Westchester has long been home to a thriving higher-ed sector, playing host to 11 colleges and universities within its borders. In addition to being havens for students seeking educational enlightenment and a path to profitable careers, our institutions of higher learning are economic engines for the region.
Though the COVID-19 outbreak has wreaked havoc on their plans for the current academic year, our higher-ed leaders remain focused on sharing the new educational approaches, leadership, facilities, and academic programming they are most excited about.
Concordia College’s academic programs are built on an ethics-infused liberal-arts foundation, says President Rev. Dr. John A. Nunes: “We are increasingly emphasizing programs that provide a career pathway, particularly in health services, business, and education, and using innovative delivery formats to meet market demands.”
An influx of fresh leadership is working to meet those demands. New appointments include Dr. Mark Wahlers, chief administrative officer; Kathleen Suss, vice president for major gifts; Dr. Rachel Eells, vice president for academic affairs; and Dr. Bob Hamill, interim chief financial officer.
In 2019, the Bronxville college opened new high-fidelity nursing labs and a state-of-the-art radiologic technologies wing, and it made upgrades to Sommer Center for Worship and the Performing Arts. Its admissions welcome center has undergone a complete renovation, and campus-visit programs have also been enhanced.
“We’re a small, close-knit community where professors really know their students.”
— Rev. Dr. John A. Nunes, President
Nunes says that Concordia is “well-positioned to take advantage of current growth in what we’re calling the ‘new traditional’ student population — adult learners who have decided to start or complete their college degrees. We’ve developed a real expertise in helping these students overcome the special challenges they face on the way to achieving their educational and career goals.”
A new program called Impact U, launched this year with a class of 11, targets students ages 18 to 24 with a range of intellectual disabilities. During this two-year college experience, the students live on campus, audit classes, complete internships, and graduate with a Certificate of Applied Learning. The program, Nunes says, “has a profound effect not only on their lives but on the lives of the traditional students with whom they work, study, and socialize.”
Concordia, like other colleges, moved all its coursework online and closed residence halls when faced with the COVID-19 outbreak. It also created a dedicated emergency-response team to coordinate with state and local agencies. Nunes believes that Concordia has an advantage in continuing the process of educating its students. “We’re a small, close-knit community where professors really know their students,” he said. “Instructors have in some cases been able to adapt remote learning modalities to individual student-learning styles. As a community, we’re focused on keeping connected and are eager for the day when we can be together again.”
Sarah Lawrence College president Cristle Collins Judd assumed leadership of the college in 2017. During her short tenure, she has already overseen several important achievements.
In 2019, the college completed the largest fundraising endeavor in its history, the Campaign for Sarah Lawrence, which surpassed its goal to raise $200 million to bolster support for students, faculty, and the college’s physical campus in Bronxville. The campaign pledged $51 million toward endowed scholarships and financial aid, and more than 200 students have already benefited, according to Judd. In addition, these new funds support the college’s Human Genetics program and establish recurring scholarships for students in its Master of Fine Arts in Writing program. Another $17 million is being used to endow faculty chairs and professorships; fund research, initiatives and development; and finance academic programs.
The Barbara Walters Campus Center, funded in part by a $15 million gift given in 2015 by the esteemed broadcaster and Sarah Lawrence alumna, and other alumni, opened at the beginning of this school year and serves as a hub for the campus community and a place to hold events. The college also completed a partial reconstruction of the Remy Theatre, a 1930s open-air theater with a storied history. And in September 2019, the Mellon Foundation awarded Sarah Lawrence a $1.2 million, five-year grant to advance and support civic engagement through the arts and humanities in Westchester. The award is the largest programmatic grant in Sarah Lawrence history.
“I know that this is a moment when we as a community will live the college’s motto of ‘wisdom with understanding.’ ”
— Cristle Collins Judd, President
Judd also hired the college’s first vice president for diversity, equity, and inclusion, Fatiah Touray, who joined the campus this past fall, after previously serving as New York University’s assistant dean for diversity and international students.
When faced with the coronavirus epidemic, Judd explained in a letter to the college community in March the challenging decision to cancel all on-campus, in-person classes for the rest of the semester: “We face a public health crisis of a type and magnitude never experienced in our lifetimes. I know that this is a moment when we as a community will live the college’s motto of ‘wisdom with understanding’ and experience in new ways John Dewey’s oft-quoted maxim: ‘Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.’”
As the county’s largest educational institution, Westchester Community College (WCC) — which operates a main campus in Valhalla, plus extension locations in New Rochelle, Mount Vernon, Yonkers, Shrub Oak, Mahopac, Ossining, Port Chester, and Peekskill (Center for the Digital Arts), and serves some 13,000 full- and part-time college-credit students and about 11,000 continuing-education students each semester — acutely felt the weight of the COVID-19 outbreak.
“Among our highest priorities is providing a safe and healthy teaching and learning environment,” Eve Larner, vice president of external affairs at Westchester Community College, said in April as the college worked to meet the needs of its population during the crisis. “We are providing the tools and resources our students and faculty can use to successfully complete their classes this semester in the midst of an unprecedented public-health incident in Westchester County.”
As it approaches its 75th anniversary, in 2021, WCC has added programs and services that have focused on student success and increased graduation rates 42% over the past three years. Among these programs are scholarships to encourage completion of studies, completion coaches, more transfer agreements to four-year colleges, and a 12th-grade Step Up to College initiative to align high school requirements with college standards.
A newly created Health Information Technology program awards students an Associate of Applied Science degree in the emerging field of patient data analytics in healthcare. Also new, the Health and Human Performance program awards an Associate of Science degree for students interested in health, fitness, and wellness careers.
With funding from the National Science Foundation, WCC is a nationally recognized center in the field of photonics and laser technology. New courses in mechanical technology prepare students to work with lasers in advanced manufacturing, networking telecommunications, and medical technology. The market for photonics technologists is expected to grow more than 8% by 2024, according to the college.
In another new initiative, WCC recently partnered with Berkeley College and Guizhou University of Finance and Economics in China to provide English as a Second Language (ESL) courses to 68 Chinese students who lived in White Plains while earning bachelors’ degrees from Berkeley.
Though demographic trends in the Northeast show a decline in college-bound students, which may present enrollment challenges for Westchester colleges and universities, Iona College president Seamus Carey, PhD, is optimistic about the New Rochelle school’s appeal. “We believe that the value — and values — of an Iona education will help the college meet these challenges head on,” he says. “Value has become an increasingly important factor in school choice.” He notes that in a Georgetown University ranking of 4,500 colleges and universities based on their return on investment, Iona College was in the top 6% nationwide, looking out 40 years after enrollment. “That kind of demonstrable return on investment will become even more significant to incoming students,” he says.
Carey became Iona College’s ninth president in the summer of 2019, and since then, the Bronx native has witnessed the completion of three major building projects: the Hynes Institute for Entrepreneurship & Innovation, the LaPenta School of Business, and a dramatically upgraded Hynes Athletics Center.
“Value has become an increasingly important factor in school choice.”
— Seamus Carey, PhD, President
Iona also introduced a new online MBA program in the fall of 2019 that offers the same content as its traditional MBA program but is accessed 100% online. “The degree can be completed in 18 months, and the program enables students to take classes from anywhere, allowing busy professionals to manage their careers, personal lives, and coursework in a way that works best for them,” Carey says.
The college recently revamped its Master of Science in Teaching program so that students and working professionals can now complete a degree and student teaching requirements with 33 credits to 36 credits, down from 45, saving anywhere from $9,000 to $12,000 over the life of the program.
Iona’s science-and-technology curriculum emphasizes hands-on research for all of its students who work closely with faculty on research projects. The college recently received a National Science Foundation grant to support students studying and doing research in biochemistry, chemistry, and computer science. The grant provides scholarship money to students looking to major in STEM fields at Iona.
As the COVID-19 pandemic spread, Iona, like all other colleges, moved all classes online and encouraged employees to work from home. Carey says that Iona was one of the first in the country to offer prorated housing and meal-plan credits. “We know that really helped to ease some of the stress for students and families,” he says. “This pandemic is a challenge to all of us, as it is to millions of our fellow citizens around the world. What will be most distinctive about this experience is how we respond.”
As the COVID-19 pandemic took over everyone’s lives, Manhattanville College, like all other educational institutions, moved to remote instruction through the end of the semester, encouraged students to move out of the residence halls, and closed on-campus offices. “This unprecedented time has caused a lot of anxiety, uncertainty, and stress. But amid all that, faculty are coming together to help one another learn how to teach remotely and support each other,” says Cara Cea, the college’s newly appointed assistant vice president for communications and marketing. “We all have a common goal: the health, well-being, and safety of the students.”
When student life returns to normal, the college will return its focus to new programs, including a new nursing school offering a Bachelor of Science for traditional four-year students and an Accelerated Bachelor of Science for those who already hold a bachelor’s degree in another field. The School of Education launched a new Dissertation Completion Pathway, with a remote learning component for those who have completed all coursework for a doctorate in educational leadership. The School of Education also launched a new master’s program in health education.
Manhattanville opened its new Center for Design Thinking this past September on its Purchase campus. The college says it is one of just a few such centers at a liberal-arts college in the country and the first in Westchester. The former President’s Cottage was completely renovated with collaborative learning spaces for students and the business community. “Design thinking is a systematic and creative approach that supports the development of solutions to complex problems,” explains Alison Carson, who was recently named associate provost for academic innovation and design thinking at Manhattanville and is the director of the new center. “There is an emphasis on process that encourages the development of several mindsets, including curiosity and discovery, empathy, a growth mindset, grit, willingness to take risks, collaboration, creativity, a recognition of learning from failure, and many other characteristics that we know are beneficial outcomes for career preparedness and life in general.”
Also new to leadership are Jean Hall, interim vice president for finance, and Sarah E. Kelly, vice president for institutional advancement.
Mercy College president Tim Hall notes “three big things going on this year.” At the top of that list is Mercy’s agreement to take on students from the College of New Rochelle after it closed in the fall of 2019. About 1,500 former CNR students joined the Mercy student body, he says. Mercy also leased the CNR main campus in New Rochelle for a year and added its campuses in Brooklyn and Harlem, bringing the total number of Mercy campuses to seven, including its Dobbs Ferry location.
Also big for Mercy: It received permission from the state to teach new programs, primarily in nursing. “We have a new, accelerated nursing program for those with bachelor’s degrees who want to change careers,” Hall says. The master’s-level degree for family nurse practitioner can be earned in 18 months.
“We are now presenting guided pathways to success, to help students stay on a path and make steady progress.”
— Tim Hall, President
His third piece of news concerns the college’s efforts to foster student success, which focus, he says, on what the school can do “that helps students persist and graduate, not just take some credits and incur debt.” Thanks to initiatives like the Mercy Success Tool Kit, the school is currently enjoying its highest retention rates since the 1950s. “We are a minority-serving institution,” says Hall of the student body, 75% of whom are people of color, “and this year our retention rates were higher for students of color than for Caucasian students.”
The Mercy Success Tool Kit includes a new model of advising. Formerly, students got “episodic advice,” meaning only when they needed it. The new model is called “intrusive advising,” which Hall explains as “advising that tries to figure out who has difficulty and needs help, getting them the help before they ask for it.”
The college also offers prerequisite remediation, putting students not prepared for college-level coursework in real courses instead of remedial courses and giving them extra support. Another tool is called choice architecture. “We are now presenting guided pathways to success, to help students stay on a path and make steady progress,” he explains. “When you present it to students like that, they do better. It also helps us see who is making progress and who is not.”
In response to the COVID-19 outbreak, Mercy College moved academic instruction online, initiated a telecommuting policy for faculty and staff, closed residence halls, and canceled all events and activities. “College administrators have been diligently working with faculty and students to ensure the online learning environment is operating as planned,” Hall explained in March. The college also created a dedicated webpage to offer updates on confirmed cases, safety recommendations, and preventative measures.
Like everyone else, the faculty and staff at Purchase College were busy at press time adapting to the COVID-19 pandemic, working to transition courses to accessible-distance delivery. “We understand these changes are disruptive. However, second only to student safety, our goal is to create pathways so that [students] can graduate from Purchase College,” interim President Dennis Craig said of the school’s response.
Craig was installed after the departure of Thomas J. Schwarz, now president emeritus (the college is currently searching for a new permanent president). “As President Schwarz left the college in a good place in terms of the academic performance, culture, and financial health, we believe the next president will be well situated to help move Purchase forward,” Craig explains.
Purchase recently added a new concentration in biotechnology, designed to help prepare students to join the workforce in the biological sciences and meet the need for a skilled workforce in New York State and Westchester. This concentration will ready students for a career with biotech firms, pharmaceutical companies, and research labs by combining studies in basic biology with hands-on training. Other new programs include minors in museum studies and contemplative studies, which are interdisciplinary programs.
The college opened its newest academic building, the Center for Media, Film and Theatre, and a new residence hall, called Wayback. It also plans to open Broadview, Senior Living at Purchase College, in 2021 or 2022. This new development will include 220 independent-living homes for adults age 62 and older and will create a community focused on lifelong learning. The living expenses will fund scholarships and faculty support; state legislation that made the development possible requires that 75% of proceeds go to student scholarships and 25% to faculty support.
As it works to serve an increasingly diverse student body, Purchase has been praised for its performance in terms of social mobility by U.S. News & World Report, which reviewed how colleges provide a supportive academic, cultural, and social environment for low-income students. Its Success Fellows program helps acclimate first-generation students through a specially designed program that involves personalized support from mentors and a special orientation. The Educational Opportunity Program is for students who haven’t reached their full academic potential because of limited financial resources and inadequate academic preparation. These students are also given special academic tutoring and counseling.
Craig says the college expects this trend toward diversity to continue, “and we feel confident that we will be able to continue to meet the needs of all our students while offering a very high-quality education in the liberal arts, sciences, and performing and visual arts.”
Facing the COVID-19 pandemic, Marvin Krislov, president of Pace University, promised that he and his administration would be “vigilant, proactive, and responsible, and keep our focus on the best interests of our students, faculty, staff, and communities. These are remarkable and unprecedented times that are requiring us to work, learn, and live in new ways.”
As the university moved to remote learning and remote work, he promised the school would “continue to fulfill our mission of preparing our students to succeed and make positive contributions in the world around them.”
Pace is changing to meet the needs of its students. “People are living and working longer, and therefore traditional models of education will change as a result,” Krislov says. “We must educate a changing workforce and create options for lifelong learning that are practical, convenient, and attainable, and provide a good return on investment.”
Using technology for distance learning was front-of-mind even before the coronavirus. “Today’s students, whether working professionals, adult learners, or traditional college students, need programs that are flexible and fit into their busy schedules,” he says. “We’re leveraging technology to enhance the educational experience, providing programs both online and in-person that are flexible, faster, and more competitively priced.”
Pace is also adding to its curriculum. Its Elisabeth Haub School of Law has a new part-time scheduling option, called the Flex JD, which includes evening and weekend classes, to make a law degree more accessible to working professionals. Haub Law has also added a climate-change career track for students focusing on environmental law and is adding courses that focus on environmental, social, and governance criteria.
The College of Health Professionals has added nine programs in the past five years, in areas such as nursing, nutrition, adult acute care, occupational therapy, and psychiatric mental health. The university is investing in and adding advanced programs in AI and data analytics at the Seidenberg School of CSIS. And Pace’s Lubin School of Business also offers a flexible MBA that reduces the time and cost that students typically invest in a traditional MBA program.
The university is investing heavily in job readiness, with career-services professionals, career fairs, internships, and workshops on résumé writing, professional branding tips, and how to negotiate a competitive salary. “Nearly 20 percent of Generation Z and young Millennials say they might choose not to attend college. They question whether a college degree is actually worth the cost,” Krislov says. “We know we must prove our value and ensure that the value proposition we offer pays dividends over a lifetime.”
Albany-based writer David Levine is a frequent contributor to 914INC. and Westchester Magazine.