Plymouth State University: Educational Innovation and Collaboration

video platform video management video solutions video player

State of the University Address
President Sara Jayne Steen
Plymouth State University
28 March 2012

Welcome to today’s state of the university address, a time to look at the University as a whole, to celebrate some of the year’s successes and to discuss challenges.  Welcome both to members of the campus community and to our guests, members of our wider community.  Thank you all for being here.

Although the weather here over spring break was unseasonably warm, sunny, and beautiful, especially given that it is March and mud season, and although we had the familiar sounds of the Rounds Tower bells marking the hours, the other sounds of the campus last week were missing and now, thankfully, are back.  Quiet and occasionally less-than-entirely-quiet discussions in the library and the HUB.  Music being rehearsed, sometimes on the amphitheatre steps outside Silver Center.  Guitars and occasionally drums being played on Alumni Green.  The murmur of people talking on cell phones as they walk across campus.  The calls of student camaraderie, punctuated by laughter.  The voices of children from the Child Development and Family Center.  It is good to have back the sounds that define our Plymouth campus world.

Our academic world, of course, is much larger than the Plymouth campus, and this is an uncertain time globally and nationally, requiring innovation and a willingness to take appropriate risks, to find new ways to accomplish old and new goals and to acquire new partners with whom to collaborate.  Within all of that challenge and change, however, is and must be a core of educational mission, a certainty of what PSU offers students, of our commitment to them.

Last year PSU acquired unpublished manuscript letters from poet Robert Frost to President Ernest Silver.  Frost had taught here in 1911-12, and writing from England in 1913 after having met William Butler Yeats, Frost recalled having read a Yeats play to students in the parlor, bringing to students one of the era’s exciting contemporary writers.  Three decades later, after World War II, Frost wrote of President Silver and Plymouth on its 75th anniversary:  “It warms the heart with reassurance to look on at anything that persists so successfully in this world of broken pieces.”  Today, both the innovation and the core remain.

What do we count on?

Our students.  Plymouth State University attracts excellent students who care about education.  This year’s entering class of 1100 students was drawn from 6000 applicants, our highest number to date, and students came from California to Maine, and from China, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela.  They brought diverse experiences, such as having left a refugee camp in Tanzania to emigrate to the United States; spent summers caring for disabled children or climbing New Hampshire’s 4000-footers; or started their own businesses.  Forty-four percent are the first in their families to attend college.  Of our 7600 students, 4600 are undergraduates and 3000 graduate students.  Of our undergraduates, 59 percent are New Hampshire residents and 41 percent chose to come from elsewhere.  Overall, our undergraduate and graduate students, including online students, come from 43 states and 34 countries.  These students are drawn to PSU’s academic quality and friendly, beautiful campus.

At PSU, students are challenged and supported through small classes; an integrated general education program; an honors program; winterim, summer, and online courses; study abroad; internships; a wide range of student life activities; and more.  This year, the University Studies program, directed by Patrick Cate and with advisors to guide students as they choose degree options meaningful to them, was expanded to serve all first-year deciding students.  In the 2011 National Survey of Student Engagement, PSU received considerably higher overall scores from both first-year and senior students than our national peers, based on factors such as academic challenge, active and collaborative learning, student-faculty interaction, and supportive campus environment.  All of us can be pleased about that.  On a more anecdotal level, when the Vice President of the United States visited this autumn and engaged in a question-and-answer session, many of you likely were as proud as I was of our students’ knowledge, thoughtfulness, and readiness to engage him in discussion.

Another certainty is a vibrant faculty and staff who develop programs and initiatives that enhance students’ experiences and their employment options.  Responding to a nationwide and statewide nursing shortage and a call for a more highly educated nursing workforce, this autumn PSU added to our health and wellness options a nursing program that began with 92 eager and highly qualified students.  The program has a four-year track for new students and a completion track for RNs who hold associate’s degrees.  The completion track will be offered online, and PSU is partnering with the Community College System of New Hampshire to offer their students advanced coursework.  Nursing students already have begun the clinical portion of their programs, with local hospitals and health care providers as educational collaborators, including Concord, Cottage, Littleton Regional, Mary Hitchcock Memorial, and Speare Memorial Hospitals.

The recently launched Professional Sales Leadership program, one of only 60 in the nation, has grown, and students have been active with the Plymouth Shop Local program and the Whole Village Family Resource Center, learning while serving.  An undergraduate international business option has been approved.  Faculty in various fields have collaborated with state partners to create a master’s degree in Historic Preservation.  This spring, we will graduate our first cohort of approximately 30 students from the MBA in Healthcare Administration offered with the medical school at the American University of Antigua; and the first recipients of PSU’s Doctor of Education in Learning, Leadership, and Community will cross the stage at Commencement.  That initial doctoral cohort includes three of our colleagues, Cheryl Baker, June Hammond Rowan, and Jamie Hannon.

When I meet with prospective students at open houses, I speak of PSU as a regional comprehensive university and explain what that means in terms of first-rate teaching, informed by excellent research and creativity, and engagement with the community, region, and world.  I tell students, “Bring a laptop and a passport.”

The laptop is to indicate that technology is one of PSU’s initiatives and strengths, as faculty and staff employ new technologies to extend access and enhance teaching and learning.  The Office of Learning Technologies and Online Education offers faculty the resources to make electronic learning student-centered, and a recent presentation by Business faculty member Terri Dautcher and instructional multimedia specialist Justin L’Italien astonished the members of our Alumni Association Board as Terri and Justin demonstrated the electronic interactivity and creativity that can occur — and reminded alumni how much the face of the PSU educational experience may differ from the one they remember, even if they did not graduate all that long ago.

Five hundred of PSU’s 4000 courses last year were offered in online or hybrid format, the latter combining face-to-face and distance learning.  PSU has offered online MBA programming for a decade.  Next year several undergraduate programs will be available fully online as well as taught on the residential campus, increasing access for students.  And the online courses will be taught by the same excellent faculty members that students respect on campus, demonstrating PSU’s commitment to excellence.   In addition, the Public Relations and the Management Information teams have redesigned the website; Athletics now routinely provides live stats, live streaming, and video features; and within months, thanks to Information Technology Services and the Physical Plant, the Plymouth campus will be completely wireless.

The passport refers to internationalization, as students are prepared to live and work in a diverse world and global economy.  This autumn, deans Trent Boggess, Gail Mears, and Cynthia Vascak travelled to China to attend an international fair and develop international agreements; and Peng-Khuan Chong, chair of the department of Social Science, and Dean Vascak confirmed mutual agreements with Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman (UTAR) and Sunway University in Malaysia.  These important relationships allow for increased long- and short-term study abroad opportunities, collaborative research projects, and student and faculty exchanges, all of which benefit students and open doorways to the world.  With these agreements, PSU is now on all continents except Antarctica (and recently has been there as well with graduate student research).  Winterim courses offered students lower-cost, short-term experiences in China and the Andes.

The ELS Language Center is bringing international students here, with the most complete English-language study center north of Boston; and this summer Mary Lyon Hall will be further remodeled to add an international center.  One of the nation’s most successful US-Pakistani partnerships is the Pakistani Educational Leadership Project, directed by Blake Allen and offered through the College of Graduate Studies, sponsored by the US Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.  This past summer, and each summer for nearly a decade, educators from Pakistan have joined us to learn about educational innovation and return to Pakistan to lead projects and train master teachers.  In the process, they have broadened our world.

Technology and globalization work hand-in-hand with relocalization, as students learn to make their region more sustainable, thus making a global difference.  Guided by Brian Eisenhauer, director of the Office of Environmental Sustainability, students developed a sustainability handbook and taught and took permaculture classes.  Some studied over spring break in Costa Rica.  Students in the EcoHouse, a residence hall that is also a laboratory for experiments with sustainable design and alternative energy and technologies, built an EcoShed as a hands-on lesson in sustainable living.  The shed, the first student-built campus building, will be used for storage; it also will collect rainwater for the garden and the “living roof” will provide vegetables.

PSU has received regional and national attention this year for sustainability, placing second in New Hampshire and twenty-fifth out of schools nationwide in waste minimization in the Recyclemania competition, and again being recognized in The Princeton Review’s Guide to 311 Green Colleges as one of the most environmentally responsible institutions of higher education in North America, based on factors such as environmental literacy, energy efficient construction, use of renewable resources, and recycling and conservation.  These efforts have been embraced across campus.  Business NH Magazine awarded the Savage Welcome Center and Hanaway Rink the 2011 Lean and Green Building Award, recognizing the arena for design and construction incorporating cost containment and sustainability, noting the savings and energy efficiency of its closed loop geothermal heating and cooling system.

It is especially fitting that Plymouth State now has an endowed professorship in environmental studies, to provide funding for research and enhanced classroom teaching.  Janice C. Griffith, a law professor at Suffolk University and a former student of a Plymouth State alumna, has honored her teacher and mentor, Helen Abbott, by establishing the Helen Abbott ’39 Professorship in Environmental Studies to recognize Mrs. Abbott for her role in Griffith’s life and for her creativity in educating youth in Union, New Hampshire for more than 50 years about environmental and ecological issues.  It is wonderful to have this ongoing link between past and future, and we are grateful to Janice, as we are to Ed and Marilyn Wixson and to Wally and Meredith Bristow Stevens, who have established previous professorships.

Active learning is integrated with research, scholarship, and creativity.  Last spring, 29 students discussed their research into subjects as diverse as horseshoe crabs, climate change, and nineteenth-century midwives at PSU’s inaugural Scientific Research Symposium.  The projects were funded in part by the National Institutes of Health’s IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence, from which PSU received 3 of New Hampshire’s 12 grants.  Following that event was the Student Showcase of Excellence, with undergraduates from fields across campus sharing their creativity through posters, video presentations, demonstrations, even an originally choreographed dance performance.  It was a joy, and this year’s Showcase is scheduled for April 27th and 28th.

PSU also has seen an increase in funding through sponsored programs, surpassing the previous mark in awards this year, with over $3.6 million in new authorizations.  Topics range from early childhood learning to improving balance in aging adults, from a celebration of the centennial of the Weeks Act establishing America’s first national forest here in the White Mountains to a study of current concentrations of aluminum in surface and ground water there, from lake sediment in Iceland to tourism research and photo preservation.  And Provost Julie Bernier’s regular reports to the campus confirm the high quality of creativity across the disciplines, whether or not the fields have significant access to external funding.

Active hands-on learning is also seen through community engagement:  applying knowledge and making a difference.  For the second year, student diversity fellows hosted a regional Native American Powwow. Students taking alternative spring breaks traveled to work on service projects across the country.  Anne Jung, Lamson’s outreach librarian, invited area school students preparing for National History Day to the Lamson Learning Commons to learn about research tools.  The President’s Commission on the Status of Women hosted a New Hampshire Young Women’s Conference, with sessions on using social media safely, leadership, and making healthy choices.  Students on athletic teams, in Criminal Justice, in English, in Art, and more, made a difference in area schools, courts, and agencies.  Through service learning and volunteering through the Community Service Center led by Linda Corriveau, PSU students contributed nearly 250,000 hours to service.  PSU received the Communities for Alcohol and Drug-Free Youth (CADY) 2011 Partner of the Year award for work in central New Hampshire promoting promising futures for young people, and was named for the fifth consecutive year to the federal President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll.

Let me provide a few samples of this year’s achievements from across PSU:

  • Katie Laro (Meteorology) was selected by the Council for Undergraduate Research as one of 73 students from over 850 applicants to present a poster on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC next month.  Katie’s research, guided by faculty member Jim Koermer (Atmospheric Science and Chemistry), treats wind gusts associated with thunderstorms.
  • Undergraduates Michael Dodge and Molly Finkel (Music, Theatre, and Dance) have won honors in vocal and instrumental competition, Michael in the National Association of Teachers of Singing’s Boston Art Song and Aria Festival and Molly in the New England College Band Association’s first Solo and Ensemble Contest.
  • Undergraduate Courtney LeCours (Health and Human Performance) has been named the Outstanding Future Professional by the New Hampshire Association of Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance; and alumnus Chris Belmont ’01, now teaching in Massachusetts, received the National High School Physical Education Teacher of the Year Award from the National Association for Sport and Physical Education.
  • Twelve students who participated in the Brown Company Research & Development Building public mural project were honored as the inaugural recipients of the Young Preservationists Award from the New Hampshire Preservation Alliance.  Working with Tom Driscoll (Art) and a series of partners, they created 24 murals illustrating the history of the Brown Company in Berlin.
  • Graduate students guided by Craig Zamzow (Business) received two first-place honors in the 2012 National Small Business Institute Case of the Year Competition, with student teams earning first place for their plans for New Hampshire businesses in both the Comprehensive Case and the Specialized Case categories.
  • In Athletic highlights, Josh Duford (Childhood Studies) was named to the Capital One Academic All-District First Team for his performance as a football student-athlete; Christian Mulcahy (Business Administration) received the New England Football Writers’ Gridiron Club of Greater Boston Gold Helmet Award for his performance; Stephanie Newmark (Sports Management) competed at the International Ice Hockey Federation World Championships representing Australia; wrestler Mike Willey (Management) captured his second New England wrestling championship and competed in NCAA Division III National Championships; men’s hockey won the Massachusetts State Collegiate Athletic Conference (MASCAC) championship and played in the NCAA Division III Championship Tournament; and first-year volleyball coach Chris Kilmer was named Little East Conference Coach of the Year and men’s hockey coach Craig Russell MASCAC Coach of the Year.
  • Pat Cantor, chair of the department of Early Childhood Studies, and Steve Barba, Executive Director of University Relations, were honored by Early Learning NH with 2011 Champion Awards for their work on behalf of initiatives to ensure that the state’s children have access to high-quality early care and education.
  • Irene Cucina (Health and Human Performance) was elected President of the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance, a 20,000-member organization for physical education, recreation, fitness, sport and coaching, dance, health education, and health promotion.
  • Thad Guldbrandsen, founding director of the Center for Rural Partnerships, interim coordinator of the White Mountains Institute, and recently named Vice Provost for Research and Engagement, received the 2011 Young Professional of the Year award from Business NH Magazine. The award honors him as an outstanding professional and acknowledges his success working with students, colleagues, and partners on behalf of rural communities.
  • Kathi Weeks (Business Services) was honored by the New Hampshire National Guard with the Outstanding in Customer Services Peace Award as a result of her ongoing commitment to excellence in student services to US soldiers.

In what has been discussed, I often have noted partnerships, because partnerships are critical.  As a comprehensive university, we are a university of place; part of our mission is to make our region better, “extending to communities partnership opportunities for cultural enrichment and economic development,” with a special responsibility to the Lakes Region and the North Country.   Partnering with business, government, non-profits, and schools also extends our reach and enables PSU to do good work and provide wonderful opportunities.  Think of the Educational Theatre Collaborative‘s original production of The Wild Swans, with an intergenerational student and community cast of a hundred, an arts festival for young people, and another for teachers.  Or, knowing the importance of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education in New Hampshire, think of Natalya Vinogradova (Mathematics) leading the INTEL-funded statewide initiative to improve student learning in mathematics; the Mathematics department hosting 600 high school students for a math competition and later in the week 400 math teachers for a conference; Dennis Machnik (Atmospheric Science and Chemistry) taking planetarium shows to hundreds of children in the schools; Chris Drever (ITS) guiding high school students to the national FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) robotics competition; or Cheryl Baker (College of Graduate Studies) leading the Rural School Educator Effectiveness Collaborative providing professional development for teachers in math, science, and language arts.

Think, too, of cooperative projects associated with the Center for the Environment, the Center for Active Living and Healthy Communities, and the Center for Rural Partnerships — PSU’s intersecting threads of healthy places, healthy people, and healthy economies —  such as research on regional waters and watersheds, an eco-learning farmstand with teaching gardens, or the community research experience course in which the Center for Rural Partnerships and the Institute for New Hampshire Studies provide students with consultancies, working with area businesses and non-profits.  Last week I attended the annual meeting at which colleagues from PSU and the White Mountain National Forest discussed collaborative projects, most involving students; you would have been impressed by the range and diversity of the projects.

PSU initiatives are moving forward, and you should know of the progress each is making.

As PSU extends educational access to new audiences through online undergraduate and graduate programs, we also think strategically about exciting advances for the residential campus, about what will make the University even more distinctive in the future.  One of those features is a wonderful location for learning at the gateway to the White Mountains, which faculty and staff are celebrating in the White Mountains Institute, an interdisciplinary institute that offers specialized programs, often with regional partners; enhances summer use of facilities; will recruit talented students and future students; and allow us to become known as the premier place for teaching and research associated with the White Mountains.  This summer’s schedule of short-term programs for children and adults, students, and interested others is exciting.

The Highland Street facility for the Museum of the White Mountains is being renovated, with construction just under way.  The Museum, directed by Catherine Amidon, has hosted its second exhibit, of photographer Guy Shorey’s works; is actively making teaching and research materials from the collection available virtually, and will open the bricks-and-mortar facility next winter.

The Enterprise Center at Plymouth is a business incubator and accelerator, a partnership between the Grafton County Economic Development Council (GCEDC) and the College of Business Administration.  The GCEDC is raising the funds for construction of the facility on Main Street at the roundabout and has received grants from the Economic Development Administration and from New Hampshire.  PSU is hiring the faculty member who will serve as executive director, leading the business programming with faculty and students.   This year PSU received the GCEDC’s Partner of the Year Award, recognizing PSU’s impact on economic development.

The Active Living, Learning, and Wellness (ALLWell) Center, a project to advance teaching, research, athletics and recreation, and community programming, also is moving forward.  The project is a top capital priority of the University System of New Hampshire in its report to the legislature, and PSU’s divisions of Finance and Administration and of University Advancement are making plans, as are the departments of Health and Human Performance and of Athletics.  From the success of the first phase, the Savage Welcome Center and Hanaway Rink, we see the difference that strong facilities can make, impacting students and the region.  When its multiple phases eventually are completed, the effect on PSU and on the health and wellness of central New Hampshire will be transformative.

In sum, then, PSU is innovative, vibrant, and focused on student success.  All of you know, however, that PSU has faced and does face challenges.

First is a financial challenge in the loss of state appropriation.  New Hampshire last year was in deficit, and struggling like most states across the country.  When the Governor made his budget recommendations, he held the University System of New Hampshire’s appropriation to 95 percent of its previous amount.  We anticipated that the legislature might lower that number and worked to model reductions at varied levels.  It was good that we had done so: the legislature reduced the USNH appropriation by 48.6 percent, one of the highest single-year percentage reductions in the history of US public higher education.  Because New Hampshire already was 50th in its support of public higher education, however, that loss was lower in actual dollars than the reductions for many public institutions in other states.  For PSU, the loss was $6.7 million.

Our goal was to put people first, not to have students and their families handle all of the burden, or our faculty and staff.  We hoped to avoid mandatory furloughs or layoffs, and we achieved that.  There were no simple answers because PSU long has engaged in prudent management.  The budget process was a complex one involving many people, from Vice President of Finance and Administration Steve Taksar and his team to the Planning and Budgeting Leadership Group, the System Personnel Policy Council, and the many individuals who sent forward creative ideas.

To balance the budget, we reduced expenditures and increased revenues through higher enrollments from new programs such as Nursing and a supplemental tuition increase.  The supplemental tuition increase was $710 for New Hampshire residents.  That meant a total price of attendance increase of 9.7 percent for New Hampshire residents and 4 percent for non-residents.  Thinking of students and families, we also built into the budget a 28 percent increase in undergraduate financial aid to help the neediest students.  On campus, we eliminated vacant positions and transferred responsibilities, reduced the cost of benefits for full-time employees, and offered separation incentive plans for faculty and staff.  We made operational changes.  We deferred some planned investments, but made others that will allow PSU to continue to succeed.

A related challenge is demographic, as the projected decline in the number of traditional-age high school graduates in this region is beginning to appear.  We are looking to other audiences, to states and countries where the demographics are the reverse of ours and talented young people cannot find places in higher education programs, and to adults and place-bound students through online education.   The economy has complicated decisions for resident and non-resident students and their families.

Our mission is education.  If we are to focus on access and success, keep tuition increases as low as possible, and compensate employees fairly, it will be important that we diversify revenue streams through sponsored programs, partnerships, and advancement efforts.  Like most public institutions that have come to fundraising later than private schools, we are working to grow the Advancement division and, under the leadership of Vice President of University Advancement Sally Holland and with the support of the President’s Council, to enhance efforts to raise funds for scholarships, professional development, and capital projects, through endowments and annual funds for current use.

Another challenge this year was meteorological:  a flood that put the Holderness side of the campus under water.  We had received warning about what became Tropical Storm Irene a few days before Move-In and chose to delay the opening of the semester.  After the Pemi flooded, many of us surveyed the damage by boat.  Student leaders already on campus staffed the HUB as an emergency shelter for displaced neighboring families, played with children, and found space for dogs, cats, even a ferret; the community offered medical care and support.  Amazingly, the waters receded as quickly as they had risen, and everyone — Student Affairs, Academic Affairs, and especially the Physical Plant — stepped up to ensure a smooth opening to the year.  Collaboration with our host communities of Holderness and Plymouth and with state officials and agencies during this difficult time was extraordinary. We are in that very fortunate.

The campus has accomplished much and has much on the agenda for next year.  We will complete the NEASC self-study, a huge undertaking led by Nancy Betchart, dean of the Frost School, in preparation for our NEASC accreditation visit in the autumn of 2013.  We will be using that self-assessment of where we are to move forward with the strategic planning by which we will decide where we want to be.  This summer, discussion of the next 10-year facilities master plan will begin.

As we move toward commencement, our first integrated undergraduate and graduate commencement, at least for many years, and the hooding of our first doctoral students, we think of students and families, of their joy and pride.  Similarly, we saw joy and pride from students, staff, faculty, and community as the men’s hockey team for the first time won the MASCAC championship and played well in the NCAA Division III tournament, earning national rank.  As the team skated from the ice for the final time this season, student fans cheered, and chanted “Thank you, Plymouth.”  By the end of composing this address, I feel the same way about this institution: proud of you and grateful to be among you.  Thank you, Plymouth.