By Cathy DeDe, Chronicle Managing Editor
When Kristine Duffy is inaugurated as the seventh president of SUNY Adirondack on Friday, April 11, she will already have been at the helm for nine months.
Dr. Duffy, 48, comes to this, her first-ever college presidency, by what she says is a “non-traditional” route.
Rather than moving up through the academic ranks, she has been in admissions, enrollment management and student retention, mostly at community colleges.
In that role, Dr. Duffy says, “You are constantly looking at the big picture. A student needs to know about all the aspects of the school, and then, how does that all come together for the student to stay in school? That big picture mind-set is perfect to translate to this role. There are so many connecting parts.”
She said, “What happens in that classroom is at the core, of course. I haven’t had significant classroom experience, and I admire those who are so passionate about a subject that they want to share it with others in this way. But you also need the structure to facilitate the resources and all the things that go around it in order to make sure the faculty can have their entire focus on how to make teaching and learning the best experience for all.”
Dr. Duffy said her goal is “to make sure we have the resources we need to provide the best education we can, and to look at new ways of partnering with business and industry in the area to provide the worker training that they need. What I don’t want to hear is you’re the best-kept secret around. When businesses need training, I want them to go to SUNY Adirondack first. A large percentage already do.”
She says, “It’s important that we tell our story.” At her initiative, the college has prepared an annual report for stakeholders — business, media and community members, “for the first time in a very long time.”
Why she chose SUNY Adirondack
Dr. Duffy was most recently Vice President of Enrollment and Student Affairs at Onondaga Community College.
“As I have progressed in my career,” she said, “I have had some good mentors along the way and they were suggesting I should think about a college presidency. When this position became available, it seemed like the right size college and the right fit.
“It was located in a region of New York State that we felt fondly about, that it would be a good fit for us” — husband John and their sons Jack and Sean, ages 18 and 15.
“It’s very much like when a student chooses a college,” Dr. Duffy said. “The first time you walk on the campus, it just feels right. It really felt that way for me, and I’m still glad I’m here.”
Specific things that attracted her? “Adirondack had just built its first housing, and I had some experience bringing that about at Onondaga. I got there just when they did that there, too, so I had seen how you can handle that change.
“I was also impressed that a school of this size had made several good strategic choices — moving the Culinary program to its own building down Bay Road, adding the Wilton branch, the new residence hall.”
Dr. Duffy says, “My predecessors — I’m aware of some different feelings about them, but they made some very good strategic decisions. We have an opportunity now to build on that.”
“I’m so pleased with how welcoming everybody has been in the community. People are very excited about moving the college forward.”
Touts community colleges
“I’ve committed myself to be in the community college environment,” Dr. Duffy says. “I believe in the mission whole-heartedly. This is the third SUNY community college I’ve worked in.”
“As a community college, you are providing access for anyone in the community that wants to be educated,” Dr. Duffy says.
“It’s something unique to the United States and certainly brings the middle class the opportunity to move up that proverbial ladder. It’s my passion, especially to serve those who may be under-resourced.”
Since coming on board in July she says, “I have been struck with the entrepreneurial spirit of this region. There’s a real sense of, let’s think differently about a problem.”
Game-changer: New dorms
Of SUNY Adirondack’s shift this year from a commuter college to what she calls a “24-7 campus,” Dr. Duffy says, “The college did a great job of planning and understanding what had worked and not worked at other community colleges that built housing. It served them well, maybe, to be a little bit behind the curve on that. We’ve just had a pretty smooth year.”
She said, “From what I have heard, although it’s more observation than data research, there’s a different energy on the campus now. That’s not just because of the residential students, but we’ve seen an increase everywhere in student life.
“The student senate has all of its seats filled for the first time in years. Now they’re not all residents in the dorms, and there may be other reasons, but having the residencies, it has added to the spirit of the campus. It’s transforming the college in general, engaging the students more, both in and out of the classroom.”
She said “a large percentage” of the residential students are from Warren and Washington counties, rather than out of the region. Most are of traditional college age, under 25 years old. The new dorms have room for some 400 students. They had 371 in the fall, and 325 this spring, with attrition. Dr. Duffy said she expects to be “fully occupied” next fall, with some percentage of this year’s resident students returning and new students coming in.
$25 million N-STEM building
In the near-year since Dr. Duffy came on, the college has completed a new strategic plan. The biggest component is a proposed $25 million “N-STEM” building, to house expanded nursing and science-technology-engineering and math facilities.
The current science building is one of the oldest on campus, Dr. Duffy notes. “The classrooms and equipment are up to date,” she says, “but the building itself is not. We are out of classroom space for the science and nursing programs.”
The college applied for a $20 million grant through the state’s SUNY 2020 program, which is focused, she said, on workforce and economic development, particularly for SUNY campus building projects “that will make a big impact in the college and community. It’s not just about a building, but what our local labor force needs. What are the gaps?”
Dr. Duffy said she imagines the new N-STEM building project to be two or three years in the making. “I am being ambitious,” she says, adding that the specs for the project might change if the state grant does not come through.”
She says SUNY Adirondack’s Bay Road campus encompasses 141 acres, including 40 unoccupied and potentially buildable.
‘Highest enrollment ever’
“I think I’m the luckiest president ever. I came in to a ribbon-cutting on a new building, and enrollment is the highest it’s ever been,” at approximately 4,200 students,” said Dr. Duffy.
She cautions, “It would be easy to sit back, but we know what’s coming forward.”
“Funding is always a challenge, especially for a public institution. We receive ours from the state, from local sponsors (primarily Warren and Washington Counties) and tuition. As the counties and state become financially stressed, we become a lot more tuition dependent. That’s a different model of operation.
“We need to seek other ways to bring in resources, and continue to find ways to be more efficient while remaining effective in our mission.”
Tuition revenue is further challenged, she said, as local population stagnates or even drops. “That of course has an impact on enrollment,” she says, “if there are fewer students graduating from the schools.”
She said, “Building the residence halls allows us to attract more students from outside the region.”
A diminishing population of high school students “also requires us to consider our adult learner program even more,” she said.
Why go here?
The college’s biggest competition, Dr. Duffy says, “is our four-year counterparts.”
She says, “There’s an increase in the number of students looking at us as their number-one choice. We’ve always been a fallback for students who can’t get in anywhere else. We are a service in that way.
“But also SUNY Adirondack can make the most economical sense. You get a great education, don’t need to leave home if you’re not ready. It’s often not until after they leave that the students realize the value, to have a faculty that is truly focused on teaching, available to talk with students after classes, the programs here.”
She said, however, “We are never going to duplicate everything another college offers, nor should we. That’s why there are 3,000 colleges in this country.”
She created a new position, Dean of Enrollment Management and Marketing, valuable “now that we’re in the housing world,” she says. “Downstate, Long Island and New York City, is a ripe opportunity for us. So many people come to Lake George to visit. We can ask, would you send your child to college in this region?”
At least 50 students, what Dr. Duffy terms “a significant number” for this size school, entered this fall from Long Island and New York City. She said the school focuses its recruitment efforts, “up and down the Northway” especially.
The 20 percent problem
Student retention is a major concern. Dr. Duffy said that 70 percent of students who enter intend to earn a degree — but fewer than 20 percent complete that goal now.
“Unfortunately that is the norm in the community college sector,” she says.
“Students come to SUNY Adirondack and they have goals to get degrees, but they’re not always completing those. We need to look at why. If there are things going on in people’s lives, we can’t help that, but we need to spend more time looking at, why are students dropping out? Student retention is a big topic across the country.
“Our funding bodies are in tune with that, and in fact, there may come a time soon when you could be reduced in funding based on retention. More than that, it’s the promise that we make to a student, that you decide to come to SUNY Adirondack, and we will provide you with the education to receive the degree that was your goal.”
New reporting protocols in higher education allow the school to track students who move on to other colleges — “and that’s a success.” However, she says, transfers only increase the college’s completion rate to approximately 45 percent.
“What’s happening with that other half of the entering students? That issue is at the top of my radar, completion.”
Meanwhile, Dr. Duffy said, “on the academic preparation side we are seeing increasing numbers of students needing remediation in math and English.
“We need to understand who is coming in. We have less than the state average of students needing remedial courses, which was surprising to me, but that doesn’t mean we don’t need to be concerned.”
She said the college meets regularly with regional high school math and English teachers to align needs and programs.
“We are an open-access school, which means we do have students who haven’t performed at their highest level previously. We need to break the rhetoric that the schools aren’t doing their jobs. As a student, if you haven’t done the work or haven’t practiced enough then, yes, you might need help to catch up.
She said, “We need to get away from the blame game, where colleges blame high schools, high schools blame middle school, middle school blames the elementary school and the elementary school blames the parents. It’s not productive.”
Credentials vs. degrees
Dr. Duffy is a proponent of shifting focus from degree programs to offering students “credentials,” shorter-term certificates in job or tech skills that may help them land specific jobs. “Not that you ever want to diminish the degrees,” she said, but she suggests that “stackable” certificates that can be earned on the way to a degree — or not — can offer measurable benchmarks that serve students of all ages, as well as regional employers.
“It’s about community response,” she said. “We’re not ever diminishing the value of a liberal arts education, but we are reaching out and training and creating the programs that good employees need.
“This has become a very popular model across the country, how we can create some of these ladders for people to move up in their careers.”
Dr. Duffy said, “We need to look at the continuing education arm of the college as well. We never want to get away from the personal enrichment classes, but, to use the phrase from Oldsmobile, this is not your father’s college anymore. We need to have more adult learners,” she said, again, if the population is not growing.
Washington County site?
Dr. Duffy suggested, too, a greater physical presence in Washington County — “not to build a building, but maybe to utilize space that is there already, but also to be strategic.” She cites the school’s planned new Sustainable Agriculture program as one it would make sense to offer directly in Washington County.
Programs in the works
Dr. Duffy cites some programs she sees as promising for the college’s future.
• A two-year Early College program in Advanced Manufacturing offers high school students hands-on learning in science, technology, engineering and math. Industrial partners include Irving Tissue and Global Foundries, for example.
“Manufacturing isn’t dying, it’s just changing to more smart manufacturing, technology,” she said. She adds the program could be “a foot in the door” to similar degree programs for all their students.
“Then we have to figure out, how to move the curriculum forward, utilizing our faculty expertise, or if we don’t have it, finding it.”
• Bachelor’s of Science degree in Nursing, through SUNY Plattsburgh, starting next fall.
• Cisco networking courses at the Wilton Campus.
• Certificate and degree programs in Sustainable Agriculture, “a no-brainer,” Dr. Duffy comments, given the agricultural thrust of Washington County especially.
• Entrepreneurship certificate program, to launch in the fall.
• They’re considering new Medical Assisting training, in consultation with Hudson Headwaters Health Network.
“We have a lot of irons in the fire,” Dr. Duffy promises. “You will see this college really on the move and focused on working in the community,” she said.
Dr. Duffy: Quick bio
Kristine Duffy, 48, grew up in Binghamton, where she graduated from Vestal High School. She earned her Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration at SUNY Brockport.
“I was a first-generation college student, and very fortunate in that. What education has done for me, I hope to provide to others. We truly are the community’s college, and that is very important to me.”
At SUNY Brockport, “I was an admissions tour guide,” Dr. Duffy tells The Chronicle, “which gave me my first idea about working in higher education.”
After graduating, she lived briefly in San Francisco, she says, “to try the California life. I taught gymnastics, hung out, what young people do.”
“When I came back east I moved to Albany because I had friends here.”
Dr. Duffy became Director of Admissions at what was then called Sage Junior College of Albany (now Sage College of Albany). At the same time, she earned a Master’s in Guidance and Counseling at Russell Sage College, then took a job as a school counselor at Colonie High School.
When her husband John’s job took them to Syracuse, Dr. Duffy says, “I saw that as an opportunity to rethink my career path and go back to higher education.”
She became Dean of Enrollment at Cayuga Community College and later Vice-President of Enrollment and Student Affairs at Onondaga Community College in Syracuse — on “the other hill” across from Syracuse University, she laughs.
In Syracuse, she earned her Doctorate of Education at St. John Fisher College in Rochester. Her dissertation topic was community college student retention.
Dr. Duffy’s husband works in sales for EcoLab, a global company based in Minnesota that provides industrial cleaning products and services to food service and processing facilities, hospitality, healthcare and other industries. He works from the family home in Queensbury.
They have two sons. Jack, 19, is a freshman studying business management at the University of Maryland. (“Go Terps!” Dr. Duffy adds, referring to the Maryland Terrapins).
Sean, 15, is a sophomore at Queensbury High School. He played junior varsity football last fall as the varsity won the state championship. “That was an exciting thing to come in to,” Dr. Duffy says.
“We’re a pretty sports-minded family,” she says. “We do a lot of skiing. We had season passes to Gore this year. We boat, we intend to hike in the Adirondacks this year. We have a kayak and I have a paddleboard.”
“My husband’s parents had a place on Lake Champlain in Vermont. So we’ve been coming this way for 20 years.”
— Cathy DeDe
Dr. Kristine Duffy offers some overview:
Enrollment at SUNY Adirondack is 4,200 students. Roughly 30 percent each, come from Warren and Washington Counties.
The mean student age is 22.
Some 61 percent of students are full-time/
Some 70 percent are traditional college age.
Dr. Duffy said that the college has especially targeted Saratoga County because it has “the least decline in population” regionally. SUNY Adirondacks’ newly expanded Wilton Campus saw a 150 percent increase in enrollment last fall, to 800 students, Dr. Duffy said.
SUNY Adirondack has 93 full-time faculty members, — “as much as 60 percent” of the faculty at a given moment, depending on course offerings. The rest are adjunct professors.
“If you look across our sister institutions, we are second in the state for the percentage of full-time faculty,” Dr. Duffy said.
SUNY Adirondack signed a new two-year contract with its faculty unions last week.
Dr. Duffy said the college’s biggest degree area is the liberal arts program, with the Criminal Justice, Culinary Arts and Nursing programs among the largest after that.