Opening Address to the Villanova Community - August 30, 2012

Thank you for joining me today during a busy week.

This time of year always presents a period of adjustment as each one of us settles back into our respective “Villanova routine” and gets comfortable. That sounds nice, but being comfortable will not take Villanova where it needs to go and will not provide the spark we need to face the challenges that lie ahead. Allow me to explain.

Higher Education is facing some significant challenges and this summer revealed several dramatic examples:

  • More than 10 colleges across the country announced that they will be closing or are on the brink of financial collapse—a sign that there is still a tremendous amount of uncertainty in the economy.
  • The University of Virginia’s president, Theresa Sullivan—heralded two years ago as one of the leading voices in academia—was forced to resign only to be reinstated sixteen days later in a stunning turnaround by her Board.
  • Penn State was hit with severe sanctions for failing to report known child abuse. This is certainly not the only institution that has placed reputation over integrity, but it has ignited a national debate about the overemphasis of athletics, institutional greed and a lost focus on academic mission.

Beyond these headline stories, higher education faces challenges and pressures that may not capture as much attention but are no less important:

  • Growing competition among colleges for both national and international students
  • The cost and uncertainties of technology continue to change day by day
  • Shrinking state and federal funding
  • Rising tuitions costs
  • Mounting student debt
  • The growth of online courses
  • Pressure to shift away from the Liberal Arts in favor of more professional training
  • Deteriorating incomes and uncertain employment opportunities, which cause many to question whether college is worth the cost

Faculty tenure is being questioned as a poor business model and there is a cry to reform traditional teaching pedagogy in favor of what is called flipped classrooms where the students’ homework is watching lectures online by super star professors and class time is devoted to interactive activities.

These challenges contribute to increasing calls for transformation throughout higher education with critics quick to suggest that the sector is better at resisting change than embracing it. They preach that universities need to adopt a stronger business model and they fault us for not taking measures that would cut costs and strengthen profit margins.

However, education is not and should not be a business. It is collaboration between faculty, staff and students. It is layers of governance working together to set guidelines and design curriculum. It is a focus on creating educational models that will stimulate critical thinking. It is scholarship and research that will contribute new knowledge to academic disciplines. It is serving the mission of the institution so that it can serve others. It is not about making profits, but profiting the larger community. It is not about the quantity of graduates, but the quality of the education and preparation they receive. True, colleges and universities can learn from business practices but operating a college as a business is a mistake. 

The challenges, pressures and criticisms that we face are real. We must acknowledge them and work to address them. Part of this is being brutally honest with ourselves so that we can get to the root of the issues and identify solutions that will work. The right decision will not always be the easy one, but the fear of change cannot hold us back from transforming the way we think and the way we operate moving forward.  

First and foremost on everyone’s minds is the high cost of tuition. Unless we address how students will pay for the Villanova education we value so much, we will find ourselves maintaining and entertaining a campus of elite and entitled students. A student body devoid of economic diversity would chip away at our Augustinian identity and change who we are.

This is not and cannot be Villanova University. Therefore we have to find ways to ignite change. We need to wake up the culture of giving at Villanova. This means finding new sources of revenues, stimulating corporate and foundation giving, and appealing to our alumni, parents and friends. While many strides have occurred in all of these areas, we need to do more. 

On the other side of that equation is the issue of our expenses—the resources it takes to operate the institution and support its mission. We have taken great pains over the past several years to reduce waste and maximize efficiencies in our operations. We must continue these efforts to ensure we are careful stewards of the University’s resources, and are doing what we can to minimize the costs we pass on to students and their families.

Part of this self-examination is a thorough look at the programs and services we support throughout campus. We need to ask ourselves a series of questions—Are we spreading our resources too thin? Are we doing too much? Why are we so eager to add, but so reluctant to subtract? Are there programs, either academic or otherwise, that have served their purpose but have lost their luster? Do we have the necessary resources to elevate some areas in the future? If not, then maybe they should be eliminated. Are there too many athletic programs and too little money to support them? Where will the cuts or reshaping have the greatest impact?

To get the answers to these kinds of questions, we need to embark upon a thorough study. Such a study will take time, but we need to begin the analysis and when we have the information, we need to be bold enough to act upon it.

The challenges related to tuition and costs are laid out right in front of us, but some are not so tangible. Do we have an active imagination? That is a necessary tool as we consider the future of learning.

Online learning is a market we cannot ignore or dismiss; rather, it is one we need to embrace. There are risks and advantages. There are imperfections and possibilities. Technology changes daily and our students know it and adopt it. We cannot be afraid of it or over examine its capabilities. 

We are well-educated people, but many times we wait for someone else or some other institution to make the move. How long have we debated the need for introductory classes or the expansion into global dialogues? Where are we on these issues? How about the value of interdisciplinary courses? My offer from last year to develop them still stands and—as of today—the offer is still untaken. We need to invent new ways to blast today’s classroom into places where our students want to learn. We need more creative thinking. We need to use our imagination. 

The chair of our Board, Terry O’Toole, has an example from The Harvard Business School that he loves to share. Harvard does not teach basic accounting but instead requires the students to take an online course that is offered by a professor at another institution. They believe he is the best person to teach Harvard students the principles of accounting classes. Harvard is then able to focus its resources on areas where it excels. Do we have the imagination here to tackle problems in a similar way?

MOOC, short for Massive Open Online Course, is the latest acronym and the big buzzword in higher education. Free online courses have become a public relations bonanza for the schools that participate, which include big names like MIT and Stanford.

But think about it: these prestigious universities are highly selective when admitting students and will never offer their diploma for free. Offering a free online class to thousands of people is one thing. Offering them an elite degree is quite another. However, MOOCs have produced a flock of sheep: one starts and they all follow. Before joining the flock, we need to think of ways we could use the technology to carve out a different path.

For instance, while the appeal of free online courses builds, so does the desire among participants to interact. According to a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, students in these courses are increasingly forming groups—both online and in the real world—to study and socialize. It is early in the process, but it seems that community—whether in person or online—is still something that students want as part of their education. 

Community is one aspect that distinguishes a Villanova education. We need creative thinking to imagine new ways of doing what we already do so well. How can we do it? How can we be a leader in emerging trends while also remaining true to who we are? 

The emergence of online learning is but one indication that, in many ways, the motivation to attend college has changed. For previous generations, college was for a selective few seeking to further their education.

I graduated from high school in 1970 and while some might gasp at the number, 42 years does not seem like too long ago. It was a small high school in a middle-class suburb of Detroit. The senior class numbered 87 and less than half applied to college. Of those 32 people, only two of us left the state. I am sure my experience is not unique but the overwhelming majority of people today do not enroll in college to get an education. They are seeking the credentials to gain success in the job market.

Recently, I was sent an essay written by Carlo Salerno from Xerox’s Education Services Group. He was reflecting on the economics of Massive Open Online Courses and the sudden surge in popularity. He believes that knowledge learned is easily forgotten. That is not a new concept—just ask any college graduate to retake an exam they took just five years ago.

The current structure for evaluating knowledge is built around point-in-time assessments like exams, not repeated evaluation over time of a person’s comprehension and understanding. How many times have you heard a college student boast about never opening a book, skipping classes or pulling an all-nighter to study for an exam—yet they always passed the class. According to Salerno, it is the credential that people value and carry with them years later, not necessarily the education.

Learning no longer takes place only in classrooms or on campuses. There are plenty of low cost or free alternatives—books on every topic, free online courses, internships, YouTube TED lectures and even cable television. If learning can take place everywhere, there has to be a reason that people would be willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars and several years of their life to get a college education.  As Salerno points out, it is for the credential.

No one is going to land a job at Air Products, the State Department, Goldman Sachs or the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia by watching a YouTube presentation on How Dr. Seuss Damaged Engineering in the U.S. or It’s Not Just for Artists Anymore: The Creativity Imperative of the 21st Century. While those lectures may be informative and entertaining, and may provide some conversation starters at parties, it is the GPA and the college transcript that will get you the job. That is why students will continue to seek out institutions and why Villanova must continue to position itself as a place that can both educate and provide that credential.

But, we cannot rely upon our reputation or any measure of past success. It is no longer enough to have a rich history, successful alumni and competitive admissions. Colleges and universities must be self-critical. Board of Trustees from coast to coast, including our own, are raising concerns about cost and how we deliver education. Where are we headed academically, residentially and technologically? We have some ambitious plans for the future. Is this the right time to pursue them?

There have been questions as to whether the Lancaster Avenue development is the direction we should be taking. If online education is the wave of the future, should we be investing in more residence halls? It is a legitimate question but its answer depends on how you view the purpose of colleges and universities.

Education online is intended to transmit knowledge. Campuses do more. They transform people, and I believe this project will transform our University. The transformation of the main parking lots will mean that people will no longer drive past Villanova but drive through Villanova.

Initially I referred to this project as “The Hamlet.” Technically, this was the wrong term. It sounded too small. I intended the term to embrace the old and new, and harken back to the time when Villanova College and Monastery were a small settlement in a rural area. I saw the idea of “The Hamlet” as a way to recapture a vision for Villanova, but instead the project offers a bold new vision.  

Look carefully at the model or the architect’s renderings; it is the visualization of a community: living and learning, faith and spiritual development, art and entertainment. It is the embodiment of that small settlement that shapes the renaissance thinker: blending everything into one commons. Through a series of buildings that will rise from a drab parking lot, we will be expanding the transformative power of Villanova University.      

And so we will move forward. With this project. With facing the challenges that lie ahead. With working together to position Villanova to thrive for generations to come. We must move forward; we must act boldly today so that future generations can benefit. There is uncertainty in both the changes we will make and the path we will take to get there, but we cannot—we must not—let that stop us from thinking and acting boldly. We need to do more as individuals and as a community to Ignite Change.

Of course, moving forward also means the start of a new academic year. It is hard to believe how quickly the summer passes. It really does not seem that long ago that we were celebrating Commencement. Yet, here we are welcoming a new class to campus, which is finally filled with sounds beyond just dump trucks, bulldozers and construction equipment.

From new faces to renovated spaces, a great deal of change takes place on campus during the summer. Since the end of the spring semester, 70 new staff, 44 full-time faculty and 40 adjunct faculty have been hired. I know you will join me in welcoming these new members of the Villanova community.

In the email I sent last week, I mentioned some of the projects that had taken place over the last few months. Phase Two of the Transformation of the Campus Landscape Initiative is moving along and should be completed by the end of October. The landscaping brought with it related utility upgrades and at times it looked like we were building a moat around Kennedy and Dougherty Halls. 

Thank you to the people who were here all summer and found ways to maneuver through the maze of campus construction. While we have been inconvenienced and traversed new paths to get salads, pizza and cheese steaks, we need to appreciate how all of this work will bring a new environment that will enhance the beauty of the campus for many years to come. 

As brief as it may seem, the summer months are a time of change at Villanova. Yet, as busy as we are and as much as we are able to accomplish, one thing remains the same: Villanova is still Villanova. That is important for each of us to remember. No amount of change on the outside can ever change who we are on the inside. We will always be an Augustinian Catholic University committed to the ideals of Truth, Unity and Love; an academic institution focused on providing an exceptional education rooted in the Liberal Arts; a place where students, faculty, staff and alumni find ways to use their talents and abilities to help those around them.

But, you know this. As the saying goes, “I’m preaching to the choir,” right?

Last year, I spoke about the launch of “Ignite Change. Go Nova.” The idea was that WE knew the Villanova story, but we needed a clear and concise way to share that story with others. The examples of Villanovans igniting change that we have collected since then have been amazing. It is clear that long after they graduate, our alumni use what they learned here to ignite positive change. It is very powerful to see how our Augustinian ideals are put into action in so many ways. If you have not visited ignitechangegonova.com to see these stories, I encourage you to do so.

Our alumni have really connected with this initiative. Often, I find myself in conversations with them where they will tell me that this one phrase captures what their Villanova education has meant. “Ignite Change. Go Nova” provides a connection from who they were to who they have become. They get it, and are eager to spread the word.

Our students get it, too. They are young and idealistic, and the notion of being able to ignite change in ways large and small is what drives them confidently into the future. This is a viewpoint we should all embrace. We should be indentifying the spark within them, feeding it and pushing them forward. No student should ever say they did not feel challenged at Villanova or by Villanova. We need to get them to understand that change isn’t about success every time. Change comes from a combination of knowledge, determination, idealism and hope. Those are characteristics we should be fostering in our students.

They also should be characteristics that we foster within ourselves. We need to embrace change. It is not something we should be afraid of, but instead something we look forward to. The last twenty years have seen significant transformation throughout campus. Buildings have been constructed or renovated; the core curriculum has been refined; programs have been added or eliminated; many faculty and staff, administrators, deans and even presidents have come and gone; and the type of student we seek to enroll has become more talented.

But as I said before, no matter what change occurs either above or beneath the surface, our institutional identity remains the same. Yet, I continually hear about the way things used to be. There is a longing for the past when things were more simple, when it may have been easier to get things done, when everyone’s plates weren’t as full. I hear from some on campus that too much has changed, that we are not who we used to be. From others, not enough has changed. We lag behind our competitors. We need more or I am not getting enough.

Is the issue really that Villanova is not what it used to be? Or is that Villanova is not what some of us want it to be?

Last year, the cabinet and I commissioned a Community Climate Survey. This was the second time since 2006 that we sought the thoughts and opinions of Villanova employees. I shared the results with faculty and staff this spring and overall it paints a very good picture. By and large, people are satisfied and enjoy working at the University. There were areas where the results improved over 2006, and there were areas that revealed we still have work to do.

The Climate Survey is a fantastic tool for me, the cabinet, deans and department heads. We will use the results of this survey—just as we did in 2006—to make changes in areas that you have identified as being critical and important.

But, this is a two way street and change cannot just come from the top. I need you—Villanova needs you—to be more engaged, more involved, more participatory. Do not just be communicated to, but join in the conversation. Challenge yourself to take on additional responsibility. By each one of us being fully engaged, the focus will never again be on what Villanova used to be, but instead on what Villanova can be, what it should be, and what it will be.

To do that, we need to increase our focus on each other and less on ourselves. Too often, we get caught up in individual issues and arguments, and we lose sight of the big picture. No matter what our role may be at the University, each one of us is an educator and our shared priority must always be our students. Fulfillment of our Augustinian and academic mission will come from achieving shared goals, not only individual benchmarks.

We speak often of community—and rightly so. Students, alumni, parents, faculty and staff all share a blue and white bond. But in order for our community to thrive, it must receive the best of you. Do not just take from it, but find ways to give. The opportunities to be involved on campus are virtually limitless. Find a way to connect with our students, participate in programs, attend a lecture, volunteer for service, share your faith, and bring your family to campus.

You might think that this speech is turning into a homily. And perhaps it is. On Sundays when I celebrate Mass, I try to share a message that both speaks to lessons of the day and stirs the passions of those assembled. It is not always easy to stimulate emotions and spark new thoughts, but that is the only way that change happens.

Whether it is Massive Open Online Courses or whatever comes next, higher education continues to evolve and we must evolve with it. It is not about chasing fads or embracing gimmicks to draw attention. It is about positioning the University for long-term success and viability. Challenges and pressures are coming from every direction. We must be agile, thorough and strategic as we face them. We must be ready to make some hard decisions. We must be ready to think differently. We must be ready to change.

Our community is changing. It must. It must be dynamic to serve the evolving needs of the students who come to us for the distinctive education we offer. We cannot sit still, we cannot wish for the way things were. We must look forward. Today, I’m appealing to you to seize the opportunity to be agents of change at Villanova. Change is not just my responsibility, or your boss’. It is your responsibility, too.

We are being challenged, so what will you do to meet the challenge? What will you do to demonstrate that Villanova is a value; that we educate on multiple levels; and that our students receive the credentials they seek?  Villanova invites our students into a process of living and learning, of faith and reason. What will you do to help them discover they have the power to ignite change?