Convocation address by the Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider, C.M.
September 1, 2011
When Willa Cather wrote “My Antonia,” she told the story not only of young Antonia Shimerdas, the bright, eldest daughter of a Bohemian family eking a living off the Nebraska plains. Cather told the story of several young people trying to find and build a better life than they had known as children. The book’s narrator, young Jim Burden, finds his path through a college education. He described it this way:
I did not go home for my first summer vacation, but stayed in Lincoln, working off a year’s Greek, which had been my only condition on entering the freshman class. … Except for a few weeks in Colorado, [my professor], too, was in Lincoln all that summer. We played tennis, read, and took long walks together. I shall always look back on that time of mental awakening as one of the happiest in my life. [Professor] Gaston Cleric introduced me to the world of ideas. When one first enters that world, everything else fades for a time, and all that went before is as if it had not been. Yet, I found curious survivals; some of the figures of my old life seemed to be waiting for me in the new.
In those days there were many serious young … students who had come up to the university from the farms and the little towns scattered over the thinly settled state. Some of those … came straight from the cornfields with only a summer’s wages in their pockets, hung on through the four years, shabby and underfed, and completed the course by really heroic self-sacrifice. Our instructors were oddly assorted; wandering pioneer school-teachers, stranded ministers of the gospel, a few enthusiastic young men just out of graduate schools. There was an atmosphere of endeavor, of expectancy and bright hopefulness about the young college that had lifted its head from the prairie only a few years before. [My Antonia, book III, chapter 1, paragraphs 2-3.)
We have only a few “farm kids” at DePaul, but many of our students know something about coming to school with “only a summer’s wages in their pockets, [hanging] on through the four years, completing the course by really heroic self-sacrifice.” And I don’t know many professors who play tennis with their students today, but I do know firsthand that they and many of their staff colleagues help create an “atmosphere of endeavour, of expectancy and bright hopefulness.” I know this for I felt it palpably this past weekend, as I spent the afternoon greeting the new freshmen and parents as they moved onto the campus. Parents and students were just so happy to be here. They were uniformly grateful for the kindness of all those who assisted their early days, whether in financial aid, admissions, campus housing or the orientation and academic advising programs. Time after time, the parents and students told me stories of kindness, or staff and faculty who went out of their way to help. There was an element of surprise to their gratitude, because they just didn’t expect this kind of personalism. Move-in weekend this year just had great energy. “Expectancy and bright hopefulness,” indeed.
And so begins the first week of our 114th year.
· For our School of Music, our 100th class enters.
· Our College of Education also sees its 100th class enter.
· Our College of Law has a history before it came to DePaul, but it marks the 100th class this year that its students entered through DePaul’s doors.
· Our School for New Learning sees its 40th class enter this year.
· And of course, our College of Science and Health sees its first class, at least in this new configuration.
114 times, this Lincoln Park campus has welcomed a new band of students, from wildly disparate backgrounds; many of them like Jim Burden, the first in their families to attend college.
114 times, a faculty and staff have started fresh and accepted the challenge to introduce these young people to the intellectual life and to prepare them for a myriad of professions, many of which they cannot even imagine today.
Fr. Richardson’s autobiography was published this summer, and as you might expect, it is as much about us here at DePaul as it is about his own story. He’s lived and been part of DePaul, in one capacity or another, for nearly half of that 114-year history and he shaped quite a bit of it. It struck me as I read through it, how the entire history of DePaul can be written with names. These faculty built that program. These raised their programs to new ambitions and strength. These administrators and staff built these services, and buildings, and support systems. Everything that’s ever become part of our history here at DePaul has names attached to it. And that’s true today too. Every advance we’ve made in recent years has names on it – and those names are yours. The history that will one day be written, will be your history. Our history.
I’ve been a bit reflective over the summer because we’re entering a transitional year this year. All our work that’s been achieved under that umbrella called a “strategic plan” is coming to a close. We’ve accomplished most of it, and DePaul is a very different institution now than it was even six years ago when we began.
And so, I reflected over the summer on how DePaul had changed in the past 6 years:
· We have new colleges, and new programs, to be sure.
· Our academic quality has risen, as well, and the nation has noticed.
· Our applications and our student profile have clearly changed.
· Student services are vastly improved.
· The students tell us that advising is better in nearly all colleges. Faculty teaching loads were reduced in several colleges and made more equal across the institution, and the teaching schedule was funneled toward a 4-day work week specifically so that faculty would have more time for research and professional activity. And the faculty have embraced it.
· We are more connected to the community than ever. The Mayor’s office recently called us the “gold-standard” for how universities work with their communities.
· We’ve seriously upgraded our facilities.
· Fund-raising has leapt forward, surpassing the $200 million point of a $250 million campaign, a full year ahead of schedule.
· We are now the transfer school of choice among the private universities in Illinois.
· Our Catholic, Vincentian and urban missions are stronger than ever.
· Our athletic teams not only made the jump to a far more competitive Big East league, but this past year they had the highest record of academic achievement of any team in that league, and among the highest records of academic achievement in the nation.
· We are far more financially stable than we were six years ago. In this recession, when other universities froze hiring, took furlough days, or down-sized, we hired, we raised our salaries every year – and I am thrilled to tell you – we found a way this summer to restore some of the prescription benefits that were cut from some of our colleagues’ plans last year.
· The senior vice president of Bank of America told me last week that she had instructed her recruiters to drop several well-known Midwestern universities from their recruitment list, and to focus their recruitment going forward at Notre Dame, Indiana and DePaul University.
· And last week, Mayor Emanuel chose your university as the site for his 100-days-in-office press conference where he announced the EMC corporation’s decision to relocate its Midwestern headquarters to DePaul. When asked by the press if he gave EMC any financial incentives or tax breaks to come to Chicago, he looked into the camera and simply said that having DePaul University computer science students available to hire was all the incentive they needed to come to Chicago. DePaul University is the stimulus.
All of this and so much more, you’ve built in the past six years. DePaul University has a proud history, but you’ve built its present. We are today the university that you have built, and I couldn’t be prouder.
We will spend time this year, of course, defining our next set of ambitions and activities under a new banner called our next strategic plan. But, for now, I’d simply like to start this new academic year appreciating what we have in hand. We have a university on the ascendency. We have a wonderful mission. We have a powerful platform from which to make a difference in the world. We have generous colleagues who give their lives for the intellectual life, for their fields of interest and study, and for their students. Even when we disagree, we disagree about how best to live our ideals. But make no mistake, our ideals are alive and well, and they’re in good hands. For they’re in your hands.
And so, this year,
· Five faculty and two deans will debate on our behalf how best to structure shared governance at DePaul through our Faculty Handbook. Many more faculty will consider their suggestions through Faculty Council.
· 17 faculty recently debated and proposed how we can support faculty toward tenure. They did this on our behalf, and we will now implement their proposals.
· Faculty and staff will consider the University Learning Goals in light of last year’s external review report of the Liberal Studies program.
· 700 staff and faculty to date have participated in the strategic planning effort, many working throughout the summer to bring data and national best practices to bear on our thinking. That work too will continue.
· Our colleagues in the newly-named College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences are defining their own renewed visions and ambitions for their beloved college this year.
· Programs will continue to be built in every college.
· Student services will continue to be improved by staff and administrators who care deeply about students and their well-being.
· A new art museum and classroom building will open in the days and weeks ahead. Facilities for theatre will now rise. Facilities for music, foreign language, writing and commerce will be designed. All of this led by the faculty and staff professionals who will occupy those spaces.
And yet through all the change, one ancient and beautiful moment will continue – that moment when a student sits in a classroom, a library, a laboratory, a studio, or even at an electronic screen, and learns. For in the end, everything we do is in service of that moment.
Early in her book, Willa Cather described her connection with the good earth around her. “I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great.” (My Antonia, book I, chapter 2, final paragraph)
We are indeed part of something great. Perhaps incomplete. Perhaps still striving to embody our ideals. But after 40 years, 100 years, and even 114 years, we are clearly “dissolved” into something wonderful and larger than ourselves - something truly good. And it became so because of all of you.
May God bless this year ahead of us, and through us, may God continue to bless DePaul University.