Board Chair's Report -- Winter 2022

The Board of Trustees met in late February as the College was celebrating the 227th year since its founding.

We marked the occasion with a Founders Day convocation that celebrated Union’s role in the remarkable re-birth of Schenectady. Recent visitors have been amazed to witness Schenectady’s comeback, with a bustling downtown, an inviting arts district and world-class entertainment.

The keynote speaker was William Patrick, author of Metrofix. His book traces the trajectory of Schenectady’s dramatic recovery. He cited Union’s investments in the College Park neighborhood and the ongoing engagement of students, faculty and staff through a range of College programs and local non-profits.

“The city wouldn’t be the same without its college,” Mr. Patrick said. “And Union College is lucky to have a revitalized and improving Schenectady. If one thrives, so does the other.”

Also at Founders Day, President David Harris spoke about lessons learned during COVID over the last two years: the joy of community and personal interactions, the importance of residential education and the power of expertise in facing challenges during the pandemic. David’s leadership during the pandemic has been outstanding, and Union is stronger than ever.

For more about Founders Day, visit here.

At these meetings, the Board focused on three special topics: women at Union, the Whole U college-wide messaging framework, and hockey at Union.

Women at Union

Addressing gender disparities is key to ensuring a diverse and inclusive campus. The Board heard an interim report from Fran’Cee Brown-McClure, vice president of student affairs and dean of students; Darcy Czajka, vice president and chief of staff; and Mary Simeoli, Title IX coordinator, chief diversity officer and interim director of equal employment. We look forward to sharing additional findings and recommendations in the near future.

The Whole U

The Board discussed a new unified messaging framework that highlights the distinctive nature of a Union education. “The Whole U” provides messaging to prospective students, employees and alumni about Union’s commitment to strengthening the whole person. The tagline –“Explore, Engage, Thrive” – is intended to illustrate the development of a student throughout their career at Union and beyond.

Mark Land, vice president for communications and marketing, and Leah Rosen, chief marketing officer, have been leading this effort. They described “The Whole U” as follows: “Union College is dedicated to challenging and supporting the entire individual so our students graduate prepared to lead with wisdom, empathy and courage in an ever-changing world. The Union journey combines academic exploration with personal discovery, carried out in a vibrant and inclusive residential environment. We strive to provide every student an experience that is uniquely Union.”

Board members were asked to describe their Union experience in one word. The most popular answer: transformative.

Hockey News

The recent vote by NCAA Div. III institutions to allow schools like Union to offer scholarships for their Div. I programs is important to men’s and women’s ice hockey. A recent change in NCAA rules – which allows athletes to transfer without having to sit out a season – would have put Union’s programs at a severe disadvantage.

It is important to emphasize that providing scholarships will not curtail other campus priorities. Offering hockey scholarships will not come at the expense of other student financial aid. To offset the costs of the scholarships, a campaign to establish an endowment from Union's energized base of hockey donors will provide the funding needed in perpetuity.

With the 45-year-old Messa Rink at Achilles Center nearing the end of its useful life, the College also is exploring both on-campus and off-campus new rink alternatives that will allow our hockey programs to continue to be competitive Div. I programs.

Among other important committee highlights from the meeting:

Academic Affairs

Academic Affairs has advanced key strategic initiatives, most notably with respect to General Education and the Union College Engineering and Computer Science Initiative, while navigating the impact of the omicron variant on the start of the winter trimester.

With a search for the inaugural director of the Templeton Institute for Science and Engineering underway, a steering committee this spring has organized a series of workshops, panels and speakers. In keeping with the mission of Templeton, these activities are intended to engage the entire campus community as well as industry leaders, practitioners and community organizations. We are tremendously excited about this program, made possible by Mary and Rich Templeton ’80.

Administration and Finance

The College has budgeted funds to ensure the safe operation of our residential campus during the COVID pandemic. This is to cover testing, vaccinations, supplies, isolation housing and staffing.

Our current COVID response plan, based on state and federal guidelines, includes mandatory vaccinations and boosters, masking (optional after March 12), pre-arrival testing after spring break and testing x2 of all College members the first week of spring term. We will revisit testing, masking guidelines, and visitor guidelines as necessary and appropriate.

We expect a balanced budget for the fiscal year, unexpected COVID expenses notwithstanding. The Board approved a 3.73 percent comprehensive fee increase to $79,722 for the coming year. Mindful of the sacrifice that families are making, the College offers financial aid that meets the full need for all admitted students.

Admissions

Thanks to ambitious outreach and messaging, there has been significant growth in our application pool with a record 8,403 applicants this year. That is up over 12 percent from last year and up 10 percent from our previous record. To highlight how the admissions landscape has changed in recent years, Union received 4,829 applications in 2009. Notably, women and international applicants have seen significant gains.

Yield efforts include more than 30 virtual programs between January and May. Notably, the recent President’s Day open house for accepted students attracted a record crowd – 449 prospective students – a welcome change after the necessary visitor restrictions during COVID.

College Relations

On behalf of the Board, I have the pleasure of acknowledging the many alumni and friends of this College who have stepped forward to support our mission. We are enormously grateful to the nearly 200 donors who helped meet the Schuler challenge well ahead of schedule. This includes 18 trustees who collectively contributed close to $14 million. Thank you.

By reaching our $20 million goal for the Schuler Access Initiative, the College will receive another $22 million from the Schuler Foundation for a total of $42 million in scholarship grant funding, which will allow Union to significantly increase scholarships to those who most need it. This will benefit students who qualify for a Pell Grant, the federal program that provides need-based grants to low-income undergraduate students.

Currently, the College supports an average of 75 students with Pell Grants in every newly-enrolled class. Most Pell Grants are awarded to students with a total family annual income below $20,000. At Union, Pell students are typically among the highest achieving students in the classroom and are leaders across campus. The Schuler Initiative will allow Union to welcome another nine Pell-eligible students starting this fall.

You can read more about the Schuler Initiative here.

Communications and Marketing

Communications and Marketing has been using a thematic approach to storytelling through our own channels. One notable example was the approach to the NCAA membership vote to allow the College to offer hockey scholarships. The original story, published a week prior to the vote, laid out the stakes for the vote and helped frame the College’s narrative. That piece was followed by a second story that was published within an hour of the vote, which occurred on a Saturday morning. The stories were the most read material on our website so far this academic year.

Through aggressive marketing and targeted communications, Communications and Marketing has supported the successful completion of the Schuler goal. Launch coverage played a role in a first-time donor gift of $300,000. Our press release on reaching our goal was picked up by more than 300 outlets nationwide. We will continue to promote our initiatives in equity of access as part of our work to elevate Union’s reputation.

Facilities and Environment

The Facilities and Environment Committee was focused on deferred maintenance, a significant issue facing a historic campus like ours.

Planning continues for the Templeton Institute as the committee defines space needs. The College has engaged a planning firm to assist.

In the area of sustainability, we are updating our Climate Action Plan to shorten our carbon neutrality horizon from 2060. Dining/Hospitality is making changes to be in compliance with new laws that require donation of excess food to local organizations as well as composting of waste.

Student Affairs

The College recently welcomed Roger Woolsey as the new executive director of Becker Career Center. Roger, who previously oversaw career centers at Dartmouth College and Colby College, wants career education to be a four-year endeavor, equipping students with financial literacy and other critical skills. You can learn more about Roger Woolsey and the Becker Career Center here.

The Minerva Fellowship program, a unique post-graduate experience, is placing Fellows at partner sites for 2022-2023. Recruitment and applications are underway for South Africa, Cambodia and Uganda.

The College has received an increased grant from the state Department of Education to grow our STEP program from 70 to 77 students. The Science and Technology Entry Program brings youth from two Schenectady schools together with Union students in an afterschool program to collaborate on STEM projects and experiments.

Other highlights

Among other highlights of the meeting, we thanked Mark Walsh ’76 for his many years of service, including chair of the Board, as he moves from life trustee to trustee emeritus. Mark’s successful career has followed the trajectory of the technology revolution, and the College and Board have benefited tremendously from his creative energy.

The Board approved the granting of an honorary degree to Kate White ’72, the Commencement speaker, in June. Kate, the former editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan and a number of other magazines, is also a New York Times best-selling novelist who has been an influential voice for the advancement of women in creative careers. We look forward to welcoming her back to campus on June 12. For more on Commencement, visit here.

Finally, as I said during the Founders Day convocation, the coming decades of accelerating change offer unprecedented opportunities and daunting challenges. Founders Day reminds us of Union’s timeless dedication to developing the next generation of liberally educated leaders.

Thank you for supporting our mission.

Robert Bertagna ’85
Chair