President John D. Keenan's first annual State of the University address | Salem State University Skip to main content

President John D. Keenan's first annual State of the University address

The following text is from President John D. Keenan’s first annual State of the University address on September 25, 2017:

I am excited to be here today to formally welcome everyone to campus and give an update on the impactful work we are doing.

At the same time, however, reading the news over the past few months, I can’t help but think about the particular moment in time in which we are living. There are political, economic, cultural, environmental, and constitutional hurdles facing Americans every day. It is truly disheartening to see that our country appears so divided.

Higher education is no exception.

As we return to a new school year following a summer of national unrest, we must remain vigilant as higher education will be caught in the rapids moving forward.

There have been free speech discussions on campuses nationwide and protests on each side. President Trump rescinded the offer to Dreamers under DACA which will impact more than 800,000 individuals. States are finding it increasingly difficult to provide adequate resources for public higher education while universities and colleges have had to come to grips with tuition hikes and budget cuts.

While I would like to say Salem State will be immune to these distresses, I cannot. We are and will continue to navigate through rough and turbulent waters in the coming years. I am confident we can adapt to the known, and be prepared for the unknown, but we must be creative in recognizing our strengths and using them to our advantage.

The financial vitality of our institution is a serious challenge now and as we move forward. In the coming months, as numbers are finalized, I will share enrollment and budget data with you.

We must begin to understand what this means for the current and future state of the institution while also recognizing the declining number of college age students, and the stagnation in our state funding.

For the fifth straight year, college enrollment declined nationally. Salem State enrollment has been flat over the last few years, however, we are beginning to feel the impact that so many other national institutions are feeling. We need to alter our thinking and target nontraditional students as a potential source of enrollment growth for this institution. We must focus on all demographics in student recruitment – including those who have not received degrees, but have some college credit.

When we speak of enrollment, we traditionally speak of high school graduates, however, that only accounts for 3 million students nationwide. There are nearly 40 million people who have some college credit, but never received a degree. This is a huge opportunity for us to bring those individuals to our campus, physically or virtually, to do what we do best: give people the opportunity to learn and grow through higher education.

To bring more students to campus, we must recognize the key role our community college partners can play and continue to build on the relationships we already have. I would like to expand the work we are doing with these schools, going beyond current articulation agreements and the state’s Commonwealth Commitment because these programs do not go far enough. Salem State must collaborate more with our community college partners to strengthen the pathways for their students to receive their bachelor’s, and then, hopefully, their master’s degrees.

As a public institution, we have historically relied heavily on state funding. Those days are over.

Today, only a third of our budget comes from the state, and this number has remained flat over the last several years while the costs of higher education have continued to rise. We must become more self-reliant. We need to think creatively, find alternative revenue sources, and continue to fundraise to meet our mission of ensuring the success of our students and the future of the Massachusetts workforce.

To increase revenue, we should also be focusing on alternatives like bringing people from the outside community to our campus to utilize some of our state-of-the-art spaces during low usage times. We must recognize the beautiful facilities that we have available to us and the community, and our prime location within the City of Salem.

Over recent months, we have met with a consulting firm to discuss this possibility, and I am hopeful we can make this a reality.

We have 1350 beds on Central Campus alone, located less than two miles from downtown Salem that lay mostly dormant for three of the busiest tourist months of the year. Renting these facilities during Salem State’s low volume months presents an opportunity to bring in auxiliary revenue that could supplement our budget. We will be looking at opportunities to rent out other meeting spaces on campus as well.

We have had huge success with fundraising recently, but our 10,000 Reasons campaign, which raised over $26 million, should only be the beginning. That campaign provided us with many of the things we needed, but that cannot be the end. Private fundraising has become increasingly more important in this new era of higher education.

These are all ways in which Salem State can thrive in this difficult financial climate, and this will help us reduce our operating deficit. 

Over the coming academic year, I have charged members of campus committees, for example the all university committee and the president’s working group for student success, to evaluate how we as a university can adjust our academic and student support programming.

In this changing environment, we cannot continue on our previous path but must reevaluate our current practices so that we can fully benefit our students and the North Shore region. Together, we must determine what areas require investment, what areas can be adjusted, and what we as a university should stop providing. I am committed to transparency as we consider these difficult decisions. All decisions will be data driven.

Our business intelligence plan is an initiative of ITS which seeks to develop a technical structure to support data driven decision making. This will allow us, over the coming years, to estimate the cost per student in every program, ultimately giving us a better understanding of how best to use our limited resources. Over the summer, a Business Intelligence steering committee and working group were created. The steering committee will be setting priorities, looking at the academic performance of programs, and establishing routine campus-wide training sessions.

Nevertheless, I remain confident that we are well positioned to meet these challenges head on and to succeed. I am convinced that with our world-class faculty, dedicated staff, and hard-working students, we will be in calmer waters and making progress in the coming years.

There are three major initiatives that we will be completing over the next semester which will further set us along the right path.

The first is the Science Teaching Laboratory Addition. The 2013 Master Vision Plan found that our science labs in Meier Hall were insufficient and over utilized per current higher education laboratory standards. Payette conducted a design study with the input of many in this room in 2015 which laid out the needs of our lab sciences and the scope of what this new addition would be.

When the state administration changed, however, this project was paused, and we have been advocating for the funding since. We are fully committed to continuing this advocacy, and I would like to thank those involved in the Payette study and the current working group, led by executive director of strategic initiatives Beth Bower, who is compiling our application for funding to DCAMM for this project. This project will bring state-of-the art laboratories that will match the quality of the teaching and learning that currently takes place in our existing facilities. It will also provide opportunities for increased partnerships with the STEM and Healthcare industries, a rising workforce need of the North Shore.

The second initiative will reach its final phase in November, when we distribute and discuss the Campus Climate Study. Dr. Susan Rankin of Rankin & Associates Consulting will come to campus for two public forums on November 2nd. The study, led by the Campus Climate Study Working Group, will identify key areas of improvement in making our campus more inclusive. I implore our community to be involved in the difficult conversations these results may create.

There have been questions about whether members of the campus community already have this data. I assure you we do not. We are following a strict process put in place by Dr. Rankin. I have not seen the data yet, and will be presented with highlights from the study on November 1. Full results will then be shared with the community in open forums on November 2.  If you have any concerns, please ask Dr. Lisa McBride to put you in touch with Dr. Rankin.

Regardless of the results being positive or negative, we will be transparent with the information to allow for honest, open discussions on making the campus more inclusive to all.

This important study has benefitted from the leadership of Professor Sophie Evett, interim director of student activities Rebecca Comage, and our vice president of inclusive excellence Dr. Lisa McBride.

The recently re-named office of inclusive excellence, previously the office of diversity and inclusion, is aimed at making inclusiveness a custom that is implemented and practiced consistently throughout Salem State. Inclusive excellence is a concept articulated and endorsed by the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

A university with this distinction is committed to excellence in research, teaching, and service to the community, and imbeds inclusiveness, social justice, and equity into the heart and soul of the university.

To better mirror the diversity of our region, I’m hopeful that Salem State will become a Hispanic Serving Institution over the next few years. The Latino population is the fastest growing population in the state. Our diverse student body will be an integral part of the commonwealth’s future workforce.

Inclusive excellence is an aspect of the third initiative I am excited to complete: our strategic plan which will be finalized in December when it is brought before the Department of Higher Education. With the vision laid out for the next four years, Salem State’s Strategic Plan will be the foundation of our future.

The Collaboration Committee, led by Dr. Nate Bryant and Professor Monica Leisey, identified seven pillars of the strategic plan that will serve as the guide for all that the university accomplishes in the next four years, including: access, civic engagement, inclusion, innovation, scholarship, stewardship, and well-roundedness. The committee collected over 2000 touchpoints from the campus community to ensure the process was a collaborative effort. I would like to thank the collaboration committee for the months of hard work that went into this plan.

The faculty we have on campus will continue to motivate our students and conduct nationally, and internationally, renowned research. Our faculty have inspired our students and have contributed to scholarship in countless ways.

Over the last academic year, 27 well-deserving faculty members earned tenure and/or were promoted. Melissa Kaplowitch and Meghan McLyman were named the 2016-2017 non-tenure and tenure track recipients of the distinguished teaching award, respectively. And currently, two of our professors are traveling the world on Fulbright Scholarships.

We also introduced a new summer program: the inaugural “Summer at Salem State” series. Under the leadership of Provost David Silva and History Chairwoman Donna Seger, this week-long series of undergraduate and graduate institutes explored themes of social justice. These institutes were supplemented with weekly community events held at the Salem Visitor Center that drew audiences from across the region.

This academic year, we start two new master’s programs in our graduate school of education - a master’s in education with a dual licensure in school counseling and school adjustment counseling – the first of its kind in the commonwealth – and the teacher leadership certificate which is in close partnership with the City of Salem Public Schools.

These are exactly the reasons why I am confident we can succeed. The quality of our faculty and the education we provide will continue to bring us to the forefront of our peers. We not only prepare our students to fill some of society’s most crucial roles, but we prepare them to be critical thinkers and community leaders.

Today also gives me an opportunity to announce some initiatives I am particularly enthusiastic about.

I know that communication is key to everything we do on campus. I have heard from many of you that you do not feel there is a healthy and transparent flow of communication. As I announced in at the beginning of my presidency, we are working with an internal communication specialist, Jackson Jackson and Wagner, to identify ways to enhance how we communicate.

A number of you have met with these consultants when they were on campus two weeks ago, and I want to thank you for taking the time to do so. In the near future, they will be sending out a survey to gain further information about our communication practices and what will be the best way to ensure they are effective. I am committed to transparent and open communication and look forward to learning more about how we can improve.

As president, I want to ensure the Center for Civic Engagement remains a core value of our institution. We are already a leader amongst higher education institutions in the Commonwealth for our work with civic engagement, and we are well on our way to becoming a national leader as well. As we created our strategic plan, it became clear that civic engagement is a foundation of Salem State University.

The Center for Civic Engagement will transition into the President’s Office as it is a campus-wide function of the university. The Center offices will also be relocated into the lobby and staff office side of the current President’s Office suite in November. I would like to thank Cynthia Lynch for these outstanding efforts.

Next, to honor one of our most beloved alumni and teachers, my current office will become the Charlotte Forten Conference Room.

Ms. Forten, a poet, activist, abolitionist, and advocate of social justice, was Salem State’s first African-American student and a graduate of the class of 1856. She was the first African-American teacher to journey south during the Civil War to teach freed slaves on the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina.

We have been searching for a way to honor Ms. Forten since the demolition of our old library, and we plan to make this space fitting of her significance. Chief of staff Dr. Nate Bryant will be leading this effort.

We have a great deal to look forward to this academic year. 

Thanks to the hard work that we all put in each day, and the talent and the expertise on this campus, together we will navigate our challenges and reach calmer waters.

There’s a great quote from Bill McGibben, an environmentalist, that states: “There is a tendency at every important, but difficult, crossroad to pretend that it’s not really there.” We cannot and will not hide the truth on this campus. Without open and honest dialogue, we will not be able to address our challenges. I am committed to remain transparent throughout my presidency, and work with you to meet and overcome any challenges we may face. This is the only way we can succeed.

I would like to thank you – our faculty and staff – for all you do to ensure our students have the best experience during their time at Salem State! 

Kimberly Burnett
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