SUNY New Paltz president retires and reflects

SUNY New Paltz President Donald Christian at graduation ceremonies in 2017. (Photos by Lauren Thomas)

While students got ready to head home for their holiday break, the members of a search committee at SUNY New Paltz were burning the midnight oil. According to Dr. Donald Christian, this committee is currently tasked with winnowing down the field of applicants for his replacement to eight to 12 semifinalists. The search committee consists of representatives from campus constituencies including the College Council, faculty, professional staff, students, alumni, Foundation Board and academic deans. Also serving on the committee is an incumbent or retired SUNY president from another campus or a member of the Chancellor’s senior staff designated by the Chancellor. And, a Chancellor’s Liaison and Campus Liaison serve as non-voting members.

Christian will be stepping down this coming June, but that’s a year later than he had originally planned. Having led the college as interim president upon the departure of Steven Poskanzer in 2010, taking up the mantle of president in 2011, he decided in February 2020 to announce his retirement. His wife Sandy, a psychotherapist, is already retired, and the couple want to spend more time with their toddler grandson, who lives about a three-hour drive away in Pennsylvania. In his 70s, he’s also keen on reviving some favorite hobbies: “I want to read more for pleasure. I’m an avid angler, so I hope to be able to fish more,” he told HV1. “I was an avid gardener my whole life, up until the time I became president. I find great reward in being able to serve a meal that is everything I’ve grown.”

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His retirement was supposed to take effect at the end of the 2020 school year. “But then COVID hit,” Christian related. “I couldn’t leave campus in that lurch.” SUNY officials asked him to hang in a while longer and continue shepherding the New Paltz campus through the pandemic. And so it was that his final year-and-a-half on the job has consisted largely of helping the university adapt to cope with an emergency unlike any that had come before on his watch. It was fortuitous that the campus recently became home to the Institute for Disaster Mental Health, whose Psychological Resilience project provided a guiding hand for students and staff as they navigated the stress of a fractured learning environment.

Some of those academic adaptations to COVID-19 will carry forward into SUNY New Paltz’s future, Christian says. Virtual instruction has a hitherto-unsuspected role to play in attaining some of the goals identified in the college’s most recent Strategic Plan, adopted in 2012 – notably, the goal of diversifying the student body by making higher education more accessible to people who are older than the typical college population, already working and perhaps raising families.

“Our pandemic-driven experience with online education has opened our thinking about new possibilities to remain competitive with other institutions and to reach new populations of students,” Christian told members of the Ulster County Regional Chamber of Commerce at their annual holiday breakfast in December at the Wiltwyck Golf Club in Kingston. “Last month, we announced that this spring we will launch our new General Studies Bachelor’s degree completion program. This fully online Bachelor’s is designed to expand educational access to people who have earned 60 college credits but have not finished a four-year undergraduate degree.”

SUNY New Paltz President Donald Christian speaks at a September 11th memorial service on campus in 2011.

Christian’s address to the Chamber focused primarily on the linchpin role that SUNY New Paltz plays in the economy of the mid-Hudson region. “We’re the number-one employer in the county,” he noted, with more than a thousand Ulster residents on the college payroll. In 2019, “The College generated more than $380 million in direct and indirect economic activity in the Hudson Valley and about $447 million in New York State. Our total direct and indirect economic impact in Ulster County was estimated at more than $105 million. That included nearly $60 million in vendor spending and employee salaries…. SUNY New Paltz is increasingly valued as a regional asset and contributor, both for our high-quality educational offerings and for the many ways that we extend our expertise to benefit the region.”

In recent years, some of that regional impact has flowed from program innovations and expansions, including new graduate programs in Autism Studies, Literacy Education and Digital Design and Fabrication, new undergraduate majors in Environmental Studies and Entrepreneurship and graduate credentials in Health Care Administration and Music Business. Perhaps the most newsworthy addition has been the Hudson Valley Additive Manufacturing Center (HVAMC). The new STEM facility hit the headlines as early as 2014, with the design of a 3-D printed prosthetic “robohand” for a boy born without fingers on one hand. At the height of the pandemic, when personal protective equipment for frontline healthcare workers was scarcer than gold, HVAMC was cranking out plastic face shields by the hundreds (https://hudsonvalleyone.com/2020/03/31/suny-new-paltz-3d-printing-lab-is-making-face-shields-for-covid-19-frontline-workers) in the new Engineering Innovation Hub that had opened the previous autumn.

That new engineering building was but one of a raft of capital improvements that transformed the face of the SUNY New Paltz campus during Christian’s tenure, with an emphasis on sustainable building technology and a reduced carbon footprint. “In the last decade, we have built three new buildings and undertaken seven major building renovations along with other renovations and infrastructure improvements, thanks to state investment,” he told the crowd at the Chamber breakfast. “We have exceeded SUNY standards for LEED certification on many of our capital projects, supporting our sustainability goals.”

SUNY New Paltz is now a Tree Campus USA and a Bee Campus USA, with solar panels installed atop several buildings and a Foundation that no longer invests endowment funds in fossil-fuel companies. “We are establishing a Carbon Neutrality Task Force to identify a target date and a comprehensive strategy to become a net-zero carbon campus by reducing emissions and increasing offsets.”

An ongoing program to renovate one dormitory per year went on hiatus in 2020 due to the supply-chain issues and skyrocketing materials costs triggered by the pandemic. But the improvements are slated to continue as soon as the climate for construction permits. Expansion of the campus onto the Foundation’s “land bank” of 42 adjoining acres of former orchard is also in the cards, along with more infill of the existing campus. “We have a 500,000-square-foot space deficit for the current programs we have,” Christian told HV1, based on SUNY “space models.” A planning grant recently secured from New York State will help his successor determine the best options for expansion. 

“We just completed a first-ever major capital campaign, raising more than $24.7 million, surpassing our target of $23 million,” Christian said. The college’s fundraising success reflects its recent high rankings when compared to other institutions of its size. “We are ranked in the top three percent of more than 1,400 colleges and universities nationwide for our impact on the social and economic mobility of our graduates. 

This year, in the US News and World Report ranking, SUNY New Paltz moved up to the Number 6 slot from Number 9 among all public universities in the nine-state North region and from Number 45 last year to Number 31 this year among all non-doctoral colleges — public and private — in the region. We were recognized for the first time in the Most Innovative Schools category, one of only two SUNYs to appear on this list.”

SUNY New Paltz President Donald Christian and his wife Sandy (plus canine Hans) led the zero emissions electric car parade across campus lin 2019 as part of the college’s Climate Summit.

Other US News categories where New Paltz continues to shine year after year include Best Value Schools, Best Colleges for Veterans, Best Undergraduate Teaching, Top Performers on Social Mobility, Best Undergraduate Business Programs, Best Undergraduate Engineering Programs, Best Graduate Programs in Business (MBA), Fine Arts (MFA) and Speech/Language Pathology. “As our reputation has grown, so has the way the world perceives the value of a New Paltz degree,” Christian said.

Graduation rates are “far above national averages,” with SUNY New Paltz grads carrying less loan debt than average — none at all, for 40 percent of them. The student body is also growing increasingly diverse, as word gets around that a degree from this institution is simply a good deal for the money. Already, Christian told us, “Half came as transfer students,” including “lots of students who intentionally chose to start with community college, to economize.” Increasing enrollment is a high priority for the college, with plans to schedule more evening classes to bring higher education within reach of broader demographics. The college has also taken a variety of steps in recent years to combat structural racism in recruitment, hiring and the campus environment, with the decision to rename buildings originally named after slaveholding Huguenot families garnering the most public attention. “We focus on becoming a more equitable and inclusive campus because it’s the right thing to do, and it’s important for the viability of the institution, so that we serve a student body that reflects the growing diversity of the Hudson Valley,” Christian said.

“My focus this year has been to keep the college moving ahead, continuing to improve, then hand over leadership to a new president in a smooth transition,” he said. “In my final year, I will continue to lead the campus, navigating COVID-19 impacts and making decisions that should not be left to my successor.”

Christian plans to move out of New Paltz to a new home in the Town of Plattekill, noting that college presidents who stick around in the same community tend to “haunt their successor in ways that are not productive.” But he’ll continue to take pride in the many successes of his tenure. “Presidents come and presidents go, as do students; but SUNY New Paltz remains an educational, cultural and economic anchor institution in the region.”

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