Finding Your Why


Wednesday, August 15, 2018
Hanaway Theatre
President Don Birx Remarks:
Finding Your Why

Good morning, everyone. Welcome to our third University Days where together we kick off the New Year. It is great to see all of you. I am glad so many could make it. I hope you all had a chance to take a break during summer and are ready to get started on a New Year. I had the opportunity for some mountain climbing and time at the beach in Fenwick island in Delaware; that and my early sailing days are probably the source of my many nautical motifs, so bear with me.

Before I go any further I would like everyone who was not here last year or who is in a new position to stand up. Let’s welcome everyone to our incredible community of learning and to their new positions. Thank you for joining us. One thing I can assure you – it won’t be boring!

The summer has been eventful in many ways, from the many events on campus to the summer programs and renovations, to signing the AAUP union contract, demonstrating again that we can work as a team. Some events of the summer, I admit, I’d rather forget, but these are opportunities for discussion about important issues from which we will grow. Those discussions will start this week and hopefully carry on throughout the year. Although there will not be time for questions now, we have set aside some time on Friday at noon.

The changes going on in our facilities are especially exciting, and emblematic of what is to come. This summer we opened the one-stop shop for students in Speare which houses Student Account Services, Financial Aid, Registrar, PASS and TRIO and Res Life. The Smith Renovation is nearing completion with an interior redesign that features kitchen areas, common spaces and different sleeping arrangements. By the way, I am told that we are at 97% occupancy in housing. Congratulations to all of you who have been involved in this. The Health and Human Enrichment Cluster space in the PE center is well underway and should be completed this fall.   And across the campus there were facility upgrades in a number of academic buildings and spaces inside and outside. We have a new dining provider and the hope for more fresh cooked food. So try it out if you get a chance and don’t be too hard on them until they can to redesign their space—a different look as well as different dining services. I hope you are getting a sense of movement and excitement visually reflected in the changes going on around you. My thanks to all those who were involved throughout the busy summer.

This year’s theme for University Days is “Finding your why” and is organized somewhat differently than previous years. The focus this year is on your role in our transformation and change. It isn’t about whether we are going to transform ourselves (that is in our mission statement) it isn’t about the reality of the changing landscape of higher education or the increasingly limited resources available. It is about whether you share the excitement for the future or, as a question that was posed by the Chronicle of Higher Education—mourn the loss of a past that no longer exists. So, why are you excited, or how can you find excitement in this new reality? That was the gist of a question posed to me by the Chronicle of Higher Education, as the questioner noted that the world we now live in, and will live in, is nothing like the boom time of higher education of the last half century. My response to him was that one must have a vision for the future that holds the promise of a revitalization along with affordability and sustainability for our students. I believe we have such a vision and we are going to build it together. More of the questions asked and what we talked about in our transformation will be featured in a Chronicle of Higher Education webinar in two weeks.

These University Days are about how we are using this reality as an opportunity to recreate ourselves so that we and our students thrive in the 21st century—and each of us has a role to play in this.

Three years ago we began a journey. That journey was about giving students an integrated education spanning disciplines and providing project-based experiences and the tools (built around their major) so no matter what their passion, they could pursue it in a financially sustainable manner throughout a lifetime in which knowledge is readily available and easy to access. But synthesizing, validating, visualizing and using that knowledge to further explore, teach, create, and build ideas and concepts and realize them across disciplines within teams with a habits of mind perspective is rare. This is an exciting approach to academics, and making our education affordable is what we are about here at Plymouth. This will give our students the abilities, tools, and experiences they need to thrive, and it is what is of inestimable value for the future. Financial sustainability is also important for the institution and our new structure holds the potential for long-term sustainability in a higher ed environment that will continue to experience increasing upheaval and demographic shifts.

During the past three years, we discussed the four tools of building this education from First Year Seminars to Themed General Education (with stackable certificates), and Open Laboratories to Integrated Capstones. We piloted cluster projects and first year seminars, built open laboratories and organized ourselves into clusters with real impact on students (and this year our goal is to move beyond pilots to implementation of integrated cluster programs and other programs across the University). Our journey of discovery has been exhausting, chaotic, and confusing at times, but that is what the process of discovery and building something truly new is all about. There have been many doubters but we have persevered, survived the murky middle, and arrived at that distant shore we could barely picture when we began. We have ventured where no university has gone before. And that is incredibly exciting for our students and ourselves. We haven’t explored the land, built the communities, and figured out life in this new world. We are only on the beach, but we have made it through the deep waters, the storms at sea, and lost friends and colleagues. Now we must get out of the ship and embark beyond this new beachhead to explore and build our cluster-based communities doing it creatively, efficiently, sustainably and responsibly. So, I welcome you off the ship today, all of you, and into this new land. That is what this University Days is about. It is a celebration of our accomplishment and a new beginning. We’re not going to be sharing a bunch of new ideas, shifting people around or creating a new organizational structure as we have done over this last three years. This year is all about making it happen.

Now the question is: What are we going to do about it? We left behind a land where we and our students could not thrive… for one of opportunity and promise. But we have to make it, create it, and build it. We need to take apart our ship and use the materials to build what we have visualized in this new land. So, today, let it be decided that you will set out not rebuilding what we left behind, but together building something suited to this new land. It is our home and what we make of it is up to us, but make it is something we must do.

We are the first ones here, but other universities are searching for what we have found. So we will need to stake our claim and proceed with vigilance. We want to be a lighthouse to guide others and have them come alongside us, but we also don’t want our students and ourselves to be left out of this new 21st century academic world.

That is why discovering your why, what, and how is so important. If you don’t have answers to these questions it will be hard for you to build anything. In this quest I have asked the Transition Leadership Team, which has representation across campus, to work with each of our communities over the coming year to help them develop task forces around key concepts we need to evolve and implement—among them curricular change, process mapping, and training and sharing of ideas—and to not only ask task forces to make recommendations but to stay involved through implementation. Each of us also needs to find the time—a few hours a week—to really think about the future, to strategize individually and in groups—to think about what we are going to stop doing (as well as doing) to implement our ideas, and to participate fully in our transformation. That is really what agile process are all about.

That said, I want thank everyone for your incredibly hard work over the last three years. I’m especially grateful to our deans for going above and beyond in countless ways, in a thankless job, and for the team that worked on putting together University Days and events across campus. I also want to recognize those of you who have been leading the charge. Thank you.

We have not arrived on a barren landscape, but rather a verdant new home with many opportunities. It is familiar in some ways, because collaboration and community will continue to be valued and emphasized here. As we move forward, we’re launching original initiatives, like PSUNITE, to provide mentors for all students to boost success and retention. PSU has a great mentoring culture already but now our goal is to go beyond what other colleges and universities offer as well as integrate it into what I hope will be a new honors program.

We are implementing our Summer Ascent program for first year students and this fall, FYRE—the new First Year Residential Experience. FYRE’s special programs and increased access to faculty and services will help new students find their personal paths. Along with the spark of FYRE, we’ll be moving forward on the General Education front, led by Professor Cathie LeBlanc. Cathie is here today and excited to be back working on these changes to improve improve student outcomes. Congratulations to those who have been, and will be, involved in these changes.

And a positive community is returning to infuse the new PSU with service and pride. Fraternities and sororities are a small part of a huge effort to reimagine student success and retention programs. We believe that despite the challenges of Greek life, that it has a place in our future and we can do it right. Moreover, Greek life will build vital connections with alumni while reenergizing school spirit.

Between the building blocks that we brought along on our journey, and the rich landscape we can glimpse, things really do look promising. But these resources will remain mute and immobile if we don’t animate them. Each of us must give life to our new world of Integrated Clusters.

We are uniquely suited to this challenge. In a recent article, the Chronicle of Higher Education declared, and I quote, “Plymouth State is an unusually collegial place…” We excel at working together and considering the bigger picture. It’s in our DNA and our history, and therefore our destiny in the future.

The question is: What are you excited to explore and try?

To get us started, today and throughout the week, students, alumni, and colleagues will share their visions of why, what and how in a “TED Talk” format. I encourage you to participate in as many sessions as you can. I know because of the origin of university days in faculty days that there would appear to be more faculty than staff content. Part of this is because staff are extremely busy during these days. But over the year you will be increasingly engaged because what we are doing involves everyone.   But if you are staff, and you have some time available, I would ask you to take this opportunity to sit in on sessions that you might not have otherwise attended or get together in groups to begin discussions on finding your why.

As we share thoughts, keep our five challenges in mind:

  • Movement to a flatter, integrated, Cluster-based organizational structure and implementation of the Four Tools,
  • Retention and Persistence,
  • Sustainability/Thriving financially, academically, and reputationally,
  • Recruitment and Enrollment, and finally and most importantly
  • Equipping our students to lead and thrive in the twenty-first century global economy.

There is a clear pathway forward if we work together on these challenges.

Last year we began a process called the University Reinvention Initiative, often referred to as URI. Many of you told us and each other about what you are doing or would like to do in programs across the university. The deans did an initial review at the end of last year, but over the summer, we spent time going back through each of the proposals in detail and organized them into 14 categories. I thought you might want to see how many proposals fell into each grouping. I’m particularly excited about the ideas that fell into categories like “Modules of Courses that support various ‘cluster majors” (with elimination of redundancy (11); “Cluster/majors and cross cluster/Integration” (27) and “Graduate, 3+2, 4+1 programs” (27). We’ll talk more about these ideas over the coming year, but the provost’s office has started sending out letters to those that are ongoing or require minimal investments so that we can begin moving ahead with some of the best of these recommendations.

Now we are going to give you a taste of what is to come over the next few days with mini Ted talks from students, faculty, and staff about their why. We are going to begin with our new Provost. Here is someone who saw the journey we were undertaking and said, “Count me in.” Robin brings an international worldview and extensive background as an administrator, scholar, author, and leader of institutional change. Please welcome Robin Dorff.


I know we have been through a lot together and three years sometimes feels like six or seven but it is important that you know that what you do has value and purpose with an impact that is making a difference. Remember that 43% of our students are first generation, 36-37% are low income, and as you’ve heard today, quite a few of our students are homeless, foster kids, or struggling with numerous challenges. That is why our learning community is so important.

Thank you to all of you for these inspirational talks, and to all of you for joining us today. Enjoy these next few days as we kick off the new academic year. Remember, we’ll have a questions section on Friday at noon.