Major Addresses

Alvernia University
August 18, 2015

Remarks from 
President Thomas F. Flynn

Good morning. Thank you to our Aladdin colleagues for the fine breakfast. And thank you to the many staff and faculty involved in helping new and returning students to be at home on this beautiful, clean, and welcoming campus.

It is good, as always, to gather at the outset of a new academic year, energized by the arrival of talented new colleagues; by the visible and less visible evidence of the university’s progress; and especially by our shared determination to improve the quality of our students’ educational experience. And energized, too, I hope, by rewarding time with family and friends and precious time on summer projects, personal and professional.

This summer, I had the rare opportunity to join Catholic university presidents from around the world at both a conference and a symposium on global trends and international education. Once again, I was struck by how provincial we can be here in the United States. A homily on religious liberty by an Iraqi Bishop, rather than concerning disagreements over health care policy, discussed the prohibition of educational opportunity and the execution of Christians in a neighboring diocese.

Yet in other respects we share identical concerns with educators around the globe—especially how we prepare our graduates to be women and men of character and virtue as well as accomplished professionals in the workplace. To my delight, the best of the keynote addresses, by an Australian scholar, used Bob Dylan’s famous song lyrics to explore the destabilizing trends of contemporary higher education and to challenge us to both respond to and proactively reshape the educational environment.

“Your old road is
Rapidly agin'.
Please get out of the new one
If you can't lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin'.”

With this in mind, I will focus my remarks this morning on our shared future. Earlier, we covered important announcements and some of the many highlights of the past year. Hopefully, along with my summer newsletter and the bi-weekly coverage of campus news in the Voice, this review will suffice as a look backwards at our many accomplishments. We will, of course, cover major goals for the coming year. And I ask you to join me in looking around the corner and anticipating Alvernia’s future in the changing landscape of higher education.

A word about today’s theme: “The Quest for Excellence.” We could devote a semester-long seminar to definitions of quality and excellence. I will not belabor that task here except to note that for me excellence involves the full engagement of head, heart, and soul and highest standards of expectation, effort, and achievement. This quest is not possible without dreams and high ambitions but also necessitates consistent, daily, unglamorous hard work. It takes confidence in self and others to pursue excellence, but equally candid self-criticism, humility, and a commitment to continuous improvement.

Some of you may recall that, ten years ago, when I arrived at Alvernia, I held “listening and learning sessions” involving the entire faculty and staff and groups of students and alumni at which I asked one fundamental question: “How do we get better?” I chose that question deliberately: most of the conversation during my campus interviews had been about enrollment growth not about educational quality; and I also wanted to learn about this community’s hopes and dreams for the future.

So I ask each of you, this morning and in the months ahead, to reflect on your current response to that question and to how you personally can get better! It won’t happen if we don’t think about it! And if we don’t each commit to getting better personally!

To say the obvious, we ask the “quality” question from a position of relative strength. As you know, this summer we received the final comprehensive affirmation of our progress during the last decade through reaccreditation by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education. This was an unqualified endorsement. We had 35 commendations from the visiting team, and most of their suggestions paralleled ones that emerged from the excellent work of our own campus study groups.

There are no required monitoring reports, as we had a decade ago, but only a progress report, four mandated recommendations, and some good feedback for our consideration.

Essential as is external validation of quality, such as gained through Middle States reaccreditation, we can ourselves point to great strides in quality and reputation since the last Middle States visit in 2004 and the adoption of our strategic plan in 2007. The vision statement’s four privileged forms of learning are ever more at the center of our students’ experience and Alvernia’s identity as a “Distinctive Franciscan University.”

Vision Statement
To Be a Distinctive Franciscan University, Committed to Personal and Social Transformation, Through Integrated, Community-based, Inclusive, and Ethical Learning.

Our teaching and learning facilities are much improved. We have a breadth of academic programs, including highly competitive ones that attract top students. Our revised general education program ensures that all students, regardless of major, benefit from a liberal arts education including the philosophical and theological studies at the heart of Catholic higher education. “Real world” experiential learning--both formal and informal, in the curriculum and the co-curriculum, in and beyond the classroom, on and beyond the campus--is a hallmark of the Alvernia experience.

Now a proud university, with the recent approval of our nursing doctorate, we sponsor three doctoral degrees and a range of other post-baccalaureate learning options to serve adult students and those in for-profit and not-for-profit organizations.

We now attract many talented students who have multiple options for college, even as we continue to be inspired by our Franciscan sponsors to serve diverse students from first-generation and low-income backgrounds. While our total enrollment has remained consistently at about 3,000 students, we have a far larger full-time teaching faculty than a decade ago.

Each year we welcome excellent younger scholars and accomplished mid-career professionals. We now have a robust, ever improving residential environment. There are boundless activities and leadership opportunities for students and a proactive set of health, wellness, and safety programs to address Title IX, Clery Act, and other federal mandates and to set high standards of our own. There are an appealing array of arts and other cultural events and an athletic program recognized for its emphasis on academics and service as well as competitiveness.

Sustainability initiatives are expanding. Alvernia is considered an invaluable community citizen. Beyond many ongoing efforts, we have expanded high-profile community partnerships like the Oakbrook Health Clinic project and key corporate training partnerships. The University is nationally recognized as a leader in service and in civic and, more recently, interfaith engagement.

There is no risk of complacency about this progress. Whether we are at Alvernia two, ten, or twenty years, we can all readily identify areas of needed improvement, though like any academic community we tend typically to look to other parts of the institution rather than to our own areas! Improving quality must indeed begin by understanding the current situation, weaknesses as well as strengths.


Yet it is essential we recognize that such assessments, like those of the Middle States visiting team, focus on the present not the future. They examine what is, not what will be. And nothing is more dangerous today for a college or university—especially smaller ones with modest resources—than to imagine that the future will be like the present.

Put simply, improving educational quality and ensuring Alvernia’s future require responsiveness of many kinds to the external environment. For the last two years, on this occasion and at our January divisional meetings, I devoted time to key external realities with special emphasis on the disturbing trends toward increased governmental regulation, such as the so-called White House Scorecard to rate all schools.

Fortunately, the Obama administration has, after two years of unsparing criticism from many of us involved nationally, backed off this unwise project. There is certainly still economic uncertainty, but we know the challenges facing higher education can no longer be blamed on a distressed economy as was the case several years ago.

Heightened emphasis on accountability and pressure to reduce costs are now the norm. Public higher education, in particular, is facing hostile disruptive criticism in states as diverse as Texas, North Carolina, and Wisconsin. All around us schools are taking defensive measures to reduce costs. We know that across higher education most instruction--a shocking 76%-- is already handled by adjunct, often part-time, faculty.

This has long been true at many institutions but has become a disturbing national norm. Well-known schools (such as several in eastern PA) are cutting programs and laying off employees. Other schools, even competitors such as West Chester and Cheney, are exploring unprecedented collaborations, perhaps leading even to mergers.

We have the advantage at Alvernia of being well attuned to the enrollment challenges facing higher education, especially smaller schools with modest endowment and limited operating resources. Partly due to mission and partly due to smart business, we have long resisted the temptation to charge an excessive rate of tuition.

But we are also well aware that our small endowment provides minimal financial aid and that our students carry high debt well above the national average. These facts put us at a significant competitive disadvantage and, as all here know well, limit the budget resources we have available.

But equally formidable challenges emanate from rapidly changing assumptions about education itself. Recall a slide you have seen before: CHEAPER, FASTER, BETTER! Low-cost providers are now touting a $10K undergraduate degree. Accelerated learning programs operate in weeks not months, certainly not semesters. On-line programs are proliferating. So, too, are customized programs between colleges and corporations. Prior learning credit and competency-based education will soon be commonplace for at least adult education.

For Alvernia, with a graduation rate below our peer average, and high credit and seat-time requirements for many majors, we are at a competitive disadvantage.

There are no simple solutions to these challenges. And some potential responses are and should be unacceptable to us. But even as we make improvements and address short-term needs, guided by our strategic plan, we must confront these mega trends and position Alvernia for vitality out 10-15 years in the future.

Led by past board chair, Joanne Judge, an ad-hoc committee of trustees and faculty representatives began earlier this year to explore long-term strategy and potential partnerships that would strengthen Alvernia’s competitive position. An important next step will be to conduct scenario planning, designed to explore alternative “what ifs” about the future and potential responses and proactive steps. I anticipate linking trustees, faculty, and staff in these discussions.

Scenario planning and other similar exercises will help us as we “look around the corner” and determine strategic partnerships and investments best suited for Alvernia. Yet there are some actions that we can be confident are essential to shape a stronger future. Here are just three, quite different, examples.


One involves technology. With leadership from Robin Allen, and input from many others we have for the first time a multi-year, systematic plan to renew computer technology and expand wireless service.


A second important investment, in a new building simultaneously addresses two critical needs, previously seen as unrelated: the lack of indoor student recreation space and the need for both flexible general-use classrooms and specialized spaces to support the expansion of our high-demand health sciences program. In this case, several pictures will be worth a thousand words!

By way of context recall that our long-range CMP anticipates the eventual build out of a new East Campus, stretching from the Sisters’ property over to Angelica Park. When we gather in January for our mid-year divisional meetings, we will hopefully have news about the long-awaited new shared main entry road with the Sisters and the new campus entrance at Francis Hall. Today let me call your attention to the long-term conceptual plan for East Campus

The initial phase centers on a Recreation, Wellness, and Health Sciences Complex and greatly expanded parking. Attached to the field house, which will provide badly needed recreation space for our students, will be a sizable academic wing built on top of locker rooms and training facilities. Academic programs such as Physical Therapy and Athletic Training will be obvious fits for this space, but we also envision general purpose and flexible interdisciplinary teaching and learning spaces.


A third important investment is focused on deserving and talented students and, through them, on our local community via the Reading Collegiate Scholars Program.

This Reading Collegiate Scholars Program is an ambitious undertaking. Its success is critical for Alvernia’s future in multiple ways. It involves a genuine institutional commitment—financial resources, yes, but also the concerted efforts of many throughout the university—led by O’Pake Institute and Holleran Center staff and including team members from admission, advancement, the EPC, and the faculty along with devoted community mentors and donors, both individuals and organizations.

We have had much initial success with fundraising and, most importantly, good initial results:
152 “College Readiness” High School Students
5 Alvernia Scholars (2014-2015) with 3.5 GPA!
10 New Alvernia Scholars (2015-2016)
Expanded Partnerships with Reading High & Berks Catholic High Schools

Last year, we worked with our own initial cohort of first-year scholars here on campus as well as over 150 high school students -- both sophomores and juniors and many seniors who this fall are pursuing college degrees at fine schools. Make no mistake: these are talented young people worthy of our support!


Let me now turn away from mega trends, multi-year projects, and the longer-term future and address the year ahead, beginning by reporting on our enrollment and budget.

Enrollment and Budget

Last year was a generally successful year for enrollment and, as a result, for our budget. This year, unfortunately, the news is far more mixed.

Last year, due to record-high retention, greatly improved from the previous year, we exceeded our undergraduate enrollment goal, even though we set lower new student goals and saw a dramatic increase in the discount rate. Graduate and adult enrollment rebounded and achieved 99% of its budget goal.

As a result, in addition to a salary increase and one-time employee bonus, there were allocations to the natural sciences, the library, and information technology as well as supplementary funding available for Faculty Excellence Grants and staff leadership development.

This fall, we have disappointing initial results with adult and graduate enrollment and mixed results with undergraduate enrollment. Though early in the year, and benefiting greatly from a fully enrolled initial cohort of doctoral students in physical therapy, adult and graduate enrollment is running about 5% behind budget. It is lagging both in key traditional programs and in on-line programs. The SGAE team is working hard to reverse this trend by reducing operating costs and targeting enrollment growth opportunities in the upcoming months.

With our entering freshman class there has been good progress improving the gender imbalance, but disappointing results with regional and racial diversity and net revenue. Due to improved recruitment of student athletes and the exceptional, unanticipated high yield of occupational therapy students, we have enrolled over 400 freshmen for only the second year in our history.

The fine work of our coaches continues to be critical to our success, especially since athletes outperform non-athletes and graduate at higher rates. In contrast, the large cohort of OT students is a decidedly mixed blessing. It is a tribute to the program’s excellent reputation and helps explain why the freshman academic profile is the highest in school history.

Yet such over-enrollment unfairly burdens this program, and the additional scholarship assistance for these top students helps explain why we have spent far more financial aid than budgeted. As we look toward next year, we will need to do a better job enrolling far more students in other programs, given the enrollment limits that will be needed in OT.

Unlike a year ago, when retention was at an all-time high and more than offset the shortfall of new student recruitment, overall retention is at this point lagging well behind goal, with one exception. Freshmen retention is tracking equal to last year’s record level of 77%, above the peer average and nearing our reach goal of 80%. Yet although we have a very large increase in resident students, happily necessitating the unplanned reopening of housing in Francis Hall, retention of juniors and seniors, especially transfer students and commuters, is disappointing.

So we have mixed results probably to be expected given the challenging competitive environment.

Where does this leave us as we begin a new academic year? Overall, we have a smaller enrollment than a year ago. And there is greater uncertainty about winter/spring adult and graduate enrollment. But we also know that our conservative budgeting and good efforts in key areas can lessen the impact on the budget.

With this in mind, I am pleased to announce that we will still be able to implement a modest across-the-board salary increase of 1.5%, effective October 1. While this is less than planned, due to the disappointing enrollment news, it is similar or even better than what is happening at many other schools and businesses. And we also have allocated additional funds from the original salary pool to help offset the significant increased cost of employee health care premiums.

One key factor helping to fund this salary increase is the budget contingency process highly praised by Middle States. Each year, we set aside funds to cover unanticipated revenue shortfalls. A second is that although the staff and faculty team recruiting students for the new DPT had limited time to enroll the first cohort, they exceeded the budget expectation.

We can be sure that the staff and faculty involved in other adult and graduate programs will work to grow enrollment in second semester. Led by Doug Smith, we have also begun to identify modest cost saving alternatives. And of course we all can help by working together to improve the quality of the student experience and their success and retention during the coming year.

As we turn to the main goals for the new year, let us be mindful of our gratifying Middle States results, our many examples of progress, and those mega trends that we just reviewed briefly.



Our action plan will strengthen the assessment of overall institutional effectiveness and student learning, beyond as well as in the classroom, while expanding support for this effort. And we will move ahead on some of the good suggestions that arose from our own internal review.


Put simply, after several years of declining freshmen applications, we must significantly increase the number of applicants, while sustaining the excellent results we have had with enrolling accepted students. Overall, we need 600 new full-time undergrads annually--at least 430 freshmen and close to 170 transfers.

While valuing the appeal of our nursing and OT programs and the collegial partnership between their program heads and enrollment leaders, we need much greater representation of liberal arts and other professional majors. New academic programs and expanded athletic programs are keys to this. We must also improve enrollment in seat-based, but accelerated, adult and graduate programs, while continuing the exemplary efforts of faculty and staff to expand online offerings and develop new programs, such as our two practice doctorates.

We also must accelerate the promising work underway to offer high-quality leadership development programs to area organizations. The turbulent competitive environment requires us to move expeditiously, as the faculty did so well with the DNP and the Healthcare Administration program, and it calls on all of us to support the essential work of our dedicated Enrollment Management, SGAE, and Marketing teams.


We have improved first-year retention, compared to peer schools and our own higher expectations. Yet our graduation rate continues to be below the average of our peers. This should especially disturb us because the entering academic profile of our students has improved significantly in the past 5-7 years.

This goal is--and must be--a shared responsibility. Once classes are underway, the Provost will be circulating a draft plan for substantive feedback from faculty and administrative colleagues to be completed by October 15. This must be a multi-year effort, one that evolves dynamically. It must be a top priority for all of us but especially for faculty officers, department chairs, deans, and the entire administrative team.


Important as it is for us to develop new programs as the faculty did so effectively and rapidly this past year, we must also renew current programs. Yes, renewal suggests building on a good foundation. It is a process of updating and refreshing and rethinking not starting over. Psychology and Occupational Therapy are two recent successful examples. Business, Communications, and Criminal Justice are three that have begun stimulating conversations involving enrollment and marketing as well as academic colleagues. You might have noted that our new Board Chair, Kevin St. Cyr, described the new Board action plan as also focused on renewal. The concept is an appropriate one.


As announced in May, a team of two dozen faculty and staff are working on this project. They are building on prior efforts by the Advocates for Inclusive Engagement, with the framework approved by the Board back in 2010 and the priority given to inclusive learning by the faculty in our 2007 Vision Statement. Coordinating this work is Dean Beth Aracena, as my Assistant for Inclusive Excellence, joined by two talented individuals in reformulated positions: Wanda Copeland as Director of Multicultural Engagement and Melissa Manny as Director of Global Engagement. Their new shared office is just off the lobby in Bernardine Hall. Expect much more on this in the weeks ahead.


We cannot underestimate the importance placed on career preparation by today’s students, parents, and employers. Building on work initiated two years ago in the First Year Seminar, and by faculty in the NetVue Vocational project, there are expanded efforts underway coordinated by the career development office.

Among these are new career web pages that guide students to employment opportunities in their areas of study and new Professional Skills Seminar Series featuring key employers that will begin in the spring. In addition, the Talent Marks online program will provide students and alumni alike with direct access to resources to help support their careers. These and other efforts will require expanded collaboration between faculty, deans, and career center staff.


Certainly an “Inclusive Excellence” plan and a comprehensive program fostering our students’ vocational and career development are closely related to this goal. Two other emphases are the strengthening of student writing, both in general education and the majors, and first-rate ADA and ESL services. We will continue to expand research support for talented students, ready to work with faculty mentors. Two major faculty-focused initiatives for eventual review and approval by the Board of Trustees are to finalize revisions of both the faculty handbook and the compensation philosophy and guidelines, accompanied by updated peer market data.


As you saw earlier, we have exciting and ambitious plans, centered on an innovative hybrid Recreation, Wellness, and Health Sciences Complex. Much to do here, not only to develop the academic, recreation, and financial plan but also to raise the necessary funding. This is one of our major game-changers!


Gone are the days when a school can go it alone. At long last even higher education is replicating what has been common practice throughout society. And if this is true for Penn and Penn State, it is true for Alvernia. There are now countless examples of collaboration involving even competitors. Rather than feeling threatened by this reality, we at Alvernia are well positioned.

We have long realized that outsourcing functions to partners like Aladdin Food Service or Follett’s Book Store is smart business. Many academic programs already rely extensively on external partnerships. Our ambitious new Reading Scholars undertaking could not have been launched had we gone it alone. As an emerging “anchor institution” in Reading, it is both smart and right that we work collaboratively with others to improve the quality of our community.

Whether it is global study opportunities for our students or research into the retention of first-generation students or a mentoring program for men of color or initiatives to promote awareness about sexual violence and campus safety or development of a new cutting edge academic program or addressing the educational needs of a local corporation, we need reliable, high quality partners.

Some partnerships will be narrowly focused, some more comprehensive and strategic. As mentioned earlier, the Board’s ad-hoc committee, including faculty leaders, has given shape to the campus conversations we will undertake this year.


Tempting as it might be to bask in the success of our first-ever comprehensive campaign, we know our fundraising still lags behind where it needs to be. Our endowment has more than doubled in the last decade despite an unfavorable market. But we need to set our sights ever higher, not simply for the present but for 10-20 years into the future.

There is some promising progress: last year, for the first time, we met our annual goal for alumni donors, with almost a 20% increase. We had our most successful senior and faculty/staff annual campaigns. We finally have good momentum with grants, including some recent successes. A reminder: we have three major fundraising priorities: the new Recreation & Health Sciences Complex and programmatic/endowment support for the Reading Scholars Program and for Faculty Excellence.


As we heard yesterday, there are expanding resources for mission integration. And from Assisi Pilgrims to campus ministers to faculty integrating elements of the Franciscan intellectual tradition to others exploring our core values with first-year students to those involved in interfaith dialogue, there are countless ways for all of us to contribute.


We began this morning, naturally, by celebrating our successful Middle States reaccreditation. Let me close by citing a few of the 35 commendations. The team praised our strategic planning as “ongoing, [inclusive], integrated, and comprehensive” and our “culture of institutional renewal.”

They commended the faculty for its “outstanding service and dedication to the University and its students” and the enrollment and university life areas for their professionalism and student-centeredness.

They reserved perhaps their highest praise for our “intentional and tangible integration of mission across all aspects of the institution”--evident in our national recognition, our students, and our “strong relationship with and support of the Bernardine Sisters.”

This praise should give us pride and confidence as we face the future. For me, this annual breakfast and gathering is always a reminder 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. After all, we are called, each in our own way, to respond to the call of St. Francis “What is ours to do?”

And we do so, mindful of why we do what we do!

Here’s to a great year.

major addresses

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