SUNY New Paltz should evolve to meet the challenges of a post-Great Recession America, and it can do so stressing educational quality, selective admissions and cross-disciplinary thinking, newly inaugurated collage President Donald P. Christian told his audience last weekend.
“I tip my hat to the seven past presidents of the modern college at New Paltz,” Christian said. “My aim is to build on your legacy and to leave this great college even greater than it is today.”
The university’s eighth president said he’d built his vision for the future of SUNY New Paltz based on what he’d heard from the people around him — the professors and students who love their school. The college must continue to leverage its strengths, including its acceptance, tolerance and diversity.
“We value liberal arts and sciences, and professional programs, undergraduate and graduate programs, teaching and learning, scholarship and service, and we’re committed to supporting our communities in the region,” he said. “But we also must recognize that public higher education lives in a world that has changed dramatically, will continue to change and will almost certainly not return to the way it was even recently.”
While SUNY New Paltz is not a land-grant university, most other state colleges throughout the country are — and President Christian said he found much guidance in the 150-year-old Morrill Land-Grant Act. That federal law paved the way for state colleges throughout the nation.
“The chancellor has challenged those of us in SUNY to re-imagine the land-grant ideal for the demands of a global 21st century,” he said. “The Land-Grant Act explicitly promoted both liberal and practical education. A view that’s at the heart and soul of New Paltz and our future.”
Christian added: “The key to our future is to make practical education liberal, and liberal education practical.”
The newly installed president also reaffirmed his commitment to have SUNY New Paltz remain a cultural and intellectual hub for the Hudson Valley.
“Our work as educators must be to grow and cultivate knowledge, learning and well-prepared graduates. Higher education is being challenged to increase the number of college graduates if our nation is to succeed as a democracy in a competitive global economy,” he said. “New Paltz certainly must continue to grow our contributions to this agenda, partly by continuing to raise our already impressive retention and graduation rates.”
A Midwesterner, Christian earned his degrees in biology and zoology from Michigan State University before working at universities in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Montana. Colleagues have compared Christian to a yeoman farmer — a hardworking, dedicated landowner — and farming was a key metaphor in the new president’s speech.
“I was also proud to be called a ‘yeoman farmer,’ because I think a lot about the lessons I learned from my uncles and aunts working on their Ohio dairy farms,” the college president said. “These include things like the value of hard work, the importance of cooperation, of finding reward in both the process of our work and the product, of recognizing that sometimes a good day’s work will include walking through manure or shoveling it.”
SUNY New Paltz’s new president used farming to explain the type of quality he’d like a degree from the college to represent. Factory farms favor low costs and quantity of product, where local sustainable farms put in hard work to create artisanal, high-quality crops. New Paltz must be more like that small organic farm.
“We imperil the mission and purpose of New Paltz if we also do not attend to high quality and the approaches that yield it,” Christian said.
By getting SUNY New Paltz undergraduates involved in research, service learning, honors programs and full-immersion language programs, the college will be able to offer a width and a breadth to their education — one that will emphasize quality over quantity, he said.
In many ways, the April 13 ceremony was for show and will have little impact on the operations of the college. Christian, 63, has effectively been running the university for nearly two years now since taking over in July 2010 when his boss, then-president Steven Poskanzer, left for a job at Carleton College in Minnesota.
The ceremony itself was accompanied by regalia, pomp, fanfare and bagpipes — and attended by State University of New York Chancellor Nancy Zimpher and Assemblyman Kevin Cahill.
“Today marks the symbolic beginning of a new chapter in the life of our college — a future to be molded by our new president Donald Christian,” Associate Professor Tom Meyer said.
Meyer, who emceed the event, sat on the presidential search committee that decided to promote Christian. Before his promotion, Christian had served as provost and vice president for academic affairs for the college. While the college conducted a national search to fill the job, the then-interim president stood out on the short list of worthy candidates.
Assemblyman Cahill — himself a graduate of SUNY New Paltz — praised the new president at the inauguration, welcoming him to the “New Paltz family.”
“I’ve gotten to know President Christian over the past several months and years to be a strong advocate for this institution — the right advocate at the right time,” the state lawmaker said. “He’s already proven to be not just an able spokesman for SUNY New Paltz — which he certainly is — but for the state university system generally.”
Cahill serves on the Assembly’s Higher Education Committee, but admitted a bias toward his alma mater — one which drew chuckles from the crowd. “It is the most important university on the Planet Earth … it really is,” he said.
The Assemblyman also got chuckles with another remark riffing on the new president’s academic background.
“I noted that you have advanced degrees in both biology and zoology, which I believe makes you uniquely qualified to run this institution,” he said.
So far in his time as president, Christian has presided over ambitious capital improvement projects started by former President Poskanzer. That work will continue with the renovation of Sojourner Truth library and Wooster Hall — along with the construction of an entirely new science building.