Our senior class is much on my mind as I write on a too-hot day more appropriate for August than for April. 

Recently, I had several opportunities to meet with seniors to hear them share insights on their Alvernia experience. (Shortly after this column appears, Helen and I will also host the annual Senior Leaders Dinner at our home.) As seniors enthusiastically remind me, they have been students during a time when major improvements greeted them each fall upon their return to campus. (Yes, they recall when there was no campus green!) But in these last months of college, they realize that the quality of their experience is defined most by the quality of their relationships, especially their “learning relationships.”

Seniors know first-hand that they learn much from coaches, student life and other staff, work study supervisors, peer leaders, and their fellow students. At a place like Alvernia, students also learn much beyond the campus—in field placements, internships, service projects, Alternative Break trips, and many other less structured activities.  But the most important “teachers”—whether in the classroom, the lab or studio, or the advisor’s office—are the faculty. So it is not a stretch to say that an Alvernia education can only be as good, let alone as excellent, as our faculty.

Faculty Excellence. To paraphrase a famous Supreme Court Justice commenting on obscenity:  is it hard to define precisely, but yet do we still know it when we see it?  

No ten faculty members agree on what defines excellent teaching, so we should not expect a senior class to reach unanimity. But astute students can articulate that excellent teaching is a marriage of style and substance, of interpersonal skills and intellectual gifts, of broad learning and specialized expertise, of strong views and open-minded inquiry, of professional ethics and personal interest, of caring attention and rigorous expectations.  

Just a comment about this last element—high expectations. The faculty most often cited as strong influences by this year’s seniors are those who have challenged them most, to be—as the slogan goes—the best that they can be. Such faculty are not simply drawn from a student’s major. At a recent “Pizza with the President” session, all seniors cited a memorable faculty member from outside their major field, often someone who had taught them in a freshman course and who subsequently had kept in touch. 

Excellent teaching and advising are essential for faculty excellence, but they are not sufficient. University faculties are expected to contribute, indeed excel, far more broadly—on campus and beyond, both through scholarly and creative achievement and through many types of service.  Here are just a few of the many notable recent examples at Alvernia: 

  • Several faculty members are at various stages on major book projects. David Silbeyis working this spring and summer to finish his third book, The Third China War:  American, Britain, and the Boxers, 1900; Scott BallantyneBeth Berret, and Mary Ellen Wells are well underway on Planning in Reverse:  A Short-Sighted Approach to Long-Term Viability; and Spence Stober and Donna Yarri have begun their second volume, God, Darwin and the Origins of Life.
  • Others have received national recognition for their professional service. Last month, Carrie Fitzpatrick served as chair for the annual convention of Sigma Tau Delta, the international English Honor Society. A highlight of the convention, in addition to the sessions conducted by Alvernia’s delegation of 14 students and 4 faculty, was the recognition afforded Beth Demeo who received the prestigious Delta Award (presented only 8 times in the 85-year history of the honor society). 
  • Following extensive review, including student feedback, six faculty were recognized this year for their fine work here at Alvernia. Five received tenure, a university’s most important recognition—Terri AdamsPeggy Bowen; Rose Chinni, Debbie Greenawald, and Mary Schreiner, with Peggy, Rose, and Mary also promoted to Associate Professor. And a sixth, Spence Stober, received academia’s highest honor: promotion to Full Professor.

So, as our seniors contemplate their futures, and share their most memorable (yet printable!) college stories, let us be grateful for faculty who stretch themselves, their students, and the entire Alvernia University community toward excellence. 

Flynn Files