State of Union highlights challenges and opportunities in College’s 228th year

Publication Date

College finances, the demographic cliff and the rising cost of attending college are some of the challenges Union and other institutions face as they move forward from a pandemic that is waning, President David R. Harris said Tuesday in his annual State of Union address.

President David R. Harris

He stressed that the headwinds that affect admissions, giving and the budget continue to impact higher education. This includes a demographic cliff in the number of college-bound high school graduates, particularly in regions of the country where Union recruits and enrolls most of its students.

Climbing tuition-discount rates many schools use to attract students and increased demand on ROI are also putting pressure on Union.

“The headwinds are not going away,” Harris said. He spoke for 30 minutes via Zoom from the Stanley O’Brien Center ’74 Center for Collaboration and Engagement.

Despite the challenges in higher education and at Union, he pointed to a series of significant milestones the College has reached on a number of institutional priorities.

Among the highlights:

  • A significant rebound in the number of students who applied to Union after unprecedented drops during the pandemic. Nearly 9,400 prospective students, a record, applied to join the Class of 2027. The total number of applications is an 11 percent jump from the year before. “This is a very positive trend, given the headwinds, and is consistent with my belief that this school is getting more exciting for students,” Harris said.
  • The success of Powering Union, the largest and most ambitious capital campaign in the school’s 227-year history, which surpassed its goal of $300 million nearly a year ahead of schedule. Launched publicly three weeks before the pandemic in February 2020 and scheduled to conclude in June, the campaign has raised $309 million to date to support key priorities in the College’s strategic plan. The campaign so far has featured gifts from more than 21,000 donors, including alumni, families, faculty, students, staff and foundations.
  • The launch of U Journey, a new residential curriculum for life and learning that occurs beyond the classroom, with particular emphasis on life skills and reflection.
  • A refresh of the Union brand to help tell the College’s story consistently in ways that resonate with all members of the campus community and prospective students and their families. This includes updated messaging designed to crystallize Union’s distinctiveness and advantages relative to its peers and competitors. Also, exploration of Union’s nickname and mascot, and possible alternatives to “Dutchman/Dutchwomen” that may better represent the vision of Union today and what it aspires to be in the future.
  • A renewed commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB). This includes securing $42 million in commitments to bring more Pell-eligible students to Union in perpetuity through the Schuler Education Foundation Access Initiative. “We have 17 more students this year who wouldn’t be here if not for the generosity of the Schuler Foundation and the generosity of our community,” Harris said.
  • The launch of two new majors, in civil and environmental engineering, that will be available to students beginning this fall. They are the first new majors created by the College since Chinese was elevated from a minor in 2012.

Harris also updated the campus community on a number of initiatives or projects, including attracting women to Union, one of the highest priorities. Women currently make up less than half of enrollment.

“What do we have to do make sure at least half the class is women?” Harris said. “We have exceptional women at Union. There are exceptional women we would love to have at Union. What does it take to get there?”

He emphasized that it is critical to ensure that there are no gender differences in a student’s experience, or in their lifelong engagement with the College.

Harris also said he is optimistic a deal will be reached as Union continues to negotiate on a public-private partnership to have its Division I hockey teams play at a new, larger arena planned for nearby Mohawk Harbor. The teams’ current home is the aging 2,225-seat Frank L. Messa Rink at Achilles Center.

Harris became Union’s 19th president on July 1, 2018. Last fall, the Board of Trustees approached him with a contract extension through June 30, 2027. Despite the challenges in higher education, he was excited to accept the offer.

“There’s headwinds for sure,” Harris said in wrapping up his State of Union. “But I can’t think of a place where I’m more excited to face these headwinds, a place that I think is more prepared to thrive than Union College because of what we have been, who we are and how we work together.”

The presentation by Harris is available to members of the campus community by visiting this website.