This winter has been the cruelest season in recent memory. The first months of 2023 arrived with a barrage of disquieting news and revelations, each marked with the unanticipated and punctuated clarity of cracking thunder.
The devastating earthquake in Turkey and Syria killed tens of thousands of people, war is still raging in Ukraine, and the national political discourse is more divisive and destabilizing than ever. Various forms of violence threaten communities and result in the senseless loss of lives with an astonishing 80 mass shootings in the U.S. since the start of the new year. Covid-19 remains a presence in our lives. The negative impacts of climate change are mounting even faster than scientists previously predicted. And before last night, New York City had broken records for its longest snowless winter, with the season maintaining an eerie and unsettling sense of gloom—as if the world no longer works in ways we can comfortably rely upon.
Despite all this, I am an eternal optimist and have always believed that, while what we do as a college community may not solve all the world’s problems, we can be a force for positive change. We have always been part of the solution rather than part of the problem, right?
Poignantly, public confidence in American higher education is at an all-time low. The Chronicle of Higher Education found that, while still polling above 55%, “[p]ublic confidence in higher education’s ability to lead America in a positive direction has sunk steeply in recent years, falling 14 percentage points just since 2020.” And according to an Association for Governing Boards survey, reasons cited for the waning confidence in higher education ranged from “Too expensive”; “Students not properly educated”; “Not relevant”; “Unable to find employment”; to “Overall quality going down.”
Even if you choose to ignore opinion polls, compounding enrollment declines, spiraling costs, crushing student debt, and alternative credentials to a college degree, it leaves little doubt of a looming crisis—in some cases, an existential threat—for many colleges and universities across the U.S.
Closer to home and inside our own system—with the pandemic federal aid receding and enrollment dwindling in the Northeast—another system-wide budget crisis is lurking in the background. Budget issues are nothing new, yet they can be stressful and disorienting. At times like this, it is worthwhile to remind ourselves why we do what we do. As I reorient my own thinking, I am reminded of the saying “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” I will come back to this after taking a detour.
Accentuate the Importance of What We Do
Despite a dreary start to the new year, the beginning of February brought good news at Baruch that truly boosted my spirits. First, we opened the Bearcat Food Pantry to provide for our food-insecure students—we serve a student population where more than half of our undergraduates come from low-income families, and many of them suffer from persistent food insecurity. We then learned that Baruch is one of only 18 institutions nationwide to earn the distinction of “Fulbright Dual Top Producers,” generating the largest number of both U.S. Fulbright Scholars and Fulbright Students. Finally, our Starr Career Development Center resumed its Suit Up for Success program, which not only provides students affordable ways to upgrade their professional wardrobe but also helps them learn to dress appropriately and confidently for such occasions as interviews, internships, and networking events.
This compendium of news in the span of just two weeks epitomizes some of Baruch College’s most striking characteristics: we serve the underserved, we compete with the very best in the world, and we do so through caring and creativity. In an era that is increasingly turbulent and unstable, when public confidence in higher education is waning, now is the time for us to accentuate the essence of what we do—an institution that creates opportunities, demands excellence, and delivers outcomes. As we do this, we are redressing the inconvenient truth that the status quo can no longer deliver that promise.
It is with this spirit that I want you to reflect on the strategic planning engagement process we went through last fall and to review the community engagement findings that ask tough questions and seek solutions for our future.
Findings from Strategic Plan Engagement
Since last year, we have been immersed in an institutional strategic planning process. To date, it has focused on all forms of outreach and participatory initiatives, including intense community engagement (appreciative inquiry summits, town halls, and targeted listening sessions); the Ologie report (systematically engaging eight stakeholder groups); and Presidential Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Council listening sessions (with a special focus on institutional climate and culture). Information gathered from the intense listening and community engagements—hearing from over 5,500 voices—will form the foundation of our actionable plan. In the next phase of the process, which has already kicked off this spring, we will engage in town halls and “design thinking” exercises to translate what we learned into priorities and concrete actions.
While I am not going to repeat what is in the findings report, I found it particularly important and inspiring to highlight what we all seem to agree on—the distinctive strengths of Baruch that we shall leverage for our future.
Exceptional Strengths to Leverage
People. In the two and a half years of my tenure as president, it is clear that Baruch’s greatest asset is the people who have created an incredibly mission-driven community. Baruch is endowed with the most innovative, dynamic, and committed people who support and sustain everything we do. Our academic excellence is grounded in intellectual discovery and innovative knowledge creation. Our faculty are highly regarded scholars at the forefront of their fields. Our staff are ingenious, resourceful, and care deeply about student success and well-being. Our students are diverse, gritty, talented, and determined to succeed. While it is true that Baruch’s success ultimately builds on the achievements of our students and alumni, providing a nurturing environment for our faculty and staff to create and flourish is absolutely essential. In fact, how we invest in our people will be key to our continued success.
New York City. Located in the most enterprising city in the world, Baruch not only has one of the most culturally and linguistically diverse campuses in the country, it also is a place of possibility and opportunity for our people. As the number one public business school and number two public affairs school in New York, backed with top-notch talents in the liberal arts and sciences, and connections to more than 160,000 alumni and thousands of supporters, Baruch not only offers students tremendous internships and career advancement opportunities but provides all members of our College community with an enriching environment in which we can thrive together—helping to position Baruch as an epicenter of knowledge and thought leadership for the City.
Reputation for Excellence and Value. Baruch enjoys a first-rate reputation in New York City as a nexus of excellence, access, and outcomes. We are known as an engine of opportunity, and there is immense value to our society when more people, regardless of their backgrounds, have access to an excellent education. Accessibility results in one of our greatest assets: the incredible diversity of our student population, which, in itself, is a tremendous resource for learning. Because of this reputation for excellence and value, Baruch’s enrollment has grown substantially—even during the pandemic, running counter to regional and national trends. It is incumbent upon us—and our supporters—to develop the infrastructure and resources to amplify our commitment to excellence and value.
May the Tough Get Going
At the Bearcat Food Pantry’s recent opening, a staff member shared an emotional experience that occurred during the pantry’s soft launch: a student came in and hesitantly revealed that he had not eaten a real meal for four days—before happily walking away with a bag full of nutritious groceries. This encounter touched me deeply. While I never went hungry in my life, it brought back a memory of my own college years when, toward the end of each month, I often had to survive on less than ten New Taiwan dollars (about 30 cents) a day. I vividly remember the calculations that went through my head as I balanced food, transportation, and possibly skipping rent. I can appreciate how hard it is for students from large families or households with elderly parents or grandparents, where the funds are spread thin and barely cover the necessities—all the while juggling work, studying, and family obligations.
When the going gets tough, the tough get going. I learned a long time ago that when life is difficult what matters the most is rising to the challenge—because the hard times remind us that there are those who are counting on us to be there. And sometimes it is the tough times that help us accentuate the importance of what we do and inspire us to be the best version of ourselves.