President's Notebook

President's Notebook

My View from South Hill

Posted by Thomas Rochon at 2:39PM   |  1 comment
Ithaca College December 2012 Graduation. (Photo by Juan Tamayo '14, Senior Class Historian)

Over the last three weeks I have described some of the challenges related to cost and quality that we face at Ithaca College. I am certain we will be able to meet these challenges because our campus community has great clarity on what makes us special and on where we need to improve. We are also committed to being accessible to all students of talent, which means that we will find a way to bend the cost curve so that IC can be a leader in combining excellence with affordability.

I want in this final message of the semester to focus on the opportunity in front of us. Our greatest opportunity lies in our educational mission to become the standard of excellence for residential comprehensive colleges. We take justifiable pride in our commitment to offer a blend of liberal arts and professional education that creates a transformative experience for every student.

We should never forget the profound impact our educational community has on students. To take just one example, I have gotten to know a senior named Perri Rumstein. Perri almost didn’t come to IC. IC was her first choice but it was pretty far from home and she didn’t think she was ready to be that far from her family. Perri was so unsure of herself that she left her freshman summer orientation early to go home and began to make plans to go to the local community college instead. Her parents talked Perri into giving IC a chance, though, and she did. Four years later, Perri has excelled as a student and is on track to graduate next spring. She is a leader in the senior class, one of the co-chairs of the senior class gift committee. The formerly shy student has been a President’s Host for the last couple of years, giving campus tours during which she tells prospective students that IC is a place where you can dream big and be fully supported in becoming the person you hope to become.

Perri’s story is the Ithaca College story. Yesterday I attended the celebration on campus for December graduates. Talking with the graduates and their parents, I heard stories again and again about how IC has fostered personal and intellectual growth among our students. An IC education is so much more than just the amassing of certified college credits leading to a degree.

I have sought over the last three weeks to describe the challenges we face in order to prepare us all for the focused effort we will undertake together in the years ahead. Our vision statement says that we will “strive” to become the standard of excellence for residential, comprehensive colleges. There is a lot of striving going on right now, and that will continue to be the case. Please do not let the magnitude of these challenges cause you to feel that Ithaca College has an uncertain future. Your commitment to our educational mission ensures that we will do more than just meet these challenges – we will build on the IC legacy of excellence to fully meet our commitment to become the standard of excellence.

I hope you will enter the holidays with a sense of peace that comes from confidence and pride. Thank you for all you do to make Ithaca College a truly special educational community.

Posted by Thomas Rochon at 11:00AM   |  3 comments

Our focus at Ithaca College is on increasing our VALUE to students. Given IC’s standing as one of the best student-centered learning environments in the country but also as a relatively expensive higher education option, it is my opinion that we must be focused on both parts of the value equation at this time: increasing quality while also controlling cost.

Having discussed last week what constitutes quality and how we are seeking to go from good to great in quality at IC, I would like this week to focus on the matter of cost.

As Professor Elia Kacapyr pointed out in a comment posted on my blog two weeks ago, the cost of attendance at Ithaca College has increased at 3.58 times the rate of inflation since 1983. His calculation does not take into account financial aid that is provided through the college; when you consider such aid our final cost to students has risen at “only” a bit more than twice the rate of inflation. Cumulated over decades, though, that is still a big disparity! Even more relevant is the comparison of the net cost of attending Ithaca College to growth in family incomes. The net cost of IC after financial aid has grown at twice the pace of growth in the median family income over the last decades, a trend that is causing stress among prospective students and their families. Obviously, this trend is not sustainable from the perspective of affordability.

Graph showing the rising price of college between 1988-2009

In order to reverse the cost spiral – which is general in higher education and not unique to IC – we must reduce our expenses in order to allocate funds to quality improvement. We must also reduce the current reliance on annual cost increases that are approximately twice the rate of inflation. It is this latter task, of reducing the annual increase in student cost, that has commanded the most attention in society. President Obama, for example, has stated the goal that colleges must cut their rate of cost increase in half (to approximately the rate of inflation), and pledged in his campaign that he would seek to withhold federal financial aid dollars from colleges that do not do so. If we are to move in the direction of meeting this challenge, we will need to find on-going operating efficiencies. If you think of our costs over time as a line with an upward slope, cutting expenditures shifts the line down while finding operating efficiencies lowers the slope of the line in the future.

In the 46 years from 1962 to 2008, annual gross tuition cost increases at Ithaca College averaged 7.3% per year, including a 6.9% per year average from 2000-2008. Some of those years were high inflation years and there was also a significant increase in financial aid during that period of time. Even so, the numbers bear out the fact that IC fully participated in the general trend of an unsustainable cost spiral. From 2008 to the present – since the global economic crisis – gross tuition at IC cost has gone up by 4.9% per year. This is significantly less than our long term rate of cost increase. But if we were to meet President Obama’s goal (to name just one possible objective), the rate of increase would need to come down still further to about 3.5% per year. How can such efficiencies be achieved?

Broadly speaking, there are two strategies for cost control. One is an across-the-board belt tightening. We could freeze salaries or keep salary increases minimal. We could keep all controllable budgets flat, recognizing that some of our expenses – such as for energy and for employee health care benefits – are likely to grow by much more than 3.5% from one year to the next.

The other strategy is targeted, based on a careful review of all expenditures with the aim of reducing or eliminating expenses that are not closely aligned with the quality of our core educational mission. Under a targeted approach, we would reduce expenditures in some areas in order to have the funds to maintain quality in others and even to increase our commitments in areas that significantly advance our educational quality and our vision for the future.

There is no one right answer for all situations when it comes to the choice between across-the-board and targeted cost reduction strategies. Which strategy is best at a given time depends on context and on what one is trying to achieve. In the global economic recession of 2008-2010, for example, IC adopted a one year salary freeze and every division took proportionate cuts to their operating funds. Those are classic across-the-board strategies, appropriate to a situation where the goal is to work through a temporary financial gap.

In our current situation, we are not seeking to weather a temporary economic crisis but instead to end a cost spiral that has gone on for decades. We are challenged not just to reduce our rate of tuition increase for one year, but on an ongoing basis. To adopt across-the-board strategies under these circumstances would be to paralyze the college with no financial capacity to adopt new ideas. Over time, this strategy would surely condemn IC to a slow decline. We would be able to afford only minimal salary increases year after year, leading to a loss of morale and an increase in attrition. It would not be possible to invest in further advancing quality, opening us up to the possibility of a long term erosion in both quality and reputation. In short, across-the-board strategies are not a good response when the goal is long term change.

Unlike 2008-2010, IC is now embarked on a strategic and targeted cost reduction strategy. With the help of Huron Education Consulting, we are now reviewing every aspect of our administrative organization and processes. The IC campus will review Huron recommendations early in the spring semester and offer input into the development of a plan that in future years will produce savings and generate new revenue. With the participation of the faculty, and recognizing their primacy as the experts in academic instruction, we will take parallel steps in considering how to reduce the future rate of annual growth in the cost of our academic programs.

The commitment to cost control at Ithaca College is not primarily directed at weathering a temporary budget gap or getting us through to the next period of expansive economic growth. We are seeking to find a permanent footing that will enable us to offer a world class education at a price that keeps Ithaca College accessible to students of talent from the widest possible range of economic circumstances.

Posted by Thomas Rochon at 9:30AM   |  6 comments

Last week I summarized the challenge for Ithaca College to continue to attract high quality students who can benefit from the educational experience we offer. In brief, there are more options for higher education today than ever before and most of them cost less than IC. In addition, every year the cost of IC becomes unaffordable for a larger fraction of families. For us to succeed in that environment, we must focus on increasing our VALUE to students. Value = Quality / Cost, which means that to increase value we must increase quality while at the same time slowing the growth of our costs relative to competitors.

This week I want to focus on the QUALITY part of the Value equation; we will take a closer look at Cost next week.

Increasing quality is a more complex task than is decreasing cost. Everyone knows that less expensive is better than more expensive, but there are differences of opinion as to what quality means in a college education. Our understanding of quality at Ithaca College derives from our educational mission, which is to provide a foundation for life-long learning following three principles: “that knowledge is acquired through discipline, competence is established when knowledge is tempered by experience, and character is developed when competence is exercised for the benefit of others.”

This long-standing educational mission is in sync with student expectations. Students hope their IC education will lay the foundation for future success both in terms of a career and in terms of a rich and happy life. They want to graduate READY for the challenges they will face throughout their lives, including challenges that cannot be imagined from the perspective of today’s experience.

Our Quality challenge is to focus on constantly improving on our ability to deliver on this educational mission. Continuous improvement takes place when we identify, celebrate, and reinforce those things we do very well, and when we are fearless in identifying and seeking to improve things we do not do as well. It is said that Michael Jordan would work obsessively on the weakest areas of his basketball skills every off season. ("Weak" is a relative term in this context!) If his first dribble to the left was slower than his first dribble to the right, he spent the summer practicing his move to the left. By the next season, defenders who thought they could count on him going right in a key situation would be “left” behind. It is human nature to get the most pleasure from practicing the things we already do well. But his willingness to focus on weakness led to the player-without-peer that Michael Jordan became. 

During my first year at Ithaca College I held a series of "Listening Sessions" with faculty, staff, students, alumni, retired employees, and members of the wider community. I asked people what they were proud of about the college and what they thought could be better. I was struck at the time by the high level of agreement on both our strengths and our weaknesses. One of the greatest strengths identified was the degree to which faculty care about student learning. You might think that would be true everywhere, but there are many campuses where showing too much enthusiasm about teaching is taken primarily as a sign that one is insufficiently engaged in their research. IC faculty, by contrast, seemingly have their most passionate arguments about curricula and about teaching pedagogies. As a closely related point, our faculty care about each student as an individual, with their own strengths, weaknesses and aspirations. The most powerful faculty-student conversations often happen outside of class and frequently are only loosely connected to course material or assignments.

The second area of excellence at IC is the extent to which staff consider themselves to be educators. Students fill 3,000 jobs on campus every year, generally working closely with members of the staff who take pride in the opportunity to be part of a student’s professional and personal development. Late shift facilities workers who clean and service our buildings have told me with pride about times they sat next to a discouraged student in a lounge in their building in the middle of the night. They offered a sympathetic ear, and when asked they offered some advice. These members of the staff are making real our commitment to become the standard of excellence for residential comprehensive colleges.

Quality comes together at the Academic Center to be built on campus, housing student and faculty development offices, a cafe, and H&S faculty offices.

There was a nearly equal level of agreement in my listening sessions on our relative areas of weakness. The quality of student advising came in for substantial criticism from students, faculty and staff, not that it was generally poor but that it did not meet the high standards of consistency we set for ourselves. A second common area of criticism was the difficulty of taking courses in schools other than one’s own, and then having those courses count toward one’s degree program.

Like Michael Jordan’s ability to make a quick move to his left, these areas of criticism need to be understood as relative weaknesses rather than as matters of incompetence. But a college committed to continuous improvement must be willing to identify such weaknesses and focus extra attention on them. Accordingly, the development of the IC 20/20 strategic plan was shaped by eight task forces, each co-chaired by a faculty member and a dean or associate dean, that centered on the relative weaknesses previously identified by the campus community. Not surprisingly, one of the task forces focused on student advising while another centered on models of integrative learning that would draw together the resources and perspectives of multiple disciplines and schools.

Ideas from each of the task forces were incorporated into the IC 20/20 strategic plan. Consistent with our commitment to constantly improving quality, the greatest attention in IC 20/20 is given to the identified areas of relative weakness. We continue to celebrate and support our points of greatest pride, including the faculty culture of commitment to student learning, the staff culture of being part of the total educational experience, the excellence of our majors and professional programs, and the richness of student life on campus. The plan, though, is focused on areas where we can be better.

We are now in the second year of implementing the IC 20/20 plan for educational quality, and we have for various reasons chosen to tackle the most demanding parts of the plan first. Faculty are working very hard on the Integrative Core Curriculum, whose development has required significant planning and accommodations to fit it in with the established major fields of study. Staff are working hard, especially in Student Affairs, to envision an even richer educational environment for students in campus and residential life. This is the hardest part of the process, when the reality of the work to be done hits home but we have not yet booked the successes that begin to bear tangible results.

Please stay the course in our commitment to quality. The potential rewards are great. With the Integrative Core Curriculum in place for entering freshmen in the fall of 2013 – at least in its first version – we will have turned an area of relative weakness into an area of distinctive strength! Michael Jordan would be proud.

The bedrock of quality at IC rests on the fact that members of the faculty, staff and administration each understand how they can contribute to excellence in our mission as a residential, comprehensive college. I take pride in the attitude displayed by a member of the IC faculty when he wrote to me last week in response to my first Monday morning message on the challenge before us. In an email that was in significant part critical of what he regards as administrative impediments to the achievement of excellence, he commented that he hoped IC would be able to

capitalize on this energy, move … forward in new directions, and … move our development [fund raising] success forward substantially. All of this will help us become a place where we put our money where our mouth is: a place where prospective students know that if they attend they will be transformed into "world-class professionals", become successful and impressive advocates for [their professional fields], and build careers that are much more rich and influential than just [mastering the tools of their profession]. 1

To the extent we all adopt that attitude, including the element of criticizing procedures and arrangements that may impede our quest for excellence, I think our continued growth in quality is assured.





Elisions and edits to this quotation are made solely to generalize a point this faculty member made with specific reference to his school. 

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