President's Opening Day Remarks

Opening Day Address

Dr. Steven A. Scott, President, Pittsburg State University

August 20, 2009

Good morning and welcome back! Most importantly, welcome to our new faculty and staff members. I'm glad to see all of you this morning.

Well, what a difference a year makes! Most of you were here last year as we witnessed Dr. Bryant announcing his plans to retire. It was an emotional moment that we're sure to remember. Just think what has transpired since that moment...first of all the DOW closed at 11,430.21 that day and the price of gas had drifted down to $3.71. As you know, it was an incredibly stressful fall and winter as the economy went into an absolute free-fall. In August of last year, we didn't know that TARP, AIG, government bailouts, Ernie Madoff, and 'Cash for Clunkers' would become common words in our vocabulary.

In the midst of unprecedented economic upheaval, the university conducted and completed its search for the institution's ninth president. If you haven't heard, even though we have many challenges ahead of us, I'm pleased with the outcome of the search. I'm honored to serve in this role and honored to be here today with all of you. As you know, because of my appointment, we also have new leadership in the Provost Office, Arts and Sciences, and English. Not surprisingly, all of these transitions took place very smoothly, and I thank all of you for making that possible.

I've always looked at these opening-day meetings as celebrations. I really do. We come together to mark the onset of another exciting year at Pittsburg State University. This day, and in fact this meeting, is an important event in the life of the institution. It's one of our signature rituals, if you will, and I always look forward to it. The deans tease me about getting my clothes out the night before and getting so psyched up about this day and what lies ahead. But I just can't help myself. I feel as excited today as I did 22 years ago when I first joined the Pittsburg State faculty and attended my first opening-day meeting.

I know you, too, are excited about this day and that you have much to do before classes start next Monday. I understand that. But at the same time, I'd like to share a few thoughts with you. I'll keep my comments short and to the point, and as you would guess, I'll choose my words carefully. The topics I raise with you this morning are core to me, but more importantly, I believe they are core to the future of Pittsburg State University.

Unfortunately, the place to begin is with the budget. It's on everybody's mind, and it should be. I don't have much new to report since the budget forums were held at the end of July, but I would suggest that if you were unable to attend either of the forums, you take the opportunity to watch the recording of the forum. It's available through my web page on the university's web site.

Here is some basic information I shared at the forum: the university has taken a $4.6 million cut in state support off of our $38.9 million block grant. With $400,000 in increased costs, we found ourselves entering FY10 on July 1st with a $5 million hole to fill. We have reduced our salary and wage commitments (by leaving some positions open and under-filling others), cut operating budgets, increased tuition, and taken some money out of reserves to fill this hole. It's not been easy, but we have positioned ourselves to make it work.

In terms of the state revenue picture, collections were below estimates for July, but just barely so. While this was encouraging news, we know that FY10 will still be a very challenging year. We'll have additional budget information available to you as the year unfolds, and my commitment to you is that our work with the budget will be transparent. We'll make every effort to share the information we have, use existing governance structures to ensure broad participation in the decisions we have to make, and build additional structures where they are needed. This is your institution and your energies, ideas, and commitment are essential to us successfully navigating the months ahead.

At the budget forums, I did outline the most critical ways in which each of us can contribute. I asked those in attendance, and I'll repeat the request to you this morning that we all consider ourselves admissions counselors and retention experts. As state support for higher education is reduced, now we rely more and more on tuition. That makes our enrollment even more important than ever. Each of us has a responsibility to help attract quality students to the university and help them find the program that will enable them to accomplish their goals and aspirations. In addition and just as importantly, we need to work daily to help the students who are here succeed. That doesn't mean coddle them or spoil them. It means work alongside them, reduce the bureaucracy that confounds them, and engage and motivate them. Every person on this campus can make a difference in enrollment and retention, and I'm asking that you leave here this morning recommitted to supporting those efforts.

We also need for you to help us reduce our spending, and I know that will be difficult. We are lean, and we don't have many extras. At the same time, we have to be aware that this coming year we will spend less money and may well serve more students. Those who have criticized higher education for being inefficient will in some sense gain pleasure from our predicament. Nonetheless, because of the many repercussions of the global economic turmoil, we will become more efficient. Your help is needed in achieving those efficiencies, yet still accomplish our over-arching mission of serving our students.

Certainly we have to focus on the challenges of the short term, but as stewards of this university's future, we must also think strategically about the long-term interests of the institution and the region. To that end, I'm challenging each one of you, and myself as well, to look for emerging opportunities, even in the midst of such negative developments regarding state revenues, unemployment, the demise of iconic companies, etc. These are transformational times and our thinking must be transformational in nature for us to be successful over the long term. For your individual program or area of expertise, I'm asking that you think about: What's next? What's coming? How do we prepare for it? How do we lead it? What investments need to be made to ready your unit and this institution for a successful future? We should adopt two rules: No whining and No hunkering down. Let's focus our time and energies on the opportunities that will make us stronger.

One area that offers us many opportunities is sustainability. I've had a number of faculty tell me it's time to bring this concept front and center. And I agree! It is time, and I'll tell you how I know. Have you noticed that without much funding really our recycling program has grown pretty rapidly? Did you read the article about our new construction department making a commitment that all of the faculty will complete the LEED Accredited Professional Exam? Are you aware of the energy savings that the renovations of McCray will yield? Did you know that our new parking lots have sustainability properties integrated into their design? Were you aware that the car I'll be driving on university business is a gas/electric hybrid? And there is a whole lot more going on, and to me it indicates the time is right to institutionalize our efforts, and I plan to do just that.

Early this fall, we will reopen the university's strategic planning document. I have asked the Office of Analysis, Planning, and Assessment to draft a new university goal that addresses sustainability throughout the campus. From the curriculum, to recycling, to purchasing, to storm water runoff, to the use of herbicides and pesticides, to solid waste disposal, to university vehicles, to the construction of new facilities, we've got to take a more responsible approach to what we do. As Thomas Friedman noted in his recent book, Hot, Flat, and Crowded, we must adopt an 'ethic of conservation,' ensuring that our activities have minimal negative impact on the planet. I'm convinced that this effort will have strong support across campus by faculty, staff, and students. I look forward to working with the planning council as we move to institutionalize this commitment and to working with the University Committee for Energy and Resource Conservation as we leverage their early accomplishments for even greater success throughout the campus. The chair of that committee, Jon Bartlow, and I met last week to begin this work.

Another area of opportunity for the university is Information technology. I have been convinced for many years that our ability and capacity to understand and apply emerging technologies will have much to say about our future as an institution of higher education. Information and communications technologies have in many ways been disruptive. If you don't believe it, just think about what's happened to the telecommunications companies that used to exist and be so dominant. Think about what's happening in the newspaper business right now.

Who would have thought that historic metropolitan newspapers, hometown dailies and rural weekly newspapers from coast to coast would face bankruptcy and possibly cease publication? Their business has changed in many ways because their consumers have changed. Guess what, so have our students. The Nielson Co. recently reported that the average teenager sends or receives 80 text messages in a day...that's over 2,000 in a month! If much of our work involves communicating with and engaging young people, we ignore how they communicate only at our own peril. I'm not proposing that we teach General Lit via text messaging or Twitter; I'm observing that how our students communicate warrants our attention and consideration.

I've always been a proponent of creating an environment where faculty and staff have access to and an awareness of the kinds of information technology tools that may be of use to them. They will in the end, I believe, choose the most appropriate and effective use of these technologies. My job over the years has been to create the right environment, hence the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Technology, our faculty laptop program, the assignment of Instructional Support Consultants to the four colleges. These are good examples of how this institution has focused on providing the right kind support and nurtured an environment of exploration and experimentation. The next step in my mind is to ensure that IT is led at the campus level in a way that brings vision, focus, and a capacity to develop the right plans and policies in support of the application of emerging technologies. I'll have more to say about how we'll do this as we move through the fall semester.

Just briefly, I want to assure you that as we confront the many challenges created by the budget shortfalls and as we turn more attention to sustainability and information technology, I will not reduce my commitment to existing critical areas of focus, including our desire and responsibility to create a more diverse campus, our continuing efforts to internationalize the curriculum and student population, and our more recent focus on the assessment of student learning. Those initiatives will remain important to me and to the university.

One of the questions most often asked of me over the past few weeks is about vision. It's a simple question really, but it doesn't have a simple answer. First of all, it's important to note that effective visions are developed collaboratively and owned widely by people within an organization. The people who ask me about vision are surprised by my response, because I say, the most important part of our vision can be found in our past. Although that sounds counterintuitive, I mean it, and when you think about it, it makes sense. I believe that our vision for the future must be built on perpetuating the great culture that has existed for decades on this campus. Day in and day out, we put students first and we always have. Our near obsessive focus on students and their success frames everything we do. That common focus creates a spirit of cooperation that is unrivaled among institutions of higher education. Our vision for the future must include the continuation of this culture...I believe our long-term viability depends on it.

The second most often asked question has been, How will you survive the budget problems? Again, my response is startling to some. Here's what I say, "We're going to grow through it." And what I mean by that is not that our enrollment will grow, although that's likely to happen if this recession is like past recessions. What I mean is that we will grow our institutional capacity to handle adversity; the character of the institution will be challenged and will grow stronger; and we will be forced to reexamine our priorities and in the end recommit ourselves to what's really important. While some of this will be painful, in the end, without question we will have grown. And individually we will grow as well; this will come from looking for new opportunities, from being even more innovative as we work with fewer resources, and from individually focusing more and more on core interests and responsibilities.

To me, the questions about vision and budget problems cause one to very quickly think about process, because the answers to these hard questions arise from creating, framing, and implementing the right processes. And that gets me to my final topic...planning. For us to grow through the turmoil that we now face, our actions must be thoughtful and purposeful. For us to have the future that we want for our students, the region, and ourselves, we must energize the planning process and make it work. I have elevated responsibility for institutional planning to my office, and I will work closely with the office of Analysis, Planning, and Assessment to ensure that we keep our focus on building a successful (and preferred) future through our strategic planning activities. Every unit, academic department, college, and division needs to be focused on a future that ensures the institution's viability over time, but with the understanding that we won't leave our great culture behind.

I've mentioned a couple of times that people are asking me hard questions about how we're doing, where we're going, and how we're going to get there. That's because I have been on something of a listening tour. Since July 1, I have met with many alumni, individual supporters and donors, city and business leaders, state and federal political figures, retired faculty and staff, and many of you. I wish you could hear these conversations first hand. There is great passion for this institution...there are high expectations for it...and that's okay with me. For you and with you, I accept that responsibility. But you should know that just about every single conversation ends with, "Let me know how I can help." We are truly blessed by the level of support that we receive from so many generous people. Our job is to continue to earn their trust and support by doing what we know is our most important work: Creating and maintaining quality academic programs that lead students to successful lives and career opportunities, recognizing that it takes all of us working together to make that happen.

I want to close, with a story that illustrates this. Chad Friesen was a student worker in my office until he graduated in May. He grew up in Newton, Kan., where his father is a physician and his mother stayed at home to raise the family. Chad has always had a love for cars and particularly Chryslers. He dreamed of someday working in the car business and specifically he wanted to work for the company that produced the cars he had long admired. Chad was an automotive technology major of course, but he also excelled in classes outside of his major. In fact, over his four years here he maintained a very high GPA. Trish and I nicknamed him Chad 4.0. In the middle of the meltdown of the automobile industry, Chad declined an offer from Toyota this spring, contrary to my advice! But later he received and accepted the offer he had hoped for, and he's now overseeing 22 Chrysler dealerships in Minnesota and North Dakota. In writing a note to me after he had left campus, he thanked the university (not me) for being 'instrumental in getting me my dream job.'

I want to thank you for your work in support of students like Chad over the past year. You may not realize it, but during 2008-09 we graduated more students than ever before...1,629. I know it takes a great deal of energy, expertise, and caring to serve that many students, and I appreciate so much your efforts to make each one feel unique.

Just like Chad and those 1,628 other graduates, the students coming to campus this fall have hopes and dreams. Yes, I understand that some of those dreams are a little better defined than others. Given the economic times we face, we should remember that these students need us now more than ever. Let's work together in the coming year to support their efforts to construct bright and successful futures.

Have a great semester, and I'll see you along the way...

Thank you...