Inspiring, Educating, and Positioning Students for Success


Wednesday, August 23, 2017
Hanaway Theatre
President Don Birx Remarks:
Inspiring, Educating, and Positioning Students for Success

Good morning and welcome to University Days 2017. It is great to see all of you here. We wanted to begin with some dancing, highlights from last year and Jason’s cheerleading to get us off to the right start.

You are probably wondering what USNH location was being featured in the video that was playing when you all entered today.   Well, many of those sights and sounds were captured not just in the Granite State but half-way around the world in Africa where PSU is surprisingly well known.

Over the summer I was invited to visit and be the guest of our sister institution in Benin Africa. We got a chance to visit the Gate of No Return and the Tree of Forgetfulness – sights that I will never forget. What you saw were clips of the 4 hour graduation ceremony with roughly 150 students. Needless to say, there was a lot of pomp and circumstance both before and after the awarding of degrees. And we thought our graduation was long! Like us, they always have work to do on their campus but in spite of lots of rain and our historical buildings, the ground’s crew and building service workers have been doing great work all around this beautiful and vibrant campus. I think they deserve a big hand.

Speaking of graduation, I appreciate your feedback on some of the suggested changes in our ceremony. Overwhelmingly, the responses were positive but with some concern about Friday night. That said, who is up for giving a new format a try? More to come on this.

Now, let me ask, for whom is this their first University Days experience? Great. In some ways this will be new for all of us. For those of you for whom this is old hat you are probably expecting me to give a traditional State of the University speech this morning.   I know you’ll be disappointed, but I’m going to leave the typically exciting financial and other fascinating updates for our fall Town Hall Meeting which will be held in October.

Instead, today I’m going to kick-off what I expect will be an engaging multi-day launch to our new academic year in which we really move forward in transforming PSU.

There is reason to have a sense of urgency. There are changes happening on campuses across the country and at our sister institutions here in New Hampshire. Leadership is changing, new generations of students and their families are looking at higher education differently since the recession. In addition, traditional ways state and federal governments are supporting colleges and universities are in flux.   We know we must change and transform to survive and thrive and for the sake of our students as we here at Plymouth have always done.

Ben Franklin said it well 3 centuries ago – “When you are through changing you are through.” And he follows that with “He that lives upon hope will die fasting”. It is a reminder that complacency or a wistful view of the past will not make the positive difference required in the future lives of our students at a price they can afford.

By the way, Ben Franklin has a starring role in my speech today. As many of you know, Ben Franklin was the first Postmaster General, an inventor and a great communicator. Part of my niece’s summer wedding took place in a postal museum near Washington, D.C., the walls of which had many of his quotes. Some really hit home, and I want you to know that even at weddings, I see what we are doing at Plymouth.

Now back to our journey together.

Our theme for University Days this year is in the spirit of everything we’ve been doing here at PSU: Inspiring, Educating, and Positioning Students for Success but now with a focus on 21st century challenges and needsI want us to take a few minutes to reflect on where we’ve been and then spend the next few days focusing on where we are going in the academic year ahead.

Two years ago, we embarked on a journey together and now our first cluster class, the class of 2021, will arrive on campus and matriculate. On Friday, Panther Days will begin and we will be seeing the fruits of our labors take hold.

This year, we all need to play a key role in our transformation. We have made big promises (or rather Jason has, on behalf of the university, with his iphone talk) about their cluster experience and what it will be like from challenge-based first year seminars to open laboratories where students work on exciting multidisciplinary projects, from themed Gen-Ed pathways to integrative capstones, from living learning environments to cluster-based organization of residence halls based on the Cambridge model of colleges. From cluster-driven curricular and co-curricular experiences to the drive for 85. We must fulfill our promise to give them the leading edge integrative education they came for. We have made this promise not only to our students but also to NEASC which accredits our university and its programs. We have passed through our gate of no return, and we need to work together with urgency and excitement! For those of you who may still wonder why we are doing this, I refer you to my blogs, the last two University Day speeches and the reading list I will show you at the end of this talk.

This year is about implementing all our planning and piloting over the last two years. Yes, it has been a lot of work but we are seeing results!

During the first six months of my time here, we focused on developing a new mission and vision for PSU, planning a strategic and financial approach for long-term sustainability and conceptualizing a high-impact, leading-edge model of education (built on clusters). All of these elements went hand-in-hand in building the new PSU based on historical strengths and values, and with a view to the future needs of our students and the communities and nation we serve. Student success is at the core of our transformation. Two principles are guiding it: (One) that Frans Johansson brings out in his book the Medici Effect – the creative process that birthed the Renaissance where he notes, “When you step into the intersection of fields, disciplines, or cultures, you can combine existing concepts into a large number of extraordinary new ideas….developing an epicenter of creative explosion” and principle two, again from Ben Franklin “Tell me and I forget, Teach me and I remember, Involve me and I learn” – one of the better summaries I have read of engagement via open laboratories and the intersection of fields through the construct of clusters.

I tell you this to encourage you for the year ahead. And what a year it will be.

We then began the process of discussing and implementing this vision and strategy. We pursued a concept of education (clusters) that is at the leading edge of higher education and that provided focus, interdisciplinary coherence, economic and civil relevance, and held the hope of yielding a PSU that was true to its roots, dynamic in its education, and impactful economically. It was a holistic, systematic approach to change, in which academic and administrative processes are integrated into seven clusters of discipline-based communities led by teams of faculty and staff, supported by co-located service centers and empowered to make decisions at the point of need. These clusters, Exploration & Discovery through to Innovation & Entrepreneurship and including Health & Human Enrichment; Tourism, Environment & Sustainable Development; Education, Democracy & Social Change; Justice & Security; and Arts & Technologies, resonated with community strengths and needs, and 21st century global challenges. We discussed why this approach will give our students a distinctive edge in transitioning seamlessly to an engaging and successful career in a global trans-disciplinary economy.

Once the design framework was developed, we met with the Trustees and described the plan. We told them it was a high impact strategy that would take at least three years to put in place. The plan was adopted and supported by a vote of the Trustees and was initiated over the summer of 2016. Over that summer, we worked to reorganize, developing our leadership teams and consolidating administrative units by location and function. Academically, we began the process of organizing all programs into these seven clusters, setting up cluster guides and laying out details for implementation of an integrated, permeable, fluid cluster-based academic and administrative structure. Over that summer I began a blog to convey direction, address concerns, and incorporate ideas and concepts from across the campus. These blogs became a type of informal and flexible blueprint for our future while fostering conversation.

By fall 2016, thanks to all of you, we were able to run a hybrid structure that consisted of both new and old elements, to shift our culture, to begin piloting projects, and to allow the needed time for our faculty, staff and students to adjust to this new paradigm. We also rolled out a new media campaign, website, and recruiting approach built around clusters. We started laying out the four-year sequence of studies that would support the clustering process (First Year Seminars, Themed Gen Ed, Open Laboratories, and Integrative Capstones –the “four tools”), built three open laboratory collaborative spaces, and began a concerted effort to develop partnerships with community and business organizations.

We began integrating the graduate school into a broader University vision which provides a clearer pathway from undergraduate to graduate school and will be a key element in our 4+1 cluster model. We also began discussion and evaluation of an alternate scheduling approach that will allow us to incorporate classes with the new open laboratories, providing a common set of building blocks of time for working across disciplines and better utilization of Fridays for academic classes. To show our pride, we installed two statues of our panther mascot: one on Alumni Green and another at the entrance way to our athletic facilities. (Both were gifted by the students from four classes – 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019). We implemented a new staff performance evaluation process that focused on what each of us had accomplished and what our goals were for the coming year as aligned with our mission and vision and the move to clusters. By the end of the semester, we closed campus between Christmas and the New Year as we were all mentally and physically exhausted, and to give each of us time to regroup and reflect on next steps.

We continued apace this summer as we have begun the process of moving Student Success and Residential Life into Speare to form a one-stop shop for students in everything from registration to career planning. We finished the new Residence Hall, Conference Center and living learning space – Merrill Place, which all of you will have a chance to tour on Friday. We began the process of organizing residence hall space by clusters and placing students by cluster, following the Cambridge College model I shared with you last year. As we looked ahead we realized that some our facilities were in need of renovation and the clusters gave us an approach to better utilize space, to bring coherence and to increase efficiencies, communication, and collaboration for academic programs that were spread across campus. This presented the opportunity to accomplish two goals at once – renovation, as well as, reorganization of our space to accommodate clusters and open laboratories.

We have just begun planning this process, with a particular focus on spaces for four of the clusters; Innovation and Entrepreneurship (Hyde), Arts and Technologies (D&M), Health and Human Enrichment (PE Center for which we received $3 million from the state), and Exploration and Discovery (Boyd). Finally, faculty and staff met in a variety of sessions and teams to move the clustering process forward, including the newly formed and elected Transition Leadership Team (which we now refer to as TLT) who are advisory to the president, and whose responsibilities are to partner, coordinate, recommend and communicate across the University. They have met with the Deans, and Cabinet, and they have asked me tough, challenging, but appropriately probing questions. In the process, the TLT has come to a consensus regarding the sense of urgency surrounding the promise we have made to incoming students and recruited students of future incoming classes: our first ‘cluster class’ arrives next week. They urge you, as you move forward in University Days and especially Cluster Day activities and conversations, to keep curriculum and cluster-related student experiences at the forefront of your mind and your work.

You’ll be hearing more from the TLT. One reason for their sense of urgency and a desire to move forward with an aggressive transition strategy, based on the timeline laid out by the Deans, is that NEASC, our accrediting agency accepted and was even enthused about our cluster plan and its role of integrating and assessing education through the “four tools” and they are expecting to hear about our progress in 2018. Another reason is that the students walking in the door next week are our first cluster class and many will expect that we will give them what was promised inside and outside the classroom and beyond. All this is to say that we all need to engage with those that are leading this effort across campus to make it happen.

Looking forward to this year, we need to realize the vision we are communicating. We must start building the cluster team structure, form and pilot discipline-based communities, develop themed General Education modules and associated assessment plans, implement mentoring, search for key administrative positions, and develop an integrated approach to academic and social experience in the residence halls. While doing this, we need to align our curriculum across clusters to match the experience we have promised our students – as we continue to explore academic programs that are synergistic with our vision and meet student interest and workforce needs. One example is the Doctor of Physical Therapy program which achieved candidacy status and the inaugural class of 27 started this summer. Over the next five years I am hopeful we can develop a family of programs (what I sometimes call cluster programs), minors and/or certificates that span the sciences, the arts, and technologies. And now that we have revamped our nursing program to better meet the needs of our students, I am hopeful about expanding the whole area of Health and Human Enrichment.

I am also encouraged by the combination of Arts and Technologies and the opportunity to develop the technology area in a way that draws a larger student population across the board. Examples of this are the Electromechanical Technology, Visualization, Fabrication and Robotics; and Cyber Security program proposals which provide key ties with Criminal Justice, Arts and Humanities, Computer Science, and the Sciences. But beyond this, technologies are important in every field and I see growing opportunities across all clusters.

These are just some of the highlights from our online timeline, which appears on the Integrated Clusters website on MyPlymouth.

I hear from many of you and I often ask myself how do I focus on everything I have to do but still have time to concentrate on what’s really important to the future of PSU? Perhaps the question is not what we should be focusing on but actually rethinking the definition of the word focus.

Steve Jobs said, and I quote, “People think focus means saying only yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.” End of quote.

We’re often good at saying yes to the same old things and saying no to anything new, different, or uncomfortable.

As we move forward, I want to encourage all of us to pick carefully what we focus on. Together we must sometimes say no to things we have been doing so we can concentrate on what matters most; student success, not only in retention and graduation but in successful careers in a global and highly interconnected world going through amazing changes.

One area we all must focus on is retention. Just increasing the retention rate to 85% (a focus through our theme: the Drive for 85) would save students debt and give students the unique education they need to be leaders in the 21st century.

Each of you can have impact on retention, support for the cluster endeavors, engaging with alumni and presenting positive stories to the community, joining a team, mentoring students and focusing on what is important that has to be done and doing it creatively.

Many of you in this room have been actively engaged in both moving the clusters model forward and focusing on student retention and persistence.

In fact, want to do a quick exercise:

I’d like everyone in the room to stand up if you have participated in a Cluster Project. Great stay standing please.

Now, stand up if you participated in cluster planning groups or work over the summer or if you supported those groups through your staff work. Stay standing.

Now, stand up if you had any interactions over the past several months with incoming or current students or their families in which you told our PSU story. Stay standing.

Finally, please stand if you plan to be a part of our transition to Cluster based learning in the coming year.

Ok, anyone not standing needs to see me after the session! You can sit down now unless you want to dance.

My point is that we’re all working together in ways we might not even understand to move us toward a model that delivers education to students in a new way while also working together to give each student everything they need to be able to persist and succeed, not just while they are at PSU, but for the rest of their lives.

Being here today is also a testament to your commitment. Please take part in University Days and learn how you can be involved. But beyond all that, I want you to share the excitement of what we are doing and the impact it will have on our students… and that it has already had.

Change is hard and it has been tough at times, but it’s crucial. We need to build a Plymouth that creates opportunities for the future, for our students, for our community and beyond, and for ourselves and for those who would like to be here. Be hopeful for the future and revel in the fact that we will be successful, that the State and the Trustees have invested in our strategy, and that we are at the leading edge of a large and growing movement that will change opportunities for our students and generations of future students.

The next 3 days are about coming together as a community to learn together and from one another. To get the curriculum, teams and support in place to create the PSU we have promised our students. Together, we can look at things differently.

This is what we have set out to do and our community, our students and our state are counting on us. We are not alone but we are showing the way, creating a path for the future.

When we talk about community, we must mention and acknowledge the events in Charlottesville, VA and across the country this year. For decades, University campuses have been havens of free speech and discussion and that cannot change.   In fact, we should be proud that we’ve been rated “Green” by FIRE the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education for free speech on our campus, the only campus in the system to be so designated. Even so we must say publicly that we do not support or condone, and in fact we condemn any form of discrimination and the violent actions in Charlottesville and other places over the summer and last year. If we err, let it be on the side of continuing to be a safe place for all.

The new year for our community has begun. I mentioned Panther Days earlier and I want to talk for just a minute about how important those four days are to not just our incoming students but to Plymouth State as a whole.   It’s our chance to show that at PSU, students are not just faces but actual individuals that we want to build personal relationships with.

Please join me in participating in Panther Days. Help with move-in. Sign up to host a table at the banquet on Friday evening. Take an hour or two to be on campus in the dining hall to interact with our new community members. Come to the first home games of the season. By doing any of these things you are showing that we are a family, a community that cares deeply about the future of these students who have been entrusted to us for some of the most important years of their young lives.

Finally, I wanted to leave you with some books that have been my summer reading and that give you some background of why we are doing what we are doing here at Plymouth State. I think you will find them interesting. This list will be on my blog on the PSU website should you be interested in learning more.

In respect for time, we aren’t taking questions now but please feel free to catch me at the Panther Picnic beginning at 4:30 p.m. on Mary Lyon Lawn.

Now I’m going to turn this over to Dean Robyn Parker, who will give you some of the highlights of the University Days schedule and talk about the exciting sessions that begin after we leave Hanaway Theater. And let me thank you all for all you are doing and will be doing this academic year to make PSU a leader in higher education and a model of student success, affordability and sustainability.