Thursday, January 14, 2016

What I've Learned after a Semester Serving on the Salem State University Alumni Association Board of Directors

I have learned a lot in the few months since joining the Salem State University Alumni Association board of directors in September 2015. In this post I will share some of what I have learned. 

Many things are familiar around campus since my student days. The dome of the Collins Observatory on top of Meier Hall is still there. The detailed craftsmanship of the Sullivan Building remains impressive. The George H. Ellison Campus Center seems as if frozen in time. Even though is has gone digital, the WMWM studio is still crammed with stacks of vinyl and cheers still echo off the solid walls of O'Keefe Complex. There have also been many changes. 

The physical campus has undergone metamorphosis. What was once a hulking almost completely abandoned industrial area just south of what was then the main campus is now a vibrant new center of campus life. Here today adjacent to the re-purposed former factory that houses the Bertolon School of Business is a series of LEED certified (Leadership in Energy and Efficiency Design) green dormitories.

Where hazardous waste once threatened the tributaries of the Forest River, today there is a detoxed landscape that features walking trails, picturesque natural vistas and athletic fields. 

Once twilight brought to this area little more than the ghostly memories of an industrial Salem's past. Today a civic hub buzzes with daytime and evening activities. 

Elsewhere on campus from, the gleaming new Frederick E. Berry Library and Learning Commons, to the state of the art Harold E. and Marilyn J. Gassett Fitness and Recreation Center, and to the soon renovated Sophia Gordon Center for Creative and Performing Arts; students, alumni and the local community are enriched. Unfortunately, some realities of change are not as positive. Some are sobering. 

The costs of attending is one such change. According to the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education, tuition and mandatory fees have risen an average of seven percent per year since 2007. In 2007 it had cost an in-state commuter student $6,030 to attend Salem State. By 2014 the cost has risen to $9,246. Living on campus roughly doubles the price tag. 

One might look at the numbers in comparison to the costs of other possible choices and think, "Salem State remains a bargain."  There is little question that this is true. Looking at the raw numbers, however, betrays what Salem State has meant to many of our alumni and what it means to many of those seeking their start in today's challenging economy. 

For me and many I know, Salem State represents a chance where other options were closed. So too today, Salem State should remain an opportunity for the many with the motivation and work ethic to follow in our alumni footsteps.

My first reaction on learning about the rising costs was to assume that this is the price of the many positive changes on campus. Progress can be expensive.  I figured that the rise in tuition costs are a result of the building and other improvements that have taken place on campus. I have learned that my assumption was wrong. 

The buildings and the physical plant on campus are owned by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.  Building and improvements are funded by the state capital budget. The costs associated with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts investments in the physical campus do not affect Tuition and fees. 

What does affect tuition and fees is how much of the state budget comes to Salem State to subsidize student costs. I know that this may seem like digging into two separate pockets of the same pair of trousers, but there are a key differences in the fiscal processes. The numbers are stark. 

The 2014 study by the State Higher Education Executive Officers, shows that educational appropriations per full time student in Massachusetts have decreased 23.1 percent since 2005. As state funding has decreased Salem State has needed to find ways to hold the line against costs while still maintaining the high academic standards that have so well benefited our alumni community.

One way that Salem State has defended against these cutback is with the help of the University's many friends. Although there are many stellar examples of Salem State alumni giving back in gratitude for the jump start provided to their success by the school, it is by a significant margin not alumni contributions that make the difference. The largest impact is the support of the friends of Salem State University who make the difference.

Among these friends Salem State benefits from the participation of business and community leaders in the Salem State University Assistance Corporation (SSUAC) and a rich ecosystem of local businesses who employ students and alumni and who benefit from the economic activity generated by the University. This is a wonderful thing, but the fiscal pressure never lets up. 

Cutbacks in departments and functions across the campus are an all too frequent reality. There is also no prospect any time soon of the Commonwealth restoring funding lost from past budgets. Quite the contrary, increased reductions are anticipated.

What this means for the individual student as tuition and fees rise is that the benefits of Salem State's once highly accessible education are becoming increasingly difficult to attain. When I attended, I had the benefit of a good paying job and tuition reimbursement from the company that employed me. Few today are as lucky. 

Along with rising tuition and fees comes the everyday pressures of the cost of living. Although Salem State does a great job in helping students to find employment both on campus in the neighboring communities, student jobs just aren't what they used to be. Although government agencies may claim that inflation in the economy is under control, we all know from our day-to-day lives that for those things most important to quality of life, costs rise endlessly.

Today students carrying a full course load and needing to find the economic resources to accomplish their educational goals are under extreme pressure. Serving on the alumni Civic Engagement Committee has taught me how hard it is for some current Salem State students. There are current students who at times have to choose between buying food and paying their educational costs. 

I know that many of us today also struggle to keep up with conflicting fiscal priorities. We may still be paying down loans that financed our own education. We may be looking to a future of paying tuition for our own children. We all share the need to save for future uncertainty. We may look at the extent to which some have contributed and feel as though our contribution might seem inconsequential in comparison. 

The reality is that Salem State needs the help of all of our alumni community in order to be able to continue to provide to others the benefit that we alumni share. Money is not the only way to help. Giving back in kind or giving a financial gift; no contribution is to small nor unappreciated. 

Not sure how you may help? May I suggest that you come to Salem and spend some time visiting on campus. Take in a game. Every week features a slate of great competitive events. 

Are you a more contemplative person?  Weekly there are talks, seminars and cultural events on the University calendar. The theater and arts department's calendar features a regular schedule of eventsParticipating in the great activities that are constantly going on on campus will inspire your ideas. 

Upcoming January 23, 2016 is the annual Winter Family Day featuring a jazz brunch from 11 am to 1 pm in Marsh Dining Commons followed by a choice of activities.  That day there are four athletic games during which you can participate as our Vikings take on their rivals. If you plan to attend the Winter Family Day please email to RSVP.

Another way to help is to participate in the alumni association gift card drive that runs through February 2.The gift card drive is specifically for food and toiletries for the students in financial need who get help through the University's Student Advocacy Program Do you have gift cards from the holidays that you know you will never use?  Please drop off or mail any cards that can be used for the purchase of for food and toiletries to the Alumni Affairs office.

Talent and time as well as treasure are all valued contributions. If you'd like to learn more ways that you might help please visit the 10,000 Reasons Campaign website. There you can learn about the Salem State Foundation and its work. You'll be surprised at the efforts underway and the opportunities for your participation. 

Giving back to Salem State is not a solitary act. When you participate you share in an ethic that is woven into the fabric of university life. Students themselves are constantly involved in activities that benefit their communities and those in need. The Salem State Center Civic Engagement is a cornerstone in campus life. 

President Meservey set this out as a priority for the University at her inauguration when she said, "It is our duty to ensure that students understand the importance of community involvement, and that they are well versed in the privileges and responsibilities that come with citizenship in a democratic republic." As alumni we share in those same “privileges and responsibilities” and we should actively support the University's worthy goals. 

Thank you to the many who do. Thank you for spending a few minutes of your time. I hope to see you at one of the many events taking place this winter and spring.