Opening Day Address

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

August 18, 2011

Good morning...what a great day it is on the campus of Pittsburg State University.  Welcome back and to those of you who are just joining us...welcome.  We're glad you're here and look forward to getting to know you.

Dr. Olson, thank you for leading us through the introductions and thank you for the leadership you provide for academic affairs...the very heart of this institution.  Thanks also to Hazel, Kenny, and Misty for being a part of today's ceremony. Your work in the coming months will be important to those you represent, and your input is essential to me and to other senior leaders as we confront the many challenges ahead.  We have a long history of embracing shared governance here at Pittsburg State, and we want that to continue and to grow even stronger.

Congratulations to those who were involved in establishing the new Unclassified Senate.  What a great addition to our shared governance structure that is, in many ways, a long overdue step.

This ceremony has truly become a tradition that many of us look forward to each August; I certainly do.  It's the official kick off to another academic year and symbolically represents the opportunities and hopes we have for our shared future.  My comments today, although brief, include some reflections on the year just completed, some thoughts about where we are now, and a look at the challenges and opportunities ahead.

When I reflect on this past year, I can't help but think about the words of my favorite balladeer, Jimmy Buffett.  The words are from a song I listen to often.  It is called 'He Went to Paris.'  As the song ends and as the life of the ballad's subject is nearing an end, he says, "Jimmy, some of it's magic, some of it's tragic, but it's been a good life all the way."  For me, that captures the ups and downs of this past year.  We collectively accomplished much and some moments have even been magic.  But maybe more than any other year, we have faced tragedy.  From the loss of an unusual number of students through car accidents, to the untimely death of a popular faculty member, to the unprecedented destruction of 30-40% of a neighboring city, together we have weathered very difficult times. 

Through these tragedies, we have learned about the character, resilience, and compassion of each other.  We've also recognized the importance of community.  When Tisharria Huggins, known affectionately as Coach T, a 29 year-old, much-loved graduate assistant coach for women's basketball died in a car accident this past winter, the women on the basketball team responded by playing and beating a nationally ranked opponent just two nights later on the road.  Although most cried as the game ended, they knew they had taken a step in dealing with the loss of this terrific young woman.

When we lost Karen Stolz, a popular and much-admired professor in English, her students and colleagues responded much differently.  They turned to her words as they celebrated her life and the impact she had on them as a professor, colleague, and friend.  Gathering in 109 Grubbs on a late-spring afternoon, they took comfort in their reflections, their music, but most of all in the words and spirit of their professor who had left us much too soon.

And finally Joplin...what an extraordinary event that we'll likely never see again in our lifetime.  I'm proud of the way you individually responded to their needs and the manner in which the university tried to help.  You each showed compassion and a commitment to helping them recover.  As an institution, we shared our residence halls, our IT resources, we donated beds, money, time, energy, and expertise, and we continue to encourage and support them as they seek to rebuild their lives and their community.  Thank all of you for helping, as I've heard on a number of occasions, the people of Joplin noted our actions and appreciate them.

And now from the tragic to the magic...while this year certainly had its tragic moments, it also had its moments to celebrate.  And some of those moments were near magical.  Just think about these:

  • In a year when every Kansas state agency would see a cut, and honestly, our focus in Topeka was on minimizing the damage, the Kansas legislature funded our request to establish the PSU School of Construction. What an achievement that was for this institution. Thanks to the faculty, staff, administrators and our many corporate and legislative partners for their work in making this happen.
  • What's left to say about the Baja SAE competition? What an extraordinary event for our students, faculty, staff, and the Pittsburg community.
  • The women's cross-country team finished 12th in the nation this past fall.
  • And our volleyball players received national attention for their successes in the classroom. How does a 3.556 team GPA sound?
  • We achieved the second highest enrollment ever in the fall and the highest enrollment ever in the spring.
  • Housing...what a step forward...we added over two hundred beds to our housing capacity and we've run out of room again this fall. What a great message that is to the community and our supporters.
  • The design/development phase of the Fine and Performing Arts Center has been completed. It was a magical moment to see the renderings of the building unveiled for the first time.
  • Our donor support and sentiment has never been stronger.
  • The campus has never looked better. Even with the high, high temperatures, it's looking great! If you're like me, you'll have some more magical moments this fall as you walk across the campus and enjoy its beauty and the energy the students are sure to bring.

All of you have encountered ups and downs this past year, and in your individual work settings, I'm sure you had events or interactions with students that you viewed as very special in a positive way and interactions that were possibly very tragic.  Even so and with all things considered, it's ultimately been a year of progress and accomplishment for Pittsburg State University.  Together we have moved the university forward and served our students well.  Thank all of you for making that possible...

In addition to experiencing these highs and lows, ups and downs, we all learned some things this past year.  I know I sure did, and I want to share with you a few of those with you.  Here are just a few:

  • First and foremost, I've learned (or maybe it was just strongly reinforced) that community matters... And we do have a great sense of community here. We need to keep it and grow it. Bill Clinton has talked often of creating a global community. He said, "Our mission in this new century is clear. For good or ill, we live in an interdependent world. We can't escape each other. Therefore, we have to spend our lives building a global community of shared responsibilities, shared values, shared benefits." I'd say that effort must begin with us in creating smaller communities that fit together into a whole. And I believe we've accomplished much in that regard.
  • Concerning technology, I recently learned that Morgan Stanley has predicted in 2012 smart phone sales will outpace PC and laptop sales? Did you know 35% of adults now have smart phones? Just think what that figure is for the students we serve.
  • In May, Amazon announced that its customers were purchasing more ebooks than print books.

Thank goodness our Information Technology Council this past year developed a strategic plan to ensure we keep pace with these dramatic changes.  Thank you Angela Neria and the members of the ITC for your important work.  I look forward to seeing the plan implemented in the coming months and years.

  • This year we learned that when we believe in something and are committed to making a difference, we can achieve a great deal. Our efforts in sustainability demonstrate that. With two buildings now heated and cooled via a geo-thermal system, hundreds of new energy efficient windows installed in the past decade, and our first-ever campus sustainability plan in place, we are becoming better citizens of this planet. With much work to do, I feel good about the progress we've made so far.
  • Speaking of the environment, did you know that prior to 1945, smoking was not allowed on campus? An alum at a Springfield Gorilla gathering told me that, and Randy Roberts confirmed it. That's right, a headline in the December 12 issue of the Collegio read "Council Votes to Permit Smoking." The students, veterans returning from the war, actually drove this decision.
  • On a personal note, Gluten free has become cool...
  • With all of this, the most important thing I've learned this past year is from something that Kristi Toeller said one day in the office. 'This Place Rocks!'

At last week's retreat of the President's Council, we developed a list of assumptions about the months and years ahead for me to share with you this morning.  They too reflect what we've learned in the past year and how those lessons apply to our future. Here's what we believe:

  • State funding will increase only modestly and most likely only in very specific areas of interest to legislators and policy makers; accompanying this will be pressure to raise tuition. Yet, accountability demands of us are sure to increase not decrease.
  • To continue the growth we've been experiencing, we'll need to seek new markets (like Northwest Arkansas) and attract a more diverse student body, and in addition, we'll need to be agile and adaptable.
  • We expect students will be more and more engaged in technology and less and less engaged with the people around them; this will demand changes in how we recruit, teach, communicate, assess, and place students.
  • Without a doubt, sustainability will continue to be an essential and critical area of focus for us.
  • And I'll offer another of my own: We live in a time of extremes. From the political world, to the weather, to the economy, the days of stability and moderation appear to be a thing of the past. This 'new normal' creates near constant stress, with the ups and downs of the stock market providing a daily (but not necessarily rational) barometer of how things are going; it's stressful and it's tiring...If this is our 'new normal,' then we've got some work to do to help our students live, work, and excel in such an environment. And just as importantly, we'll need to help each other navigate through these times as well.

 

While I learned some things this year, of course, there are many things I still don't understand.  At the top of the list is this:

  • I find it hard to believe that people are questioning the value of a college degree right now. We all know unemployment figures for college graduates are far lower than non-college graduates, salary comparisons are strikingly in favor of college graduates, and estimates are that by 2018 nearly 2/3 of all jobs will require a college graduate to fill them. College degrees, one would think, have never seemed so valuable; yet, the questioning of the value of a college degree has never been so loud.

Even though the world seems quite perplexing, contradictory, and extremely fast paced, it is the time in which we live.  You can be sure that all of these factors will influence the decisions we'll make in the coming months and years.  I'd just ask you to be patient as we work our way through the complex issues and challenges these trends will produce.

For those here last August, I visited with you about three specific areas of opportunity for us...the Kansas Technology Center, intercollegiate athletics, and the arts.  As I've already noted, the KTC took a huge step forward this year as it gained increased state funding for a School of Construction.  This step fits perfectly into our strategic interests for that facility and the broader campus.  It also shows the importance of having a legislative message that is focused, built on an existing strength, and relevant to the Kansas economy.  I'm looking forward to having Shawn Naccarato represent our interests in Topeka during the coming legislative session, as he serves in his new role of PSU's Director of Government and Community Relations.

Through the leadership of Athletics Director Jim Johnson and in just 11 short months, the athletics staff has developed a comprehensive approach to addressing its many facility shortcomings.  His concepts and plans have energized those who support athletics, and we are optimistic we can attract the financial support needed to see these concepts become reality.  When implemented, there is no doubt in my mind that our student athletes will be much better served and that we will have state of the art facilities that are the envy of Division II schools across the nation.  The renderings of our plans are located around the reception area, and I invite you to review them.

Last year at this meeting, I noted we would soon begin to design the University's Fine and Performing Arts Center.  For those of you new to campus, you might ask...where is the current center?  And why are we replacing it?  The answers are simple. We tore the previous center down.  Carney Hall housed our large performance hall, and it's been gone since 1981.  Since that time, we have not had an adequate campus venue for the performing arts nor have we really had adequate space to present the visual arts.  That's all about to change.  Today, we're sharing with you renderings of the Fine and Performing Arts Center, and I hope you'll take a careful look at them and become as excited as I am about this project.

These designs are the result of countless hours of meetings and deliberations about what should be in the center, how it should be configured, and how it should look.  Thanks to the many members of the Design/Development Committee we have an outstanding and indeed visionary project to share with you today.  Students, faculty, and the leadership of the music, theater, and art programs have worked closely with very talented and nationally respected design professionals to envision what will be a signature facility on this campus.  As the fundraising brochure for this project proclaims, this structure represents 'A New Era for the Arts at Pittsburg State University and the Region.'  That's what it's all about.  The center is merely the vehicle to achieve this goal, and to achieve this goal, we need the help of every person in this room.

First, we need for you to believe this effort is critical to the long-term interests and success of Pittsburg State University.  I believe it is.  I believe it will elevate the status of this institution and enrich the lives of our students, our community, and us.  As the only campus in the region and conference without a large performance venue such as we're proposing, we are at a clear disadvantage when it comes to recruiting and serving our students.  In last year's speech, I made an argument for the arts via several quotes that seemed to resonate with you.  Today, I'll offer just one, and it's from Aldous Huxley.  He made a very succinct and moving observation about music that clearly applies here, "After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music."  Think about the opportunities we'll have to do just that.

Secondly, I'm asking that you consider financially supporting this effort.  I recognize that we have had modest increases in salary over the past few years, but I also recognize that when we value something, we find a way to invest in it.  This happens with institutional funds and decisions, and it also happens in our personal budgets. I'm asking you to believe in this project and to be a participant in making it a reality.

When the Kansas Technology Center was constructed in 1997, it took a wide-ranging effort, involving contributions from one side of campus to the other.  I was teaching and serving as a chairperson in the College of Education.  As the fundraising began to take shape, Cathy and I decided we should participate in the effort.  In hindsight, I'm so pleased we made that decision.  Now as I walk into the KTC I take pride in the fact that we helped that building become what it is.  Just think about the opening faculty meeting a few years from now, when we'll conduct this meeting in the large performance hall.  You can lean over to your neighbor, maybe even during my speech, and say, "I helped build this."  Trust me, it's a great feeling.  You'll hear more about this as our fundraising plans emerge in the coming months.

Just think about what those who came before us did to build this campus and the opportunities they created for our students.  Their vision made the successes of today possible.  Think what the campus looked like in 1996.  There was no Kansas Technology Center, no Bryant Student Health Center, no new Family and Consumer Science Building, no Student Recreation Center, no Tyler Research Center, no top-fifty football stadium in America, no Crimson Village, and no Crimson Commons.

Those developments happened because of planning, foresight, and vision.  As you know, we've just completed work on our new campus master plan, designed to define the look and feel of the campus over the coming decade.  In the months ahead you'll hear me talk about the importance of this plan as we begin its implementation.  We will deal with safety issues, push to become even greener in our construction and renovations, and we'll add to the campus footprint in a strategic and purposeful way. 

At the center of the master plan, and what you'll hear most about, are three venues we wish to construct or enhance: 1)  As I mentioned a Fine and Performing Arts Center; 2) the expansion and renovation of the Weede; and 3) the expansion and renovation of the Overman Student Center.  This last project has not had widespread publicity, but as the master plan took shape, it emerged as a critically important step to better support student life and to create a better venue for banquets, dinners and receptions, but most importantly better serve student organization and club needs.  The limitations of this space are evident today.  Just look around.  Jeff Steinmiller, Steve Erwin, and others have created an extensive plan for addressing these shortcomings, and we need to begin work to create a new center of campus as we construct new venues to the east.  Those plans are also on display today.

It's important to note here that these plans are not a to do list for the next 10 months.  They represent a vision for what we can be, and they clearly depict the priorities we will pursue.  You can be assured that fundraising will continue on a variety of fronts, including Sunday's announcement of a scholarship campaign that targets the raising of $12M to increase our annual private scholarship awards by 20%.  Yes, we have ambitious plans, but I'm confident they are realistic and achievable.  And I know they'll make a difference for our students and for the future of Pittsburg State.

So what about the year ahead of us?  There is sure to be much turmoil in the national political scene, the nation's economy is certain to be challenged, and even our state political context is likely to be a difficult one, but several things are certain: 1) we'll have great students on this campus to inspire, teach, and develop; 2) opportunities to serve the community, state, and region will continue to emerge; and 3) we'll need each other and we'll need to work together to move the university forward in such a difficult time. 

We cannot waver nor relent from our focus on serving students.  That is our heritage, it is our strength, and it is truly our obligation.  Yes, we have a responsibility to meet the needs of the Kansas economy, and yes, we are expected to expand the body of knowledge through research, discovery, and the production of new creative works.  But first and foremost, we engage our students, help them grow, and prepare them for successful and meaningful lives.  That is what we do...

To illustrate this and close my comments this morning, I have three very compelling narratives to share with you.  They are brief but powerful. 

First, I want to return to Karen Stolz for a minute.  On the back of the program at her memorial service, her reflections on being a professor were included.  Her words contain both a clear commitment to her students but also a very evident devotion to her craft.  Here's what she wrote...

 

Being a teacher of creative writing is challenging and takes time away from my own writing, but it's exciting being around students making discoveries and breakthroughs, and when I have good students, I feel honored to help them in their process.

 

Secondly, I want to share portions of a note I received from Virginia Shearer, a 1961 graduate and recent inductee into the university's Half-Century Club.   Her note, crafted on an iPad as she and her husband drove away from the campus this past May, included two pages of memories of the campus and what the Pittsburg State experience meant to her and her husband Bob who was also a graduate.  She noted how important her professors had been in preparing her to teach-and also raise her two children.  Her husband Bob, who she met at the freshman picnic during the first week of school in 1957, enjoyed a long military career and subsequent civilian career working for Lockheed Martin. 

 

In her own words, Virginia wrote:

It's been a great life, full of the love of a wonderful young man I found my first days at Pitt State, two precious sons that grew up way too fast, and three much adored grandchildren that also are growing up too fast; plus the many, many family members and friends that God has seen fit to weave into the tapestry of our lives over the years.  And none of this would be so if it were not for Pittsburg State University!  So, 'Go Gorillas Go; and keep it going.'"

 

And finally, there's the story of Jamie Howard.  I met this young man at the Gorilla Express a few years ago, as I stopped in for an iced tea after Wednesday morning Rotary meetings.   Over the course of time, the brief greetings eventually included an inquiry about his future and the possibility of being a student at Pittsburg State.  One Wednesday morning he told me he'd decided to return to school, as he noted, "I want my son to see me as more than someone working in a convenience store."  He knew the best path for himself and for his family was through a college degree. 

After getting guidance from Andy Klenke and Mike Neden and working through some challenges with our bureaucracy, Jamie became a student in the Technology Education program.  As luck or fate would have it, I saw him this past Saturday morning as we both filled our gas tanks at the Gorilla Express.  Of course, I asked about school, and proudly he said he'd be student teaching this fall and will graduate in December.  He's excited about his future and proud of the profession he's chosen. 

I have a treat for you this morning. I asked Andy to bring Jamie with him to our meeting, and he's here with us.  Let's give him a round of applause and wish him well.

I recognize these stories exist all across this campus and they literally permeate our history.  Since the very founding of this institution in 1903, these stories have been created by you and the people who preceded you.  I'm the lucky one.  You write the stories...I just get to tell them.  Clearly, this is a very special place with very special people.  Remember what I said earlier, this place rocks, and it does so because of each of you.  Let's keep it rocking.