DECADE | President's Perspective
While the English professor in me cringes at the possible hyperbole, as Alvernia’s president I rejoice in the praise for our university’s journey over the last 10 years. This past summer, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education reaffirmed the good work of the Alvernia community through an unqualified reaccreditation.
Required every 10 years, higher education’s accreditation process is technically “voluntary,” but without it we would be out of business. Accreditation is a precondition for students to receive federal and state financial aid and to sit for professional licensure exams. It involves a protracted two-year process of self-assessment and rigorous peer evaluation that spurs useful continuous improvement but is oddly reminiscent of root canal surgery.
It requires mountains of data and extensive quantitative analysis. But most valuable is the opportunity for genuine reflection, a process that is more art than science, rooted in our Franciscan core value of contemplation. So in this spirit, join me as we consider what has been accomplished and what remains to be done, recalling the road we have traveled and imagining where we might go in the years ahead.
In the beginning
It has been almost exactly 11 years since I first met an impressive group of trustees, faculty and staff who served as the presidential search committee representing Alvernia College. Shortly after my initial interview at the Philadelphia Airport Marriott, I had called my wife, Helen, before heading through security, and said, “I think this just might be the place.” And then a few minutes later, my phone rang.
It was Kathy Herbein ’95, chair of the Search Committee, expressing the same excitement about my candidacy that I felt about the college and inviting me to campus. It was a magical moment and is a special memory. But I could never have imagined how much I would come to love this special place, nor that Alvernia would become for Helen and me a warm, wonderful home.
Coincidentally, though Alvernia was new to me, I was familiar with Reading, having visited my uncle several times over the years at the Jesuit Center in Wernersville. Upon arrival, everyone forewarned us that it would be years before dyed-in-the-wool Berks County natives would embrace us. That was not our experience.
Countless Alvernia alums and trustees reached out to make us welcome. Two of my early memories are meeting business and civic leaders at a lively dinner at Mom Chaffe’s and at a festive reception hosted by prominent alumnae. It quickly became clear that Alvernia was held in high esteem in our community because many of our trustees and alums were themselves respected community leaders. Now, a decade later, an invitation to join Alvernia’s Board of Trustees is considered a great honor and privilege.
It did not take long for the leadership team of the Bernardine Sisters to invite the Flynns to dinner. And it did not take long for Helen and me to realize that the Sisters, individually and collectively, were at the heart of what made Alvernia such a caring community, though we never imagined so many Sisters would become treasured friends as well as inspirational colleagues.
Another early memory is the gift we received from the Sisters at the end of my inauguration mass, when Sr. Madonna, the congregational minister, announced that the congregation was sending us on a pilgrimage to Assisi! We were touched by this thoughtfulness, but only later did we realize that this was not only an essential part of my orientation as president but also a life-changing experience for us, as it is for the faculty, staff and students we send each year. Now, a decade later, Alvernia’s partnership with our Franciscan sponsors has been essential to our growth as a university.
The campus community was equally welcoming. I recall stimulating early conversations with faithful, longtime faculty and staff as well as talented, recently hired colleagues. Alvernia’s students made a powerful first impression. The student representatives chosen to interview the presidential finalists asked the best questions of any student group I had met. They were tough, insightful and probing. Over the last decade, Alvernia (and I) have benefited greatly from the high quality of student leaders, but I could never have imagined a decade ago that our 2015 commissioning ceremony would celebrate 100 such individuals!
The Board requested that I arrive a month early to benefit from an in-depth transition overseen by my predecessor, Larry Mazzeno. Witty as well as wise, he proved to be a helpful sounding board and a source of good advice. He had built a solid foundation for the future and so did not hesitate to suggest some potential further improvements. I recall saying to him on his last day in office, “Because you were the kind of president you were, I can be the kind of president Alvernia needs me to be.” But I never could have imagined how some of Larry’s key decisions, such as launching graduate programs and building the O’Pake Science Center, would prove to be so vital to Alvernia’s future.
There are other early impressions that now are fun to recall. When Helen and I arrived early for our first campus visit and found ourselves meandering through Angelica Park, we wondered if this bucolic setting could provide a grand entryway to campus. We noticed the main entrance to historic Francis Hall was not through the stately front doors but rather through the rear loading dock. And one look at the parking lot in the center of campus was all it took to know we needed grass, not pavement.
Today, the campus quad is the “home field” for a residential campus of almost 1,000 students. And within the next year we will celebrate completion of a spectacular new approach road that winds through Angelica Park, through a new shared entrance with the Sisters and up the hill to historic Francis Hall.
When I first was learning about Alvernia, one of my fellow presidents described it as “a hidden jewel,” with great potential. His observation proved to be prophetic. Trustees had significant untapped expertise. Faculty and staff members were talented as well as dedicated. Students and alumni appreciated their education and the loving spirit of the Sisters. Community goodwill seemed unlimited. Emboldened by recent growth, Alvernia was on the move!