Opening of the Academic Year, 2016–17

  • August 26, 2016

    I want to talk to you today about impact.

    IUP impacts your lives in many ways. Likewise, you impact IUP.

    See if any of this sounds familiar.

    It’s Wednesday, and you still need to grade Monday’s exam while you meet with your advisees during office hours.

    Or, you’re plotting the next segment of your online class and digging around frantically for just the right source material.

    Or, you’re planning the upcoming Admissions Expo, and you know that at least a hundred scared prospective students will show up with their equally scared parents, because they’ve never before had to do something like file financial aid forms.

    Or, you’re trying to set up the first meeting of the University Family Drive and wondering how you’ll top last year’s goal and persuade more faculty and staff members to participate.

    Or, the roof is leaking in one of our buildings, and if it’s not fixed immediately, a class is going to have to be cancelled.

    Or, you are on patrol and you’ve just spotted a kid about to commit a sophomoric prank—the kind of thing that could ruin his chances for the future. Because he saw you wave and smile, he chose to wave back and then thought twice.

    We’re all consumed with the details of our daily work, all of us, including me. Some days it seems like I can’t get to the big things because I spend all my time sweeping up messes, only to go home, not get enough sleep, and return the next day to deal with more little messes. Sometimes I wonder if I could take just one more day.

    You feel that, too, but, right now, I want us all to understand the impact of our work and what it means.

    No matter your role, at day’s end, when you finally wrap up and head home, what you’ve accomplished might seem small, but it matters.

    Think of us as a thousand-piece puzzle.

    Remember the last time you spent a rainy afternoon—or a week in my case—working on one?

    You pour all the pieces onto a table. Then, you and your friends or family—because puzzles are a family affair—start matching the tabs and blanks, looking everywhere for the piece with the right color and shape. Sometimes it seems like you have to try every single piece to find the one that fits. Slowly but surely, you build the big picture—the very same one that is on the box, the one that compelled you to buy the puzzle in the first place.

    Now, think about us. While it might not seem so, each and every one of us is working toward the shared vision that we developed together. Remember all that work?

    Everyone had a seat at the table—or at least you had an invitation to be. Everyone had the opportunity to contribute and be heard. If you are new to IUP today, please know that you, too, are invited to the table as we continue the journey.

    It was just a few years ago that we created the shared vision together. The strategic plan together.

    We will achieve them both together.

    As we put each puzzle piece into place, we will have made yet another positive step toward a beautiful, complex, and complete picture.

    During this occasion last year, I may have surprised some of you by saying that when I arrived here at IUP, I had a cynical outlook on the future of higher education—before I met all of you.

    Well, the world is no less scary today than it was a year ago. It’s scarier. Lousy, in fact. Violence. Drug addiction. Racism. Poverty. A culture of disrespect on the national level. Doubt about the effectiveness of higher education.

    A divisive fog has permeated our nation, and it’s going to take a lot of expertise and a lot of teamwork to rise above it.

    I believe the only way to escape a very bleak future—the only way—is through education, and I believe the best way to educate is the IUP way.

    When I get depressed about the future of our world, I need only talk to a couple of our students or alumni. The impact we have had on them and the impact they will have on the world always fill me with hope.

    Look at the progress we made in the past few years by reaching across artificial divisional lines and working together. Our Middle States reaffirmation and the new curriculum approval process (PDF, 200K) both illustrate our ability to trust in and collaborate with each other.

    Tackling diversity and inclusion is another example.

    We see reports of racial unrest every day in the news. As the events of last fall unfolded here at IUP, when an intolerant Snapchat message broke the camel’s back, we addressed the issue head on by working together.

    I’m pleased that an outcome of this very complex issue is the establishment of the Center for Multicultural Student Leadership and Engagement. As we together develop this center’s programming, we’ll continue to chip away at bad assumptions and misconceptions as we shape the next generation of leaders.

    You can see the results of our campus climate study at presentations that have been scheduled, or will be scheduled, and I’ll soon make an announcement regarding the formation of a President’s Commission on Diversity and Inclusion.

    On these points, consider the big outcomes.

    Our success at these endeavors and our methods of approaching them could become a gold standard in student development initiatives—methods that other universities covet and copy. More important, we are creating change in our own culture and together helping our students learn to work together to change our world.

    We are in an auspicious position. Some might say we continue to struggle with who we are, that we can’t be all things to all people. That’s true, and that’s why we have a strategic plan and why this year, the University Planning Council will begin adding pieces to the puzzle by assessing our progression.

    At the same time, we can celebrate the progress we’ve made so far. We’ve proven that we can work together to get our own house in order and positively change the world around us.

    Our shared vision plainly describes a university that uses research and service as a tool for providing an intensive undergraduate and graduate education that will shape our world’s future leadership and solutionists.

    That’s its essence, and it affords us a great niche. Now, we need to own it.

    In some ways, we already do.

    Look at our efforts in the area of autism. Our faculty members are leading the way on so many fronts, helping first responders understand how to approach those with autism in times of high-stress emergencies.

    We offer programming and counseling. And, we’re taking care of our own students with autism by showing them the way and providing them peer support through our Labyrinth Center. Many of you are making life better for a growing population of people who previously have been very misunderstood.

    You may have noticed the latest edition of IUP Magazine carried a story on all these efforts. That story caught the attention of a Pittsburgh newspaper.

    A few months ago, IUP was chosen to deliver education to inmates at two prisons through the Second-Chance Pell Program. Some people are skeptical about spending tax dollars on providing postsecondary coursework to inmates. I think the program’s name is a misnomer, because it provides for many of those who qualify a first chance at education.

    I’ll also submit that it’s a better investment of taxpayer dollars. It’s more expensive to incarcerate people over and over than it is to educate them. The United States has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world. Imagine if our involvement leads to breaking the cycle of recidivism and reduces that number.

    Imagine giving our brothers and sisters an honest, first chance at the American Dream. Imagine the effect on families and neighborhoods.

    Each of these two examples illustrates IUP’s very positive impact on society, and we need to continue to strive to do more of it.

    Maybe it’s a coincidence, or maybe I was supposed to see this closer to the time I was to address you today. At any rate, not long ago, I was catching up on my pleasure reading and flipping through back issues of the Atlantic.

    In one of them, the cover story was penned by Ta-Nehisi Coates and it’s called “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration.” I haven’t time to get into the article’s details, but the title adequately describes the content. It hit me hard, especially in light some of the initiatives I just mentioned to you, but it compels me to say, again, that we are addressing real societal issues right here at IUP.

    We are on it. You are on it. And in so many more ways than I have time to describe this morning.

    And then I flipped a few more pages in the magazine, and a headline for an ad caught my eye. It said: “Who says you need a medical school to cure cancer?” The ad copy told the story of research being conducted at a West Coast public university that’s a bit like IUP.

    This time, I felt as though I’d been slugged.

    I asked myself: What is this university doing that we are not? The answer is simple.

    They are bragging. Bragging shamelessly. That university brags about its impact on the world.

    So should we.

    It’s imperative that we share our successes and, more important, tell the world why our success is important and what kind of impact we have. I assure you that when you talk about our impact on the world, you will never run out of things to say.

    Prospective students want to know that they will learn from the best minds in their disciplines—not just in the classroom but also out in the field.

    Alumni want to know that their alma mater is worthy of their investment. They are our biggest champions. They want to see us succeed, and they are willing to brag on our behalf, if they have the stories to share. When we succeed, it’s to their credit.

    You’ll never hear me deny that achieving our shared vision will be hard work. Change is tough. Choosing to work collaboratively and reaching over departmental boundaries to accomplish a shared goal can sometimes be more difficult than working individually.

    When the whole family works together to add pieces to the puzzle, there will be some jostling and crowding around the table, but the end result is worth it.

    We’ll always have obstacles and distractions like the budget, which always has been one of those things we have to hurdle over.

    What we do and what we want to accomplish are more than necessary. They are worth it.

    There’s one take-away from my remarks today. Just one.

    We at IUP have the ability to make a big impact on the world and make it a better place, and together, together, we can do this.