Remarks by the Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider at Academic Convocation
September 5, 2008
Permit me, if I may, to add my voice to the chorus who just thanked Trustee Sue Gin for her generosity. Not only has she built an extraordinary company both here and in China, but she is a walking embodiment of the words “civic duty.” There are many important institutions in Chicago that are better because of Sue’s hard work and leadership. Her energy is infectious, and her sense of responsibility to the world around her is always palpable.
This is what we hope for our students when we say in our strategic plan that we want to prepare women and men to be at the forefront of their chosen fields as ethical and socially engaged leaders. We hope that all of our graduates, whatever their circumstances, will be moved by human need and step forward to make a difference.
Our primary mission, of course, is to introduce students to the intellectual life. And it’s precisely the intellectual life that’s been advanced by Sue Gin’s leadership and love for DePaul. Two science buildings now stand proudly on our campus, serving as the site of important research and the preparation of the next generation of scientists and science teachers. That’s an extraordinary gift to the future and to the world. Certainly there are many others who stepped forward as well, including the McGowan Foundation, and we will thank them all properly when the building opens in a few months.
At this moment, however, let me simply say: Sue, from the bottom of my heart, thank you for your contribution to the scientific community here at DePaul, for your example, and for your many years of kindness to DePaul University. We are a better university because of you.
The intellectual life—and education in particular—is an extraordinary way to spend a life. The benefits include:
-The pleasures of deriving a theorem, or a cure or a solution to a vexing social problem.
-The intellectual thrill of encountering an entirely new way of understanding the world around you.
-The conversations among educated and informed colleagues; an article that sweeps away what’s been written before; the luxury of time to read a new book in our fields.
-Perhaps more than anything, that magical moment when a student’s face lights up, suddenly understanding what we’ve been laboring to explain.
To be sure, the academic life is not all ideals. There is the boredom of correcting untold papers, budgets to balance, competing needs, the longing for literate students or an academic community free of politics and human venality. But in the end, when it works, the life of the mind, the preparation of the young for the world ahead of them and the service to community and state are among the highest of human endeavors. They are a sacred trust.
It’s because of that love for the intellectual life that all of us have come together to create an extraordinary institution of higher learning. And it’s because of our love for the intellectual life that we’ve set out on our strategic plan to raise DePaul’s academic quality. We are raising our aspirations and expectations for our students and that’s honorable work.
We’ve already come a long way. Numerous departments reinvented themselves and the way they serve our students. You should see the:
-Numerous new faculty, junior and senior appointments from some of the finest universities in the country.
-Redesigned curriculums for our gateway courses.
-New international opportunities for our students.
-Complete curricular re-design of the new College of Communication, literally rethinking what the profession needs and leading the way nationally.
-Curricular redesign on many of our other colleges and programs as well.
-The new advisory boards being formed by faculty to inform their curriculums, often inviting some of the nation’s and region’s leading lights to advise our work.
-Equipment upgrades for Theatre and CDM, and many others.
-New advising tools that are coming online.
-Plans to assist faculty to teach writing by providing writing assistants in their classrooms.
-Active learning technologies such as the use of I-clickers and the new trading room developed by the College of Commerce.
-Electronic tools now available to all faculty to try new approaches in their teaching.
-Training programs to assist faculty as they adopt distance learning.
-Opportunities for students to take and pass remedial courses before their freshman year begins.
-Numerous new programs are opening this year, and others are being planned.
-New academic facilities are being designed; our newest acquisition at the northeast corner of State and Jackson is already providing strategic new space for some of our academic programs. Others will follow soon.
All of this and much, much more in service of bringing our students successfully into the intellectual life. And people are noticing.
-Our applications are soaring, even as we continue to freeze the size of our entering freshman class. Graduate and transfer enrollments are similarly strong.
-Our philanthropy has strikingly increased. In two weeks, I will fly to the national hospitality convention in Phoenix to tell the entire hospitality industry that DePaul’s College of Commerce has received a $7.5 million gift from the Hilton Foundation to design and begin a program that will lead, we believe, to the finest program in hospitality management in this part of the nation.
-The academic quality of our freshman class as measured by standardized test scores also continues to be improving.
-In the freshman class, our out-of-state enrollment is almost 900 students, an all-time record, which is only slightly smaller than our entire freshman class of just 10 years ago.
-Our rankings also continue to rise and increase, including new rankings this year not only for the beauty and location of our campuses (making us No. 1 in the nation in the Princeton Review), and a new listing as the finest Catholic university in Chicago. One should be careful of any ranking, of course, because the methodology can be questionable, but it is one among several indicators, that Chicago and the rest of the nation is beginning to notice our rise.
What makes me particularly proud, of course, is that we’ve stayed steadfast to our mission.
-At least 689 of the new freshmen are students of color, and that number is in fact larger than our entire freshman class of 20 years ago.
-DePaul is second now, among our peer institutions, in enrolling the poor – as measured by the presence of Pell-grant eligible freshmen and transfer students, indicative of the lowest-income students. I’m proud to say that the only competition in that regard is St. John’s, our sister Vincentian institution in New York City.
This is just a small glimpse into the new students who will grace the halls and classrooms of DePaul this fall. Given your commitment to their success and to the mission of our university, I am confident that they will grow during their time here at DePaul—and they will look fondly on their experience after they’ve crossed the stage at commencement.
But their path toward a degree depends significantly upon what happens over the next 10 weeks. Here is some interesting information for those of you who teach first-year students. This past year, Provost Helmut Epp appointed an Executive Retention Group, co-chaired by David Kalsbeek and Caryn Chaden. They have studied the academic preparation and performance of seven cohorts of DePaul students and shared some of their early research findings with me just last week. They have found that by far the single most important factor in accounting for students’ likelihood of graduation is their academic performance in their first year. Students who complete their first year with 48 earned credits and at least a 2.5 GPA graduate in four years at a rate 10 times greater than those whose first-year GPA is less than 2.5 and who earn only 36 or fewer hours.
The students’ first-year performance and progress is the key to our ability to ensure that our diverse undergraduate student body succeeds at DePaul. The university is directing considerable new resources toward first-year students, including more advisors, more attention to developmental math courses, new on-line systems and services, and an early- warning system now in process. You can help by making sure to give your students early and frequent feedback on their work. The first or second week of class is not too early! Establishing your expectations and providing feedback to your students early on can help them meet the academic standard that we now know is critical to their remaining and ultimately succeeding in college.
The intellectual life is also the reason DePaul spent so much time this past year working on a new set of Guiding Principles for Speech and Expression. The past four years have seen several instances when outside groups criticized DePaul for inviting controversial speakers. There were even rare moments when internal members of DePaul’s community called on us to cancel speakers and events because the ideas they considered were offensive to them. This past year, I asked an impressive group of faculty and staff to draft a set of guiding principles on speech and expression at DePaul. They then shared that draft in numerous and vigorous town hall events across the university. The task force incorporated this feedback and has now prepared a final draft for our consideration this coming year.
I am proud to say that the statement retains a strong and unbending preference for free speech at this institution, even when the topic is controversial and at times offensive. Yet, the principles also remind the university community that speech can be used to wound, and that our Catholic and Vincentian values insist on an academic community characterized by compassion and concern for each other. The draft statement calls the university community to its finest self and challenges us to build an atmosphere of inclusion, respect and compassion, even as we enter in robust debate on society’s most controversial topics. That draft statement will now move forward for one last consideration using our standard policy review process. I look forward to your analysis and suggestions. I am grateful to work in an “intellectual community” that fiercely protects both words in that phrase – our intellectual activity and our community.
I began this academic year by reading reports evaluating the strategic plan – more than a hundred pages listing the new projects, the redesigned curriculums and courses, faculty initiatives to improve teaching and learning in their classrooms, extraordinary new tools and so much more. I am convinced that one day, historians of this institution will look back on these years with admiration for the flowering of activity to push this university forward. They will be writing about you, what you accomplished and what DePaul became. These are ambitious days, and they are ambitious in the right ways.
DePaul is focusing its energies on creating “nationally recognized, rigorous programs of study; preparing women and men to be at the forefront of their chosen fields as ethical and socially engaged leaders; and building the financial and operational foundations to make our cherished mission permanent and truly effective.” We do this not for rankings, but for the intellectual life and for the students we care so deeply about.
Thank you for the incredible work and accomplishments of the past year. Let’s continue with all our hearts in the coming year to make DePaul one of the finest urban, Catholic universities of the United States. We owe our students and the intellectual life itself nothing less.
May God bless the year ahead. May God bless you and, through you, may God bless DePaul University.
Have a wonderful year.