It’s hard to believe that I am starting my third year as president of Baruch. As my wife and I gradually settled into New York City, I developed the habit of early morning runs, and to my surprise, they have become part of my daily routine. For me, running is never about pace and mileage or the distance that runners typically care about. The fact that my movement in the city takes the form of running is incidental—in a sense, it’s a byproduct of my desire to experience the pulse of the city before it completely wakes up. I almost always run by Baruch’s Clivner=Field Plaza—around the time when the Public Safety team changes shifts and the cleaning crew sweeps the plaza and sets up the shade umbrellas. Running by the plaza gives me a sense of calm, as if confirming that the campus is ready to take on the day.
Over the summer, a few small injuries forced me to turn my runs into brisk walks, and to my surprise, this made a tremendous change in the way I view the city. With a slower pace, I started to see things I had never noticed. Instead of the blurred city as a backdrop while focusing on my own thoughts, I noticed the names of shops, small signs posted in windows and doors, as well as architectural details of the buildings. Even the facial expressions of passersby revealed an entirely different layer of mood and intrigue. I started to realize why the city is so interesting to me—otherwise irrelevant history was made relevant as I walked by, breathed in, and experienced it around me. I saw past glories, urban decay, and new vibrancy all blended into a mystic energy of wonder and melancholy.
A change in perspective allows us to see different facets of the world that often escape us during the normal rhythm of life. Far too often, we are stuck in a particular way of thinking or are fixated in a certain mindset. It is important to refresh our outlook by periodically exposing ourselves to a different set of viewpoints. This is partly why I assembled a Vision Council last year—to conduct an in-depth study through an outside agency, Ologie, to obtain a data-driven market research study for Baruch.
Understand How We Are Viewed by the People We Serve
As a precursor to our ongoing strategic planning process, it is important to understand who we are as an institution—not only as our self-image presumes but as experienced and perceived by our stakeholders. I use the term “stakeholders” loosely to identify those who have a vested interest in the outcome of our actions. The Ologie study included a series of discussion groups and individual interviews, which provided the basis for a survey questionnaire that identified eight distinct stakeholder groups: prospective students, current students, alumni, donors, employers, faculty, staff, and administrators. Each of these subgroups was carefully sized and sampled to ensure that survey results were statistically significant, producing a total of almost 5,000 completed surveys.
What Are Some Key Takeaways?
The survey data revealed that our external stakeholders mostly associated Baruch with its location, affordable tuition, high-quality academics, diverse student body, and access to job and internship opportunities. However, there are nuances in these associations. For example, while the College is situated in New York City—a global capital—it is not the only college or university with this advantage. How then should Baruch leverage its location? Both internal and external stakeholders consistently identified one of Baruch’s strengths as academic excellence, and most consider Baruch’s reputation strong, but narrow. Further, many expressed the desire to see a more comprehensive academic message from Baruch that reaches a wider disciplinary and geographic audience.
When asked which of Baruch’s institutional qualities stood out most to them, all respondents agreed with this statement: “A high-quality education is for everyone who is willing to work hard for it.” Other survey statements about Baruch that received high agreement were “Is a powerful engine of opportunity” and “Improves and impacts the lives of many.”
The term we often use at Baruch to summarize these institutional commitments to our students is “social mobility.” The reputation Baruch has for providing student opportunities and changing lives for the better is something that resonates with external stakeholders, but the term “social mobility” does not. Changing or modifying the terminology we use in our narrative is worth considering. Another nuance is that our narrative tends to focus on the bookends—where our students start and how they end up—but should better articulate what we do to impact their journey.
Another important takeaway is that Baruch has a tremendous opportunity to strengthen its relationship with external stakeholders, particularly community and civic leaders. The survey revealed that external stakeholders have little knowledge or understanding about Baruch beyond the individual or the office with which they have a direct relationship. There are ways to build and strengthen relationships with these stakeholders, such as research and programming that address relevant issues for the community and region, thought leadership that is a resource for the community, and working as an engaged partner that supports community development needs.
Different People See Us Differently: Breaking Down the Perspectives
The Ologie survey was designed to explore how different stakeholders perceive Baruch, their emotional connections, and their willingness to act in relation to the College. Below are key findings of the study from three distinct perspectives defined by its stakeholders’ connections and leanings toward Baruch.
- Interest: External perspective driven by an interest to know more about the College, such as from prospective students, faculty, and staff
- Affinity: Internal perspective of students, faculty, staff, and administrators driven by affiliation with and affinity toward the College
- Engagement: Mixed external/internal perspectives of alumni, donors, employers, and influential leaders driven by a willingness and desire to engage and advance the College’s mission
Perspective 1—People Interested in Baruch: Knowing the perceptions and assumptions that prospective students, staff, and faculty have of Baruch provides us with the opportunity to understand their expectations as well as areas that deserve our attention. For prospective faculty and staff, priority considerations included location, a diverse student body, and high-quality academics. For prospective students, the top consideration for selecting a college was affordable tuition, followed closely by high-quality academic programs and strong student outcomes. Those outside the tri-state area placed more importance on financial aid and scholarships, as well as graduating with low debt, while international students expressed interest in access to jobs and internships.
As for instructional modality preferences, flexibility offered by online and hybrid education was attractive for both prospective undergraduate and graduate students with the majority reporting that more online options would increase their interest in Baruch. However, there are nuances in these inclinations. Undergraduates varied with preferences toward face-to-face, HyFlex, and remote courses, indicating they want flexibility but also value a traditional student experience. Graduate students had a stronger preference for online courses but also valued peer-to-peer networking opportunities. This is especially the case for prospective graduate students with 10 or more years of work experience.
Perspective 2—People Currently Affiliated with Baruch: Internal stakeholders are key to the success of the College, so what they experience and expect can either reaffirm or signal the need for a directional change. When it comes to Baruch’s future and connectivity within the community, barely one-third of faculty and staff showed strong optimism. Further, only small segments of the undergraduate and graduate student populations felt that they were an important part of the Baruch community. Although the survey was taken during the height of the pandemic, these are grave warning signs. To break away from this dire sense of disengagement, we need to devote great efforts to rebuilding our communities with a culture of caring and listening to one another as well as a culture of common values and purpose.
The top two drivers for both undergraduate and graduate students attending Baruch were the same: affordable tuition and the New York City location. Some reported that while Baruch is more affordable than most while providing a strong return on their financial investment, we are still not affordable for many—those who struggle with food security, family obligations, and financial hardships. This signals a continuing need for financial resources that help our students to take full advantage of a quality Baruch education—for not only their own future but for their family’s as well.
Perspective 3—People Who Want to Engage with and Advance Baruch: This mixture of stakeholders maintains varying degrees of association with the Baruch community and are motivated by their willingness to learn or to further Baruch’s story through their partnership and continuing engagement.
While alumni and donors were the most likely to engage with Baruch, the survey showed that only a small portion felt as though they were an important part of the College community. With more than 165,000 alumni worldwide and ranked among the top 20 best alumni networks in the U.S., it is critical that Baruch not only build on the pride our alumni have in their association with us but create new experiences and connections so they continue to thrive in that affiliation. It is heartening to see that more than one-third of alumni and donors surveyed said Baruch is one of their top-three philanthropic priorities and that their main motivation for giving to the College was “paying it forward by creating an opportunity for someone.” Continuing the Baruch story—an institution about access, excellence, and outcomes—is simply not possible without the generosity, engagement, and support of our alumni.
Among the groups most enthusiastic about Baruch were the employers who noted that high-quality academics and strong student outcomes guided their perceptions of Baruch as one the best colleges in New York City and in the country. Employers specifically stated that the diversity of our student body was among the main motivators for engaging with us.
Our Shared Narrative
Throughout the beginning of the fall semester, I attended a series of the College’s events and celebrations, including the Student Convocation; 17 Lex Society Reception; Baruch Alumni Changemakers Dinner and Ceremony; Celebrando La Comunidad, the Latinx Heritage Month celebration on the Clivner=Field Plaza; Faculty Convocation; and the campus Appreciative Inquiry Summit for the Strategic Plan, which I will address in a future blog.
At the Faculty Convocation, keynote speaker Professor Sankar Sen delivered one of the most moving and memorable speeches I have ever heard on such occasions. While his remarks began by discussing his deep research on corporate social responsibility and consumer behavior, it quickly turned to philosophical points about what motivates us as humans and what inspires and drives our decisions and behavior. Professor Sen concluded with reflections on Baruch, describing his experience of being inspired and motivated by the characteristics and qualities of Baruch students. So much so that after he was recruited from Baruch for a high-profile position, he constantly felt that “something was missing” and ultimately decided to return to pursue his extremely successful career here. Professor Sen made the point that a strong sense of purpose and meaning is what propels him—and what makes us happy as humans. He further asserted that our responsibility to our students is not only to help them with a successful career but to set them on the path for a meaningful and purposeful life.
This is not the first time I have heard from Baruchians the reason they chose to be here, and it reminded me how important it is for us, as a community, to have a strong shared narrative—building on a deeper understanding of who we are and what we stand for. As we start to find that shared narrative—our values and our purpose—let me conclude with what we heard from survey respondents:
- Who are we? Baruch is where aspiration and ambition connect with opportunity. Baruch College is not just a place but it represents a spirit that empowers students to pursue and accelerate their dreams.
- What makes us successful? Our steadfast commitment to access, excellence, and outcomes, as well as our location in a global capital with unparalleled access to world-class institutions and enterprises, enhances that success.
- Why do we do what we do? To enable students to transform their future, their professions, and their communities.
What do you think? If this is who we are today, how do we elevate ourselves and build on our deep-rooted tradition of excellence, compassion, and creativity?