Strategic ambiguity

How does a large organization with an important role in a community embrace change while maintaining its identity and keeping a firm focus on its goals? In a recent conversation, SUNY New Paltz President Donald Christian used a term that has been increasingly introduced in management circles in recent years: strategic ambiguity. The concept, according to perhaps its most prominent champion, Eric Eisenberg, enables an organization to stay relevant by embracing change within a framework that retains its identity.

As a leading public university, SUNY New Paltz prides itself on its own traditions and on those of the region of which its part. It takes its leadership role seriously. While retaining its ties to the arts tradition of the region, it has in recent years strengthened its offerings in science and technology. It is usually in the room when the region’s future is under discussion.

Dr. Christian ticks off some of the advantages of its geographic location. It’s on the edge of the New York City metropolitan area. People think it’s a great place to live and play. It attracts a substantial population of second-homers and tourists. There could be more regional focus on the work part of the social agenda, Christian believes. Many residents looking for meaningful work have to commute long distances to find it.


Strategic ambiguity helps an organization find a constructive middle way between being highly specific and being overly vague. There’s a fine line between finding a new direction and seeming to wallow in indecision. It’s the job of leadership to tread that path.

Christian said he’s been impressed with the functioning of Empire State Development’s coordination of planning efforts in the Hudson Valley. This past April he was appointed co-chair of the rather secretive regional group. “I’ve been impressed with the level of collegiality, frankness, and handling of conflicts of interest,” he says. He notes “a high level of engagement” on the part of the members.

One person’s strategic ambiguity is another’s appetite for boundless diversity. Three quite disparate items struck me as I went through some of this week’s emails from New Paltz: the Shawangunk Wine Trail, the Harrington STEM lecture series at the Coykendall Science Building auditorium, and the current exhibitions at the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art. Each represents an evolution of a regional resource beyond its original boundaries — and by extension a cultural evolution of the region.  

Jude DeFalco’s main gig is as a member of Feast of Friends, a The Doors tribute band that plays regionally and nationally. He has also been the operations manager of the Shawangunk Wine Trail for the past five years. He says 3,000 people a year take a self-guided weekend tour of all 13 of the member wineries in Ulster and Orange counties. 

Wreath Fineries at the Wineries takes place on the weekends of Nov. 17-18, Dec. 1-2 and Dec. 8-9. The event is from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at all sites. You select your starting winery and buy your tickets at Tickets will not be available at the door. 

At your starting winery you pick up a souvenir wine glass, a grapevine wreath and an ornament. You taste the wine and if you wish, buy what you want. Then off to the next tasting site, where you get another ornament and enjoy another tasting. Follow @GunksWine on Facebook and Instagram. 

Please drink responsibly.

The Harrington STEM lectures will take the attendee to a different space in the cosmos, with this year’s offerings dealing with global climate change, gravitational waves and excitable systems. All are at 5 p.m. in the Coykendall auditorium on the SUNY campus. The programs are designed for a general audience.

A forest fire, a spectator wave in a sports stadium and the spread of electrical polarization waves on a heart surface are examples of reaction-diffusion waves. On Sept. 18, next Tuesday, physics professor Niklas Manz will discuss how scientists look at these patterns. 

On Oct. 16, MIT geology professor Oliver Jagoutz will take a broad view of climate change throughout the earth’s history. The global climate is dominantly controlled by carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere and in the oceans.

The capture of gravitational wave signals are a new tool in our understanding of the cosmos. On Nov. 13 astrophysicist Peter Saulson of Syracuse will explain how we detect gravitational waves and the highlights of what we are beginning to learn about the universe by observing it in this new way.

The Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art on the SUNY New Paltz campus has been in business for 17 years. It aspires to recognition as “the premier public showplace for exhibition, education, and cultural scholarship about the Hudson Valley region’s art and artists from yesterday, today, and the future.” It features exhibitions, installations, and projects by nationally and internationally recognized artists. 

This is not your father’s art work. There are four shows in the current lineup of exhibitions. Time Travels consists of the work of 11 regional artists “that engages with the concept of time travel and embraces the slippery notions of time.” Promising to transform the museum’s space-time continuum, the show nevertheless closes on a specific point on that continuum, Nov. 11.

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’ 40 portraits of American who identify as transgender. In The Trans List, the artist provides a platform for this diverse group of individuals to tell their stories. 

The Community and Continuity show of contemporary artworks by Native Americans from New York State comes from the extensive collection of the New York State Museum, as supplemented by earlier work provided by Historic Huguenot Street. 

Zines are zany. Alive & Yelling: Trans Zines and Radical Subcultures presents do-it-yourself fanzines, some startlingly original, from various subcultures. The writers of the notes for the gallery express their admiration for the freewheeling and uncensored contents and design.

Ambiguity, strategic and otherwise, seems to me endemic to artistic expression. One finds it in all cultures. Behind every deadly serious face always lurks another smiley visage. It is la condition humaine.

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