Remarks by the Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider, C.M., at the launch of DePaul's new strategic plan, Vision 2018: Dedication to Excellence, Commitment to Community

September 14, 2012

Good afternoon and thank you. 

It is a great pleasure to be gathered at DePaul University today.  For we are indeed “DePaul” here on this campus green: faculty and students, staff and administrators, trustees, neighbors, friends and the many Vincentian priests and brothers who work here at DePaul.  We are DePaul University whenever and wherever we gather, united by a noble mission and common purpose.  And we are never more DePaul University than when we gather to commit to building that mission for yet another generation.  For what is “setting a strategy” other than an act of commitment to the larger mission to which we give our lives?
 
Re-commitments such as these begin with long hard looks at the present, best guesses at the most likely future, and then pivoting — adjusting — so that our desired and cherished ends might come to pass.  Any number of books and articles on strategy in the life of an organization — all of them wise and experienced in their own ways — can frame this challenge.  As usual, however, I find poetry equally up to the task.  When W.S. Merwin crafted “Fog,” I rather doubt he was thinking of complex organizations like ours, yet his images of navigating a fog at sea capture planning at its heart:
 
Fog
 
“This came up in the dark while some of us
Bore on in our sleep...
We woke into it, rising from dreams
Of sea-farms slanting on cliffs in clear light
And white houses winking there – sweet landmarks
But no help to us at the helm.  Hours now
We have been drifting.  It would be near noon.
Feeling the tides fight under our feet... Turning our heads
To pick up the cape-bell, the hoots of the shoal-horn
That seem to come from all over.  Distrusting
Every direction that is simple, to shoreward...
Drifting itself now is danger...
Well, the needle swings still to north, and we know
Even in this blindness which way the deep water lies...
Let us turn head,
Out oars, and pull for the open.  Make we
For mid sea, where the winds are and stars too.
There will be wrung weathers, sea-shakings, calms,
Weariness, the giant water that rolls over our fathers,
And hungers hard to endure.  But whether we float long
Or founder soon, we cannot be saved here.” [1]
 
“Whether we float long or founder soon, we cannot be saved here.”  All questions of strategy in the life of an organization are rooted in this cautionary tale, this warning that no matter how pleasant — the present course, unadjusted, is the surest way to ruin.
 
And our present is indeed a pleasant one. 
 
• We have a worthy mission,
• A broad mix of respected programs, 
• A stable and even growing enrollment,
• Our facilities are vastly improved. 
• Salaries have been raised every single year, even through the worst of the economic downturn.  
• We have a stronger bond rating than we did six years ago, 
• A stronger place in the competitive landscape and a more national reputation.
• Our advising and student services are vastly improved.
• We have more faculty and the broadened expertise they bring. 
• National foundations of great stature are seeking our partnership.
• A successful campaign is in progress.
• And, never to be taken for granted, we are an organization filled with good people working hard in a pleasant community. 
 
None of this should ever be taken for granted.  All of this came from the work of those who planned and executed VISION twenty12 and Vision 2006 before that, and strategic plans before that.  DePaul’s present is a result of the organization’s hard work over many decades. 
 
Yet, for all the improvement and success, there are already intimations that the present course cannot last unadjusted. 

• For one, our improvement has not been uniform.  Some colleges and programs have lost enrollment in recent years, including this new academic year, putting real pressure on them to pivot and adjust. 
• Our traditional funding streams from the state and federal government are drastically reduced, and regardless of who wins the election, will continue to diminish.  The economic crisis of these past years has fundamentally changed the situations of our students and their families, nationally increasing the use of debt to fund a college education. 
• We have great pressure, then, to cut costs, find new revenue streams, or lessen our traditional mission of helping students who cannot afford a private education. None of us want the latter, and therefore that forces us to into serious conversations on other solutions.
• Disruptive technologies have finally touched our sector of education, and have led places like Harvard, Stanford, Purdue, Boston University and many others of our peers in traditional higher education to reevaluate their activities.  
• New competitors have already taken millions of students into their enrollments, and will certainly raise their educational quality powerfully in even just a few years ahead. 
• Some of our fields are changing their requirements for the preparing of professionals for their fields.   We have no choice but to adjust. 
• Accounting is changing.  Banking is changing.  Schooling is changing.  Nursing is changing.  Technology is always changing.  The political sphere is changing.  Even “New Media” is changing.
• The greatest advances in affordable healthcare are taking place in India right now.  Our economy is being tossed by the economies of Europe and Asia.  There is no solution for global warming that does not attend to Africa or Asia.  There are few corporate lawyers, or accountants, or communications specialists, who can limit their knowledge exclusively to U.S. situations. 
 
“Whether we float long or founder soon, we cannot be saved here.”  We must risk and put out to sea. 
 
And so, more than a thousand of you stepped forward last year and began to ask worthy questions — hard questions — about adjusting our course.  Questions about:

• Supporting other new programs that prepare students for the shape of the economy ahead.
• Shifting from a nonstop-growth model to support our spending, to one that is more sustainable.
• Taking even better advantage of all that Chicago offers.
• Incorporating technological advances that enrich and improve education.
• Retaining our students through graduation.
• Preparing for the emerging diverse populations that will be our students — and colleagues — of the future.
• Using strategic partnerships to propel us forward, rather than simply building everything ourselves.
• Supporting the scholarly life.
• Raising our in-class standards and pedagogies yet another notch, so that our students are truly competitive.
• Further improving our facilities so they propel our work forward rather than holding it back.
• Making a bold move into health care as that sector of the economy grows and offers a new and effective career path for our next crop of students.
• Asking what yet remains to be done to fully embody the ideals of a great Vincentian and Catholic university.
 
And from all that questioning, came a plan.  Thousands of you participated along the way, attending town halls, task forces and committees, answering requests for feedback online, literally authoring a sentence here or a background paper there.   And if it is a testament to group work, it’s not a product of “group think.”  I watched as people disagreed, as evidence was brought to bear, as new ideas took shape out of conversation, and as the plan progressively grew clearer over these past months.  And my practical, German-heart was THRILLED when a first draft was sent to me with every major item beginning with a verb.  No fancy, convoluted language for us, but clear action steps instead. 
 
My heart was equally thrilled when I saw a plan emerge that held firm where it was important to hold firm, even against prevailing winds that would have us change. 

• The plan holds firm to providing an excellent education at an attainable price, and stretching OURSELVES to manage both of those competing goals.
• The plan holds firm to our mission of finding a way to support first-generation students and others who find it difficult to afford a private education.  The government may be cutting back on its commitment, but not this university community. 
• The plan holds firm in a belief in an education beyond merely the vocational or even professional.  If the discourse of the moment defines “outcomes” in terms of hiring statistics and vocational majors, you held firm to a vision of a true higher education — a core curriculum steeped in the humanities, social sciences and sciences.  One that holds firm to a larger conception of an “educated human being.”  And Wednesday of this week, the first major accomplishment of this new plan came to pass when the Faculty Council cemented this with a 26-1 vote on behalf of new learning goals equally designed to withstand the cheapening of post-secondary education. 
• And you even organized and subtitled Vision 2018 with the two phrases: “Dedication to Excellence. Commitment to Community.”  That’s holding firm to who we are. 
 
And so, I stand here today proud of our university.  If we once again “put out to sea” and navigate new waters; if we yet again adopt a plan with yet the words “Vision” and a year in the title; if we now turn our attention from planning to building, we do so knowing who we are. 
 
Fr. Courtelyou, DePaul’s eighth president, once spoke to a similar gathering of the university community at the conclusion of the institution’s 75th anniversary.  He said:
 
“...Thank God we’re all here, standing on the land that my Vincentian ancestors and their parishioners once farmed, just over a century ago.  This is the soil on which Fr. O’Malley and I — together with a goodly number of you stood as [students].  This is the land on which we grew and learned and made decisions that continue to influence the conduct and the quality of our lives...
 
I looked to the [archives] in an effort to find lessons for the present.  I found no lofty statements of purpose, no flowery prose predicting earthly rewards and salvific promises — Just simple statements that reflected a university with its sleeves rolled up, seeking to supply an ever-increasing number of students with a philosophy of life and the tools of living...
 
As I reviewed the historical trivia that inevitably accompanies the more important accomplishments, I was delighted to learn that this university operated for a goodly portion of its first year [in 1898] without a telephone.  The nearest available phone was in a livery stable just down Osgood Street — now called Kenmore.  Now there’s something both very touching and very telling about envisioning Fr. Byrne, the first president, standing in a livery stable, shouting into a goose-necked phone, conducting the business of what was then St. Vincent’s College...
 
[I reviewed] the minutes of a 1902 faculty meeting... and discovered that one of the items on that agenda was finding funds to provide adequate chalk for the classrooms.  Even then, it seems, our needs outdistanced our resources.  Somehow, however, the chalk budget was increased and the work continued. 
 
My research into the past brought me to one firm conclusion: Those who worked to build this great institution were not visionaries, were not great planners and dreamers.  They were simply [people] blessed with an ideal, a clear sense of who they were, and what they were here to do.  In this, they were not unlike your parents or mine — honest, hard-working, faith-filled people who wanted something better for their children.  They had no great insights into the future, but they sensed that it was to the future that we should be looking. So, that is what they did — student by student, course by course, brick by brick, prayer by prayer... [2]
 
I love Fr. Courtelyou’s talk and I love that it began with his affection for this piece of land.  Like him, we too plant today on the land of our university forebears.  A pear tree to be sure, but not just a pear tree.  We commit today to build a better DePaul in a myriad different ways.  We’ll do it with modest resources and the help of our many friends.  We’ll suffer through uncountable meetings.  We’ll likely retrain ourselves to work differently.  We’ll make smart choices among numerous possibilities. 
 
We’ll do it out of love for the intellectual life itself.  We’ll do it out of love for scholarship and for our various fields and for the ways in which those fields vastly improve the human condition.  We’ll do it for our love of Chicago.  And we’ll do it out of love for the young women and men who have entrusted their education to our care.  For in the end, whether this year, the next six years, or 115 years ago, DePaul is, was, and will always be an act of love.  And it is that act of love to which we commit ourselves yet again today. 
 
Join me, then, if you will, in signing the pages that will be sewn into this great book.  Others signed their names six years ago at the launch of last strategic plan.  Add your name now as a visible manifestation of the commitment that has long been inside you.  Together we’ll make our noble mission vibrant and real for yet another generation of young people.  And then, with food and drink, and let’s enjoy the rest of the afternoon being — for this moment in history —​ the very embodiment of DePaul University.
 
Thank you for your love.  Thank you for your commitment.  God bless you all, and through you and through this new plan, may DePaul University itself be always a great blessing to the world. 
 

To learn more about the plan, visit the Vision 2018 website
 
[1] Merwin, W.S. “The First Four Books of Poems,” Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2000, 212-3 
[2] Very Rev. John R. Courtelyou, CM.  Various sentences from a speech delivered to the Society of Fellows, DePaul University Archives, Courtelyou Papers, Box 3, June 6, 1974.
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