Opening Address to the Villanova Community - August 26, 2011

Good afternoon and welcome back.

Last February, our Strategic Plan road tour, What’s Next at Villanova, took me to Panama. While there, our Villanova alumni organized an opportunity to tour the Panama Canal. From the control tower, we had an incredible view of this engineering feat and the skill it takes to carefully maneuver huge cargo vessels through the narrow canal. 

Since its opening in 1914, the valves and gauges once operated by a series of engineers have been replaced with computer technology and multiple sensors that open and close each lock as a ship passes through. But one thing has remained constant in the nearly one hundred years of the canal’s operation. On each ship that passes through, a canal pilot comes aboard and oversees a team of men and women who manipulate a series of ropes and cables. It is this process that safely guides each ship on a forty-eight mile journey of rising and lowering water amid towering concrete walls. It is an amazing combination of human expertise and technological innovation; of precise skill and bold imagination.

Five years ago, I stood before you at a similar point in the academic year talking about a vision that we could accomplish together. Speaking as Villanova’s newly inaugurated president, I called on the community to create our vision of Villanova; to mold and sculpt our University with the precise skill and bold imagination of an artist.

The message that I shared with you that day and the one I share with you today are exactly the same: I want Villanova to be Villanova. Then, as today, I believe it is important to identify the things we do well as a University and invest in them with time, talent and resources.

This belief – this commitment – formed the foundation for a comprehensive process that resulted in our Strategic Plan. In a very powerful way, it builds upon that one, simple idea – of Villanova being Villanova. Through five imperatives, we are investing in the University to build upon our strengths and address fundamental areas where we can take bold and innovative steps forward.

One imperative is Sharing Our Story. Sounds easy, right? Everyone knows about Villanova. They went here or knows someone who did; they were in Lexington, Kentucky on April 1, 1985 or Chattanooga, Tennessee on December 18, 2009; and so on. So telling people about our University and what makes us unique shouldn’t be too hard. But that’s not necessarily the case.

We all talk about community, about Augustine, about Veritas, Unitas and Caritas. But when pressed, it can be hard to explain what those words really mean and how they contribute to a rewarding educational experience. If we are going to Share Our Story – the Villanova Story – we need to be clear about what that story really is.

So we set out to define it, and determine how to talk about it in a clear, consistent and concise way. You will recall receiving emails and participating in surveys about what distinguishes a Villanova education. Your thoughtful participation made this a very inclusive and thorough process, and helped determine the key components of the Villanova identity.

The process of defining the “Villanova Story” is complete and what we learned was that Villanovans are people who ignite change. They want to make a difference. Our Augustinian Catholic intellectual mission fosters change makers by teaching students to think critically, act compassionately and succeed while serving others. Villanova prepares students to become ethical leaders who create positive change everywhere life takes them

Simply put: Ignite Change. Go Nova.

This is not a tag line. It is not a brand. And it is not an empty phrase designed to get people’s attention. It is the promise and potential of a Villanova education distilled into four words.

Ignite Change. Go Nova.

Over the last couple of days, these four words should have been very visible to you. The start of the new semester is an opportunity to launch this idea of Villanovans as change makers. Examples of students, faculty, staff and alumni igniting change are all around us and those examples will play an important role as we move forward with sharing the Villanova Story.

It is important to note that what we are and what we aspire to be are very similar, and that just because there is some new language being used we are not turning a blind eye to our past accomplishments.

Rather, it is the opposite. Our past – the successes and the struggles – will always inform our future. And just because we are looking for Villanovans who are igniting change now does not mean that we are ignoring a glorious history of change makers among our community

I would like to use our time together to outline a vision for this academic year and beyond. To help me do that, I will use some current examples of Villanova change makers to highlight the imperatives outlined in the Strategic Plan.

This first imperative should speak loudly and clearly to each of us: academic distinction within the context of our Augustinian tradition. This means revised core curriculums in the colleges and innovations to classes, programs and centers of excellence throughout campus. It also means a renewed focus on interdisciplinary approaches to teaching and learning.

More and more, our faculty is reaching across disciplines and colleges to collaborate on courses that appeal to students’ interests and curiosities while also providing practical, real world relevance. One example of igniting change in the classroom is a course in the Center for Innovation, Creativity and Entrepreneurship called Mobile Device Programming. Or, more simply, at Villanova you can build an app for that – whatever “that” is.

The course is taught by three professors: Dr. Frank Klassner, an associate professor of Computing Sciences; Dr. Sarvesh Kulkarni, an associate professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering; and Dr. William Wagner an associate professor of Accounting and Information Systems. The idea for it came from conversations among these faculty members and Dr. Patrick Maggitti, director of the Center, who realized their work – programming iPhones, studying the use of smart phone hardware for medical purposes in third-world countries, and the analysis of the size and growth of the app market – could be combined to create a practical and relevant class. An additional twist is the involvement of an alumnus who serves as global chief technology officer for Verizon Wireless. Verizon provided five smart phones and data plans, and has expressed interest in hiring Villanova interns at its new innovation center in San Francisco

This new class is just one example of innovation and a multidisciplinary approach to teaching and learning. Moving forward, we must continue to foster this kind of collaboration and creative curriculum development.

These are certainly not new ideas. Indeed, there is a rich history at Villanova of finding distinctive ways to deliver knowledge and bring together different disciplines. However, we must become even more bold, more strategic and more creative as we foster our academic distinction. We will support this imperative this year by implementing a new core curriculum in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, adding resources to the newly created Office for Undergraduate Students in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and strengthening interdisciplinary and cross-college efforts to address ethics, social responsibility and service.

To encourage this kind of collaboration, the University will offer seed money through a competitive process led by the academic deans. The money will be awarded to the team of faculty whose proposal best promotes interdisciplinary study, fosters cross-college collaboration, and enhances our academic environment. More details about this initiative will be forthcoming.

These and other initiatives are thoughtfully designed to work toward our collective goal of enhancing the University’s academic distinction within the context of its Augustinian tradition. No single idea from the Strategic Plan is more important than this and every other imperative flows from it.

In concert with our academic distinction, the University also understands that it must invest in its faculty scholarship and graduate programs. We know that enhancing our national stature depends, to a great extent, on the reputation of our faculty and excellence of our graduate programs.

Our commitment to this next imperative – technically imperative number three – recognizes that while our undergraduate programs will always be core to who we are, who delivers them and the select graduate programs that complement them, are also vital components of our academic identity.

We are committed to strengthening what is already an exceptional faculty. And we know that it is important that we invest in our faculty as much as we are investing in our facilities. Part of that investment includes a renewed focus on establishing endowed faculty positions. Such positions provide resources and distinction to exceptional faculty scholars.

This semester, I am proud to announce that we will inaugurate two new endowed faculty chairs. In September, Dr. Raka Shome will become the first holder of the Margaret E. and Paul F. Harron Endowed Chair in Communication. And in November, Dr. Lauren Shohet will become the first holder of the Luckow Family Endowed Chair in English Literature. You will receive more information about these endowed positions and the inauguration events as they draw near. In the meantime, I know you will join me in congratulating Dr. Shome and Dr. Shohet. 

This summer, the Office of Academic Affairs initiated a study to evaluate faculty compensation as compared to our peer institutions and present ways to bring Villanova faculty compensation to market level. We want to provide more resources in the classroom, more opportunities to pursue scholarship and attract new scholars who are as focused on exceptional teaching and research as they are on developing our students. We will never be a place where the emphasis upon teaching is diminished, but we can – and should – identify and promote new ways that research, writing and outside activity can invigorate the classroom experience.

This year, we will support this imperative by developing the Doctor of Nursing Practice program in the College of Nursing and formally opening the College of Engineering’s new graduate learning center in the Philadelphia Navy Yard, which allows us to reach a growing pool of students who work there or close by in Center City. We also will continue to work with each of the colleges to increase the quality of our graduate programs and progressively increase stipends for graduate assistants.

An exceptional faculty and select graduate courses of study that develop inquisitive and knowledgeable students are fundamental parts of Villanova’s identity. The examples I cited are just a few of the ways we will continue to invest in faculty scholarship and graduate programs – this year and beyond. 

An innovative academic curriculum and distinguished faculty are only two parts of a three-piece puzzle. The next imperative – imperative two in the Strategic Plan – calls on us to continue enrolling a student body that is increasingly intellectual, interested in challenging themselves inside and outside of the classroom, and is as diverse as the global community into which they will graduate.

There are two stories of Villanova change makers in this area that I would like to share with you. The first is from our College of Nursing, where our students perform screenings as part of their health promotion course. These screenings are conducted in a variety of schools, most with poor and under-served populations. On one recent screening at an elementary school in Philadelphia, our students were initially told that fully 20% of the students there were learning disabled. However, they discovered that most of these students simply had poor vision. They couldn’t see, which made reading, answering questions and passing tests almost impossible. Our nursing students used that experience to implement vision tests, which are giving many students at that elementary school the opportunity to truly learn for the first time. 

The second example is a bit closer to home. Some of our chemical engineering students have designed a facility to take used cooking oil from the dining halls on campus and create biodiesel fuel. The fuel is used to run some of the University’s grounds and facilities equipment, and the byproduct, glycerol, is used to make soap. Taking what otherwise might be thrown away and instead turning it into useful and practical products – that’s another amazing way our students ignite change.

We know we attract great students – you just heard two examples of that. Each year, we accept a new class that is seemingly more accomplished and impressive than the last. Those who enroll make the most of their time at Villanova and go on to do amazing things. Yet, the Augustinian model of education calls upon us to do more to ensure that the dialog on and off campus is as vibrant, probing and challenging as possible

The College admission process is a two-way street. Thousands of students lobby us each year for a place on our campus, but we have to do more to recruit the exceptional students among that group and illustrate why Villanova should be the next step on their path to success. And those exceptional students who do apply to Villanova – and whom we accept – don’t always accept us.

Financial aid packages that fall short of our peers and a lack of diversity on campus no longer should be reasons that students cite for choosing another college. These are areas that we can address, and we’ve already started doing so.

The goals for this imperative are not new ones. We’ve been working to increase the amount of financial aid we are able to award to high achieving students and to students from diverse backgrounds. In fact, we have committed an additional $9 million to financial assistance over the past three years. But we must continue challenging ourselves to move forward – to be even more bold.

Work to support this imperative this year will include a fourth consecutive annual investment of additional resources into financial assistance. It will also include the formal integration of alumni interviewing in the Villanova Scholarship selection process. These initiatives will help get great students to campus. Once they are here, a renewed focus on retention rates and expansion of programs will help keep them here. 

One such program was initiated last year, Intergroup Dialogue. This program, developed at the University of Michigan, helps students relate to one another across racial, cultural, class, religious and geographic divides. Last summer, several of our faculty and staff attended training in Ann Arbor and created a pilot program for Villanova. I attended their final session and was elevated by the level of conversation and trust these students had developed. I have pledged support for an expansion of the program and the exploration as to how it can become part of the University-wide curriculum.  

We speak often about how our students are our shared responsibility, whether we teach in the classroom or work behind the scenes somewhere on campus. I firmly believe in that idea and I hope you do, too. Students and their families pick up on this sense of shared responsibility, and the relationships they form with you are what bring alumni back to campus and keep them engaged.

I want us to extend this commitment to our prospective students, as well. They need to see how universally committed we are to their success. This commitment is a big part of how Villanova can ensure that it is enrolling an increasingly talented and diverse student body.

Academic distinction, exceptional faculty and graduate programs, and an intellectual and diverse student body are all important components of what distinguishes Villanova. And while we are investing significant resources in these areas, we also must invest in spreading the word.  Therefore, the Plan’s fourth imperative focuses on Sharing the Villanova Story.

Nothing compares to a personal conversation or personal connection when it comes to sharing our story. I know that you all engage in these conversations every day and I want to acknowledge that your work is a crucial part of building Villanova’s reputation. While we know that Villanova is special, we need a clear and consistent way for all of us to talk about it

We learned through market research that prospective students had a difficult time understanding and explaining what was distinctive about Villanova. Over the past year, we have heard directly from high school students in focus groups about how little they trust the promises on schools’ websites and in brochures. 

These high school students are savvy and skeptical. Who do they say they listen to? They listen to you and they want proof. Proof from parents, teachers, family and friends, classmates or people they know. So, if we speak well of Villanova and explain clearly what distinguishes our University, then potential students will be much more trusting and more inclined to take a look.

There is no doubt that you are the best proof of what is special about Villanova. As I mentioned before, it is the relationships that define the Villanova experience for many people. We may “ignite change” and create “change makers” but it is not with some magic formula and it doesn’t happen by itself.

Change happens as a result of getting to know our students, investing in them, letting them invest in us and challenging them academically. Our students ignite change because you enable them to. Those are the stories we need to capture – the illustrations of how our students, faculty, academics and programs come together in unique ways to ignite change.

We need you to share those stories, to be ambassadors for the University. That is how we will support this imperative this year – working together to collect and share the Villanova Story. There will be plenty of resources available to assist you on the dedicated website, IgniteChangeGoNova.com, through the pocket guide that is available there and through new and improved outreach initiatives.

As I mentioned earlier, I’ve been traveling for much of the past year to share with our alumni, parents, and friends What’s Next at Villanova. Well, “What’s Next” has become “What’s Now.”

All that I’ve mentioned today, all that is outlined in our Strategic Plan, are goals that we need to achieve in order for Villanova to reach its potential. We have a glorious past and our future is bright. But an increasingly competitive higher education landscape calls us to do more to distinguish ourselves. That is not a difficult journey since we know who we are and what we aspire to be. But, it is a journey that demands commitment to our academic mission.  

However, change, even incremental change, for an institution our size can be an ambitious undertaking. Achieving our goals requires more than just the commitment and hard work of those of us on campus. We need our alumni, parents and friends to be invested in our vision and committed to providing the support to make it a reality. In other words, we’ve got big plans and need help paying for them.

As in many sectors of our nation’s economy, higher education is facing financial challenges that will not go away in the near future. In a recent article, Donna Randall, president of Albion College, cited data that in fiscal year 2012 nearly 35 states anticipate revenue shortfalls. As we have experienced this year in our Commonwealth, Pennsylvania’s public institutions are falling victim to decreasing state budgets.  This will result in higher tuition and decreased financial assistance at all public institutions. In private higher education, parents and students are carefully weighing the cost of tuition against the guarantee – whether real or perceived – of careers and salaries. As Randall states, "Families are taking on major financial risk to secure a future for their daughters and sons."

Last Saturday, we repeatedly told the families of our new students to trust us, that we will challenge and care for their daughters and sons, that we will help them to new levels of discovery about themselves and the world they are entering. We need to demonstrate what we promise is true. But there is work we must do to deliver on those promises.

The fifth and final imperative deals with increasing the endowment and attracting new levels of support. Last year, in my address to the University Senate I noted that our participation rate – the percentage of alumni who donate to Villanova – was as low as 15 percent just three years ago, meaning that approximately 5 out of 6 alumni chose not to support the University. The good news is that through a more aggressive and frequent approach, the participation rate has increased to 21%. The bad news is that still means more than 3 out of 4 alumni do not support Villanova.

Clearly, we need to do more to convince the people who know us best that their involvement is needed and their investment in us is worth it. To that end, this year we will be strengthening our advancement efforts to support the fifth imperative, which itself is designed to attract financial support for the previous four. We have opened an office in New York City, established a full-time presence in Washington, DC and are exploring doing the same on the West coast. These three areas of high alumni concentration offer tremendous opportunity.

And we are laying the groundwork for the next fundraising campaign which will attract new generations of donors to the University and new levels of support for programs campus-wide. Advancement is also working to attract support for the Transformation of the Campus Landscape Initiative, an important component of our efforts to enhance our campus, make it safer and make it an attractive destination where greater student learning will occur. 

I want to take the opportunity to speak briefly about this project. I know that the modifications that have taken place to the campus and traffic flow have caused some disruptions as the new year begins. Please know that this project was carefully planned and executed, and, despite our best efforts, some challenges have arisen. However, I assure you that staff throughout campus – your colleagues and friends – are working hard to smooth out the rough spots. I ask for your patience and cooperation as we adjust together to these changes

Five years ago, I told you that I wanted Villanova to be Villanova. I’m telling you the same thing today. I want Villanova to be Villanova – a vibrant and diverse intellectual community rooted in the teachings and ideals of St. Augustine; a leading institution of higher education that is recognized around the world for the excellence of its students, the accomplishment of its faculty in teaching and scholarship, the professionalism of its staff, and the distinction of its undergraduate and graduate programs; and a University that is supported by loyal alumni, parents and friends who are willing to invest in securing its future.

This is not a bold vision. This is a call to action.

Some of you may not be in love with the phrase “Ignite Change. Go Nova.” and some of you may be skeptical of the work it will take to reach our goals. Today, I’m asking you to look beyond those or any other barriers that may exist and invest yourself in making Villanova the best it can be.

In the past five years, I have learned many things about being president. I’ve learned that it is not about navigating a maze of obstacles. It is not about being the CEO of a major cooperation. And it is not about standing on the top and sending messages below. It is about realizing that the pie will never be cut into equal pieces. As St. Augustine states in his rule, we need to recognize that "there are times someone may need more than another." 

Being president is about being a partner with all of you to guide this Villanova ship on its journey toward new levels of academic excellence. Yes, at times the passageway may seem narrow and we may rise and fall. But with our skills and creativity, with our bold innovation and imagination, Villanova will continue to find ways to ignite hearts, inspire minds and illuminate spirits.  

We ask a lot of each other, but that’s what makes our community so unique. We are never alone in any of our tasks or journeys. We are able to accomplish great things because we can rely upon each other. It is in that spirit of collaboration, of mutual respect and of commitment to our shared mission that I ask for your support today. Achieving this vision, which is rooted in the Strategic Plan, is how I believe we can move the University closer to reaching its potential.

I look forward to a productive year and to working with you to Ignite Change. Go Nova!