Elmhurst College President S. Alan Ray delivered the following remarks at the annual President’s Community Breakfast on March 7, 2015.
It is my privilege as President to share with you a final time my observations on the state of Elmhurst College and to offer you the following retrospective on the past seven years.
The Environment of Higher Education Today
As everyone knows, higher education is being roiled by a constellation of events and environmental changes caused or accelerated by the Great Recession of 2008-2009. Across the nation, colleges and universities are responding to a declining demographic of college-bound 18- to 22-year-olds. Many parents and students are openly skeptical about the value of a college education at any price, let alone at the current high prices they fear will result in unmanageable student loan debt. Those who do choose college arrive with higher consumer expectations, not only for a quality education, but for lifestyle amenities and services, which themselves drive up the cost of attendance. New buildings and facilities, many designed with these expectations in mind and often constructed with leveraged funds, take their place beside aging physical plants in need of multimillion dollar improvements. Add an overlay of rapidly escalating operating expenses, such as employee benefits, and a sluggish philanthropic and government funding environment, and the stage is set for financial crisis.
Though the nation’s economy seems to be recovering, the impact on industries is uneven and has not resulted in large-scale hiring of recent college graduates. The United States is searching for new means of long-term wealth creation that will empower the middle class. Until it finds these new means, and perhaps even if it does, we will continue to have a hard time convincing parents and students not only that the kind of educational preparation we offer is a good bet for the future, but we, Elmhurst College, are the best place to go to receive it, and that, in turn, assumes we know what “it” is and are prepared to market it convincingly.
Perhaps with inevitable ambiguity, we have named “it” the “Elmhurst Experience.” In my own words but drawing on concepts articulated in our Strategic Plan, the Elmhurst Experience may be defined as “student life in an intentional environment designed for self-formation and professional preparation responsive to our unique history and our stated mission, vision and core values.”
Elmhurst College and the Elmhurst Experience are obviously not immune from the economic environment in which we operate. Fortunately, since the onset of the Recession, our eyes have been wide open and we have labored to anticipate and respond to the changes we see in the higher education landscape. We have imposed hiring and travel freezes and foregone raises. We have ended or reduced certain non-academic programs, substantially trimmed departmental budgets, reduced our adjunct faculty cohort, and aggressively sought operating resources from designated and restricted accounts. We continue to make substantial adjustments to live within our means.
But perhaps most importantly for our future, we have begun to create a culture of innovation. Already, that culture is yielding ideas and institutional modifications that over time should generate significant, sustainable net revenues. Mindful of our competitive environment but also conscious of our mission, we are identifying undervalued strengths to enhance, and asking in a systematic way how the needs of future employers and graduate schools may be a guide to our academic program development and investment.
How We Have Changed in Seven Years: 20 Highlights
As I look at Elmhurst College, I see a landscape filled with the results of years of strategically selected initiatives and investments aimed at optimizing our qualitative potential, maximizing our financial capabilities, and significantly raising our profile and reputation. It must be emphasized that this landscape of excellence and opportunity would not have been possible without the hard work and foresight of Elmhurst College’s faculty, administrators and Board members in years past, especially the work of my predecessor, Dr. Bryant Cureton. Consider my remarks, then, a progress report on the revitalization of Elmhurst College, a trajectory of improvement plotted out years ago and drawn by many hands, of which ours are only the most recent.
Any list of noteworthy College achievements will be idiosyncratic and incomplete. Reasonable minds could differ on the set, and inevitably worthy candidates will be inadvertently left off. Nonetheless, here are 20 highlights of what we as a College have done since July 2008 to provide the Elmhurst Experience to our students:
- In 2009, after nine months of broad-based planning, we produced the College’s first comprehensive Strategic Plan, and in 2014, we completed our second, to specify clearly the College’s mission, vision and core values, and lay out the goals that would guide our distributional choices and creative activity in the years to come;
- We created a technology plan for the College and established the role of chief information officer to help us better understand, prepare for and thrive in a technological age of teaching, learning and all-around connecting;
- We fully implemented a new student orientation program based on a values-driven model of student development, and, thanks to our faculty, we paired it with a new general education curriculum that enshrines the high-touch faculty-student engagement Elmhurst is known for;
- We reached out to the United Church of Christ to reflect constructively on our historical relationship, and we instituted our annual Niebuhr Forum on Religion in Public Life to bring greater public attention to our legacy as the alma mater of the Niebuhr brothers;
- We hired more full-time faculty to educate our students in growth sectors of the professions as well as in our core liberal arts curricula; this allowed us to keep our student-faculty ratio appropriately low, consistent with our “high-touch” pedagogical model;
- Thanks to philanthropic and state capital funding, we renovated the Mill Theatre, the Buik Recital Hall, the first-year physics lab and Langhorst Field, in the latter case replacing worn artificial turf and adding professional stadium lighting and new central seating;
- We raised substantial funds to begin updating our aging science facilities, to help our faculty in their work and better prepare our students for careers in scientific research or the rapidly growing health professions—an expanding area of excellence for our College and one the Strategic Plan calls out for long-term support;
- In 2012, in a major development, we launched the School for Professional Studies, our “school for busy people” and site of responsibility for nontraditional student education, offering only market-driven, mission-aligned graduate, accelerated undergraduate, and certificate programs; the School also serves the Elmhurst Learning and Success Academy for young adults with developmental disabilities, and plays a leadership role in generating and administering strategic partnerships throughout Chicagoland;
- Through the School for Professional Studies, we have entered into three major partnerships—with Roosevelt University’s pharmacy school, with Elmhurst Memorial Hospital and with Chicago’s John Marshall Law School—to extend our mission and presence throughout the region and bring new net revenues into the College;
- In 2013, we started a master’s degree program in the rapidly growing field of speech-language pathology, and thanks to private philanthropy, expanded our physical plant to accommodate the program’s anticipated growth;
- Through our partnership with Elmhurst Memorial Hospital, in 2014 we co-founded a 4,500-square-foot nursing patient simulation center, filled it with state of the art teaching technology, and staffed it with our outstanding nursing faculty, all done on time and fully paid for by state capital funds and private philanthropy;
- This year we are partnering with a nationally known physical rehabilitation center to begin to develop a master’s degree program in another rapidly growing field—occupational therapy—to add to our burgeoning portfolio of programs in the health professions;
- Through changes in our policies and practices, we brought the Elmhurst Experience to young people and adults from a demonstrably greater variety of races and ethnicities, sexual orientations, religious faiths (or no faith), veteran status, ability status, and geographic locations, so that Elmhurst College can truly be as complex a place as the world our graduates will enter;
- We were in the vanguard in our athletic conference when, in 2010, we decided to introduce men’s and women’s lacrosse at the varsity level—other CCIW members have followed; we have consistently supported the Division III philosophy of the student-athlete and enjoyed the sight of multiple CCIW titles, NCAA Playoff appearances, and national awards for individual athletes and coaches;
- To support our students’ education, we started a highly successful annual fundraiser, An Evening for Scholarships, which last year netted more than $310,000;
- We revitalized our Office of Development and Alumni Relations, which projects that fiscal 2015 will see the highest gift revenue in six years; we increased the percent of alumni who participate in annual giving; we launched three Elmhurst College alumni clubs in St. Louis, Chicago and Washington, D.C.; we began to lay the groundwork for a comprehensive campaign; and by the end of fiscal 2015, our Office of Development anticipates that we will have raised over an estimated $25,000,000 in restricted and unrestricted gifts since July 1, 2008;
- We started a Staff Council to give administrative and non-exempt employees a greater voice in College affairs and improve communications throughout the campus, and seated representatives of the Staff Council on the Advisory Council for Strategic Planning;
- We offered the College community and the general public a renowned annual lecture series of internationally accomplished scientists, historians, journalists, authors, religious leaders and government officials, thus raising dramatically our profile and reputation in academe and the community;
- We regularly hosted Illinois lawmakers on campus or in the state capital, and, thanks to the Honorable Lee Daniels, my special assistant for government and community relations, we launched our annual Governmental Forum to continue to make Elmhurst, in the words of former Governor Edgar, an emergent leader for civic engagement among Illinois colleges and universities;
- This year we adopted multiple strategic and tactical measures that over time will make us a financially stronger college, increase our student body, and ensure our long-term sustainability, while surrendering none of our commitment to academic excellence and personal, high-touch attention to our students’ development as well-educated, ethical, and civic-minded individuals.
We should never forget that these initiatives and others were not the fruit of someone’s “bliss” or the odd effects of happenstance, but were borne of our two Strategic Plans. These Plans now shape Elmhurst College and, together with other intentional faculty, administrative and Board actions, define our concrete possibilities. It is true that they have come at a financial cost, and we must always avoid overextending ourselves—and if we do, we must act quickly and decisively to restore financial equilibrium.
But I would argue strongly that continually investing in our future, even and especially in challenging times, is a precondition of our long-term institutional flourishing. There is a price for innovation, but unless we pay it, we leave to chance any hope of securing a competitive advantage in an increasingly intentional and unforgiving industry environment. Of course, we can’t be everything to all people. The key to our future as a College is to know what we’re good at, and go after it, each and every one of us, with everything we’ve got.
There is reason for optimism. The results of our work have received broad acclaim among our peers, and this year we were recognized by U.S. News & World Report, Money magazine, Forbes magazine and the Princeton Review, among others. We retained our U.S. Newsranking of #11 among Midwest regional universities—a new high for the College reached two years ago. And Money ranked us in the top 7% of all four-year institutions nationwide, thanks in part to our graduates’ career success. All evaluations point to our high competitive standing, areas of excellence, and status as a best value school around Chicago, regionally in the Midwest, and nationally. In these challenging times, all of us can and should take deserved pride in this recognition by a large number of outside evaluators, who attest that we are an outstanding educational institution that also represents great value for the dollar for our students and their parents.
Perhaps it should not be a surprise, then, that looking ahead, we are cautiously optimistic that next fall we will reverse shortfalls in student enrollments in our traditional undergraduate program that we and virtually every other college have seen over the past few years. Our new Office of Enrollment and Communications, consolidating two essential functions, began operation on July 1, 2014. Since then, the combined staff have worked to bring a higher level of service to the College. Among other innovations, the office has used a new predictive method of analysis that allows us to focus recruitment tactics on potential students with the greatest affinity to our school. As a result, in early March 2015, applications to the College were running at record levels for this point in the enrollment cycle. Compared to the same time in 2014, applications to Elmhurst were up 12%, and compared to the same date in 2013, they were up 34%. Most significantly, more than 70% of these applications were from high school students determined to have a high affinity for Elmhurst College. Of course, it’s a long way to September 2015, but to have these kind of data at this point in the year is an extremely positive sign.
In closing, I want to offer some words I shared with this audience last year. They are at least as applicable today as they were then. Dr. Angela Lee Duckworth, a neuroscientist and psychologist whose work centers on the relationship between persistence and success, has said, “Grit is sticking with your future—day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years—and working really hard to make that future a reality.” For nearly seven years, it has been my privilege to work on behalf of Elmhurst College, through recession and amidst uncertainty, to think collectively with my colleagues—with faculty, staff and trustees; with students and alumni; and with the citizens and government officials in our Elmhurst and Illinois communities. To consider how not just to survive, but to thrive and excel as a place of education in the broadest, richest sense, the most “Elmhurst” sense, and then to put plans into practice, to work really hard to make that future our reality. So here’s to grit, here’s to all of you, and here’s to Elmhurst College and to sticking with our future.