Founders Week Convocation

Founders Week Convocation Presidential Address

February 4, 2016
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Good afternoon, and thank you very much for joining us here today at the Founders Week Convocation. Let me take a moment to add my personal congratulations to our chair holders and award winners. Please once again let us show them our gratitude for their service to others, commitment to Creighton, and Ignatian values.

My experience of the University these past months has been instructive of so many achievements that occur through the dedication of time and talent of departments, areas, and individuals, and, simply, for your persistent hard work, and your love of this University. These past months have been inspiring.

As I would like to recognize a number of areas, I want to begin with an anecdote about my recent work.  I am traveling more than usual this semester, so that I can meet friends and alumni across the United States who want to maintain their relationship with the University, and who also want a sense of my leadership. I am speaking with them about some of the themes many of you have heard, such as my interest in global perspective, the role of the humanities in Jesuit higher learning, and Creighton’s distinctiveness as complex and comprehensive. The presentation begins with Rick Virgin, vice president for University Relations, and his staff, who first offer exceptional hospitality, and then use videos produced here on campus by our new chief communications and marketing officer, Jim Berscheidt and his staff, including the Kingfisher video that was shared with the University earlier this year, to showcase realties of our Catholic and Jesuit mission. What caught my attention as a great source of encouragement recently was a comment from a young alumnus in Washington, D.C., who said, simply: “Father, we go to a lot of these kinds of things – presentations about the work of projects and institutions. What you’ve done for us tonight is different, however. You were informative, but you also created an experience, and it was reminiscent of life on campus, as well as compelling of great momentum.” As we’re just beginning this roadshow, so to speak, this was great encouragement, and it reminded me of the extensive background work exacted by Rick and Jim and our colleagues in University Relations and University Communications and Marketing (UCOM). So with one last interruption, please join me in thanking these important departments of the University.

Please let me now recognize some of our recent efforts.

With new leadership in the area of communications and marketing, UCOM does indeed work hard to tell the Creighton story well, especially through its new annual report, “Fulfilling Our Mission.” I encourage you to see the online version. Jim and our colleagues there are also working closely with Mary Chase and Enrollment Management to better showcase our academic programs. I should say, though, that Mary and her team – in a time of noticeable national demographic challenge, and with it, fierce competition from peer institutions, and changing policies and procedures in federal grants and loans – have maintained and strengthened both undergraduate and graduate enrollments. Our first year undergraduate students represent not only the largest class in the history of Creighton, but its smartest. Also, for our size and location, it reveals geographic, cultural, and social diversity. It also seems that Enrollment Management’s hard work in bringing nearly 1,070 freshmen into our classrooms, not to mention the 50 transfer students at other levels of undergraduate study, defines for us a good freshman enrollment target.

These current freshman students, I should say, began their time on campus surrounded by the tremendous hospitality of an impressive and spirited Welcome Week Program that is lead by Drs. Tanya Winegard and Wayne Young and their colleagues and student leaders, and in October, just when new students were getting settled, a team of faculty walked all of the halls of freshman floors with resident assistants to remind these new students of how valued they are as members of this community.

Walking, and even more, it seems, has been an important part of our lives. The Department of Human Resources is providing good leadership in wellness and healthcare plans for faculty and staff, and Jeff Branstetter and his staff tell me that we have been wonderfully responsive. And, as we walk about, or bicycle, we can begin to anticipate later this year improvements to our east-end mall. With a $2.5 million Federal Transportation Authority grant, and other matching funds, the pedestrian mall between 24th Street and the Harper Center will undergo a renovation. John Wilhelm and our colleagues in Administrative Services help monitor this important project, as well as other improvements they are overseeing in the Law School, designs for a proposed new Dental School, and efforts to preserve and reduce energy expense around campus. Recent completions of projects in the Criss Complex alone showcase nearly $250,000 in related savings.

I am excited about ongoing efforts in the Division of Information Technology. Tim Brooks and his team are working to create an edgeless Creighton, with services that are increasingly more nimble and responsive to the digital needs of faculty, staff, and students, including compatibility with the mobile devices that assist our work.

Honoring the Rev. Bill Harmless, S.J., I was pleased this fall to take part in the College of Arts and Sciences’ inaugural IGNITE Talks series, TED-style presentations on topics in religion and culture. While it will be exciting to watch this new program grow, it will be an honor to celebrate seasoned programs, such as the 25th anniversary of the Encuentro Dominicano program and the 50th year of the Fine and Performing Arts Department.

With 1,000 students this term, the Heider College of Business has nearly doubled its enrollment in just three years. Moreover, 30 Heider students are abroad this semester. New programs in Healthcare Management and Data Analytics are gaining momentum, as is, in the School of Law, the newly created Health Law Program. Also in the law school, serving over 1,200 patrons, the well-established Milton R. Abrahams Legal Clinic continues to be an important source of advocacy and legal support.

An expression of Creighton’s enrollment diversity also comes through distance education. The Graduate School and the College of Professional Studies work with students in 47 states and 10 countries. Our most popular programs are the Interdisciplinary Leadership Doctorate (305), the Doctor of Pharmacy (263), the Doctor of Nursing Practice (250), and the Masters of Public Health (111).

The School of Dentistry continues to be an important part of our community engagement as a University. It admits 12,000 individual patients annually with, of course, multiple visits by them within the span of a year that tally up to 44,000 appointments. Faculty, staff, and students of the school serve another 13,000 patients – almost half of them children – in local, national, and international outreach.

The School of Medicine and the School of Pharmacy and Health Professions continue to help us improve our relationship with Catholic Health Initiatives (CHI). I have personally convened an advisory group to routinely review and assess the needs and interests in this important relationship, and I am very hopeful and encouraged by leadership here on campus and with CHI. Creighton and I will stand strong in our needs, working with CHI to maintain and strengthen our partnership.

Also, the interprofessional education in health sciences efforts led by Dr. Joy Doll, including the implementation of the interprofessional patient-centered collaborative practice model, demonstrate ingenuity and innovation in our health sciences and clinical education. Launching the IPE 400 course this past fall is not only an important benchmark, but it propels Creighton forward as one of the few institutions in the United States to pioneer healthcare pedagogy and practice for an industry that continually demands collaborative professional assessment and patient care. Dr. Doll and her team of faculty, staff, and students are also sharing their insights in interprofessional education in publications and conference presentations across the nation.

Before moving on, let me also indicate my excitement at the growth, strength, and even notoriety of the CURAS (Center for Undergraduate Research and Scholarship) program. Faculty research achievements are impressive, as are NIH (National Institutes of Health) grants with faculty that demonstrate an 18 percent increase this past year. These faculty efforts are contagious. Creighton was named one of the Top Schools for Undergraduate Research and Creative Projects, and of the 49 honored institutions, we were the only Jesuit university to receive such recognition for undergraduate research.

This past fall, I conducted a series of Listening Sessions, and I am grateful to the Rev. Andy Alexander, S.J., and Ms. Maureen Waldron for working as my note-takers. Furthermore, I was grateful to be invited into many of your departments and areas, if not your entire college, and, well, I suppose I also wandered uninvited into a lot of your work spaces, which I greatly enjoyed.

As you talked with me about Creighton University these past months, you voiced contentment and excitement, as well as frustration and concern. I received both encouragement and critique about the University. As my accolades above already miss naming too many areas of tremendous productivity and impact on our campus, my remarks here will not fully represent your thoughts and sentiments about Creighton. I would like to name, though, a set of themes that became readily apparent in our conversations.

This University prides its faculty. The students talked about the faculty, the staff talked about the faculty, and the faculty talked about the faculty. This is a campus of research and writing, laboratories and clinics, publications and patents …  and it is a teaching campus. The faculty is recognized as approachable, helpful, instructional, inspirational, Ignatian, and challenging. That is the first of the themes.

The second is one of community. This campus cares for one another, and much of that is because it shares and even celebrates a sense of meaning and purpose. That leads to a third theme, which is about our mission and identity. Before moving on, though, I do want to share with you that the deaths of five young members of our campus, of colleagues, and of others the past semester, were heartrending. And yet, so instantly our response was demonstrative of the sense of community you talked about. The first months of my presidency are framed by a sense of pain that is at the same time powerful of something deeply collegial. 

Third, there is strong sensibility and investment on our campus about our Catholic and Jesuit mission and identity. An intellectual tradition, a reflective pedagogy, a spirit of inquiry, expressions of faith, service to others, and pursuits of justice are some of the main tenets of who and what we are. The workforce here is passionate about it, and our students are impacted by it.

Another theme regards our institutional complexity. You spoke a lot about our nine colleges and schools as distinctive of who we are, and in challenging times for higher education, as strength for our future.

While we are complex, however, we are not diverse enough. A fifth theme regards a campus desire and need to diversify our student and faculty populations. Our freshman class may be distinctively geographically, culturally, and socially diverse, but that is in comparison to previous classes. Our strides have not been strong enough.

Sixth is your desire to consulted, and along with that, to improve aspects of governance. You have asked for broader consultation, as well as a recognition of expertise that is local, that is, already here on campus.

Relatedly, a seventh and final theme represents a desire for administrative accountability, and to this end I am working with a strong, supportive, mission-centric senior leadership team here at Creighton to begin this semester a 360-review process that I, myself, will engage.

In response to the themes and other interests, I would like to announce a set of institutional initiatives and, with it, a process that invites you to think about where we are today, and how we might proceed brightly and boldly into tomorrow.

Generally, I think we need to ponder our next steps, or new chapters, if you will, in four areas: Academic Excellence, Community Engagement, Mission and Identity, and Stewardship of Resources. As such, I would like us to envision the following actions:

First, strengthen our relationship with CHI, as has been mentioned, as well as build up our interprofessional education programming in the health sciences.

Second, articulate humanist influences and global realities and relationships in all of our areas of work. Business, law, medicine, dentistry, pharmacy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, our other four colleges, and in our work in Student Life, Mission and Ministry, and elsewhere on campus – how can we better tell the story of our renaissance humanist origins as a Jesuit university as well as recognize our position as a place of higher learning in global context? This initiative not only celebrates our sense of complexity, including expressions of expertise and excellence in professions, but recognizes the substance and soul, I would say, of the gifts and talents we hone in our students, including capacities of empathy, ethical regard, intuitions, and actions that exude a pedagogy of transformation.

Third, empower diversity initiatives through the work of a campus diversity officer.

Fourth, establish leadership and a corresponding program in service learning, especially as we inch toward our reaccreditation efforts with the Higher Learning Commission.

Fifth, intensify our efforts in sustainability and ecological responsibility. To this end, I am announcing today the formation this semester of a Presidential Committee to begin addressing this issue.

Sixth, create a provost-area, faculty-led position for efforts related to institutional planning.

Seventh, appreciate the economic challenges that impact us, and seek and use well resources that assist us. Gaining and stewarding resources will continue to require difficult decisions.

In thinking of these possibilities together, this semester I invite all departments and units on campus to employ a classically Jesuit tool: the Examen. In the days ahead, I will be providing you with an Examen template of questions, including a timeline for the course of this Spring 2016 term, for engaging and completing a process of thoughtfulness about where Creighton is now, and how we can be even more extraordinary.

The Examen will ask you to recognize the importance of your department in the life of the University, and in this, I risk a Pauline reference – we are many parts. If it is unclear how vital your area is to the life of this institution, or where you fit in a sense of community that is so widely celebrated, we have missed something fundamental. Additionally, your role in our mission and identity is essential.

The Examen will also invite you to consider the set of initiatives I have named today, to include others, and as you begin in your local areas, to think and feel seriously about our greater institutional reality.

As many of you know the Jesuit Examen, you probably also know there are a thousand versions of the Jesuit Examen. As you are able to use this Area Examen in your division or department, please feel free to deploy it with flexibility and creativity.

Also, in the Examen, I will ask you to be particularly mindful of our mission and identity as Catholic and Jesuit. As this is never not significant, in the course of the next couple of years, the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities (AJCU) is asking all 28 institutions to reflect on the ways they are Catholic and Jesuit, and to do so in collaboration with the highest level of governance in the Society of Jesus, the Superior General.  While the Society is in a process of electing a new leader, it is he who will eventually work with Church leadership to endorse the identities of the institutions of the AJCU. The Office of Mission and Ministry will shepherd further efforts in this regard.

Allow me today to offer two more announcements, and then provide some closing remarks.

At the time of my inauguration, I announced the creation of the Creighton Global Initiative, a seed-funding program for enhancing global perspective on our campus. I also then delineated a set of criteria to help us envision possible projects. Here on campus, in the city of Omaha, or globally; through research, curricular development, lecture series, programmatic enhancement, scholarships for study abroad, immersion programs, and more; I invite you to help Creighton take its next step on the global stage. With almost $4 million in the fund, I am releasing this semester nearly half of the monies through a committee process that is chaired by Dr. René Padilla and comprised of a campus-wide committee of 13 faculty, six staff, and six students. By way of the President’s Home Page and the Global Engagement Office Website, available now is a call for proposals. With it, you will find the list of criteria for projects, the list of committee members, the timeline for proposals, and a submission process. If you would like more information and direct conversation about the process and possible proposals, optional information sessions will be provided.

My final announcement regards our 2016 commencement speaker, award winning writer and national commentator the Rev. James Martin of the Society of Jesus. I look forward to welcoming him on campus, and I am excited about the message he will give our graduates.  

The economic collapse of 2008 negatively impacted banking, personal and institutional investments, home ownership and real estate, small businesses, health care, retirement, and a host of other basic realities of our lives, including the resources and work of higher education. It was also then that as a nation we began to look seriously at associated costs of ventures such as ours – those of higher learning, including the formation, delivery, and access of our work through technological advancements. We all wondered (and perhaps still do) about the impact of massive open online learning courses – the MOOCS – as you might recall. Radical changes in national enrollment demographics became clearer, showcasing areas of marked decrease as well as opportunities for educational outreach and professional development. And as the arena of higher education – for its lifestyle, discoveries, network of relationships, high ideals, and so much more – is generally always a place of fascination, the discussion, commentary, and criticism of the university in the United States burgeoned and sharpened.

I was rather taken-up with these many publications, and in fact I was able to read a recent commentary with a faculty group here on campus a couple of months ago, William Deresiewicz’s book, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life

My point of mentioning all of this is that, generally, I was displeased with the varied discourses about the university. Some of the discussions about administrative growth, the professionalization of student athletes, comforts in student services, and a culture of assessment, for instance, were instructive, but many of the concerns completely missed some of the driving and daily impulses of our lives in Jesuit higher learning – the personnel and programs that are on the front lines of cura personalis, such as EDGE; the necessity and brilliance of core-curricular studies, such as MAGIS; strides toward excellence and expertise in professions, abundant here; the existential impact of retreats, service work, liturgy, and mentoring, such in Campus Ministry and the Schlegel Center for Service and Justice; the possibility of a true sense of community on campus as well as in an urban locale; and the ways that, in fact, some of the contemporary neuralgia-points of the university today, properly postured, can be of great assistance to us.    

In this process of reading, though, I was finally pleased with a publication in 2012. Andrew Delbanco of Columbia University, in his book, College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be, struggled to name something magical about our work in higher education. Referencing Hebrew, Greek, Roman, Christian, and secular articulations of what he was trying to get at, and then pointing out people like Ralph Waldo Emerson and his sense of genius, William James’ description of invasive experiences, Lionel Trilling’s good portrayal of university students as transit people, and Alasdair MacIntyre’s concept of communal enquiry, he finally admitted that what is so special about our work in the academy are moments of grace – but in particular, it is moments of grace through teaching.

Within the life of a student, that is, within the reason and meaning of our work, and from somewhere unclear to him, the work of teaching makes possible an electric connection, a thrill, a provocation, an awakening, a transformation, a sense of mystery, a flash of kairos, a moment of grace. And it is here, with his book, and in these words, that I thought: Someone is finally talking about us.

I am happy to take questions. Thank you, and God bless our work.