President's Newsletter July 2014

June Board Meeting

Each June, trustees conduct a two-day retreat on key strategic issues. They were joined this year by the college and school deans, the incoming and outgoing faculty presidents, and a panel of students in addition to the cabinet team and a number of outside speakers. This year’s meeting focused on the external environment and included much discussion about events affecting higher education institutions nationally, especially private schools like Alvernia. David Warren, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, provided an interesting but somber report on the state of political affairs in Washington, D.C.

He offered little encouragement for any changes in the current trend toward increased federal intrusion into higher education. The result will place greater pressure on all institutions to be accountable to a federal “scorecard” that privileges financial and economic indicators and undervalues learning outcomes and higher education’s civic and democratic purpose.

As we certainly recognize, accountability is in itself an essential part of achieving important goals. But lack of government understanding that key data points from schools like Alvernia -- that deliberately serve underrepresented students who come from lower income households and first generation families -- are not apples-to-apples comparisons to schools that cater to wealthy families. Those students generally have access to significant financial and educational resources that enable them to persist and graduate at very different rates with little or no debt.

The board retreat also featured presentations by national experts on the dramatically increasing competitive market for recruiting both recent high school graduates and degree-seeking adult students. The challenges are formidable and quite distinct, though in each case private schools like Alvernia must make a compelling case for the distinctive, qualitative advantages of our educational experience.

Perhaps most stimulating were two panels: one comprised of leading executives who hire our graduates, and the other of our students. The panel of local employers -- including representatives from Brentwood Industries, Penske, Reading Health System, DSS and Boscov’s -- provided valuable insights into their needs and expectations for college graduates. They suggested that schools like Alvernia needed an enhanced curriculum to help ensure that we provide far stronger preparation in critical “core” skill areas like communications (written, verbal, listening), project management, negotiating and the ability to analyze and interpret data.

They also emphasized the need to improve students’ “soft skills” such as emotional intelligence, expectations for high performance, adaptability, collaboration and work ethic. All underscored the importance of students’ participation in experiential learning to develop relevant skills for the workplace, a point echoed by the four student leaders whose discussion followed the employers.

Student panelists strongly encouraged efforts to make it easier to explore and change majors, enable self-directed majors and have more exposure to leadership development and professional as well as faculty/staff mentors. They also confirmed the essential value of experiential learning for all students and identified a need/opportunity for creation of market sensitive interdisciplinary programs that would give Alvernia graduates an edge in the job market.

Beyond completing the annual evaluation of the president, Board actions are limited in June, but trustees did approve the preliminary budget for 2014-2015; a handbook change approved earlier by the faculty; and the new general education program (with the proviso that the faculty work to incorporate strengthened emphases on writing and experiential learning). Trustees also reviewed reports on academic compliance, global learning initiatives and on Alvernia’s well-coordinated efforts to ensure appropriate policies, procedures and programming to address the national issue of sexual assault prevention. They also provided feedback on the emerging new website and on the proposed goals of both the board chair and the president for 2014-2015.

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president's newsletter july 2014

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