State of the University Address, September 2, 2021

President Richard J. Helldobler

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Hello William Paterson, and welcome back! It is so great to be here together. To have you here, to see your faces—not just crowded into a digital frame, but fully in person and together in the same physical space back here on our beautiful campus. And thanks to the great work of our IRT staff and everyone here in Shea, I am so pleased that we are able to stream today’s event and make it available to students for the first time. So, “Hello” to everyone watching remotely.

Today, many in our community and across our region are dealing with power outages, flooding and other serious impacts of last night’s storm. Please know that we are thinking of you, and we hope you are staying safe.

As you were getting seated here in Shea or logging on to the livestream, you saw slides highlighting some of our wonderful faculty and their achievements. I wish we had more time today to recognize them and their efforts, but we will continue to do so in other communications and venues throughout the year.

Amazingly, 575 days have passed since we last gathered together for this purpose. In that time, we’ve completed three semesters, graduated two classes, worn thousands of masks, and participated in millions of hours of Zoom meetings and classes. We got tens of thousands of COVID vaccine shots, which has allowed us to finally reconvene here, more than a year-and-a-half later. I can tell you that this simple act of a group of people coming together in a common space is one that I will never take for granted again.

We were fortunate to be able to have many of our students back for an on-campus experience last year and, especially, to be able to fully return this fall. Through it all, our fantastic University Police and Physical Plant Operations staff, as well as other essential staff from Academic Affairs, IT and IRT, and Capital Planning and Design have been here to keep our campus functioning and everyone on it safe and secure. So thank you to all of our essential employees, whose important work meant being here throughout it all! Please join me in thanking them.

Of course, a challenging year was made more difficult for some faculty and staff who had to be laid off and, to a lesser but real extent, for the rest of us as their friends and colleagues. We also said goodbye to those who left voluntarily. The financial storm of the pandemic certainly made matters worse and accelerated our need to act. But make no mistake, these trends pre-dated the pandemic. They are tied directly to the approximately 2,200 students—with the associated revenues—who we lose each year through attrition. We must—and will—continue doing everything we can to hold on to them. It’s vital for their future, and for ours.

When I had to direct that those layoff letters be sent out, it was  one of the worst days of my professional career. Anything more I attempt to say on this will surely fall short, so let me just reiterate that I am sorry this had to happen and assure you that it only strengthens my commitment to doing everything we can to further minimize layoffs. We can take some comfort in knowing that we have been doing everything we can, including offering an attractive Voluntary Separation Program and working closely with the AFT. So I want to thank everyone who worked on those efforts, including Vice President  \Allison Boucher-Jarvis and her Human Resources team, and AFT President Sue Tardi. I recognize that many of you have made many, many sacrifices over the past 18 months. I want you to know that I truly appreciate it, and that it has helped.

In speaking with many of you over the past few months, as we’ve gotten vaccinated and things have opened up throughout New Jersey, I’ve heard a common expression of renewed appreciation for the strength of our William Paterson community. As the pandemic pushed us physically apart, we strengthened our connections by checking in more often through Zoom and Teams, texts, emails, and—yes—even the good, old-fashioned phone call. People checking in on one another and asking, “How are you doing?”

So, William Paterson, it’s been, and continues to be, a tough time. We’ve lost members of our community to COVID as well as other causes. Many of you have lost friends and loved ones during the pandemic. In all cases, our inability to come together to properly mourn and celebrate those we’ve lost has added to the grief. Since we are all here together, today, let’s take one small step. Will you please stand in the auditorium for a moment of silence for those we’ve lost since March 2020.

Thank you. Please be seated.

Now, I’d like to take another moment—one of celebration—to recognize and thank each and every one of you for your good work, especially over this past year. We’ve all experienced extra stress and strain in our lives. But through it all, I’ve seen first-hand how people throughout this University, in every college, department, and office, have gone the extra mile to help our students. I’ve seen so many examples of people stepping up and helping colleagues without concern for credit. This kind of mutual support and focus on mission is central to the William Paterson culture, and I have been heartened to see that through tough times, it has only become stronger. So let me applaud all of you, and please give yourselves a hand for everything that you do!

I traditionally use this time for a budget and enrollment update, along with a pretty thorough review of the last several months and to recognize the good work being done across the University. Now that we have multiple starting dates within the semester for WP Online, we will wait until later in the semester to provide some final numbers. Look for the announcement for a Town Hall on those issues soon. But what I want to talk about now is of equal importance to William Paterson that I want to dedicate the rest of our time together today to discussing it. I’m referring to the work to be done on brand identity and our next strategic plan, both of which are critical to our future. So, let’s begin that conversation.

Fundamental to everything we do and will do in the future is the relationship between our exceptional faculty and our students. Our faculty are achieving great things on campus and in their fields—we saw many examples up on the screen earlier. Their good work and commitment make me confidant that—with the right direction and smart choices—the future will indeed be bright for William Paterson and the students who we serve.

The question before us then is, “How do we ensure that William Paterson becomes financially stable so that we can grow and thrive in the coming years? So that we can support more of this kind of great work and better serve our students?” Two important and related ways we will work on this critical question in the coming year are by landing on a distinctive brand identity for William Paterson and developing a new Strategic Plan.

One question that came up during my interview here and through my own research while considering the presidency was the notion of creating a brand identity with a unique William Paterson experience. I know that some of you instinctively recoil when you hear these kinds of terms in a University setting. But, the truth is that brand identity has always been a part of higher education and a part of William Paterson. That’s why we have our seal, with its “Commitment to Excellence” motto and Greek column. It’s why our colors are black and orange and why we are known as the Pioneers. A lot of these decisions were made independent of one another. Our work going forward should ensure that all these elements and other more complex ones fit together as a unified whole. These are just a few simple examples of the many elements that make up a brand, but my point is that brands aren’t just for businesses—every organization has one, including colleges and universities. The important questions are: How strong a brand is it? And, most importantly, does it accurately represent who we are as a University and what we have to offer? What comes to mind when I say Harvard? What about University of Phoenix? Two very different brands, but both very distinctive. And we know exactly what they offer when we hear their names.

We’ve done some great work on this front. Will. Power., for example, and the student experience we’ve built around it, speaks directly to the kind of comprehensive support we provide. And it speaks to the grit of our students. Everyone in New Jersey knows that Will. Power. is connected to William Paterson, so it’s a tremendous asset. As you know, last fall, we updated our marketing campaign around Will. Power., based on our further understanding of what students need and our knowledge of how to guide them to successful careers and lives.

The new initiative I want to talk about today goes further to firmly define and strengthen our distinctive brand identity. And I want to emphasize that distinctiveness is crucial to standing out in a crowded and competitive marketplace, like ours.

I wanted our community to have this discussion last spring semester, leading up to the development of a new Strategic Plan, since the two processes will be tightly linked. But, it didn’t seem practical to have that conversation remotely. So, instead, we will have it this year with the Faculty Senate, University Council, the Board of Trustees, and other stakeholder groups. During our Board-Cabinet Retreat, our partners at the Educational Advisory Board (EAB) led us through a visioning exercise that looked at signals that EAB has determined will impact brand, experience, and enrollment in the coming years. We will work through that process to get input as we create a brand identity and further define a distinctive William Paterson experience.  Ultimately, the Board of Trustees determines vision and mission, but I know that they will want input from key stakeholders. We will work through and complete the visioning process this semester and begin discussing how we will hone our practices, curriculum, and processes in the spring semester.

We are going to start engaging in a brand identity discussion right here today, including an interactive exercise that we’ll get to soon, where we can get your reactions to some of the ideas that we’re going to talk about. First, though, there are a couple of things to understand about building brand and creating identity. Once you decide to go from “nondescript” to “brand-specific,” you can increase your appeal, but you also have to recognize that some folks might no longer be interested in what you have to offer. For example, if you decide to brand yourself as the most affordable, some in the marketplace who equate affordability with a lack of quality might look for a more expensive option. Or, you might decide to move from making eight colors of widgets to six because, by shifting investment from your two lowest sellers to your two top sellers, you’ll increase market share. But people who wanted those two discontinued colors might not buy from you anymore. My point is this—as we begin this process, we must understand that by honing our brand identity, we might become less attractive to some students. But if we do it right—and I know we will—many more will be newly attracted to William Paterson. If we fail to do this work, we risk letting others define who we are or allowing our brand to become dull, fuzzy, nondescript. If we don’t develop a strong, truly distinctive brand identity, we risk the appearance of trying to be everything to everybody, and that rarely works.

 Now I want to talk about two university prototypes based on the signals that EAB identified and get your reactions to them through audience polling. Again, this will be just the first of many discussions to come. We are not deciding anything today.

First, let’s look at what’s going on in New Jersey higher education. This will help us think about identifying our own niche market and the brand identity that will best appeal to it. We have four major research universities in the state:

  • Rutgers, Rowan, and Montclair—all well-established—and now Kean, which recently began building its brand as an urban research institution
  • NJIT is discipline-specific; they identify as the state’s public polytechnic and a leader in STEM education, research, economic development, and service
  • Ramapo and TCNJ have identified as the public liberal arts college and the honor’s college of New Jersey
  • That leaves the three regional publics: Stockton, New Jersey City University, and William Paterson. NJCU and WP share a diverse population of students, HSI (Hispanic-Serving Institution) and MSI (Minority-Serving Institution) status, and a metropolitan location. Stockton is less diverse and more rural but has a branch campus in Atlantic City.

So the question for us is: How does William Paterson—through brand identity—distinguish itself from NJCU and Stockton? It’s important for us to remember that—with the sole exception of Ramapo—those institutions that have created brand identities have also increased enrollment. Stockton has done well by adding the branch campus and creating a 4-credit course model which is somewhat unique nationwide. But Stockton has not seen the growth of a Montclair or Rowan. NJCU and William Paterson have remained the true regional publics but have seen declines in enrollment and struggled with retention. So, the enrollment evidence supports the idea that brand identity matters when recruiting and retaining students.

Many of you have heard Provost Powers say that institutions distinguish themselves in two major ways: 1) How they deliver education and 2) What they deliver (types of programs, etc.). Interestingly, the marketplace signals that EAB identified align with Provost Powers’ “how and what” paradigm. I am now going to describe a vision of a university with a brand centered on the “How.”

Imagine a William Paterson that invests in smart-tech strategies like a data engine that anticipates students’ needs across recruitment, engagement, retention, and wellness and provides them with high-touch personal services. This model builds on our culture of responsiveness and has a laser-like focus on providing students with what they need, when they need it.

Recruitment cycles would include both in-person and virtual experiences, where families meet with admissions counselors, financial advisors, and student success coaches on Zoom and on campus. This model would create smartphone applications that message students about what’s happening in a specific building as they pass by or reminds them of actions they need to take. For example: “Meet our Distinguished Lecturer at 6:30 in the Shea Center;” or “Come cheer on your NJAC Champion Pioneer Field Hockey team as they take on Rowan tonight on Wightman Field;” or, “Hey, Richard, we noticed that you’re near Morrison Hall and haven’t yet filled out your FAFSA. Please stop by so we can get you set for the next academic year.” Students with wellness challenges could opt in to monitoring so that success coaches know if they are going to class, hitting the Rec Center, or showing up for counseling and tutoring sessions.

This model would form support teams for undeclared students, including a student success coach, financial advisor, a designated tutor, and a career development professional. Imagine courses running in 7- and 15-week modules, so that students can start when it works best for them. Think about a model that provides traditional learning, but also more hybrid opportunities with synchronous and asynchronous online classes. For example, what about a Saturday morning synchronous online class for working adults?

Imagine a model that uses students’ high school and college performance to determine how they might perform in a given class in order to provide better academic support up front. Imagine a curriculum that builds in supplemental instruction for gateway courses to achieve greater outcomes.

Imagine a curriculum that provides for some pass/no-credit options for 1,000-level classes not related to the major. Think about a university that would go paperless by 2026, use all electronic textbooks and mostly Open Educational Resources, and digitize all paper-based workflows. Think of a WP where artificial intelligence and chat bots can answer most frequently asked questions and direct students to proper offices. Think about a model that would strengthen Career Development and provide better career outcomes data to students, parents, and guidance counselors, across all disciplines—not just professional programs. Sound interesting?

Who might attend a university like this? The student who is tech-savvy and likes both virtual and in-person interaction. A student whose personal life doesn’t align with a traditional college semester. A career-focused student. A student who doesn’t mind what some might consider a “big brother” approach to making them successful and helping them better understand and navigate college.

Who won’t come? Students who want to come to class and be left alone. Students who might find this kind of support overwhelming or perhaps too intrusive.

These are only examples. We will accept some, reject others, and surely come up with new ones. And because we are not deciding anything today, more discussion is needed, but what the WP(You) model requires is:

  • A financial investment in technology and larger IT staffing;
  • And, with the move to a paperless environment, re-training current staff to provide students with more high-touch opportunities and support;
  • A flexible course schedule that does not conform to a strict 15-week schedule.

Does WP(You)—the high-touch, tech-savvy institution—sound like a place that would attract students? Like a place where you’d like to work? This isn’t a rhetorical question! I’m going to do something very unusual for someone on stage in a theatre. I’m going to ask you to take out your cell phones. No playing Candy Crush! Instead, please scan this QR code on the screen, which is also on the card everyone in the theatre received. If you’re on the livestream, you can also use the link in the chat and it will bring up the polling site, where you’ll find this question:

You have 30 seconds to respond and then we’ll lock the poll.

Now, let’s explore a different direction, a brand centered on the “What.” Imagine a WP that builds its reputation on signature programs that meet regional and state economic needs based on labor forecasts. We decide what programs we have or should develop that lead directly to good-paying jobs in growing fields. We partner with industry to create think tanks, provide release opportunities for faculty to work in industry or corporate settings alongside our advanced students. Our students gain valuable experience, and our faculty gather intelligence to better align our curriculum with industry needs. This institution would create an interactive dashboard of all existing research and projects and connect those to industry to create real-world outcomes and drive innovation.

This institution would also create a dashboard to monitor outcomes of these industry-based projects and partnerships in order to measure social mobility, student retention in the region, and net happiness. It aligns itself with partner industries to provide students with more internship and career opportunities and centralize those internship listings so that students with the right skills can apply without being restricted by major, where possible. And an internship experience is required of every major.

This University is similar to NJIT, so if we chose this, we must have a different focus than STEM education. One opportunity that is a growing industry regionally, nationally, and globally is pharmaceuticals, so we could consider a focus in PharmD. Institutions that brand themselves this way tend to focus on labor forecasts and enrollment growth. For New Jersey and William Paterson, labor forecasts and enrollment growth projections would support focusing on business and science and health. We could also think about becoming the best online college of business in the State of New Jersey.

Who would likely come to WP-Specific? Students who are interested in our niche programs of business and science and health. Parents and guidance counselors are attracted to this type of institution, with its strong career-focused outcomes and internship opportunities. Right now in New Jersey, there’s no regional public or research institution that emphasizes science and health (non-medical school) and business. Who wouldn’t come? Students who don’t fall into one of our niche programs.

Again, understanding these are just examples and we aren‘t deciding anything today,  WP-Specific calls for:

  • Growing faculty in specific disciplines;
  • Maintaining or shrinking faculty in others, while recognizing that some might teach more UCC courses than major ones;
  • A more flexible mix of tenured and non-tenured faculty, given possible labor market changes; and
  • Centralizing all career development opportunities, including internships, to provide better learning outcomes opportunities—rather than discipline-specific—and to collect necessary benchmark data.

So, does WP-Specific—the discipline-focused, career outcome institution—sound like a place that would attract students and where you would like to work? Again, scan the QR code and enter your response.

Now, let’s take a look at a few indicators for both WP(You) and WP-Specific with the additional context of some William Paterson-specific data.

Let’s look first at WP(You). Based on our existing programs, we know that the high-touch approach works. Will.Power.101 had great results in the first year, less so this past year, when we were largely remote. Our Educational Opportunity Fund program is another example where the high-touch,  intrusive approach yields positive results.

We also know that 97 percent of our students come to William Paterson to get a job. And we know students have been asking for more app-based solutions, like calendar and WPconnect. Early data indicates that engagement for some services, such as advising, financial aid, health, and wellness, increases when moved online. We also know that students block William Paterson phone numbers when they feel they are getting too many calls, though they’re likely to pick up if they know who’s calling, as opposed to a generic number. So instead of WP 2000, it says “Linda Refsland is calling.” They don’t read email, but are more responsive to texts.

Now, let’s look at WP-Specific. We know that, based on our existing academic portfolio, our biggest enrollment gains have aligned with state labor forecasts, namely science and health and business. Yet, both areas struggle with retention rates. So, while our students want jobs in these fields. we are less successful retaining and graduating them. Nursing, with different admissions standards, is an exception. We could use a higher-level standard for these niche programs—business and science and health—but it will impact enrollment. Many of these programs hold accreditation, which is important to employers and parents. Grant money and donor support tend to come more from areas like business and science and health, so fundraising opportunities are greater.

Now that you’ve considered each separately and within the context of William Paterson data points, which one feels like a better direction for William Paterson? Again, scan the QR code and make your choice: 1) WP(You) or 2) WP-Specific? Remember, we’re not deciding anything today!

Again, this is just the first of many conversations we’ll be having on this topic among the Board of Trustees, Faculty Senate, University Council, and other stakeholder groups over the fall semester. Please keep in mind that the Board ultimately determines vision and mission, and our process should support theirs by providing them with a sense of where the community is on these issues.

Regarding signals, EAB tells us they come in many forms, such as popular articles, acts of public demonstration, federal policy, especially education policy, and election demographics, to name a few. Recently this article popped up in my news feed. Now consider people and issues like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Black Lives Matter, voting rights, climate change, food insecurity, and the political divide. A recent study showed that two-thirds of all college students are motivated by social justice issues, and more than half got involved in one or more of these causes.

We can choose whether or not to embrace it, but I think this provides an interesting idea for our University Core Curriculum, which turns 10 years old this year. What if we further branded or honed our identity through the University Core Curriculum to teach everything we can through a social justice lens? There are some universities already doing this kind of work. At Kettering University, a STEM-focused institution in Flint, Michigan, they are teaching advanced math courses through a social justice lens. Think about the possible implications for teaching—just as an example – microeconomics, which could shift from using principles of guns and butter to showing how economic policy creates—both intentionally and unintentionally—net worth gaps? This kind of approach may be going on in individual sections, but consider the possibilities that come with incorporating it in a systemic way.

Imagine teaching public health by understanding how health disparities for marginalized people are created and sustained through policy? Think about teaching political science by helping students understand voter suppression, gerrymandering, and their impacts on civic engagement? Think about teaching Shakespeare, the traditional canon, but focusing on his treatment of women and people of color. I know our talented faculty could think of and implement better approaches than my examples here. But it’s an interesting idea. And no one in New Jersey is doing it. Many institutions nationally talk about social justice, but we actually do it—and we do it better than most.

What do you think of this idea of branding UCC through a social justice lens? Good idea or bad idea? Scan the QR code and let us know. We’ll put the final poll results up on the President’s Office website, along with the rest of today’s presentation.

As you know, in addition to—and in concert with—brand identity work, we will be developing a new Strategic Plan. You may recall that the Board of Trustees in June approved my recommendation for a shorter, three-year-plan, as opposed to a 10-year plan, like the one now coming to an end. One of the observations that Middle States made during our recent successful review was that 10-year plans are VERY long – too long, given the rapid pace of change in higher education today. Our current Strategic Plan is a good one, but it was implemented in 2012, which seems even longer than a decade ago, given everything that’s happened in the meantime. It’s hard to imagine setting goals now that, by design, wouldn’t be realized until 2033.

The preference for a three-year plan was based on your feedback, including a survey of the Faculty Senate along with other stakeholder groups, and I am confident that it’s the right one. I am excited to begin a process in which everyone has a role to play through an approach that was chosen collaboratively. This shorter time-frame will allow us to be more flexible and better prepare us to adapt—both to the acceleration of existing trends and the emergence of unexpected forces, like a global pandemic.

Many of you will remember that the Board of Trustees set out four over-arching goals for the University when I arrived: 1) Enrollment; 2) Retention; 3) Graduation Rates, and; 4) Career Development. We’re now ready to focus more intentionally on number four, career development, which will be a focus in the coming years as we think more about brand identity and the WP Experience. Through career development, we can hone our value proposition to students. I know that framing the issue this way makes some people uncomfortable, because saying a college education should be about jobs appears to crowd out its higher purpose of educating good citizens. Viewing a college degree in terms of “return on investment” would seem to leave little room for our values and objectives.

Here, I once again find the writing of Jon McGee to be instructive. In his book, Breakpoint: the Changing Marketplace for Higher Education, which I referenced in my spring address, he states his premise that the central forces shaping higher education today are economic ones and shares his five key points that colleges and universities need to consider: 1) Accessibility; 2) Affordability; 3) Accountability; 4) Differentiation, and 5) Sustainability. At the time, I talked a lot about sustainability in terms of our fiscal health and prospects. That will surely be an ongoing conversation. And while all of these are interdependent concepts, I want to focus here on accountability, which includes career development. Accountability, McGee says, raises the question of what kinds of outcomes students, parents, and society should expect of higher education.

He says: “The ascending and now dominant instrumental or commodity narrative of the college experience poses two significant challenges to many institutions, one related to expectations of return on investment (jobsand the other related to competing educational values and objectives (an educated citizenry).” The emphasis is mine.

My point is that William Paterson, like many institutions, struggles with balancing outcomes between the two. Historically for us, the question of outcomes was pretty straight-forward. We were founded as a teachers college, and the goal was to prepare students for a specific career, and the value of education was inherent in that goal.

These days, of course, we are a far more complex institution. So, is a college degree about getting a better job, or is it about preparing a student to be an educated member of society? If you ask our students—and we have—the answer seems clear. As I referenced earlier, 97 percent of our students say they come here to get good jobs. As high as that number is, I suspect it would be even higher for parents. And, yet, I appreciate the concerns around the importance of broader understandings often associated with general education or our University Core Curriculum.

But, the answer doesn’t have to be one or the other. As many of you know, I am a big fan of “and.” Our students can reap the benefits of a broad-based education—maybe through a social justice lens—and be prepared for successful careers in their chosen fields.

It’s McGee’s conviction—and I agree—that all institutions must provide prospective students and their families, as well as policy makers, with convincing, research-based answers to the questions they are asking with greater frequency:

  • What are the employment (or volunteer or graduate school) experiences of your recent graduates?
  • How have those changed over time?
  • What kinds of jobs and career experiences do your graduates have?
  • What kinds of incomes do they earn (not just the average)? and
  • How effective is your institution in preparing students for employment or graduate school and providing them access to employment and postbaccalaureate opportunities?

I am proud to say that we are not shying away from these questions, and we shouldn’t. We have a lot of great answers to share. One way we’ll do that is through a website refresh, now in its early stages of development, which will answer the kinds of questions McGee raises and that our prospective students and their families are asking. We’ll do that by highlighting key outcome data on every academic department’s webpage, including:

  • Average starting salaries and mid-career salaries for each discipline;
  • Lists of jobs available in each discipline and names of specific employers where our graduates work;
  • Information about internships in specific disciplines and names of specific employers where our students have internships;
  • Lists of critical skills identified by employers juxtaposed against what our students learn in specific disciplines;
  • First-year, post-graduation, employment rates for each college; and
  • A link to the U.S. Department of Labor Scorecard including extensive University-wide data.

I agree with McGee when he says: “College and university leaders can talk about learning value to their hearts content, but if we cannot address economic concerns in a compelling way—which does not require promises or guarantees but does require a commitment to understanding what happens to our students after they graduate—we risk losing the argument altogether.”

Folks, it’s an argument we can’t afford to lose, especially for the population of students that we serve. If we believe in the transformative power of what we do—and I know we all do—then we must be willing to adapt and change how we do it if it means building a stronger, more sustainable University that will better serve and graduate more students.

The amount of collective talent and commitment across this campus is tremendous and truly inspiring. I’ve appreciated the collective Will. Power. and potential in the William Paterson community since I first stepped on this campus. These past 18 months have only strengthened my appreciation. That’s why I am so excited to see you all back on campus again, and why I’m looking forward to the engaging discussions and important decisions in the year ahead that will help us determine William Paterson’s tomorrow. Because as Fleetwood Mac’s song reminds us, “Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow, don’t stop it will soon be here.” We have to start today. Thank you all, and have a great fall semester!