Isn’t it a strange irony that at the same time when the country is in the midst of its most serious crisis in a generation (or two), Alvernia is celebrating historic accomplishments.

The Iraq war drags on. Its human cost—the civilian as well as military casualties—is most important, but the financial cost also drains precious resources away from social programs and other national priorities. Meanwhile, the debacle on Wall Street has intensified financial stress on Main Street. It is no wonder the November election is hotly contested, and it is heartening to see college students so politically and socially aware.

Student Activism. Engagement. Involvement. Call it what you will, it is—along with dedicated and expert faculty—the essence of an excellent college . . . and university. During a quiet moment, right before our dramatic announcement on University Day, it was inspirational for me to see such an enormous turnout of students sharing the same excitement about Alvernia’s growth and development that I hear constantly from alums of all ages. And I looked with pride (and some laughter too) at the large contingent of faculty gathered together . . . alongside a well dressed statue of our patron, St. Francis.

Perhaps the most frequently asked question by students and reporters alike has been what will be different about Alvernia now that we are officially a university. In Pennsylvania, universities must have a broad range of offerings, especially in professional programs, and emphasize graduate as well as undergraduate education. Universities usually contribute greatly to the cultural and economic life of their local communities. Those located near cities often have extensive internship and other community-based learning opportunities. All of this is already true of Alvernia. No change there.

Many universities, both famous and less so, feature professors well known for their research who work primarily with a few graduate students, while those same graduate students teach many of the undergraduate classes. There are lots of opportunities, but it is hard to get individual attention. Alvernia has faculty in many fields who are respected, productive scholars; our faculty also includes individuals active professionally and able to apply this experience in the classroom. Yet all of our classes are taught by faculty—never by graduate students—and all of our faculty share a passion for undergraduate education . . . and for each student’s personal growth and development. No change there.

As schools grow in prestige, many become places primarily for students with top test scores or impressive high school records or privileged backgrounds. Bright students who don’t test well and students with average academic backgrounds are overlooked. And high tuition makes it difficult for students with modest or limited financial resources to reap the benefits of a personalized education. In contrast, guided by Franciscan values, Alvernia has long been a place of opportunity affordable to a wide range of deserving students. Tuition will not spike up because we are now a university. Alvernia will continue to be a great value, with costs noticeably lower than most private colleges and universities in our region. Alvernia will also continue to be the place where students of diverse backgrounds blossom as students and student leaders. No change there.

So why become a university? One good reason is that it recognizes what we already have become. It calls attention to the range of our academic offerings, including masters and even doctoral programs. It highlights that we have approximately 3,000 degree-seeking students and several hundred more life-long learners in our Seniors College—here in Reading, in Philadelphia and Pottsville, and other locations. Becoming a university does validate the impressive growth and development of Alvernia. And it helps us tell this exciting story not only locally but also regionally and even nationally.

But becoming a university represents a challenge too. Academic programs, both liberal arts and professional, must be of consistently high quality. It demands improved facilities and learning opportunities for our students. The O’Pake Science Center and the Upland Building now provide first-rate learning spaces. New athletic and recreation fields will continue the progress made by the Center for Student Life, the renovated dining center, and the beautiful Campus Commons. And by next fall, 150 additional juniors and seniors will be able to live in high-end, convenient apartments right on campus.

Such improvements make heightened student involvement even more important . . . and possible! Whether college or university, Alvernia will best thrive if students are intensely engaged in their education and their entire Alvernia experience. Active participation in class discussions, informal dialogue with one’s teachers and advisor, work on a collaborative class project are a few of the many ways. Opportunities for leadership abound on campus, as do opportunities to strive for excellence athletically and artistically and to deepen one’s spiritual life. Internships and field experiences, service projects in Reading and the Dominican Republic, Alternative Break trips to Baltimore and El Salvador all deliver on the familiar promise: students do much of their most important learning outside the classroom.

Becoming a “distinctive Franciscan university” is a worthy aspiration. We have taken the important first step and should feel proud but hardly satisfied, certainly not complacent. We have raised the bar for ourselves. Our expectations are higher. As they should be. So, too, should be our results.

Flynn Files