"Welcome Back Address"

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  • August 25, 2011
  • Eric R. Gilbertson, President
  • Saginaw Valley State University

I noticed on our website that this was called my “Welcome Back Address.”  I’m a little uncomfortable with that.  First, most of us never left over the summer.  Second, who am I to welcome you here?  And . . . well, you get the idea.

In any event, we’re all here – and happy to be, I hope.  So . . . on we go . . . .

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We do have a few very special guests today.  One of our distinguished sister universities is Ming Chuan University in Taiwan.  Many of our students and colleagues – Roberts Fellows, Gerstacker Fellows, faculty and staff – have experienced the warm hospitality of this fine institution over the past several years.

This past year Ming Chuan became one of a very few international universities to achieve American regional accreditation through the Middle State Association.  Our colleague, Bob Yien, served as their consultant.

President and Mrs. Lee and their colleague Dean Liu are now visiting our campus and I ask you to join me in offering a warm welcome and congratulations to them.

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There is a lot to bring you up to date on, so let’s just get on with it.

You’ll no doubt notice changes – as always – in the physical campus.

The new recreation center, an addition to the Ryder Center, is now open.  This added a second floor to the fitness facility and approximately 48,000 square feet of space for recreational sports.  It also has a walking track around the second level of this space.

One of the perks of working on campus is that each of us has what is effectively a membership at a first rate health club.  I hope you’ll use these facilities often.

The renovations within the Student Center and Curtiss Hall are now complete, creating new space for student life programs and organizations, a new home for the campus bookstore, and much improved and expanded dining space for students.

Improvements to Wickes Memorial Stadium are also complete, and the first home football game is on September 10 under the lights.  The coaches and student-athletes for all the fall sports have been working hard, and these students will appreciate your support.  Go Cards!

There are also a few changes in traffic patterns.  Traffic engineers advised us to close off the road west of Curtiss Hall to through traffic; and the College Drive entrance off Bay Road has been re-configured.

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As is obvious from the introductions today, we are also joined this year by a lot of new colleagues.  We welcome Judy Ruland as Dean of Crystal M. Lange College of Health and Human Services; Shaun Wilson is back home as Director of Multicultural Services; as some of you may know Dick Thompson has been resuscitated from a premature retirement and returns as Ombudsman; and we are joined by 33 other new Administrative/Professional staff and 25 new members of the full-time faculty.

As of this fall, some 33% of our full-time faculty have joined SVSU within just the past four years.  Likewise, some 46% of our staff have come to the University in just this same time frame.

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We are also pleased to welcome two new members to the SVSU governing Board:  Jenee Velasquez of Midland, and Scott Carmona of Bay City.

Both Jenee and Scott have been members of the SVSU Board of Fellows.  Scott is an alumnus and father of an alumnus.  Jenee is the Executive Director of the Herbert H. and Grace A. Dow Foundation, one of the most important philanthropic institutions in Michigan.  Welcome to them both.

At the same time, we express our deep appreciation to Dr. K.P. Karunakaran and Larry Sedrowski, who have completed their terms on the Board.  They have served faithfully and well during some interesting times.

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Finally, and most important, it appears that once again we will likely have students here this year – lots of them.

New students are moving into campus housing as we speak here today.  We expect more than 2,700 to live on campus, including some 73% of our entering fresh-persons.  The overall size of our entering class was limited to last year’s level of available housing.

At the end of registration, there should be a total of about 10,800 human souls enrolled in some 1,752 credit-bearing courses – an increase of 1.3 % from a year ago.

We’ll know more about who is here when officials are calculated during the second week of classes.  But for now, the news appears good – SVSU once again enters the academic year with strong enrollments.

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There are a few cautionary notes, however, to share with you in regard to our students and evolving enrollment picture.

As in years past, the future of our enrollment strength – upon which, of course, the strength of our University rests – is increasingly tied to the success of our students in their degree programs.  You’ve heard more and more about “retention” initiatives.

There is, however, one key point we must stress.  The academic success of our students must never be achieved by lowering our expectations for them.  It must come from raising their level of performance to meet those expectations.

We’re in the support and motivation business, to be sure, but not by dumbing down standards.

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There is also another important changing dynamic in this regard – new federal rules governing student eligibility for financial aid.

Slide15 A very large share of our undergraduate students – more than 75% – receive sort of financial support through federal programs.  To remain eligible for this aid, students must demonstrate “satisfactory academic progress” towards degree completion.

In past years, students could maintain their financial aid for two years before losing eligibility for lack of satisfactory academic success – i.e. achieving a minimum of a 2.0 grade point average with the successful completion of most courses attempted.

This year, they must reach that standard by the end of their first year.

This is serious stuff, and the consequences are dire.  We all need to join in giving students fair warning.  In short, there is no longer a carefree freshman year to squander academically – as far too many students do.  It’s one failed year and they could find themselves in debt, out of school, with nothing to show for their time and treasure.

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There is a full agenda for the year ahead in other matters as well.

A number of significant curricular initiatives will be taken up by our committees and the faculty and academic leadership – program revisions and a few new programs to consider.

There will be accreditation visits in several disciplines – notably engineering, social work and medical lab science.  Thanks to all who have worked hard on the preparation for these reviews.

And it is time to begin preparation once again for our 2013-2014 institution-wide accreditation review by the Higher Learning Commission.  This year, we will empanel several committees and begin the work of a comprehensive self-study.  Eventually this will involve everyone, literally everyone, in the institution as well as our external constituency groups.

There is a full slate of cultural, intellectual and athletic events on the calendar.  Enjoy them, please, as this is yet another of the perks of membership in an academic community.  Stay tuned on all these and other important matters.

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Over the past several months – actually, over the past several years – we have done a lot of interviewing and hiring at SVSU.  And I’ve overheard numerous conversations centered around an innocent question from an interviewee trying to understand “what kind of place is this?”  We, who are supposed to be doing the interrogation, sometimes stumble for words and ideas to describe what we sense and feel – and often take for granted – about our institution.

So . . . what kind of place is this?  Well, it’s the kind of place that has an annual gathering like this one – where we try to make new colleagues feel welcome, remember that we all like one another, and look forward to the year ahead.  And then we have a picnic with our friends and families.

This is part of our legacy of having once been a small college.  In some ways, perhaps we still are – if only in our memories and our imaginations – and we cling tenaciously to certain customs and ways of thinking.  That’s part of what we are . . . who we are.

But that scarcely begins to answer the question:  What kind of place is this?

In many ways, it’s about institutional culture.  Now, culture is a pretty complicated thing – and an enormously powerful thing.  In fact, a University like ours is a confederation of subcultures – an engineering subculture in Pioneer Hall, an arts subculture in Arbury and the Performing Arts Center, a public schools subculture in the College of Education, literati in the English Department, a health professions subculture in the HHS Building, an athletic subculture in the Ryder Center, a host of various subcultures in the different student housing units, and the list could go on.

So what – if anything – holds it all together?  I think there are some things – some ideas, some values, some customs, the elements of what we might call an institutional culture.

Part of our culture is built around the informality in our relationships with one another.  And while in some corners of the campus pretentions may still get in the way, we like to think this is an institution that is on a first name basis with itself.

There is a solid work ethic that holds this place together.  People – perhaps not everyone or on every day – but people do care about their work, and care especially about students.

Only a few people flaunt how little they do or how little they care.  Far more complain about over-work – something I take to be a sign of organizational health.

We are, of course, a political society, but we may also give hope for the precious possibility – however recent political events may disappoint – that disagreements can be resolved civilly by somewhat responsible grown-ups.

Parenthetically, let me express appreciation to the Faculty Association and University bargaining teams for reaching a fair agreement in record time.  There are surely enough problems that we face as a University, and it’s good to face them together.

So . . . why did we come here . . . or stay here . . . or why should our new colleagues be glad that they chose to join us?

There are reasons, and we hope our new colleagues discover and appreciate those . . . and we remind ourselves of these reasons when the stresses and irritations will surely come in those darker and colder days of the year ahead.

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Veterans who have attended this occasion in years past know also that as the autumnal season approaches, I scratch around in desperation seeking some source of inspiration to share with you – something to make your spirits soar as you approach the challenges of a new academic year.  Let’s just say that some attempts have worked better than others.

I’ve lionized some campus heroes and admonished you to emulate their exemplary behavior – to your polite if somewhat muted applause.

I once proposed what I thought was an uplifting new institutional motto:  “Knowledge is Good.”  OK, so I borrowed it from the movie “Animal House.”  In any event, that one apparently didn’t catch on . . .

I’ve pleaded with you to be “nice” to students and to one another . . . I’ve reminded you how wonderful it is that each fall we have a fresh start with past grades and grudges forgotten . . . I’ve shamelessly appealed to the sentimental, even the maudlin, and I’ve regularly exaggerated the enthusiasm with which students seem to be looking forward to working under your kind and caring mentorship.

Now, this is hard work, people.  Let’s face it, an academic audience is skeptical by nature and not given to easy inspiration.  But I haven’t given up. . . can’t give up. . . so here goes again.

Let me tell you a story and see if that works.  This is a true story – all my stories are true, of course; it’s just that some are slightly more true than others.

It seems that a few years back our own Don Bachand had taken a personal interest in the academic progress of a particular freshman – probably a Criminal Justice major – and doted on him with the generous and selfless attention and the wise guidance that we all know can make a real difference in the success or failure of a fledgling scholar.  (Don really is, of course, a sweet and softhearted guy.  Don’t let that tough cop talk fool you.)

Well . . . the semester didn’t go all that well – four “F’s” and one “D”.  But, undaunted and undiscouraged, our Don met with the lad and – grasping for something reassuring, something nice to say (as he always does) – he shared the hard-won wisdom of his own academic experience:  “Four F’s and one D . . . Son” he said, “perhaps you just spent too much time on that one course.”

I wish I could tell you that this student went on and contributed to the improvement of SVSU’s  retention and graduation rates, but. . .  alas. . . even with our best intentions and efforts not every story has a happy ending.  But it’s the caring that matters – and this part is really true – while we probably can’t force every student to be wildly successful, each of us has real stories of students who truly have come alive here.

And we’re not entirely vain in believing that what we’ve done has mattered.

*          *          *

Speaking about a chance to matter in the year ahead . . . there are some 10,800 chances for us to matter out there.

They’re waiting anxiously for that first class to begin, that first party of the year to get rolling, that first game to be played, that first . . . well, you get the idea.

They expect a lot of us, these students – and we shall of them.  Let’s not disappoint.

So . . . let’s adjourn now for a party of our own.  Surely, we ancients haven’t forgotten how to party either.  Then tomorrow and the tomorrows after that (and I know some of you’d be disappointed if I didn’t say this) let’s go do it to them before they do it to us.

And people . . . be careful out there.  Thank you.