March Madness is just beginning, as I write this, and already we have had some of our own “madness” to celebrate here on campus. We can be proud of our men’s basketball team, players and coaches, for their championship season and NCAA bid, and we can be proud also of them as fine representatives of Alvernia, off as well as on the court.  Hopefully, spring break brought opportunities for jobs, service projects, papers and other college assignments, and also some relaxation and fun with family and friends.

As promised, this column will continue my report on the results of my "listening and learning" sessions held last fall with over 200 on campus. Last month, we covered the two topics of greatest emphasis: the need for a) Enhanced Services and Resources for Residential Students and for b) Expanded Facilities—especially for student recreation and campus gathering places—and Campus Signage and Related Improvements. This month, we’ll focus on the most important priority frequently mentioned—Strengthening the Quality and Integrity of the Alvernia Degree—and briefly take note of some excellent suggestions from many of you.

The issue of improved academic quality, as all recognize, does not lend itself to easy summary. There is some feeling on campus that the academic qualifications of entering students need to be improved, though there is strong support for providing opportunity for students whose test scores may mask their future potential. The far more prevalent view is that more needs to be asked of students throughout their time at Alvernia along with more opportunities provided that challenge students to reach and exceed high standards of achievement and personal growth. Students and faculty alike emphasize the need for more rigorous and more consistent standards of expectation in the classroom. For many faculty, this means moving students from competence to proficiency in skill preparation; others stress the need to ensure a higher level of expected inquiry and analysis. A few faculty advocated that programs be more rigorously reviewed and curriculum be updated, and a few faculty (and students) spoke of the need for a more stimulating core curriculum. Several faculty and staff called for dialogue about the primary aims of an Alvernia education and the outcomes we seek in our graduates.

The theme of improved academic quality is not, as at many schools, simply a faculty theme. Some staff spoke similarly. Several groups of students cite a less than challenging academic atmosphere, especially in advanced classes, and the noticeable variance in the quality of teaching and advising. Students have strong overall praise for their faculty and programs and stress that improvements in academic quality and rigor are a matter of ensuring greater consistency across the college. Several programs were singled out for praise, with Criminal Justice and Forensic Science mentioned most frequently. Some students speak with passion about extraordinary teachers who inspire them by challenging them. Examples came from across the college, especially from the humanities faculty. Several staff and students urged a simple response to the question about “how we get better”: place top priority on (continuing the) recruitment and retention of top faculty.

Staff, faculty, RAs and other student leaders are united in seeing the need for greater student accountability, regarding both academic performance and eligibility and mature personal behavior outside the classroom. Faculty, both young and not-so-young, concur that our laudable Franciscan-inspired care for the individual student is no justification for lowering standards and coddling students rather than challenging students and providing appropriate support. Regarding student behavior on campus, a number of RAs and other student leaders emphasize the need for greater student responsibility and accountability but note that the current discipline system is “broken” and that fines are not an effective deterrent to bad behavior.

Among non-academic areas where many of you suggested improvements, several themes are dominant:

  • Improving campus communication and encouraging open sharing of suggestions and dialogue on important issues;
  • Strengthening undergraduate recruiting efforts (and moving the Admission Office back to main campus);
  • Significantly improving Alvernia’s recognition and reputation beyond the Greater Reading community;
  • Building stronger connections and partnerships with the community; and expanding connections between current students and the alumni;
  • Expanding interdisciplinary teaching/programs and making service learning a prominent part of the curriculum;
  • Increasing emphasis on issues of ethical and global significance and on appreciation for diversity of all kinds;
  • Integrating the Seniors College’ activities with the rest of the College.

One last topic, not mentioned frequently, does like parking evoke strong opinions. A few individuals advocate a smoke-free campus; more common is the suggestion to move smoking zones further away from the main doorways of buildings.

Two final personal observations. We really like each other around here. Students, faculty, administrators, and staff all talked about the great people at Alvernia. Folks also really care about this place and feel good about all the progress of recent years. There were no hints of complacency. There was much evidence of energy, openness, and creativity. There was helpful constructive criticism. One person put it well: let’s not just do more, let’s do better. 

Over the next year, we will be charting Alvernia’s future together though a new strategic plan. We will discuss how our Catholic, Franciscan heritage, including our ecumenical embrace of those with different traditions, and our core values shape our future. We will select several major priorities. We’ll talk more about this in my next column. But in the meantime, we need to continue to take action on necessary improvements. Some have happened. More are to come. Enjoy the coming of spring!

Flynn Files