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Opening of the Academic Year: 2015–16

  • The following is the text of the speech President Michael Driscoll delivered during the Opening of the Academic Year program on August 21, 2015, in Fisher Auditorium.

    Good morning and welcome to the start of a new year. I look forward to continuing our good work from last academic year and to meeting those of you who are new to our community. Even as I look forward to our shared work, I would not be honest if I didn’t say that we must rise to meet the serious challenges we face.

    Allow me to use our beloved Oak Grove as a metaphor for how I see us—past, present, and future.

    This treasured spot is the place most often referred to by our alumni and, really, anyone who ever has had a relationship with IUP. It epitomizes all that is good about our university. Across generations, students, faculty, staff, and community—the IUP family—all have come together in the Oak Grove. New friendships formed, mentor met with mentee, learning happened, love blossomed, and memories were made.

    To the untrained eye, the Oak Grove may look much the same today as it did 50 years ago. But, the fact is that the Oak Grove has changed and will continue to change in response to threats and opportunities, internal and external. It will continue to thrive because of the vision, care, and hard work of people who are unwilling to lose this precious resource.1

    As an example, let’s consider the scourge of the emerald ash borer. Emerald ash borer larvae burrow through the bark of ash trees and destroy their ability to feed and water themselves.2 In the last decade, the bug has spread across the Midwest and Northeast, including into our own Oak Grove. Then, people stepped up. Sick trees were diagnosed and treated when possible. They were removed when not. Varied species were planted to provide additional resilience, and the Oak Grove goes on.

    Thanks to the careful actions of the Allegheny Arboretum, the Oak Grove has, in fact, undergone many changes—in how it is cared for and in how plants and trees are replaced when we lose them to acts of Mother Nature.

    With all that planning and care, this symbolic heart of IUP will thrive for generations. While many of us mourned the old and glorious oak that fell this summer, the Oak Grove isn’t really about the individual trees. Rather, as a whole, it’s about the setting it provides and the memories that are made there. And it’s about the IUP experience, which creates the grove’s context. With the right care, it will continue to capture the hearts of alumni, students, faculty, and staff for their snapshot in IUP history, even 20 years from now. The Oak Grove may seem to be the same, and it will have the same impact, but like all things, it changes.

    Our university community depends on an IUP that stays true to the things our alumni praise us for—being the place where first-generation students had their first eye-opening experience; where they forged a relationship with one of you or with a few students who have become their network of support; where they had their first inspiration to try something new; where teaching and scholarship met and made a new discovery. As one of our distinguished alumni said in her remarks this past spring, “There’d be no me without IUP.” We must stay true to that tradition.

    But, we also have to transform the university in a way that will ensure its vigor for years to come, and we must do so quickly, because society won’t be patient and wait for us.

    Enter our shared vision and now new strategic plan—our destiny. Many of you weighed in on the vision and the plan’s draft in various stages.

    We agreed that once the vision is achieved, all students will participate in intentional and interconnected learning experiences in their studies, in their lives, and in the world.

    That we will engage students in carefully designed open-ended, hands-on experiences to reinforce and enrich what they learn in the classroom.

    That we will demonstrate an excellent return on educational investment, whether it’s the student’s investment, the commonwealth’s, or the philanthropist’s.

    That we will employ evidence in all decision making and in proving our success.

    And, I am pleased with the fact that our subsequent strategic plan focuses on just four simple goals.

    Simple, I say, but they won’t be easy to complete. If we’re going to determine our own destiny, we have to work together. All of you—all of us—we’re a determined group of people. When the right people have a shared purpose, failure is not possible.

    President Driscoll gives his speech before a screen highlighting four Strategic Plan points

    Editor’s note: President Driscoll delivered his speech before a screen highlighting four points from the Strategic Plan. (Provide innovative academic programs of high quality and value. Prepare all of IUP’s students for success in work and life, in addition to academic success. Secure IUP’s financial future. Strengthen IUP’s value to our local, state, and global partners.) See all strategies and tactics on the Strategic Planning website.

    Behind me, you see those four simple goals. You participated. You shaped them. You are the power behind driving them to our shared vision.

    The best part is we’re already in the thick of some of the strategies that will accomplish them.

    Of particular note, leveraging our partnership with EAB to implement the Student Success Collaborative.

    And, committing to heavy-lift programs in environmental engineering, digital science and security, and public health—programs of high demand that will produce the kind of graduates our communities need. And, streamlining the curriculum approval process, so that we can, with agility, develop more and keep our existing programs fresh.

    And, reorganizing some reporting lines to enhance effectiveness and recognizing we will realign more. And, employing best practices to meet compliance mandates.

    And, beginning to speak to the passions of some of our champions—alumni, donors, and government leaders who will ensure we have the emotional and philanthropic investments we need to achieve the vision.

    Four simple goals—with a long list of strategies and tactics that constitute some very hard work but, in the end, very rewarding work. Behind each tactic is an assignment sheet to make sure the strategic plan is alive and driving us forward. Each of those assignment sheets lists who is responsible, the resources needed, the timeline for success, and the measures that will tell us we have arrived. We have so much more to do, but we’re on the way to creating our shared dream.

    Most of you know me as an optimistic person, the kind who imagines what is possible, tries to say yes to good ideas, and helps people make them happen by focusing on the vision, not the bumps in the road.

    But, I have a secret to share with you today.

    Just like you, I’ve felt the insult and the pain of growing misperceptions and disrespect of higher education’s role in our society. Often in vain, I’ve struggled against intrusion and over-reaching micromanagement by those far less qualified than we to educate the future of our country. I’ve been forced to implement the budget cuts and the tuition increases that threaten the very core of the mission of public higher education.

    My secret is this: I had become an absolute pessimist about the viability of public higher education. Just as you did, I did my very best to uphold standards, to transform the lives of students, and to hold back the tide. I also want to say that just like yours, my best is pretty damned good. But on the bad days, I was thankful that I would be able to retire before the dam burst and the effluvia destroyed my life’s calling. I was convinced that the dream was no longer possible—that the myriad foes were unbeatable, and the sorrow too great to bear.

    Then, I met IUP, and I met you.

    I saw how you, with a little help from me, came together to establish a common vision, how you identified things getting in the way of our students’ success, how you stepped up to the task when others would have walked away. In our time together these last three years, you have changed my perspective and my mind about the future of our shared calling.

    In the last couple of months, including in remarks I made to the State System Board of Governors at the end of May, I’ve been saying that public higher education’s leadership imperative is to address the realities of the time and redesign how we do our business. We must do this in spite of all the forces arrayed against us. We must focus our resources on the most important things to be able to deliver the same great results and improve on those results.

    The only way that we can meet the call to develop the innovative leaders who will transform tomorrow’s world is by working together, as a team, with the right vision, the right plan, and the right people.

    Today, I am confident as I have never been before, because IUP is the place that can rise to this challenge and succeed. We will fight for the right and will right the un-rightable wrong. And the world will be better for this—better because of the example of this great university.3

    It may be a dream, but it’s neither impossible nor quixotic if we agree that it’s right.

    As Abraham Lincoln said in December of 1862, “We can succeed only by concert. It is not ‘can any of us imagine better?’ but, ‘can we all do better?’ The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise—with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”4

    And, so we shall, together.

    My friends, the quest beckons. Will you join me?

    Thank you.


    1. Thanks to Ben Rafoth for providing the idea of this metaphor in his work on the MSCHE self-study.

    2. Herms, Daniel A. and McCullough, Deborah G. 2014. “Emerald Ash Borer Invasion of North America: History, Biology, Ecology, Impacts, and Management” Annual Review of Entomology 59:13-30. Accessed online August 2, 2015. http://www.annualreviews.org/doi/pdf/10.1146/annurev-ento-011613-162051.

    3. “The Impossible Dream [From Man of La Mancha] Lyrics.” Lyrics.net, accessed online August 17, 2015. http://www.lyrics.net/lyric/6089548.

    4. Lincoln, Abraham. “Annual Message to Congress, December 1, 1862.” Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, accessed online August 18, 2015. http://quod.lib.umich.edu/l/lincoln/lincoln5/1:1126.1?rgn=div2;view=fulltext.