University Day Remarks 2021

Looking Ahead – A New Beginning

August 23, 2021

Good morning everyone and welcome back! It really is great to see all of you and to those of you who are catching this virtually, welcome back as well. We’re celebrating our 150th anniversary this year, and our highlights and accomplishments are on display in the fascinating exhibit here in the Silver Center. Take a look! Plymouth State is truly resting on the shoulders of giants and we have so much to be proud of.

Thanks for your support, dedication, and versatility that enabled us to get through last year—from faculty to facilities, to the Covid teams, to res-life, student and academic affairs and admin, finance and IT staff, to advancement and athletics. A special thanks goes to building service and physical plant staff, whose vital efforts could not be done remotely. It was a challenging year with a lot of exhausting work, but we did it and so did our students. So thank you all. I really mean it—thank you!
Before we get too far along, I want to recognize the new people with us today. Will everyone who has joined since the last in-person University Days please stand.

To some extent we all have to get reacquainted, so please everyone take a moment to see who’s on board as we list our new colleagues on-screen.
I want everyone to be able to get a sense of our Plymouth State community today, since some people have just joined us and others have been mostly virtual since the pandemic hit. We’re also reaching out to our new faculty and staff to create short video introductions, and when these are ready we’ll put them on a Sharepoint site, providing another opportunity for us to get to know one another. But welcome everyone!

After last year, I think we all have to take a breath. The pace we needed to maintain since March 2020 was exhausting at times, and burnout has been a real concern. This year will be challenging as well, although we have learned many important lessons and have new tools that allow us to better address health, safety, and teaching and learning issues. Still, we need to be watchful of one another, and be there to support those who are stressed.
We have come through a pandemic, cost cutting, reshuffling of personnel, retirements, an accelerated and changing higher ed environment, virtual environments, and demographic change. And before that, five years of preparation. It’s been hard! Let’s all take a moment and acknowledge this. For those of you who just joined us, you probably faced similar issues elsewhere.

Each one of us is unique, as are the ways in which we handle adversity. Some accept changes more readily and are ready to move on, while for others it’s more difficult. That’s understandable, but we must be careful not to get bogged down with negativity. PSU has services and people ready to help if you’re struggling with recent events. We can’t control everything that’s happening to us but we can control how we respond and help each other.

Even here, in our quiet town on the Pemi, there were signs of a changing world around us. Slowly but surely, a tsunami grew until it was supercharged by the pandemic and crested over us. We no longer have any illusions that the future will be like the past, so here we are today in a place of new beginnings.

Fortunately, in charting our course ahead we have a rich history to draw upon and the work of the last five years. It hasn’t always been easy at PSU. Last week I had the privilege of visiting with Richard Jones, whose father, Howard Jones, became Plymouth State’s president in 1946. Richard is 84 years old, and he told me about some of his dad’s experiences as the nation reestablished normal life after so many years of Depression and war. When they lived in the President’s House it still had an ice box and a woodstove. They didn’t have enough funding to get a new refrigerator so they got an old used one with, as he described it, a big open motor on top. It wasn’t long till the motor burned up and set the whole kitchen on fire. It was only then that the President’s House got a new refrigerator and stove.

His perspective reminded me that all of what we’re going through now is really just a moment in time, and that Plymouth State has shown again and again that it knows how to reinvent, regroup, and keep moving ahead.
There have been times of growth and times of great challenge, both for us and our students, but we have always pulled together and evolved into the great university we are today.

So, what do we do at times like this? We start with why we are here— to give our incredible students a future for not only themselves but for their kids and grandkids. We are motivated by a real purpose of service, modeling Ut Prosim rather than strictly personal financial gains. Many years ago, a national company sought me out for a position with likely 2-3 times what I was making and with stock options, but I turned it down. I came to think I was committed and could make more of a difference in academia. And that’s why so many of us are here, to both make a difference in students’ lives as well as a living that can pay the bills. This second part is something that we haven’t forgotten and will continue to address as best we can.

Being in academia right now in New Hampshire is tough, but our students need us and the unique education we offer more than ever, as do our state and divided nation. We have answers and have been willing to evolve to create the best education we can offer along with smaller project-based classes and close supportive relationships between our faculty, staff, and students.

So here we are today, in a place of new beginnings. Covid has been a bear to live with and at the same time we are challenged by realignments. Purchasing, IT, and Finance have been redesigned. These areas are among a number of USNH projects that involve PSU and the other system schools.
It often seems like we are looking at the tangled back of a tapestry that is a work in progress, but we’re looking forward to realizing the benefits and beauty of the final product. We have a new learning management system—Canvas—and it is hard for some of us to make the change, but it is a better system to grow with. Operationalizing Clusters is proceeding unevenly, and some have evolved more fully than others in terms of their structures and concepts. But these are strong integrative approaches for the future of education and our students.

In the university system to which we belong, Granite State College is being split in two and absorbed into UNH, and no doubt some of you think Keene and Plymouth are next. None of us know the answer to this, but if we can do some hard things on our own to cement our unique purpose, we will be that much more likely to chart our own, independent course. That is why we have closed some programs, are reinventing others, and expanding a cluster curriculum based around solving wicked problems of our time.
Change is all around us, and as it settles, we need to take a look around, meet our neighbors, see new faces, see our students coming, and realize the loss of what we knew is also a time of opportunity. This is a time of new beginnings. Let’s look ahead to think of the possibilities and build a new future together.

But first, I want to ask what can we do to help you this year in whatever role you have. We acknowledge that the many changes have affected us unevenly, and for some, the costs have been substantial. We need to recognize that while at the same time, we move forward. Though the storm has changed much of what we knew, it has also opened up new vistas, and students are arriving full of hope. People and work have changed, and it is an understatement to say that we still have some kinks to work out. Our governance system and structures weren’t set up for where we’re going or how we need to work together to adapt and evolve.

So, I want to take some time to just listen and get your input on how we can help each other (within the current constraints but also the opportunities we have) to share with each other—to continue to create this new PSU and how you see your role. That starts this week with the session on Wednesday morning. I have some ideas to share then but that’s just a starting point. I want to hear your constructive thoughts and ideas on moving forward together.

This year is one of many “firsts.” In May we had our first dual commencements, with the classes of 2020 and 2021 both receiving their degrees in inspiring combined ceremonies. Some colleges dispensed with commencement altogether but we knew how much this closure and celebration meant, so we stretched and planned and reinvented and made it happen on Mary Lyon Lawn. It was a beautiful example of creating something new by tapping our deep reservoirs of warmth, flexibility, and history.

Now we have another big “first,” because in many ways we’re welcoming two freshman classes. This year’s first-year students are joining those who were freshmen last year but never experienced Plymouth State fully up and running. Together they total over 2,000 students. Roughly half of this year’s student body will not have had the on-campus experiences we are known for.

Student Life programming and other social options that draw new students out of their rooms and into the whirl of campus activities, bonding and camaraderie afforded by our magnificent location, open doors of caring faculty and staff, stimulating athletics and arts events and scholarly presentations—these all distinguish PSU.

So, as we look ahead, what might our future look like? That is up to each of us. It will be different, that we know. But there is real promise in what we have accomplished and it is a clear route to sustainability. Most importantly, we’re providing a unique and leading edge 21st century education, where information is ubiquitous and where synthesizing and constructing new ideas across disciplines to solve complex problems in team-based and experiential environments is essential. This is the education we really need to provide our students.

We’re starting to update Strategic Goals for the Campus Community, which includes, “Building a flexible and creative academic environment that continues to evolve and enhance the student experience.”

I want us to build a university that is a living, flexible, evolutionary system with linked organizational and individual purpose characterized by a culture of purpose, wholeness and self-management—to be a leading edge, sustainable, integrative cluster-based university with a positive campus environment that is resilient to change. You have shown an incredible ability to adapt so I know we can do it.

We’ve been through a lot over the last six years to get to where we are today, and the benefits of our hard work are just ahead of us. For staff who have been involved in this system-wide reorganization, please continue to work to bring about that finished tapestry where things actually do work better in spite of feeling the concerns we’ve all experienced. It will get better.

For those of you who have just joined us, you have come at a time of great opportunity. We need your energy and enthusiasm, and the possibilities are limitless. We really are ahead of the pack. While there are lots of service and teaching activities, try to direct your efforts to where your expertise and creativity can have the most impact.

For returning faculty, I hope you continue to develop cluster majors and families, 4+1 and 3+2 programs, evolve your cluster pedagogy, and reinvent and reposition programs in new creative ways. For all of us and those in student affairs and enrollment, let’s work together to increase retention and enrollment rates and enhance student life outside the classroom and its connections with their fields of study.

Whatever your role, let’s not set the bar too high for making a difference in students’ lives. Athletics, arts, and other events are again open to the public this year, so let’s fill those seats and stands with cheers for Panther players and performers!

We’ve got so many great initiatives in process and are taking the lead in equipping students for the world that awaits them. Today’s digital technologies are combining business and music in powerful ways, and business and music colleagues are rethinking PSU pedagogy to better connect their fields.

We’re looking at how we can bring our arts and technologies together in a new cluster major. It would join other new programs, such as our new BS degree in climate studies, which is the only one of its kind in New Hampshire and one of very few in the entire nation.

As the pandemic has stretched on, the need for mental health support has never been greater. To help meet that need in New Hampshire, our Counselor Education and School Psychology program was awarded a $1.92 million four-year grant to grow the behavioral health workforce in rural and medically underserved areas. Mental illness, substance use, intimate partner violence and suicide, and the opioid crisis are among the focus areas. Our biggest awards this past year were the multimillion dollar FEMA grants that came to the USNH system through the efforts of a PSU grant submission. Thank you to those responsible in finance and administration for your hard work in securing this vital funding.

A delegation from PSU and the town of Plymouth joined First Lady Valerie Sununu in Concord this summer, and discussed participation in a movement that emphasizes love, empathy, and understanding. We’re recognized as being uniquely qualified to serve as a statewide model because of our longstanding reputation as a home for supportive culture and programs. We need to build on these strengths by moving forward this year with the in-person campus experiences that bring out the best in our community.

We’ve made some great strides in powering toward carbon net neutrality. The new solar array atop the PE Center is offsetting more than 90 percent of that vintage building’s annual electricity consumption, and electric vehicle owners can charge up at no charge at one of our new EV chargers.
An evolving institution like ours is always in motion, and that includes using buildings efficiently. Plans call for the EcoHouse to become our new Center for Diversity and for the HUB to incorporate a new e-sports lounge. We’re also planning to bring PSU Health and Counseling centers together under one roof in a combined Highland Hall wellness center with our services available at the Frost House.

And there are lots of new vistas to explore. I believe we should expand our business, applied, and technical undergraduate degrees and professional masters and doctoral programs. After all, that was the core of Plymouth from its very founding and must be a key part of our future. The liberal arts should be the basis for our general education and the integration of our key disciplines. That is what clusters are about, drawing upon the historical concept of seven pillars (or seven clusters in our case) that create an integrated knowledge framework for students to be successful and contributing citizens for the 21st century. This is more important now than ever.

Majors have come and gone over the last 50+ years, and some might say, proliferated to the point that we were building more silos than wholistic understanding, but there is a bright future here for the liberal arts along with all of our more applied and professional programs in the integrative, interdisciplinary, digital-savvy education we are pursuing. We need to have thoughtful creative solutions if we are to reach the full potential of our leading-edge education.

We have several reaccreditations coming up, including one with NECHE that will look closely at what we are doing in general education, assessment, enrollment, and sustainability. We have to be open to new ideas like partnerships with the community colleges, and even an on-campus component for those who have struggled to make it through their first year and have run out of options, and to build on our TRIO and Ascent programs.

Let’s become even more effective this year by tackling problems with structure and processes. We have to update our governance structure to meet new needs, so we’ll have more time to be creative while forging stronger partnerships among our faculty, staff, and administrators.
We are somewhat reduced in numbers this year, which points to the importance of collaboration, not just in governance, but across the board. Let’s eliminate unnecessary boundaries between faculty, staff, and administration, because there can be no us versus them—there is only us.
The Diversity, Equity and Social Justice initiative is an area in which many have shown interest and it can mean so much to our students in so many ways. We’ve resumed the search but need to work to establish the Center even before we have a leader. It is just too important.

So, let’s get started on all of these important tasks! The Cluster Pedagogy Learning Community (or “CPLC” for our new colleagues) and Academic Affairs have planned a great week of discussions around topics of interest to both staff and faculty. Thank you to all who have contributed to University Days programming.

And for those who want to get together and talk with me about their vision, ideas, and needs, please join me for a discussion at 8 a.m. on Wednesday. Since my class at 8 a.m., I’ve thought a lot about how to engage everyone so early in the morning.

Thank you, and let’s have a great year!