From college days to the present, American literature and history have been my great loves. But as I anticipate my final months as Alvernia’s president, it is Shakespeare who provides appropriately immortal words of wisdom: “The Past is Prologue.” I am fortunate as a leader to have stood on the shoulders of my predecessor presidents, long-time current and retired faculty and staff, and of course the visionary Bernardine Franciscan Sisters who founded Alvernia College and continue to sponsor Alvernia University.
Shakespeare may be right about the importance of history and tradition, but our Franciscan Sisters are the first to say they could not have imagined, even a decade ago, the Alvernia of 2019. As a longtime college president, I have learned the essential lesson that thriving universities must continually evolve and be alert to unforeseen opportunities if they are to best prepare their students for life and the world of work. So as we welcome John Loyack and Glynis Fitzgerald as our new president and provost, we do well to both celebrate our transformation from a tiny, commuter college into a comprehensive, regional university and recommit to dreams and plans for an even better future.
Alvernia has historically had a special commitment to educating women and men from our city and county, both older adults and working professionals as well as recent high school graduates. Today, we serve hundreds of graduate students from the area seeking advanced degrees, and our first-year class of almost 450 includes about 25% of its members from Berks County with almost 30 from Reading High. But we also now draw our entire student body from 22 states, with 30% of our freshmen from outside of Pennsylvania and with 1,000 living on campus.
Alvernia has historically been a special place of opportunity for first-generation students, working women, and others with limited access to higher education. Today Alvernia is also known for excellence as well as access. Our Reading Scholars Program graduated 100% of its initial cohort of talented students. Doctoral student Abby Wells recently won Alvernia’s first prestigious Fulbright Award. And alumnae (and alumni) of all ages are now leaders in their professions and in their local communities.
Alvernia has historically considered community service an essential part of our education. Beginning decades ago, long-serving faculty like newly named Professor Emerita Ellen Engler and the indefatigable Polly Mathys helped nurture our students’ selfless volunteerism and generosity of spirit. Today, our students contribute 40,000 hours of service annually. Faculty, staff, and alums contribute to a variety of non-profit organizations and social justice causes. Our Board of Trustees features numerous civic servant-leaders. And the university is revered locally for the contributions of the Holleran Center, the O’Pake Institute, the Seniors College, and our arts and lecture series.
Alvernia has historically championed a values-based education grounded in the liberal arts and sciences. Today, because we believe it is essential that a Catholic, Franciscan university promote open discussion of challenging issues while respecting widely varying and strongly held views, the university community has adopted a statement of “Commitment to Civil Dialogue and Freedom of Expression.” Our Search Program ensures all first-year students confront and ponder “Enduring Questions” in multiple courses, and all graduate as well as undergraduate programs require at least one course in ethics. Students are inspired by a dedicated faculty to become “ethical leaders with moral courage prepared to do well and do good.”
Alvernia has historically prepared future teachers, addiction counselors, police, nurses, accountants. Today, an array of masters and doctoral programs, especially in health care and the human services, and new majors in Computer Science and Digital Media offer students superb professional preparation. Pass rates for our occupational therapists and nurses range annually between 90-100%, and 97% of our recent seniors were employed or in graduate school within six months of graduation.
Alvernia has historically welcomed people of all backgrounds and faiths. As our iconic Sr. Pacelli once said memorably at a faculty seminar: “If the Sisters wanted only to educate Catholics, we would never have settled in Berks County!” Today, Alvernia is an interfaith leader in our community, working closely with leaders of the Jewish and Muslim communities. A prominent community leader recently described Alvernia as “the spiritual home” for many in our community.
What lies ahead for Alvernia? We can no more predict the future than could have those iconic Sisters when they founded Alvernia 60 years ago!
But we can enthusiastically welcome President-Elect John Loyack and Provost-Elect Glynis Fitzgerald to an academic community devoted to our Franciscan values and the pursuit of “knowledge joined with love.” And we can and do anticipate with them a future for Alvernia full of promise and unimagined possibility. May our new executives--in partnership with faculty, trustees, and the entire Alvernia community--continue to embody the legacy of the religious women we revere as our pioneering foundresses.
Peace and All Good, Tom Flynn