Facing headwinds, ‘we will emerge even stronger’

Publication Date

Despite the headwinds that face Union and all other colleges and universities, the College has a plan that will help it emerge even stronger than before, according to President David R. Harris.

In an inaugural “State of Union” presentation on Nov. 19, the president outlined factors that affect admissions, giving and the budget. These include declining enrollments due to demographic shifts, the cost and perceived value of a private college education and “desperate discounting” by some other schools to lure students, he said.

“I am confident that we will emerge even stronger,” he said. “Why? Lots of reasons, but one I look at is what this College did over the last eight months. We took a 225-year-old residential model online with three weeks’ notice for the spring term and then found a way to have a successful in-person fall term in the midst of a pandemic.”

In a wide-ranging presentation that he plans to make a traditional annual event, Harris noted that since the pandemic moved spring term on-line in March, “We have come back and found ways to achieve our goals.”

Confronting COVID

The College has continued to thrive by offering students a range of traditional, online, interdisciplinary and experiential options through Union Where You Are, he said.

Through an ambitious and effective testing program with more than 23,000 tests and a range of protocols to keep community members safe, the College has had only 28 positive cases – most asymptomatic – since Aug. 17. “If you had told me in August that … we would get to the end of classes with only 28 positives and staff, I’d say that would be fantastic,” Harris said.

He cautioned, however, that we need to remain vigilant through the end of the term and throughout break to ensure our return in January. “The future is not guaranteed,” he said, noting a number of colleges that have had to go remote due to outbreaks.

The Power of Union

“If all we did this year was confront COVID, I would not call that a success,” Harris added. “We want to make progress on the Strategic Plan, to make sure that every student achieves to his or her potential and that faculty and staff are able to achieve their goals."

The Strategic Plan, which Harris said was commended recently by a Middle States accreditation team, has two main goals: 1) Strengthening our vibrant community of learners, scholars, and teachers, and 2) Ensuring we have the necessary resources and structures in place to enable our community to thrive.

For more on the Strategic Plan, visit here.

Reaching Goal 1

Goal 1 focuses on areas of comparative advantage such as blending liberal arts and engineering, Harris said. The $51 million gift from Rich and Mary Templeton ’80 to support engineering and computer science will also add greater depth and breadth to engineering and encourage gender diversity in the field.

Goal 1 also focuses on transcending disciplinary boundaries as exemplified by new Minerva courses that explore artificial intelligence, race and privilege and climate change; bridging classroom and immersive experiences through internships and faculty-mentored programs; and engaging diverse experiences and perspectives through GenEd.

Speaking about the value of a robust life outside the classroom, Harris cited the creative ways that Student Activities, Hospitality and the pre-orientation programs have engaged with students. He praised student-athletes who, despite the disappointment of losing a season to COVID, have found value in life skills and team bonding that come from their sport. He mentioned the Minerva Houses as exciting ways to engage students and faculty outside the classroom and efforts to ensure that they remain effective and appealing to a wide range of students.

In the area of diversity and inclusion, a team of four leaders now have responsibility over their respective areas. To track progress in this area, a new dashboard shows metrics such as race, gender and graduation and retention rates. A subcommittee is considering the College’s symbols and monuments and whether they are appropriate for Union College today.

For more on Diversity and Inclusion, visit here.

Reaching Goal 2

Toward Goal 2 of the Strategic Plan, ensuring that we have the resources to thrive in a changing higher education landscape, Harris cited two recent hires. Leah Rosen joined the College in April as vice president for Communications and Marketing. Rob Parker joined in October as vice president for College Relations. The College will soon have an interim chief human resources officer before hiring a long-term successor. We are close to having a staff advisory council to represent staff interests.

To accelerate our focus on Goal 2, the College this fall launched the Administrative Excellence Project to address substantial, long-term challenges associated with staffing, processes and systems. “We need to restructure and reform in order to meet our core mission and financial goals,” Harris said. Working with Bain Consulting and a campus steering committee, we are focusing on finance, human resources, information technology and culture. “These are not necessarily our areas of greatest need,” he said, “but we need to get them right to do other things.”

Citing a recent campus survey, Harris noted that community, dedication and student focus emerged as Union’s most salient strengths; perceived weaknesses included resistance to change and a siloed culture.

Confronting Accelerating Headwinds

Harris likened the challenges facing Union and the rest of higher education to riding a bike into a headwind.

Impeding our progress, he said, are factors such as a declining number of students going to college, particularly from the Northeast where we draw most of our students. To address this, we need to turn to the south and west, he said. Challenges also include the cost and perceived value of private colleges that are causing some families to opt for less expensive state schools. Finally, as schools struggle to make their classes, they engage in what Harris called “desperate discounting.”

“The status quo is not stable,” Harris said, adding that there is an urgency in addressing these challenges. “The next admissions cycle will determine which colleges thrive and which will struggle to survive which is why we need to push hard now to make sure that we deliver on all the aspects of the Strategic Plan.”

“I remain confident that as a community we have a plan that builds on our comparative advantages and will help us be successful,” Harris said. “There isn’t any need to panic because we have a plan. The challenge will be if we do not acknowledge the urgency and respond with wisdom.”

“If we can confront COVID in eight months and be where we are, I am confident that as a community we can address the headwinds that higher ed and Union faces and continue to make tremendous progress and to continue to thrive.

“I thank you for everything you do to make Union College what it is today and what it will be in the years ahead.”