Convocation 2015

University of Portland's faculty and staff gathered for the Opening Convocation on September 1, 2015. The following are remarks from President Rev. Mark L. Poorman, C.S.C.  

Welcome! And thank you so much for coming this afternoon.  I know this is such an incredibly busy time, and I really appreciate your making time to join your colleagues for this convocation.  I’ve had a chance to visit with many of you already and to catch up on the news from our summers. But this is our first chance to gather after the students have all settled in, and I am happy we can join together to officially “kick off” the academic year.

This truly is one of my favorite events of the year, because it’s an opportunity to meet with you, the faculty and staff, the people who are the heart and soul of this place, and talk about where we’ve been and where we are going.  It’s no mistake that we hold this convocation as close to the beginning of classes as we can: when spirits and hopes are high, when we are refreshed from the different pace and activities of summer and the adventures it brings.  This is the perfect time to look back on the accomplishments of the past year, but, more importantly, to look forward, to renew our commitments to our students and our mission, and to discuss our goals for the coming year.  So thanks again for your presence.

Any dreams or plans we might have for the University are rooted in where we are right now, so I would like to begin my remarks today by saying a few words about some of the work that has brought us to this point.

At a place like UP, a place that is deeply devoted to teaching and learning, the student experience and the “final product” are the focal points of everything we do. They are the measure of our mission. We have been relentlessly focused on that for 114 years and last year was no exception.

The past twelve months have included successes in nearly every area of University life.  Under the gifted leadership of Joanne Warner, our former nursing dean who retired just this summer, we obtained reaccreditation of our School of Nursing. We have completed program review of several academic departments. And we have obtained Canadian approval of our doctoral program in education.

Six students have been named Fulbright Fellows. Others have won Goldwater, Gilman and National Science Foundation awards. Still others have received German, French, and Austrian honors.

Thanks to the close supervision of Jim Ravelli, we have completed the Beauchamp Recreation Center on time and on budget.  In the first week after opening -- 4822 users passed through the doors.  A typical full-day’s operation in Howard Hall would serve 120 people. We have begun the renovation of the Pilot House; we’ve completed the upgrade of Joe Etzel Stadium; and we’ve refreshed the seating and sanctuary of the Chapel of Christ the Teacher.  We’ve also finished some renovations in Buckley and Franz to add more instructional space, a new advising complex, and more academic administrative offices.  Let no one forget that last year we enrolled and retained the largest freshman class in the University’s history, thanks to contributions from nearly every person in this room. And perhaps most significant of all, last May we awarded diplomas to about 850 young men and women, the greatest possible testament to your tireless work and devotion to the education of the whole person that is our hallmark.

Yes, the past 12 months were incredibly busy and hugely successful, and I thank all of you for making them so.

While all that was happening, you and I began some rich and important conversations.

A year ago, when I was inaugurated as president, I said that I wanted to spend my first year on the job listening and observing. I wanted you to tell me what you think our greatest needs are and how we might better fulfill the University’s mission. During the past year you have been extraordinarily open and honest with me and I am grateful for that.

Our many conversations helped me formulate what I think could be described as our shared vision for the future of this place.  It is a vision that is rooted firmly in the foundation built for us by the men and women who devoted their lives to this university throughout its history. 

The University of Portland that we know and love today is the result of decades of incremental change. Like anything that evolves, we are guided by an inner force that provides direction and constancy, even while the world around us sometimes seems in disarray. For us, that inner force has always been our grounding in a coherent understanding of our mission and unwavering commitment to continuous improvement by faculty, staff, and the Holy Cross community.

Today, as we have always been, we are a community that lifts up education as firmly rooted in a liberal arts core curriculum, intensely personal, holistic, rigorous, charged with faith, and committed to service.  We are, in the words of our mission statement, a community that prepares people to respond to the needs of the world. And as I listened to you during the past year it became clear to me that there are several things that will help us do that important work better and more effectively. Today, I would like to briefly comment on some of the points that have stood out for me.

Let us begin with a crashing understatement:  We need more academic space.

Tom Greene and Jim Ravelli did a thorough assessment of our facilities not long ago and what they confirmed what you already know and what you told me again and again: we need more classrooms, faculty offices and meeting space.

One of my all-time favorite statistics for the value proposition is this: In 1994 we had an entering class of 424 undergraduate students, and we had 43 classrooms on campus. Last year we had an entering class of 1082 undergraduates – a class 2.5 times as large as 1994 – and we had (wait for it…) 43 classrooms. Every day of the week – from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. – all of our classrooms are in use 89% of the time.  That’s a utilization rate of facilities unheard of in higher education.  This Fall semester, 54% of our students are registered for an 8:10 class.  I’m sure you join me in admiration for that widespread early-morning ambition, but I think it’s fair to say that classroom availability may be driving some of that!

And the space crunch will only become more challenging as our enrollment success continues.

There is absolutely no question about it:  We need to build an additional academic building.  And so we have begun to plan for it and Laurie Kelley and Bryce Strang, our chief fund raising officers, have begun to identify potential donors to finance it. We estimate this new building will cost about $30 million and it is our highest priority.

 Second, we need more campus living space for our students. There are many factors that have contributed to this:

  • our enrollment has increased;
  • we are enrolling more students from outside Portland;
  • rental costs in the area around the University are rising;
  • our students find it increasingly desirable to live on campus;
  • our residence hall staffs are doing a remarkable job building communities that our students want to continue living in beyond their freshmen and even sophomore years.

There are many reasons why life in a residence hall is vital for our students. As Fr. Gerry Olinger, our vice president for student affairs, often reminds us, life in a residence on campus is crucial to the formation and development of our students. It is a powerful expression of the Catholic and Holy Cross sense of the individual embedded in a community. And it is a statement to our students about the value and importance of community in a world that prizes radical individualism above all else.

This month we will break ground on a new traditional residence hall that will house 275 students.  Thanks to the keen financial acumen of Alan Timmins, our financial vice president, we reorganized the University’s debt and bonding capacity, which has allowed us to initiate this project.

Third, we need to create a plan for the River Campus. During the last couple of years we have cleaned and groomed that 35-acre addition to the campus, and now we are ready to develop a short-term plan for its use.  The uses I have heard most often expressed are for an environmental science facility to support our growing environmental science program; for a boathouse to support our UP women’s rowing team (in which we take great pride, I might add); and for additional athletic fields to augment the expanded services and opportunities of our new recreation center.  With characteristic energy and attention to detail, Jim Ravelli will lead the effort to create a plan and implement it.

Bricks and mortar are always a prime topic for discussion but you have talked to me about more than that.  Much more!

There have been some very healthy discussions about our programming needs and there are several programs that you have drawn to my attention.

First among these is the enhancement of our international and global perspective. With the steady and creative guidance of Tom Greene we have already begun work in this area through the Collaborative for International Studies and Global Outreach.  Tom and the deans have appointed the CISGO leadership team with Laura McClary as chair.  As many of you know, CISGO continues its ambitious agenda, having already formulated international and global outcomes for the University -– a significant step forward.  We’re also reorganizing international studies and various curricula to reflect a more global perspective; and we’re reevaluating our recruiting of and programming for international students, even as we hope to see a modest increase in their number.

As you are aware, there has been a change in our studies abroad program.  After 20 years and half a million miles as director of the program, Fr. Art Wheeler has returned full-time to the classroom.  Under Fr. Art, we went from 89 students who studied abroad annually to 305, from three locations to 14, from 4 faculty who taught our students to 16 faculty involved in our programs.  Fr. Art has been a remarkable advocate for studies abroad and we will always be deeply indebted to him.   Will you please join me in thanking Fr. Art for a job exceedingly well done?

Picking up where Fr. Art left off is Eddie Contreras, who, in just two months, has established himself as a knowledgeable administrator and an excellent colleague.  Eddie has enlivened our discussions about this very important program, and we are already grateful for his guidance and leadership.

Still another area that for too long has been undervalued and, indeed, under-funded is our career services program. Today’s students – and their parents – have steep expectations for outcomes that make their heavy investment in education worthwhile.

We are committed to education that is oriented to the formation of people who are capable of responding to the needs of the world. That commitment results in students and graduates who, I think, are exceptionally well equipped to succeed in whatever career path they have chosen.  And yet, we have an obligation to help them take that next step into life beyond the University, and to find meaningful and fulfilling work that also helps them pay off the student loan debt that many will unfortunately incur from their years here. 

As a result, many of you have called for a major investment in our career services office, with increased staffing and programming and expanded relationships with employers and businesses.  Our career center, under the capable leadership of Amy Cavanaugh, is taking steps to do just that: expanding our employer network, coordinating and centralizing internship opportunities, and working with our students from the first day they step on campus until long after they have crossed the stage at graduation, if need be. 

A key partner to our career services programs, particularly employer outreach, is our Office of Alumni Relations.  Last year, Craig Swinyard left his position in the math department to become Director of Alumni Relations.  Craig has wasted no time reorganizing our alumni operation and formulating a new plan that calls for the timely development of 8 chapters or clubs in areas with high concentrations of UP alums such as Seattle, Los Angeles, the Bay Area, Portland, Chicago and Hawaii.  Key parts of that plan include working harder and more intentionally to engage our alumni around the region and across the country.  Our engaged and enthusiastic alumni are a tremendous asset, and the more we tap into that network, the more opportunities we can provide for our students.  This new energy and organization will not only support our efforts in career services but will support our fund raising efforts as well.  It’s an exciting plan, and we have Craig and his team to thank for it.

Just as we are unabashedly focused on teaching and learning, so are we unabashedly devoted to our religious identity.  In the past year many of you have talked with me about ways we can increase programming and participation in all aspects of our Catholic character. While some of the renewed enthusiasm may be a result of Pope Francis, I think much of it is merely a reflection of our ongoing commitment to our mission. UP has always honored both faith and reason as ways of knowing, has always welcomed and respected people of all faiths and good will, and has always seen the practice of faith as an essential part of human flourishing and our communal life.

And so it was no real surprise to me that so many of you spoke to me about your ideas for new programs in Campus Ministry, the Garaventa Center, the Dundon-Berchtold Institute, and other activities and events related to the spiritual life.

Fr. Jim Gallagher has returned to UP after seven years leading the Office of Vocations for the Congregation of Holy Cross, and he and his capable team in Campus Ministry will no doubt build on the momentum established under his predecessor, Fr. Mark DeMott.  There is a great hunger among our students for more opportunities to engage with their faith—through retreats, faith sharing groups, and worship. 

Karen Eifler and Fr. Charlie Gordon will continue to co-direct the Garaventa Center and have a full schedule of events in place for this year, starting with the annual Zahm Lecture about two weeks from now, which will feature Tim Egan, Northwest correspondent and columnist for the New York Times and a best-selling author.  The Garaventa Center provides UP with an important vehicle to link Catholic intellectual life and aspects of American culture for members of the wider Portland community, and its reach continues to grow. Under Karen and Fr. Charlie’s impressive leadership, the Garaventa Center’s influence has grown exponentially over the past couple years, from just 12 events in 2012-2013 to 40 events in 2014-2015, with an average attendance of 100.  The Garaventa Center will also now be responsible for programming the newly endowed “Beckman Humor Project,” so we look forward to the prodigious efforts of Karen and Charlie as they turn their attention to the intersections of humor, spirituality and American culture.

The Dundon-Berchtold Institute, led ably by Dan McGinty, the home for such programs as “The Character Project” and the Initiative in Applied Ethics, has enabled us to turn what has been for generations at the core of a UP education – the applied study of ethics -- into a thriving signature program.  Twenty-four professors and 25 students, spanning all four schools and the College of Arts and Sciences—have completed research projects during the first three years of the Applied Ethics Program.  This year, we will welcome eight more first-time Faculty Fellows working with Student Scholars.

In August, all members of the senior class received a copy of the highly popular book The Defining Decade by Meg Jay, courtesy of the Dundon-Berchtold Institute.  Thanks to the Institute, Meg Jay will be joining us on September 27th to talk to our students and other invited guests about making active choices in their 20’s to help determine the life they want to live in the decades beyond.  And next spring, on March 16th, David Brooks, columnist for the New York Times and author of the current best-seller, The Road to Character, will visit campus and offer what are sure to be provocative thoughts on how to live lives of virtue and character in our contemporary culture.

Another area in which there has been a growing call for new programming is recreational sports.  Those of you who have followed intercollegiate athletics in recent years have noticed the growing professionalization of certain sports at many colleges and universities.   I am pleased to report that under the leadership of our athletic director Scott Leykam, here at UP I believe that we’ve cultivated and maintained a balanced perspective on intercollegiate athletics through which we’ve been able to sustain the ideal of the “student-athlete,” with a genuine emphasis on both “student” and “athlete.” But beyond our efforts to provide excellent student experiences for our 270 varsity athletes, we need to do more to create and enhance opportunities for recreational sports for all students in order to fully utilize the new Beauchamp facility and allow it to live up to its purpose as a center for wellness.

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All of these things that we have discussed in the past year are bound tightly together and driven forward by our mission, and they have been given cohesion by our current institutional strategic plan.

It has been said that if you aren’t sure where you are going, any road will get you there, and that is something we have all kept in mind for the past four years. Our Strategic Plan has kept us focused and alert. It has been our roadmap and we have referred to it regularly, thanks largely to my special assistant, University General Counsel Danielle Hermanny, who collected progress reports from many of you each spring and compiled them into an annual report. But that five-year plan, developed over much time and with much labor in 2010 and 2011, will conclude next year, with most of the tasks largely completed.

With that in mind, I would like to offer some thoughts about what that means for us, and what actions I have taken in anticipation of the plan’s expiration.

As we have all seen during the life of our current plan, planning is not a static thing but rather a rolling activity. The best planning is not episodic but continual and ongoing. Circumstances change, personnel change, needs change, finances change. In some ways, we have all learned, a five-year plan is often remarkably outdated even after one year.  While most of the tasks in the current plan are completed or have shown great progress, there are a few that never materialized.  I think we can learn as much from those tasks as we can from those that were accomplished -- not because they are evidence of failure, but rather because they demonstrate our inability to predict exactly what the future will look like five years out.

We have learned that to be useful and effective, a strategic plan must have clear goals and hold us accountable for our actions, and yet be fluid and flexible -- general enough to embrace the entire University, and yet specific enough to be meaningful.

For the past 25 or 30 years we here at our University, as well as our contemporaries around the country, have seen a certain routine develop around planning and the fund-raising that inevitably follows it.  The growth of elaborate and expensive fund raising campaigns has become part and parcel of the planning process. Over a period of time – often as much as two or three years – a complex and verbose plan was created and extensive lists of needs identified. Simultaneously, a five- to seven-year campaign was planned to raise funds to meet those needs. At the end of that cycle, after everyone was thoroughly exhausted and the plan was covered deep in dust, success was celebrated and the process began again.

As the decades have passed, the plans became less meaningful, the links between planning and campaigning became weaker, and the campaigns became larger and longer. I think we here at UP have to step back for a moment, take a deep breath, and reevaluate that approach.

Keeping in mind that our current plan will expire in 2016, I have asked Tom Greene and Alan Timmins to lead a committee that will, starting this November, take a fresh look at the way we plan at UP and by March propose to us a plan that will begin in August 2016. I’ve asked that the new plan be limited to seven to ten pages of specific, bulleted actions we need to take to continuously improve as a great University.

Strategic planning should be about the big issues that affect the University, not the details of department planning. In fact, I think the mark of a successful plan will be one where the goals of specific departments flow logically from it.  Consequently, I have asked the committee to consider five general areas during their discussions, although there will surely be others the committee will surface. Those five areas are:

  1. Actions we might take to further develop and sustain superb undergraduate education;
  2. Actions we might take to expand relevant, excellent, and self-sustaining graduate programs;
  3. Actions we might take to continue to develop first-rate infrastructure, services, and facilities;
  4. Actions we might take to infuse our entire community with a sense of global and multicultural opportunities and instruction;
  5. Actions we might take to enhance our Catholic character and to enrich the expression of our faith.

Some of you will be asked by Tom and Alan to serve on the committee, and all of you will be invited to participate in numerous sessions about the plan. Your enthusiasm and good will, not to mention your thoughtfulness and insights, will have an impact far beyond anything we can imagine today, and I thank you in advance for your willingness to serve and consult.

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And so we begin again, as the University has done every Fall for more than a century. The months ahead will be filled with challenges and there will be days when no doubt we are frustrated and weary. But our life together will be buoyed by our capacity to create a strong community by speaking and listening carefully to one another. And it will be in those treasured times when we will experience grace-filled moments of genuine understanding and effective action.

At the Orientation Mass the other day I was moved by the hopefulness and expectation that I saw in the faces of our students and by the openness and welcome I saw from all of you. It was a kind of sacramental expression of the qualities that define UP’s spirit. In the coming year our task is to make that spirit a more powerful means for doing good by renewing our commitment to excellence in teaching and fulfilling our mission.

My strong hope is that my remarks today are only the beginning of our conversation this year. We are all part of a team and each of us relies on the efforts of so many others. We will continue to achieve amazing things together – great things will happen if we each do our jobs well every day and remain focused on what has sustained us since our founding.

I deeply appreciate your time and attention here, as well as the many personal kindnesses you’ve extended to me in this first year.  I am proud to call you colleagues in this sacred undertaking, I am grateful to you beyond my words here, and my prayers will be with you in the months to come.  May God who has begun such good work in all of us here at UP, bless us, and bring our efforts to completion.

Thank you all…very much.

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