Opening of the Academic Year, 2018–19

  • August 24, 2018

    Good morning. It is great to see you. I am excited about the work we will do together in this new academic year, which is full of promise and great things to come. That’s not to suggest we don’t have some challenges. We do.

    Perhaps you caught an Inside Higher Ed article at the end of July about the state of higher education. It sure nabbed my attention.

    See this in your mind’s eye—flashing red, in all caps…

    Poll Says Most Americans See Higher Ed Headed in Wrong Direction

    Think about that.

    The article’s summary copy is more challenging.

    It says: Democrats worry about tuition rates; Republicans say professors bring their politics into the classroom, and colleges have excessive concern about shielding students from ideas they find offensive. Older Republicans are the most critical.

    I won’t try to unpack those findings this morning, but the article cites studies by both the Pew Research Group and Gallup. The Gallup Poll, which was conducted in February, found that Americans believe more in the concept of higher education than they do the work of colleges and universities. I had to know more. So, I read an article on the Gallup Blog called Academic Rigor Linked to Alumni Perceptions of College Value.

    Gallup’s research noted what the article’s title suggests: Alumni who felt they had been academically challenged also felt that their experience not only prepared them for life outside college but also believed that their education was worth what they paid. The article’s culminating statement said this: Faced with the national trend of grade inflation, higher-education institutions should focus on challenging students academically…Alumni who were challenged academically are more likely to say they were prepared for life outside of college and that their education was worth the cost.

    It calls us to do what we know is right—to keep a focus on the long-term benefits of higher education and not just short-term outcomes like first job placement.

    Important
    We Must Improve

    • Academics/classes
    • Skills/training for career
    • Relationships with faculty, staff
    • Sense of community
    • Student leadership opportunities
    • Opportunities to interact with alumni

    In other words, Rigor influences value, creating a strong return on investment.

    Next, I looked at IUP. Last year we worked with the IUP Alumni Association and conducted our own Alumni Attitude Study.

    The study confirmed what I already suspected: Alumni love IUP. They cherish their time with all of you and those who came before you. In fact, 94 percent ranked their decision to attend IUP as good to great.

    While alumni expressed a deep affection for IUP, they also were honest about their overall student experience. It’s not the kind of thing we can ignore.

    Our alumni said their academic and classroom experiences, their skills and training for career, and their relationships with faculty and staff and the others listed on the screen were important factors for them, yet they also indicated we need to improve those qualities as well as provide better preparation for life beyond IUP.

    Next time, I want the results to reflect what we’ll be like when we reach our shared vision. I want our next generation of alumni to say that we challenged them, engaged them with high-impact learning opportunities inside and outside of the classroom, and provided them with effective guidance, mentoring, and support along the way. That’s the university experience students remember and rely on their entire lives.

    I also view this feedback as valuable proof that establishing the University College is the right thing to do. Undecided students—explorers, as we’re now calling them—have for far too long been sailors without a ship.

    We’re fixing that with the opening of the University College. You may have noticed a few changes to Stabley Library’s exterior. The University College is now a real place, and Stabley Library becomes the core of all that the University College will offer. Explorers will benefit from linked classes with a team-teaching approach, and they’ll have access to mentoring and advising that will make their first-year experience as formative and as connected as that of declared majors. The library has always been the center of much of academic and campus life, and I want to thank the library faculty and staff for stepping up and reorganizing holdings to accommodate this important step in our transformation. Thank you.

    Student success is a shared responsibility—that of each student, certainly, and that of each one of us. As we build this lifelong community from which nearly 150,000 alumni have benefited, it behooves us to ensure students have opportunities that evolve with changing times and societal needs. Regardless of labels, trends, and changes, our students must have access to the very best academic preparation, supplemented by extraordinary out-of-classroom opportunities.

    At this event last year, I challenged all of you on several issues, including those related to retention as a key step to student success. I saw a lot of good work occurring, yet I saw it being conducted in pockets. The University College serves as a great step in breaking through siloes. We all know a collaborative approach is a better approach. Our current student retention rate reflects a history of siloed work. With new collaborative efforts, I’m hopeful that our new freshman class —whose high school GPA this year matches that of last year’s class, about 3.25—will benefit, yet we have so much more to do. As we plan and execute, we need to be cognizant that action we take today—or lack of action—will affect who we are far into the future.

    With all that I just showed you, we clearly must continue our transformation. We must provide programs that students both need and want and ensure that the students we educate do, in fact, succeed. And I think we must also weigh the moral and ethical components of admitting students who make a serious financial investment, only to fail.

    It may be an opportune time to consider what kind of student can thrive in the educational environment we are building. But the data—from the alumni survey to our retention rates—show that we must continue to change to take full advantage of our remarkable strengths. The University College and the Research Experience for Summer Scholars program are great examples.

    Please make no mistake: I recognize that doing more means working hard. As the rest of the world criticizes the American university system and the state of higher education, we have a chance to differentiate ourselves with our own brand of education. We also can make deliberate choices about how we choose to talk about it and promote it. In recent months, I’ve been bragging to alumni, donors, and other external stakeholders that IUP is one of just four public Doctoral/Research universities in Pennsylvania. We are in the company of Pitt, Penn State, and Temple, but there’s a twist. Our professors directly teach undergraduates and engage them in real research early in their academic career. And we provide this great education at a significantly lower cost. The message resonates well.

    Some of you already have met Chris Noah, our new chief marketing officer. He and the new Marketing and Communications Division have begun their work. Their first order of business is optimizing what we already have in place. We all can look forward to seeing strategic and creative work that better tells the IUP story to our best advantage—sharpening that shameless bragging that I’ve often talked about, combined with creating a greater understanding of IUP’s essence, value, and impact.

    We welcomed Chris in the heat of the summer at about the same time Rhonda Luckey announced her retirement. I must pause here to thank Rhonda for her three decades of service to IUP. I know few people who have led with such heart and have also been part of the soul of a university. Charles Fey has joined us for the next year as interim vice president for Student Affairs, as we search for Rhonda’s permanent replacement.

    I’d like to tell you that over the summer, the people of our great nation found pathways to common ground and that the hate and divisiveness we saw on our campus and others around the country were a thing of the past. But, as we approached the first anniversary of Charlottesville, we saw more shootings of people of color—children of color—including some in Pittsburgh who had looked to IUP to help them build their bright futures.

    You can be certain that outside forces will continue to attempt to turn campuses, ours included, into battlegrounds for their ideological disagreements. We must continue to challenge and educate our students and ourselves. We must engage those persons who have withdrawn in pain, so their voices are part of the dialog. We must step up our efforts to find common ground, to find the good and the value that is in each person—even those who are remarkably misinformed and misguided. We must help our students learn to base their opinions on thoughtful, critical analysis of facts and on civil, reasoned debate. If we cannot find ways to teach our future leaders how to do this, then I am truly fearful for humanity.

    We must not allow external pressure to divert us from our primary mission of educating the informed, rational, thoughtful, and compassionate leaders that will make the world a better place.

    I can’t say that my academic discipline and experience prepared me for this challenge. You might feel the same way.

    Like it or not, prepared or not, teaching our students to live together in a diverse and divided world—and leading by example—is the defining issue of preparing this generation of students.

    Our Diversity Action Plan will assist us. An ad hoc committee spent the summer creating a mechanism for members of the campus community to report incidents of concern. This is one of the Diversity Action Plan’s most important recommendations, and I approved it a couple of weeks ago. After all, we can’t correct something if we aren’t aware of it. Another committee of the commission is developing a pledge that will more explicitly set the standard for how we hope to live and learn together. Soon, another committee will explore ways we can informally resolve our differences while learning from each other, which doesn’t usually happen in formal and legalistic complaint-resolution processes.

    Sampler of Diversity and Inclusion Activities

    • RJCC Stand Against Racism
    • Holocaust survivors to address Criminal Justice students
    • Transgender pastor to visit
    • Difficult Dialogues training
    • Northern Appalachian Studies and MCSLE photo exhibit, local sports legend Jim Nance
    • Center for Teaching Excellence’s Difficult Classroom Conversations
    • Rasul Miller: Black Muslims and the Movement for Community Control and Police Accountability
    • Theater by the Grove’s Fabric of the Nation

    In addition to the commission’s work I just mentioned, I already know of a plethora of events and speakers and trainings related to diversity and inclusion. These are bubbling up all over the place in a great show of good thinking by people and departments. That’s a wonderful thing about IUP. Our hearts are in the right place, and we act. Keep an eye on IUP Daily and the Beak for opportunities as they are finalized.

    I also look forward to continuing our university-wide discussion on free speech. As a university, our job is to set higher expectations, even in times when many seem to disagree about what it means to be an American. We cannot control what comes out of people’s mouths or their social media accounts. We cannot prevent people from stretching the truth. What we can do is teach our students how to navigate life’s challenges with civility and within our nation’s laws, and that should be the measure of our mettle and our worth.

    No university president welcomes unproductive controversy, but as a public university, IUP is obligated to uphold the tenets of the First Amendment, regardless of the offending rhetoric’s flavor at any given time. Talking about the First Amendment’s benefits, challenges, and responsibilities openly, through the IUP Free Speech Project, is an important part of the education process. Communicating to the outside world what we’re doing, particularly to our alumni, is equally important. The latest edition of IUP Magazine carries a substantive story that breaks down the events of last spring and issues surrounding the First Amendment. The Free Speech Project has already produced two videos, and you can expect to see more learning opportunities and tools as we go forward.

    What makes IUP special is that we do care so much about our students and their future, and I don’t have any better proof than the recent public announcement of our comprehensive Imagine Unlimited campaign.

    For the last several years, alumni and non-alumni volunteers—donors and others who believe in what we do—have collaborated with our deans and faculty members through our college and athletics advancement councils and a central core campaign leadership team.

    You already know that in April we announced a $75 million goal. What you might not know is that we started out a few years ago wondering if we could reach a $40 million goal. We had the confidence to go public with the much larger goal for two reasons—first, we’ve had overwhelming support. To state the obvious, people don’t give you millions of dollars in charitable contributions if they don’t believe in what you’re doing. They just don’t. The second reason is about you. These alumni donors tell us often that IUP is the reason they are successful and happy, are making a big difference in our world, and have lifelong friends—not just classmates but faculty and staff members with whom they’ve kept in touch.

    Because of all that, we were able to make our public announcement with $53 million in the door. This campaign will assist us in accomplishing big things—for facilities, for scholarships, for programs.

    Along with your collaboration and best thinking, it will enable us to not just imagine the possibilities but to realize them. Together with our alumni and donors, we will transform IUP.

    The night of our announcement, two children of coal miners who grew up right around here took the stage to announce their $23 million gift. As I’m sure you all have heard, Char and John Kopchick, pledged the largest gift ever made in support of IUP students and to enable our faculty members to continue changing lives. John took the time to point out one of his professors, Don McKelvey. Now, John isn’t just some guy with a bank account. He’s the Goll-Ohio Eminent Scholar at Ohio University. His scientific career is nothing short of brilliant. But he gives a great deal of credit for where he is now to Don for teaching him the toughest course he’d ever taken—Physical Chemistry—right here at IUP, in Weyandt Hall.

    Folks, we have momentum. With the campaign, sure, but with all that we’re doing.

    Proven fact: Our alumni are glad they chose IUP.

    Proven fact: We are worthy of philanthropic investment.

    Proven fact: We positively affect our world because of our ability to collaborate to find solutions to problems as we meet our students’ needs and prepare them for a world they cannot yet imagine.

    I want everyone to remember that our daily work and the small details that go with it paint a larger picture of an incredibly important resource for our region right now, 50 years from now, and even 150 years from now. We must capitalize on our momentum to keep building on our success and to keep reaching for that shared vision. We owe it to our students. We owe it to the people out in our communities who are waiting for that next wave of leaders to help them solve very difficult societal problems. We it to our philanthropic investors. Most important, we owe it to ourselves.

    Thanks. Let's have a great year together.