Church of the Brethren Annual Conference Tampa, Fla.
July 12, 2015

Welcome to the Manchester University luncheon. I’m really pleased to be with you today.

In May, we sent 252 Manchester graduates into the world for new adventures, rewarding careers, and further study. If recent years are any indication, more than 95 percent of the Class of 2015 will have a job or be in graduate school or volunteer service within six months of graduation.   We have an impressive success rate.

It was my first commencement as Manchester’s president, but I’ve attended many through the years. As a junior, I helped with the last graduation held on the football field – some of you graduated in the sun, heat and humidity. I was in the first class that graduated in the new Physical Education building. I marched in the faculty procession for more than 20 years.  And I’ve watched a number of family members graduate, including my own children.

You’d think it would be routine by now. But it never is. It’s always a day of mixed emotions—not just for the students, but for the faculty, staff and administrators, too. Manchester is a close-knit community—an extended family in many ways. We welcome teenagers who are usually anxious, sometimes insecure, and often homesick.   Then, gradually, we start to see a transformation. With each passing day they’re at Manchester, they find their sea legs—they learn to balance the demands of academics, athletics, jobs and social life (some better than others). They learn to stand on their own and navigate the journey even when the waters get choppy. They grow strong and self-confident and discover what they’re passionate about. Those of us lucky enough to work at Manchester get to see it, and even play a role in it.

Some of the most touching graduation stories are those of first-generation college students. They represent nearly a fourth of our undergraduates. They come to Manchester without a roadmap for how to succeed. Many have loving families who don’t quite know how to help.  Of all of our students, they have some of the greatest financial challenges. So, as you can imagine, graduation for a first-generation student is much more than a box checked on their to-do list. It is a dream, come true.

This year, a new graduate came to me after the ceremonies ended and said, “I don’t know what to do with this day.” It wasn’t the usual, “I don’t know where to go next” or “I can’t find my family in this mass of humanity,” and I wasn’t sure how to respond. So I asked him, “What do you mean?” He told me again, “I’m a first-generation graduate and I don’t know what to do with this day.” The enormity of his achievement, I think, was just sinking in. He was overwhelmed with a joy deeper than the usual graduation excitement, and he wasn’t quite sure how to process it or, in his words, what to do with it. For him, graduating from Manchester was an unattainable goal attained, a life profoundly changed.  

This year, I was equally moved by one of his classmates, a graduate who bought 360 trees with his own money and planted them at Koinonia, our environmental center, and on the North Manchester campus. Why did he do this? He wanted to say “thank you” to Manchester for changing his life. Even more impressive, I can’t tell you this young man’s name, because he asked that his gift remain anonymous, even from me.

As a student, this new graduate was heavily dependent on financial aid. And early on, he was struggling academically. But he had a professor who mentored him and pushed him. The student was deeply grateful for what Manchester had done for him. And when someone asked him how that professor made a difference in his life, the student replied, “He never gave up on me.”  

I know many of you are Manchester graduates and each of you have your own stories about how Manchester changed your life. I know I do. But we can’t take the transformational nature of Manchester for granted. I share these stories so that we all understand what’s at stake. Powerful things happen to people at Manchester University, and all of us who care about Manchester share an obligation to make sure those experiences continue for future generations of graduates.

To do that, however, we need to change. We need to face some challenges. Small, residential, undergraduate colleges and universities are under fire. Compared with most of them, Manchester is in a very good place. Our enrollment is going up. We launched a College of Pharmacy. We successfully concluded the Students First! campaign $8 million over our goal of $100 million.

But we can’t rest. We need to think differently and act differently. We need to be nimble and keep moving forward.

Recently I saw a video on YouTube of a dog at a screen door. Its owners were encouraging it come outside and a little girl was even demonstrating how to do it. The dog stayed in the house, pawed at the door and whimpered and barked. What made the video compelling was that there was no screen in the door. The little girl was walking back and forth through the closed door to show that there was no barrier, but the dog had learned that a screen kept it inside. Organizationally, we need to learn new ways of doing things and leave some habits and mindsets behind. I believe that many of the constraints we face, the limitations we encounter, are self-imposed and born out of habit and routine.

This spring, I announced a new organizational structure that will enable Manchester to stay competitive and distinctive in the higher education marketplace. The changes include organizing into four colleges and aligning student life more directly with academics. The changes are disruptive to how we’ve always done our work, but I believe they better position us to pursue new initiatives and will help secure our viability and vitality in an intensely competitive environment. We’ve taken the screen out of a screen door.

Our reorganization will help us respond to marketplace challenges in three key ways—growing our enrollment, focusing on student success, and living into our mission. 

  1. In our strategic plan, we’ve identified three ways to increase our total enrollment to 2,500 in seven years:

    • First, we want to grow undergraduate enrollment from about 1,250 last year to 1,500 in three years. Last fall, we welcomed 441 first-year students—the largest undergraduate class in three decades. We’re expecting a similarly sized class this year. We’re on our way to 1,500.

    • Second, we want to build on our emerging competence in the health sciences. In three weeks, we will enroll our fourth class at the College of Pharmacy and graduate our first class next spring. To build on this success, we’re exploring other new health sciences programs, including something called pharmacogenomics. It’s a field that explores how an individual’s genes—their DNA—will interact with different medicines. It is also known as personal medicine and it’s a field expected to grow rapidly in coming years.

    • Third, we want to establish a new institutional competence on which we can build other programs. Right now we’re looking closely at informatics as that new area. Informatics is the management and use of big data. Hospitals, for example, use informatics to improve both individual patient outcomes (maximizing all of the information they have about an individual patient) and tackle population health issues like more effectively treating cancer. This new emphasis intersects nicely with regional market needs and the health sciences and will also feed new undergraduate enrollments.

    • In addition to programs in which we will grant degrees, we launched a corporate leadership development program this year, bringing our expertise in finance, communication, and leadership to 50 senior managers at Steel Dynamics, a Fortune 500 company headquartered in Fort Wayne. It’s a new venture for us and something we are already building on and extending for the future.

  2. We’re also improving the student experience and focusing on student success. Our reorganization includes launching two student centers—a Student Experience Center and a Student Success Center – and aligning each directly with our academic programs. It’s a new way of thinking about student development. The Student Experience Center builds on the fact that our students learn as much outside the classroom as they do in it – through service and student activities, for example. The goal of the Student Success Center is to support our students from admission through graduation – their ultimate goal and ours.

  3. And finally, we’re living into our mission. If you were here last year, you heard me say that we need to be audacious, serve well and advance our mission as we go forward.

Well, our reorganization was nothing if not audacious. One faculty member said to me after it was announced “I’ll give you this: it’s bold.” (I’m not sure if it was meant to be a compliment, but I’ll take it.) We will need to relearn how we work together in fundamental ways, because in doing so we open new opportunities. We are serving well – our second challenge – by refocusing on student success and learning. And none of what I’ve described so far – new programs, higher enrollments, successful students – means anything unless they are grounded in and advance our mission of graduating persons of ability and conviction. As I’ve said many times over the last year, the world needs more Manchester graduates.

At our opening undergraduate convocation last fall, I reminded everyone that Manchester is a safe place to be who you are. As I said to them, you can be yourself at Manchester. We are all different, but we are all part of an accepting community. Because of the learning environment we provide, I told them that it isn’t enough just to be yourself at Manchester. Being part of a community like ours also allows each one of us to become our best selves.

For a student, becoming their “best self” means finding something that they are truly passionate about. It means sharing themselves, connecting with others, and contributing to the community in meaningful ways. Being their “best self” means learning about and from others. It’s about reflecting the opening words of our mission statement—that we respect the infinite worth of every person.
We ask our students to grow and change, and we are doing the same. We are exploring new programs, building our reputation and taking risks. We are seeking ways to more effectively and more fully use our collective gifts and talents.

Manchester University is its best self:

  • When we help students grow and gain a deeper understanding of themselves and the world.

  • When we inspire a graduate to say thank you by planting 360 trees.

  • When a first-generation graduate grips his hard-earned diploma and, with an overflowing heart, proclaims that he does “not know what to do with this day.”  

Manchester University has a rich legacy of changing lives and helping people become their best selves. The world needs more Manchester graduates. Thank you for being an important part of that mission.