Technology is key to college's growth, new president says

| 21 Feb 2012 | 10:49

    Central Valley-The crowd was little more than a handful at the Inn at Central Valley one late summer evening to hear SUNY Orange President William Richards. "More intimate," the college president said. Small, though, is not his message. Richards was inaugurated in March as the college's seventh president in its 54-year history. And he presides over a college that is attracting students at twice the state average of 2 percent. Meanwhile, enrollment at its Newburgh satellite campus is up more than 11 percent. SUNY Orange also has the highest success rate of the state's 30 community colleges in sending students on to four-year colleges. "I hear from SUNY New Paltz and Albany, who tell me, ‘We will take a class full of SUNY Orange students any day,' " Richards said. "That's nice to hear." And the medical community in Orange County tells him how much they want SUNY Orange graduates from its health-related programs. Nearly 6,000 students attend classes at SUNY Orange's main campus in Middletown, its extension center in Newburgh, and its satellites at high schools in Monroe-Woodbury, Warwick, and Port Jervis. But for all the strong numbers, Richards' message this evening as he discusses "the role SUNY Orange plays in the community" is that the college can do more We are now at maximum capacity on facilities," Richards said. "You'd be hard put to find a closet for someone. But instead of brick and mortar, we must invest in technology." Technology is important because, he said, many students today have very different needs, as in "no 9 a.m. classes" because they are juggling work and family. Technology is also what business is demanding in terms of training. Its application provides convenience and flexibility. It also requires smarts. Richards acknowledged that, when he was interviewed for the job, county officials asked him to stop what has been a long-standing perception that more students from Monroe-Woodbury head south toward SUNY Rockland than toward SUNY Orange's Middletown campus. Richards acknowledged that today's students have more choices and are more demanding. "If it's more convenient for them to go to Rockland, if they have a program they are interested in, then it makes sense for them," he said. But do not take that answer as a measure of complacency. Richards said he wants SUNY Orange to grow. And he's listening to what the college has learned through a series of yearlong focus groups and follow-up presentations like this one at the Inn at Central Valley. For instance, the college recently joined a community college alliance with Franklin University whereby SUNY Orange graduates can get their bachelor's degrees from the Columbus, Ohio-based institution by taking their course work through Internet classroom training. And, Richards said, it would cost less than getting the same degree from SUNY New Paltz. Richards called Franklin's distance education program among the best in the country. As for any fallout by offering a competitive alternative to four-year SUNY schools, Richards simply acknowledged that for students, the program offers a realistic, necessary, and competitive alternative. He's also met with Port Jervis officials to discuss creating a "university center" similar to the one he was involved with in Houston, Texas. Six or seven colleges pooled resources at a central classroom, and students took advantages of the college's resources. Richards would like to bring education to where people who need it and want it can take advantage of it. As important as technology is, so, too, is language. More than 35 percent of the students who attend classes in Newburgh are Hispanic (versus 14 to 16 percent overall among SUNY Orange students). There also is a growing student population from Eastern Europe. In both cases, the college is emphasizing language because so many come to campus with skills learned in their homelands. Those kinds of things are important to a first-generation Irish American like Richards. For business, the college wants to build its reputation as the place where business owners can find affordable "world-class" training for their staff through its Continuing and Professional Education Program. The initial emphasis is on nursing and hygiene, where the college already has a strong reputation. That's not to say brick and mortar aren't in the future. The college's highest strategic priority is in Newburgh, where SUNY Orange leases 65,000 square feet on three floors in the Key Bank building as well as space from the YMCA for a child care center. "We've outgrown both," Richards says. "The new campus, we think, should contain about 200,000 square feet." That may take some time. Gov. George Pataki recently vetoed a proposal that would have delivered $15 million for a new Newburgh campus, plus a planning budget of $810,000. State Sen. William Larkin Jr. will talk to the governor about reconsidering the veto, Richards said. Again, technology plays a role in this decision. Richards believes the corridor between Manhattan and Albany is poised to become the country's next great technology corridor, beginning with IBM's operations in Poughkeepsie and Beacon. Richards also raised the prospect of building dormitories in Middletown to accommodate as many as 500 students. Although such plans may be three to four years away, Richards is confident that twice as many students would apply for a dorm room. "And if we offered 100 specifically for foreign students, we'd get 3,000 applications because education in America is still considered the best," he said. Such a move would shift the culture on what is largely a commuter campus, where students largely leave campus after classes end. Downtown businesses in Middletown would see new customers. And an expanded foreign student population would add an international flavor to classes as well as social and cultural lives. Although Richards acknowledged there might be room at what is now the Orange Regional Medical Center when it relocates to the Town of Wallkill, Richards would prefer a site next to campus. "There are companies that build, manage, and run dorms for a 10 percent return for the college with no public investment," he said. "They are more like Marriott [hotels] than any dorm I grew up with." It would work like this: SUNY Orange could enter into a contract with a developer who would build the residence halls to the college's specifications, and then manage them. The college would allow the use of college-owned land for the dorms for a period of time, say between 25 to 50 years, in exchange for a percent of the profit. Richards is as familiar with John A. D'Ambrosio, president of the Orange County Chamber of Commerce, as he is with former Monroe-Woodbury student Valentina Ponochovnaya, a graduate of SUNY Orange from its engineering program, and last year's student representative to the college's board of trustees. He sprinkled his Power Point presentation, with its numbers and charts, with quotations from Albert Einstein, Mark Twain, and George Bernard Shaw. Most poke fun at academics, like this one from Shaw: "The reason academics argue so vehemently among themselves is that the stakes are so low." "[Shaw] did, indeed, despise academics because he had a less-than-happy experience with the bureaucracy of education," Richards said. "Too, he's Irish." One senses that Richards is an academic who understands the power of politics and bureaucracy. But he will return to his message. And it's this simple: "We will be the best college in the SUNY system."