Major Addresses

Alvernia University
STATE OF THE UNIVERSITY 2017
August 22, 2017

Remarks from 
President Thomas F. Flynn

Good morning. As always, I enjoyed the opportunity to see many of you at our annual breakfast. The gracious hospitality of the Aladdin staff is a timely reminder that those who work for the businesses that provide our food service, public safety, book store, and human resources are valuable members of our community.

This annual gathering is also a reminder to me, and I hope to all of you, about how much we depend on one another to make Alvernia a place of opportunity and potential achievement for our students. The demands on us are more complex than a generation ago. None of us, and no single group of us, be it a department’s faculty or an administrative unit, can ultimately go it alone. Nor can we be excellent if we try to.

A culture of excellence and our personal success starts with high expectations of ourselves but depends also on the contributions of others, often unknown to us. So perhaps this morning, look around the room, while of course listening carefully to the president’s every word, and be conscious about how well we are served by those around us and how we benefit from the work of a departmental secretary or a dean, a skilled maintenance staff member or a department head, a peer colleague or someone who has made a difference for a student special to us.

If it sounds like I am urging a spirit of profound gratitude, I am. Whatever our human imperfections and weaknesses, those who work at Alvernia are a wonderful group of people. We are fortunate indeed to be employed at a place where the Franciscan heritage is vibrant--inspired by Sisters like the ones with us today--but also embodied by long-time staff and faculty like those honored last spring as well as by new members who embrace the characteristics and attitudes that we embody when we are at our best.  

The longer I have been a president, and the older I have become, the more gratitude has pushed into the center of my mind, my heart, and my soul. Even, and perhaps most, when times are toughest, personally or professionally. Gratitude is multi-faceted, rooted for some in deep religious beliefs and for others in secular humanist perspectives, so I leave to each of us to reflect on how it applies individually.

But beyond its positive impact on us, profound gratitude brings with it the gift of generosity of spirit. And never has our country or our world been in greater need of this kind of generosity--hope-filled broadmindedness, belief in human potential and possibility, openness to the talents and insights of others. Whatever our political views, we can agree that the national debates over education, healthcare, urban and other issues, all too rarely reflect this. For Franciscans, lay as well as religious, generosity of spirit is rooted in a special concern for those on the margins in special need of compassion and also in relationships characterized by charity, empathy, and respect for human dignity.  Think of that wonderful Franciscan phrase in our mission statement: “knowledge joined with love.” 

The events of this week point us forward to a promising new year, but they also regrettably signal the end of summer. For the many involved in Connections Days, facilities upgrades, scholarly research, and other summer projects, summer is at times as busy as the regular academic year. But I do hope all of us have found time for personal and professional reflection and relaxation with family and friends.

Last year, I reflected with you on the disturbing loss of lives in our cities and on the divisive, hate-filled, rhetoric directed toward Muslims, Mexicans, refugees, and others seen as threats to a so-called American way of life. Echoing the old song, I said we needed “bridges over troubled waters.” We still do.

Indeed, we may disagree strongly about politics and regret nasty, divisive partisan rhetoric, but we must unequivocally condemn racism and bigotry of all kinds and call our students and ourselves to the high ideals of a Franciscan university committed to inclusive citizenship.   

Today, before we turn to our priorities and goals, let me reflect on another trend, less momentous but directly related to our work as faculty and staff. National data reveals a precipitous (and partisan) drop in the confidence that Americans have in our colleges. Only 55% overall think we have a positive impact on the country. Most Democrats and Independents still view colleges favorably, but 58% of Republicans now believe colleges have a negative impact, up from only 37% just two years ago. Commentators cite two factors: the high-profile coverage of campuses where controversial guests have been disinvited or prevented from speaking and the perception that colleges are bastions of elitism and liberalism. One silver lining is that younger people have a more favorable view, as distrust of colleges is most prevalent in the highest income and oldest age groups.

Interpretation of all this is beyond my purpose today. But I remind us that at a time when many question the value of college and view a degree as a mere credential purchased like a car or refrigerator, we at Alvernia have both a perilous challenge and a rare opportunity to distinguish ourselves. As a university that embraces people of all backgrounds, including first-generation students of modest means, we hardly fit the media stereotype of elite institutions serving the privileged. We have a healthy diversity of backgrounds and opinions. We also believe that preparing students to be successful professionals cannot be divorced from their development of character and their growth as fully-realized, well-rounded  people, with life-long learning perspectives rooted in their study of the arts and humanities, the social and natural sciences, and especially—as a Catholic university--in philosophy and theology.

We must find even more effective ways to convey our “value proposition” in ways not expressed for us in the academy but rather for those whom we hope to educate. This means that as with any organization we must convey a compelling, distinctive “brand.” It means being willing to talk openly about preparation for work and careers and acknowledging humbly that most students are not interested in following us into careers in academe. It means promoting what we call “real world learning” as a competitive advantage in the job market as well as an engaging, enjoyable way to learn. We should do all this and yet be clear that Franciscan values provide a competitive advantage for students--through lives of deeper meaning and more rewarding careers.

We are not bowing to crassness when we make the claim that an Alvernia education is an essential investment: the unemployment rate for college graduates at just over 2% is a fraction of the jobless rate of high school graduates at 7.4%. And we offer so much more than merely a financial return.

All around we have proof of this: we have together dramatically improved the quality of the student experience; upgraded learning spaces; built first-class residences; added doctoral programs and strengthened others; hired talented faculty; expanded athletic and leadership opportunities, while keeping our tuition costs modest for a private school and remaining accessible to students of all backgrounds. And we have proof of our success in dramatically improved retention and the very high rates of student satisfaction and of graduating seniors employed or in graduate school within six months of graduation. 

Yet once again today, let us look forward rather than backward as we consider “the state of the university.” And let me be clear and unequivocal so no one here misunderstands my assessment as either too worrisome or too rosy: we share the challenges of all similar schools, and many far wealthier and better known, but we have effectively navigated the troubled waters of “the new normal.” And the “state of our university” is noticeably better than just a year ago.  

Instead of reviewing last year in detail, let me rely on my recent newsletter and the highlights cited earlier this morning. So I turn as usual to a review of our enrollment and budget and our major goals for the coming year.

ENROLLMENT: We know the importance of student enrollment. It reflects our academic reputation and our competitive position regarding other schools, while funding the vast majority of the annual budget.     

Let’s start with the bottom line: There are mixed results and naturally areas of concern, but unlike last year the news overall is favorable as we begin the 2017-2018 year.   Two positive initiatives have helped dramatically offset other disappointing trends: the continued growth of online adult degree programs and the windfall of young men successfully recruited a year early to play football.

In the School of Graduate and Adult Education (SGAE), enrollment trends continue to be troubling except for online programs and potentially significant non-credit offerings. Last year’s disappointing results were offset by year-end progress that reduced the shortfall. Traditional graduate enrollment is relatively flat, and adult undergraduate enrollment continues to decline, both in Reading and in Philadelphia. Despite again lowering the enrollment goal, we are again behind our targets, though online students are increasing and the staff is as usual busily introducing new programs and recruiting strategies.

As for full-time undergraduates, recall this morning a year ago: we faced a sizable, unanticipated shortfall of new undergraduates and a large increase in financial aid, which necessitated significant budget cuts. This year, in anticipation, the budgeted goal was set lower than a year ago, and increased financial aid was allocated. Freshman financial aid is again higher than projected. Unlike last year, however, transfer enrollment as of today is tracking on goal, and freshman enrollment is approximately 380 against a goal of 350, even though we surprisingly missed our target for the highly desirable Occupational Therapy students. This class is far more diverse than recent classes (32% vs. 24%) , with an academic profile comparable to last year’s and a far better balance of male and female students.

Excuse the cliché, but football has been a game changer. 35 of those first-year students were not on our radar until contacted by Coaches Clark and Wood. Many come from Maryland and a few from Florida, though our coaches also recruited very successfully at local high schools. 

Amidst unprecedented competitive conditions, our enrollment team has revisited financial aid packages and worked to minimize summer melt by maintaining regular contact with confirmed students and making sure they are following through with important summer tasks. And they have naturally already begun actively recruiting next year’s class.

Let me conclude with two facts, one sobering and one that should make us proud. Notwithstanding our good news, our Fall 2017 full-time, undergraduate enrollment is slightly lower than a year ago. It explains why there is not more money miraculously available! But the encouraging news is that for the second consecutive year, we have exceeded 80% for freshman retention, a notable achievement shared by countless staff and faculty across the university. Recall we were at 76% only two years ago and as low as 69% ten years ago.

As I noted last year, such dramatic improvement is rare and impressive. It reflects the addition of first-rate residential facilities and the improvements in the quality of academic and campus life.

Leadership in enrollment, marketing, academic affairs, and university life has been essential. And faculty and staff across campus have made a superb, concerted effort. 

BUDGET:  For last year, budget cuts, spending controls, and effective management by many enabled us collectively to overcome significant revenue shortfalls and meet budget goals. I am pleased to report today that our current balance sheet—aided by excellent investment results overseen by our trustees--and this year’s budget both reflect a much stronger financial position, though it should be emphasized that some vacant positions were eliminated or kept unfilled, and most of last year’s budget reductions remain in place. 

We will continue to require review of all open positions, with decisions made to fill, eliminate, or reallocate the position. And the vice presidents will continue to limit travel and other discretionary funds so as to target the most essential activities.

Supportive advice over the last 6-8 months from faculty leaders, key administrators, trustee officers, and APAC (our planning council) 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. We continue to allocate the significant funds needed to provide employees a 10% retirement contribution and to cover most of the cost of health benefits.

But unlike last year, when there were increases in the cost of health care for employees and a fixed-dollar bonus rather than a cost of living salary increase, I am delighted to announce today that, in addition to no increase in employee health care costs for this year, there will be a 2% salary increase for all, effective as usual on October 1.

 

THE YEAR AHEAD: 

As we turn to this year’s goals, we must recall the university strategic plan.  Guided by the Vision Statement and our four privileged forms of learning, we are approaching the conclusion of the plan, updated in 2011, with good results on the goals chosen by the original planning council to address our priorities.  

Four strategic directions will supplement our priorities by guiding the university over the next 2-3 years and shaping key annual goals:    

  1. Become a recognized leader in teaching and learning related to the healthcare sciences, with complementary liberal arts/professional emphases.
  2. Become a preferred provider of targeted, customized workforce development programs.
  3. Achieve improved economies of scale and grow revenue by establishing strategic relationships with one or more institutions.
  4. Improve the value proposition, grow net operating revenue and reduce operating costs by revising “Business Model” and evaluating alternative instructional delivery systems and pricing strategies.

 

The first three emerged from the trustee-faculty discussions last spring and the fourth was adopted by the board this past June.  They will be the focus of the joint trustee-faculty-administrative strategy session to be held later this fall.  

Several of this year’s goals are ongoing efforts, some are new; some require implementation of new plans. As always, there is far more to say than can be addressed here. So I will quickly review progress on last year’s goals and then be necessarily selective, focusing on this year’s goals that most directly involve many of you.

There was initial mission assessment data gathered last year, so now we must use it to shape our efforts. We were unsuccessful overall in increasing enrollment, though there were bright spots. We did approve new academic and athletic programs and made modest progress in renewing others and preparing to raise their profile, but need to complete that work. There was very good progress on the “student success” plan, especially as it was extended to adult students, to multilingual students, and to those with disabilities. There was initial progress in extending the first-year experience beyond the orientations and seminar but much additional opportunity remains since we have several required freshman courses and a dynamic set of co-curricular offerings.

You will see in a minute some of the progress on Inclusive Engagement, but we need a systematic approach both to diversifying our faculty and staff so as to parallel the diversity of our student body and to promoting intercultural engagement as well as open-mindedness. Finally, we followed up well on our Middle States report and on financial, fundraising and board development goals.

Looking ahead, here are our goals for 2017-2018:

  1. Develop Revised Mission Education and “Anchor Institution” Plans
  2. Increase “Enrollment” and Net Revenue (Degree and Non-Degree)
  3. Invent, Invest, & Re-Invest in Academic and Athletic Programs
  4. Implement Year 2 of Student Success & “Inclusive Excellence” Plans (Including “Real World Learning” & Global Engagement Initiatives)
  5. Finalize Faculty Handbook & Revised Faculty Compensation Philosophy
  6. Enhance the “Customer” Experience (Practices and Operations)
  7. Strengthen the Alvernia “Brand” (Including Upgraded Website/Digital Marketing)
  8. Achieve Fundraising Goals (PLEX, RCSP, Annual Fund)
  9. Pilot Financial Scenarios & Revised Business Model
  10. Implement New Board Committee Structure & Related Shared Governance Initiatives

GOAL 1          MISSION EDUCATION AND “ANCHOR INSTITUTION” PLANS  

Alvernia is already admirably mission-centered. But we urgently need a well-organized plan for mission education, as it is the responsibility of all of us to pass this tradition on to our newest members and to our students. The Assisi Pilgrims will be a special resource for this process, led by Sr. Roberta and Julianne Wallace.

”Anchor Institutions” are health systems, universities, and other large organizations that sustain their communities. Led by the Holleran Center and O’Pake Institute, both with a much-expanded scope of activities, Alvernia is already a recognized  civic leader—through the South Reading Youth Initiative, the Oakbrook Health Center, Leadership Berks, the Bog Turtle Creek Farm, the Common Heart Dialogue, the Reading Collegiate Scholars Program, and countless service projects. We also are the local school most committed to graduate education. In addition to these contributions, the “Anchor” plan focuses on our Lancaster Avenue and Morgantown Road corridors, our emerging capacity to assist businesses and non-profits with workforce training and development, and the lectures and inclusive community dialogues for which we are increasingly well known. Dave Myers coordinates this effort and, in fact, is currently serving half-time as director of the Berks Alliance. 

GOALS 2&3  ENROLLMENT AND NET REVENUE GROWTH (New & Continuing Students) & INVESTMENT IN ACADEMIC AND ATHLETIC PROGRAMS

This goal is simple. At a time when raising tuition significantly is neither wise nor just, we must attract and retain more students--from traditional freshmen and older adults to graduate students, non-degree professionals, and members of our Seniors College. We offer countless courses and programs for a university of 3,000 students; put in business terms, we need greater curricular efficiency and a larger base of “customers” to sustain a thriving university. 

Recent success with first-year retention has undeniably strengthened “the state of our university.” 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. 

Needed also are new and rejuvenated programs, providing we know their content and pedagogy will actually appeal to students, whether in Philadelphia, Pottsville, or Reading or online. Emphasis on Informatics is now expected in many fields. Liberal arts fields must incorporate experiential learning of many kinds and offer appealing minors, such as the promising cross-disciplinary concentration or certificate in leadership studies.

Our recent accreditation by CACREP, earned by a team of colleagues, led by Judy Warchal, positions us well, as does the launch of an Executive MBA and the online degrees in psychology and communications. The marketing and enrollment teams are improving differentiated, but unified, messages to potential students of all levels and backgrounds. More on that later. And with credible ambassadors like Don Schalk and Rudy Ruth, from the Caron Treatment Centers to East Penn, local school districts to small and mid-sized businesses, employers are turning to Alvernia as a source of non-credit education for their employees. The far higher profile of our Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership has aided this effort.

Ensuring full rosters in all sports and expanding the number of teams reap several benefits. New sports attract students who would otherwise not come to Alvernia. Make no mistake: we expect our coaches to lead winning, preferably championship, programs. But they must also recruit large numbers of students who will, first and foremost, flourish academically. Over the next two years, we will be introducing women’s equestrian, women’s ice hockey, and men’s wrestling as NCAA Division III sports. 

GOAL 4          STUDENT SUCCESS & “INCLUSIVE EXCELLENCE” PLANS

Both of these wide-ranging plans have good momentum and also much left to accomplish. They got much attention last year, so I will be briefer today.

Well underway are initiatives aimed at the distinct needs of adult and traditional-aged students, organized around the Academic Success Center or ASC. Age-appropriate communication with students is essential. A new mobile application, known as The Guide, was introduced at this summer’s Connection Days, providing ready access for students to academic requirements, exciting opportunities, helpful resources, important dates, and much more.  And the latest creative, grant-funded effort by Karen Thacker and a team of staff and nursing and science faulty is designed to enhance the performance of nursing students. 

Our Office of Multilingual Support Services is now making a major impact thanks to Elena Lawrick, in partnership with the ASC and our writing program. From professional development for our faculty to certificates offered in the Reading School District by our Education department to intensive English programs for international students, this is the best example of the intersection of our Student Success and Inclusive Excellence plans.

At the center of our intercultural efforts are global initiatives in Ireland, China, Canada, the Dominican Republic, and other places where our students study. We will build on last year’s exploratory trips to expand our global footprint to Haiti and India and—thanks to Sister Marilisa--our partnerships with the Sisters in Brazil as well as in the Dominican Republic.    

Our university-wide emphasis on “Real World (or Experiential) Learning” has been stronger in promotion than in program coordination, with last year’s awards to almost 50 students expanding student interest. Under the reorganization I announced last spring, the Holleran Center now provides the focal point for the many fine efforts by university life, athletic, Holleran and O’Pake staff as well as countless faculty. As with service learning a decade ago, we need to catalogue current activities and then plan how to expand, promote, and support opportunities for our students. 

As Shirley announced, Jodi Radosh and Jerry Greiner will lead this effort, even as Jay Worrall takes steps to redeploy his expanded staff to raise the bar for our efforts in intercultural engagement and career preparation. 

GOAL 5          FACULTY HANDBOOK & COMPENSATION PHILOSOPHY

The two most urgent goals for the faculty and academic administration are completing these two projects this fall. The Faculty Salary and Benefits committee, led by Janae Scholtz, worked effectively with Shirley Williams and Doug Smith and have produced a draft document with clear recognition of the challenging issues to resolve together. Put simply, the competitive market in some professional fields, both in but especially beyond academe, demands much more aggressive hiring and compensation practices. 

Many improvements to the Handbook have been approved by Faculty Council, after three years of discussions, but there are issues still to be addressed and finalized before a completed project is ready for my recommendation to, and the review and approval by, the Board of Trustees. 

GOAL 6          ENHANCEMENT OF THE “CUSTOMER EXPERIENCE”

Envisioned for this two year goal (2017-2019) is an organic, grass roots comprehensive training and development program created by a team of staff, faculty, and administrators. We know the “customer” concept does not apply to a learning community in the ways it does to a business. So drawing on both internal and external expertise, we will enhance our operations and our practices in areas where our students--particularly older working adults--and others function somewhat like customers. John McCloskey will lead this effort, with a working group launched in early fall and initial programming in place early in 2018. Stay tuned!    

GOAL 7          THE ALVERNIA BRAND--WEBSITE/DIGITAL MARKETING 

Guided by our new marketing executive Deidra Hill, who has been on an extensive campus and community “listening tour,” we will sharpen our brand, by highlighting genuine distinctiveness and aligning our offerings with the needs of our audiences and markets. Improvements in the visual identity, functionality, and navigation of our website will start this fall, assisted by a redesigned web developer position, though this process and the entire goal will takes months not days and extend over the next two years (2017-2019). 

GOAL 8          FUNDRAISING

We had a good year and have also started the new year well. There is momentum and high energy, personified by Tony DeMarco, with gifts large and small, grants received, trustees and alumni engaged in supporting the university, even initial progress in the Annual Fund, where we need to double the amount of budget support. With this goal overall, we have “miles to go before we sleep.”  And we always will!

What is the bottom line on our two major priorities—the PLEX and the Reading Collegiate Scholars Program or RCSP? As of June 30, we met our initial PLEX goal of $2M, and just in the last few months we have already gone over the $3M mark. As for the RCSP, before our first-year students even arrive, we have funded all their scholarships and even half of those for 2018-2019. To date, we have raised over $1 million for this program’s scholarships. 

GOAL 9          FINANCIAL SCENARIOS & REVISEDBUSINESS MODEL

All of you had the opportunity at our January divisional meetings and on other occasions to be involved in last year’s dialogues about revising the business model. That work helped us to develop several financial scenarios that were introduced for the first time at the June Board retreat. We will this fall test and evaluate these options with APAC, the faculty officers, key administrators, and the Board’s Fiscal & Physical Resource Committee. This essential “best practice” enables organizations to be ready for unexpected setbacks, like last year’s unpleasant enrollment surprise, and also provides targets for us to pursue that will strengthen Alvernia’s financial framework.  The cliché is apt: “No margin, no mission!” Expect an update at our January Divisional meetings. 

GOAL 10        BOARD AND SHARED GOVERNANCE

As you may recall, chair Kevin St. Cyr has led the Board through a comprehensive renewal program. It includes deepened board learning about our Franciscan mission and educational program, increased monitoring of our compliance requirements, supporting and evaluating academic quality and campus life, enhanced focus on philanthropy and advocacy, and a streamlining of standing committees and the use of ad-hoc groups for greater efficiency.

Trustee committee chairs and vice chairs now have a specially designed orientation as do new members. In mid-September trustee leaders and I will provide a parallel orientation for the 4 faculty officers and the expanded group of 13 faculty who will serve on board committees. We will also reconvene the joint strategy sessions of faculty leaders, deans, and trustees that were so successful in early 2016. There will also be some additional communication initiatives to supplement my regular reports in newsletters. And we will continue the three highly successful annual dialogues at Cedar Hill of trustee leaders with the leadership teams of the faculty, students, and Congregation.  We benefit from our board’s reputation with the trustee national association as a leader in governance. This past year, Alvernia was one of only 13 schools and the only religiously affiliated one profiled as a national case study, and I continue to serve on a small national panel recommending improvements in shared governance.                                               

-------------------------

My comments on our Board provide a transition to the last portion of today’s talk. Alvernia is fortunate to have a board that is talented and insightful as well as dedicated and loyal. In my experience working nationally with boards and presidents, I have come to believe that an organization is never stronger than its Board.

Trustees believe this too. Despite very high evaluations, they have overhauled their committee system and now focus more on the future than on the present. They are confident, as am I, in Alvernia’s current and future viability, but they are equally confident we will merely survive, but not thrive and flourish, if we simply do what we have always done.  

That anticipates my first closing message today. Many students are arriving at college less prepared than ever before and, in some case, less motivated. Whatever their mindset, and fortunately many of Alvernia’s students are highly motivated, you know from articles like one recently circulated on email that they are radically different from a generation ago and even from those a decade or so ago. Fewer and fewer students (and parents) crave the benefits of learning for its own sake. Many think four-years at a traditional college is a luxury or not worth it unless they score a bargain deal. Public skepticism toward higher education and strong resistance to high college costs will accelerate not abate. Sadly, media coverage focused on campus controversies causes people to assume schools like Alvernia are identical to those where open dialogue and inclusive engagement are not highly valued.  

So this is the first message: We may not like these trends, but we had better deal with them.   Resources will be even more limited as colleges must reduce spending to control tuition costs to students.  Our work will not get easier. We will need to do more with less. Continuous improvement will be demanded of each of us. But higher expectations work best when they come not from a supervisor or department head but from within us. Especially if we think being excellent, rather than merely good or above average, is a worthy goal.

Let me offer a second, more encouraging message: At a school like Alvernia, some things will not and should not change. 

We will continue to be a place of opportunity for students of all backgrounds, including those who will be the first in their families to graduate from college and including some who are underprepared for college but have the potential to succeed. Whether fashionable or not, we will continue to highlight the importance of the liberal arts and the benefits of a values-based residential campus community. We will celebrate the benefits of Division III athletics, even as varsity sports nationally and the NCAA itself become more like big business.

We will continue to promote the value of engaged citizenship to our students and model civic leadership as a university, even if the importance of democratic citizenship is undervalued. And we will continue to call our students to be well-rounded, virtuous adults and “ethical leaders with moral courage” even when polls tells us many desire only a credential. In sum, we will be true to our identity and our aspiration to be a “Distinctive Franciscan University” rooted in the proud tradition of Catholic higher education and the living legacy of our Bernardine Franciscan Sisters. 

As we simultaneously both “stay the course” and respond proactively to the turbulent and rapidly changing external environment, we have an invaluable resource, what I dubbed over a decade ago in one of my first admission talks as “the Alvernia Advantage.” Each of its characteristics is shared by other schools, but we have the opportunity to be distinctive, perhaps unique, in how we weave them together. 

That is my third closing message today: Let us embrace our Alvernia Advantage. Each of us might define it differently, but for potential students I describe it as how we combine all of the best features of the small college with many of the opportunities of the large university, offering every student both liberal arts and professional education, on a beautiful campus, with a strong inclusive Franciscan culture, taught by outstanding faculty (never graduate students) at a value-added price that makes a private education possible for students of all backgrounds and prepares them for both a rewarding career and a meaningful life.

One final message: Let us also embrace and be very, very proud of our students. We know the usual data underscoring their generosity of spirit, with 36,000 of service contributed last year. And each of us also has stories of superb students who rank with the best we have known and who have later excelled in graduate school and/or in their careers. We know others of modest abilities who have blossomed at Alvernia and become impressive leaders. We know still others, especially dear to us, young and not so young alike, who have overcome hardship, even tragedy, to walk proudly across the stage on graduation day confident that they are well prepared “to do well and to do good.”  Let’s keep all of our students at the center of our work this year, with the deep gratitude and generosity of spirit I spoke of earlier. After all, as Jerry Holleran said at my first May commencement over a decade ago, our students are “why we do what we do.” 

Think of those in our Reading Collegiate Scholars Program and our own current 38 Reading Scholars. Our students and staff worked last year with over 340 Reading High students, including 120 seniors, almost all now attending a college of their choice. Alvernia’s ten new scholars and the total group of 38 are on full-tuition scholarships through support by generous investors, both individuals and organizations. And exceptional support, too, by many throughout this university--faculty and trustee mentors, staff advocates, committed administrators. These students are talented as well as deserving. Of the 28 who began here--one, two, or three years ago--all but one continue as students, with a cumulative average of between B and B+ and some very impressive examples of servant leadership.

I hope all of you are inspired by this program, as I am, and I hope that in return it motivates and gives us the confidence to be sources of hope and inspiration for all our students.

They are worth the effort. So let me slip in one final closing message this morning: Our students are grateful and appreciative for their Alvernia experience.  We know it from special students close to us but the data tells us this too. They self-report some impressive results on topics we consider important.

Percentages of recent graduates who report that Alvernia has provided effective preparation to:
- Get involved in the community 91%
- Make ethical decisions 94%
- Recognize personal and ethical responsibility for leadership 95%
- Become an effective leader in the community 96%

These results should not surprise us. And consistent with the national study by Gallup, we know why: as students’ level of active engagement outside the classroom has risen steadily, so has their satisfaction with their Alvernia experience. 

Overall Student Satisfaction 2% (up from 86%)

Specific satisfaction with…
- Relationships with peers 93% (up from 83%)
- Relationships with faculty 95% (up from 79%)
- Relationships with staff/administrators 89% (up from 63%)
- Academic support 91% (up from 75%)
- Social support 84% (up from 76%)

Can we do even better by our students? Of course. Looking back over my own career, I have known I could teach better more consistently, be more effective as a mentor and advisor, be a more productive scholar, and--in later years--a more skilled administrator. Let us recommit ourselves toward the essential ideal of continuous improvement, grateful for good colleagues and possessed of a generosity of spirit that holds ourselves to highest standards of caring charity and challenging collegiality. And at a time when our nation and many of our campuses are all too divisive, let us seek humbly but earnestly to model the inclusiveness at the heart of a university in a democratic society. Thank you. 




major addresses

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