PLATTSBURGH — Dr. Laura Niesen de Abruna believes institutions should focus on retention and graduation rates, not selectivity.
"The reason I think Plattsburgh might be a great match for me is that I know that this institution is very much focused on retention and serving all students, every learner, everywhere, in New York State," she told a mixed forum of staff, faculty and students in the E. Glenn Giltz Auditorium at Hawkins Hall Tuesday.
Niesen de Abruna is the first of six candidates for the SUNY Plattsburgh president position who will visit campus this month.
A search earlier this year narrowed the selection down to three candidates, all of whom were rejected by the SUNY Board of Trustees.
Niesen de Abruna — also known as Dr. Laura — has a Bachelor's degree in English from Smith College, as well as a master's degree in higher education management from the University of Pennsylvania.
She also earned another master's and her Ph.D. in English literature from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
She is currently a professor of English as well as the provost and vice president of academic affairs at York College of Pennsylvania, which she considers similar to SUNY Plattsburgh in its focus on teaching and integration of liberal arts and professional programs.
Niesen de Abruna put together a presentation which focused on what she believes are the most important public values in higher education for the 21st century, including improving student success; academic excellence; social justice, equity and diversity; and digital and adaptive learning.
Additionally, she spoke about her work as director and principal investigator for the Digital Fellows Project, sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
As part of the foundation's Every Learner Everywhere project, Niesen de Abruna and others are given moneys to coach and educate institutions nationwide on how to use digital interventions to promote student success.
"For the last three or four years, we have engaged with the Gates organization to focus on retention for first-generation, low-income and minority students," which she called "the new majority."
Niesen de Abruna contends that 21st century institutions will be evaluated not by who they do not admit, but by how many students they access and keep in the system.
"Who gets to make those changes in institutions? This is one of the reasons that I want to be a president."
Higher education now has a social justice aspect and practical reason for focusing on success of all students, she continued.
"If we start with that premise that all individuals deserve an opportunity to access higher education, then I think it follows that in the 21st century we need more high school graduates to obtain that degree than are doing so currently to support a thriving economy."
Niesen de Abruna does not agree that college is not for everyone.
"I think that to access the middle class, we need to try to get everybody into some form of higher education and I think that’s an entitlement."
Institutions are going to have to focus on students in the new majority — those first-generation, low-income and minority students.
"Traditionally, faculty would help the students who are best qualified. It’s the A students who sit in the first row.
"That’s got to change. If we want to be successful as a sector of the economy, we have to look for people in the back row."
One faculty member asked Niesen de Abruna how she might work to move adjunct and contingent faculty into the middle class as well.
"At my institution, what I’ve done is a pretty thorough analysis of faculty salaries and benchmark them against salaries of all institutions nationally who look like us," she said, "and I have added money to salaries below the benchmark."
Niesen de Abruna has spoken to some members of the SUNY Plattsburgh community, and would be in favor of moving some adjuncts into tenure-eligible positions and allowing contingent faculty members to become instructors.
"I would be very interested in making sure people feel more secure."
Questions arose about how Niesen de Abruna has worked to support a more diverse and inclusive campus environment, and how she would go about making minority students feel comfortable so as to foster retention.
In response to the former, she mentioned introducing supplemental courseware for chemistry and math as well as helping to bring in a chief diversity officer at York College, institute a center for community engagement in downtown York and invite previously unrecognized people of color in the community to participate in exhibits and historical presentations.
York College has additionally provided emergency financial aid to high-need students blocked from registration.
At a previous institution, Niesen de Abruna would save faculty lines and offer them to individual departments if they brought in a diverse faculty member.
She stressed the importance of having a president who maintains dialogue with diverse and international students.
"There needs to be, as you’ve already had, teach-ins. There needs to be education of the outside community to be more diverse and global in perspective.
"And I think you have to be very careful with all of the staff and all of the faculty members that no one is feeling that they’re excluded for any reason, so I think that’s easier said than done."
One audience member asked Niesen de Abruna how she would approach an institutional challenge.
She provided, as an example, cutting the budget by $2 million.
"We’re talking about staff members, we’re talking about members of the faculty, we’re talking about administrators and it’s not hard to do, it just takes longer to bring more people to the table to bring their input and to talk things through if there’s a particular challenge," she said.
"The president's role is to have an idea of the solution, but also listen to others who bring their own wisdom to the table. So collaboration and communication and also talking to people who are affected by whatever the challenge is, I think is very important.”
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