"A state of the university address is an opportunity to reflect on higher education at large, as well as on the status of a particular institution"

By Robert A. Scott, President, Adelphi University

From On  the Horizon, based on the 2012 State of the University Address.


A state of the university address is an opportunity to reflect on higher education at large, as well as on the status of a particular institution; the value of a broad-based liberal arts curriculum; and the long-term implications of strong relationships between faculty and students and alumni and alma mater.

Issues in Higher Education and Adelphi’s Status

It seems that nary a day goes by without reports or commentary on higher education, mostly without good news. Moody’s Investors Service, the bond rating agency, tracks higher education and, in its “Mid-Year Outlook,” describes the challenges of heightened competition for students, declining revenue sources, and deferred facility maintenance. It adds to this list the decline in investment portfolios; changes in public policy, especially state and federal funding; increasing regulations; demands for improved transparency; new attention to tax issues; and increased attention to the cost of college and student debt burdens. Moody’s report calls for a shift in institutional strategies to become more market-directed than mission-driven.1

We can add to this litany the challenges brought by demography, economics, technology, new competitors, low graduation rates, tuition discounting, and criticism about institutions being slow to innovate – yielding more to desperation than initiating change by design.

Yet, at the same time, policy leaders say that a higher education is essential to economic development, societal improvements, and individual fulfillment. The U.S. Department of Labor says that, by 2020, 75% of jobs will require a college education.2

Is the “system” of higher education in the U.S. up to the task? Are the criticisms valid across the board, or do critics paint with wide brushes, using small samples to assert large points which are not valid in general?

There certainly are criticisms to be made about higher education, many of which are enumerated in my essay, “The Modern American University: A Love Story.”3 The issues are many: cost, really the price of tuition; student debt; the avoidance of accountability; out-of-control athletic programs; the falsification of freshmen SAT scores and alumni giving rates; and intrusive boards of trustees guided more by politics than by policy, among others, all of which are real but not endemic.

The cost of higher education is a concern, especially at public colleges and universities where state support has been reduced dramatically and campuses have had to increase tuition in an attempt to compensate for the cuts and meet government-mandated objectives.

It also is true that colleges and universities have raised tuition above the inflation rate to support construction for amenities beyond the educational mission, and marketing campaigns aimed more at U.S. News ranking than at disenfranchised communities. But there is no evidence to support the assertion that tuition is increased because federal assistance is available – except, perhaps, at private career schools

Student debt is a concern, too, but one that is not well understood. When I read in The New York Times that someone has graduated with a bachelor’s degree from N.Y.U. or Northern Ohio University with over $120,000 in debt, I have to ask, “Why”? Taking on such debt is voluntary; no one required it. There are lower cost alternatives.

Much of the increase in the total student debt cited, the “$1 trillion” cited by the media, is explained by the increase in enrollment, a national goal, and the focus on retention, another goal. Certainly, institutions should do a better job of counseling students about taking on debt, whether from a federal or a private source, and the potential consequences in terms of interest, potential penalties, and collection agencies, as some students take on loans which are quite risky and at high interest rates. We take this job seriously.

While it is true that the federal loan programs were intended to help low income students cover living expenses while enrolled in college, major beneficiaries have been middle class families who are advised on how to work the system, and publicly-traded corporations that own for-profit schools and colleges which are the largest consumers of federal loans – and whose students have the lowest graduation rates and the largest debt default rates. Private institutions like Adelphi have the lowest rates of default.

Nevertheless, increasing the loan interest rates for political reasons, high alternative loan rates, inadequate support for graduate education, and the limitations on bankruptcy protection are other matters entirely, and harmful to students and the nation’s goals for higher learning.

The news reports about online education are almost hysterical in their tone, referring to “tsunamis” and disruption. Yes, all levels of education must adopt and adapt to both technology and globalization, with an appreciation for the differences between ends and means. Technology is a tool; globalization describes the environment, including the interdependence of nations as represented by our students. Neither should be formulated as a goal, but each should be part of strategic planning, part of the context for establishing principles and setting priorities for action.

While many refer to edX of Harvard and MIT, Coursera of CalTech and the University of Pennsylvania, and Udacity of Stanford and others, with a major focus on massive open online courses (so-called MOOC’s), I prefer the University of Southern California approach. Its model is to use online learning to expand professional, graduate, and adult continuing education aimed at degree completion or certification, with students in manageable numbers, and to serve as an enhancement to, not a substitute for, the transformational opportunities of high-powered undergraduate education. USC knows which business it is in.

We also are continuing to develop the capacity to thrive, not just function, in a digitally networked world. These technologies help schools and colleges expand spatially, temporally, and virtually for students of all ages.

We do this through an increased number of “blended” courses, utilizing both in-class and internet media; mixed online and in person, self-paced sessions; internet connections between faculty and students, whether the professor is at a distant conference or students are at an athletic or theater competition out of state; and online programs offered through University College and other units for working adults.

Just think, we have close to 100,000 alumni, most of whom feel on affinity to Adelphi and many of whom require continuing professional education, or desire advanced study in an elective field. Why should we ignore their desire for continued learning, which we can offer through a networked connection to campus, especially when we are equipped to help faculty teach in these new ways?

This, too, is a goal of AU2015, the University’s strategic plan, which incorporates opportunities for learning in and out of class, on and off-campus, in and out of the region, in line and online.

There are other areas of higher education we can improve, to be sure. For example, we must understand better how students learn for us to be effective as teachers. We must understand that faculty and campus leaders may not automatically be acknowledged as sources of authority, due to alternative sources such as those available on the internet. We must understand that students and parents want to know the potential outcomes of what we offer. We must understand that our students are aware of the competition for work from peers in other countries.4

We must also make better use of time. Higher education remains one of the few enterprises to “give up” one-quarter of the year because of faculty governance’s two-semester system. To be flexible, innovative, and responsive, institutions must make better use of time and both human and physical assets.

We can learn from these challenges, even as we meet them, and there are few institutions in history more likely to change in order to meet new challenges – as colleges and universities have done for over eleven centuries.

These are some of the major challenges facing higher education. How does Adelphi look within this larger context?

Over the past decade, we have adopted AU2015; hired over 200 new faculty; revised, deleted, and added academic programs; strengthened the Faculty Center for Professional Excellence; added high quality, effective student services; expanded student financial aid; kept tuition lower by as much as $6,000 per year compared to peer institutions in the region; earned the “Best Buy” designation from The Fiske Guide to Colleges for seven years in a row; gained recognition as a “College of Distinction” for encompassing Engaged Students, Great Teaching,Vibrant Communities, and Successful Outcomes; increased the endowment from under $50 million to almost $140 million; completed the first-ever comprehensive fundraising campaign in Adelphi’s history; added or totally renovated some 500,000 square-feet of facilities; and earned an “A” bond rating from Standard and Poor’s because of modest debt and effective management of invested and operating funds.

A review of our management philosophy and practices, “Assuring Effectiveness and Productivity in Higher Education”, including the use of time and space, was distributed by the audit firm Grant Thornton to institutions of higher education across the nation.5

Fall 2012 represents a significant level of accomplishment for us. Freshman enrollment and total undergraduate enrollment are at new highs, with likely the largest and best-prepared freshmen class in the 117-year history of the University, the highest total undergraduate FTE (Full-time Equivalent) enrollment in at least 30 years, and full residence halls. This, while other institutions have seen enrollments decline.

Graduation rates continue to be the highest in our region, with an improvement to 94% in first semester retention. Second semester and second year retention, as well as increased attention to the applicants offered admission, improved yield rates of the best prepared students, faculty attention to office hours and advising, student involvement in faculty research, and career counseling and development all continue to be areas of emphasis. We are the best and want to be better.

We initiated three “pilot” financial aid programs this year to provide student financial assistance in new ways. We want to help reduce student debt, which is already, on average, lower than at other colleges; increase the yield rate on offers of admission to the most talented students, who are the most likely to graduate; and reward students who hit their academic stride later and succeed in the first year at a higher rate than expected. The yield rate on the most talented students improved again this year, so this class is not only the largest but includes some of the brightest students ever.

Students not only graduate, but also gain meaningful employment, often though internships and field placements, and continue on to graduate school in large numbers.

We keep deferred maintenance to a minimum, updated the Facilities Master Plan, and the Board approved proceeding with the selection of an architect for a new academic building, Welcome Center, and underground parking garage north of Swirbul Library. We know that new facilities help enrollment, as we have seen in Dance and Music after the construction of AUPAC, the Performing Arts Center. We also opened a new facility for Nursing and Social Work in Poughkeepsie, with state-of-the-art opportunities for enrollment growth there.

The major facilities added in recent years are LEED certified; we have built three significant geo-thermal fields; 100% of electrical power comes from alternative energy sources; and both grounds maintenance and housekeeping services use “green” products and materials.

In the academic arena, we have added new interdisciplinary programs, including the Master of Public Health, the Master’s in Health Information Technology, and the Master’s in Nutrition. The Center for Health Innovation (CHI) Advisory Board of highly accomplished individuals is in place and will be helpful in both policy guidance and philanthropy.

The Community Fellows Summer Internship Program continues to grow, from a start of under 20 students three years ago to 63 this summer. The McDonell Summer Research Fellowship Program entered its second year, and we added an Honors College Summer Research Grant Program in Summer 2012.

The recognition for faculty scholarship and creative activity, as seen in the new publication, “Erudition,” demonstrates again that great teaching and notable scholarship are compatible and add to Adelphi students’ benefits. We seek to support the faculty and recognize their work.

Athletics continue to flourish, with four hundred student-athletes, almost 10% of undergraduates, up from less than one-half that just a few years ago. In addition, the new Center for Recreation and Sports has facilities that have allowed for more student activities, intramurals, and recreation. Overall, nine varsity teams had NCAA appearances for Northeast-10 Championships last year. Most notably, Adelphi student-athletes had the tenth highest academic success rate of all institutions in Division II nationally.

It is through athletics, student government, various clubs and organizations, and voluntarism that we help students develop the habits of mind and team work to become successful in their academic and later careers and also active in their communities.

During this coming year, we will be heavily engaged in quality assurance through accreditation, with visits by teams representing the American Psychological Association; the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business-International; the American Speech-Language Hearing Association; the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education; and the Council on Collegiate Education for Nursing. In addition, we will seek Phi Beta Kappa membership and American Chemical Society approval. We already hold Arboretum and Museum accreditations, and will continue our effective academic program and administrative unit reviews as we do each year.

As we state in AU2015, strategic planning is about principles for decision-making – who we are; what is our mission; what are our core competencies and competitive advantages – and priorities for action, what we will do next. We have to be sufficiently flexible to take advantage of new opportunities, but sufficiently focused to cut off options which could become distractions. We cannot be all things to all people.

The Value of a Broad-based Education in the Arts and Sciences.

Another way of saying this is to state that we cannot promise to teach students everything, but can pledge to help them learn anything. This is true for graduate students as well as undergraduates. This is the goal of education, to prepare students for a lifetime of learning, whether in a particular field, a combination of disciplines, or general culture. We must help them develop the habits of mind to meet challenges unknown and unforeseen.

We talk about general education for undergraduates, but know that graduate students also need to study beyond the boundaries of their field, and they, too, need to “enhance higher order cognitive skills, including systems thinking, problem-solving, team work, statistical literacy, cybernautics, and creativity”, as the futurist David Snyder has said.6 This is critical thinking: knowing how to decide which questions are important, which problems to solve, which tools to use, which assertions are based on fact, faith, or fear.

For undergraduates, we must go further. Our general education approach should be a signature program, a defining characteristic of an Adelphi degree. I know we are working on it, and expect that we are reviewing the goals of the Freshman Seminar Program as well: the goals we have for it; the needs it actually fulfills; and the views of faculty and students toward it.

As for general education, I think of it as consisting of three clusters of disciplines: those related to the world we meet, including earth, air, and water; those related to the world we make, whether aural, visual, or physical, or fine, decorative, or functional; and those related to the systems of thought by which we mediate between the natural world and the world we create, including philosophy, ethics, and religion.

For all students, we should emphasize the skills and abilities of critical reading and listening, as well as articulate speaking and coherent writing. Now, I have heard faculty say that writing is the province of the English department. But the evaluation of writing is a responsibility of us all. For those who say, I can’t teach writing, I say, don’t. Just teach thinking. Then, assess student ability to formulate and express ideas in a logical, coherent, clear manner with some signs of creativity. Judge the thinking; the writing will follow.

This is the value of a broad-based education in the arts and sciences, designed to liberate students from their provincial origins no matter their status, and to prepare them for learning how to learn, to help transform them from passive to active participants in reflection and exploration.

But we, as educators, must be reflective, too. We must reflect on the effectiveness of our teaching and advising, the vitality of our programs, the integrity of our assessments, the timeliness of our questions, the rigor of our standards. We are a community, and as a community we should have high expectations and a common understanding of excellence.

The Special Relationships Between Students and Faculty, and Alumni and Alma Mater

Alumni from every decade since the 1930’s have mentioned to me the influence of Adelphi faculty, coaches, and staff on their lives. They affirm the fact that it is the faculty and the programs they nurture which inspire students to attend, succeed, and graduate on time.

We aspire to be the premier liberal arts university in the region, with nationally recognized programs; a place where students are known by their name and know their faculty by name; a place that is both challenging and caring; a place where advising is as committed to learning about life as it is to the selection of courses to meet requirements; a place where faculty and staff are clapping hands in the audience and the bleachers — supportive, available, inspiring. Special initiatives such as ICAN, the Collaboration Project, and Research Day, among other special events, add to the spirit of mutual learning, mutual reflection, and mutual action.

These activities foster the relationships between students and faculty which then strengthen the ties between alumni and alma mater.

Alumni represent an important asset for Adelphi. They help recruit students; host receptions for accepted students and encourage them to attend; speak on campus, as Bob Kavner did at Matriculation Day; welcome students to their offices to talk about careers; provide networks for advice, internships, and jobs; participate in the “Profiles of Success” program to inspire other alumni to be involved; become part of the COACH (Count on Alumni for Career Help) Program; and, yes, support Adelphi financially.

Every college and university is evaluated on the strength of its alumni giving. Standard and Poor’s, Moody’s, The U.S. News and World Reports, and private foundations, among others, look at the percentage of undergraduate alumni who contribute annually as a measure of an institution’s vitality. Fortunately our percentage increase has grown almost 200% in past years.

In addition, alumni have contributed to Adelphi’s first-ever comprehensive campaign, the first in over 100 years, which finished August 31, 2012 at $58.5 million, $2.5 million over goal.

During the campaign, more than 16,000 alumni and friends made a gift or pledge. Many of you here today participated, and we are grateful. While we increased membership in the Million Dollar Roundtable to sixteen – from zero – living donors, including two major giftswhich resulted in the naming of the Ruth S. Ammon School of Education and the Robert B. Willumstad School of Business, we are just as grateful for the gifts of $5, $25, and $100 from faculty and staff. Indeed, a few of you here gave substantially more and established scholarship endowments to recognize role models of your own.

The results of the campaign are visible: The Performing Arts Center; the Center for Recreation and Sports; Motamed Field; Pollack Plaza; the Alice Brown Early Learning Center; Bonomo Stadium; the McDonell Scholars Program; the Community Fellows Program; and numerous new scholarships for needy and talented students.


In summary, this is the state of our University, an update on my thinking. We have significant challenges, in terms of the economy, demographics, rapid changes in technology, expectations for effectiveness, competition for students and faculty, and changes in how higher education is viewed. Once seen as an engine for social and economic mobility, as a public good, college increasingly is seen as principally a benefit to the individual, a private gain. In my view, we should not divorce these two goals, or we do so at society’s peril. It has been demonstrated that those who advocate the benefit as a private gain and not a public good also call for reductions in state and federal programs and greater privatization of historic and Constitutional programs for civic improvement and citizen engagement, two principles on which our nation was founded and which we will celebrate on Constitution Day.

The challenges are great, but we have shown that we at Adelphi can think and act strategically through a partnership of shared governance. We have demonstrated principles for decision-making, integrity in action, and a set of values that places as much emphasis on character and citizenship as on careers and commerce, on living a life as well as earning a living.

As a 19th Century Cree Indian put it,

Only when the last tree has died,
and the last river has been poisoned
and the last fish has been caught
will we realize that we cannot eat money.7

This is our calling, our commitment, our common cause.


1 Kiley, Kevin. “Moody’s Gives Higher Education a Bleak Outlook.” Inside Higher Education. July 27, 2012.

2 Fickes, Michael. “Must Have College Degree.” College Planning & Management, August 2012, p. 16.

3 Scott, Robert A. “The Modern American University: A Love Story.” On the Horizon, Volume 18, Issue 4, (Fall 2010), pp. 294-307.

4 Enrickson, Tammy. “It’s Time to re-Think the U.S. Education System”. HBR Blog Network, 8:00 a.m., August 27, 2012.

5 Scott, Robert A. “Assuring Effectiveness and Productivity in Higher Education.” Grant Thornton On Course, October 2011.

6 Snyder, David P. “Higher Education in Trouble – data and sources.” Personal Communication, May 26, 2012.

7 Quote from an anonymous 19th Century Native American.

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