Welcoming new students, Union president outlines new strategic plan

Harris notes challenges facing Union, other colleges nationwide
The Union College convocation on Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2019.
The Union College convocation on Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2019.

SCHENECTADY — Union College President David Harris on Tuesday outlined the college’s new strategic plan as he formally welcomed Union College’s newest freshmen class.

Harris said the plan would “move from planning to implementation in the coming months” and guide the college’s decisions and investments for at least the next five years.

“This is important now, perhaps more important than it has been in a long time,” Harris said of the plan.

He highlighted the challenges facing colleges across the country as the college-aged population steadily declines as the Millennial generation finishes college. That decline is even more pronounced in the Northeast, where Union has historically drawn a lot of its students.

He said it’s harder to convince people to donate to colleges as other priorities proliferate and emphasized the uncertainty inherent in massive technological change. Also, the annual cost of sending a student to Union and other top private colleges now exceeds the median annual household income in America.

“We must make that case that despite high cost, Union continues to be the place to prepare people for known and unknown futures,” Harris said.

The strategic plan is organized around five categories — the “five powers of Union,” as Harris said — that touch on the ways Union brings together different subjects and perspectives.

One of the plan’s pillars was “the power of Union between gown and town,” also known as the college’s relationship with Schenectady and the broader region. Harris said he wants to do more to show students, prospective students and alumni the wide range of activities the city offers. He highlighted internship opportunities at Proctors and throughout the city.

He discussed how the plan seeks to make Union more inclusive of diversity and accessible to prospective students up and down the socioeconomic ladder. He pointed to the college’s “Making U Possible” fundraising efforts, which will help support student needs beyond tuition, such as the costs of participating in various college activities that come with a cost. He said the college can’t be successful “if excellence is only available to those fortunate enough to be wealthy.”

Harris said college officials were working to mitigate the “mismatch” that many parents feel between what Union deems a family can afford to pay for college and what that family feels they can actually afford to pay.

At Tuesday’s annual convocation, Harris also welcomed the 552 students in the Class of 2023, which he said was one of the most diverse in Union’s history. Harris said 23 percent of the new students are people of color and 12 percent are international students — both records for Union. The college also welcomed 20 new faculty members and 76 new staff members to campus.

“What’s gonna happen this year?” Harris said. “A lot is gonna happen this year.”

Harris highlighted the completion of the school’s new science and engineering complex, the biggest building project in the school’s history. He also said the college has planned a yearlong celebration of the college’s 50th anniversary of going coed; the first group of female students joined the Union campus in fall 1970. Throughout the coming year, the college will host activities and events to recognize the contributions of Union women.

Harris’s comments touched briefly on sexual assault, an issue that has landed squarely on Union’s campus since a pair of female students filed lawsuits in recent months accusing the college of mishandling rapes they allegedly suffered at the hands of fellow students.

His remarks did not directly refer to the lawsuits, but he said college officials have established a committee of students, faculty and staff that will start meeting to discuss sexual harassment policies. The college has also engaged outside experts as it works to improve its policies and practices. He also called on students to play a role in both reporting abuse and creating a culture where sexual assault is stamped out.

“In addition to being a place where we all feel comfortable reporting sexual assault and misconduct, where reports are investigated thoroughly, and appropriate action taken, we must not forget about the power of education and prevention,” he said.

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