Opening Faculty Meeting August 24, 2004
I’m here to talk about excitement.
First, it’s incredibly exciting for me to be here with you today. That’s obvious, because it’s my first Opening Faculty meeting at WestConn.
Frankly, if I weren’t excited, that would mean you hired the wrong guy. But I am. As I’ve spent the past few weeks getting to know people on and off campus, my enthusiasm about what this university is (and what it can become) has only intensified.
However, beyond whatever personal giddiness I may be having about my new job, there are other, more enduring reasons for all of us to be excited. It’s the beginning of a new academic year, and for those of us who labor in higher education, that in itself is a cause for excitement. This is the 48th fall opening semester that I’ve experienced in my life—either as a student, faculty or staff member. And my anticipation about what the academic year will bring hasn’t changed much from the days when I counted the days until the first high school football game and wore sweaters that were really too heavy for late summer in the southern Midwest. And I’m sure you all have similar memories and feelings.
These are legitimate, because we are engaged in really important work. We can demonstrate that through all of the various academic assessment tools we possess; we can chart the lifetime earnings increases that higher education provides graduates; and we can talk about the economic benefits that WestConn and other universities afford Connecticut. But let me give you two different manifestations of this importance.
People dream about what we do.
It’s the first time for all of our students: For us, each fall is old hat; for them—it’s brand new!
It’s the first time many of them will live away from home; the first time many receive a failing grade; the first time to live with a Red Sox (or Yankees) fan. It’s the first time they will be confronted by intellectual viewpoints and arguments that challenge their comfortable view of the world. And — perhaps most importantly it’s the first time that many, especially of our first-generation college attendees, will imagine personal futures that before were simply inconceivable for their parents or maybe even for themselves.
The simple reality is that we in higher education change people’s lives. And we’ve been doing that here at WestConn for more than a century.
The work of changing lives, however, is an imposing and difficult task. In the history of this university, as throughout higher education, sometimes this task has looked VERY imposing indeed, even somewhat overwhelming. When state funding is cut, when positions are frozen, when other problems arise, we start to ask ourselves existential questions about the future. Can we continue to fulfill our mission in a manner of which we’re proud?
When those doubts arise, we need to remember that ours is a very durable endeavor; like crabgrass, we’re tough to kill. California Chancellor Clark Kerr explained this well when he observed that “Taking as a starting point 1530, when the Lutheran Church was founded, some 66 institutions that existed then still exist today in the Western World in recognizable form. These are the Catholic Church, the Lutheran Church, the parliaments of Iceland and the Isle of Man, and 62 universities.”
We have indeed been notable for our historic continuity, and I would submit that’s because of the importance of the functions we perform.
Now the important work of changing lives is also big, complex task and all of us on campus play critical roles in accomplishing it.
The FACULTY is, of course, central. You are, after all, the heart of the university. Or, as Dwight Eisenhower learned. . . . . If a president doesn’t understand this, he or she had better follow the memorable advice of Bette Davis, “Fasten your seatbelt; it’s going to be bumpy ride!”
But today’s environment is far more complex. Twenty-first century American society loads down our students with a lot of troublesome baggage — eating disorders, learning disabilities, substance abuse problems, disintegrating family structures. This baggage presents challenges that even the capable President Hopkins could not balance on his log. So we need experienced professionals to handle these responsibilities.
In today’s competitive marketplace for higher education, we also need folks to tell our story to potential students and financial donors. We need to be effective financial stewards of what we receive from the State, from students’ tuition, and from other stakeholders. And we must create and maintain a safe and attractive campus for everyone who lives or works here. To accomplish these tasks requires special expertise that goes beyond the faculty.
Ours is a big job, and as Senator Clinton borrowed from the African proverb, it does indeed “take a village.” The faculty are central and deliver our core mission, but everyone who receives a WestConn paycheck is an educator. The shirts that our wardrobe master Rich Sullivan passes out at these events each year is a tangible reminder of that fact.
And here are just a few examples of colleagues who’ve gone beyond the call to advance our mission:
Ron Kutz & Paula Maida from Math and Peter Lyons and Abbey Zink from English, who are working collaboratively with Danbury and Bethel educators to address issues about academic proficiencies in college-bound students;
Chris Kukk, Political Science, who’s organized and coached our very success, awarding-winning Roger Sherman Debate Society;
Tom Philbrick, Biology, who last year was named a CSU Professor and who directs A&S’s “Science at Night Program” that provides outreach into the community (in both English and Portuguese);
Maribeth Griffin, who for a while has been doing at last count three different jobs in housing while planning for the opening of our new Westside Residence Hall;
Joan Harrison Boughton, who on her own has organized a WCSU Parents Society;
Margaret Grimes, Art, who year round provides hands-on leadership in all aspects of our growing MFA in Painting and Illustration;
Colleen Delaney, Nursing, who in the last twelve months finished her doctoral degree, published 3 articles, received a CSU/AAUP research grant and won Connecticut’s Florence Nightengale Award for Excellence in Nursing — all the while teaching, advising student groups and coordinating the RN-BSN in Waterbury;
Fernando Jimenez, Music, who has led the Music Department in providing 35 major music events last year which enriched the campus and Danbury communities;
Gene Tosetti of the Maintenance Department, who has supervised the excellent job that our carpenters, painters and electricians do in completing renovations and other important projects on time and on budget;
John Murphy, who has single-handedly managed the operations of the O’Neill Center with no staff for the past year and a half; fortunately, reinforcements have arrived;
Marie Wright, MIS, who is responsible for the first information security option in an undergraduate business school in the US and who has worked to help the MIS Department attain 100% compliance with the National Standard for Information Systems Security Professionals of the National Security Agency, an honor awarded to only 89 institutions in the US;
Harold Schramm, JLA, who runs the student legal clinic, advises students on successful application to law schools, and who has been instrumental in bringing the CT Appellate Court to WestConn to hear cases in October.
Peggy Stewart, our ubiquitous campus photographer; who goes to the lengths of utilizing cherry pickers and helicopter rides to get the shots that flatter WestConn;
And finally I want to recognize the work of someone who can’t be with us today, Jody Rajcula. As you know, Jody has long been a role model for WCSU in her leadership in athletics (recognized by her admission into the NE Basketball Hall of Fame) and in academics as the very effective chair of HPX. Our thoughts and prayers are with her as she faces medical challenges including surgery tomorrow. . There are many, many others in this room that I could cite, but I hope that you get the picture. The extraordinary commitment of individuals here adds up to a collective energy that it certainly up to meeting any challenges we may face and to grasping the many opportunities that lie ahead of us.
To harness this energy, we must do strategic planning and allocate resources effectively to achieve our mission. We must be smart about budgeting and wisely employ our financial resources. We must be competent, efficient and friendly in meeting the needs of our students and other constituents. And we will indeed do all of these things.
But these activities, important though they may be, are means, not ends. The magic, the wonder, the excitement of our enterprise —why we got into this line of work-- lies in our core mission: changing the lives of our students, enriching the greater Danbury community, continuing, in the words of our Chemistry colleague Paul Hines, “The miracle of WestConn.” That’s why we’re all here, and that, to me, is more than ample cause for excitement.
I trust it is for you as well.
Welcome to the Fall Semester!