Opening of the Academic Year, 2020-21

  • Thank you for being with us this morning. This is a day I always look forward to, and I hope you do, too. It is our New Year’s Day.

    I am here in Fisher Auditorium, but you are not. I wish you were. In these unusual times, this really is an unusual way to begin our academic year.

    Because of the pandemic, rather than a festive event that sometimes ended with a song and a dance we are opening the academic year using a little technology and a lot of social distancing.

    Truth is, there isn’t a lot of pomp today—because of the circumstances.

    Our dog, Bert, has developed a new habit. Shortly after bedtime, Bert gets out of bed, goes into the closet, and sleeps on the floor in a safe spot under the hung-up clothes. If you didn’t know where to look, you’d never find him.

    When we get up in the morning and call him, he doesn’t come out. He’s just not ready to face the day. I think many of us have felt like that on a lot of mornings in the last five months. I know I have.

    I wish I could spend my time with you this morning talking about only the good stuff. But, I must talk about the challenges that color so much of our daily experience right now. There’s pandemic and budget and racism-fueled killings and the descent of our society into divisiveness, name-calling, and hate.

    It’s no wonder we want to hide in the closet and sleep until a better day dawns.

    Yet amid these horrors, I am proud to report that the good work has not been stopped here at IUP.

    Our students and faculty and staff continue to reach higher and continue to achieve more. Our alumni continue to make an impact around the world. And we as a university continue to be recognized for the good work we do every single day. 

    Your strength and ability to persevere continue to fill me with awe and gratitude. IUP is a special place and you are special people. 

    We have been sorely challenged, but we have supported each other and risen above the challenges. This is IUP at its best and this is just what we strive to do for each of our students.

    The pandemic has obviously changed everything. Our fall planning team—plus so many more people than I can name—have done an outstanding job of transitioning the traditional classroom experience into a solution involving the combination of face-to-face, hybrid, and remote learning; of supporting students wherever they are; and in figuring out how to work productively away from the office and from each other. The fall planning team is continuing to work, developing contingency plans, learning from our experience, and making plans for spring.

    In the ever-shifting war against the virus, there cannot be a perfect plan. But after a summer of listening, researching, organizing, and scheduling, I believe that if we continue to work together and look out for one another, we can be as safe as is possible, without abandoning our sacred mission to educate students who will transform the world.

    Why do I believe this? I’ll let an outside agency provide just one example.

    For the 20th consecutive year, IUP has been included in the Princeton Review’s annual Best Colleges guidebook. One of the many things we are singled out for is taking care of our students’ physical and mental well-being, with a Top-20 national ranking in the “Best Health Services” category.

    This shows that people outside our university are aware of the care and dedication we show our students, which is key during these tough times. 

    The other obvious thing I need to talk about is division. 

    We are at a time when it seems the need to be right, to be aligned with a winner, or to get likes on Facebook, has become the end that justifies any means, and it has created lines of division that make it hard to find the common threads that weave us together.

    We are not a nation united, instead, a nation divided. 

    Recent events have made that clear. From the pandemic to the killing of George Floyd and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, to the upcoming presidential election, everywhere you look, people are digging in their heels and taking sides, rather than working together.

    It is okay to have different viewpoints on some things. But we should still be respectful of each other. We can accomplish a lot if we just listen. We can learn a lot that way, too. Remember, that is why we are here.

    But while it is okay to have differing opinions on many things, we must agree that racism, not just the person-to-person kind, but the systemic racism that has affected generations of Black and Brown people, has no place at IUP, or anywhere for that matter.

    This summer, we spent time listening to our minority students. Through programs such as Building Bridges and Breaking the Barrier, we had honest discussions that were uncomfortable, and they taught us some harsh truths.

    We learned about Black and Brown students who did not get the help they needed because they felt pushed aside, or that their opinion in class was not required, or that they felt unsafe just walking around our campus. We heard students say how from the day they arrived here, they felt like the deck was stacked against them.

    We have been working on diversity and inclusion initiatives for many years now, but these raw discussions helped us realize that all our students, despite what we may think, are not given the equal opportunity to succeed here.

    That must stop.

    It is clear that we must makes changes in the way our Black and Brown students experience IUP. Standing united against a problem is not enough. Neither are hollow words or unkept promises. Programming and training are important, but our minority students deserve more.

    They deserve, and rightly demand, serious action, now, from each and every one of us.

    This is not a complex idea. It is actually very simple. It is about respect, empathy, and opportunity. If each of us will provide those three things, we will provide our students so, so much more. 

    There is no room for those who say it is not their job. It is everyone’s job to help our students, and that is not up for debate.

    That includes me and university leadership, and we have already started. In addition to listening to our students, we are going to walk in their shoes. Soon, we will be taking tours of campus with some of our minority students to get a sense of what this place looks like to them. We want to know if something makes them feel unsafe or unwelcome; to learn what they see when they make their way around IUP. We will change whatever we must to make this a welcoming home for them. 

    We, together, and each of you individually, must take action to change the culture of IUP.

    Let’s dare to be different. Let’s dare to be leaders of change by making our great university even greater by ensuring all our students get the opportunity to make a life that will positively impact all others.

    Let’s make this a watershed moment for IUP. Let’s have thoughtful and respectful discussions, and let’s have honest actions meant to create change. Let’s work to strengthen our bonds and let the ripples from our actions grow into waves of unity. 

    We can disagree on a lot of things, but we must be united in this action.

    In 2004, when I was a faculty member and administrator at Portland State University, Congressman John Lewis was our commencement speaker. I was mesmerized by his cadence, his presence, his message—and his passion.

    “Now is your time to make some contribution to humanity,” he said. “Through your leadership, you must help build an all-inclusive world community based on simple justice that values the dignity of every individual. It’s a community that I like to call the beloved community. Consider those two words. Beloved means not hateful, not violent, not uncaring, not unkind. And community means not separated, not polarized, not locked in struggle.”

    As he closed, he said something that fits our theme. 

    “We are one people. We are one family. Maybe our foremothers and our forefathers all came to this land in different ships, but we are all in the same boat now.”

    I encourage each and every one of us to join in this effort. Do not wait for someone else to fix the problem. Listen to and learn from each other, yes, but then act.

    I do not say this lightly. I say it passionately. 

    We can do this. We must do this.

    Starting this year, we are working under a new strategic plan. The University Planning Council has worked diligently to construct a compass that will guide us, and I am excited about its fundamental priority.

    In the last few years, we have been working hard on retention and persistence, diversity and inclusion, increasing scholarships, expanding our academic offerings, promoting outcomes, and general restructuring.

    And today, I am proud to say that because of that work, from now on, we are striving to be a student-centered university. 

    What does that mean? 

    It means that our goal is to transform the culture at IUP to enhance our students’ experience by putting them first. We must see every student as the priority. We must see their success as our goal.

    This semester, the Hawks Q&A Center will open. Its purpose is to help any student with any question or concern. It might be a simple answer they seek, or it might be something that needs a lot of attention. Sometimes giving them a phone number or a URL might not be enough. Sometimes, we must walk side-by-side with them—figuratively, or literally if need be—as they receive the help they need, whether it is academic, financial, social, mental, or physical.

    We have also created the guides program. From here on, each incoming freshman will be assigned a person on campus—a faculty or staff member—who has been trained to assist students, mentor them, and help them reach their full potential. I am so happy that so many of you have volunteered to be guides, and I thank you for the great work you are about to do.

    Our students are the future. They will lead the next generation and set the bar high with their successes. And so, I am excited to announce that we are going to show our belief in our students’ potential by directing roughly $3 million to support every one of them with a one-time grant of $300. Our students are dealing with tough circumstances that nobody could have seen coming. Some of them have struggled to stay afloat, and this is a way to show that we care and that we are invested in their success. 

    It is the right thing to do.

    The strategic plan is anchored by seven core principles, with the top one being that every student is a priority. We will implement this using five impact areas that will ensure we give our students the best possible opportunity to be successful not only at IUP, but after they graduate.

    The University Planning Council is led by Scott Moore, of the Department of History, and Paula Stossel, from the Division of Enrollment Management. 

    I thank Scott and Paula for their leadership, their attentiveness, their dedication, and their willingness to acknowledge the obstacles that stand between us and our goals.

    The journey to becoming a student-centered university will have some bumps in the road, but it will be worth it; not just for our students, but for all of us here now and for all who will follow in our path.

    During tough times, it is often difficult to know if you are making progress. So, you need your friends to tell you that you’re headed in the right direction. 

    So, I am beyond excited—and very grateful—to report that we are “this close” to reaching the $75-million goal of our Campaign for IUP: Imagine Unlimited

    That our alumni and friends have brought us this far is a referendum on our work. It shows they believe in you and all that you are setting out to achieve here, and in our potential as a force for creating a better future.

    Their support helps us bolster our student-centered mission and prepares us well for our 150th anniversary, coming in 2025. It will also help increase scholarships and contribute to the success of our students.

    Want some proof? In just four-and-a-half months, we have raised more than $276,000 from 678 donors for our Student Assistance Fund, which helps students who have immediate financial needs that prevent them from continuing their education. We have made almost 400 awards totaling $296,000.

    That is impressive. Our alumni and friends, as well as you and our students, continue to support our mission, and in April we will celebrate crossing the campaign’s finish line at our Celebration of Philanthropy.

    Because of our budget challenges, I know we are in a tense moment in our university’s history. Enrollment is indeed down. Our state appropriation, although helpful, does not match our needs. 

    This is a serious situation and we cannot sustain our current spending model. Belt-tightening is not enough, and we must fundamentally change how we operate. I know the decisions we must make are difficult and unnerving for each of us.

    Simply put, we must reinvent IUP. We must think differently and create the next generation of this great university. I know we can do this by working together—with a single-minded focus on the success of our students.

    In July, the state legislature passed, and the governor signed Act 50 into law. It gives the State System Board of Governors more short-term authority to restructure universities to ensure a sustainable future for all.

    The board has instructed the chancellor to complete financial analyses of three possible pairings: Clarion with California, Slippery Rock with Edinboro, and Lock Haven with Mansfield (with Bloomsburg as a supporting player). In October, the board will hear the results of this first step and decide how to proceed.

    In Act 50, the legislature decided that IUP (and West Chester) will not be a part of these integration plans. This means our destiny is in our own hands. We just need to stay on our path and strive to do good work every day while we design our future.

    Act 50 also reinforces the ability for system universities to share their infrastructure to exploit efficiencies of scale. We are excited about the opportunity to help other universities and to benefit from their help.

    I want to wrap this up with some gratitude.

    I don’t think a single member of the IUP family has had an easy time the past five months. In just a few short weeks, we reversed course on almost everything we were doing. That alone is a remarkable feat, and it could not have been done without dedication and care from all of you.

    When I say we are working toward becoming a student-centered university, you must know you all have a vital role in this. You are the ones who will help ensure our students succeed, and in turn, that success will benefit us all.

    These are some difficult and unusual times. But from what I have seen in the past few months, I am certain we are capable of continuing our mission, and that better days, great days, lie ahead for us and for this great university.

    But perhaps the message is best reflected through the dog’s eyes. These are difficult times, but if the pack pulls together, we (and Bert) will get through this and to better days.

    I wish you more than luck as we kick off this academic year. I wish you great success and fulfillment.

    Thank you for all you have already done, and for what you will be doing as we begin another year of changing the world one student at a time.

    Thank you.