Major Addresses

Alvernia University
August 20, 2013

Remarks from
President Thomas F. Flynn

Good morning. It is good we gather, well fed as usual, together with familiar colleagues and those we welcome to our university. I hope that you have found opportunities during the summer for relaxed time with families and friends. With a bit more rain than usual during the Flynns’ annual Delaware beach visit, my best friend and I kept reminding each other that “Even a bad day at the beach beats a good day in the office.” 

I know all of us appreciate the members of our Facilities, Enrollment, and Orientation teams and the many others for whom summer is an especially busy time. And we are proud of the faculty and Holleran Center staff who sponsor summer youth camps.  This morning’s breakfast and annual gathering always remind me of the diverse contributions made by faculty, staff, administrators, alumni, and trustees. As president, let me thank you, individually and collectively, for all you do for our students. And it is good for us to remember the many ways students enrich our lives and make Alvernia a special place. 

We gather, once again, as a special kind of community--an academic community inspired by religious values embodied by the Bernardine Franciscan Sisters and, indeed, by many lay women and men in this room. Founded one thousand years ago by St. Francis, in partnership with St. Clare, the Franciscan movement continues to challenge and guide the faith lives of Catholics--most fortunately Pope Francis. But it also inspires the spirituality of individuals from diverse religious and nonreligious backgrounds. And for us at Alvernia, the Franciscan educational ideal of “knowledge joined with love” shapes our professional as well as personal lives. 

In this spirit, I will frame this morning’s talk with the theme of yesterday’s Mission Day program. Let us find in St. Francis’ challenging admonition--“What Is Ours to Do?”--personal and communal motivation for the year ahead

“What Is Ours To Do?” Don’t we initially hear this not simply as a question about the next task, but rather a deeper request that as an academic community we ponder our greater shared purpose and vocation. In the Alvernia context, we turn first to our five Franciscan core values and our motto: “To Learn To Love To Serve.”

But this is also a practical question, is it not?  What steps must we take to realize our vision: “To Be A Distinctive Franciscan University, Committed to Personal and Social Transformation, Through Integrated, Community-based, Inclusive, and Ethical Learning.”  What concretely must we do to ensure we are committed to academic excellence and “to being and fostering broadly educated life-long learners; reflective professionals and engaged citizens; and ethical leaders with moral courage.” 

Perhaps because the media is so critical of higher education and so many are skeptical of our value, don’t we also hear in this question a challenge to address what we must do--to serve our students better and to thrive in an increasingly competitive environment. As I emphasized a year ago, we face the imperative to make changes not simply prompted by our own goals but in response to external trends. 

Finally, though, I suggest that, this morning and throughout the coming year, each of us applies this question personally: “What can I do to contribute even more to the university?”  We need nothing less than the very best efforts and highest standards of excellence from each of us.


As always on this occasion, besides celebrating examples of our many notable achievements, we look back with pride in the progress of the university and look forward with confidence to long-term aspirations. Two years ago, as we finalized an updated strategic plan, I shared with you ambitious long-term goals for Alvernia in 2018, a vision which was then sharpened by productive faculty conversations.  Last year, we reviewed the institution’s impressive transformation over the last 10-15 years.

Today, I ask us to reflect on the present—on near-term challenges and opportunities. After briefly reviewing our major goals and current competitive position, I will focus on three overriding themes:  1) new budget realities to address higher education’s economic climate and Alvernia’s competitive position; 2) programs and services to strengthen the quality of our students’ learning, development, and achievement; and 3) team leadership and strategic partnerships to drive university-wide initiatives. 

OVERVIEW OF 2013-2014:  Our main goals do not exhaust other important work to be undertaken, but still range widely. (See Appendix) I will comment on only several of them. Though not as momentous as 2008-2009, when we celebrated our 50th anniversary and university status and launched our fundraising campaign, 2013-2014 holds special significance, embodied in the first two goals.

VALUES AND VISION: In mid-October, we will celebrate the historic results of Values & Vision, Alvernia’s first comprehensive campaign. We hope to secure a few more gifts in the last two months, but even as of June 30 we have exceeded our initial goal of $27 million and our stretch goal of $30 million. Previously, we have recognized our Board of Trustees for their leadership and our dedicated Advancement team.

Today, I thank and salute all of you. Many of you have made gifts to help us significantly exceed our goal for the Faculty/Staff Campaign. But all of us have contributed to building this special place into a great success story worthy of such generous philanthropic support. This is a collective achievement. 
You will be pleased and unsurprised to know fundraising won’t end in October. This fall we will discuss “short-term” priorities with the Board, APAC, faculty officers, and others, tentatively centered on the concept of “Access and Excellence.” And we will begin to identify major donors for our two projected long-term projects—a recreation center/field house and an expansion of our library.

MIDDLE STATES:  2013-2014 also provides a valuable opportunity to assess the University’s progress and reaffirm our future direction. We will complete a self-study to prepare for the rigorous external evaluation required by our regional accrediting agency, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education.  Every ten years, a team of peers evaluates each institution in terms of its mission and the 14 standards known as the Characteristics of Excellence in Higher Education.  Accreditation is a must: it is required for students to receive financial aid and to sit for accrediting and licensing exams. (Remember, too, that Alvernia has specialized accreditation in fields such as athletic training, business, nursing, occupational therapy, and social work.)

Beginning last year with numerous focus groups, and continuing through the evaluation visit in Spring 2015, our work will be guided by a steering committee of over two dozen members, supported by 120 members of research groups, and coordinated by our accreditation Czarinas, Evelina Panayotova and Shirley Williams. 

We need all this talent. The steering committee decided wisely that, due to Alvernia’s scope and complexity and our recent change to university status, ours would be a comprehensive self-study, integrated around the priorities of the updated strategic plan.   
Reaccreditation is an important event in the life of an institution: a time to examine goals and programs, review progress and unfinished business, and receive validation and constructive criticism from peers. Like the planning process used to develop our strategic plan back in 2006-2007, campus-wide involvement is essential.

Alvernia’s Strategic Plan: Phase II (2013-2018): The timing of this process is apt: we are at the mid-point of our ten-year strategic plan, stretching from 2008-2018. Building on the rapid improvements accomplished during Phase I (2008-2013), and guided by the updated strategic plan completed last fall, we are poised to begin Phase II (2013-2018).

This year will be a time for celebration but not complacency; for institutional self-reflection and reaffirmation; for heightened engagement in accomplishing our goals; and-for creativity and decisiveness in building enrollment, controlling costs, allocating limited resources, and enhancing educational quality.  

Let me turn now to some economic and competitive realities, especially as they apply to Alvernia, before developing the three themes mentioned above.

Challenging Times for Higher Education . . . and for Alvernia: We know these are difficult times for higher education, especially for smaller private schools that are neither wealthy nor elite.  Congress’ patchwork approach to student debt and failure to address effectively the student loan crisis is but the latest example. A few national economic indicators are showing marginal improvement, but that has not improved the climate for higher education. There are no indications we will return to the pre-recession circumstances of a decade ago.

Our economic constraints and competitive pressures are increasing. Pressure to limit tuition and reduce costs has accelerated. Competition from two- and four-year low-cost providers and large regional universities has intensified. A recent national study confirms that 60% of families do not have a financial plan to pay for college education; only 27% plan to finance college through their savings but instead have far greater expectations of grant and scholarship support from their college of choice. The public expects concrete, immediate outcomes from this investment. Skepticism about the value of the liberal arts is rampant. Politicians of both parties stridently assert that a college education ought to be simply a low-cost commodity that produces a job. 

You are familiar with these and other trends from my address last year and from our January divisional “town meetings.” And I appreciate the affirming feedback from many of you regarding my articles and op-eds on these topics. So let me today simply remind us of this background as we review the impact on Alvernia’s enrollment and finances.

BUDGET AND ENROLLMENT:  As we all know well, this past year was our most challenging since the economic downturn of 2008. As reported in my summer newsletter, due to significant savings from the hiring freeze and other cost reductions and improved mid-year retention, we managed to cover the initial revenue shortfall and meet the Board-approved financial goals. But it was not easy. And our year-end results represented a short-term success, under trying circumstances, not a rosy future picture.

This year, we are much closer to enrollment goals than a year ago, but as of August 15 we face a potential revenue shortfall. Undergraduate new student and graduate enrollment are slightly behind their goals. Due to effective management by the enrollment team, undergraduate new student financial aid expenditures are less than projected, which will enable them to meet their budgeted net revenue goal. As you will hear later, the School of Graduate and Adult Education has new initiatives that will also hopefully offset their current revenue shortfall.  Like many of our peer schools, we also need to a better job helping ensure our current students succeed academically and flourish personally during their first year or two on campus. Retention of our students, even more than recruitment of our students, is everyone’s business.
As we plan future budgets, it is not sufficient to adapt to economic realities by merely budgeting conservatively. We must make necessary investments in educational quality and the student experience primarily by reallocating rather than adding expenses to the budget. And we must move far more rapidly to improve our position in the highly competitive graduate and adult marketplace. 

Let me highlight a few of the realities we face. Without unacceptably larger financial aid and marketing expenditures, we cannot expect new student enrollment to increase beyond current levels. Larger first-year classes will be difficult even with additional resources due to the dramatic decline in college-age students in the mid-Atlantic region. Nationally, high school graduates peaked in 2010-2012, with the next period of growth not projected to occur until after 2020. And the Northeast, unlike the Southwest, is not a flourishing area. Improved retention is our best solution and, of course, also a positive measure of improved educational quality and student satisfaction.

Increased investment in marketing will support growth in adult and graduate education. But graduate enrollments will not improve unless we move aggressively now to offer our programs in the accelerated, on-line formats favored by contemporary adult students and now used successfully by our major competitors. We cannot blame the economy: other schools are flourishing because they are more responsive to the adult market. By the appointment of a board ad-hoc committee, our Trustees are emphasizing the need for a more intentional strategy regarding on-line learning. Developing new programs with high student demand, like the doctorate in physical therapy, is equally important, as will be downsizing or phasing out of programs that are not viable.

The political climate in Washington means we no longer have the opportunity to garner federal funds to support academic improvements such as the Bernardine Hall renovation. We must rely instead on resources in our Capital Budget, as we have the past few years, and also seek foundation and other grants far more proactively.

Employee compensation, both salary and benefits, will continue to be a priority. All open positions will be formally reviewed and prioritized against other university needs. Some will be filled, some will be redefined, and some will be reallocated to areas of growth or higher priority need. Some positions currently remain open in this year’s budget, but a number have been filled. Several new faculty positions have been funded from new or reallocated resources, and employee health benefits have been preserved with all increased costs once again funded by the university. That said, we know health care costs will be an even more serious challenge in the coming years.

Let me sum up:  Despite signs of economic progress nationally, such as in the housing and financial markets, private higher education must adapt to economic realities and to heightened competition. For Alvernia, this will require a new approach to the budget that assumes far more limited resources from tuition and enrollment growth, more demanding decisions concerning resource allocation, greater emphasis on securing grants and external partnerships, and innovations that widen the appeal of our academic programs.

This new approach to the budget is essential for strengthening the quality of student learning, development, and achievement. This is my second theme, applying to several of this year’s goals, and there is good work underway and anticipated.

A distinctive learning environment involves a range of spaces, services, programs supporting life in and beyond the classroom as well as inspired faculty teaching and wide- ranging leadership, research, creative, and service opportunities for students.

Buildings are easiest to spot. The full renovation of our original academic facility, Bernardine Hall, follows the arts upgrade in Francis Hall and the renovation of the Upland Center. Completion of this project is a great success story and a tribute to effective financial planning. Because Bernardine renovations were not identified as a major goal during the campus master plan, it was not part of the campaign’s fundraising plan. Several years ago, however, it became clear this was an urgent academic priority.  Except for a few federal grants, the funding for this renovation has come entirely from annual resources allocated to our capital budget, most of them supporting an excellent Teaching and Learning Plan developed by faculty and academic administrators. 

This fall we celebrate the last stage of this renovation with the opening of the new health care sciences wing. It is home to three classrooms for the occupational therapy program and faculty offices and seminar rooms for both OT and Nursing.  The classrooms feature technology able to record student laboratory work--continuing opportunities for the inter-professional work begun by nursing and OT students and innovative faculty members.

This renovation has also upgraded the main lobby of the building and the popular Kestrel Café. An even more notable improvement is the dramatically expanded Courtside Café. The Shander room and lobby now provide seating for over 120, making this an attractive dining option for students, as will a far more varied menu supported by enlarged cooking and service areas. A new Press Box has been added above the court across the hall from our Sports Information Office. And the outside of the PEC has had a welcome facelift!

Such improvements, along with the new Campus Commons, are needed to serve a larger resident student population. The Residence Life Plan implemented last year calls for three distinct areas of residence: freshman, transitional, and senior, each with its own programming model.  Twenty-seven percent of our resident students lived in theme housing last year; 30% will do so in 2013-14, with 6 additional student-led affinity communities.

The expansion of the residential population is only one reason high quality IT service is critical. Important changes have recently been made. We are fortunate to reorganize the department around capable colleagues who bring experience and know-how, buoyed by talented staff. The IT area is well positioned to work together more seamlessly and to more effectively align our resources with campus needs.

There are some encouraging initial signs, even beyond Mike Nerino’s witty emails.  Already the new IT Service Desk is getting very positive reviews addressing all student, faculty and staff inquiries via a single, dedicated point of contact.  There is certainly much work to be done and more funding needed for the IT area. But for now, our new team is poised to take us to the next level in service. And in Robin Allen we have an experienced Interim CIO for the year as we prepare to conduct a national search.  

Other important opportunities await us this year. Building on initial work led by University Life, we are ready to strengthen our students’ global perspective. At the request of Provost Williams and Vice President Cicala, Dean Aracena will lead the development of an international education program, with initial focus on a program linked to our Sisters’ mission in Santo Domingo. Complementing this work will be initiatives from the Diversity and Cross-Cultural Plan, with Wanda Copeland, as part of her expanded duties, helping lead this effort.  I am also part of a small group of presidents invited to attend meetings this fall in China to explore partnership opportunities. 

Guided initially by Ginny Hand and now Jay Worrall, the Holleran Center has attracted well-deserved attention to Alvernia not only in Pennsylvania but nationally through our prestigious Carnegie Foundation recognition. Interfaith work is now a priority of the Center, in cooperation with Sr. Roberta, our reinvigorated campus ministry and chaplaincy team, some theology faculty, and others such as our first Fromm Interfaith Awardee, Justin Padinske. Such work is essential to the University’s mission as a “Distinctive Franciscan University” and our broader role as a unifying civic leader.

As you heard earlier, the O’Pake Institute for Ethics, Leadership and Public Service will be formally launched with an upcoming keynote lecture and seminars on corporate social responsibility and on civil discourse.  Other efforts include the reprise of the O’Pake film series, the expansion of undergraduate leadership programs, and the potential creation of related degree and non-degree programs. Under Dave Myers’ leadership, there is a draft of a strategic plan with a dizzying list of terrific ideas, ready for prioritization by advisory councils of campus and community leaders. As with Jodi Radosh’s pivotal role with service learning in the Holleran Center, Bongrae Seok and Tufan Tiglioglu will provide essential faculty leadership for our ethics and leadership initiatives to complement the work of the entire O’Pake team. 

Completed over the summer is an impressive document, co-authored by Dave Myers and Jay Worrall, setting out an ambitious vision for Alvernia’s role as a national leader in Service and Civic Engagement. They will seek feedback early this fall from faculty, staff, and students on the vision and on the choice of strategies best suited to achieve the goals for their units and for the entire university. Our mission says it well: we seek to graduate “ethical leaders with moral courage” as well as “engaged citizens” devoted to service.

As we continue to strengthen a distinctive learning environment dedicated to our students’ intellectual and personal growth, two important goals for the coming year move front and center: First, final approval by the faculty--and then the Board of Trustees--of a new General Education Program and related requirements; second, the successful launch, jointly by Academic Affairs and University Life, of the Educational Planning Center.

GENERAL EDUCATION: During the summer, the newly expanded General Education and Core Curriculum Committee formed faculty teams to develop the framework for general education approved last spring by the faculty and, subsequently, by the Board of Trustees. A far more coherent, integrated general education program will improve the essential liberal arts dimension of an Alvernia education.  Especially important are first, a compelling freshman-year set of courses to complement initial studies in the major; second, close connection between curricular and co-curricular experiences, including an emphasis on an Alvernia strength—“real world” experiential learning; and third, challenging advanced work in general education that enables students to connect learning across subjects, disciplines, and experiences beyond the campus. The Committee has set a December deadline to ensure appropriate faculty review and approval next spring. The new program will be implemented in Fall 2014. 

EDUCATIONAL PLANNING CENTER (EPC): Opening this month is the new Educational Planning Center, a collaborative venture of Academic Affairs and University Life, directed by Interim Associate Dean Danielle Saad, and jointly overseen by Provost Williams and Vice President Cicala. The EPC will be the hub for student advising and the central resource center for experiential learning opportunities, major and career exploration, academic support services, and the first-year experience. The EPC’s main office is just off the main lobby of Bernardine Hall, with the team of faculty, staff, and students located on the adjoining first floor. 
Let me pose a final imperative on this theme of Student Learning, Development, and Achievement: we must increase substantially the number of our students who graduate and who do so in four years. There are legitimate explanations why more of the nation’s college students are not graduating and in a timely fashion. But there are no legitimate excuses. We must do better by our students.

How can we best address economic and competitive realities and serve our students? My third and final theme suggests an approach that is appealing, feasible, and worthy of our Franciscan culture. We must look for leadership through Teams and Strategic Partners.

This is not a revolutionary notion. It is also well suited to a Franciscan leadership style. We have much good will to draw on across campus and in our surrounding communities. But like all in academe, we do like our silos. Given the competitive environment and the challenges facing universities, we must work seamlessly together. And we are fortunate to have good examples to inspire us. 

Impressive faculty work on assessment is engaging faculty from both colleges, led by Kathy Wisser and Evelina Panayotova and including the Assessment Fellows, namely Beth Aracena, Joe Kremer, Joan Lewis, Kathy McCord, Bongrae Seok, Jerry Vigna, and Erin Way. Department teams, such as in Psychology, are rethinking entire undergraduate curricula.  Updating policy handbooks is a thankless task. And not the most popular subject for the old essay: “How I Spent My Summer Vacation.” Yet a team of faculty made initial headway this summer on just such a task.  Thanks to Adam Heinze, Rose McFee, Mary Ellen Wells, and Victoria Williams.

University Life, the Holleran Center, and the O’Pake Institute have enabled Alvernia to be named a lead institution in the Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement initiative of the national student affairs organization. Our work has been profiled in a national magazine article by Joe Cicala and was the focus of a recent conference presentation by him and Jay Worrall. A partnership between University Life and Business Affairs has drawn together Public Safety, Human Resources, and Student Life administrators to make Alvernia one of only 50 participating institutions in the Clery Center Collaborative Project, designed to prevent violence, substance abuse, and other crimes at colleges and universities.  Our web site’s annual security report already has been improved as a result, and new safety and security training programs are already in progress.

Team work and partnerships with external entities are equally essential. In October we will announce a partnership between Alvernia and the Olivet’s Boys and Girls Club, establishing the Reading Collegiate Scholars Program to increase the number of inner city youth who attend and graduate from college, especially at Alvernia.

Strategic learning partnerships are now a core strategy for the School of Graduate & Adult Education. There is promising program development underway at our Philadelphia and Schuylkill Centers and other sites. A partnership with the Philadelphia Police Department features criminal justice classes at their Police Academy, social work and education offerings are expanding in Philly and Schuylkill respectively, and the launch of nursing and healthcare science courses is the first step in a significant undertaking with Montgomery County Community College-Pottstown.

Through a new agreement with Penske Truck Leasing, Inc., the first of its kind for the company, Alvernia is now their exclusive in-house provider for adult education.  Starting this fall are an MBA cohort at the company’s Green Hills location, a Business degree completion program, and promotion of Alvernia’s Online MBA to the company’s 17,000 employees. All of these initiatives are the result of cooperation among faculty, department chairs, and staff from the School of Graduate and Adult Education.

As we look ahead, our graduate and adult programs can regain momentum—and new students—ONLY if faculty, administrators, and community partners expand their combined efforts. The success of our potentially transformational Educational Planning Center depends on collective energy by that entire team, with support from all faculty and deans and shared oversight by Provost Williams and Vice President Cicala. Our re-established Retention Council, headed by Vice President McCloskey, will link together a genuinely university-wide group to target efforts and implement “best practices.” 

Regular, timely communication and engagement respectful of the demands on our time is always a work in progress. Yet there is good promise in the expanded charge and membership of APAC, the Alvernia Planning Advisory Council; continued cooperative dialogue between faculty officers and the Provost; and increased efforts by the Vice Presidents and Deans to make divisional and college meetings valuable opportunities for information sharing. 

So let us sum up by linking together today’s three themes: Our future success in addressing economic realities and a competitive marketplace demands new budget assumptions and related strategies to strengthen student learning, development, and achievement. Our success will depend, in large part, on our willingness to work as Teams and Partners, both on and beyond the campus.  

Let me conclude by returning to where I began: “What is Ours To Do?” 

Yes, let us use this phrase to call us to our shared purpose, our vocation, as educators in the Franciscan tradition.  Let us think also of our university goals and long-term aspirations and the steps necessary to achieve them. And let us think of how we must take steps to address the turbulent external environment. But at this moment, I ask that we think most about what each of us can do this year, preferably working with others, to step up, to make an additional difference beyond our already good efforts. How can all of us join together to increase enrollment, to target resources most effectively, to enhance the quality of student learning and development, and to improve student achievement?

We have touched on a few inspiring examples this morning. Here are three final ones. Each models personal initiative, innovative spirit, teamwork, and a passion for continuous improvement.  
Significant improvement in transfer student retention last winter did not happen by accident:  academic deans, university life and enrollment staff, and faculty department chairs formed an effective team. An Innovation Grant launched a transfer student mentor program. I am told that this past summer, criminal justice and nursing faculty were exceptional partners in enrolling large cohorts of their students. Thank you, one and all.

In response to our growing reputation as a “Military-Friendly School,” and supported by another Innovation Grant, a team of enrollment and university life staff stepped forward to develop a plan for a comprehensive set of veterans’ services at Alvernia. Thank you to Shanna Bossler, Joe Cicala, Jason Dietz, John McCloskey, and Claire Murphy.

Most importantly, close collegial cooperation between faculty leaders in nursing and occupational therapy and admissions staff have brought us over 200 of our 500 new undergraduates. To say the obvious, this superb effort was essential this year. And it is the key to our greater improved academic profile.  

Similar teamwork is targeting adult students too. A new free-standing master’s in OT is due to launch in January. The nursing program is capitalizing on current strength to tap new markets. With funding provided to draw on outside professional expertise, additional degree programs are being studied in cooperation with Reading Health System. Thank you to Stacey Adams-Perry, Dan Hartzman, Daria Latorre, Mary Arbogast, Neil Penny, Mary Ellen Symanski, Karen Thacker, and your faculty colleagues.

Amidst all this, let us never forget “Why We Do What We Do.” 

And let us draw inspiration from our graduates. Think of the two alumnae currently featured on our website: Amy Donovan, ’09, a marketing professional with clients from Connecticut to Texas, and Kate Roesch, ’12, a Peace Corps volunteer in Uganda, battling malaria in that country.  A recent wide-ranging alumni survey, conducted for a new plan by our Alumni Council to improve alumni engagement, has some stunning results: 

76% of all alumni remain active in community service since graduation; 
  83% felt that Alvernia emphasized experiential, hands-on learning. 
90% believe Alvernia did an excellent or good job to prepare them for careers;
72% feel the value of their degree has increased as Alvernia expands and grows;
94% would recommend Alvernia to others.

Making a life-changing impact on our graduates is, faculty and staff colleagues, why we do what we do. After eight years at Alvernia, I cannot be happier or feel more fortunate than to be committed to good work together with all of you. Here’s to a fine year.


2013-2014 University Goals

1. Conclude & Celebrate Values & Vision Campaign

2. Complete Middle States Self-Study Report

3. Increase Graduate Enrollment, Improve Undergraduate Retention & Graduation Rates

4. Expand Graduate & Adult Online Learning

5. Approve General Education Program

6. Develop Global Education Plan

7. Implement Educational Planning Center

8. Enhance “Distinctive Franciscan University” Brand
(Real-world Learning, Ethics/Leadership, Health Science focus)

9. Develop & Implement Short & Long-term IT Priorities

10. Align Fiscal/Human Resources to Current Realities

11. Strategically Engage Alumni 
(Admissions, Career Development, Philanthropy, Leadership)

12. Expand Mission Integration Initiatives 

major addresses

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