August 14, 2014 1:45PM
Pittsburg State University President Steve Scott opened the university’s 112th academic year on Thursday with an address that recognized both big successes in the past year and also acknowledged stressful times for higher education. He shared his vision for the coming year, including several major events and planning for the future.
Scott began by noting that this is his 27th year at PSU and his sixth as president.
“I cannot believe how fast the years have gone by and I feel so fortunate to have served this institution and our students over these years,” Scott said.
The president prefaced his main message by praising the university faculty and staff for their work.
“If you don’t remember anything else about my comments this morning, I hope you’ll remember that I believe that each and every one of you is awesome and I’m so appreciative of what you do for this institution,” Scott said.
The president acknowledged that as the spring semester ended last May, he sensed a high level of stress across the campus.
“I don’t believe I’ve ever seen the level of stress, angst and frustration that I witnessed,” Scott said. “You could feel it in casual conversations and hear it in our voices. I say ‘our’ because, yes, it affected me as well.”
The president said there are probably multiple causes for the stress he saw, including technology.
“Some would say technology is to blame,” Scott said. “Its pace pounds us 24-7 with information, emails to be answered, passwords to be remembered, tweets to read and friends to be had or not. Our love affair with our devices has accelerated the pace of life and some just feel overwhelmed. I do get that and I do experience that from time to time.”
Scott said some of the stress originates in Washington, D.C., and Topeka.
“As you all know,” Scott said, “state revenues have plummeted as a result of the 2012 tax cuts. Some pundits have referred to Kansas tax policies as a risky experiment that is sure to fail, but others have said, ‘just give it time.’ Ultimately, one thing is for sure, we will know if a rapid reduction in income taxes can be replaced by increased revenues from a growing economy. The revenue will return or it won’t. That situation creates stress on this campus from both a financial and psychological perspective.”
Because of the uncertainty surrounding state revenues, Scott said, the university is approaching the coming year from “a very cautious and conservative financial perspective.”
Scott quoted a previous PSU president who said, “For decades there was enthusiastic growth in higher education, but in recent years there has been confusion over goals, new limits, reduced support and an uncertain future...In education, as in America, there are too few deeply held commitments on which we can agree and there are too few sharply defined goals that guide our course. No wonder that higher education in America has suffered a nagging feeling that it was not at the vital center of the nation’s work.”
That president, Scott said, was Don Wilson, who spoke those words 30 years before Thursday’s meeting.
“So, I guess the stress we’re feeling isn’t new and it is not unique. But for some reason, it feels more intense and more enduring – relentless, even,” Scott said.
Another source of stress, Scott said, comes from a steady drumbeat of grim headlines from around the world.
“You don’t have to watch CNN long or spend much time on Google News to feel the worries of a world that has seemingly lost its way,” Scott said.
The president said that despite the challenges and the stress, faculty and staff had pressed forward to make the past year an extraordinary one.
“When I visit with faculty and staff, they are quick to say, ‘We’re getting a lot done.’ ‘I feel good about working at Pittsburg State, in fact, I’m proud of working here.’ ‘Our work is important.’ But they also say, ‘I’m worried about how we can continue to make things work.’”
Scott said that in difficult times it is good to look for inspiration. He cited the story of Olympic athlete and WWII bombardier Louie Zamperini who survived 47 days drifting on a raft in the Pacific before being rescued by Japanese soldiers. Zamperini spent two-and-one-half brutal years in a prison camp and after the war battled alcoholism. In her book, “Unbroken,” author Laura Hillenbrand tells Zamperini’s story and how he overcame his demons to eventually live an inspirational and meaningful life of service.
“Clearly, our challenges, our stress and our hurdles are not at this level,” Scott said, but that does not mean they aren’t serious and it does not mean they can’t rob us of our hope. We can be inspired by Louie Zamperini and others like him who stand tall, even when they face the very worst that life has to offer. Joan Baez said it perfectly, “Action is the best antidote to despair.”
Last year’s accomplishments
The president noted a long list accomplishments of the past year, including the vote by the classified staff to leave the state civil service program and become employees of the university; groundbreakings for the Bicknell Family Center for the Arts; the Robert W. Plaster Indoor Event Center and the Overman Student Center expansion and renovation and the implementation of the new tobacco-free environment policy.
Scott said several academic programs successfully completed accreditations last year and PSU became the first university in Kansas to offer an undergraduate degree in polymer science. The Student Success Center opened, beginning the transformation of Axe Library and the university moved closer to gaining approval of its first doctoral degree program.
Other successes included the completion of the $12 million Pathways to PSU scholarship campaign, which topped $13 million and created 95 new scholarships; and the completion of the first phase of the Nation Hall renovation.
Faculty and staff gather in the McCray Hall lobby, Thursday, prior to the opening meeting.
The year ahead
The year ahead, Scott said, will feature openings of some of the facilities begun this past year and planning for the future.
On Dec. 7, Scott said, the university will dedicate the Bicknell Family Center for the Arts.
“This building is sure to be as transformative to this institution as the Kansas Technology Center,” Scott said.
A few months later, the Robert W. Plaster Center will open.
“While the Bicknell Center will be posed to broaden and enhance our work in the visual and performing arts, the Plaster Center offers the campus and community a chance to expand its economic reach and impact,” Scott said.
The president said the ongoing work of creating a new university strategic plan is expected to conclude this fall and he encouraged faculty and staff to be part of the conversations around the plan.
Scott said the Strategic Planning Task Force will recommend that the campus focus on four key goals: academic excellence, student success, partnerships and a responsive campus culture.
“Those four goals sound like us,” Scott said. “I once heard a corporate leader say, ‘You can change what you do and how you do it, but you can’t change who you are.’ The Strategic Planning Task Force really gets this...In no way are they signaling we should abandon our values or the great culture on which this place operates.”
President Scott said in addition to extraordinary challenges, he expected the university to have extraordinary opportunities in the year ahead.
“I’m confident our work will get done and we will continue to do it well,” Scott said. “In so many ways, we are very fortunate to be here at this place at this time in history. There is so much good occurring and we’ve positioned ourselves to confront and overcome the obstacles that are sure to emerge in the coming days and weeks – both those we know about and those we can’t forsee.”
The president closed his remarks by reminding faculty and staff of the “special role we play in American society and within this community and region.”
“We have roles that offer tremendous opportunities for gratification and fulfillment as we help other achieve and as we enhance the quality of life in this area. Pete Seeger noted that ‘Being generous of spirit is a wonderful way to live.’ That generosity of spirit is something that lives in each of you and is in many ways what brought you here and kept you here.”
Scott cited two examples of the impact that PSU has on individuals.
The first was an alumnus from the ‘60s who told the president that on two separate occasions he had been dismissed from the university for academic reasons.
“Yet, someone on this campus believed in him enough to admit him a third time – yes a third time,” Scott said. “He graduated, went on to become an architect and had a life that we would describe as blessed.”
Scott said the grateful alumnus said, “Without this college, that never would have happened.”
The second example cited by the president is that of Isauro Tevalan Maldonado, an incoming freshman who was born to migrant workers in California and spent most of his childhood in Missouri.
Tevalan Maldonado moved with his parents back to their home country of Guatemala several years ago, where he completed high school. This year, he returned to the U.S. and was working in a local restaurant.
“Now, his story could have ended there and been considered a success,” Scott said. “But Isauro’s thirst for knowledge led him to a special program at Greenbush known as the Out-of-School Youth Advocacy Project and also to a very special person, who just happens to be a Gorilla herself, Ms. Rachel Phillips.”
Through the OSY program, Tevalan Maldonado earned his GED. He applied and was accepted for admission to PSU.
“He is the first OSY student to attend college and I’m proud to say that in four days, this young man will begin working – with a 17-hour class load – toward a degree in electronics engineering technology,” Scott said.
“You see, that’s what we do as educators,” Scott said. “Our efforts to touch and transform the lives of those we serve continues to this day because we are, from our very core, committed to helping others succeed.”