President Peter P. Mercer hosted his final State of the College Address on February 24, 2021 at noon via WebEx. A summary of that address is shared below. Previous State of the College addresses and a link to the Dictionary of Newfoundland English are available on this page under Archived Speeches & Addresses.
It is hard to fathom what the passage of 16 years means in one’s experience, but I’d ask you to consider what you were doing 16 years ago. Some of you, I suspect, were barely walking.
I’ve had the opportunity in both the fall and the spring semesters to come to the college in this fashion to present my view of the state of the College and how it’s fairing, and to take your questions. Today, it will be your last opportunity to question me in this forum. So, I’m going to leave a little extra time because I’m notorious for using up all the time with my remarks then leaving no time for questions at the end.
In each of these 16 years, there was something to focus discussion on as it seemed there was always some financial or regulatory issue that would threaten the academy. This continues today as I’ll refer to later on. Most of these issues are, for public colleges, bound up with the finances of the states in which they are located.
I suspect that if you ask any group of public college presidents what they need in order to do a better job, the responses would be likely to confirm that, “while money isn’t everything, it’s still way ahead of whatever is in second place”. This unceasing concern over the adequacy and advocacy of budgets is debilitating for any institution. Public or private, as costs rise and reserves and enrollments fall, the challenge is to come to grips with that and get beyond it.
At Ramapo College, our staff, faculty and students have done this in very impressive fashion during the course of this academic year in particular. Our people have shown that Ramapo College is not just a collection of buildings and facilities, or a forum for abstract reflection. But, instead, it is a community that is willing and able to take decisive action when that is called for. Imagine what would have been the consequences if we had just thrown up our hands and surrendered to the COVID-19 virus.
Instead, over the course of a few short weeks, we adapted as a college. However, from both the Human Resources and fiscal standpoint, that adaptation was and continues to be painful. When added to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the severity of changes in weather patterns, and the high levels of job loss and unemployment, there is a great deal of temptation to despair. However, history suggests that we pull ourselves out of this nosedive and, over time, the severity of the economic consequences that we face will be mitigated as it already has been to some extent by the actions of the federal government. Financial and structural gaps in the highly complex structure of higher education will be filled in and smoothed over because we are resilient, and because of that, we will continue to convince many of the worth of a Ramapo education.
Two days ago, I received a message from Professor Paramjeet Bagga informing me that one of our students, a graduate, Gadareth Higgs, would be defending his Ph.D. thesis at Yale University on Thursday of this week, tomorrow. I’ll never forget, years ago, when Gadareth was a senior student here, and I was one of his referees. I remember being quite awed that he would ask me to be a referee for him, because his subject was biotechnology and bioinformatics– not subjects that I’m terribly conversant in. I was struck at the time that Gadareth was in a quandary. He was a very good student. He had excellent grades and therefore had many talents and possibilities. What he had was some trouble in choosing among them. That’s a problem we would all like to have.
It’s interesting to me that Gadareth would later on turn to his mentors: Professor Paramjeet Bagga and Professor Larry D’Antonio, and from them, would get some direction about how to make a choice that was going to serve him well. But, note the length of time, he has been in graduate school for several years. You may have to think about that yourselves…how are you going to structure your life so that you can make the most of the opportunities that come your way?
Now, there have been some rumors going around. I’ve heard them now for several months never particularly from the source, but just third hand. The rumors are that somehow Ramapo College is going to be taken over by another college, merged with it, or that Ramapo is somehow insolvent and that there is a real problem with finances that affects us more actively than other institutions. That is simply not true. I’ve never understood where the whole Ramapo rumor mill is located and I have often wished it be shut down for a while.
The reality is that Ramapo is doing well. We have our applications in for next year for the most part. They are almost keeping up with last year’s, which were a record, there is some lag which is not unique to Ramapo and is likely caused by anxiety over the pandemic. The interest in the college continues to be strong. Financially, we have suffered significant losses but we budgeted in a way which has enabled us to recoup some of those and to “flatten out the curve” (to borrow a metaphor that means that our economic situation will not be as imperative). For example, President Biden’s proposal for revitalization includes $40M dollars for colleges and universities. That’s not an inconsiderable sum. We would expect to get our share in the manner of any other college, and that share would not be negligible. It would be in the millions of dollars. Maybe $3 or $4 million, and it’s only one example of how people have risen to the fore to try and preserve the best of academic tradition and instruction in the United States of America.
But will that be enough? I don’t think so.
One of the immutable effects of the pandemic has been the cause of people to think differently about the way in which they work and study. That different thinking has gone into the design of our Learning Commons, which is rapidly nearing completion, and should be ready for occupancy in a matter of six months or so if we are fortunate. Its design reflects the new ways of learning and the new demands imposed by the marketplace.
But, make no mistake, there is no replacement for higher education, particularly when one takes into account that there are two major objectives:
- One objective is to educate the student in a discipline, which gives them the flexibility of application to be able to earn a living and make their way in the world; and
- The other objective, which is equally important in its own right, is to enable students to make the transition in most cases from youthful, young adult to fully-fledged participant in society; to be someone who understands obligations as a citizen and to their neighbors.
Now, it’s not as if we don’t have big challenges ahead of us and here. I’m going to depart from the usual pattern and talk more in five year terms. It’s going to be important for each of you to make a plan that provides for some resilience and some flexibility at the same time.
I don’t know if in the almost 10 years that I’ve known Gadareth Higgs that a decade ago he was planning to do a Ph.D. in the sciences at Yale University. My guess is that evolved as one of his objectives. That, of course, is what happens with most of us, but you have the capacity and the ambition to make that transition smoothly. There are lots of Gadareth Higgs around in the ranks of Ramapo College, I’ll give you just some examples:
- Alumnus Kevin Ng is pursuing his Ph.D. in economics with Cornell University where he is also a research assistant.
- Alumnus Tom Ng went on to earn his MSEd. from the University of Pennsylvania, to serve as an adjunct instructor with Ramapo, and is now Academic Dean with Achievement First Schools in Brooklyn, NY.
- Alumna Berly Rivera is pursuing a Masters of Public Administration at UMass Amherst where she also serves as a Graduate Assistant in Student Life.
- Alumnus Alec Weissman is completing his JD with an advanced degree in international law from Pace University School of Law and is currently a legal intern with Grossman Law in NJ.
- Alumnus Stephen Geerlof completed Ramapo’s MS in Accounting program and is now a full-time member of the Assurance Staff at Ernst and Young.
- Alumna Ellie Mitner whose senior year internship with MTV helped propel her to her current role as Director of Creative and Production Operations for Viacom.
- Alumnus Ryan Greff, after graduating from Ramapo, turned his internship into gainful employment with our small business development center as economic recovery analyst. He was also awarded the Congressional Award for Young Americans.
- Alumna Michelle Santucci who engaged in multiple international and leadership development programs as an undergrdaute is now working with the the global company Guiness World Records as an Account Manager.
- Alumnus Stephan Lally, during his time with Ramapo he was one of the founders of the College’s Food Pantry and WeCare Program, and he’s now Senior Staff Associate in the New Jersey Assembly Democratic Office.
- And finally, alumnus Abdulai Swaray went on to earn his Master’s degree in cyber security at George Mason University and now remotely manages the Naval Research Laboratory Network in West Africa. He founded Young Vision Africa and serves as a Board Member for Sierra Leoneans in Technology which works to contribute to economic and social development in Sierra Leone and to support Sierra Leoneans exploring careers in STEM.
What you may not know is the circuitous route by which Abdulai came to Ramapo College. I was part of the group headed by Assistant Dean of Nursing, Kathy Burke, that went to Sierra Leone where the visiting group did a number of medical workshops, and Abdulai was someone that we met there. He shared with us that he had been orphaned as a child and was trying to figure out how to make his place in the world. He said he would love to come to America and, given the activity level of people like the nursing faculty, we got together, plans were made, and Abdulai joined our College. He’s now married with a couple of kids, I believe.
But that’s what really speaks about Ramapo. Our willingness to take the extra step. To provide an opportunity to somebody who otherwise might not have it, and our willingness, on the part of the faculty and staff, in particular, to spend the extra time with a student in need in order to help them be successful.
Now, I said I was going to leave some time for questions, but I just want to say one other thing. It seems like a long time in some ways, 16 years, but you will be experiencing yourself that it probably isn’t when you get to the end of it, because time accelerates and our experience accelerates as it goes on. When I came here in 2005, I didn’t expect to stay for more than a couple of years. I’ve had 16 wonderful years and they’ve been wonderful because of the support that I’ve received from you– not all the time. I’m not pretending that we agreed on everything. There are some people I respect and I probably disagreed with on everything. That’s not the point. The point is, we believe as members of Ramapo College, that our college is not simply a set of buildings, it is a group of people.
I hope that when the new president is named, you will welcome her. She deserves your utmost support and it will be important to receive it because she is going to be going into the fray in New Jersey where there’s a great deal of competition for resources. I met all the candidates and I look forward with anticipation to see who the Board chooses, but I feel confident that the choice will be one that regards the benefit of Ramapo College.
And so, I would say that the state of the college is sound. There are question marks, but they’re not question marks that loom so large that they can’t be eradicated. I look ahead only a few months to the opening of the new Learning Commons, to the revitalizing effect of the academic year, to the lifting of many of the unfortunate restrictions now imposed by the pandemic, and to an increased and renewed understanding of what it means to be able to attend Ramapo College as a student, it is a remarkable privilege. One that I’ve enjoyed, and I, thank you very much for the opportunity to serve.