This speech is about IUP’s future, and rightly so. Now, more than ever, we must look out to the horizon, not in our rearview mirrors. We must decide where we are going so we can build the roads to get there.

However, after the hell of the last two years—and all the scars it has left—I think we need to spend a little time looking back. Our community has been challenged by pandemic and furlough, by isolation and retrenchment. If we are to move forward, we must acknowledge the loss, the pain, and the grief.

I ask your indulgence as I rely on Judeo-Christian traditions to come to grips with it all. I find that all faith traditions provide wisdom, solace, and understanding. In this challenging time, I’ve turned to what I know best.

In the late seventh century BCE, the Jewish Kingdom of Judah was a strong nation. Its center was the city of Jerusalem, and the center of that city was Solomon’s Temple. While Judah had been a vassal state of the Assyrians and was currently a vassal state of the Babylonians, it was rightly proud of its status among nations. While the term was not present at the time, one can imagine that Judah thought of itself as the flagship of its region, even though it was part of a larger system of nation-states to which it was forced to pay tribute.

After Judah refused to pay more tribute, Babylonia defeated Judah, destroyed the temple, and leveled Jerusalem. Many of the Judeans who had not died in battle or from starvation during the siege were forcibly deported to Babylon, early in the sixth century BCE, beginning what is usually called the Babylonian Captivity. The experience is a defining moment in Jewish history.

I was drawn to this story about a year ago when I was reminded of Psalm 137. It starts like this:

Psalm 137[1]

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
    when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars
    we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
    our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
    they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How can we sing the songs of the Lord
    while in a foreign land?
If I forget you, Jerusalem,
    may my right hand forget its skill.
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
    if I do not remember you,
  if I do not consider Jerusalem
    my highest joy.

We are in a foreign land, and we have arrived here through much pain and suffering. It is not a comfortable place to be. We no longer have a firm foundation on which to stand. How can we sing? How can we go on?

Certainly, it has been difficult to find joy in our current circumstances. But we have found it, because the foundation on which IUP was built—a commitment to serving our students—stayed strong.

For me, the glimpses of joy came from your incredible strength, perseverance, and grit. Thanks to your dedication to each other and to our mission: IUP completed an award-winning pivot to online in March of 2020; students without a safe place to live were housed and fed on campus; facilities were kept safe and clean, even when we weren’t sure how COVID-19 was being transmitted; students were provided health care and counseling without pause; and you stepped up amid the tears for colleagues no longer with us, to make sure that students had what they needed. And you did it all while wearing the damned mask and while working together through a computer screen. You are remarkable, dedicated, strong people.

Sixty years or so after the Judeans were exiled, the Persian Empire defeated Babylon. The Persians allowed the captives to return to their promised land. A remnant of those in exile did return to what had been Judah—to the destroyed remains of their temple and their Jerusalem. It was, in many ways, another foreign land. Over time, the remnant rebuilt Jerusalem and a new temple. Judaism was fundamentally transformed by the experience of the captivity. There was no going home. They had to build a new home.

I thought a lot about whether to include the rest of Psalm 137. It’s almost always left out of the musical settings and readings. It says[2]

7 Remember, Lord, what the Edomites did
    on the day Jerusalem fell.
“Tear it down,” they cried,
    “tear it down to its foundations!”
Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,
    happy is the one who repays you
    according to what you have done to us.
Happy is the one who seizes your infants
    and dashes them against the rocks.

It is certainly a hard passage to read and contemplate—filled with hate, violence, and calls for retribution. But it is also a real description of people’s feelings. If each of us is honest, the challenges of the last two years have often filled us with frustration, anger, and, sometimes, with hate—at the virus, at neighbors, at political leaders, at each other, and, perhaps, at ourselves.

It is natural and understandable to have these feelings. We have all been transformed by what has occurred. And just like the Judeans, we cannot go back home. We cannot return to what was. We must move forward and build a new home for ourselves. A home made from our hard work, our creativity, and our unwavering desire to help our students. A home built with a strong foundation where we can once again find joy—together.

Thank you for humoring my use of religious texts and history as a metaphor for the challenges we have faced and continue to face. I truly believe that our work to educate and transform our students is special and sacred; I know that many of you feel the same, regardless of your specific spiritual and philosophical leanings.

Now I want and need to talk a bit about what IUP’s future looks like—in this foreign land. 

We must start with some fundamental realities.

First, we can and should miss and mourn the past, but we have to live in the present and prepare for the future. Returning to the status quo we saw or imagined from a few years ago is not possible. Our only option is to build forward, and it will require challenging our assumptions, our habits, and our comfortable patterns.

Second, no matter how much we hunker down and keep trimming our expenses, buckets of money will not fall from the sky. This year, we hope for an historic increase in state appropriation. This will not be enough to support business as usual. IUP’s alumni and other donors will continue to be incredibly generous, but their gifts are rightly dedicated to supporting our students and enhancing their IUP experience. Bluntly put, we must adapt and change; otherwise, we will slowly waste away waiting for it to rain money.

Third, thousands of new students will not suddenly appear and fill beds and classrooms and coffers. While the demographic projections are not precise, they are compelling. The number of “traditional” students will continue to decline, and, of that declining number, we are likely to see fewer plan to enter college immediately after high school, if at all. 

As we build our new future, our strategic plan gives us our starting point, the foundation on which we can rebuild. The cornerstone is student centeredness, and the framing is the five impact areas thoughtfully developed by the University Planning Council with input from you. As we rebuild, we must recognize that the students on whom we will be centered will be different from those of the past.

Here’s my simplistic, but not wholly inaccurate, picture of the student body of IUP’s past.

field of yellow tulips

When our students were mostly the same—in background, economics, race, religion, ethnicity, preparation, aims, goals, and desires—we could use cost-efficient systems to provide them all with a more-or-less identical experience—an experience that was very effective and rewarding for them and financially sustainable for the university. The small number of students who didn’t fit the mold were provided special attention by small programs supported by just a few faculty and staff, underwritten by the efficiency of the core operation. 

field of yellow flowers with one red flowerBut one size doesn’t fit all anymore and will be even less workable for our future students.

We live in a far different world than we did when we were undergraduates. Our students come to us with a broad range of ages, goals, backgrounds, ethnicities, races, and religions. They have experienced oppression and discrimination on levels that were foreign to many of us at that age. They come to us with unique perspectives and needs. They require a special attention for their circumstances. They will not (and should not) change for us. We must change to be ready for them—so they feel valued and welcomed at IUP, so that they may flourish academically and socially. This is not a wish. This is a requirement.

field with many different colored flowersLet’s talk a little more about what our new student body will look like. Imagine there will never again be a “so-called” traditional undergraduate or graduate student. Students will come to us at various ages with various needs, interests, and desires. They will have a variety of gaps in their academic and social preparation that we will need to fill. Their needs for emotional and social support will vary widely. This will be especially true for the next decade as the pandemic-impacted generation comes forward. They will have a varied collection of knowledge and skills that we don’t need to teach them again (although some may need a refresher). They will care less about getting a bachelor’s or master’s degree and more about getting the skills and interests they think they need today.

Here it is in a nutshell—the IUP we are building must be able to educate and serve 8,000 to 9,000 individual students, each of whom wants and needs something different and who may drop in and stop out at various times. We must provide this remarkably diverse group with high-quality educational experiences at a reasonable price, with (at best) modest support from the commonwealth. Maybe we should call this “individualized” or “tailor-made” education. It certainly isn’t one size fits all. 

It means looking at each and every student as an individual, assessing their preparation and abilities, helping them discover what they need, and providing a tailor-made experience for them. 

It means being student centered first and foremost in everything we do.

I know that many of you are already doing many things that lead to this kind of student centeredness. We need to find those practices and elevate them. Being student friendly in your office is necessary, but it is not sufficient. We must transform our structures, our programs, and the entire university to be student centered.

Centering on our future students represents major—perhaps terrifying and overwhelming—change. We must start now, with manageable steps that leverage what we are already doing. We will still have residential undergraduate students, even though their numbers will decline and they will become more diverse. We’ll see more students starting college later and who drop in and stop out. We will still have a significant number of graduate students, but their needs and goals will also change.

If we start working now, we can adapt what we are doing, assess and correct along the way, and be ready for the bigger changes that will come. We cannot wait. 

I am sure that you are as overwhelmed as I am to think about all of this. We are already too busy with the day-to-day, and there are fewer colleagues to help with the work. Change is damned hard—for individuals and for institutions. But change we must.

To support the change, we must streamline, simplify, and focus to free us to build the future. This is not about reducing the amount of work to be done so we can lay off more people. I know and you know there’s more work to be done than we have people to do it. It’s about getting rid of the less important things so you can do the most important things. Here are some key steps:


  1. Stop doing things that aren’t absolutely essential to our mission or are duplicative. And stop doing “stupid” stuff—the University Planning Council has a list.


  1. Invest the resources we have in you––in support of the change initiatives that must be undertaken and in providing the needed time, professional development, and training.


  1. Work without regard to department, office, college, and division boundaries––putting what the students need ahead of the needs of your unit or my unit.


  1. Continue to refresh, or develop new, academic programs that make sense for the future—and invest in those programs.


  1. Deploy a few carefully selected technological tools, investing to do them right. They will help simplify business processes, leverage our efforts and resources, and triage problems to allow us to focus on the most critical issues.


  1. Continue to reduce and modernize our physical plant, with a focus on serving our students.


  1. Continue the good work in carefully reducing our expenses and keeping them under control so we can reinvest in the most important things.


I’m sure that while I’ve been talking, you’ve thought of a few hundred roadblocks to moving ahead. I know that I did while writing this. We must find ways to set aside the constraints, set aside the desire for a return to old Jerusalem, and focus on building for the future if we hope to continue to meet our sacred mission.

I have broadly described IUP’s future—a university with about 9,000 students who are welcomed and supported by an adaptable, efficient, reasonably priced university that is focused on their success at every step of their educational journey. That university is made up of people who are student centered and who have the tools and training to meet the students’ remarkably diverse expectations and needs. There are many, many details to be defined, and there is a place for each and every one of you at the design table. It’s up to you to step up to your place and get to it.

Here are some of the specific next steps we will be taking now and into the summer.

word cloud in the shape of a mortar board of all the initiatives at IUP 

  1. Sunset the myriad committees that now exist to further student success, retention, and recruitment; to restructure the university; and so on. We will start anew, building on the good, collaborative work of those prior committees, with just a few university-wide committees and task forces—focused on the five impact areas of the strategic plan.

  2. You all have permission to stop doing stupid stuff.

  3. The University Planning Council will step up its work to build IUP’s future.

  4. We will deploy and invest in several initiatives and summer academies for faculty and staff working on key areas. For example, groups will focus on

    1. Enhancing diversity, equity, and inclusion

    2. Standing up the tool set for course planning, degree check and advising, and early warning

    3. Developing a revised Liberal Studies curriculum

    4. Defining the role of the University College and related student support structures

    5. Improving student affordability

  5. We will return to a focus on meeting our mission in changing times and on the strategic plan, letting those drive our financial decisions, instead of the other way around. We had to focus on the finances for the last couple of years, and we must still pay attention to them, but it’s time to put our core mission and our students at the center of all of our decision making.

  6. We will welcome our permanent provost as a next step in building the new academic leadership team.

Here’s the good news—and there’s a lot of good news—we already know a lot about what to do, and you are already making progress. Just think about this incomplete list:

We do great things to support students, from the Military and Veterans Resource Center to the IUP Guides, to the Crimson Scholars Circle, to the Hawks Q&A Center, to the Writing Center, to the University College, to the University Libraries as a renewed hub for student support. To respond to dramatically increased demand for services, the Counseling Center has taken innovative steps—ensuring that the students with the greatest need see a psychologist right away and connecting students in less serious circumstances with the services they need.

With affordability for students at the core, we provided tens of millions of dollars in institutional aid beyond what the state and federal governments provide. When that wasn’t enough, we reduced tuition for in-state undergraduate students by 20 percent and more—even though it will reduce our revenue.

In response to George Floyd’s tragic murder, we added new support and informational programs to accelerate progress on DEI. We did the same as the US withdrew from Afghanistan and are doing the same now for our Ukrainian and Russian students and their families.

We are a university that promotes and recognizes excellence. I’m thinking about the work of the Office of Undergraduate Research in engaging students and faculty mentors in creating new knowledge and helping our exceptional students earn prestigious national fellowships. IUP’s work in research and scholarship was recognized with an R2 Doctoral University—High Research Activity ranking. Academic programs and faculty members too numerous to mention here received national awards and recognition for the quality and impact of their work.

It is also good to know that we aren’t in this work alone. The donor-fueled Student Assistance Fund met the needs of students at one of the most challenging times in their lives and allowed hundreds of students to persevere through the pandemic.

Working with IRMC, we provided same-day COVID test results to patients when the rest of the country was waiting weeks. We partnered with Indiana Borough to develop a community wastewater surveillance system, helping to predict COVID outbreaks.

In the midst of the pandemic, we completed the Imagine Unlimited Campaign six months early and $6.4 million above our final target and more than double our original target. Now we are well advanced in the work of the next campaign, with a public announcement at our 150th anniversary in 2025.

There is so much more to list, but time prevents it. With this sort of energy and ingenuity and with supportive partners, I am pretty high on IUP’s future.

It has been a most difficult, sorrowful journey these last few years. Many of us are still grieving our losses. It is right to grieve and to remember and to commemorate. It is also right to remember and celebrate the incredible work we have done and are doing in this foreign land. We must now look forward and build the IUP that our future students will need. The strategic plan and the good work you are already doing show us the way. So, I challenge each and every one of us to set aside our frustration and anger, and to pick up our harps and get to work on rebuilding our new Jerusalem. 

We can do this; we must do this; we will do this. It is our mission; it is our calling.


[1] The Holy Bible, New International Version® NIV® Copyright © 1973 1978 1984 2011 by Biblica, Inc. TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.


[2] op. cit.