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August 31, 2004
Arthur J. Rothkopf

It is my special privilege to open the 173rd academic year at Lafayette College, and to welcome new faculty and administrators. I am delighted to welcome back to campus those faculty members who are returning from leaves or study abroad programs.

Eleven years ago, I was suddenly and unexpectedly thrust into my current role. I never anticipated serving as president of my alma mater and I certainly never expected to be here for more than one year. As I wrote to the college community last January, the past several years have been the most professionally and personally satisfying of my life. The members of this superb faculty have contributed immeasurably to our many successes of recent years and I would like to thank each of you for your contributions to the College and our students.

I thought it would be interesting to go back to see what I said in my first “State of the College” talk to the Faculty eleven years ago. Here are a few excerpts:

We are blessed at this college in so many ways – a superior faculty, loyal alumni, dedicated administrators and staff, and a fine student body. We have a well-maintained physical plant, and a sound infrastructure….

Compared with other similar institutions, our financial condition is strong. Despite this, we, along with other colleges and universities, face difficult and uncertain times -as tuitions continue to rise, as competition from less expensive State institutions increases substantially and as the demands on our financial aid resources rise ever more rapidly.

Although I see far more reasons for optimism than concern as the new academic year unfolds, one outcome of my discussions troubles – even distresses – me: an evident lack of confidence by each constituency in the goodwill of the other groups making up the Lafayette family….While there are many specific and important goals that we must pursue during this academic year, in my mind the single most important one is the restoration of a sense of community and common purpose among our college’s constituencies. We all have a stake in the success of this College – students, faculty, trustees, administrators and alumni alike. As this College improves in reputation and in fact as an academic institution, all of us directly and indirectly benefit….

I believe that as a community we have overcome the lack of goodwill that was so evident eleven years ago. This is not to suggest that all members of the Lafayette family on and off campus share identical views on the direction the College should take. There are genuine differences and disagreements within and among constituencies. That is a healthy thing. What has changed is that we have a far more open dialogue and a willingness to address difficult issues together. Our recent adoption of a new strategic plan, Beyond Threshold 2000, was the product of a joint year-long effort by faculty, trustees, and administrators to set the future priorities of the College.

If I had to identify the accomplishment about which I feel best, it is the renewed pride in Lafayette felt by all constituencies. In 1993, there was grumbling from many corners – “Why aren’t we more like College A or College B?” “Our students are not as good as they used to be.” And so on. I no longer hear comments such as these. There is genuine pride in all quarters about our college, as we engage in a process of continual improvement.

I cannot emphasize strongly enough that our recent success is the product of a genuine team effort. Every part of the College has contributed to our progress. And that is because every segment has focused on the most important thing that we do – the education of our students and their preparation to be concerned citizens and members of the world community.

Working together, we have lifted the College’s academic standing. We are now considered among the nation’s most selective colleges and universities. The party-school image of a dozen years ago has given way to college guidebooks that speak in glowing terms of our academic program, faculty mentoring of students, and collaborative faculty-student research.

The incoming Class of 2008 once again reflects the dramatic improvement in the academic profile of our student body. Over the past several years, our students have shown marked improvement in high school academic achievement and SAT scores. This progress continues. The favorable comments that I receive from faculty about the academic quality of our students indicates that these efforts are paying off in the classroom. Our success in this regard is attributable to many factors, including the impact of our Marquis and Trustee Scholar programs, the focus on academic performance by our excellent enrollment planning staff, and the active participation of many faculty in our efforts to recruit outstanding students. We must recognize, however, that every other college is also trying to recruit the best and the brightest. We must intensify our efforts simply to consolidate the substantial gains that we have made.

We must also focus on improving the diversity of our student body. This has proven to be a difficult task but we have made some progress in recent years. Our efforts have been assisted by our participation for the past two years in a program run by the Posse Foundation. Posse pre-selects talented and motivated students living in major metropolitan areas who come from low-income families. Posse provides mentoring before these students come to Lafayette and we provide mentoring while these students are on campus. The program has been quite successful. I am pleased to report that all eleven members of our first Posse group are students in good standing and that in their fourth semester at the College nine of the eleven Posse members had GPA’s over 3.0. The mean GPA of this group for their fourth semester was 3.23. All members of the second Posse are also in good standing.

During the recent economic difficulties and steep decline in the equities market, many of the nation’s most prestigious institutions have been forced to cut back on programs and reduce staff and faculty. Through prudent management of our finances and endowment, Lafayette has been able to stay on course and move to increase the size of its Faculty. We are among a handful of schools in the country to do so. This development is a product of our strategic planning and demonstrates the commitment of our Board of Trustees to a robust and talented Faculty. In the past two years, we have added four new faculty positions and we will be conducting searches for four additional new positions for 2005-06. During the 1993-94 academic year, the College had 180 faculty lines. By the 2006-07 academic year, the Faculty will have increased to 195.

I am also pleased to report that faculty compensation levels were competitive during 2003-04. Our salary and compensation in each of the three faculty ranks achieved 1* AAUP status (top five percent) for last year. Even more importantly, we did very well in relation to the group of 26 liberal arts colleges in our comparison group. Our overall salary level for all faculty ranked as 11 out of 27, and our overall compensation level for all faculty ranked as 8 out of 27.

We have experienced a dramatic improvement in the quality of our academic facilities in the last few years. The Kirby Hall of Civil Rights and the Acopian Engineering Center have been completely modernized. A spectacular home for the visual arts, the Williams Visual Arts Building, has been constructed at the base of College Hill and forms an important link with Easton and surrounding communities. The Hugel Science Center is a new state-of-the-art home for Chemistry, Biochemistry and Physics. Oechsle Hall is a model of adaptive reuse of a wonderful building, moving from a home for athletics to one for Psychology and Neuroscience. And, of course, we are completing work on a new Skillman Library, a library for the 21st Century that is at the center of our campus and at the heart of our academic program.

All of our new and renovated buildings have smart classrooms, and we have added smart classrooms to all of our existing academic buildings. Overall, we have 65 smart classrooms in operation at present, which is an extraordinary number for an institution of our size.

As I previously advised the Faculty, once the new residence hall complex on Sullivan Lane is completed, we plan to renovate two of the former fraternity houses in the central core of the campus and convert them into academic buildings. At this point, we know that the History Department will return from its Cattell Street exile to occupy one of the buildings. No final decision has yet been made on the occupants of the other building.

Our new strategic plan includes a series of specific objectives to be met over the next several years, with the overall goal of “sustaining and strategically accelerating the momentum of a college on the rise.” Although Beyond Threshold 2000 is comprehensive, it features academic goals most prominently – including the need to “make more emphatic the College’s commitment to the liberal arts.”

To focus attention on our academic priorities during the next 18-24 months, the Board has authorized a special effort to secure new funds for initiatives that enhance learning. The primary emphasis of “Investing in Excellence” will be on adding to the endowment for that purpose. No specific dollar goal is being set, but funding will be sought for such needs as academic scholarships; curricular innovation; new endowed faculty chairs; enhanced student research through EXCEL; and additional endowment for student internships and externships, the performing arts, and campus facilities that directly support teaching.

Another strategic goal set forth in Beyond Threshold 2000 is “to encourage greater integration of all aspects of the undergraduate experience.” We have talked about this objective for some time but we must begin serious implementation. Our excellent orientation program this year, “Imagining America,” is an important first step in this direction. The orientation theme has been incorporated into many First-Year Seminars and our orientation keynote speaker, Sekou Sundiata, will be with us during the academic year.

We are beginning to experience concrete results from our efforts to secure prestigious national and international fellowships for our best students. During the last couple of years, our students have been successful in winning numerous Fulbright, Goldwater, Javits, Luce, and Jack Kent Cooke Fellowships. This is a critical element in spreading the word about heightened intellectual seriousness at Lafayette. These efforts must continue and intensify.

The Marquis and Trustee Scholar programs have been in place for several years and have been a key element in the improvement in the academic profile of our incoming classes. During 2004-05 we should take the opportunity to review the opportunities afforded by these scholar programs to ensure that they remain competitive.

For the past several years, almost 20 percent of our student body has lived off-campus in College-owned housing and in private residences. A considerable proportion of student social life has gravitated to these off-campus houses. When our new residence hall complex is completed, the number of students residing off-campus will drop sharply. In light of this development, I believe it would be helpful to conduct a study of student social patterns and needs, social life, and late-night entertainment options, along with recommendations for improvements.

The College has been working in close partnership with the City of Easton and with Northampton County in improving the appearance of the Third Street corridor leading to College Hill. That area is the gateway to Pennsylvania and to the College. The recent streetscape improvements to Third Street are the result primarily of County funding and of additional funds contributed by the City and the College.

Lafayette currently owns the Williams Visual Arts Building and several other properties on Third Street and the surrounding area. Ultimately, this area should include a combination of College buildings, residential properties, restaurants, cafes, and small businesses to serve the Easton and College communities. The plan by a private developer to turn the hubcap eyesore into an attractive apartment building is an early dividend on our efforts. At the suggestion of a Tech Clinic last spring, we are exploring the feasibility of a funicular connecting the College and downtown Easton.

Our Third Street initiative is part of a broader Easton goal of improving the Bushkill Creek area from 13th Street to the Delaware. As you may have read in the press, Governor Rendell came to Easton on August 20 and announced that the Commonwealth granted $9 million to support this initiative. Of that amount, $3 million will be made available to the College to upgrade and beautify our buildings and properties in the Third Street area. The Governor’s action is a major milestone in improving the quality of life in Easton.

After the end of this academic year, I will follow all of these developments with considerable interest – but from a distance. I am also interested, as I know you are, in learning who will be addressing you as Lafayette’s next president a year from now. Trustee Riley Temple, who chairs the Presidential Search Committee, recently updated me on the Committee’s activities.

“As most of you know, during the spring semester the Committee held a series of meetings on campus to obtain input from the major College constituencies – faculty, administrators, trustees, alumni, and students. In June Committee members met with groups of alumni and parents in Central New Jersey, Washington, Philadelphia, Chicago, New York City, and Connecticut. Over the summer the Committee reviewed candidate qualifications in preparation for initial interviews. The pool of candidates is of a very high quality. Those meetings are expected to occur in October, and the Committee is optimistic that it will be able to make a recommendation to the Board of Trustees by the end of this calendar year.”

* * * * * * *

Transition to new leadership is an important time in the life of a college. What is most important to Lafayette during this period is to maintain our positive momentum. We cannot rely on past successes, no matter how significant they may have been. Our focus must be on the future, building on our strengths and dealing with any areas of weakness. We are faced, as are all institutions, with the constant need to improve.

We must also intensify efforts to moderate costs and increase funding for scholarship aid so that Lafayette remains an option for the most talented students regardless of their families’ financial circumstances. Private institutions face even greater challenges today from public colleges and universities, with their lower tuition and their honors colleges. We must demonstrate convincingly to prospective students and their parents the added educational value that Lafayette offers.

I am persuaded that working together there are no limits to what we can accomplish. Whatever may have been achieved during the past several years, I am convinced that Lafayette’s best days are still to come.

Categorized in: Academic News