Aug. 15, 2022: University Address

Welcome everyone, and thank you so much for joining me today. It’s a pleasure to see everyone back on campus. We have about 1,000 students in Lewisburg already, and the rest will arrive over the coming week. Summer is ending, but don’t worry, our winter break is only 124 days away.

Summer offers us a natural time to reflect on where we’ve been, and what we want to accomplish in the year ahead.

The past couple of years have been unusual, to say the least, and I've been thinking about how important it will be for us to work together as effectively as we can as we begin the new semester. In this new event, the University Address, I'll discuss some priorities for the coming year, and connect them to our long-term goals.

I’m excited for all of the opportunities that lie ahead, and I hope you are, too.

I want to start with a really basic question: Why do we do the work we do?

We are here to educate our students, and to help ensure their success in myriad ways.

But our focus goes beyond the students starting classes next week. We are in fact working for students who aren’t even born yet. That might seem odd, but that’s the mindset that has made Bucknell a leader in higher education for 176 years.

For context, let’s take a very brief look at our past.

Since our founding in 1846, Bucknell’s success has been based on at least three strengths: adaptability, community and a focus on the future.

First, we have always been able to adjust to changing circumstances.

From our very beginning as the University at Lewisburg, Bucknell has adapted to changes in society as well as changes in higher education. We have navigated shifting demographics. We endured fire, flooding and financial peril. We saw our students serve in wars.

And to that list of challenges, we can add the COVID-19 pandemic, which has impacted just about every human on earth.

You’ve heard me say before that I believe historians will consider this to be among the most significant tests Bucknell has ever faced, if not the most significant.

For many of us, COVID-19 has been the biggest personal and professional challenge of our lives. It’s been exhausting, frustrating and frightening.

But like our predecessors, we kept the needs of students front and center, and we adapted.

Of course, those who came before us didn’t succeed alone. They worked together as a community — a team of overlapping teams — and that’s the second key to our continued success.

Bucknell has always been a group effort. Books about our history are filled with detailed accounts of the collaborations needed to clear financial hurdles, or build new facilities, or add new programs. That should sound very familiar.

Bucknell is a special place because of its people. Our community is the source of our strength today — just as it has been since our founding.

As a group, we were tested as never before during the first phase of COVID, when seemingly every moment presented a fresh crisis.

Despite the conditions, despite the lack of a playbook, we had no pauses in instruction for our students. Admissions and fundraising goals were not only met, they were exceeded. We had no layoffs, no furloughs. We experienced unprecedented levels of innovation and collaboration among faculty and staff, particularly using new technologies.

We discovered strengths we didn’t know we had. And we know we can keep counting on each other as we remain vigilant against the virus and ready to pivot again as needed.

I am incredibly grateful to be part of this group of dedicated professionals. Thank you, yet again, for your extraordinary efforts.

But let’s also remember that none of us would be in this auditorium today if past generations of Bucknell employees and leaders had not been thinking about students of the future. That’s the third key to our strength across so many decades.

You don’t establish new departments and colleges, and you don’t build new residence halls and classrooms and athletics facilities, if you don’t intend to stand the test of time.

Our predecessors knew that “good enough” wasn’t good enough, and so do we.

We know that great organizations don’t become great by accident. They keep adapting. They keep learning. They realize the marketplace of ideas and people. They look ahead.

This is not new to my thinking — I shared these ideas in 2014, when I discussed the importance of being a university that is student-centered. Forward-looking. Data-informed. Highly intentional. And prudently bold.

Now it is time to renew our focus on the future, and recommit ourselves to that mindset.

We are in a far different place with COVID than we were in March 2020. Some degree of uncertainty remains, and will likely always remain. But as we have seen, society is adapting, and life goes on — including at Bucknell.

That doesn’t mean we ignore the risks of COVID to our students, employees and community. It means we manage them.

We are no longer reacting to pandemic-related issues. We are responding, as thoughtfully and deliberately as possible.

Our students, and their families, count on Bucknell to continue providing a superior education, no matter the circumstances.

This region counts on Bucknell to provide leadership as an employer, as a neighbor, and as an indelible influence on our area’s history and culture.

To help ensure we can meet these types of expectations, we create strategic plans. We did this most recently in April 2019, when, following a two-year process that engaged our entire community, our faculty and Board of Trustees endorsed the Plan for Bucknell 2025.

Of course, the plan’s timeline didn’t anticipate a global pandemic. We had 11 months between the plan’s endorsement and March 2020, when the world changed forever.

While some of our self-imposed deadlines have been met, others have not, which is completely understandable. We must and we will be revisiting the plan timeline to accommodate the unavoidable delays.

Yet it’s important to note that progress on the strategic plan has continued. Even in uncertain times, we’ve kept building on the firm foundation we were so fortunate to inherit from our predecessors, and focusing on our forward-thinking mindset.

It’s an exciting time, and one that needs all of us to succeed.

Bucknell makes dozens of decisions, every day, that determine our direction in both the short term and long term. We draw upon the expertise and input of a broad range of people to help shape our path forward.

We are extremely fortunate to employ faculty and staff who are so dedicated and passionate about educating our students. I will continue to depend on your collegial and collaborative spirit as we work toward our goals.

Let’s keep collegiality in mind, and strive to nurture a culture of civility and respect in our work.

Some may respond to that request with cynicism. Some have told me that calls for civility are merely calls to suppress dissent.

I completely disagree.

There are many, many benefits to be gained through discussion and dissent. But these gains are quickly lost through the emotions churned up by incivility, as we see in the news every day. It’s pulling our country apart. I urge you not to fall into that kind of negative cycle here on campus.

We won’t always reach complete consensus — and that is OK, because unanimity of thought is not required for successful collaboration. In fact, it weakens it, because many perspectives are needed to reach a well-informed decision.

So we gather information, we hear different viewpoints, and we weigh what is in the best interest for our students. We decide on the direction and determine how we’re going to get there. And then we move on, while remaining open to the possible need to change our approach as circumstances demand.

While any one of us might not agree with every decision, I hope we can support our colleagues as we all work to meet our institutional goals.

To underscore the University’s commitment to welcoming many voices and perspectives, I am very pleased to announce the return of the Bucknell Forum.

As many of you may recall, the Bucknell Forum is a national speaker series that began in 2007 with the purpose of encouraging thoughtful conversation featuring different perspectives on some of the most pressing issues facing society. The theme for this academic year will be “The State of American Democracy” — a particularly relevant topic as we move through and beyond what could be a historic midterm election cycle.

Our Forum series will kick off on Sept. 13 with a virtual conversation with Condoleezza Rice, the first female African American secretary of state and first woman to serve as national security adviser. I will be hosting this discussion here at the Weis Center, and hope you can join us — please watch for an email with more information this afternoon.

Other speakers scheduled for this year will appear in person. They include Jake Tapper, the lead Washington anchor for CNN; John Kasich, the former Republican governor of Ohio; David Axelrod, former senior adviser for President Barack Obama; and Barbara F. Walter, a 1986 graduate of Bucknell who is an international expert on civil wars and a New York Times best-selling author.

As we gather as a community to hear these speakers and others, and as we continue our daily work this fall, let’s please remember that everyone around you right now is so much more than their title or job description. We go home and cook dinner, help our kids with homework and walk the dog. We go to the grocery, get the car inspected and binge Netflix. We go to football games and manage aging parents and sing in the car.

The point is, we are whole people, with more commonalities than differences. So please come to meetings and conversations and even disagreements with a spirit that takes into account our shared humanity.

Through this respectful discussion we create cohesive action, even without consensus, because we all chose to work here for a common reason: Like those before us, we believe in the power of a Bucknell education to change students’ lives.

We understand that every interaction with students shapes their experience here.

And their success is our success. If you’ve attended Commencement, you’ve felt it in your bones.

To ensure that Bucknell is prepared to graduate many, many classes to come, we rely on our history, our manifold diversities and strengths, and our strategic plan.

And as we re-commit ourselves to the plan, we are going to put extra focus on two of its four pillars. This will concentrate our efforts and investments in our most precious asset: our people.

Before I share our areas of focus, I want to emphasize we are not changing our direction. We are affirming it.

I also want to underscore that every employee of Bucknell is part of this effort. There’s a famous quote from the late John Zeller, our esteemed vice president of business and fiscal affairs and general counsel emeritus, that greets every visitor to Bertrand Library. It reads: We are all teachers here.

It’s a beautiful, inclusive sentiment that recognizes the value each of us brings to Bucknell.

Similarly, we are all stewards of Bucknell University, and we all play a part in its success.

If you don’t think of yourself that way, I want that to change. Right here, right now.

Because you have the power to shape the future of Bucknell, and we need everyone’s commitment in order to succeed.

Our first and primary goal is to ensure we are doing all we can to be a premier residential campus.

We will pour even more effort into our strategic plan’s commitment to providing an integrated and exemplary residential student experience.

Today I ask each of you to deeply reflect on how your work impacts students. Be deliberate as you move throughout your day. Ask yourself if you are making choices that truly place our students first.

Think about this: The incoming Class of 2026 spent more than half of their high school career in a pandemic.

The Class of 2023 was sent home in March 2020 to finish their first spring semester remotely. They have never experienced a “normal” year at Bucknell.

We are seeing the effects of the pandemic on students in every imaginable way — academically, mentally, physically, emotionally. I fully expect that it will take many more years for them to recover from this disruption.

So let’s ensure that our thoughts, words and actions align with our shared mission to support, guide and teach our students — to set them up to succeed in an increasingly complicated world.

Within this priority, we must put a sharp focus on retention, because it is not enough to enroll students. We must also keep them here.

Our retention rate from first year to sophomore year is 92 percent. That’s the envy of most schools. But let’s do the math: 92 percent means we are losing one in 12 students in the first year.

No school is right for every student. But when we are losing one in 12, we are not meeting our potential.

We can and must do better. We must make sure that we are not only enrolling the right students, but that we are also doing right by them once they arrive on campus.

Our Admissions team is not enrolling GPAs or AP credits. They are enrolling whole people. If a student’s needs are not met, if they do not feel seen or make meaningful connections, if they are worrying or suffering in any way, they are not going to be able to focus in class. And they are less likely to succeed here.

Here’s another question for you: How long do you think it takes an incoming first-year student to decide to leave Bucknell?

According to our colleagues in the Thrive group, about five weeks. First-year students make up their mind within five weeks of arriving on campus.

Remember that old tagline — you never get another chance to make a first impression?

Well, you don’t. And everyone here today has the opportunity to help Bucknell make a good impression on the Class of 2026. To make them feel confident that they made the right choice in coming to Bucknell. To make their parents feel confident that they’re making a solid investment in their student’s future.

Let’s commit today to do everything we can to help welcome our first-year students and make them feel comfortable in their new home. Ask them what they need, and help them form connections. Help put them in touch with all of our resources — for academic support, for health and wellness, for recreation, for student organizations.

And don’t forget the power of simply smiling and saying hello. Or asking them how they are doing, and then really listening.

Of course, this applies to all of our students, not just our first-years.

In the words of the great Maya Angelou, people will forget what you said or what you did, but they’ll never forget how you made them feel. Let’s make all of our students feel glad they’re at Bucknell.

Another important part of this priority is improving and expanding our out-of-classroom experiences. Again, this is key to ensuring we are meeting the needs of students as whole people, not just as scholars.

In the last 13 years, we have invested heavily, and appropriately, in the academic experience, with new programs and opportunities, new positions, and with new classrooms, labs and study spaces. But now, we must also focus on the many opportunities we have to enhance other aspects of student life.

For many of our students, the out-of-classroom experience includes working on campus. In fact, more than half of our students hold a campus job at some point during their time at Bucknell.

I am pleased to share that on August 1, we enacted a new minimum pay rate for our student employees. They now receive a minimum of $10 per hour, which is considerably more than the Pennsylvania minimum wage, and puts us in line with what many of our peers pay their students.

This will make an immediate impact on our students and ensure they are being more fairly compensated for the valuable work they do here on campus.

We have made many other recent strides to enhance student life. For example, our new Public Safety chief, Anthony Morgan, has undertaken an ambitious program to truly listen to the concerns of students, and to create a proactive partnership with them.

We added two new full-time counseling positions to meet increased demands for mental health care, bringing the total to 10.

We’re making housing improvements, including replacing all of the Mods by fall 2024, and renovating Vedder Hall and Fran’s House. Our current housing study will inform future decisions and ensure we are doing our best by students.

We learned during the pandemic that outdoor recreation is extremely valuable for mental and physical health. We’ve expanded our Outdoor Education & Leadership programs. We’re building a new athletics complex and improving some athletics fields.

There are many other examples. And we will continue to find even more ways to make sure the 24/7 residential experience here at Bucknell not only meets but also exceeds student expectations.

Our second priority is to work to become a leader in workplace engagement. This, too, directly supports our strategic plan, by supporting its commitment to create a sustainable future.

Sustainability goes way beyond the environment and finances, as our colleagues in all three colleges will tell you. Sustainability includes people — the faculty and staff who are the lifeblood of this institution. Simply put, we will not succeed if our workforce is not sustainable.

We recognize that the pandemic has drastically changed the landscape of work, and that this change is likely to be permanent.

Bucknell, too, must evolve as a workplace if it is to succeed. We simply cannot afford to stay the same and hope for the best. Like every university in the country, we are navigating difficult issues related to recruitment and hiring, remote work, salaries and employee expectations.

You may have seen a recent survey from the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources, which reported a shocking statistic: More than half of higher education employees across the country plan to leave their position in the year ahead. That’s 14 percent more than reported in last year’s survey.

This is a trend unlike anything I’ve seen in my four decades in higher education. It’s an extremely complicated situation, and we can’t pull a magic lever to solve it. We must be nimble, forward-thinking and adaptable. Change is happening at lightning speed, and decision-making must keep up.

I want to be very direct in addressing the fact that amid all this change, not every Bucknell job has been affected in the same way.

All of our faculty, and certainly many of our staff, interact with students on a daily basis. Other staff, however, have jobs that mostly do not involve direct engagement with students, even as their work directly supports our mission of education. In those fields, people can often work in a hybrid model, or fully remotely.

As a result, we are facing urgent challenges in hiring and retention in these areas. The marketplace is driving up demand for these types of positions, and employee expectations are changing as a result.

This is an immediate priority. There are departments and entire divisions on campus that have already been critically impacted. If we fail to respond, we will risk losing even more employees, and we will not be able to meet the needs of our students.

To ensure our future, we must ensure that Bucknell is a place where talented, dedicated people want to work. And, as we do with students, we must treat our employees as whole people, because salary and benefits alone won’t be enough to keep us competitive.

As a small part of meeting the needs of the whole employee, there is no better time to share the news that this year, we will again have two full weeks off for the winter holidays. And this year, in a happy coincidence, we’ll all have an extra day, because New Year’s Day falls on a Monday.

I know I’m announcing this a bit earlier than I usually do. But I want you to be able to plan ahead for the holiday season.

But even more, I want you to be able to always count on that two-week winter break, so I am making it a permanent part of our employee calendar.

From now on, University offices will close for two weeks every year, so that employees can enjoy time with their families and friends, to travel, or to just relax during the holiday season. This benefit will be a real distinction for Bucknell as an employer, and a significant boost for our recruitment efforts.

While there remains much to do, I’d like to mention a few other ways we’re already working to improve recruitment and retention.

Last fall, we added exit interviews as an option for departing employees. In some areas, we are piloting “stay” interviews. These are “check-in” conversations held by managers with their reports, to ask if we’re meeting the needs of individual employees, and to find out how we can make sure they are supported and set up to succeed.

One division has been piloting flexible summer hours, in recognition of the fact that some employees want schedules that make more sense for their work-life balance and families.

We plan to expand our professional development opportunities, many of which were paused at the beginning of the pandemic. We will also bring back the popular personal development week and 5K run/walk that was held every summer.

I also want to recognize the need to revisit how we assess administrative areas of the University. You may know that academic departments are assessed by external reviewers every 10 years. Beginning now, we will work toward a similar standard for the evaluation of administrative units, which will increase transparency.

Many of our administrative areas are already reviewed by outside experts, which has been enormously helpful for accountability and decision-making. They include Public Safety, Library & Information Technology, Financial Aid and Communications. I know leaders in other offices look forward to the opportunity to formalize this practice, too.

I’m also thrilled to remind you that we welcomed our new vice president for human resources, Nicole Whitehead, earlier this month — so there is much more to come. Nicole has years of experience and many innovative ideas, and we will all benefit from her leadership at this critical time.

As we put an extra focus on supporting students and employees to advance the initiatives of the Plan for Bucknell 2025, I remind you of another resource at our disposal: the Middle States review process.

For those of you who may not be familiar, colleges and universities require regular outside review in order to be reaccredited and maintain their good standing as institutions of higher education. The Middle States Commission on Higher Education thoroughly reviews Bucknell every eight years. Our next review will take place in spring 2024.

Dozens of faculty, staff and administrators are already deep into the painstaking work required to prepare for our review. They are gathering and analyzing reams of data, reflecting on our strengths and areas of opportunity, and writing a detailed, honest and thoughtful assessment of our overall performance.

Their ultimate goal is to ensure that the Middle States evaluation team will find Bucknell to be an effective, forward-thinking institution that meets all criteria and delivers education at the highest level. It is a tremendous undertaking, and I thank everyone who is stepping up to meet this challenge.

The fact that this collaborative self-assessment is already well underway is extremely timely for us. It means that we have a wealth of information and work that we can leverage as we renew our commitment to pursuing our long-range goals.

In fact, we have so much to capitalize on. We have the gift of a strong foundation, and we are so well-positioned to move forward.

We’ve adapted to challenges brilliantly, always together, and always in the best interests of our students — those here now, and those yet to come.

We cannot know the exact challenges that lie ahead, whether 10 years or 10 decades from now. We certainly didn’t predict a pandemic.

But as good stewards, we’ve prepared ourselves — and paved the way for our successors — as well as we possibly can by pursuing the goals of the strategic plan here and now.

Beyond guiding our future, the plan deftly captures who we are. It affirms and capitalizes on our strengths and values, and what makes us distinct in a crowded and competitive higher education marketplace.

I asked in my 2010 inaugural address, standing right here, “Who are we becoming?” Today, I stand here to tell you that we know who we are, and it’s time we celebrate our identity with pride.

We’re a nationally ranked liberal arts university with three colleges and unlimited interdisciplinary opportunities — and we’ve only just begun to realize the potential of those intersections.

We’re hands-on learning. We’re Division I athletics.

We’re committed to being an inclusive, welcoming community that celebrates diversity in every form — and we’re working toward our goal of ensuring that all talented students have the opportunity to attend Bucknell, regardless of their financial situation.

And we’re central PA proud. Let me remind you that until recently, we were almost apologetic about our location. Three hours from everything, we said. “Centrally isolated.”

No more. Today we celebrate this beautiful valley, and its educational opportunities. We have students working with their professors to improve the quality of life in coal country. We have students teaching and learning alongside incarcerated people in nearby correctional facilities. We have students who worked on the recently opened Susquehanna River bridge.

Bucknell’s identity is serving us well. We are proud of who we are, where we are, what we do and how we do it — even as we keep striving to become even better.

This is our model, and its essential elements are precisely why students choose Bucknell.

Our model works. And I’m damned proud of it.

Let’s return to the question I posed at the beginning of this talk: Why do we do the work we do?

It can be really difficult to keep putting so much effort into outcomes we might never see.

But as a first-generation college student who almost flunked out of Stanford, I know the value of persistence, of mentorship, of opportunities. Of second chances, and third chances, and fourth chances.

I am eternally grateful for those who believed in me as a student, and I am grateful to be in a position to help Bucknell students today.

You don’t always see your impact as an educator, but when you do, it can take your breath away.

When I was a young professor at Stanford, I taught a sophomore who was having trouble with my class. She struggled all quarter, and was the last one to finish the final exam. She was so anxious about passing that I graded it while she waited. She passed the course — but just barely.

Twelve years later, I was hosting a reception in my backyard when a young woman, clearly pregnant, approached me with her husband. She asked me if I remembered her. I recognized her as that former student, who was there celebrating her 10th reunion. She told me she was now studying in Stanford’s joint M.D./Ph.D. program. You can imagine the acceptance rate for that.

I think about her when I have moments of doubt — when I need a reminder of our potential to change the lives of our students. We do what we do because we have faith in the future.

And every one of you is shaping the lives of our students, every day. You may not always see the outcome, but I think most of us see enough in our roles to know when we are moving the needle.

We are all teachers here. We are all stewards of this great University.

So let’s keep believing in our students’ potential, and in ours. Let’s start this year with faith in the future, faith in each other, faith in our mission, and faith in our power to make a difference.

Let’s keep building on our successes, navigating bumps, and looking ahead.

Let’s focus as never before on ensuring that Bucknell will continue to educate students with the power to change the world for many, many generations to come.

I can’t wait to see what we accomplish together.

Thank you.