STATE OF THE COLLEGE 2005
Thomas F. Flynn, President of Alvernia College
August 23, 2005
It is a bit presumptuous for me to welcome you this morning. You have been engaged in much good work throughout the summer—in campus and home offices; in classrooms and libraries; on outdoor and indoor cleaning and construction projects; individually and in teams; here in Reading and also in Philadelphia and Pottsville and beyond. I am also one of the newest members of this community, a community with an inspiring heritage and ever evolving traditions. Many of you have taken time to welcome me and to inquire about Helen and Daniel’s transition. So let me first say simply, thank you. And say publicly what I have said privately to board leaders, my fellow executives, and a few others. The Flynns are delighted to be here, and I am honored and enthusiastic to serve as your president.
The custom of colleges and universities considering fall the opening of the year has deep roots. So, too, the custom of a president’s opening address.
Even if today I am not standing in the steep incline of the Bernardine Hall auditorium, Alvernia’s answer to the Roman Coliseum, I am reminded of an infamous description of a college president: What, you might ask, is the similarity between a college president and a cemetery caretaker? The answer unfortunately is obvious—everyone is below you, and none of them are listening!
This year at Alvernia, as at many other schools, there is that distinctive new beginning that accompanies the arrival of a new president, though few schools could imagine as seamless
a transition as was planned by board leaders and Larry Mazzeno. Though Larry and I did not know each other at all, we quickly established a comfort level that helped accelerate my introduction to Alvernia. It helped, of course, that Larry’s was a successful presidency and that, as a second-time president, I was eager to take full advantage of his experience and the Board’s invitation to visit campus several times and to arrive a month early. Larry also took for granted that, in today’s highly competitive environment, colleges must continually change and improve. So he did not hesitate to identify ways Alvernia might be strengthened and to encourage me to rethink current approaches. Nor did he hesitate on his last day, besides sending his gracious campus e-mail, to smile mischievously and remind me not to “screw things up!”
The arrival of a new college president is always a breeding ground for rumors, so I probably should clarify in these first moments that I am not the speaker who at a national conference years ago former President Mazzeno first heard memorably exclaim “Change or Die.” Nonetheless, as all of us work to make this good college even better, we will appreciate and enjoy the way we stand on the shoulders of those like Larry and the legendary Franciscan sisters who founded and have nurtured the College. And you better believe there was a twinkle in my eye as I promised Larry on his last day that my standing on his shoulders would not make him even a wee bit taller!
In our time together this morning, I want to sketch, however imperfectly, the state of our college and briefly anticipate the coming year. But first, let me take note of a few key dates and share some thoughts about my personal orientation to Alvernia.
The Board’s Transition Committee, my executive colleagues, and the president’s staff have attended thoughtfully to my introduction to Alvernia. Several trustees and friends of the College have helped connect me with community leaders. I am fortunate already to know many of the Pennsylvania presidents, including most at our competitor and conference schools. Some have already hosted me on their campuses, and several other presidents have visited our campus. Prominent local alumnae are hosting a major event next month at the Reading Museum to introduce me to the business and non-profit communities as well as to many fellow alums. Recent graduates living in North Jersey have offered to host a gathering in Manhattan. You will be pleased to know that I have pledged my best efforts not to add or subtract “r’s” in the wrong places in words and perhaps even to try that tomato-based soup that New Yorkers pass off as chowder.
Important as are these and other off-campus activities, nothing can substitute for opportunities to listen and learn from the campus community. At small gatherings during July, I met almost every member of our staff and administration and enjoyed relaxed conversation together. That process began last week with faculty and will soon begin with students.
An important second step will be a series of “Listening and Learning” sessions that will begin after fall break in October. You will hear more later, but let me share with you now three simple questions for your reflection: 1) What makes Alvernia special and distinctive? 2) How should Alvernia get better? 3) How can Alvernia get better? At semester’s end, on December 7, I will reconvene us as a community—joined by student, alum, and trustee leaders—to report what I have heard, share what I have learned, and suggest the process for creating together a new strategic plan.
Later this year, along with colleagues at Albright and elsewhere across the country, we will celebrate the ritual of a presidential inauguration. Such occasions vary widely in style and timing. The Transition Team has chosen April 8 for the formal installation ceremony, and a series of events will be planned for the surrounding weeks by the Inauguration Committee. I have asked that we begin that day with an interfaith service, recognizing the welcoming spirit of Franciscanism, the religious diversity of our community, and the shared quest for spiritual meaning which unites humanity and which, on this campus, is best represented by our reflective Mission Moments.
I have also suggested that among the events to be planned is an Academic symposium to be held on the previous day, Friday, April 7, and to feature prominent national educators among the participants. This and all events provide the opportunity to celebrate our College and to raise our visibility locally, regionally, and beyond. I am pleased that two prominent local leaders, Mike Ehlerman and Kathy Herbein, Class of 1995, have agreed to chair the Inauguration Committee, assisted by Vice Chairs Karen Thacker, Dean of Professional Studies, and Lisa Ross, Assistant Vice President of Alumni and Donor Relations, and many others.
Let me now turn back to the present. There is much going on at Alvernia. As with all human endeavors, much good that few others know about. Last week, during discussion with a group of faculty, I learned about the range and quality of their scholarship and teaching interests; it was impressive and heartening. I continue to hear stories about the contributions of the Bernardines who built this College and of the accomplishments of our trustees. We can never do too much to celebrate our achievements.
We must also celebrate the accomplishments of our alumni/ae. And we must better connect with our graduates, recent and longtime, addressing their needs and engaging them in the life of the College. This will be the top priority of our newly reorganized alumni efforts under Lisa Ross’ direction; it will also be the focus for our newly formed Alumni Council, with wide representation from all alums. Among their areas of focus will be assisting admission with student recruitment, helping career services to expand internship and employment opportunities for current students, and working closely with the advancement office to increase fundraising in support of annual operations and our strategic priorities. To signal the importance of this new effort, the council will initially function as an ad-hoc committee of our Board. Led by trustee and alumna Kathy Herbein, the council will begin meeting in early fall.
Our board of trustees is also undergoing a transition. Jim Boscov is the newly elected chair, assisted by vice chairs Kathy Herbein and Rick Purcell, and an executive committee. We are fortunate to have a loyal, committed board. Board leaders are readily available and generous with their time. Jim and I were fortunate to spend three days at a national institute on board issues in June, and at its two meetings this semester the full board will be considering a range of “best practices” and other ideas for enhancing their leadership and service to Alvernia. Even as early as their September meeting, we will be taking steps to deepen their understanding of the Alvernia educational experience.
Awareness of our alums and trustees reminds us that the state of our college is not merely an internal chronicle. We work and serve within a complex environment. Federal and state policies on higher education, demographic trends, workforce needs and
economic realities—not just locally but regionally and globally—popular attitudes about college costs and ideal campus size are just a few influential realities. Two quick complementary examples. My private, half-day tour of Reading last week with Mayor McMahon was a stimulating seminar in the opportunities and challenges of our city and the possibilities for partnerships. Conversations with fellow presidents confirm we must continue to expand our reach well beyond the local, even as we strengthen our historic bond with city and county. To examine our environment fully would keep us well though the day, but as we turn toward the College itself, we do well to remember external realities.
So how are we doing as a college? Perhaps we should first acknowledge that our college is no longer a small local school offering undergraduate education to mostly Catholic young adults. We have well over 2,500 students of widely varying ages, socio-economic, cultural, and religious backgrounds; half study exclusively in the evening when many of us in this room are no longer on campus. Many pursue their studies in locations beyond this campus and even beyond this city. About 700 are now enrolled in graduate programs. Over 500 more are in our vibrant Senior’s College, and if we add them to our numbers, we become an institution of over 3,000 students. Among the momentous events of the coming year is the visit of the state evaluation team in late September for our proposed interdisciplinary Ph.D. in Leadership Studies. Put simply, your fine work in implementing the current long range plan has transformed Alvernia into a thriving, complex, multi-dimensional institution.
We are also, even by American standards, a new school. Younger than many of us in this room, your new president included. We are still becoming. We lack the resources—physical and fiscal—of older, established institutions. We are not well known as a college, though we are gradually getting better recognized, as evident in our improving US News rating. Our alums are relatively few in number and many have graduated in the last decade.
We are also strategically young. The ambitious, comprehensive, ten-year plan adopted in 1998 has repositioned this College. Many options are now open to us. Careful choices await us. We have grown and improved to the point where we can be almost anything we want to be. But we can’t be everything we want to be.
This poses a challenge. And a good one. One that will be at the center of our shared responsibility to think about, create, and pursue our future as an institution. Creativity, collaboration, and commitment. We will need all three. From all of us.
We will not imagine and create our future in a vacuum. We have a mission 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. We value student-centered education and we aim to educate the whole person by developing habits of the mind, habits of the heart, and habits of the soul.
For us at Alvernia, there is a special source of inspiration that is both centuries old and vital in its living presence. We are proudly Franciscan, with appreciation for the congregation of Bernardine Franciscans and inspired by the contributions of those members who have and continue to serve here at Alvernia. Commitment to peace and justice, to social responsibility, and an inclusive appreciation of human diversity are at our core. As some of you heard back at the time of the campus interviews, there is for me, as Yogi Berra memorably put it, a sense in all of this of “Déjà vu all over again.” In fact, it occurred to me this summer that I began first grade at Mt. Alvernia Academy, taught by Franciscan sisters, in 1958, a date of some significance here on campus.
This year we will celebrate our heritage throughout the first week in October and with a special celebration on October 4, the feast of St. Francis. On that day, joined by the first residents of Judge Hall, we will honor the man whose name the College has chosen as a contemporary model of Franciscanism. We anticipate that some special guests will join us on that occasion. I hope that many of you will be able to join in the celebration.
Such special events are an opportunity to communicate the values and spirit of a college. But for prospective students, their families, and other visitors to our campus, the “state of the college” is often conveyed, fairly or not, by its “curb appeal” and by evidence of physical expansion and improvement. Presidents like myself rooted in the teaching and learning experience come to learn that high quality landscaping, attractive and visible signage, significant green space, impeccably maintained buildings and grounds, and a gracious, impressive admission office are more influential determinants of a visitor’s perception than the less tangible, if more essential, indicators of quality. Indeed, Helen and I quickly noticed during our initial visit the care with which our facilities staff maintains our campus. As I told members of the two evening shifts at our recent late night gathering, their good work is essential to the College’s success, even when, like the good work of many staff, it can get taken for granted.
In other respects, however, we have much to do, to make the campus more fully inviting to visitors and to provide our students with the outdoor (and indoor) gathering spaces essential for an appealing living and learning environment. During the search process, it was mentioned several times that Alvernia needs a comprehensive facilities master plan to guide its development, both in the near term and long into our future. I concur.
Such forward thinking is especially essential because of the College’s growth. A well-known president once remarked to me that besides ensuring that the campus was clean and beautifully landscaped, he made sure to have bulldozers always on campus, even if they were sitting idly. I was a bit surprised at the time by his priorities, but of course in a playful way he was conveying the simple reminder that institutions either develop and move forward aggressively or risk obsolescence.
As a very young college, we are still catching up a bit. The use of one floor at the Upland building has offered welcome, if temporary, relief for our space needs, as have the annual renovations and upgrades in Francis Hall and throughout the campus. The expansion of outdoor athletic and recreation fields on 48 acres south of campus is providing badly needed practice fields and, in a year or two, will accommodate NCAA varsity competition in field hockey, soccer, and lacrosse
The opening of Judge Hall, an apartment-style complex for 133 upperclassmen, extends our residential capacity close to 650, an impressive milestone for a campus that a few short years ago housed only 125 students. But with this expansion comes our responsibility to develop the complementary facilities, services, and programs for a stimulating residential environment and to strengthen the campus learning community through partnerships between faculty, student life staff, coaches, and many others. Understanding and addressing the challenge of “residentiality” is a key strategic opportunity.
The long anticipated expansion of Bernardine Hall and the creation of state of the art science spaces have been awaited with patient endurance. We certainly need more space for our students and faculty, but we also need enhanced, flexible learning spaces to help ensure best pedagogy. This is especially true for science faculty and for those who require special learning technology. And such facilities are for students and parents alike an important indicator of educational quality. We are fortunate that the creation of a science wing also offers us the opportunity to think anew about teaching and learning spaces as we contemplate renovations of the former science spaces.
Besides improving facilities, we are fortunate in my estimation to have a well-organized and integrated division of library and technology services. One of my earliest positive impressions of Alvernia was the plan that has guided upgrades in this area and is shaping our ongoing improvement. Not only students but faculty and even administrators must be continuously learning, if we are to set and achieve higher standards of performance.
The Library now offers off-campus access to all library databases with a single logon procedure. Media services have been introduced. I saw first-hand last week, when touring our classrooms, the results of efforts to improve classroom technology. We have much work to do, but we should be proud of this steady progress, even as we anticipate the transformational impact of our new science wing and the subsequent renovations of former science labs.
Upgraded teaching and learning spaces and technology are, of course, only the foundation. So it is good to know of the “Pedagogy and Technology” luncheons where faculty share their experiences in enhancing student learning outcomes. This is a key area where “best practices” emerge only through the leadership of faculty and with adequate staff support. And of course library and technology staff are critical partners with the faculty in the essential development of an institutional informational literacy program.
Like many others a decade ago, I was optimistic that teaching and learning would be enhanced through new technology. But I did not envision the administrative advances, especially in the delivery of business and student services. At Alvernia, we have implemented the SCT system successfully and, more recently, online registration for day students. (This summer, our folks initiated and hosted a regional conference of staff from 8 colleges.) In the near term, we expect to implement online credit card payment by students and online access to financial reports; develop a secure means of remote access to network resources for staff and students off campus; upgrade improvements to keep ResNet functional and safe; and ensure greater overall network security.
The upgrade of our facilities has in part been needed to improve the quality of education and services expected by our students. But its special urgency has been driven by the rapid, dramatic growth in students. Let me cite a few comparative statistics: A decade ago—in 1995—850 FT and 1,364 total students; five years later—in 2000—1070 FT and 1647 total students; and Now—approx. 1660 FT and 2770 total students (about 3300 with our vibrant Senior’s College). During this decade, new first year students have grown from 177 to 231 to 285. Many schools have substantially expanded their adult programs; many residential colleges have managed to increase their enrollments. But simultaneous progress on both fronts is rare indeed. It is a tribute to the vision of board members and senior administrators; the work ethic of deans, directors, and their staff; and the dedication of the entire faculty and staff.
As we open the traditional academic year, we continue to experience steady growth with our adult programs, both undergraduate and graduate, and to sustain our impressive momentum with student retention. These have been the two most significant sources of our enrollment growth.
Last winter, early in my transition, I suggested to the President and members of the senior team the need for expert analysis of our pricing and financial aid policies. Much data analysis is needed. This work has begun and will be completed this semester. We are fortunate to have Scannell and Kurz, Inc., a small firm renowned for excellent client service, experience with private colleges, and expertise in the strategic use of financial aid. Their analysis will provide timely recommendations. At Kate Emery’s and Anne Skleder’s request, this project will now include advice on student recruitment—targeted at ways to expand the number of students who express interest and subsequently apply to Alvernia. Only by significantly building demand can we ensure protection from the volatility of the market. Only by building demand will we gain the flexibility to build a stronger entering class that fits best with our mission and aspirations.
Recruitment and retention results are important indicators of institutional quality. They also reflect students’ expectations about—and their satisfaction with—their experience at a school. All but the most prestigious schools rely predominantly on tuition and related revenues to fund their programs and services and to support the salaries of their employees. This is even more the case than usual at Alvernia.
Having sophisticated expertise and best practices to guide our enrollment management efforts is essential. So, too, is the full commitment of all of us to continued success with student retention. In addition, we must continue our entrepreneurial style and approach in Graduate and Continuing Studies. Make no mistake: our extraordinary success with these programs has been essential to Alvernia’s improvement in quality, in financial strength, and in reputation.
Student recruitment and retention will always be a top priority for all of us, but it does not lessen our need to significantly increase financial support by trustees, alums, and friends of the College. Looking ahead, we must strive also to expand financial support for our College. As you will recall, a year ago the administration and board sought (and received) approval for a new fundraising campaign in the local community next year targeted to expansion of our student union, one among many projects requiring extensive funding. Back in February, I discussed with key board and administrative leaders the advantages of an audit of all institutional advancement—including external relations, marketing, and fundraising—to assess and help guide our work. All strongly agreed. Gonser, Gerber, Tinker, Stuhr, a respected national firm experienced with church-related colleges will be on campus early in September and will report their recommendations by mid-semester.
Progress will not occur suddenly. Nor dramatically. It will require sustained commitment from our board, our advancement team, and your president. I pledge my personal commitment to you today. Building stronger connections with potential friends and donors will involve all of us. Fostering a sense of responsibility for one’s alma mater begins during one’s time as a student. The case for stronger support for Alvernia will rest, as it should, on the quality of education and service offered by all here today.
And this reminds us that while a college like ours shares the challenges of any business, our core business is the education of our students.
We have reason for pride in this regard and much to anticipate in the year ahead. For over two years the College has worked on a proposal to the State for our first doctoral degree, one that fits with our Mission and our faculty expertise and that addresses a demonstrated community need. The proposed Ph.D. in Leadership has three tracks: Corporate, Community, and Education. It will prepare graduates to be successful and ethical executives in the for-profit, not-for-profit, and educational arenas. It will also prepare them to produce original research that will shape their fields for the future.
The review team will conduct the site visit on September 28-30, meeting with faculty and administrators to ensure the College is fully prepared to launch this program. I understand that over 25 faculty have contributed to the design of the curriculum and the preparation (and revision) of the document. Special thanks to Joan Lewis and to Darlene Schoenly of the Education Department for taking the lead in writing of the proposal and in organizing the effort.
Summer teams have accelerated work on two other academic initiatives. Dolores Bertoti, Mike Nerino, Charlie Perkins, Chrissy Schaeffer, and graduate student Emily O’Leary participated in the American Association of Colleges and Universities Institute on Student Engagement in Vermont. They will be sharing strategies with colleagues to enhance the student experience inside and outside the classroom. Some are easily implemented improvements. Others will require deliberation during our upcoming planning process, as they involve significant resources and decisions about facility and staffing priorities. A comprehensive approach to student engagement, we should remember, must consider the full range of Alvernia’s students—day and evening, undergraduate and graduate—studying here and at our other locations.
The second team focused on perhaps the most critical question we can ask as a faculty and staff: “How do we know we are making an impact on students?” Michele Burke, Daria LaTorre, April Norris, Neil Penny, and Anne Skleder participated in the AAC&U Assessment Institute. They will form the core of a campus-wide Assessment committee, with the goal being collaborative development of a Comprehensive Assessment Plan.
Every institution must be able to make a compelling case to the students, their parents or family, and the community, and make this case not simply through confident assertions but with compelling evidence. I have learned since my arrival that there is a great deal of data compiled at Alvernia. We know a great deal about our students, their use of services, and their attitudes. And the news is generally good. However, like all colleges and universities, we must understand and demonstrate concretely the results of our students’ learning, both inside and outside the classroom. Middle States challenged us last year and, like all accrediting agencies, now requires such a plan. The public now expects this, and some government representatives are threatening to mandate it. Most important, however, we should expect nothing less from ourselves.
There are, as we know, many other initiatives underway at Alvernia. Let me close by mentioning only a few.
The structures and processes for faculty governance, the nature and role of scholarship, enhancement of first-year and capstone programs are among the academic topics under discussion. I look forward to joining the faculty for conversation at their opening meeting as well as in small group settings.
The Mission and Ministry team, besides its leadership in advancing our Franciscan identity and emphasizing peace and justice issues, also envisions expanded programs and services to strengthen diversity education in partnership with faculty and staff colleagues. With a large population of Latinos and other underrepresented students here in our home city, we must also assume a proactive role in our community. Engaging the complexity of human diversity is an essential part of education in the 21st century. Exploring both shared experiences and important differences is fundamental to an academic community. Our Church, our nation, and our world deserve colleges where respectful and humane discourse is the norm, even—or especially—when our most deeply held values are under discussion.
The role of service at Alvernia and the transformational impact of service learning on our students’ education is likely to be at the center of our vision and priorities for the future. Let me add two personal observations: For me, the surrounding community should be a part of our curriculum; in countless ways it can be a learning laboratory for student (and faculty) education. And from an institutional perspective, carefully chosen, mutually beneficial, community partnerships are potentially an important part of our future.
For the past two years, Alvernia College has been conducting an image and awareness campaign designed to market the Alvernia “brand” through advertisements on television and billboards. Some of you were perhaps a part of those efforts. Throughout June I kidded my predecessor that after daily driving by his billboard, I wondered when vigil lites would be planted in front of him and his friend Tennyson. And I contemplated the poets whom I might quote—Dylan, Joplin, and Springsteen. Now, I am getting my comeuppance, though fortunately Daniel returned to college before my smiling face appeared on Rt. 422 and before he could turn his wit on his poor father.
During the coming year, the branding campaign will be thoroughly evaluated for its effectiveness. Anecdotal comments from the local community have been positive. Our growth as a college is recognized and appreciated. Our growth as a college reflects this appreciation.
But in this regard, as with other progress, we have only just begun. Among the topics for the advancement audit mentioned earlier will be recommendations concerning enhanced emphasis and coordination of institutional marketing efforts. A great opportunity awaits us together—students, faculty, staff and administrators, alums and trustees—to create anew and tell the Alvernia story.
And it is a compelling story: our preparation of our graduates for professional success, for social responsibility and service to others, for engagement in their local and global communities, and for personal lives of deep meaning and value.
I look forward to much good work together with all of you in the months and years ahead.