Major Addresses

Alvernia University
STATE OF THE UNIVERSITY 2016
August 16, 2016

Remarks from 
President Thomas F. Flynn

Good morning. It was enjoyable to see so many of you at our breakfast this morning. Our Aladdin colleagues help make this annual gathering an opportunity to thank staff and faculty, representing all the roles essential to a comprehensive university, for your commitment to educate and serve students of diverse backgrounds and ages. As always, we are ready with customary Franciscan hospitality to welcome new and returning students.

The events of this week also signal the end of summer. For some, such as our Facilities staff and those involved in our Connection Days, summer is at times even busier than parts of the traditional academic year. But for most of us, the pace slows a bit, meetings are far less frequent, evening events rare, and the daily schedule is less pressured. There is time to review progress and plan improvements. Faculty can give uninterrupted attention to scholarship. And we have time for personal and professional reflection and relaxation with family and friends.

Spending the summer almost entirely in Reading made me follow closely developments in our city, many quite positive. Our O’Pake Institute is a much respected contributor to recent progress. And there are other special Alvernia connections. I hosted lunch for our new mayor and a few long-retired Sisters and enjoyed their reminiscing about his happy memories of living in our St. Francis Hall orphanage. Next week, I will welcome to campus Reading’s new police chief, a proud alumnus and another one of those famous “Pacelli’s Boys,” who owe much of their success in law enforcement and related fields to our criminal justice program.

Like all of you, this summer I also observed the traumatic loss of lives--black and blue and otherwise—and was once again aware that such tragedies no longer shock us but seem to be a disturbingly routine part of our national life. It is stunning to observe the prevalence of divisive, sometimes hateful, public rhetoric about migrants, Muslims, Mexicans or others viewed as threats to a so-called American way of life.

The old Simon and Garfunkel song is sentimental, but its concept seems applicable. Our country is indeed “troubled.” As several have observed, Americans need “bridges” that connect, unify and lead us forward not walls that divide and hold us back as a nation. Higher education, public and private, continues also to navigate “troubled waters.” We have on past occasions discussed many of the unfavorable external trends, competitive challenges, and negative public perceptions.

It is sobering, especially for those of us who entered this noble profession in better times, to see higher education reduced to a commodity, with price and convenience seemingly more important than value-added quality. Yes, a college degree is a proven and invaluable economic investment, with a significant, direct financial return. The unemployment rate for college graduates is a fraction of the jobless rate of high school graduates (7.4%)--at just over 2%. Yet much of the public and media ignore the facts and believe differently. Many are unwilling or feel unable to afford the cost of a private higher education without a significant discount in the price.

Many here today became educators or choose to work at a place like Alvernia because we believe passionately that a values-based education transforms us--intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. We celebrate countless, uplifting examples of this at each graduation. So we must make the case that an Alvernia education is both a wise financial investment and one that enriches graduates’ personal lives. As one presidential colleague has wittily observed, “you want the inside of your head to be an interesting place to live.”

Alvernia is among the rare institutions with little wealth that has, rather remarkably, steered a successful path during the years since the 2008 recession. With exceptional effort, and limited additional resources, we have improved the quality of the student experience, while keeping our tuition costs modest for a private school. And we have proof of our success in our improved retention, high rates of student satisfaction, and an impressive 97% of 2015 seniors employed or in graduate school within six months of graduation.

But we certainly know the waters around us are mightily “troubled.” And none of us are foolish enough to expect them to calm. We need strong bridges of several kinds to our future. And we must choose carefully. More on this later in my talk.

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Once again today, let me look forward rather than backward. Instead of reviewing last year in detail, let me rely on my recent newsletter and the highlights from my remarks earlier this morning. We will review our enrollment and budget and cover major goals for the coming year. I will also ask you to join me in considering some of the bridges we need to build in turbulent times to shape a vital future.

ENROLLMENT: Student enrollment is our lifeblood, as it is for all but the wealthiest institutions. So let us begin with a review of fall enrollment and its impact on the year ahead.

As mentioned in my mid-summer newsletter, enrollment in the School of Graduate and Adult Education (SGAE) continues to be lower than needed. Put simply, we have more students graduating than entering our programs. One exception is the very good progress with online enrollment, with over 125 students now enrolled in fully online graduate and adult degree programs and promising indications of further growth. There is also high demand for our Physical Therapy and Occupational Therapy programs, though accreditors unfortunately impose strict mandates, including limits on enrollment.

Overall, the School finished last year well behind its enrollment and budget goals. Fall 2016 projections are not favorable. We continue to struggle, for example, to fill the inaugural cohort for the Doctor of Nursing Practitioner program.

The trends in graduate and adult enrollment are not new, but there are surprising results with full-time undergraduate enrollment. This fall we will open well behind our goals for overall enrollment and especially for new students. The decline in new transfer students continues. The freshmen class is the smallest since 2009 and substantially lower than planned. This is frustrating and unexpected. Until early May, quite the opposite result was anticipated as inquiries, applications, and acceptances were at record levels.

What are the reasons for these results? In-depth research being completed in the next two weeks will surface firmer conclusions. But our enrollment team knew that far fewer OT students could be admitted than last year, thereby preventing us from capitalizing on the high demand for that major. Despite good efforts, there are not enough freshmen in other fields to offset this gap.

Not anticipated, however, was a decline in yield especially of approximately 35 students in our bottom quality quartile. These are students who barely meet our minimum admission standards and so receive no academic scholarship funding. Preliminary analysis indicates that competitor schools are providing significant academic awards to these students.

The Enrollment and Marketing teams have already taken steps to improve next year’s results. For adult and graduate students, new web-based and digital marketing initiatives are expanding “leads” for prospective students in nursing, business, and other programs and ensuring more rapid response to requests for information. To capitalize on the need by local organizations for professional development and non-credit certificates, our team already has 20 such programs in operation with diverse organizations.

Multiple research studies will provide insight into the reasons why high school seniors chose other schools. The annual econometric analysis will test options for financial aid policies for next fall’s entering class. And we will adjust messaging to recognize the different factors that attract top applicants and those with more modest academic records.

Amidst these disappointing results, there is some very good, even exceptional, news. The decline in the number of our weakest freshmen strengthens the entering academic profile. And our team was successful in lowering the freshman discount rate, though that effort may well explain the smaller-than-projected first-year class.

Most important, there is best-ever news about retention. As of Friday, first-year retention is at an all-time high of 82%, up from 76% last year and from 69% as recently as 2007. Such dramatic improvement is rare and impressive. The stronger academic profile of last year’s entering class, especially the larger-than-usual number of OT students, helps explain this high level. But our overall progress reflects the expansion of residential facilities and the improvements in the quality of academic and campus life. Leadership in enrollment, academic affairs, and university life has been essential. Faculty and staff across campus have made a superb, concerted effort and should be proud.

BUDGET: Monitoring of enrollment trends enabled some proactive measures to address the budget impact of lower enrollment. But there is less flexibility than desirable since the enrollment shortfall become clear only in May and over the summer. Therefore, we must identify additional cost reductions this month prior to recommending a final budget for the Board’s approval in late September.

The cost reductions will strain some already tight budgets. Most areas control spending very effectively, but we will need budget discipline across the entire campus. A partial hiring freeze will require review of all positions, with decisions made to fill, eliminate, or reallocate the position. The vice presidents have agreed to limit travel, professional development, and other discretionary funds and target the most essential activities.

Supportive advice over the summer from faculty leaders, key administrators, and trustee officers has reaffirmed the priority of support for students’ learning and personal growth and for employee compensation, especially funding of highly competitive retirement and health benefits programs. A final decision on any salary increase will be deferred until October 1 and depends on our collective work, faculty leaders and administrators alike, to reduce significant costs. But additional funds have been definitely allocated so the university can continue to provide employees the 10% retirement contribution and to cover most of the cost increase of health benefits.

THE YEAR AHEAD:

Before we turn to our goals for the coming year, it is important we recall our familiar framework--the university strategic plan.

Guided by the Vision Statement and our four privileged forms of learning, we are well into the second phase of this plan, updated a few years ago, with good results on the goals chosen by the 2007 planning council to bring to life our five strategic priorities. We have accomplished much. Among our greatest successes have been the achievement of university status and the glowing, unqualified reaccreditation evaluation by Middle States.

Several overarching goals for the coming year are familiar; some are ongoing efforts, some challenge us to implement the results of effective planning. Most are too complex to explain briefly, so let me offer only a few comments.


ENHANCED MISSION EDUCATION AND ASSESSMENT

It begins here, does it not? Why we do what we do. How we do it. And how well we do it. Mission is also, for many of us, why we came and why we remain committed to Alvernia. It inspires us to do our best by our students.

Our first formal mission assessment drew a large and positive faculty and staff response. Expect follow-up on the results this fall from Sr. Roberta and the Mission Team. Recall that the Middle States Team noted they had never seen a campus so focused on mission--from students to faculty and staff to trustees.

ENROLLMENT GROWTH (Undergrad and Grad): New & Continuing Students

I still frequently have friends of the university applaud our enrollment growth as evidence of our momentum and improved academic reputation. It is good to hear, but it is old news.

Overall enrollment is unchanged between 2005 and 2016 and actually lower than four years ago. Current undergraduate enrollment, after growth between 2005 and 2010 is essentially unchanged during the last five years.

Put simply, despite the declining number of high school graduates and heightened competition for students of all ages, we must attract more students. A simple economic lesson is helpful: unless we charge a far higher tuition--an unfair and foolhardy option--increased budget resources depend on increased enrollment.
We have expanded investments in recruitment and marketing. Yet the best way to grow enrollment is to have larger numbers of students return for sophomore and junior year and successfully graduate. Success with retention and graduation rates also reflects improvements in the quality of our students’ education and experience. Each of us has a role in challenging, caring for, and connecting with students, in and beyond the classroom, and helping them learn and grow into proud graduates.

PROGRAM EXPANSION: Academic, Athletic, Corporate/Community
ACADEMIC PROGRAM RENEWAL and REBRANDING

The next two combined goals expand opportunities for students while helping attract additional students. The faculty has done fine work already. New programs are in place or under consideration in our three colleges and schools. Key existing majors will benefit from curriculum renewal, potential redesign, improved facilities and marketing. Communications, Criminal Justice, and Business are three examples.

Looking ahead, emphasis on informatics and technology is now required not optional in many fields. Traditional liberal arts majors will not buck market trends and draw heightened student interest without greater emphasis on potential complementary minors and on experiential learning--whether in research, internships, global study, or service learning. Many working adults are seeking certifications rather than degrees. And we must market programs in language directed not to ourselves but to today’s students.

Alvernia Athletics has a long-standing tradition and an excellent reputation. Our athletes, male as well as female, outperform non-athletes in the classroom. Carefully studying potential new sports--whether men’s volleyball, women’s ice hockey, wrestling, equestrian, or football--is essential.

One of three Board of Trustee Ad-Hoc committees, involving key faculty and staff, devoted last year to exploring academic and athletic options to grow enrollment and support student success. With athletic options, they consulted widely and drew on extensive research and experience from conference schools and nationally, especially in revisiting the feasibility and advisability of football. This work is being finalized and will be brought to the Board this fall for action.

COMPREHENSIVE STUDENT SUCCESS PLAN: Undergrad & Adult/Grad

We now have a plan in place to address full-time undergraduate students, and we have momentum on retention although our graduation rate is still far below that of our peers and the national average. Similar work is underway for graduate and adult students whose needs are different but no less critical for faculty and staff attention.

Invaluable though our expanded Learning Center, multilingual, and disability support services are, we must think more broadly about student success. Student engagement-- with key faculty, staff, and coaches--must be the focus. Dozens of faculty and staff participated in listening sessions to reinvigorate the Freshman Year Experience, which now centers on Orientation and Connection Days and the First Year Seminar. This essential work must now extend into second semester and incorporate our promising philosophy, theology, and composition “core curriculum” and coordinated co-curricular experiences.

University-wide emphasis on “Real World (or Experiential) Learning” is essential. Besides student-faculty research, service learning, internships, and cultural immersion trips, an emerging undergraduate leadership program, led by the O’Pake Institute, is linking current efforts and holds great promise. So, too, does our expanding work on Inclusive Excellence.

INCLUSIVE EXCELLENCE PLAN

There is much to be proud of here, but much action needed to implement the wide-ranging planning, led by Beth Roth, involving two dozen faculty and staff, most notably Wanda Copeland and Melissa Manny, directors of Multicultural and Global Engagement.

The team has identified five main goals for implementation in Year 1, including expanded recruitment of multicultural and international students; guidelines and goals for diversity hiring; implementation of a Multilingual Program; internationalization of our website, including Spanish language features; and targeted global study opportunities. This year we have major initiatives in 4 countries and initial steps in 2 others.

Our Justice Everywhere program will expand, building on last year’s activities that involved more than 500 Alvernians. Included is a fall lecture by Ferguson, Missouri’s Michael Brown Sr., father of the deceased Michael Brown, Jr., in partnership with the Criminal Justice and Humanities faculty.

MIDDLE STATES ACTION PLAN (Year 2)

We have addressed through interconnected goals all areas to be included in our October Progress Report. The Academic Assessment Team and administrators on Extended Cabinet provided leadership on student learning and institutional assessment, as reflected in our required Annual Assessment Report. Building on this work, three goals are the focus for 2016-2017.

REVISED LONG-TERM FINANCIAL MODEL & BUDGET ASSUMPTIONS
ENHANCED PHILANTHOPY (Short-and Long-Term)

Local business leaders and our state education association praise Alvernia’s fiscal management over the last decade. It is why the major banks compete to finance campus facilities upgrades. Yet we are a young school, with few wealthy alumni and without a fundraising tradition. We have minimal endowment to support financial aid for deserving students, many of them from low-income families. So we must budget carefully, protect funds for one-time capital projects, and target resources that maximize benefits for our students, current and potential. Larry Shaub’s professionalization of our finance area is facilitating effective budget stewardship and management through timely reports and spending controls.

As I know from two national task forces, we are among the many schools that have begun to rethink our business model. The current budget brings a sense of urgency to this effort, though it is important to distinguish between immediate and multi-year actions.

Additional new resources will not magically appear, especially with fewer students. So choices must be made and efficiencies identified. The Board’s two Ad-Hoc Committees on Institutional and Academic Finances have provided excellent guidance. Financial scenario planning will be an important step this coming year.

Our first-ever comprehensive fundraising campaign, Values and Vision, seems a distant memory. The PLEX and the Reading Collegiate Scholars Program are our two largest current initiatives. But since the close of the campaign we have also raised considerable funds for student and faculty programs and secured external grants and deferred pledges of future gifts.


ENHANCED BOT ENGAGEMENT

And finally, under the leadership of our new board chair, Kevin St. Cyr, trustees have adopted an ambitious renewal program. It includes deepened board learning about our Franciscan mission and educational program, a streamlining of standing committees and the use of ad-hoc groups for greater efficiency, increased emphasis on monitoring our many compliance requirements, supporting and evaluating academic quality and campus life, and enhanced focus on philanthropy and advocacy.

Our board is recognized nationally by the trustee professional association as a leader among its peers. As I have said on other occasions, trustees are the unsung heroes of Alvernia’s progress.


BRIDGES TO THE FUTURE

My comments on our Board provide a transition to the last portion of this morning’s talk.

Recognizing the dramatic challenges facing higher education, especially schools like Alvernia, our Board established three future-oriented ad-hoc committees this past year, each joined by faculty representatives. I referenced earlier the groups on Enrollment and Academic Finances.

The third group analyzed extensive research and the impact of major trends and explored potential scenarios for Alvernia’s future. They sponsored two workshops involving mixed teams of trustees and faculty who critiqued the scenarios as a way to develop promising pathways to the future.

The three long-term strategic directions emerging from the trustee-faculty discussions and approved by the Board in June are intended to shape ongoing thinking as well as specific initiatives.

Alvernia will increase undergraduate and graduate enrollment by becoming a recognized leader in teaching and learning related to the healthcare sciences. We will achieve this by adding new programs in the healthcare sciences, expanding strategic partnerships and developing niches in complementary liberal arts and professional fields.

Note that this first strategy assumes Alvernia will BOTH capitalize on the high demand for and the high quality of its health science programs AND emphasize complementary strengths in liberal arts and professional fields. It assumes no school like Alvernia can do it all or do it alone.

Alvernia will become a preferred provider of targeted, customized workforce development programs for employers in eastern Pennsylvania. We will leverage our core competency in leadership development and emerging strength in business and organizational solutions through degree and non-degree programs drawing on the expertise of the university’s colleges, schools and centers.

This second strategy assumes that Alvernia will become a major educational resource for businesses and other organizations, emphasizing our degree programs but also a range of certificates and non-degree offerings. It assumes we will draw on both the expertise of selected full-time faculty and professional experts in the field.

Alvernia will improve economies of scale and grow revenue. We will establish strategic relationships with one or more institutions to reduce infrastructure costs, develop new markets, and acquire new programmatic expertise not currently available.

This third direction recognizes it is unrealistic to think smaller institutions can thrive without cooperative relationships. Building on our tradition of community partnerships, Alvernia will explore ways to share complementary expertise and services with selected partners. Shared initiatives or joint offerings with organizations, such as other Franciscan universities, could expand opportunities for students in a cost effective manner.

Recognizing that such thinking needs ongoing attention, the Board has established a subcommittee on long-term strategy that will oversee this work and review and refine these directions annually. The Board and I plan for a three-way partnership in this work involving trustee, faculty, and administrative leaders.

These three broad directions, when paired with our Strategic Plan and annual goals, already identify some of the key “bridges” needed to cross “troubled water” to our future. Two are familiar, are they not?

Enhanced Academic Quality in programs, curriculum, facilities, and especially in excellent faculty teaching and successful demonstrated student learning.
Enhanced Student Experience in residential life, campus and community activities; opportunities for leadership, service, and spiritual development; for participation in the arts, athletics, and recreation; and perhaps, most importantly, the immediate and long-term benefits of mentoring by staff, coaches, and especially by faculty members.

Together, these are and must be at the heart of a higher education for undergraduate and graduate students, whether recent high school graduates or skilled working professionals. Their common link is a focus on student engagement—both our students’ engagement in their own learning and personal growth and the commitment of faculty and staff to have caring, challenging relationships with as many students as possible.

Certainly a third bridge to our future is Sustained Fiscal Strength or, in Mike Fromm’s words, not “getting well” but “staying well.” We must consistently pursue three approaches simultaneously. We must reduce costs. We must increase revenue and available resources. And we must make Targeted Strategic Investments.

The first two approaches are obvious, though not easy. The third is perhaps most important because it assumes that at a small university educating students of modest means, there will never be enough money. So we must choose carefully, managing the many risks and recognizing that we cannot pursue even all the good ideas.

Strategic investments are made in people, programs, and facilities. Think of the expanded funding for faculty development during the last decade. Or the establishment of the Holleran Center. Or the renovation of Bernadine Hall and creation of our campus quad.

Two other quite different, very successful, examples may be helpful. Had we not invested in the 4 residences comprising Founder’s Village, we would have far lower enrollment today, few out-of-state students, and a residential experience for primarily first- and second-year students. That investment increased our undergraduate enrollment, thereby improving campus life and providing resources to invest in academic and student life priorities.

The doctorate in physical therapy is expensive, requiring large up-front costs and significant additional costs as we seek to double its size. But its immediate success has raised Alvernia’s academic reputation and produced resources to help fund other programs far less in demand.

On Thursday, joined by the Class of 2020, we will announce a transformational investment--THE PLEX--that will enhance the Alvernia experience for current and potential students alike. The PLEX addresses major academic and recreational needs of all students identified in our strategic plan and targets support for athletes and those in the health sciences. Planning by trustees, administrators, and faculty has ensured financial efficiency, environmental stewardship, and community integration.

Let me conclude by emphasizing a few other critical bridges, paired with some exciting news. Earlier this morning, in celebrating the expansion of student and faculty research, I cited “Real World Learning,” as one of the concepts defining the “Alvernia Advantage.”

Today, I am pleased to announce an exciting new opportunity for students who wish to enhance their Alvernia education. The university will make competitive Real World Experience Awards of up to $2,000 to support honorees’ participation in one of the following enrichment experiences.
• Study Away Experiences (global or domestic--such as the Washington Center)
• International Service Learning or Alternative Breaks (first-time participants)
• Credit-bearing Internships (away from Berks County or from student’s home)
• Undergraduate research (for non-SURF participants)

A pilot program launched just last month already attracted 20 applications. Initial awards will be announced by September 1, with additional awards made later this year. We will seek generous donor support for this initiative as we have done successfully for other special programs.

Speaking of Philanthropy, a critical “bridge to our future,” I am pleased to make three announcements reflecting the progress cited earlier.

Alvernia is one of only three institutions in the state to receive a 2016 grant from the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration. The $550,000 grant is renewable for four years and would potentially provide $2.2 million during the life of the award, allowing the university to offer more than 30 new nursing scholarships to underrepresented students. Congratulations to Karen Thacker, Mary Rizzo, and the entire grant team.

The timing of this award could not be better: this November, our nursing faculty, students, and alumni will be celebrating the 40th anniversary of the program’s founding by the legendary Sr. Mary Stella.

The O’Pake Institute and the Holleran Center are prime examples of the impact of deferred gifts, with Mike O’Pake and Carolyn and Jerry Holleran making a major impact on Alvernia, now and in the future.

We have two new examples of how members of the Alvernia family have established a generous legacy. Faculty already know that Elaine Schalck, a beloved faculty member and alumna, made an estate commitment to create an endowment of $275,000 for science scholarships. Her generous spirit lives on in a way that honors her love of students.

Over the summer, another member of our campus community, who prefers anonymity, made an extraordinary bequest and life insurance commitment of over $1 million. This gift, when funded, is designated as an endowment to support faculty excellence. I hope you, like me, are awed and inspired by the generosity and vision of these two individuals.

No look toward our future is complete without three final core elements. Fostering an Inclusive Community on campus and locally builds on the strong civic commitment pioneered a century ago by the early Bernardine Franciscan settlers. Our Reading Collegiate Scholars Program reflects this dual commitment to the kind of community we seek on and beyond the campus. And there is exceptional related news.

In the first full year, Holleran Center students and staff served over 300 students at Reading High. The program has already attracted outstanding support from individuals and businesses, totaling $1.2 million. All 10 of the incoming scholars for 2016-2017 are already fully funded. 14 of the 15 original scholars are still enrolled at Alvernia with a B+ average. That’s a pretty impressive track record.

As I reflected during the summer about the toxic rhetoric of exclusion and prejudice all too prevalent today, I was reminded that Alvernia is recognized locally and nationally as a model of inclusive Civic Engagement. We aspire to Franciscan ideals, recognizing with humility that we are imperfect and can always do much better. As we partner with Reading’s new police chief and other community leaders, as we expand our Justice Everywhere programming, and as we honor three interfaith leaders with our highest honor, let us hold our students and ourselves to highest standards of charity, compassion, and collegiality. And let us, individually and collectively, model the civil discourse and respectful dialogue essential for a great university and for a democratic society.

So our last and most important bridge is, as always, our Franciscan Mission, our shared core values, and the Franciscan educational ideal of “knowledge joined with love.” Long-time faculty and staff like those we celebrated earlier this morning, but it inspires those of us far newer to Alvernia and, hopefully, will be a source of guidance and challenge for the new faculty and staff joining us this year.

At its best, our mission shapes the diverse ways our students leave us prepared “to do well and to do good.” As president, let me thank you, individually and collectively, for all you do for our students and the spirit with which you do it.

As we have noted before on this occasion, we are called, each in our own way, to respond to the call of St. Francis: “What Is Ours To Do?” And we do so, mindful of why we do what we do—it is, after all, all about our students! Thank you.




major addresses

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