affairs

The Becker Career Center, in partnership with College Relations, is offering the Making U Possible Internship program. Thanks to alumni, 24 members of the Class of 2023 are exploring careers with firms including IBM, GlobalFoundries, Goldman Sachs, Northwestern Mutual and UCONN Health. The Class of 1963 is supporting 16 community service summer internships, a significant increase from previous years.

Class deans co-hosted a series of “Parent Community Conversations” for parents to learn about the role of class deans and the resources available to students, especially during a challenging year. Presenters came from a variety of programs: Athletics, Becker Career Center, Counseling, Minervas and Student Activities.

The Eppler Wolff-Counseling Center saw a 28 percent increase in appointments from spring 2020 to spring 2021. The Center has been a vital resource for students during an especially challenging year.

This spring, after a year of mostly virtual programs, the Kenney Center resumed outdoor volunteer outings including clean-up activities in the Goose Hill and Woodlawn neighborhoods of Schenectady with more than 120 students participating. In April, Union’s STEP students won first place for their research in the first Virtual Regional STEP Conference.

The Office of Title IX hosted a number of events aimed at reminding all members of the Union community that they have a responsibility to avert and eradicate sexual violence and harassment. Events included the “Union & Me” Sexual Assault Awareness Month, Denim Day and the year-long series, “Eliminate the X.”

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

A major element of the Strategic Plan – building a more inclusive campus culture – has been a center of focus this year. As an outgrowth of the Presidential Initiative on Race, Power and Privilege last year, President Harris this year announced the appointment of a four-member Diversity Leadership Team which has made significant progress.

Among the initiatives, the History and Symbols Committee is examining how our spaces, symbols and monuments reflect who we are. The committee, senior staff and trustees have endorsed a proposal to restore and relocate the Idol, an ancient Chinese statue. In consultation with student leaders, another object will be selected over the summer and installed to allow the painting tradition to continue. There will be additional programming in the fall addressing the Idol and its history at Union.

Finally, as President Harris said in his end-of-year message to the Union community, from the challenges of COVID, Union has emerged even stronger than before. There is a satisfaction not only that we continued but also thrived by finding new and creative ways to provide a stellar education. And there is joy that we are once again together in a common purpose. You can read the end-of-year message from President Harris here.

On behalf of the Board, it is my pleasure to thank all the alumni and friends who have supported this great College through a difficult time. I look forward to the coming months when we can all return to campus and – like our grads of 2020 and 2021 – celebrate together.

Robert Bertagna ’85
Chair