President Thomas F. Flynn
Good morning. Surrounded by new and familiar colleagues, well fed by our food service team, on a clean and beautiful campus, we launch a new academic year. As usual, we will look back at the past year and forward to the one now begun. Unlike recent addresses in which I reviewed progress over the last several years or the evolution of Alvernia from a small, local undergraduate college to a comprehensive regional university, I will focus today on the current “state” of Alvernia, including our need to respond to and proactively anticipate external trends challenging contemporary private higher education.
During the three months since graduation, I hope all of you have enjoyed time with family and friends and your favorite leisure activities amidst pleasant summer weather that has been a welcome respite from the challenging winter and spring.
Summertime sometimes brings a different pace, as we devote uninterrupted time to new classes or scholarly writing or to plans for improved programs and services for the coming year. Yet for many, such as our Facilities, Enrollment, and Orientation teams and those involved in Summer Camps, summertime rhythms may be different but no less busy than other times of the year.
Whatever your role at the university, I hope, too, that for you as for me, summertime offered time for self-reflection and renewal. Certainly, this annual breakfast and gathering remind me anew of the diverse contributions made by faculty, staff, administrators, alumni, and trustees. As president, let me thank you, individually and collectively, for all you do for our students.
As we anticipate the year ahead, filled with ever-present opportunities and equally inevitable challenges, let us consider how fortunate we are to teach and coach and guide and serve and challenge, and, yes, sometimes prod our students. They enrich our lives and, along with our Franciscan values, help make Alvernia a special place. Some of you may recall the wonderful observation made by our devoted emeritus trustee, Jerry Holleran, as he and I gazed down on the graduating students processing at my first Alvernia commencement in May 2006: “This is why we do what we do.”
While I still teach literature in our Seniors College and make an occasional guest appearance, as I will in Kevin Donnelley’s World War I class this fall, I am years away from being a practicing historian. So summertime vacation offers the opportunity for historical reading and occasionally related travel. 2014 offers anniversary reminders of the Nixon resignation of 1974, the landmark Civil Rights bill of 1964, and the tragic 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I, an event at the middle of the period of American and World history of my personal interest.
This summer, my reading about the 1916 Irish Rising against British rule was enlivened by the opportunity to visit Northern Ireland for the first time as I participated in a small international symposium of university presidents in Belfast and was hosted for a day by last year’s Irish exchange student, Michael Lavery. Let me use this experience as a way of framing this year’s report on the state of our university.
Those of you who got to know Michael Lavery know that he came quickly to love this place and that his Alvernia experience changed his thinking about the purpose of higher education and even his professional goals. Touring Belfast with him and enjoying dinner with his grateful parents was a privilege. He spoke passionately about his warm welcome by university life staff and student leaders; he lauded his teachers.
He was amazed by the personal interest shown him (and even his parents) by administrators; he appreciated the beauty of campus and the many readily available opportunities, such as the travel course to the Dominican Republic. Is this not the kind of life-changing experience we should seek to provide for each of our students? Small wonder, he is now the eager host for our students in Ireland and will help acclimate Niamh Callaghan, this year’s exchange student, when he visits Alvernia this fall. Since he is now 21, I have promised him a beer at Holleran’s Pub at Cedar Hill.
Michael is a student at Queens, a world-class university that hosted my symposium on the civic and democratic purposes of higher education. Belfast and its sister city Londonderry (or Derry as the Irish call it), bear the scars of religious prejudice and economic divisiveness. Yet there are hopeful signs too. Queens is widely praised as an anchor institution of civic engagement for its troubled city. Whether through community partnerships or community-based research, it provides an emerging model of how universities foster personal and social transformation and contribute to the common good, both in their local communities and beyond. Reading is not Belfast, but there are abundant parallels in the ways Alvernia can help transform our own local community.
“Personal and Social Transformation”--the theme of this year’s Mission Day program is part of our vision statement committing us to “Integrated, Community-Based, Inclusive, and Ethical Learning.” Rooted in the Catholic and liberal arts traditions and inspired by Franciscan values and the ideal of “knowledge joined with love,” Alvernia aims to graduate “broadly educated life-long learners, reflective professionals and engaged citizens; and ethical leaders with moral courage. “
Implicit in our vision statement but explicit for the members of the Strategic Planning Council, who in 2006 proposed this vision to shape our strategic plan, was the assumption that personal transformation was a necessary precondition to social transformation and that higher education—especially at a place sponsored by Franciscan Sisters--needed to serve the greater good of society and not just be focused on serving private goals. We put it directly when we challenge our incoming freshmen and graduating students alike to “Do Well and Do Good.”
This values-based commitment to our students and to ourselves is urgently needed today. Think of the external trends swirling around us--including the narrowing of higher education’s purpose to job training and the creation of personal wealth. This is intensified by the failure of most politicians and journalists to value higher education’s far broader responsibility to develop women and men of character, broadly educated citizens who will contribute to their communities and to the common good of society.
Clichés survive because they contain some simple, even if over simplified, truths. Much as we in higher education may hope for a return to easier days, we are now in a “new normal.” We no longer can blame a troubled economy, for we recognize that economic factors have exacerbated but not caused what commentators now characterize as the “Disruption” of Higher Education.
At January’s divisional “town meetings,” we reviewed the challenging realities facing all but the most elite colleges and universities, summarized by the three principles guiding the development of the White House Scorecard: Affordability, Access, and Accountability. We at Alvernia certainly support making college more affordable and more available to students of all backgrounds. This is, after all, at the heart of our mission and strategy. And we are similarly committed to helping ensure the growth and development of our students and to demonstrating the ways that an Alvernia education is valuable. Yet this is all easier said than done!
Even with tuition lower than at many private universities, we cannot expect new student enrollment at Alvernia to increase beyond or even remain at recent levels, even with unacceptably larger financial aid and marketing expenditures. Recruiting freshmen will continue to be more difficult due to the decline in college-age students in the mid-Atlantic region and the heightened competition from far wealthier private schools and state-supported public universities.
First-generation students and others from less privileged backgrounds often need assistance before and during their college years if they are to graduate. Adult students—most of whom are working—understandably seek convenient, rapid paths to degree completion. On-line education, either fully or in hybrid form, is now a given for adults and many younger students, as are accelerated degree programs.
We may deplore the prevailing market message, but we ignore it at our peril: Cheaper, Faster, Better. Students and families seek low-cost options that provide a tangible, rapid return on their investment. Parents and politicians alike are preoccupied with graduation and job placement rates. The result is unprecedented competition for schools like Alvernia.
With this context in mind, let’s turn to the impact of all this on Alvernia’s current enrollment and budget. We will then review some of the highlights of good work undertaken in the last year and our upcoming main goals.
ENROLLMENT AND BUDGET
These past two years have been our most challenging since the economic downtown of 2008. We have faced significant enrollment shortfalls—in new and returning full-time undergraduates and especially in graduate and adult students, though fortunately not all at the same time. In both years, due to proactive planning, targeted cost-saving measures, and new revenue producing programs, we still met our Board-approved financial goals. It was not easy. But together we made this happen.
Armed with this experience, we planned even more conservatively for the current year. Recognizing the challenges facing students and their families, we set the smallest tuition and fees increase in recent memory. Recognizing the increased competition for students, we lowered the new student enrollment goal by about 50 students and allocated additional financial aid.
Last year’s very disappointing retention results were sobering, so we did not budget any improvement. Recognizing we had yet to recover from the downturn in adult enrollments and that promising new initiatives, like the doctorate in physical therapy, would be delayed another year, we set an equally conservative target.
There was no complacency with lowered goals. Far from it. I cannot stress enough how hard good people across the university worked together to strengthen retention and new student enrollment, both undergraduate and graduate.
Even with the very tight budget, most faculty and staff positions were replaced and a few new ones added. There was limited new net revenue, so positions were financed by current and reallocated funding. We were able to cover the full cost of health care premium increases, but deferred any decision on salary increases until this fall.
This approach has paid off. Literally.
I am pleased to announce that, based on the successful results of 2013-2014, all employees will receive in their September 5 paycheck a one-time bonus of $500. And based on enrollment and revenue projections for the current 2014-2015 year, effective October 1, all employees will also receive a 1.5% increase in their base salary.
We are also now able, in this year’s budget, to further invest in our faculty and staff. There will be increased funding for Faculty Excellence Grants and new funds allocated to each administrative division for staff and leadership development and also to support our new General Education program. And with budget funds to supplement the generous gift of our Board Chair, Joanne Judge, and her husband, we will launch a program, already being designed by a faculty team, to support Student Undergraduate Research Fellows or SURFS.
Should we feel good about these results? Yes. Should we feel fully satisfied? Of course, not! Can we feel certain that--in the words of the Great Springsteen—“there are better days ahead?” No way. But do we have some progress to build on, as we look toward a very challenging year in 2015? Absolutely.
Let me give a quick snapshot of our enrollment results that have made this progress possible but that also foreshadow the challenges ahead. We expect next week to welcome 380-85 freshmen and slightly over 100 transfers, just above our budgeted goal of 480. The stronger academic profile of recent years has been maintained, with regular admits bringing a GPA of over 3.3 and an average SAT of about 1,000.
The class of 2018 is more racially diverse, at 27% vs. 22% a year ago, with 29% first-year students being male, and 25% hailing from out-of-state students. While we planned a smaller incoming class of OT majors to offset last fall’s large cohort, only two programs—Healthcare Science and Psychology—attracted an increased number of potential majors, and there was a large decrease in recruited student athletes, traditionally a reliable source of new, high performing freshmen.
Our freshmen discount rate increased almost seven percent, meaning that financial aid costs rose significantly. As a result, even with a tuition increase, overall new student revenue is actually lower this year than a year ago.
If this is true, why is the budget looking better? There are two factors, two happy developments. The School of Graduate and Continuing Studies is running ahead of goal for the first part of the year—in both credits and revenue, in both undergraduate and graduate programs. This is welcome progress indeed.
Most importantly, there is terrific news about retention. As of August 15, we anticipate a 77% freshmen retention rate, compared to 71% a year ago and above our previous high of 75%. Improved retention of students is the best solution to enrollment challenges and a positive measure of educational quality and student satisfaction.
The growth, development, and success of our students are everyone’s business, so let that be our starting point as we celebrate just a few of the many highlights from the past year.
The School of Graduate and Adult Education has become a proactive unit skilled at shaping high-quality productive partnerships. This is a credit to the School’s team led by Daria La Torre; to her fellow academic deans and faculty leaders in key departments; and to effective joint oversight by Shirley Williams and John McCloskey.
Just a few examples: A revised, accelerated one-year MBA is in place. Social work is flourishing at our Philadelphia campus. Non-credit offerings to SFS Intec and Stevens and Lee have been well received. The Penske MBA and Philadelphia Police CJ partnerships are promising signs for future growth. We will be expanding highly customized programs and partnerships, as we explore the concept of a “business solutions center.”
UNDERGRADUATE STUDENT SUCCESS:
As a new collaborative venture of Academic Affairs and University Life, the Educational Planning Center is emerging as a hub for student advising and for a range of learning services and opportunities. Three part-time faculty advising coordinators stepped up to join the EPC staff, providing supplementary advising to at-risk students and those seeking a major. An improved electronic Academic Alert system, coupled with a parallel system covering behavioral/general concerns, is now in place, and the number of students placed on probation last fall dropped. Consultation with math, sciences, and health professions faculty targeting gateway courses has produced improvements in academic support services.
The more integrated general education program approved last spring by the faculty has the potential to improve the essential liberal arts dimension of an Alvernia education. There is still important work ahead to deliver on this promise, but key elements are in place. The program is intended to engage students in developing lives of meaning and purpose. Connecting professional preparation, personal vocation and ethical citizenship, the program will build a scaffold for our students’ life-long learning. A compelling freshman-year set of courses, centered on timeless “Enduring Questions,” complements initial studies in the majors. This year helps prepare students for advanced work in general education that enables them to connect learning across subjects, disciplines, and experiences beyond the campus. The Board of Trustees approved this program in June, with the request that the faculty strengthen the writing-intensive and experiential learning components. Look for materials this fall that provide a fuller explanation of the program.
GLOBAL LEARNING and INCLUSIVE ENGAGEMENT:
Led by Beth Aracena, we are developing a comprehensive approach to global learning. This past year, we formed a partnership with a major study abroad consortium that will provide countless, cost-effective opportunities for our students. We also formed our own consortium, The Alpha Group, with four other regional universities to offer learning opportunities for Chinese and American students in partnership with Chinese institutions. The Alpha Group website, developed by Steve Thomas and Brad Drexler, supports Alpha offices in Chicago, Quingdao, and Beijing.
Our global learning initiative, like our expanding work in interfaith dialogue, is part of an emerging plan highlighting “inclusive engagement.” The Diversity and Cross-Cultural Action Committee, co-chaired by Wanda Copeland and Jay Worrall, has reshaped our current efforts into a Framework for Inclusive Excellence. A first major step was taken last week, with the involvement of 100 students, staff, and faculty in the Anti-Defamation League's "A Campus of Difference" program to promote intercultural awareness.
The diversity of Health, Wellness, and Safety initiatives undertaken by university life staff is impressive. An expanded annual calendar of educational efforts has made Alvernia a leader in alcohol and drug education in partnership with Caron Treatment Centers and the PA Liquor Control Board; in sexual violence prevention, in partnership with Berks Women in Crisis; and in compliance with the federal Clery Act and related regulations. The Emergency Preparedness Committee--a joint venture by University Life, Finance and Administration, Public Safety, and the Reading Police Department--has strengthened our safety training, with Kevin Burns and Kera Wierzbicki as invaluable year-around resources. One safety improvement is that doors on the Reading and Philadelphia campuses and, soon, at the Schuylkill Center can be locked from inside.
There is impressive progress also with the expansion of Residential Theme Communities. From 3 small freshman-only communities in 2012-2013, the program has grown to nearly 30 communities involving all three of our housing areas and 60% of our over 900 resident students.
Green initiatives have expanded in scope and impact too, led by the Holleran Center. Among them is the Bog Turtle Creek Farm at Alvernia’s Sports Park that makes fresh produce available to low-income families. It is managed by students and supported by Alicia Sprow, Leon Neiman and Nora Kahler. And speaking of “Green,” thanks to Doug Smith’s fine work, we now have a 50-year lease to oversee Angelica Park. This is part of the financial and other services we provide as a good citizen to the City, and it enables us to protect and enhance our entryway to main campus.
Alvernia has always emphasized community service but we are now also recognized in the state and region and even nationally for civic engagement. We can take pride in this ever-deepening tradition now rooted in four annual days of service and also involving countless contributions of faculty, staff, alumni, and trustees.
The new Service and Civic Engagement Plan, co-authored by Dave Myers and Jay Worrall, with contributions from many others, demonstrates that Alvernia’s civic engagement is impressive in scope and impact. Just two examples:
• The O’Pake Institute is coordinating efforts with the Reading Housing Authority, Reading Health Clinic, Reading Health System and Saint Joseph’s Medical Center to explore a health clinic for the Oakbrook & Glenside Housing Projects. Besides improving community health care, this clinic would enable our students to gain field experience and provide for the health needs of residents.
• The first cohort of five promising students in the Reading Collegiate Scholars Program (RSCP) is enrolled this fall, having participated in a summer college-preparation and leadership program conducted by the O’Pake Institute. Each scholar is paired with a community mentor, coordinated by Don Schalk, as well their special faculty mentor, Adam Heinze, and peer mentors like Julianne Kuzna and Jen Toledo.
Over $550,000 has already been raised to support this ambitious initiative. The timing could not be better as this effort builds on the Holleran Center’s successful efforts with early childhood and middle-school students through Alvernia READS and the South Reading Youth Initiative.
CAMPAIGN SUCCESS and IMPROVED VISIBILITY
Last October’s celebrations of our Values & Vision Campaign seem like a distant memory, but it is only fitting today that we take note of the exceptional success of Alvernia’s first comprehensive fundraising effort. During the worst economic conditions since the Great Depression, we substantially exceeded our goal. The results are easy to take for granted: from Faculty Excellence programs to student scholarships, from Bernardine and Upland classroom upgrades to the Francis Hall renovations, from the Holleran Center to the O’Pake Institute, from the Campus Commons to the Campus Quad. These improvements, captured so elegantly by our impressive magazine and other marketing materials, have helped transform the image and reputation of Alvernia.
THE YEAR AHEAD
We are poised to build on last year’s progress in the year ahead, even as we move aggressively to address our enrollment challenges and make the case for the value-added quality of the Alvernia experience. Here are our major goals:
1. Secure Middle States Reaccreditation of the University
2. Strengthen Undergraduate & Graduate Enrollment
3. Launch an Online Education Plan
4. Improve Student Success and Retention
5. Advance Teaching and Learning Priorities
6. Advance Global Learning & Inclusive Engagement
7. Advance Faculty Excellence & Staff Development
8. Implement Year One of IT Plan
9. Strengthen Philanthropic Culture of Support
10. Implement Faculty & Staff Mission Education Program
A revised draft of our self-study will soon be available to the campus community for review, before being submitted to the chair of our visiting team, Sr. Margaret Mary Fitzpatrick, president of St. Thomas Aquinas College, two weeks prior to her visit in early November. Formal board approval of our final report is required in December before its submission to the Middle States Commission.
Reaccreditation is an important process: it is a precondition for student financial aid among other purposes. And it is a time to examine goals and programs, review progress and unfinished business, and receive validation and constructive criticism from peers.
Like the planning process used to develop our strategic plan back in 2006-2007, campus-wide involvement has been essential. Thanks to contributions from the over 150 members of the research and focus groups and the Steering Committee, and the leadership of our indefatigable accreditation czarinas Shirley Williams and Evelina Panayotova, we are well positioned for a successful visit on February 8-11.
Unlike Middle States, our enrollment goal is likely to reappear annually. We must continue to invest additional funds in recruiting and marketing strategies—especially electronic resources. Those of you with high school age children know that they are searching online not huddled around brochures as they pursue their preferred college. And adult education is even more skewed to online resources. As reported in my summer newsletter, our Board of Trustees has established an ad-hoc committee to help identify necessary strategies; APAC and the Faculty Officers will also be involved in these deliberations.
We hope to finalize soon a major joint venture with Learning House, a national firm that works with universities of our size to develop and deliver competitive online programs. Many faculty and administrators had the opportunity to meet with Learning House representatives in June, with very favorable reactions. This agreement would enable us to launch five online degree programs in Fall 2015, with others to follow by January of 2016. Alvernia will also provide significant funding to faculty to support course development as well as enhancing technology, enrollment, and marketing resources.
STUDENT SUCCESS and RETENTION:
Several new initiatives are ready for prime time. We are increasing communication, especially with the families of first-generation students. Services will be expanded for adult students, including those at the Philadelphia and Schuylkill campuses, and for those needing ADA accommodations. Other improved services will target groups such as transfer or undeclared students, who will benefit from special mentoring not only by staff but by upperclassmen peers and alumni and community volunteers.
The most important and urgent undertaking is development this fall of a comprehensive, sequential career development program, incorporating the departmental Major Maps, created by faculty, and a range of co- and extracurricular opportunities to engage students in experiential learning. Alumni are potentially an invaluable resource.
Even as we rejoice in improved retention, there is additional good news in the highly favorable results of a large recent student satisfaction survey.
Satisfied or very satisfied
• Sense of community 86%
• Support for social success 87%
• Support for academic success 89%
• Relationships with staff 90%
• Relationships with faculty 93%
• Relationships with peers 95%
Overall Alvernia experience 92%
• Seniors 90%
• Freshmen 98%
With this in mind, let me re-emphasize a simple imperative that must become a preoccupation for all of us: we must increase dramatically the number of students who graduate and do so in four years. Our current levels are well below those of our peers. We must do better by our students. I have asked the Provost to lead this initiative.
ADVANCE TEACHING AND LEARNING PRIORITIES
Implementation of the new general education program is a top priority, with good initial steps taken in May through a range of faculty workshops. The new Leadership Studies Department also has great promise, especially in coordination with the O’Pake Institute.
While there were no large-scale construction projects this summer, classroom improvement projects were completed in Francis Hall and the Nursing Resource Center, both to support current programs and make possible opportunities such as a Doctor of Nurse Practitioner program. Phase II of the Teaching and Learning Plan needs to be finalized this fall to guide work for the next four years. $2 million has already been designated from the capital budget to fund improvements.
ADVANCE GLOBAL LEARNING & INCLUSIVE ENGAGEMENT INITIATIVES
Beyond the promising initiatives underway, we need to ensure that our curriculum—especially in key fields—reflects new global realities. And we need to do far better in recruiting a more diverse faculty and staff. This is especially urgent as we recognize that over 25% of our freshmen are students of color. I intend to work directly with the cabinet team and our Advocates for Inclusive Engagement on this topic.
ADVANCE FACULTY EXCELLENCE & STAFF DEVELOPMENT PRIORITIES
Increased funding will enable the expansion of faculty excellence and staff development opportunities, including leadership training for staff with supervisory responsibilities.
It is only two years since we finished implementation of targeted salary increases resulting from the faculty and staff compensation studies. We know our benefits have improved relative to peers since that time, since Alvernia has maintained an unusually generous retirement contribution and managed to cover the cost of health care premium increases. Over the next two years we will revisit the Compensation Philosophy approved several years ago by the faculty, administration, and Board and then conduct new salary and benefit studies using peer and other external data.
With short- and long-term plans in place, the new campus-wide steering committee will advise Robin Allen and her IT team on implementation. New technology will continue to be an important part of the Teaching and Learning Plan, and we will continue to make improvements in technology support at the Philadelphia campus. I am pleased to announce that $250,000 in additional funds will be allocated to IT during the current year.
Studies tell us that engaged alumni are more likely to be giving alumni. Under the leadership of Laramie Jung and Julie Nolan, we will be enhancing alumni involvement, especially in admissions and career services, and also engaging faculty and staff in this effort as they often have excellent contact with our alumni.
Using the Values & Visions Campaign as our springboard, we will focus on two short-term priorities, captured by the phrase “Access and Excellence”: the Reading Collegiate Scholarship Program and the Faculty Excellence Program, even as we lay the foundation for our next two large capital endeavors established by the Board of Trustees – the Recreation Center/Fieldhouse and the Library/Classroom Expansion. This approach will provide “breathing space” between larger campaign efforts to help avoid donor fatigue. It is also an opportunity to expand future fundraising by attracting new major gift donors.
As many of you heard Friday, a full slate of faculty and staff programs are planned to foster a deeper understanding of the Franciscan intellectual tradition. Some will be offered on an open-enrollment basis; some offered to individual departments or divisions. And as mentioned earlier, there is superb work underway by the NETVUE Faculty.” To guide all this essential work, I will work with Sr. Roberta to reconvene a successor group to the invaluable Franciscan Learning Community.
In conclusion, let me suggest a few themes as we begin a new academic year:
• CANDOR & CONFIDENCE: We must be realistic about the challenges confronting most of private higher education as well as those particular to Alvernia. Things will not get easier. Quite the contrary. But we have weathered tough times well. And we have reason to be confident in our continued ability to accomplish together good work in challenging times.
• PROACTIVE PROGRESS: We cannot simply react to our challenges; rather we must anticipate them and move decisively to make necessary changes and improvements. At a time when the competitive landscape is moving at warp speed, we must adopt a parallel pace of urgency.
• MIDDLE STATES MEMORIES: Yes, it is an enormous amount of work. We are eager to be finished. The demands of accreditors and the government are excessive. Yet we must comply. And besides, the inclusive process designed by the Steering Committee models the self-reflection, data-driven analysis and assessment, and collaboration essential for a culture of excellence. It is also an opportunity to appreciate the transformational progress of the last 10 years.
• “ALVERNIA ADVANTAGE”: We are fortunate to offer students both a great small-college experience and many of the opportunities of larger universities. We are near a city and a major metro area, but yet boast a beautiful main campus. Our students have the opportunity to pursue their passion by combining specialized professional preparation with a liberal arts education, complemented by countless opportunities for experiential “real world learning.” Yet our most distinct “advantage” is that we seek to educate the whole person, to educate women and men of character as well as competence, committed citizens of a free democracy, shaped by the core values of our Sponsors, the Bernadine Franciscan Sisters and the Franciscan educational ideal of “knowledge joined with love.” We are a university community committed to “personal and social transformation.”
• “TIMES OF TRANSFORMATION”: Each year, as we did today, we celebrate students who model the “personal transformation” at the heart of a Franciscan, Catholic education. Many already have begun the work of social transformation during their time here. We know our alumni continue this. Alvernia has itself been on an inspiring journey of transformation, both as a university community and as a valued resource for our local community and the wider society. This exciting journey continues. As it should. As it must.
Our journey is, in part, our contemporary response to St. Francis. Let us always, always, remember why we do what we do! Here’s to a great year.