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A Week in the Life of a University President

President's Message

President Lawrence K. Pettit

It occurs to me that one way to project what IUP is all about, what it stands for, is to examine some highlights from one week of the president’s calendar and to see what the events signify about the university. I chose the week just ended as I began to write this—the week of April 1, 2002.

Monday began as every Monday does, with the morning consumed by the weekly meeting of the president’s cabinet.  It is here that the vice presidents, a few other senior officers, and I determine how to manage the university’s resources, how to steer it towards its goals, and how to increase its competitiveness and reputation.  I also meet “one on one” with each senior officer weekly, with agendas that range from a few items in some divisions to the week that the provost, Mark Staszkiewicz, and I had fifty-six items that required “immediate” attention.

Late in the afternoon, I drove to Latrobe to meet and have dinner with a Kennametal senior executive, who has developed a close relationship with IUP and who has volunteered to assist us in developing partnerships and commitments to the university from corporations.  He is impressed with the way our Eberly College of Business and Information Technology has recognized and made use of his talents, and, as a vice president with health and safety, among other things, in his jurisdiction, he is immensely impressed with the quality of our Safety Sciences department.

On Tuesday I had a very early breakfast with a high-ranking officer from the British consulate in New York.  This was his second visit to IUP within the past three weeks.  He had come initially because the selection committee for Marshall scholarships had unanimously asked him to discover what it is about this university that made our applicants for that prestigious award so competitive.

After his first visit to our Robert E. Cook Honors College, he had written me a letter in which he stated that our IUP candidates were more competitive than a majority of the Ivy League candidates, and much more competitive than the candidates from every other state school in the northeastern United States but one.  He also was astounded at the rigor and high quality of the Robert E. Cook Honors College. When he left, I knew that IUP had earned a reputation for excellence that is priceless, and we did it because of the generosity and vision of an alumnus and the dedication, excellence, and hard work of faculty, students, and administrators. 

Next was the weekly meeting of the Council of Deans, chaired by the provost.  I sit in with this group once a month.  One of the matters we discussed was how to develop measures and variables that we can urge be integrated into the System funding formula in a way that captures IUP’s uniqueness and that gives us adequate funding for our larger, doctoral mission, one that is leading us increasingly into exciting research and service activities.

At a student luncheon on Tuesday, something that my Executive Assistant and I host about every two weeks at the president’s home, we heard from eight students how and why they selected our university, what problems they are having, if any, what they especially like about IUP, who their favorite faculty members are, and what staff members have treated them with special courtesy and helpfulness.  These sessions always give us a boost and remind us of why we have dedicated our lives to this profession.

Late in the afternoon I attended the University Senate monthly meeting, where the provost and I each gave opening remarks as usual.  IUP may be unique in having a senate that includes administrators, faculty, and students, with the latter constituting about one-fourth of the membership.  On this day the students and faculty squared off in debate over a proposed change in the academic policy on withdrawals—something that would be inconceivable at most universities.

Tuesday evening I had dinner with Keenan Holmes, an extraordinary young man who transferred to IUP from Rice University.  In high school, he had gone to a special governor’s school in Virginia for academically talented students.  At IUP, Keenan is a star basketball player and a member of the Honors College.  He writes poetry and has been writing a book in his spare time since he graduated high school.  Keenan had sought my advice on several matters relating to his future, and we talked about his family and how he loves IUP, and he told me of the incredible bonding on this year’s men’s basketball team, which went to the NCAA Division II Final Four.

My early breakfast meeting on Wednesday was the second in a planned series of such meetings involving, in addition to myself, the provost, the president of the University Senate, and the president of the IUP chapter of the faculty union, APSCUF.  These meetings are essentially to stay in touch, to facilitate communication, and to avoid any major confrontations that could embarrass the university or cause unnecessary stress for our students.

Later, the provost and I hosted a luncheon for about twenty faculty members.  We do this about every two weeks, just as with the student luncheons.  We have done each of these since I arrived in 1992, and we believe it has been an effective, albeit unofficial, way to communicate with both constituencies.  I was impressed that at this particular luncheon several faculty members stayed fifteen minutes late to continue an enthusiastic conversation on how to improve certain university processes that encumber both students and faculty.

Wednesday evening I was twice reminded of the heart and soul of IUP.  First, at the annual awards banquet for community service, I witnessed the wonderful engagement between our students and representatives of the many human service agencies whom they help through their volunteer efforts.  And then I was able to sit in on part of a symposium at which faculty members from a variety of departments, the Learning Center, and the branch campuses reported the impressive array of special “first-year” programs they have devised to improve the retention of freshmen into the sophomore year.  Our retention rate had already improved markedly this year over last (perhaps just because of our collective will), but now with these new programs in place we should see another significant improvement.  Again, this is a reflection of unusual commitment and dedication and of deep concern for the well-being of our students.

Yet another breakfast meeting on Thursday.  This one was unusual, but it says much about IUP.  I had been concerned for some time about possible burn-out and health problems for a few of my top staff whose work week is almost endless, and on whom we depend to carry much of the really important work of the university.  I called them together this Thursday morning to begin discussions of how we might restructure to spread the work more evenly and, more important, how we can change the culture so that all support staff feel a stake in the university, share its aspirations, and view themselves as facilitators rather than as gatekeepers.

On Thursday afternoon, the new University Planning Council held its first meeting.  The senior staff and I approached this first meeting with apprehension, not knowing what to expect from a few constituency representatives who had been our harshest critics and who, we suspected, had a different vision of academic excellence from ours.  There were many views aired, but the meeting was a success as all participants seemed genuinely to have the university’s best interests in mind, and there was a solid majority concern for improving the intellectual tenor of the campus.  Subsequent workshops will acquaint this group, which numbers more than fifty, with the fiscal and budget realities that we face and with the System planning requirements and templates that to a very large extent will govern both our priorities and what we are able to do.

Thursday evening I had dinner with Ryan Miller, a senior management major from Altoona, who works in my office and who is president of the IUP chapter of the Sigma Chi Fraternity.  Ryan and I have been discussing how to reform, save, and strengthen the Greek system.  He is a young man of extraordinary talent and maturity, and I was reminded again in that meeting of how unspoiled, practical, and competent our IUP students are.

On Friday I enjoyed the luxury of eating breakfast alone and collecting my thoughts.  After a typically busy morning, culminating in a full briefing on the capital campaign from Vice President Joan M. Fisher, I had lunch with my executive assistant, Ruth Riesenman, and a senior, Anna Nagrodkiewicz. Anna has published poetry in both Polish and English, and her successes are described elsewhere in this issue of the magazine in “Beyond the Books.”

Friday afternoon several of us met to put the finishing touches on plans for visits to IUP by former U.S. Senator Bob Dole and gubernatorial candidate and former Philadelphia mayor Ed Rendell.  The discussion regarding Dole’s visit was mostly fixed on logistics, but since the next governor will have a major impact on the future of IUP, we discussed how best to acquaint Rendell with IUP’s particular strengths that constitute a resource for advancing a governor’s agenda.  (We have had similar discussions with Bob Casey and hope to do the same with Mike Fisher).

Friday night I drove into Pittsburgh to have dinner at Lidia’s with recent IUP graduates Josh Shaw ’98 and Denise Shaw ’96.  These wonderful and generous kids are pretty typical of young IUP graduates.  Denise had just achieved some national attention as a teacher and advisor to the prom committee at Connellsville High School, where she and another teacher used a “cow patty bingo” event to raise money so that the students, most of whom are from families of limited means, could have the kind of culminating event that students in many other high schools take for granted.  As word of this scheme spread, contributions came in from throughout the United States, and the kids had a good prom.

Josh and his fellow IUP alumni and business partners, Eric Nelson and Joe Schmitt, along with the eleven or so professionals (all IUP grads) who work for them, are typical IUP products also in that they are self-assured and competent, and they know what to do when they leave here and enter the workforce.  In this case, their consulting firm, Ergonomic and Safety Services, is enjoying enormous success, thanks both to their character and to the IUP education they all received.

There is no “typical” week, but each one has the elements described above, and taken together this week’s experiences convey a strong message about what IUP is and what it stands for.  We care about our students, and we want only the best for them.  We are a place of compassion, access, and opportunity, but we are also a place of achievement and in constant pursuit of higher levels of excellence, because we have to be in order to remain competitive in the new environment.  We are a much better, more complicated, and more extended university than we have ever been funded to be.  Our model of excellence is an expensive one, yet our real-dollar resources from the state are diminishing.  As a result, we ask all of our alumni and friends to stretch and to contribute financially to support to the best of your ability IUP, its values, and its dreams.  Let us not let this wonderful light fade. 

Oh, I almost forgot.  On Saturday and Sunday, as I worked out of my office at the Executive Residence, I was able to give some time to my little Jack Russell terrier, Moxie.  In a way, Moxie has a lot in common with IUP also.  Jack Russells were bred for traits that enable them to complete the job.  They are not necessarily obedient but are reliable.  They are both intelligent and intrepid.  They are not show dogs, but they perform exceptionally well on the job.