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A Call for Differentiation, Innovation and Excellence

Eric Spina Remarks
Fall Faculty and Staff Meetings: A Call for Differentiation, Innovation and Excellence
Sept. 9 and Sept. 12, 2016

Good afternoon!

It’s a privilege for me to meet with you for the first time today. I’m honored to be your colleague and I look forward to working alongside you to advance our core mission of learning, discovery and service.  I do understand that I have the title of “president,” and I respect what that means for our University, but I define myself professionally first and foremost as an educator, so I do hope you treat me as a colleague and that you will call me by my first name, Eric.

My wife, Karen, and I thank you — and the Marianists — for the overwhelmingly warm and gracious welcome. It’s hard to imagine a campus more hospitable than the University of Dayton. This is a special place, heavy with accomplishment and full of grace and promise.

As I discerned whether I wished to pursue a presidency last year, I thought a lot about the opportunity to be part of a team, a team that works hard and collaboratively, a team that is willing to take risks as it actively strives to make a difference, a team that puts its heart in its work, cares deeply and achieves greatness. 

I saw that opportunity here at Dayton.  But I know that if we are to be part of such a team, and if we are going to ensure that our University is not just sustained but thrives, we are going to need to get to know each other well and communicate regularly. In my early days as president, I have tried to get around and spend time in small groups with faculty, with staff, and with students, generally around natural events — and I will continue to tweet at you and post Instagram snippets of my day (shameless plug: DaytonPrezSpina), but I also want to create the opportunity for some focused conversations about our future.  While I am going to “talk at you” today, I will be spending time in each school, the college and the library in the coming few weeks, and during those smaller meetings we will have a richer opportunity to initiate meaningful dialogue.

Over the course of this year, I want the dialogue to broaden — engaging all members of the UD community, and deepen — allowing us to imagine and shape an aspirational, strategic vision for the University. We have named a 17-member steering committee, co-chaired by Provost Paul Benson and Associate Professor of Political Science Michelle Pautz, to lead a strategic visioning process, which will be conducted in a manner that is consistent with Marianist values and University practices.

By this I mean that the process will be consultative, respectful and inclusive. All members of our community will be invited to participate, and the steering committee and its five work groups will listen respectfully and thoughtfully and truly engage everyone in the process.  This is the only way the process can be authentic and meaningful.

I’m asking you to actively engage in the process. Trust it. Support it. Tell other faculty members who aren’t here today that we want their participation. To realize a future of great promise, we have to imagine together, wrestle with and answer complex questions together, and then do the hard work of creating it together.

Here’s our challenge: We must look honestly at the challenges facing the University of Dayton, gaze 20 years into the future and develop a few powerful, transformational ideas that will provide strategic direction, help prioritize investments, spark private support at higher levels — and move the University to a new level of excellence. This is *not* a strategic planning process in which we will immerse ourselves into every operational detail of the University.  We don’t need that kind of detailed plan right now; we need to think bigger to achieve the greatness that is possible for UD. I want us to lift our gaze onto the far future: what core values do we want to emphasize? What fundamental concerns need to be addressed? Upon which strengths should we build? What major external opportunities are right for us to pursue? And what priority investments must we make?

While we need to be aware of market and exogenous forces and be agile with respect to them, we just can’t let external factors define our core values, our mission and our overarching aspirations. To be completely at the whim of exogenous forces threatens our very purpose.

So I am asking the University of Dayton community to think big, even audaciously. We’re a great university with a collaborative spirit, but we would be a shadow of who we are today if, throughout history, we had not had big aspirations and adapted and changed for the times.

I want to share my thoughts on the challenges facing today’s graduates and why we are in a position to — and must — respond courageously to the calls for change in higher education. And more specifically, be prepared to call for — and implement —change ourselves.

As illustrated by my fantasy that the Buffalo Bills will one day win the Super Bowl, and more seriously by my deep belief that our students will change the world, I’m an optimist — but there's no denying that we live during a time of growing divisiveness and polarization that is fraying the bonds of our shared humanity and putting the common good at peril. The gap between rich and poor continues to grow, leading to greater social ills and inequities in educational opportunity. Race relations have grown worse, with an increasing number of our nation's campuses experiencing protests over race-based aggressions and even overt racism that is exacerbated by a lack of diversity on both sides of the classroom.

Too many people have become intolerant of those perceived to be different — largely out of fear. In an age when we need more dialogue, empathy, civility and respect, the public square has become a battleground of words and, unfortunately, increasingly more violence. With rapid globalization, we now live in a world without boundaries, yet we continue to draw lines that divide us.

We are called to be good stewards of the earth, "to care for our common home," as Pope Francis says, but the world's poor remain disproportionately affected by environmental change.

Finally, we have become masters of technology but struggle to meld that mastery with a firm understanding of the accompanying ethical and moral implications.

How Should UD Respond in This Environment?

At one time, society could afford for universities to be ivory towers, places of lofty thoughts and little action, islands of isolation from the everyday problems facing those outside the ivy-covered walls. Students left many campuses with credentials for a career but not enough preparation for the complex, ethical issues they would face in their professions, society and families.

In today's world, the expectations for us are higher. Universities have become anchors in their communities for innovation, economic development and revitalization — and have emerged as one of the most responsible and responsive institutions in modern society. Universities are increasingly being called upon to change to meet the needs of a world shaped by globalization, rapid technological change, increased diversity and social transformation. Universities do, in fact, have the opportunity to play a critical role: preparing more informed and willing citizens, conducting research on the greatest problems facing society and engaging with local partners to make our communities stronger.

We are positioned better than most universities to respond to this challenge, to this imperative. Indeed, it is clear to me that we have a calling — and an opportunity — here at the University of Dayton.  A calling to make a real difference, a calling to be a beacon during complex and difficult times, a calling to live and act for tomorrow and not just today. Our Marianist educational philosophy maintains that we educate for service, justice and peace, that we educate for adaptation and change. We are called to be, in the Marianists’ vocabulary, a community in permanent mission. We must shape and lead the University in accordance with those bold and compelling aims. 

Throughout our history, we have “read the signs of the times,” taken calculated risks, embraced new responsibilities and transformed ourselves to become stronger, more resilient. We have always risen to the occasion and accepted critical challenges. Here’s why I believe we are poised to meet the tests of the next two decades — and make dramatic change.

We are a Catholic, Marianist university with a mission to prepare students to be community builders who use their faith, education and leadership skills to serve others and make a difference in the world. Those skills are needed today more than ever.

Furthermore, Catholic intellectual tradition calls on us to use our faith and our reason to advance our society, especially for those who have less and are less fortunate. We strive to be inclusive, recognizing the diverse gifts and talents of all members of our community. We believe in the dignity of all people and work actively for social justice and solidarity throughout the human community.

As a highly residential university with depth in STEM disciplines and breadth in arts, sciences and professional disciplines, we attract students who have the audacity to believe they can change the world. And then through excellent instruction and mentoring and extraordinary campus experiences, we give them the tools and the confidence to do so.

As a research university, we cultivate a culture of curiosity, discovery, critical examination and innovation. This is a place where faculty truly engage students in the research enterprise. The fruits of this work are seen so clearly every year in the Stander Symposium.

Finally, in the Dayton region, we are an anchor institution that engages in mutually beneficial relationships with our community. We are a valued partner in economic development, neighborhood revitalization, urban education, civic engagement and advanced technology initiatives. Our students and faculty learn how to work across differences of all sorts, gain value from practitioners and community members, and put into action their teaching, learning and scholarship — all for the common good.

As I have learned more about the University of Dayton’s history, the Marianist philosophy of education and each of you, I am convinced we have the institutional will, talent and faith to make wise decisions for the future that will continue to propel our University forward. While we will focus on looking ahead, we must remember our history and be stewards of our longstanding values. And let’s face it, based upon the growth and advancement of UD over the past 30 years, we have the opportunity to be builders of a future that the University’s founders could not possibly have imagined. 

If we are successful — and I believe we will be — we will not simply react to the changing landscape of higher education, but we will boldly identify a vision of focused excellence, a vision in which people and institutions will want to invest, and a vision of lasting, transformational impact in the world.

Our History Offers a Guide to the Future

And if the history that was highlighted in the video before I began speaking is any indicator of the future, we have the courage, imagination, tenacity — and faith — to do just that. It’s in our DNA.

Time and time again over our 166-year history, our institution has transformed itself to meet the needs of the times and achieve the promise of tomorrow.

The story of the University of Dayton is brimming with examples of transformation, of upward momentum. As I've learned about the history, here are a few that resonate with me because within each are important lessons for today: 

We transformed ourselves from a small boarding school for 14 primary boys to a major Catholic research university that has surpassed $2 billion in cumulative sponsored research.

How did we make that leap?

In 1949, the Air Force awarded UD a modest $10,200 contract to analyze data about flight stresses on aircraft. That small research effort led to the establishment in 1956 of the Research Institute, which made its reputation pioneering innovative and pragmatic solutions for government and industry problems.

The vast majority of research universities are focused almost exclusively on discovery-driven research, hoping to achieve social impact many years off, if ever. Our approach is different. Here, we encourage the full spectrum of scholarly approaches, from fundamental to highly applied, because we want to advance the state of the art and solve today’s problems. That differentiates us. That defines our excellence.

In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, we responded to the opening of Wright State University by transforming ourselves from a primarily regional institution with many local commuters to one of the most highly residential private universities in the country. In a neighborhood that once housed NCR factory workers, we bought and renovated hundreds of single-family homes and built others — creating a learning-living environment unlike any in the nation. That differentiates us. That defines our excellence.

And, more recently, we embraced internationalization in a big way by recruiting international students and opening a stand-alone center in China. We know the value of preparing students — domestic and international — for a world without borders. That differentiates us. That defines our excellence.

Historically, this has been a resilient, agile university that teaches students to adapt and change in a changing world — still true to the urgings of Blessed Chaminade. We must continue to do the same, and the case can be made — given the state of the country, the world and our society — that it is more important than ever for us to be willing to change, able to change, and to be bold in doing so.

What Are UD’s Major Challenges?

Some of our major challenges at UD are clear.

We value diversity and inclusion, yet our administration, faculty and staff, and student body don’t reflect national demographics, particularly as they are changing more rapidly than ever. This detracts from the *quality* of our learning environment and research output, is not consistent with our focus on social justice and, ultimately, will threaten our financial sustainability.

We are a major Catholic research university — ranking 9th in the country for most sponsored research for a comprehensive private university without a medical school — yet we haven't attracted a competitively awarded, multi-year grant for an NSF Science and Technology Center or Engineering Research Center. These kinds of centers can serve as game changers for the entire University in elevating academic reputation, attracting talented faculty and students, and raising significant additional funds.

Finally, we have been innovative in responding to national calls for transparency through a four-year tuition plan, yet we still rely almost exclusively on tuition revenue and, thus, simply can’t assure access for all qualified students who are excellent fits for UD. 

We are navigating through an era in higher education that has already seen a number of universities lay off faculty and staff and merge or close because of financial crises. While we’re financially stable, we’ve entered an era in which we can’t count on undergraduate tuition revenue growth to fuel new programs and new positions.

Why is that? In its simplest terms, it comes down to cost and affordability. We are seeing greater competition, especially from flagship public universities in Ohio and the greater Midwest. We’re experiencing a shrinking share of applicants from families in lower- income brackets. We’re experiencing inordinate pressure for STEM majors because of fierce competition for higher-quality students interested in these fields. Finally, geopolitical forces and growing competition have inhibited our ability to maintain our strong international market position. We need to quickly address our holistic international recruitment and retention strategy. 

For the first time in recent memory, we are experiencing a decrease in net undergraduate tuition revenue, which has been the primary source of revenue that has fueled our growth as an institution. And frankly, we need to plan for this to be the steady state.

Our debt burden, while not excessive, is higher than we’d like, and our physical plant is aging.  We budget for deferred maintenance, but future projections are high.

A Timeless Call

As I have read stories about the Marianist founders and compelling Marianist leaders, I have been drawn to their calls for adaptation and change and for resilience and faith during times of challenge. For example, when Blessed Chaminade was beatified in 2000, Father David Fleming, the superior general of the Society of Mary, wrote: “Perpetuating the good of our past is excellent, but creating new responses to the present and future is even more urgent.”

I hear this timeless call to take stock, look at the challenges, ask hard questions of ourselves, focus on our strengths, and take calculated but bold steps. I hope that you hear it, too.

We must be responsive and agile, embrace change and move toward a system that enables continued, creative and effective change. But let’s be frank. While easy for me to say — and easy for all of us to nod our heads and agree — real, lasting change that involves choosing one path over another or reallocating from one area to another is hard…and will require us to hold each other and me accountable. But we must make hard choices, we must make differential investments, as our success and our ability to achieve the desired impact necessitate it.

Without diluting our distinctive mission — in fact, I think we can enhance our distinctive mission — we must double down by setting priorities grounded in our core values and making deeper investments in those areas we decide will be the focus of our excellence. And let’s be clear: it is my intention that the outcomes of the visioning process will lead to meaningful and strategic investments in the modest number of priorities we identify. Some of the investments may be immediate; others may occur over a considerable period of time. Provost Benson and Vice Presidents Horner and Howe are now working with their teams to identify the magnitude of the various possible sources, including reserves, bond issues, a major fundraising campaign and —importantly — reallocations.

We need to strive for differentiation in our excellence: what about the University of Dayton makes these the right areas? Why should an outstanding and diverse set of students attend Dayton to study X; what is our special value? Why should the best faculty and staff join us; what do we do better than anyone else? How do we draw on our history, build on our strengths, reflect our Catholic faith and Marianist charism, and address important issues locally and globally to truly differentiate our University?

As we engage in strategic visioning, I want us to appreciate how the University has responded historically to challenges — and to think boldly about designing the future.

Let's realistically and frankly appraise our strengths, shortcomings, limitations and potential.

Using the lens of our Catholic, Marianist mission and values, we will develop an aspirational vision of the University of Dayton. How will we define educational value in 20 years? How will we teach and learn? In what ways will our research, scholarship and creativity address the needs of society and humanity? What innovations will we adopt to promote sustainable financial stewardship?

Throughout the visioning process, we must be bold, imaginative and attuned to the calls for diversity, equity, inclusion and global and intercultural learning and scholarship.

At the end of this collaborative process, we will commit ourselves to invest in a small set of strategic priorities that will dramatically shape our institution for the future and answer the call for differentiation, innovation and excellence.

Differentiation, innovation and excellence — those are the guidelines for our work over the next year.

This is our call for action. Our collective call. I need your minds, hearts and souls to be fully engaged in this process. Your commitment and involvement will guarantee that we will create a compelling, lasting vision.

Thank you for the important work you do in educating our students to make a difference in the world, for the advances you make in research and scholarship to benefit our world. For our administrators and staff, you have helped create a learning-living environment that is truly a model in the way we educate the whole person. May God continue to grace you all with abundant blessings. I wish you a productive, successful semester.

Thank you.