Members of the Union Community:
Preface: The October Board of Trustees meeting was held against the backdrop of the first weeks of an escalating conflict between Israel and Hamas, precipitated by the Oct. 7 Hamas’ terror attacks on Israel. While Union has not seen the level of unrest that has occurred on some other campuses, we have not been immune to the tension and fear spawned by the conflict. Therefore, we had a robust discussion on campus climate, disciplinary procedures when students are concerned about incidents of hate speech and the general safety of our students which is paramount.
Our hearts go out to all those affected by the conflict, especially those with friends and family in the region. At the time of the Board Meeting there was a particular concern about the rise in global antisemitism and how that growth had shown up on college campuses - something that is completely unacceptable. Speaking on behalf of the Board of Trustees and the College Administration antisemitism, Islamophobia and other forms of hate have no place at Union. We remain committed to creating an environment where every member of our community feels safe and supported.
The October meeting provided an opportunity for Trustees to engage with members of Union’s leadership team across a number of important topics, while also giving us a chance to say thanks to former Board Chair Bob Bertanga for his continued service to the College. Bob’s tenure as Chair ended following the May meeting, but we will continue to benefit from his counsel in his role as chair of the Trusteeship committee, and a member of the Board’s executive committee.
The meeting was highlighted by deep dives into two topics critical to the future success of the College: our long-term budget and the ongoing discussions around entering into a long-term lease agreement to be the primary tenant of events space at Mohawk Harbor that would be the new home to Union men’s and women’s hockey.
Long-term budget model
Vice President for Administration and Finance Scott Jones and his team have done a great deal of work over the last several months to create the foundation for a long-term budget model that will allow the College, for the first-time, to estimate the effects of various growth strategies and budgetary challenges on Union’s financial health over time. The model makes assumptions about key revenue drivers, such as tuition revenue and fundraising, as well as major cost areas – including financial aid, compensation and debt service – with the objective of gaining insight that will allow us to devise strategies to chart a future course for the college. As with most every private higher education institution, Union is tuition dependent and while the College’s finances are far healthier than those at many institutions, Union is not immune from pressures on current and future enrollment. Those pressures include:
▪ Increased competition for a shrinking number of traditional college-aged students (the so-called “demographic cliff” that is expected to occur over the next decade).
▪ Growing resistance among families of many prospective students to the “sticker price” being charged by many liberal arts institutions – despite the concurrent demand for greater services and amenities.
▪ The rising discount rate necessary to attract students to all but the most exclusive and prestigious institutions.
▪ A general sense among some that higher education is not essential to lifetime success.
▪ And, over the past two years, high inflation that has stressed budgets for all institutions. We are confident that Union remains on solid financial footing and in the practices and strategies being carried out by the Administration to keep the institution strong. The long- term budget model being developed is one important tool in our arsenal going forward.
Mohawk Harbor Project
The Trustees held spirited discussions across multiple committee meetings, and in a full board session, on this important project. While a number of valid questions and concerns were raised about the project, there is consensus that a new facility would have a significantly positive impact on the College’s only two Division I athletic programs and benefit Union in other ways as well.
Messa Arena, while beloved in many ways, is aging and in need of significant renovations over the next few years simply to address pressing infrastructure issues. The feedback gained from the Trustees’ experiences in commercial real estate and their perspective on the financial implications of entering into a long-term lease agreement have been invaluable as the Administration continues to negotiate a deal that will provide a valuable upgrade in this important facility in a manner that is fiscally responsible for the College.
Other highlights from the meeting:
▪ Implementation of the College’s new enterprise information system from Workday remains on track for a July 1, 2024 launch. The new system replaces an aging information infrastructure platform and promises to bring significant efficiencies and savings across a number of applications, including human resources processes, payroll and financial management.
▪ Union enrolled a fall class of approximately 550 students, slightly below what was originally expected as a larger-than-usual number of students decided over the summer to not enroll, despite making their required housing deposit. On a more positive note, the incoming first-year class was essentially 50 percent female, a significant improvement over past years and a goal for the College.
▪ The College’s 100 th Homecoming and Family Weekend in September was a success – more than 1,400 alumni and family members attended, and alumni attendance was up 10 percent from last year. Among the many highlights of the weekend was the dedication of the Class of 1973 patio in the area behind the Reamer Campus Center.
▪ The College Relations team also shared positive fundraising news for fiscal 2023, including an increase in new donors, in restricted and total annual fund giving and in student giving compared to fiscal year 2022. As a reminder, in June the College celebrated the successful completion of its “Powering Union” campaign, during which we raised more than $316 million.
▪ Trustees received an update on the upcoming launch of the new Garnet Chargers mascot, which is scheduled for early November on campus.
▪ On a related branding matter, the College has nearly completed the first phase of its branding refresh, with a rollout of updated messaging and visual branding to begin later this fall.
▪ Trustees formally welcomed the new co-directors of the Templeton Institute for Engineering and Computer Science, Ashok Ramasubramanian, Professor of Mechanical Engineering, and Andrew Burkett, Professor of English, both of whom began their appointments on Sept. 1. Additionally, we welcomed Carolyn Rodak as inaugural chair of the Civil and Environmental Engineering department. These appointments are important milestones in the ongoing work to strengthen Union’s position as a leading provider of engineering and computer science in a liberal arts setting.
▪ Trustees received a tour, and lunch, at the newly renovated dining facility on the second floor of Reamer, which opened in late August. The new facility offers a wider range of dining options and increased seating and is open to all members of the campus community.
On a personal note, the October meeting was my first as Chair of the Trustees. I am honored to serve in this role, and humbled by the support shown to me by my fellow Trustees. It is exciting to be able to play a small part in helping lead this College that we all love, and I very much look forward to continuing that work with my fellow Trustees and members of Union’s talented and dedicated administrative team.
Sincerely, Julie Greifer Swidler ‘79
Chair – Union College Board of Trustees