Excuses add to campus complacency

Recently the OBSERVER’s View (March 27 and April 2) discussed the current situation at SUNY Fredonia. They referenced the recent College Council meeting and after reading the views, I felt encouraged and interested enough to go to the SUNY Fredonia website and listen to the recorded session.

I was hoping to gain some optimism from the presenters and also insight into plans for the future of the university. Instead I found little to change my concerns or give me hope for the future. The lengthy presentation by President Dr. Stephen Kolison, with charts and graphs and bullet points stressing the national trends on decreased enrollment was disappointing. Using examples from Penn State, the University of Connecticut, the University of North Carolina, Rice, Arizona — all interesting but absolutely irrelevant to the issues on this campus.

The relevant facts to share come from the universities in the SUNY system. How have other universities not only been able to recruit students but to retain them? Why have schools within our region been so successful?

Brockport reported 2,000 new enrollments. Buffalo State had the largest incoming class in the last three years. Morrisville, Alfred State, Geneseo all had impressive increases from Fall 2022 to Fall 2023. Of the 27 SUNY schools recorded by the Office of Institutional Research and Data Analytic of one-year Undergraduate First-Time Enrollment Changes Fall 2022 to Fall 2023, Fredonia was listed as No. 25 and in the negative.

The President also noted the applications and acceptances have not been this high since 2019. The head count at that time was 4,240. However at that time students had to pay a fee for each application. So they were selective about their choices.

Now we are experiencing much higher applications in part because of open enrollment through SUNY — students do not have to pay a fee and can enroll to multiple campuses. Acceptances may be higher as well but none of this makes a difference without the deposits and enrollments. Currently the number of actual deposits is about the same as last year – and we may see a bit of a spike with FAFSA results, but keep in mind that we will graduate at 913 seniors, and some graduate students, in May, leaving 1,709 undergrads and 300 grad students or 2,009 enrolled. That number is a long way from 2019 numbers of 4,240 enrolled. So the proof of the current efforts is in the results and that remains to be seen.

The President also voiced sympathy for students and faculty who are resistant to change, unhappy or feel a need to protest. In a “feel your pain” moment he lamented this was the most difficult time he has faced in 30 years. Also the Council Chair and members asking, “Why aren’t people hearing the good news,” sounding a bit like TV preachers and then shutting down the question “What good news?” tells me that these people do not talk to the employees or students of the University.

If they did, they would realize that people are nervous, they are concerned, they want answers and all they get are vague responses. They do not want the President’s sympathy — or to hear he feels underappreciated and underpaid. That does not ease the anxiety of people on and off the campus who are still waiting to see the results of a very disruptive experiment.

The announcement of the North Chautauqua County Growth Coalition was also an interesting issue. While I believe it is extremely important for University participation in the community, committees already exist that deal with many of the issues identified. In the past, the administration filled the role on Committees/Boards. For example the President was a member of the Hospital Board, Vice Presidents were part of town/County committees, which addressed major issues such as the water districts or items like the Central Avenue connection. Reports and progress were then presented to the Council. This University is currently top heavy with six- figure administrators — many new to the area and unfamiliar with our area or don’t even live locally!

This is a perfect opportunity for them to participate in community interaction.

While I am confident the Coalition group leader is well meaning and eager to do all he can to help, it is difficult to define its mission. In the past I have mentioned that I am a SUNY Fredonia graduate and served on the College Council for 26 years, and for 18 years I was an adjunct professor in Social Work.

This is where my passion lies. In those 18 years I interacted with many students, professors, administrators, clerical staff, maintenance, groundskeepers, FSA. I touched base with probably all the departments in one way or another. The students I taught, the colleagues I admired, the lifelong relationships that I have developed, are only possible when you engage with the campus.

In the past, other Council members, Presidents and VPs also taught classes and developed stronger bonds with the student body. I suggest that Advocacy is the main responsibility/ concern of each council member. Student well being and providing a safe and successful learning environment should be the priority! All employees – across the campus – should be treated with respect and transparency. Therefore , for this “coalition” to be effective and truly address the campus issues, they should get involved with campus based groups instead of the “community outreach” proposed. Then you will be able to hear actual concerns and bring them to the table and not simply act as bobbleheads for the powers that be.

The financial instability and deficit the campus faces are also grave issues. In discussion the “good news” was revenue was up but the fact is we are still showing a $13 million structural deficit.

The resignation of Mike Kelly certainly could not come at a worse time. The fact he got another opportunity is great for him especially with the difficulties of the current financial situation. However, this position must be filled with urgency. Assigning the Provost as Interim in that position certainly does not ease the concern.

Finally, the OBSERVER’s View ended by saying that the university may have plugged the holes in the boat. Not taking on water is great. Drifting toward shore is a good thing but we haven’t yet found the engine that will get this ship to the dock.

But I am not sure if the holes have been filled (maybe with bubble gum) and if we are getting nautical — after watching Boys In The Boat, I realize that there needs to be a well crafted boat, a Coach, a Coxswain, and a crew where everyone moves In sync for success.

Unfortunately and with much distress I believe we are a long way from launch.

JoAnn Niebel is a Sheridan resident and former College Council member.


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