Opening of the Academic Year, 2021–22

Good morning colleagues and friends of our great institution. Welcome to the 2021–22 academic year.

Just over nine years ago, I was honored to be chosen as the next president of IUP after serving at the University of Alaska Anchorage. When I shared the news with my colleagues, I was frequently asked, “What does IUP stand for?”

I am sure most of us have been asked that question. For most of western Pennsylvania, IUP is as easily decipherable as FBI or NBC, but in Alaska, IUP is a bit more of a mystery.

I don’t get asked that question often anymore, but if I did, I think an abstract answer would be better than a concrete one.

IUP stands for more than Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

IUP stands for students.

IUP stands for research opportunities.

IUP stands for diversity, equity, and inclusion.

IUP stands for personal growth.

IUP stands for innovation and exploration.

IUP stands for civility.

IUP stands for community.

IUP stands for tradition.

IUP stands for family.

I could go on and on, but you see the point. IUP stands for a lot of things which hold us to a higher standard. We don’t aspire to be just another piece of Pennsylvania public higher education; we aspire to be the flagship of the fleet.

In our nearly 150 years of existence, what we stand for has not changed. Not since we opened our doors in 1875, not since we were a normal school, not since Aunt Jane was showing us the way, not since we gained university status, and certainly not since last year—which was one of the most difficult years in our history.

Our history shows that IUP has always focused on student success in various ways. But now we have a well-defined goal, as laid out in our strategic plan, to become a truly student-centered university. You’ve heard me say that lately, but do you know what I mean?

Being truly student-centered means doing everything we can so our students arrive here feeling wanted and safe, grow here feeling nurtured and important, and leave here feeling accomplished and grateful.

So, what’s in it for us?

First, it’s why we are here. IUP is an institution of higher education. We’re here to train our students for a career, and to engage and educate them so they can use their talents to change the world.

We must take this seriously. Students are why we are here, so let’s make sure each one knows how much we value them and that we will care for them; while we challenge them to be more than they ever imagined.

The second answer is that when students win, we win. When a student grows into a citizen of the world because of IUP, it enhances our profile to students all over the globe who seek growth and opportunities.

Simply put, putting our students at the forefront comes foremost, and we must do it.

It’s what IUP stands for.

I realize that the mood in some parts of IUP makes our aspirations seem unreasonable.

How can we get excited about investing to help students when rumors abound that IUP is broke, and the guy in charge has packed his bags and is planning to bail?

We’ve faced a lot of challenges lately. Morale has wavered and some have lost faith in IUP.

I have not.

Last year, I shared our plan to address our financial challenges. To those who have joined in, thank you for putting your oar in the water and helping us row together.

Fundamentally changing the way we operate has not come without pain. In the past two years, our workforce has been reduced by almost 25 percent. These changes had to be made to better align ourselves for a future we control.

We have said goodbye to many faculty and staff members through retirement; retrenchment or furloughs; and through voluntary departure.

I very much believe that IUP stands for family, and the workforce reductions were not hastily made. I miss the people we said goodbye to, and I wish it didn’t have to be this way. Their talents and passions helped scores of students, but keeping the status quo was untenable.

There are still some reductions to be made, but the hardest part is behind us. We will not be retrenching faculty this year.  If retrenchment was a possibility, I was required to send APSCUF a letter by August 2.  I sent no such letter. Furloughs of our other unionized colleagues aren’t in the cards. The remaining reductions will come from eliminating some staff positions and by not filling open spots in many areas.

Our financial picture has improved from a year ago, and that’s because many of you found ways to help. We must continue to adapt to changing times and put our resources in the right places.

We cannot go back to a financial approach from years ago when enrollment was higher. And as long as Pennsylvania believes it’s acceptable to rank 48th out of 50 in higher education funding, tuition will be our main source of income. That’s difficult when the number of high school students in Pennsylvania is dwindling.

The solution has two parts. One is to continue to spend responsibly. The other is to grow our revenues in ways that will give us both short-term and long-term benefits.

Becoming student-centered will help with some of our retention issues and also increase our marketability as a destination for students who want the life-changing experience we provide.

We also must continue expanding our partnerships with high schools, community colleges, and employers so that more people want to be a part of the good work we do here.

The last thing is that we need to create and fund programs that are in demand by employers so our students know they will have opportunities after they graduate.

Last year, we introduced IUP NextGen as we adapt to marketplace needs. We’re using NextGen as the evolving template for giving our students amazing opportunities that will lead them to amazing careers and lives. The Liberal Arts will continue as a vital part of a well-rounded education, as we invest to enhance what we do best and what our students and their potential employers need.

Thanks to your efforts to date, plus some one-time COVID relief funding, we will invest in a few areas that will demonstrably benefit students, which will then benefit us.

A good example is Strategic Enrollment Planning, led by Patti McCarthy, but involving input from hundreds of people across the university. It’s resulting in real investments right now in student success, diversity and inclusion, and graduate programs, helping us become the place envisioned in the strategic plan.

Changing the way we do things takes time and effort. We must not dawdle. We need creativity and teamwork, compassion and selflessness. And we shouldn’t be dismayed. We can do this. We will do this.

It’s what IUP stands for.

The state system integration plan has been approved and six of our sister universities are in the process of combining their resources to create two new entities.

Something had to be done or struggling universities would have failed – and would have pulled us all down with them.

I’m sure you have wondered how our university will fit into the redesigned state system, and rightly so. The honest answer is that it’s too soon to know. But I remind you that IUP and West Chester are specifically excluded from being merged. That provision was made because we stand out from the pack—thanks to your work and thanks to the work of previous generations.

That doesn’t mean we have smooth sailing ahead. We must continue to better ourselves so we don’t lose control of our destiny.

I hope you will have a chance to read Dr. Cashdollar’s book, “The IUP Story: Indiana University of Pennsylvania, from Normal School to University,” which will be out this fall.

It shows how IUP has many times faced obstacles and has rebounded every time. I see four elements of our makeup that have helped us persist:

Greatness is our destiny. We’ve not followed the pack but instead, led it. We are an inherently great university.

We will always hold the reins. We’ve had our detractors over the decades. Some thought we should blend in with the pack, but we have always maintained control of our destiny.

We were bred for this. The essence of western Pennsylvania is people who work together for the common goal, who refuse to concede, and who persevere despite tough circumstances.

We’ve always been student-centered. IUP believes that no matter what a particular student’s background is, we will meet them where they are and be a resource for their success.

These four qualities define why IUP is a great place and is worth fighting for. We will march on knowing we will succeed, in control of our destiny, using grit and determination, with our focus on our students. This is nothing new. It’s what IUP stands for.

We can do this. I know it. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t believe it. But we now have two choices.

We can continue down the path that brought us to this point, or we can find another way out. I know which option I am choosing, and I’m sure you will, too. Repeating the way we did business before will not change our outlook. We need new ideas, new plans, new measures to put our students first.

Many of you are already finding ways to do this, and I applaud you and thank you.

The Hawks Q&A Center has been a rousing success, and our Guides Program has started its second year of mentorship.

Our University College has been redesigned to help all our students get the help they need. Varying academic offices that exist to help students are housed under the same umbrella to create a more cohesive unit, enabling our students to stay on track academically.

With the help of an anonymous donation, a university-wide team launched the Crimson Scholars Circle, providing 70 students with an early start to their college career using mentoring, team building, leadership development, and academic strategies to enhance their success.

Other changes might seem small but are very beneficial to our students, such as renaming and restructuring the Bursar’s Office as the Office of Student Billing, and grouping some student-facing offices in the same building.

And we cannot forget the measures taken to ensure our students are as safe as possible while pursuing their classwork during the COVID pandemic. Everyone pitched in.

But there is more work to do for our students. Please don’t wait for a directive. When you see the horse, grab the reins and ride.

We do not have all the answers. In higher education, we make observations, we form hypotheses, and we test them. Sometimes things don’t work, or maybe they’re blind alleys and require some backtracking. Yet we must continue to try. We cannot fall back on old practices and say, “this is how we’ve always done it.”

We need to look at what we’re doing and ask whose best interests it serves—ours, or our students?

This is a perpetual process. It is not enough to create one avenue for student success and then say we are done. Student-centeredness is not a destination. It is the journey we take to ensure that they—and we—have a bright future.

The examples I just provided are great ones, but we also need ones that do not involve creating a program or moving an office. What I am talking about is treating our students with respect and care, as if they are our own children.

Here’s a story that shows what I mean, and I won’t apologize that it makes me emotional.

One of our groundskeepers was on his mower in the Oak Grove, cutting the grass and making campus beautiful. He was doing his job. He looked up and saw a student outside Weyandt Hall who was on crutches and struggling to open the door.

The groundskeeper turned off his mower, ran over and opened the door for the student. Not stopping there, he helped her into the building, and then hearing that she was not sure where her class was, he helped her get to the right floor and the right classroom.

This is a man whose job description says he is to maintain the grounds. Yet he saw a student who needed his help and rather than wave them off with “it’s not my job,” he said, “it is my job.”

Think of what his gesture meant to that student. Think about it. Small things like that have a big impact.

Every single one of us will encounter a student who needs help, and sometimes what they seek doesn’t fit our roles here at IUP. But don’t pass them on to someone else or shrug and walk away.

Students coming to IUP today have different challenges than their predecessors. Some don’t come as prepared as they could be, and some need extra attention. We will give it to them.

To frame it another way, don’t ask if our students are ready for IUP; ask if IUP is ready for our students, if you are ready for IUP students.

And, yes, there is a bottom-line element to this. Right now, one out of every four first-year IUP students don’t return for the next year. The reasons for this are many, and we are working to address those that we can fix. But, gaining revenue by increasing enrollment is hard enough when there will be fewer students to recruit, and we don’t need to make it more difficult by not working just as hard to keep every student we have.

Working at IUP is not a punch-in, punch-out, go-home-and-forget-about-it kind of thing. We are called here for a greater good, to give of ourselves so others may succeed.

There are many, many people at IUP who share this belief, but I want to single out one of them.

After today, Tim Moerland’s time as our provost and chief academic officer will end as he sails into retirement. During his tenure, he worked tirelessly to enhance the quality and impact of IUP’s academic and research programs, improving the experience of our students.

I have valued his counsel, knowledge, and experience for the past eight-and-a-half years.

Lara Luetkehans is taking over as interim provost, and I know she will lead with unwavering focus on our students.

As Tim and Lara know well, it’s inspiring when you have a purpose, and that’s what we all have here. It doesn’t matter if you’re a faculty member, an office worker, a custodian, a coach, a manager, or the president: we all should be like the groundskeeper. 

It’s what IUP stands for.

Thinking about our future has me excited. I’m excited to hear your ideas and see your results as we work together to bring IUP back to unquestioned flagship status. We have a remarkable and uplifting history, and it tells me that what once was great here will be great again.

And that’s why, nine years after I had to explain what IUP stands for, I am still here. And that’s why I will be here next year, and the year after, and the year after. It’s because of the great work you do here, the pride you take in it, and the lives we change. IUP is a special place because of its people and because of what they, what you, stand for.

So, as we begin another school year, let’s remember why we’re here. It’s to use our time, our talents, and our expertise to positively impact our students so they grow into citizens of the world who make their own impacts. And then, we hope that when they look back at their time at IUP, they are fulfilled and inspired to stay involved with us, completing the circle for the next generation.

This is not a new idea. This is what IUP always has stood for, and always will stand for.

I wish you more than luck as we begin this year. I wish you good health, I wish you fun, and I wish you success. Thank you.