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State of the University Address, October 2008

10/21/08

This day is always a tonic to me. Like all of you, I suspect, I find that the regular routines and daily duties of my job all too often occupy me so completely that it is difficult indeed to appreciate the complex whole of which I am only one particular part. But Academic Days over the years since 2001 have become for me precisely the opportunity to gain a privileged sense of that more complete and sweeping whole that makes up Xavier University. My thanks today go where yours go, I am sure: to Kandi Stinson and to Izola White first of all for all they have done to make today a success, and as well to all the faculty planners and participants whose names are listed on your programs. Thank you all very much for providing the rest of us with this opportunity to have our particular views informed by the broader view that together we have all been able to drink in. 

Although I want to spend the majority of my time with you today reflecting upon one particular topic important to our on-going efforts to advance and enhance Xavier University, I want to begin with a short set of observations with respect to three other issues, namely our current economic environment and some of its implications for Xavier University, the work of the Mission and Identity Discernment Group, and the process of refreshing the Strategic Plan we are undertaking during this current academic year.

With you, I am sure, I have been following with great interest this still-unfolding economic crisis going on around us. Down the road, the 20/20 hindsight that history affords will provide us a clear picture of exactly how all this happened, when the turnaround finally began and how it was that we crawled forth from the wreckage.  But that is for some day down the road. Now is the time for you and me to live through it. Let me make three brief observations about how we are living through it here at Xavier University.
 
■    As you have recently read, we are suspending all current searches for faculty and staff across the University, except in certain specified circumstances as outlined in the memo by Beth Amyot and Roger Fortin. Caring for our mission and the people of Xavier, we believe that it is only prudent to do so now in light of the uncertainties before us so as to appropriately cushion ourselves against whatever those days ahead of us might hold. Here are four illustrative newspaper articles from the last week that suggest to me at least that it is impossible to be too prudent in planning for that future: “As the Economy Swoons, Parents Fret Over College Cost,” (from the Associated Press), “College Savers Stuck in Stocks as Market Falls” (the Wall Street Journal), “In Downturn, Families Strain to Pay Tuition” (the New York Times), and “Is College Worth It?” (The Chicago Tribune). Perhaps some of you heard as well Thomas Friedman speak on George Stephanopoulos’s Sunday Morning Program and share his own concern over ways in which the current economic crisis may indeed become even worse in the coming months, and report as well on his conversations in recent days with several New England area college presidents who are worried right now about the second semester tuition bills they will be sending out shortly to parents – a concern which is, indeed, my own concern as well. I would prefer to take actions now that I will not need next fall, rather than to avoid acting now in ways that a year from now I wish I would have. I thank you all for your patience and forbearance in the midst of a situation that none of us likes at all.

■    As the articles cited above and others suggest, there is heightened concern in the current economic environment for the ability of students to afford the costs of higher education.  The current economic situation has, in other words, intensified an already thorny conversation over the question of higher education’s accessibility and affordability. This heightened concern will place pressure on institutions like Xavier in two specific ways, namely tuition and financial aid on the one hand and cost structures on the other. All of us together will need to be very vigilant in the coming weeks and months to be as responsive as we can be – and more in point of fact responsive than we have been – on these twin issues of cost and cost containment.

■    Weekly 7:00 a.m. conference calls with members of the Finance Committee of the Board of Trustees, Xavier University staff and our consulting team from Barclay’s (formerly Lehman Brothers) is monitoring carefully the credit markets important to us for financing the James E. Hoff Academic Quad that we broke ground for several weeks ago. We had hoped initially to issue the first bonds necessary for us to complete the new construction of that project—the new home for the Williams College of Business, the Learning Commons and the Central Utility Plant—yet we are not sure however of when the appropriate time will be to go to market. We are exploring a variety of options to secure project financing that will still permit us to bring the projects in on time.  We will be sure to keep you posted as this situation moves forward.

You will recall, I am sure, that slightly more than a year ago, I empanelled a group of 14 Xavier University faculty and staff to imagine how the important work of sharing the foundational, underlying Jesuit identity of the University with current and future generations of permanent University employees would go forward.  Over the course of this past year, that group has been working very hard to appropriate that identity more deeply for themselves through readings and discussion, through undertaking a version of the Spiritual Exercises, and through a so-called immersion experience in work among the poor in both Los Angeles and Camden, N.J., work begun in both places by Jesuits that is now being handed on to a next generation of leadership. I met with them recently and was deeply impressed to see how powerful the experience of the past year had been for them all.  As well, I gave them their assignment for the coming year, which is specifically now to shape this new division of Xavier University whose purpose will be to advance our Jesuit, Catholic mission and identity among the faculty, staff and administration of Xavier University, so as to maximize the fulfillment of our mission in the place where it matters the most—in our students. I proposed a number of very specific questions that I want them to explore, in addition to other questions that they might themselves pose. I expect to begin hearing back from them sometime around the end of the current semester concerning how this work is moving forward.  One of the important things that I asked them to do was to share their thinking with constituent campus groups, the Faculty Committee among them. Again, we will continue to keep you posted as to the important work of this group.  

My final set of quick remarks concerns refreshing the strategic plan. Because we have made significant progress against the goals outlined in our strategic plan several years ago, because we are now beginning the construction of the James E. Hoff Academic Quad, because the environment around us continues to change (in some ways dramatically), and because significant new members of the University community have joined us in the last several years, it is appropriate for us to re-examine, refresh and extend our current strategic plan.  I am grateful to David Dodd for convening the leadership team that will oversee this work in general (he will be joined by Roger Fortin, Beth Amyot and Kandi Stinson), and to the many people who will be involved in various aspects of that large-scale process.  This refreshment of our strategic plan will result in clear and measureable objectives that will simultaneously foster excellence in education following the Jesuit tradition here at Xavier and promote as well our long-term financial health. Individual work groups organized around the four “pillars” of the plan – students, programs, community, people – are being asked to construct five to eight measureable action steps to advance the University, steps that will be completed during the next five years. These objectives will need to include specific operational goals. We would like to see a good deal of preliminary work done in anticipation of our next Board meeting on Dec. 12 this year. From then, our February and May Board meetings will provide additional “due dates” for additional work. In part, these dates are chosen to make sure that we can integrate as effectively as possible this strategic plan refreshment with the preparatory work for our North Central Team visit which occurs at the end of March and early April. As each of the pillar groups moves its work along, they will be arranging discussion opportunities with members of the University community to share their initial thoughts and solicit you feedback. We will be sure to communicate appropriately with the entire University community as this important process goes  forward. Once the various pieces of the refreshed plan have been woven together over the summer, you can expect significant opportunities to engage the plan as a whole early next fall before the Board of Trustees has it for approval.

Let me now shift to the central topic of my remarks today.  Upon the occasion of my inauguration as your President on September 8, 2001, I issued to us all the following invitation: 

“In your imagination, drive a great stake into the X that marks the spot between Hinkle Hall and the McDonald Library, and tie a great rope a mile and a half long to that stake and then draw a circle with it. We are at the center, the exact center of that circle, you and I. We know our own faces well, our own thoughts, our own hopes, our own dreams, our own work. Can’t we just teach our classes, study our books, write our papers, pray our prayers and think our thoughts the way we’ve always done? I do not think so, if for no other reason than we are not alone in that circle. Who else is here with us, and what are they like? What are their hopes, their questions, their aspirations and their desires? Who is hungry within that circle? Whose dreams have gone up in smoke? Who would like to see a better life, but suspects that none will ever come? Who is so young that they don’t know the odds stacked up against them already? Who is locked behind a door, afraid? Who will die too soon? Who is doing what she can, patiently and quietly, day by day, unsung and unseen, to make her world and her people a little happier or a bit more free? What can they bring us and what might we bring them? What is the great conversation that might occur between us if we found ourselves around a common table, got past our initial awkwardness and silence, leveled with one another the way friends do, decided that it wouldn’t be our last talk but only part of a conversation to which we would stay committed? How would we look differently at who we are and what we do as a result?  What might we study then, teach then, learn then, research, report and write about then?”

As some of you have heard me say before, this invitation for Xavier to become a more engaged University grew out of my own reflections on the riots here in Cincinnati in April of 2001, mere months after I stepped into the President’s Office. Those riots demanded that we begin to think differently about our traditional activities here at Xavier. To be sure, however, Xavier University is neither a social outreach agency nor a parish nor anything other than what it is:  a university. And therefore our engagement in the neighborhoods and communities around us needed to be the kind of engagement proper to a university. Playing off the well-known Jesuit goal of forming men and women for others, I therefore also made these remarks in that inaugural address:

“Men and women for others, indeed. But disciplined, thoughtful, critical and careful men and women for others; men and women who are as well-versed, as well-schooled, and as well-trained as they are “for others.” Men and women who bring, not just a passion for the good though passion is needed, but  real resources to bear on the political, social, moral, ethical and very real problems all around them: a sense of history, the freedom of philosophy, the majesty of mathematics, the superstructure of science, the tools of business; the hands of a nurse, the head of a scholar, the heart of a teacher, the tongue of a linguist, the eye of an accountant, the ear of a counselor, the imagination of a poet. And the soul of a saint, as impatient for the better, the higher, the truer, the more lasting and the more noble as the immortal will always be—must always be—impatient with the mortal.”

Please allow me for the next few minutes to reflect a bit on some of the many ways in which Xavier University – in which you – have responded to that invitation I issued back in 2001 to become more engaged.  It is, as you will see by even this quick review, an extraordinarily generous, thoughtful and wide-ranging response.

Gathered as we are in the Cintas Center today, it is good for us to realize just how much this building has made it possible for us to partner with important community activities and initiatives. Yesterday’s superb panel presentation, “A Closer Look At Election 2008,” through which we officially launched a new Institute for Politics and Public Life we are funding through private donations and drew to this very room one of the most interesting and diverse crowds I have ever seen at Xavier University, simply would not have been possible without this remarkable facility. Five other examples can stand for the literally hundreds of partnerships that have happened since this building opened. Recently, the Anthony Muñoz High School Leadership Program brought about 1,200 students from 95 schools to hear motivations speakers on the theme, “Strive for Excellence.” The OKI Regional Council of Governments sponsored a public forum here on regional transportation plans. The most recent neighborhood summit held here was attended by more than 550 people from all 52 Cincinnati neighborhoods, who came to hear the Mayor and key City officials discuss topics of public interest to all. Last Christmas time, over 300 people attended the homeless coalition annual dinner, which helps to raise money for that important effort. And finally, the Asset Builders Alliance, a jointly sponsored initiative of the YMCA, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Cincinnati, brought more than 500 invited students and adults here to discuss strategies for better assisting local area youth.

One of the earliest hubs that we have had here at Xavier for our community engagement efforts has been the Community Building Institute, long a partnership between Xavier University and the United Way of Greater Cincinnati. Beginning as an asset-based community development consultant which helped neighborhoods identify and implement strategies for improvement, the Community Building Institute has evolved into one of the most highly respected community-engagement shops in the region. The highlights of its recent activity are truly impressive. For example, the Community Building Institute has been providing technical support and serving as the project manager for the implementation of a regional strategy known as Place Matters, a pilot project to implement a comprehensive community investment strategy in three communities: Price Hill, Avondale and Covington, Kentucky. Place Matters is a partnership between these communities and a collaborative of funders including the United Way, the Greater Cincinnati Foundation, PNC Bank, Chase Bank and others. Likewise, the Community Building Institute has completed engagement work in over 30 Cincinnati Public Schools in the past three years to support the Cincinnati Public Schools facilities master plan. In schools and neighborhoods across the city, they have worked to identify residents, businesses and institutions that would come together to help plan for new schools, to envision and then to shape the on-going operation of so-called community learning centers at each school, each one as distinct and particular as the neighborhood within which it is located. This work with the Cincinnati Public Schools led in turn to CBI’s being asked to partner with the KnowledgeWorks Foundation to conduct larger community conversations on educational reform as a part of STRIVE, the regional collaborative working on educational reform by better aligning hundreds of partners concerned with improving our area’s educational infrastructure. And, of course, CBI continues to work closely with our neighbors, the local communities of Evanston and Norwood, on projects to improve the quality of life for residents and linking them to our students, our faculty and our staff. A particularly exciting project has been the resurrection of King Studios, to be built on Montgomery Road just blocks from the original site, now abandoned. A project with a number of partners – including the Cincinnati Convention Bureau and the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland – the studio will include an operating recording studio, a new home for the Flavor of Arts Studio, and a memorial space to honor the King Records legacy. CBI has been an active partner with the Evanston Community Council and many others in planning for this project, acting in the role of  project convener. As well, CBI is finalizing a housing strategy for the City of Norwood, work to include a full physical conditions inventory based upon a survey conducted this past summer by a team of Xavier and UC students and others. 

Part 2