State of the University Address, February 11, 2021

President Richard J. Helldobler

Click here to review presentation slides
Click here for opening remarks by Board Chair Michael Seeve

Thank you, Chair Seeve. Now, more than ever, William Paterson is fortunate to have the sound and steady leadership that you and your fellow trustees provide.

Well, good afternoon everyone! I hope you all had a restful and enjoyable winter break and that your semester is off to a great start.

Of course, I come to you today mindful that this is—for all of us—a time of both great promise and great uncertainty. Just days ago, we bid farewell to the first group of colleagues to take advantage of the Voluntary Separation Program. They were all long-serving, dedicated members of the William Paterson community. They WERE our colleagues. They ARE our friends. I’m glad they were able to take advantage of the voluntary program to pursue the next phase of their lives and careers . And while they will always be Pioneers, they will be missed on campus.

As tough as it is to say goodbye to these folks, we have to face the fact that it is just a prelude to a much harder phase to come. As difficult as the impending layoffs will be, however, I hope that everyone is mindful of the fact that this process should not come as a surprise to anyone.  After all, we’ve been talking about it almost since the start of my tenure, when we collectively confronted and discussed our growing challenges. During my first State of the University address, I highlighted the demographic challenges presented by Nathan Grawe in his book, Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education. One year ago, in this forum, when discussing our fiscal situation, I referred to the unfortunate but necessary steps of hiring and travel freezes. Those steps were aimed at dealing with what seems—in retrospect—a modest $1.5 million budget deficit. At the time, I talked about the urgency of increasing enrollment and retention to improve our position and avoid further consequences—and I specifically mentioned the possibility of job cuts.

I want to acknowledge all the good work that has been done and continues to be done on retention and enrollment. Our efforts and commitment are making a difference. But after a year of unprecedented headwinds, we are confronting budget deficits that are ten times greater—AT A MINIMUM.

Right now, we’re looking at a budget deficit for next year of anywhere between $20 million and $25 million—and this is with an aggressive enrollment goal, which will be challenging to achieve. On top of that, we will no longer have available to us several things that have helped keep our head above water this year, like the salary savings from furloughs, the COLA pause, and the CARES/GEARS money.

All of those things combined to provide much needed relief this year. Our shared sacrifice through the furloughs and the COLA pause are a big part of that. So thank you and thanks to our collective bargaining units for working with the administration on those steps. Together with the federal aid, they’ll prevent what would likely have been a $19 million deficit for the current fiscal year. I encourage you to attend the virtual Budget and Enrollment Forum that Vice President Bolyai and Vice President Ross will host on February 19. For now, though, you can see how quickly the pandemic impacted our budget for Fiscal Year 21.

Let’s take just one example. Our initial budget for this year was based on an expected residence hall occupancy rate of 82 percent. With so much uncertainty during the spring and summer deposit period about whether we would be able to have any on-campus experience or what that might look like, students were understandably hesitant to commit to living in the residence halls. We then slashed the projected occupancy rate to 50 percent. Even that turned out to be too optimistic. This semester, the halls are 39 percent occupied. Factor in the ripple effect, and that’s millions in lost revenue from room and dining fees, and less income from the bookstore, the Shea Center, and all the other places that typically depend on more people coming to campus.

Of course, the single biggest influence on our budget is enrollment. This semester, we’re enrolling a total of 9,242 students, which is about 1 percent above the revised pandemic goal, but still 1.3 percent down from this time last year. There are bright spots, like continued strong growth in graduate programs, especially WP Online. But the reality is, we are shrinking. And we have been for some time. William Paterson is the only public university in New Jersey that has not grown overall enrollment in ANY of the last 10 years.

So, when we factor in these kinds of structural imbalances that long pre-dated the pandemic, it quickly becomes clear that no year-over-year increase in enrollment and retention will get us out of this hole. So, while we will continue all efforts to maximize revenues, we simply must significantly reduce spending. And we have to do it in a way that doesn’t just aim to keep the doors open and the lights on—as important as that is. We have to do it in a way that leaves us better positioned to fulfill our mission and serve our students. You’ve heard me and Provost Powers talk several times about getting William Paterson to a fiscal position where we can invest more strategically for growth. This includes investment in new programs, along with faculty and staff development, to the ultimate benefit of all our students and employees.

So, what’s it going to take to get us there? Since these discussions began, I’ve aimed to be as transparent as possible. I owe all of you that as your President. And you deserve it, as dedicated members of the University community. I will share with you that when I was writing last year’s version of this speech, I was cautioned by some not to use the word “layoff.” That it would unnecessarily stir up fear and rumor. And I didn’t use it lightly. I used it because it was the reality that we were facing—the hard truth. And I wanted to be straight with everyone about what was at stake.

I also said, at the time, that I would do everything I could to avoid layoffs. And I have. The entire administration has. And the Faculty Senate, along with our collective bargaining units, have been good partners. Please know that. But no one foresaw the pandemic and the financial crisis it would produce. Part of our effort was offering the Voluntary Separation Program, a generous incentive that we hoped would draw significant interest from faculty and staff who might have already been considering retirement or otherwise moving on from William Paterson. The idea was that the more people who participate in the VSP—who through longevity have higher salaries—fewer layoffs would be needed. There has been some interest, and I am happy for those who are able to take advantage of the program. But it isn’t even close to making a significant dent in the anticipated number of layoffs.

To align staffing with the needs of the institution and align spending with supporting revenues, we anticipate needing to say goodbye to approximately 90 to 100 faculty members, with an additional $3 million reduction in adjunct costs by reducing our course schedule and increasing section enrollments. And likewise to a significant number of staff employees. The Cabinet and I are still working on the staffing reduction plan. As much as we’ve prepared ourselves for this difficult juncture, hearing these numbers or reading about some of them in the news recently is shocking—I know. But this will allow us to close our budget gap and provide some strategic funds to reset ourselves for growth.

Of course, this will be most difficult for those members of our community who will be directly affected by these layoffs. It will also be tough for the colleagues, students, and departments that will lose good people. We WILL be a different institution when this whole process is over.

There’s no way we won’t be. But we must ensure that regardless of what happens, our fundamental purpose—our true north, as I call it—remains the successful education of our students. That is ultimately what’s at the core of every move we make. Losing valued faculty and staff may seem contrary to that purpose in the short-term. But it’s clear, given the budget projections, that this move is essential to creating financial stability. And only that kind of stability will allow William Paterson to grow, thrive, and strategically invest, so that our students are always prepared to achieve great things.

The numbers I shared are tough to see. Vice President Bolyai and his administration and finance team spend their days immersed in this data and doing what they can to blunt the impact. For all the spreadsheets and calculations, they never lose site of the human impact of this work. And I know they care deeply about getting us on sound financial footing so we can thrive in the years ahead. So I want to thank them for all that they do.

Likewise, Vice President Boucher-Jarvis and her HR team have been doing all they can to try and reduce layoffs by administering the VSP. I know their preferred mission is to recruit and nurture great talent, but they recognize the necessity of what we are doing. And they know that these steps will allow for greater investment in our people. I thank them for the way they are handling this very difficult work.

As the headline on the cover of the current issue of WP Magazine puts it, this has been “An academic year like no other.” Here we are on February 11, and it’s also been a CALENDAR year like no other. Almost exactly one year ago, the first communication about COVID-19 was sent to the William Paterson community. At that point, the virus was an abstract thing. It was taking up more space in the news, but it was still happening elsewhere, to other people. After that email went out, we continued with plans for things like First Thursdays in the Manor and Pizza with the President in the Student Center. Of course, those would soon be canceled, along with athletic competitions, the Legacy Gala, Senior Send-Off, and, sadly, Commencement at the Prudential Center—the kind of milestone events that regularly brought us together as a community. But looking back at those early communications, what stands out to me is that, even when so much remained unknown, we promised to be transparent and to follow government and expert guidance, along with our own emergency response plan. I am proud to say that, as a community, we delivered on that promise.  

During times of change, it’s always instructive to look both backward and forward to help chart our course. In the earliest days of this institution, when it was still the Paterson City Normal School, it dealt with many setbacks, including a fire that destroyed its sole building. Then, in what the history of the era refers to as “the unfortunate year of 1918-1919,” the flu pandemic, combined with a shortage of coal, closed the School for many weeks during the fall session. At a time when the faculty numbered only about a dozen, two members were lost to the flu. Others were sickened, and the need for substitutes was so great that the senior class practice teaching period, which we now refer to as student teaching, was completely disrupted. This disruption had a lasting impact, because it hastened calls for the school to be taken over by the state. That takeover led to an era of growth and expansion that eventually brought us here to our Wayne campus. In that difficult period, as painful as it was, this institution ultimately made it through stronger. And we will do so again.

If we also look ahead, even given our own difficult period, we can see a University that comes out of the current pandemic financially stronger and better positioned to invest in its people and programs to the ultimate benefit of its students. The great thing is, we already know we are capable of getting there. As a community, we have so many examples that demonstrate our ability to weather storms, to adapt and improve. So many times, even before the pandemic, and certainly during, when we have not been defeated by tough circumstances. When we have, instead, put the Growth Mindset to work and used adversity as a way to move ahead.

After all, this is a University that increased first-year retention by 3.7 percent, a rate exceeding national averages, at a time when many of our peers were seeing a backward slide in that key indicator. What a wonderful testament to our students and to the faculty and staff whose care and concern for all our students has been evident this year. Congratulations to all our faculty and to all our professional advisors, and congratulations to Provost Powers, Vice President Reg Ross, and their teams, including the Will. Power. 101 facilitators on this wonderful achievement. Now, let’s challenge ourselves to keep it going.

We’ve also shown adaptability with WP Online, which continues to exceed enrollment goals. For the latest session, for example, we enrolled 237 students – 28 percent over our already ambitious goal.

The Roman philosopher Seneca said: “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”

Well—we were certainly prepared. The opportunity to succeed was already there, and the pandemic has only increased interest in fully online programs. That growth will continue long after the pandemic, and this is obviously an area with tremendous potential for William Paterson. We are taking advantage of that potential with our latest decision to expand the partnership by adding undergraduate degree programs to our mix of offerings. These will be aimed at adults, both those with some college credit and those starting fresh.  

Our preparedness has also served us well in responding to the pandemic. So, thanks to Dr. Jill Guzman and Director Charles Lowe, along with all the members of the COVID Response Committee for their continued good work and dedication. We are currently testing nearly 1,000 members of our campus community each week through a program that helps keep us all safe. Also, thanks to Jim Shelley and his physical plant team, who have gone above and beyond to keep our campus clean and safe while adhering to lots of new pandemic-related operating standards. Similarly, Steve Sondey and the folks in purchasing have done a great job procuring hard-to-find but essential supplies like PPE and cleaning supplies. So, thanks to them.

As impressed as I’ve been by the way our faculty have adapted to serve our students over the past year, I am equally impressed by the many creative efforts to facilitate student engagement and well-being through both in-person and virtual formats.  Well-being is an overarching theme for the Student Development team, and it is one that has taken on national prominence is the age of COVID. A few examples from the fall include weekly virtual yoga, kickboxing, and Zumba classes, as well as virtual well-being sessions, such as meditation, mood-boosting fitness, and mindfulness offered by Campus Activities.

The Center for Diversity and Inclusion partnered with the Counseling, Health, and Wellness Center and Campus Police to offer programs such as the Bridge Support Group, for the discussion of racial trauma, micro-aggressions, and systemic barriers. And the Courageous Conversations Series was a forum for intergroup dialogue on difficult but important topics. These are great examples of how a concept called “Critical Wellness,” which I’ll discuss more a bit later, is being applied here at William Paterson. Thank you to Vice President Cammarata and everyone in the Division of Student Development for their dedication and hard work to keep our students healthy and engaged.

In a tough economic environment, the Institutional Advancement staff managed to not just meet the $10 million goal of our Scholarship Campaign—they blew the doors off of it! The campaign raised a total of $16 million—60 percent over goal! That $10 million goal alone would have been transformational for our students. Now think about what that additional $6 million will do for so many more of them. It will be the difference that allows them to enroll and stay enrolled. It will be the difference that allows them to earn their degree. It will be the difference that changes their lives, their families and communities for the better.  Thanks to IA Vice President Pam Ferguson and her team for their great work.

Our Marketing and Public Relations team, under the leadership of Vice President Stuart Goldstein, launched a vibrant new marketing campaign that builds on the powerful and effective “Will. Power.” motto and creates a new series of beautifully designed ads with the fresh message: “Together, we’ll do this.” It speaks to the collaboration, support, and sense of completion and accomplishment that distinguish the WP experience. I also want to congratulate Vice President Goldstein and his team for being recognized by the New Jersey Advertising Club with first, second, and third place awards for,respectively, the WPAccepted Welcome Booklet, the 2019 Holiday Greeting video, and the spring 2019 social media campaign to convert accepted students into enrolled students. Congratulations to everyone in Marketing and Public Relations for this well-deserved recognition.

So, the good work continues all across campus. And we should all be proud of the fact that, as a community, we did what was necessary to launch this academic year with an on-campus experience for so many of our students. Most critically, our freshmen. I will tell you that it was William Paterson’s push that prompted a dialogue at the state level about how SOME early face-to-face instruction would be critical to the college success of this population. That should be a WP: We’re Proud moment. It made a real difference, and the retention numbers bear that out. We all did what we had to do, day in and day out, to keep each other safe and keep our campus operating. By this point, these public health protocols are well ingrained in our daily routines. At the same time, I know that we’re all eager to drop them as soon as we can.

Well, it’s not safe yet. So for the remainder of this semester, at least, we will need to continue with our mix of online, hybrid, and HyFlex courses; continue social distancing, regular hand washing, constant mask wearing—above the nose!; and continue with the Orange and Black work schedule. The vaccine is our light at the end of the tunnel. Perhaps you or your family members have already gotten it. That’s great. But it will take a while longer before enough people have it that we can start to safely change our behavior. Until then, let’s carry on. But let’s also be sure to learn what we can from these experiences. Because disruption of various stripes is bound to be a hallmark of higher education and the world at large for a long time to come.

A recent survey from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center provides some striking data that gives shape to a phenomenon that we’ve all either sensed developing or seen first-hand over the past year. It finds that 56 percent of Black and Latinx students say that COVID-19 is “very likely” or “likely” to force them out of school That compares to 44 percent of white students, which is a troubling enough number on its own.

I’m sure many of us have spoken with students who, in talking about pausing their education, may be unrealistic about their prospects for returning. According to the Clearinghouse, only 13 percent of students who drop out ever return. Even students who drop from full-time to part-time are less likely to graduate, and we saw a significant shift in our continuing students from full-time to part-time this semester. 

Nationally, it has been reported that somewhere between 1 million and 3 million high school students have just disappeared from their classes as a result of the pandemic; their districts don’t really know what’s happened to them. These are predominately students of color. They are students who could otherwise be destined for places like William Paterson, but who are unlikely to enroll at any college because of this disruption. We are currently seeing this play out in our freshmen applications, which are down approximately 15 percent.  This is the crisis that we must be focused on above all others by continuing to do everything we can to keep our students enrolled.

Let’s look ahead again and think about what kind of lasting changes the pandemic will likely produce. We all know that—whatever we meant last spring by things getting back to normal—normal surely means something very different now. Some students—graduate and undergraduate—will have taken to remote learning and may now even prefer it. What will this all mean—when the pandemic is finally over—for our residence halls, dining, student activities, and other campus operations? What will it even mean to “go to the office?”

A lot of what we’re talking about—self-reflection, self-awareness—falls under the more technical term of “self-assessment,” which is a critical part of William Paterson’s continuing accreditation by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education. Thanks to Provost Powers and his team, especially Associate Provosts Sandy Hill and Jonathan Lincoln, we recently hosted a successful visit by William J. Fritz, president of the College of Staten Island, who heads our reaccreditation team. They will return next month for the formal virtual site visit. Just a couple of weeks ago, we submitted our self-study report for its consideration. That’s a big milestone in this whole process. It’s the product of a lot of hard work and the source of a great deal of insight, so stay tuned for more on this important work.

As you know from my past addresses, I like to share with you some of what I’m reading that’s helping inform my thinking on all these important issues. I want to mention two books, in particular; one dealing with higher education and one focusing more on K-12 but tackling issues that are important for us and our students.

The higher ed one is Breakpoint: The Changing Marketplace for Higher Education, by Jon McGee.

McGee’s premise is this:

“Make no mistake, economic factors are THE central force influencing and reshaping higher

education today.” (emphasis mine) – Jon McGee

Hard to argue with that. He goes on to posit that today’s higher education landscape is defined by five key ideas and the questions they raise: 

  1. Accessibility – Who gets access to what kind of college experience?
  2. Affordability – How will students and their families pay for college? How will colleges continue to operate if not enough of them can figure out an answer to that question?

Accessibility and affordability are central to our mission as a public institution, and we’ve continued to innovate here through trend-setting programs like Pledge 4 Success to help more families afford college.

  1. Accountability – What kinds of outcomes ought students, parents, and society expect of higher education? 

We’re doing a good job of building and promoting a culture of accountability. We make clear to students and families through programs like Will. Power. 101 and others that we want them to stay enrolled and make steady progress toward their degree. Increases in retention and four-year and six-year graduation rates are further measures of accountability that prove we are fulfilling our mission.

  1. Differentiation – How will colleges distinguish themselves and their value in the face of increasing competition and a shrinking market?

You’ve heard Provost Powers talk a lot about this. About how opportunities for differentiation exist not so much in what we offer as in how we offer it. Initiatives like WP Online, the expanded winter term, and work/life experience for credit toward degree completion for adult learners, are some great examples of our distinctive approach.

And, finally…

  1. Sustainability – Can colleges generate the resources they require to continuously improve their academic and developmental quality and still remain accessible to students of all means?

There is more to be done with the first four, but this one—Number 5, sustainability—is what’s really casting its shadow over our world right now. Because the other side of the sustainability equation, of course, is this: can colleges keep revenues and costs aligned? That’s what we’re confronting with the Voluntary Separation Program and, unfortunately, the layoffs. They are a last resort. But that’s where we are. And that’s what we need to do to ensure that this is a sustainable institution that can continue advancing its mission, employing many hundreds of faculty and staff to educate many thousands of students every year, for many years to come.

So, from a book about how to ensure we stay in business to deliver on our mission to one that more directly addresses the nature of that important work. All Students Must Thrive is a collection of essays about—as the subtitle states, “Transforming Schools to Combat Toxic Stressors and Cultivate”—here’s that concept I mentioned earlier: “Critical Wellness.” It focuses on K-12, so it has a lot of valuable insights into the kinds of stressors and traumas that many of our students—particularly students of color—have endured by the time they reach us. And it offers lessons on how we can better serve these students by “recognizing, understanding, and affirming their racial and cultural identities” on the path to “critical wellness.”

The book’s editor, Dr. Tyrone Howard, is professor of education and associate dean for diversity, equity, and inclusion at UCLA. In his own essay, he talks about some of the changing racial demographics of our institutions and our communities. These changes lead to some questions—ones that we are now working to answer as a University. Specifically: 

  • How much has my curriculum changed to reflect the makeup of my students?


  • Do I incorporate content that reflects racial and ethnic diversity?

I find this framework of “critical wellness” useful for informing all the good work we are doing around the curriculum, student support, and faculty and staff development. It ensures that we account for their identities and social and economic realities when we talk about educating the whole student. We are applying this framework by expanding how we define wellness to include affirming students in their identities and cultures. The more we integrate these into traditional measures of wellness, the better off our students will be.

I am renewing my request, which I made last fall, and restated in my MLK and Black History Month remarks, for the Faculty Senate to get serious about decolonizing the curriculum. It is critical work if we want to become the institution of CHOICE for students of COLOR, a demographic that is growing in New Jersey. If we successfully enroll and graduate more of these students, we will help close this state’s net worth gap, change the social fabric of our region, and GROW as an institution. 

As you know , I’ve talked a lot about another book, Carol Dweck’s Mindset, which lays out the Growth Mindset framework, and I will continue to do so, because it is something that must become ingrained in all of us and our students. If it seemed an abstract concept before the pandemic, I’m sure you’ll agree it is now a very real one. As we shrink in headcount among faculty and staff, the growth mindset will become ever more important to how we approach our future as individuals and—collectively—as a University community.

What can we hope to gain from this otherwise painful period of transition? It is my pledge that after this difficult reset for growth, we will emerge a financially stronger institution that is better positioned to invest in its people and programs. Otherwise, this will all just be about cutting costs to survive for the time being. Of course, that’s important. But we all know that, in this increasingly competitive higher ed market, our ambitions must go far beyond keeping the lights on. Otherwise, there won’t be anyone to turn them on for. Too often, in the past, we have reacted TO our circumstances. Now, we must ACT to control them going forward. It will be painful. But it IS necessary. 

In recent years, we’ve had to cut back on ART, sabbaticals, promotion opportunities, critical hires, travel, and a host of other areas. We have reduced staff, through attrition, but have spared faculty. We just can’t afford to do that any longer. When we successfully realign our faculty and staff structure to meet student enrollment and course demand—as we will—we will be able to increase our investment in our people and programs. We can build further on the success of Will. Power. 101 and WP Online. We can invest more in new programs that will attract more students and increase both tuition and non-tuition revenues.

I referred to this earlier, but it bears repeating: With the above examples in mind, William Paterson will best distinguish itself not so much by what we offer as by how we offer it. Our trademarks will be strong 360-degree support; high-touch experiences; and high-quality programs in formats that are convenient for all kinds of students—traditional undergrads, graduate students, degree completers, part-time students, working people, and anyone else with a desire to change their lives through grit and Will. Power. and obtain a William Paterson credential.  

Last month, we got to witness America’s first Youth Poet Laureate, Amanda Gorman, recite her powerful poem, “The Hill We Climb,” at the inauguration of President Biden and Vice President Harris.

These words, in particular, have stayed with me:

“For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it.” 

We must be brave enough to change ourselves, even when it means we will be a smaller community. And I know that is both painful and scary. And, for some, life-changing.

We talk a lot about our very special mission of providing our students with an excellent education. Our true north. Whether we teach, advise, coach, or interact with students in a myriad of other ways, I’m sure we all recognize that this is never a one-way street. Part of the great joy of doing this important work is what we can learn from our students. Even if they are freshmen just a couple of months removed from high school, they bring with them unique experiences, perspectives, and wisdom that we can all learn from.

Perhaps the greatest lesson comes from just observing them and what they go through to be here and stay here. They have grit in abundance. As a raw material, that grit is unbeatable. I know that’s what inspires me every day. And I make it my goal to bring that same level of determination to MY work. I hope their grit inspires you, too. Because, combined with the tremendous skills and ability that each of you brings to YOUR work, it is a powerful force.

Now, I know you’ll have lots of questions, and I’ll try and answer a few of them now. You can type them into the chat box. In the meantime, I’ll start with some that were submitted in advance. Please keep in mind that there will be lots more opportunities to ask questions at the series of Office Hours and Town Halls planned for this semester. The first Office Hours session is next Tuesday at 1 p.m., so check your email for the link. 

I know these are uncertain times. But I am certain of this: as long as our true north remains fixed on our students and their success; as long as our purpose is educating future generations who might not have access to a college degree without us, then preserving this special place that we call William Paterson must be our laser focus. And from that focus, we shall not be moved.

As we sort things out and reorganize ourselves, I leave you with this beautiful song that was born as an African American spiritual and popularized as a powerful statement by labor and civil rights organizers. This version, by the great Sweet Honey in the Rock, reminds us that “We Shall Not be Moved.” Thank you for your time, and have a great semester!