Fall Semester Opening Meeting, August 27, 2015

Good afternoon everyone, I am pleased and honored to welcome everyone back for this academic year as your new president.  And I would like to give my heartfelt thanks to everyone who gave me such a warm welcome upon my arrival here last month.  I would be most remiss if I did not express my deep appreciation to President Emeritus Schmotter for making our transition a seamless one.

Now, on to the age-old school question:  what did you do on your summer vacation?  In addition to meeting a number of our wonderful faculty and staff, I also had the opportunity to read a number of histories of the University including Professor Isham’s work covering the years 1903-1978, Professor Rosenberg’s follow-up work covering the succeeding years 1979-1993, Dyer’s “Tribute to a Great Lady … Ruth Alice Haas”; Professor Janick’s work, “The People’s University: The Centennial History of Western Connecticut State University 1903-2003” and CSU Chancellor Emeritus James Frost’s memoir entitled “The Establishment of Connecticut State University 1965-1985.

As you would expect, there are a number of humorous anecdotes in these works.  For example, the following are excerpts from the students’ code of conduct at the Danbury Normal School, perhaps reflecting certain Victorian sentiments of the time:

  1. It is expected that each student will complete her work by 9:30 in the evening and be in her room at ten and quiet thereafter.
  2. Students are not to be in the company of men at any time except with full knowledge and written consent of their parents.  This consent should be specific.
  3. Students must wear either a dress, bathrobe or kimono at all times and under all circumstances.

And a different anecdote of more recent vintage; the fourth annual Oxford style debate was held in April 1992.  Two contenders in tuxedos from Oxford teamed up with two from Western on each side and, in an unexpectedly humorous manner, considered the topic “Is Politics an Immoral Activity.”  Result: Both sides lost.  

Yet, it is a line from the opening section of Janick’s work that I take to be particularly relevant as we think about our university’s future.  For he plainly states the purpose of his history of the university by asking one simple, yet complex, question: “How did a tiny normal school come into existence and evolve into a comprehensive state university?” And what struck me the most in reading all these histories, was the recurring theme over these hundred and twelve years, despite imposing challenges similar to the ones we face today like declining enrollments and financial difficulties, thanks to the will and resolve of our forebears, the university continued to move forward – to adapt, evolve and grow into the grand institution of higher education that we know and love today.  And my message to you as I begin my presidency is that we too will continue to move forward despite today’s challenges.

Our program this afternoon will commence with my opening remarks followed by an update on our strategic planning process by co-chairs, Associate Vice President, Dr. Ann Atkinson and University Senate President, Professor Dan Barrett.  They will be followed by the provost and vice presidents with presentations of their respective short-term goals and objectives for this academic year.

As a housekeeping note, Interim Associate Vice President Loughran will be unable to join us today, but we will schedule a university-wide budget and finance presentation and open forums shortly.

As far as my remarks, a communitarian view informs my perspective on leadership. That is:

We will lead by serving.
We will lead by example.
We will lead by listening.
And, finally we will lead with good will and good grace.

Now, how will we achieve this in more concrete, actionable terms?

First, through the full participation of our University community in the strategic planning process during the course of this academic year.

Second, I will meet with each department to hear your issues and concerns, your vision and goals, your hopes and dreams and finally, I want to hear about all your wonderful accomplishments, I want to learn about all of the great work that you have been and are doing in making our university the exceptional place of learning and teaching that it is!

And third, we will continually promote the hallmarks of our community, the esprit de corps, which will be collegiality, transparency, shared governance and a passionate devotion of our shared mission of student success.  We will lead by accessibility and personal engagement.  In short, I will constantly be out and about in our community.

Fourth, I take to be one of my major charges as your President to want every member of our university community – faculty, staff and students to thoroughly enjoy your experience here at Western.  I know from my various interactions with many of you, this wonderful, positive spirit already exists, that you are fully devoted to your work and find it both enjoyable and satisfying.  It is my job, despite our many challenges, to both maintain and, if possible, to improve this sense of enjoyment and satisfaction in the great work you do on behalf of our students.

Consequently, I want our seriousness of purpose to be enhanced with a corresponding sense of humor and good will. So saying, I have a well-deserved reputation for telling really bad jokes.  The only saving grace is they are usually self-deprecating.  So here one goes:  
It is the morning of the first day of school, the mother knocks on Johnny’s door, “Johnny, are you ready for school?”

No answer, she knocks again and in a louder voice she says,   
“Johnny, are you ready for school?”

From behind the door, in a slow and sheepish voice, “I don’t wanna go to school!”

The mother, being a modern, sensitive parent, says, “Johnny, open the door and let’s talk about this.” Johnny opens the door and they sit down on his bed.

The mother says, “Now Johnny think about this and give me three good reasons why you should not go to school.” Johnny puts his hand to his chin and thinks for a while and then says:
“Number one, I don’t like the teachers and they don’t like me. Number two, I don’t like the students and they don’t like me. And number three, I just don’t like school. Period.”

“Okay Johnny,” says the mother, “now let me give you three reasons why you should go to school today, which as you know is a very important day — the opening day of school.”

“Number One:  You are going to school today, because I am your mother and I am telling you to go. Number Two:  If you still won’t go, I will tell your father and he will drag you to school. AND Number Three:  And most importantly and most obviously, you have to go to school because you are the President of the University!!!”

Colleagues, contrary to this story, let me tell you I absolutely love getting up in the morning and going to work at our University and wish everyone has the same feeling — it is the best job of my life and a true joy to come to work, which really isn’t work but a wonderful passion for all of us.

And speaking of passion, I want to turn our attention to a man whose work I’ve studied closely and, indeed, I wrote my doctoral dissertation on his works.  Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, author of one of the great classics of liberal education, “The Idea of a University,” captures the true sense of what a university should mean in his own definition:  “A University is Alma Mater, knowing her children one by one, not a foundry, or a mint or a treadmill.”  Newman was a champion of personal education.  And the imagery in this passage is striking for Newman, who as a Victorian lived during the Industrial Age in Great Britain, contrasts the university as a mother caring for and nurturing her children versus the drudgery and impersonality of the factory, a humanizing experience versus a dehumanizing one.

Indeed, as a leading commentator on Newman, Dr. Ian Ker of Oxford notes:

The ‘holistic’view that modern medicine, for example, takes of human beings is the same kind of educational theory that Newman’s “The Idea of a University” puts forward: … that is, the whole mind needs to be educated through active participation in a community of intellectual formation, not just the memory through passive participation in impersonal lectures.

Consequently, I view the primary mission of the president and the administration of our wonderful university is to do our utmost to support you, our dedicated faculty and staff in your wonderful and noble mission of teaching and educating our students, our young men and women.  It is you, our faculty and staff who afford our students the great opportunities that a university education provides them with.  And it is because of you, our faculty and staff, that our university is a true Alma Mater, a true community of masters and scholars devoted to creating new knowledge through your research and passing our vast inheritance of intellectual learning and practical knowledge to the next generation of masters and scholars, our students.

In much the same vein of thought, President Roach stated: WestConn “is a dynamic and forward-looking university, characterized by a truly dedicated faculty… Western provides an education that builds on the past and looks to the future in an environment that is personal and caring.”

And so, I propose the following major goals for myself as president, both as your leader and your servant:

  1.  Promote a true sense of community and set a positive and enthusiastic tone on campus where we see the challenges of today as opportunities to grow and prosper in the future.
  2. Involve the campus and community at large in the daily activities of the university — To achieve our goals we must not only consult with and draw upon on all the resources within our university, but from the Western community at large.  We will involve the business community, the political community, our faculty emeriti, staff retirees, alumni and benefactors, all in helping our University to move forward.
  3. I will do my utmost to obtain and optimize all those resources available to us through aggressive fundraising, capital campaigning, government, corporate and not-for-profit grants, and political lobbying in support of Western and public higher education.  We will generate those resources needed to support you and move our university forward in challenging times.
  4. Reaffirm and renew our commitment to student success through new academic programming and increased career and support services to fully prepare them for both their future lives and careers.  We will instill and promote an increased spirit of entrepreneurship and inquiry among our students for, to quote John Dewey: “Give the pupils something to do … (where) the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking; learning naturally results.”
  5. We will achieve the university’s short-term objectives for this academic year as our vice presidents shall discuss and present this afternoon.
  6. And through the university-wide strategic planning process to be completed this academic year, establish our long-term objectives and the means to achieve them.
  7. And finally, I will add my own long-term goal, which is an addendum to Janick’s opening query about how a small normal school became a university.  For may it be written sometime in the future, perhaps on the 150th anniversary of the university, when a new history of our Western is composed and the author presents the following simple, yet complex question suitably revised:  How did a tiny normal school come into existence, evolve into a comprehensive state university and then become the nationally renowned center of teaching, learning and research that it is today?

Again, thank you very much, it is my honor and privilege to serve as your president and let’s go forth and have a great year!

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