Alvernia: The Franciscan "New American College"
Presidential Inaugural Address
Dr. Thomas F. Flynn
Sixth President of Alvernia College
Saturday, April 8, 2006
I accept the challenge of being Alvernia’s sixth president with enthusiasm and passion, with commitment to our Franciscan tradition and confidence in our future, and with a genuine delight in the work ahead. I accept this challenge also, as a partner with the faculty and with all in the campus community, along with trustees, alumni, and loyal friends of Alvernia, mindful of your contributions and our shared responsibility for the College’s future. Finally, I accept this challenge with a sense of indebtedness—personal, professional, and institutional.
Occasions such as this provide colleges and their presidents rare opportunities to acknowledge—indeed celebrate—their special debts. And the best debts, as we learn with age, are the ones we can never directly repay. Mine are far ranging. Today, as throughout my career, I am grateful for a high school English teacher, Bill Collins, who transformed the lives of Mr. Fix and Mr. Flynn; administrators and fellow student leaders at Boston College who shaped my commitment to higher education; professors at Michigan and my first department chair at Mount Saint Mary’s, Robert Ducharme, who guided my development as a teacher and scholar; fellow college and higher education association presidents, like Carol Schneider, who have been mentors, advisors, and sources of personal and professional enrichment. Bill, Robert, Carol, and many others are gathered here. And my heart is full, with gratitude and fond memories. To that gang of Ann Arbor graduate students—life-long comrades, we forged what Springsteen memorably called the “ties that bind” from hard work, equally dedicated play, and the ever present good tunes. No Retreat, No Surrender. And finally to faculty colleagues and former students from the Mount, you modeled for me the ideal of a rigorous and supportive academic community. So to all of you, dear friends, here today, in the poet Dylan’s words (but not his voice), “may you stay forever young.”
For me personally, the debts begin with the influence of my mother—a single parent and working mother who, with a gentle, if firm, hand and the help of her parents, my beloved grandparents, raised a quiet, placid, and easy going son. A woman with a soul as radiant as her smile. Whether during personal tragedy as a young woman or during a long battle against the cancer that claimed her too early, her courage and grace were equaled only by her passion for excellence, her love of teaching, delight in sports and music, and devotion to God and family. And then there is her brother, my uncle Joe, an inspiring teacher, talented musician, distinguished scholar, and pastoral leader, a Wernersville Jesuit, one of two Jesuit uncles, who for me embody the call to be “a man or woman for others. A man with a deep influence on his nephew and the young Norwegian from South Dakota who became like a second sister to him. To us, he introduced the essential pleasures of Flannery O’Connor, northern Italian cooking, and single malt scotch.
To Helen Ann Sheimo, descendant of English teachers, a lively and literate quartet—mother and father and also sister Jane and Kirk, so special to us both. To you, Helen, I owe my greatest debt. So today, after twenty-five years, as in the dedication of that long-ago doctoral dissertation, I salute you again as my “loving friend and faithful companion.” And finally, to Daniel Joseph. Your insight and good humor; your commitment to social justice; your impeccable judgment about friends, music, and sports loyalties; and our shared devotion to the beach make fatherhood the greatest of gifts. Daniel, as always, you rock!
Presidential inaugurations, besides being occasions when academic communities celebrate their tradition, are times to appreciate the contributions of those on whose shoulders all of us stand. Today, we honor my predecessor presidents, mindful of the contributions made by them and by their spouses and companions. And in honoring them, we honor the faculty and staff with whom they served. Could I ask that Dr. Laurence Mazzeno and his wife, Cindy; Deacon Daniel DeLucca and his wife, Peggy, and Sister Pacelli Staskiel join me at the podium.
My immediate predecessor, Dr. Laurence Mazzeno brought strategic vision and boundless energy to the College. Articulate as a campus spokesperson, he came to exemplify in our community, along with Cindy, Alvernia’s commitment to service and leadership. A gifted teacher and prolific scholar, he taught regularly in the innovative Seniors College, which he helped establish. Under his leadership, Alvernia grew significantly—in numbers of students, scope of programs, size and accomplishments of the faculty. Graduate programs were introduced, satellite campuses were launched in Pottsville and Philadelphia, the development of a residential college gathered momentum, and a campus-wide commitment to recruitment, retention, and student success was inspired by his infamous Mazz Maxim: “Change or Die.” Larry, while remaining true to its mission and heritage, Alvernia became under your leadership, a flourishing comprehensive, multi-dimensional institution with a bright future. Thank you and Cindy for your many contributions.
Deacon Daniel DeLucca recognized the future importance of lay leadership in advancing the mission and charism of the Bernardine Franciscan Sisters. The office of Mission Effectiveness was established, community service became a distinguishing institutional characteristic, and the College became recognized by the Templeton Foundation as a character-building institution. Working with the faculty and the board, he helped introduce a system of shared governance. The Franco Library and Learning Center was built, a milestone that provided the foundation for dramatic improvements in support for learning and for current aspirations for an enhanced technology-assisted student learning environment. And with the townhouses came the promise of a residential campus. Dan, as the first lay president, you led a necessary transition to shared leadership by Congregational representatives and lay men and women. Even today, Alvernians recall your caring pastoral campus presence, dedication to the mission, and lived example of the core Franciscan values. Thank you and Peggy for your devoted stewardship.
Three Bernardine Franciscan Sisters led the College from its founding in 1958 into the 1990s. Sister Dolorey Osowski was a creative leader who saw the need for a marketing strategy to move the college forward. Her fundraising skills and active community presence gave Alvernia greater visibility and reputation as a small college that combined a strong liberal arts education with professional preparation. She succeeded Sister Victorine who had an avid interest in theatre and the performing arts. During her term, Sister Victorine supported the development of key professional programs—nursing, business, and criminal justice—today recognized as among the College’s finest. Alvernia’s founding president was Sister Zygmunta. Already a leader in her congregation, she was a genuine pioneer who led the congregation’s movement into the ministry of higher education. A learned, broadly educated Renaissance woman, with a doctorate in history, she was a linguist and an artist, and spent twenty years as a Professor of History following her twelve years as president.
Representing these presidents and the many other sisters who built this college and inspire us today is Sister Pacelli Staskiel. Sister Pacelli has been on the faculty since 1961 and served with the three sister-presidents and indeed all since then: initially as a Professor of English; then also as Director of the Criminal Justice Program; later, as Academic Dean; and, more recently, as Dean Emerita, teacher in the honors program, resident historian, and devotee of vampires. She is now at work on a second volume of the College’s history. Sister Pacelli, you are beloved by alums and current Alvernians. Your teaching and writings; your wisdom and wit and your virtue make you a living embodiment of our foundresses’ legacy and our Franciscan core values. Congratulations and thank you. May we enjoy your company ad multos annos.
May I ask that we join in thanking these devoted women and men of Alvernia.
The story of the American private college is unique in the world of higher education, with most colleges tracing their roots to some church-related inspiration. As my fellow presidents here today would quickly testify, were they to have the microphone, each school has its own distinct story. Yet our founders were, in each case, women and men of vision and high ideals. In some cases, our founders were also daring risk-takers with outrageous aspirations, pioneering entrepreneurs, who today in the calm of a bank office might well not be convincing credit risks. And we are the beneficiaries of their dreams.
The foundress of the Bernardine Franciscans, Mother Veronica, journeyed from Poland to America in 1894, accompanied by four other sisters, to begin a teaching ministry for children of Polish immigrant families. We know that within twenty-five years, the congregation had grown and flourished to become an American community of great promise and, in 1926, an orphanage and school was opened in historic Francis Hall. A generation later, a different foundress, Sister Zygmunta, a woman of considerable intellect and academic accomplishment, must have recalled her bold predecessors as she, along with her companions, recognizing the educational needs of their congregation, helped begin this College, with 31 sister-students in 1958. Soon after, we know, the Sisters reached out to include lay women and men, partly in response to community need and interest in a values-based education and partly with an eye toward necessary enrollment growth. Recognizing the competitive environment of higher education, there is, is there not, an outlandish daring in launching this fledging school amidst so many colleges and universities with longstanding traditions.
The boldness of this College’s ambitions, the risk-taking pioneering spirit, the responsiveness to community needs, and—yes—some shrewd market savvy, continue to typify Alvernia. Barely twenty-five years after Sister Zygmunta’s retirement from the presidency, under the leadership of lay women and men imbued with the foundresses’ spirit, this small college upon the hill launched graduate programs. Alvernia was by the mid- to-late 90s respected and appreciated by working women and others for providing a flexible, caring environment in which to complete their undergraduate degree. But there is, once again, is there not, an outlandish daring for this tiny school to enter the graduate market.
We have not needed to wait another generation to see Alvernia established as a center for graduate studies and life-long learning not only for the Greater Reading community but for the mid-state region, portions of Philadelphia, and even beyond. Still a beacon of opportunity for adults returning to school or transferring from our fine local community college, Alvernia has become an indispensable educational resource for established professionals seeking career advancement, with masters programs today enrolling almost 800 students in five fields. School superintendents, principals, and teachers throughout the area are our graduates, as are countless servant-leaders in allied health, the helping professions, and the criminal justice fields. The medical MBA, initially offered at the Reading Medical Center, has now expanded in collaboration with the Pennsylvania Medical Society to include physicians from across the state and from other states. The rapidly developing Seniors College, with almost 600 active students, as I can testify personally, gathers vibrant seniors passionate about learning for its own sake and convinced that learning is fun. State approval last month of the first doctorate in the mid-state region, a Ph.D. in Leadership, is a logical next step in meeting our region’s educational needs. But there is, once again, is there not, an outlandish daring for this once tiny school to enter the doctoral market.
Those familiar with the concept of the “new American college” will recognize in the Alvernia story familiar characteristics. For this hybrid and peculiarly democratic type of institution is typified by its flexibility, a penchant for innovation, a proactive engagement with the world outside of academe. Neither primarily a liberal arts nor a residential college for young adults, the “new American college” nevertheless emphasizes personal attention to students and a close-knit campus community. Far from being a large, research university, with only 2,000 to 5,000 students, it considers teaching the top priority, with undergraduate courses taught in small classes not by graduate students but by faculty frequently at the forefront of their fields. Still, it is able to sponsor a wide range of programs, including high quality professional programs for both undergraduate and graduate students. Usually located on a safe, somewhat secluded campus on the edge of small cities or in metropolitan suburbs, it is far removed from the venerable Midwestern land grant institutions, but it values service and responsiveness to community needs.
Yet it is not sufficient that Alvernia or any “new American college” simply combines appealing characteristics of the small college and the large university. The scope and complexity of such institutions, while potentially a distinctive strength, can also produce fragmentation and blurred identity. So what might genuinely distinguish such an educational experience? To reprise the focus of yesterday’s opening panel, what IS the promise of the “new American college”? I would certainly not suggest we have the final answer here at Alvernia, but I am convinced that this College is positioned to emerge as a leader nationally, distinguished for its pace-setting response to this challenge.
All too often, even comparatively small schools celebrate the rhetoric of collegiality and community but guard turf, protect silos, and treat various parts of the institution as “separate but equal.” In contrast, as many of yesterday’s stimulating speakers suggested, students of all ages deserve a far more connected, coherent, and integrated education. So what might we integrate? And how? And why?
Might we be inspired to realize that general education is not a mere foundation for the real business of the college—the major—but, like the major, should be interwoven throughout a student’s education? Inspired to realize that the major shares responsibility for broadening, not narrowing, the student’s experience? Inspired to recognize the practical insights gained from the study of history, psychology, philosophy and the other liberal arts and the intangible personal growth that can result from professional experience, whether in clinical work, social service activities, or business internships? Inspired to foster interdisciplinary learning that better reflects how people actually live and work? Inspired to celebrate the valuable learning to be gained outside the classroom, outside the formal curriculum, even beyond the campus in the community? Perhaps at the new American college, we might intentionally unite theory, practice, and reflection.
How this is done will of course vary from college to college. At Alvernia, we need to strengthen the integration of liberal and professional education and connect learning in general education more directly with study in the major. Like most schools, we need a far more stimulating, challenging co-curriculum--including options for residential learning communities--that connects life in and beyond the classroom. But there is already a strong foundation in place deserving stronger institutional support and, in some respects, emulation by others.
Faculty at Alvernia already link community-based learning to superior classroom teaching and embed values-based inquiry and ethical reflection within graduate as well as undergraduate programs. All undergraduates complete a required course in ethics and community service projects. All graduate students, regardless of program, take courses in Moral Leadership and Professional Ethics and pursue community-based learning opportunities. As one of the few schools in the country in which all undergraduate and graduate students, regardless of program, develop a strong ethical foundation for future decision-making, Alvernia has a ready-made approach to integrating liberal and professional education and learning in the major, general education, and life across the classroom. Course work on ethics and values-based decision-making can be readily applied to real world problems through community-based experiences. Reflection on that experience, as many here know first-hand, is often transformational.
Alvernia is poised to play a pivotal role in its community and region in this regard. Our newly approved interdisciplinary Ph.D., with concentrations in corporate, community, and educational leadership, builds on existing faculty expertise in theoretical and applied ethics and in community-based learning, even as we anticipate the hiring of many new faculty with complementary strengths. Productive recent discussions among faculty confirm there is great faculty enthusiasm and capacity. Key individuals and organizations beyond the campus are looking to Alvernia to play a more visible public role and are willing and able to contribute. Needed is institutional focus and enhanced support; needed, equally, are strategic community partnerships and external funding. Additional discussion and much planning are needed. It is premature to make formal announcements. But today, as we begin to anticipate our fiftieth anniversary, I want to signal our intention to establish at Alvernia both a Center for Ethics and Leadership and a Center for Community Engagement.
The Center for Ethics and Leadership will capitalize on our strong faculty in philosophy and theology, while involving faculty from across the College. It will heighten the importance of ethical reflection and decision-making skills for our graduates. It will provide an interdisciplinary forum for dialogue. Both campus and community will benefit from potential courses, programs, and activities addressing issues too often neglected in contemporary society and in the academy. The Center for Community Engagement also builds on and will expand good work by the faculty. By coordinating the College’s myriad service projects and developing strategic service-learning partnerships, the Center will help our community to be an essential part of our curriculum, a learning laboratory for students and faculty. And by serving as a prominent “front door” for the College’s many community-based projects, and the community’s many requests, this center affirms our commitment to the reinvention of Greater Reading.
Both centers, consistent with our educational philosophy, will be resources for best practices in teaching and learning and will accelerate faculty collaboration for cross-disciplinary courses. Both centers will feature pathbreaking scholarship already published by Alvernia faculty and sponsor future collaborations between faculty and between faculty and students. Both centers will actively engage community partners, draw on community resources, and leverage Alvernia’s external contributions. Both centers, in short, indicate a heightened institutional commitment to ethics education, to leadership development, and to community-based learning as hallmarks of an Alvernia education and as characteristics of “the engaged campus” worthy of emulation.
Infusing this important work must be enhanced attention to ensuring all Alvernia graduates have developed the skills and attitudes necessary to flourish, not merely survive, in a complex multicultural society. The health of our communities and our entire democracy depends on colleges preparing students for civic and social responsibility. Good examples are already in place. Yet our curriculum needs, more intentionally, to immerse our students in the study and the experience of cultural diversity. And as many faculty have noted, we must ensure that traditional study-abroad options and short-term immersion experiences, like those piloted recently the Dominican Republic and El Salvador, become commonplace for our students.
There is special urgency and relevance to this effort. We have in our city, especially in its large public high school, a diverse representation of nations, languages, and cultures—27 languages, 34 cultures represented and 4,600 students. Our city is a rich resource of cultural, indeed, global diversity. But there is also a large and important underserved population of deserving young people whose future depends on educational opportunity and achievement. Alvernia’s migrant programs and partnerships with the Hispanic Center and other community organizations can and will be expanded. Within the next few months, we will be ready to announce major initiatives in this regard.
Providing expanded educational opportunity and achievement is the most important way Alvernia serves our community. For many, myself included, educational access is a matter of justice and democratic necessity. But there is also a compelling case in the economic data: the best path to a community’s economic development and prosperity is through investment in higher education. The renewal of Greater Reading and our nation must focus on this reality. I would urge our state and local political, business, and civic leaders to make a renewed commitment to addressing this issue. And I pledge my personal involvement, confident that my four colleague-presidents here in Berks County are equally committed.
A campus attuned to ethical issues, global awareness, and sensitivity to cultural diversity must cultivate a spirit of inquiry and openness: a tolerance for, indeed delight, in complexity and even uncertainty. A genuine academic community champions exploration and troubling introspection, never complacency and self-satisfaction and comfortable answers. And it champions vigorous dialogue, especially what some call the “difficult dialogues” that involve hotly contested differences of opinion and ethical dilemmas. The American college is a sacred space where this stimulating and essential conversation can unfold. This engaged process is at the center of what it means to be a genuine learning community, a college, in a free, democratic society. And it is at the center of what it means to be a great Catholic college or university.
In American colleges and universities, academic freedom has long been understood as essential for excellence. Assaults on this principle are today coming from left and right, as self-appointed messiahs and interest groups seek to restrict open inquiry and engaged dialogue on our campuses. This subject requires more extended treatment than possible this afternoon. So let me simply challenge all of us here today to seek to encounter intellectual diversity, what the Association of American Colleges and Universities has defined as “new knowledge, different perspectives, competing ideas, and alternative claims to truth” and what Max Weber called the “inconvenient questions,” with a spirit of excitement. And with a confidence that by questioning our preconceived beliefs and opinions, by respectfully engaging opinions different, perhaps hostile, to our own; by evaluating evidence and testing truth claims; we will make more informed judgments and deepen our personal commitments.
For the Alvernia academic community, this dialogue has a special source of inspiration. We are proudly Franciscan—inspired by the example of one of the world’s few universal saints, Francis of Assisi, respected by women and men of diverse beliefs, and by the virtues exemplified in the Peace Prayer recited at this morning’s Interfaith Service. Inspired, too, as recognized earlier, by the lived example of the Bernardine Franciscan Sisters. Dedication to peace and justice and to social responsibility are at our core, as is the Franciscan ethic of hospitality, a welcoming embrace of others and respect for each person’s human dignity and worth. And, so, too, reverence for the animal and natural worlds, embodied in this week’s environmental programs and our emerging partnerships involving a revived Angelica Park.
As many on campus have commented, we have only begun to realize the potential unifying impact of the five core Franciscan values of Service, Humility, Peacemaking, Contemplation, and Collegiality for our academic community. Education in the Franciscan values, then, would be, I suggest, another way to integrate the Alvernia experience—for trustees, alumni, faculty and staff as well as for our students. And these values point us toward an answer to the great why question: integrated learning cultivates the development of the whole person—emotional, physical, social, spiritual as well as intellectual—an ideal deeply prized by the Catholic intellectual tradition and by our Franciscan heritage. As Franciscan scholars like Zachary Hayes have written, Franciscan education is “practical” in its concern for “investing human life with a sense of meaning and purpose” and “bringing about a quality of life that reaches into all dimensions of human life.”
At Alvernia, we do not create our future in a vacuum. We are fortunate to learn from many good colleagues, including those at “new American colleges” across the country, who share our commitment to a distinctive educational experience. We have a mission shaped by Franciscan values and rooted in the Catholic intellectual heritage; in the scholarly traditions of the American academy; in the blending of liberal arts and professional education; in our commitment to the local community; in the entrepreneurial spirit of our foundresses and predecesssors. We have a mission that celebrates the great promise of American higher education—the obligation to educate not only for individual growth and personal fulfillment but equally for the common good.
At Alvernia, we seek to educate students of diverse backgrounds and ages for
- Professional Success; for
- Social Responsibility and Service to Community; for
- Ethical Leadership in a Diverse, Global Environment; and for
- Personal Lives of Moral Integrity and Spiritual Meaning.
There is in this mission an extraordinary opportunity: to educate the whole person to do well and to do good by developing habits of the mind, habits of the heart, and habits of the soul.
This is the opportunity that, as Alvernia’s president, I welcome most and to which, today, I commit myself wholeheartedly. Thank you.