FYI Magazine

Everything Is a Gift

In a candid interview, President S. Alan Ray considers how Elmhurst’s deep commitment to the spiritual obligation of stewardship compels the College to get better at both honoring tradition and embracing change.

Stewardship is among the College’s five publicly articulated core values, right up there with intellectual excellence; social responsibility; community; and faith, meaning and values. How did stewardship come to be so important to Elmhurst College? 
I think our commitment to stewardship has several sources. One is our roots in the variety of Christian denominations that, in the second half of the 20th century, came together to form the United Church of Christ. Within this rich Christian tradition, taking care of resources was seen as a spiritual obligation. To put it simply, the tradition holds that everything we have is a gift from God, and that we owe it to God to take care of these gifts. We also should share our gifts with others for their benefit and to realize the mission we have been sent here to achieve. In our case, that mission is enabling students to attain an effective education and prepare for greater service to the community, the society and the world. This fundamental Christian obligation to take care of what we have received is what’s reflected in our institutional commitment to stewardship.

Another aspect of this commitment is more sociological. This college was not started by a large bequest or gift. Originally, we looked to our affiliated church for our support, and it was not a wealthy denomination. We got our start preparing students for the ministry, not the most lucrative of careers. All this meant that, from the very beginning, we had to take special care of all the resources that had been entrusted to us. For all these reasons and more, stewardship has been part of our operating philosophy from the start. 

Stewardship is often mentioned in connection with fund raising. How does one relate to the other? 
Stewardship, as we’ve discussed, is taking care of what is given us. Fund raising involves doing our work in such a way that others are inspired to participate with us in our vision and mission. It asks others to join forces with us in a purposeful relationship. When we seek to raise funds, we’re saying, “We have an amazing vision of service to our students and society and we invite you to invest yourself and your resources in this great work.” So stewardship isn’t just about taking care of the money that one receives; it’s also about taking care of the relationships that one rightly values. Good stewardship assures donors that they won’t become poorer by giving to your cause but rather richer. It allows us to say with the Apostle Paul, “You will be enriched in every way by your great generosity.”

Many people think of stewardship within the context of marshaling financial resources. It’s well known that higher education has been facing financial challenges since 2008, along withthe larger economy. Can you outline some of the economic challenges facing the College today? 
We’re a tuition-driven institution, and like virtually every other such institution in the country, we’ve seen volatility in enrollment in recent years while the economy has struggled to emerge from the deepest recession since the Great Depression. The enrollment ups and downs at times have been counterintuitive and hard to predict. In 2011, a pretty bad year for the economy, we enrolled 608 first-year students, an all-time record. In 2013, we enrolled 506 first-year students. That’s still a strong number—it’s 38 percent higher than our first-year enrollment in 2003, just 10 years before. But the difference between 608 and 506 is significant, and that kind of swing in just two years makes institutional planning a particular challenge.

A number of recent trends in the higher education marketplace have had a big impact on student recruitment, at Elmhurst and around the country. Many families are experiencing a reduced capacity to pay for a college education—with household income, home equity and net worth all down. The number of high school graduates is declining, and the proportion that is ethnically diverse is growing. This is producing more first-generation and other students from backgrounds that make paying for college especially challenging. Also, more students are starting in community colleges to save money, and more students over the age of 25 are returning to school to complete bachelor’s and master’s degrees. It’s a rapidly shifting landscape. 

With money an issue for so many students, what are you doing to make getting an Elmhurst degree more affordable?
The College works hard to offer financial aid packages that bring down the cost of an Elmhurst education to a much more affordable level for most people. Among our current students, 97 percent receive some kind of financial aid. Our goal is to offer an excellent education to people who come from a wide range of backgrounds that aren’t necessarily underprivileged—though they sometimes are—but certainly do not qualify for the “one percent.” Ensuring access to the Elmhurst Experience is a key part of our mission, and it resonates deeply with our donors, who understand the value of an Elmhurst education, often from personal experience.  

You mentioned a trend toward more students starting at community colleges. Is Elmhurst taking any particular steps to respond to that trend? 
Absolutely. Transfer students have been a strong part of our undergraduate classes for a very long time, and we work to understand their needs. Each year, we enroll about 300 transfer students. This year, we formed a task force of faculty, students and administrators to explore ways for us to increase our already robust service to transfer students, as part of our commitment to educational access. The task force submitted a report to the Board of Trustees in March that’s full of creative ideas that will allow us to sweep away internal, bureaucratic barriers to admission and timely degree completion for transfer students, to build more degree partnerships with community colleges, and to recruit more aggressively among this key student constituency. We’re already implementing their ideas.

How are you responding to the growth in the number of older students?
In 2011, we started a whole new academic division, the School for Professional Studies. It’s designed to serve the big, growing population of busy people who otherwise would be shut out of bachelor’s and master’s programs. This includes working moms and dads, career changers, people in their 20s, 30s and 40s who need a second or third professional act, and many others for whom the traditional, full-time model of higher education is an impossible dream.

Hasn’t Elmhurst always had adult and graduate programs?
We’ve had adult programs since 1949 and graduate programs since 1998. They’ve followed a very traditional model that was very good in its day but that no longer really serves all that many students. These days, our society needs to enable bright, capable people to fully prepare for the contemporary workforce. This includes a lot of people who did not have the privilege of a full-time, or even a part-time, on-campus college education when they were 18 or 22 years old. This is also a form of stewardship. We’re providing programs to help our society better use its most valuable resource, the talents of its great diversity of people.

Isn’t a more traditional education Elmhurst’s specialty, though?
It is—and will continue to be. We really excel at providing traditional-age students with a high-quality, high-touch college education based in our well-considered core values. We believe that our society will continue to need that service from us for a long time to come. But our society also needs alternative ways to provide a different but highly comparable education to people who, for a lot of reasons, did not have the privilege of going to a college like Elmhurst full time when they were young adults. 

In DuPage County alone, we have more than 120,000 adults with some college education but no bachelor’s degree. This is a bright, talented population that often finds itself unemployed or underemployed. In fact, the unemployment rate for this group nationally is about the national average—around 7 percent. The unemployment rate for college graduates is around 3 percent, which is less than it is overall in the best of times. We want to help these good people find their place in the economy and in life. We also want to help the employers in the Chicago area and beyond find well-educated, well-trained, highly qualified people for the workforce.

Today the SPS offers master’s degrees, accelerated undergraduate degrees and even certificate programs geared to what students and employers want and need, offered in a combination of online, on-ground and hybrid formats. And it’s working. For Fall 2014, we’re projecting a 37 percent increase in new student enrollments in our graduate programs compared to last year. This is fueled by significant growth in established programs and by new program offerings, including master’s programs in applied geospatial science, data science and marketing research, and a new master’s program in nursing designed for people changing careers. We’re offering graduate courses at the University Center of Lake County, and we’re actively exploring and establishing new partnerships that advance our educational mission.

One such partnership that recently made the news is your new venture with Elmhurst Memorial Healthcare. What’s that all about? 
This summer we’ll open the doors to a new, 4,600-square-foot facility on the ground level of the beautiful new Elmhurst Memorial Hospital. The Elmhurst College Simulation Center will offer state-of-the-art training to our nursing students at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Students will respond to simulated, electronic “patients,” called “Sims,” which can manifest virtually every symptom and behavior of actual patients. The training of our students at the hospital will be electronically transmitted back to campus, so other students here can learn from what’s happening there in real time. We broke ground on the Simulation Center in late February; when it’s completed this summer, it will be the largest such cooperative venture between a college and a medical center between here and Indianapolis. I believe our partnership with EMH is a sign of great things to come for Elmhurst College. 

The development of collaborative partnerships was one of the goals cited in the Elmhurst College Strategic Plan 2009–2014. As the plan’s time nears its end, how would you assess the College’s progress toward its various objectives?
Many of our goals have been achieved; others are works in progress. We have grown the number of full-time faculty substantially, and have sustained a student-faculty ratio of 13:1—an enviable ratio that ensures the close faculty-student relationships for which we’re well known. We’ve made significant improvements to our infrastructure, upgrading our wireless and cable capacities, and making important renovations to the Mill Theatre, the Buik Recital Hall and the physics lab. We’ve invested in new space and technologies for our athletics program, replaced our 11-year-old-artificial-turf field, and added professional stadium lighting to Langhorst. We’ve increased the diversity of under-represented groups within our student body, launched SPS, and made quantum leaps in our online teaching capacity. We’ve reinvigorated our Alumni Association and opened alumni clubs in Chicago, St. Louis and Washington, D.C. And we’ve lived up to our commitment to bring top-flight cultural and educational programming to our campus through our annual series of public lectures.  

Our strategic plan committed us first and foremost to our students’ self-formation and professional preparation. That will always be a work in progress. We have always been a school with one foot resting on the liberal arts—that broad foundation of human knowledge, understanding and creativity—and the other foot resting on the professions, preparing students for jobs in business, education, nursing and the like. This combination is a competitive advantage for us at a time when “pure” liberal arts colleges are struggling to survive, on the one hand, and employers are eager to hire graduates with liberal learning skills like oral and written communication ability, on the other hand. Our graduates are accomplished and at home in both worlds. They leave us well prepared to succeed in graduate school or in their chosen professions, and they encounter the world with a broad perspective and critical habits of thought. 

At the same time, more and more, the popular media is telling us that going to college is a waste of time and money, that students no longer can expect to graduate into a solid future. What is Elmhurst’s answer to that?
Simply put, the facts state otherwise. Last year, for example, we surveyed our alumni and found that over 93 percent had begun a professional career or entered graduate school within a year of receiving their degree. Also, at a time when the common wisdom holds that college graduates end up with mountains of debt—hundreds of thousands of dollars—the average Elmhurst alumnus graduates with a loan debt of $23,000. That’s 26 percent below the national average. It’s roughly the cost of buying a Chevy on credit, and a Chevy depreciates the moment it leaves the lot. Over a lifetime, a college graduate can expect to earn about a million dollars more than a high-school graduate can expect to earn. 

The campus community currently is working on a new strategic plan, scheduled to be brought to the Board of Trustees in June. Can you give us a preview?
The new plan will take the College through 2020, the eve of its sesquicentennial year. As we’ve considered our challenges and opportunities, I’ve encouraged everyone at the College to think of our future 20 years from now and then to imagine what we must do in the next six years to realize our longer-term goals. Though the final strategic plan has yet to be written as we speak, here’s where I think the College is headed between now and 2020.

The health sciences will become increasingly important to the American economy and society. Elmhurst College has a large stake in the ground already in this academic area, and I envision us dedicating significant resources to more programs in the health sciences: occupational and physical therapy, for example, as well as cross-disciplinary programs in the business of health care, made all the more relevant by the persistence and ubiquity of the Affordable Care Act. Most of all, I foresee the completion of a science facility adequate to these academic programs and to the research ambitions of our talented faculty and students. 

I also see significant growth in the number of undergraduate students we enroll, especially though not exclusively through continued expansion of the School for Professional Studies. I see growth in academic areas beyond health care where we have been traditionally strong. Business is clearly such an area. We must dramatically increase our MBA enrollments and create new tracks in the business major that are aligned with industry trends. We must do the same in emerging subfields in computer and information science, another hotbed of imagination and career opportunity for our students. The same is true in education and music, two other large departments that have played a major role in our institutional success.

International students represent a virtually untapped market for the College. Here we have so much to offer and to gain. I predict that by 2020 we will have made great strides toward internationalizing the campus. Significantly more domestic undergraduates will participate in study away. In addition to the transfer task force that I mentioned, we also created a task force to study this prospective student population. They’ve presented us with a lot of good, actionable ideas on how our notion of diversity can expand to embrace its world-wide, multicultural dimensions.  

At the same time, it’s important to note that growth in programming for its own sake is a luxury higher education can no longer afford. Just piling the academic program blocks higher and higher is unacceptable. So with any expansion of faculty and programs and administration must come a critical eye to appraise what we no longer need to accomplish our mission. We must share a collective willingness to disencumber ourselves of dated or inefficient ways of doing things. This, I know, is difficult for any campus. Every institution is path-dependent to some degree, but academic institutions seem to have a special affinity for perpetuating both excellence and inefficiency, for fostering devotion to time-honored tradition and engendering fear of change. We need to get better at both honoring tradition and embracing change.

For the last 20 years, Elmhurst as a community has thrived when it has embraced an ethic of innovation. An ethic of innovation holds that “It’s good to stay alert and question the status quo because if I don’t, I may become somebody’s lunch,” and, “It’s good to make reasonable changes—even radical ones, even painful ones—if my long-term well-being and the welfare of those I care about depends on it.” Or, as I said in my very first remarks to the campus almost six years ago, “Let there be no sacred cows.” 

Living out an ethic of innovation requires imagination, self-awareness, resourcefulness, collective action and courage. It requires a tolerance for ambiguity and a willingness to take reasonable risks. None of these traits is typically associated with institutions of higher learning. But they must become so if we in higher education are to respond resourcefully and productively to all that lies ahead of us. 

This year, as we worked together on a new strategic plan, a faculty-student-staff task force on innovation worked specifically on a plan to stimulate campus innovation. It generated some very promising ideas that we’ll be parsing and refining in the coming year.   

If the College achieves its strategic goals, how will Elmhurst and the world be different?
We will be able to provide the Elmhurst Experience a lot more effectively and to a lot more people, and this will impact the world for the better accordingly. We also will be able to provide the larger society with an example of a really fine, traditional liberal arts college that found a way to take a kind of education—high quality, highly personal, values based—that once was reserved for an elite group and make it available to a broad base of worthy students.          

All this talk about stewardship has made me think of the gift that Professor Emeritus George Thoma presented to you on behalf of the faculty at your inauguration in 2008. That gift was about stewardship, no? 
Oh yes. It was a plate that had been given to George when he was teaching in China, by the parents of one of his students—with the entreaty that he take good care of their child. George in turn gave it to me with the words, “Dr. Ray, take care of our college.” 

That’s what stewardship is all about: taking care of something of value. And Elmhurst College is an institution of surpassing value. I still think a lot about that plate. I keep it right here, above my desk. 

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