Asked to dance

SUNY New Paltz president Donald Christian says he learns a lot from a series of occasional Hot Chocolate with the President meetings with the college’s students. At the most recent dormitory meeting with students last week, he asked a question he said he likes to put forward at these sessions: What do you like best about being a student here? 

One student had a ready answer. “From the day I took my first step here,” Christian reported she said, “I felt part of a community.”

Visitors and prospective students notice that something is different and distinctive about the place, its president contends, when they come to look around the campus. They find the way the diverse student body, faculty, staff and even the local populace interact attractive. It’s a community. For potential students, that’s an asset that makes the school stand out.

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SUNY New Paltz is known for the diversity of its student body, 60 percent of whom come from outside the Hudson Valley. During the past decade, the proportion of enrolled white undergraduates has fallen from 74 percent to 62 percent. The proportion of degree-seeking Hispanic/Latino undergraduates has increased during that period from 12 percent to 22 percent.

To create a more equitable America, Christian said at last week’s Hudson Valley Future Summit, the goal has to be not just diversity but inclusion. What’s the difference between those two terms? “Diversity is being invited to the dance,” explained vice-president of enrollment management L. David Eaton. “Inclusion is being asked to dance.”

Eaton said that the gap between achievement levels — as measured by academic performance — of the major racial groups at the school has been level since 2010. Provided by Christian at the Future Summit last week, the latest data shows a seven percent differential between the highest-scoring major racial group, Asians, and the lowest-scoring group, blacks. Many major colleges and universities across the country report that differentials of 20 or 30 percent between racial groups are not uncommon. 

Eaton would like to reduce the achievement gap in New Paltz to zero. He contends that achievement gaps in the New York State educational pipeline are likely to persist “until we can address the issue of property-tax disparity.”  

Rennie Scott-Childress is both an academic and a politician, a history professor at SUNY New Paltz and majority leader of the Kingston Common Council. 

In the former role, he served for three years as co-chair of the 21-person Diversity and Inclusion Council at the college. The task force made policy recommendations on a series of matters, including the controversial renaming of the SUNY New Paltz dormitories. 

Scott-Childress is appreciative of president Christian’s sustained attention to creating an inclusionary atmosphere for all discussions about differences. “He made it possible for the college to be proactive,” he said.  

Scott-Childress readily recognizes the nature of the college’s role in the larger society. Educational institutions act as a sort of laboratory in the larger society for leadership in dealing positively with difficult social issues. “We talk a lot,” he said. “In some ways, the college is a rarified and separate atmosphere.”

Scott-Childress is community-minded. He says he’s a believer in the classical idea of the university as a place where students can develop a sense of civic responsibility rather than as a training ground for an occupation.

In his role as an elected politician, he is accustomed to “finding ways people can talk with each other” and negotiate solutions to matters of mutual concern. The legislative majority leader said he has developed an appreciation for differences. At the community level, symbolic gestures alone aren’t enough to lead to change. The rigidly self-righteous, Scott-Childress feels, “underestimate the amount of effort it’ll take to create change.”

The 2017 task-force plan at the college aimed “…to create a community built on the values of inclusion, diversity and equity while fostering a community grounded in justice, civility and respect.”

Of the approximately 6300 full-time degree-seeking undergraduates at SUNY New Paltz in 2019, 550 are enrolled in the SUNY system’s Educational Opportunity Program (EOP). Though they didn’t meet the admission criteria, these students from disadvantaged backgrounds were admitted because they had the potential to earn a college degree. They get extensive support services, testing and counseling, fee waivers and financial help. They have an online network where they can get advice and further counseling and make connections.

Engagement with diversity can be hard work not just for EOP students but for all students — and beyond that for all of us. Educational institutions benefit from being able to connect quickly with those in their community with problems to be solved.

New Paltz offers various support resources, among them an academic advising office, a psychological counseling center, a disability resource center, a math lab, a career resource center and a student help desk. Its Center for Student Success offers peer tutoring, strategies for learning, and a writers’ studio. It has robust one-on-one mentoring and tutoring systems.

SUNY New Paltz has recently joined more than 500 colleges in adopting a web-based system called Starfish, though which students can be contacted. New Paltz is using the Starfish platform for early intervention, said Christian. An advisor’s office can reach out to address issues of underperformance, whether these involve tutoring, finances, housing, classwork loads, mental-health situations or any other of the myriad problems students can have.

The proof is in the pudding.

Ultimately, the effectiveness of SUNY New Paltz’s ambitions for inclusion will be in the quality of its graduates. What skills will they contribute to a world sadly in need of healing? Will they be able successfully to bring to their careers the civic values they learned in their student days?

Only time will tell.

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