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  • Convocation Remarks

    Delivered: September 11, 2013

    Paul BrownWelcome to Monmouth University’s eightieth anniversary year and to the start of the 2013-14 academic year. Tradition dictates that we celebrate the start of the academic year with this convocation. Remembering our roots, embracing our successes, and reigniting our passion for higher education and our commitment to excellence in everything we do for Monmouth University is a tradition worth celebrating. I appreciate everything each of you does for this strong and vibrant institution of higher education, and particularly for our students.

    Welcome to my fellow faculty members, my staff colleagues, my leadership team, and our dedicated trustees, who all diligently support our University in so many ways. Thanks to all of you for allowing me to take the Monmouth journey with you. You have done so much here, and it is a humbling experience that you allow me to help lead the next chapter in the University’s life, as we collectively serve our students and the array of constituencies that make up the fabric of Monmouth University.

    We are all stewards of this fine institution that will outlast all of us, and it is our collective obligation to make a great mark on the landscape of higher education.

    I often say that we are very fortunate to serve the academy. Simply put, education makes a real difference, and we are fortunate to serve the profession of higher education. We inspire our students to unearth their intellectual passions in an environment that embraces their varied cultures, backgrounds, and beliefs. We help them obtain satisfying and enriching employment, or enhance their already productive working lives through advanced education. We support them to celebrate a lifetime of learning. We help the parents of our undergraduate students by nurturing their children to become wonderful young adults. We support the spouses and partners of graduate students. And thanks to the hard work and dedication of so many of you, our students achieve their goals.

    Let me stay with the theme of students and student outcomes for a moment. Research shows that the learning outcomes essential for the twenty-first century educational model are most fully achieved by students in universities characterized by high levels of student engagement.

    What do I mean by high levels of student engagement? When students are challenged academically; when they experience interactive learning opportunities; when they enjoy quality interactions with faculty in the context of their academic work; or experience collaborative research with faculty members and study of other cultures (abroad or in the U.S.); and when they take leadership roles in clubs, or in athletics—at the varsity or intramural level—they are actively engaged.

    Faculty, please know that as you pursue your research passions, there is nothing more powerful than sharing your passion with students and having them engage in your research. And as I’m sure you also know this makes all we do on the teaching, service, and research fronts very seamless. I heard a faculty member remark at a gathering with the new faculty recently, "I love to tell the students about my research." What a wonderful thought.

    And speaking of research and collaborative relationships, I have frequently said that I want every student to cement at least one life-time experience with a faculty member, administrator, or coach before she or he leaves the campus. Three, four, or five of these relationships are ever better. In fact, these relationships are core to what we do as a residential university celebrating the personalized learning experience for every student.

    Our very distinctiveness—and I would dare say our long-term success—is a function of bringing to life a full array of personalized learning experiences that make Monmouth the university of first choice for generations of students to come.

    I’m sure you have your own benchmarks for what constitutes the best personalized learning experiences and outcomes for our students, and I want to explore your goals and benchmarks in an ongoing conversation with you all in the months ahead. But the real value of an education isn’t just measured by objective benchmarks.

    Biddy Martin, the president of Amherst College, wasn't shy with her views on this topic published last month in The Chronicle of Higher Education in response to President Obama’s call for more accountability by those of us who work in higher education. President Martin stated, "Our understanding of value ought to include students' intellectual growth and understanding; the lasting impact of what they learn and the unpredictable ways in which its benefits make themselves felt over time; their capacity for complex thought, analysis, adaptation, and creativity; and the opportunity they get in college to build the social worlds on which they will rely for a lifetime."

    In other words, looking at a scorecard that includes graduation rates and employment is by no means a complete picture of accountability, a view that I subscribe to as well. We must think about, as Jamie Merisotis, president of the Lumina Foundation stated recently in an op-ed piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education, we must think hard about the "obsession we have with single measures."

    That said, our view of twenty-first century higher education is necessarily influenced by our changing economic and learning environment. Remember that we are a service industry, and this forces our university—every responsible university—to educate students to a standard influenced in part by those who will hire its students and in part by the past developments that have influenced our students. Our students—the millienials and yet-to-be-labeled students working their way through K-12 right now who were born in the first decade of this century—have learned in an environment completely different from what many of us experienced in our most formative learning years.

    Employment, graduate school, public service, and all variations of these as celebrated outcomes should keep us constantly thinking about what is best for our students. I like to talk about preparing students for "life after Monmouth"—and even preparing them for "life after Monmouth" the moment a student steps on our campus.

    We also have a profound obligation to facilitate this preparation of our students for "life" all along the way that they are with us on campus. And of course this also means bringing to campus a portfolio of graduate and undergraduate students that is the best match for what we have to offer them. This is a collective and holistic effort by everyone on campus.

    Monmouth University has had tremendous success with our programs and enrollments, with total enrollment stabilizing at a little over 6,000 students in recent years—approximately 70 percent undergraduate students and 30 percent graduate students. Our successes with the quality of our students, having them thrive and develop in front of our very eyes, testimony to the programs we have to offer our students and the dedicated efforts of our colleagues.

    We are fortunate to have a student body with strong academic potential, embodied in diversity across gender; diversity across ethnicity; and diversity across geography - and most important, one comprised of students with the passion to learn and grow as valued members of society.

    Our commitment to an effective and sustainable enrollment strategy is also one of the reasons why we are beginning our strategic thinking right now to set the stage through 2023 and beyond.

    Strategic thinking that encompasses the entire community will help us formalize a strong and comprehensive planning process and ultimately a strategic vision that will set our priorities for the next ten years and beyond. You will be hearing from me and the various division leaders in the months ahead on this front. I look forward to engaging the entire university in this important task, one that will set the stage for Monmouth University’s success in the decades ahead.

    In parallel to strategic planning, we must continue our ongoing efforts to serve our students, our community, and our world at large.

    Three themes drive much of my thinking, along with the overarching belief that higher education provides a substantive and life-altering experience in the lives of our students. These themes are not necessarily new to Monmouth University, and undoubtedly will be tempered and tweaked in the context of our upcoming strategic planning exercise, but they are ones that are at the very core of my view of higher education—and my passion for higher education.

    Every student deserves a personalized educational experience, one that is tailored and operational in the context of the university the student has chosen to attend. The personalized experience offered by a school dominated by the performing arts, for example, is very different than one offered by a school stressing engineering, and is very different than a comprehensive private, primarily residential, university like Monmouth University.

    As a comprehensive university we have the luxury of exposing the minds of all our students to the core values of a liberal arts education, as well as an array of wonderfully relevant professional fields of study.

    The concept of a personalized educational experience translates differently across universities and even across different members of our student body—but each student that steps on our campus richly deserves to understand—and to experience—the feeling that all of us strive to make our unique educational proposition personally relevant.

    You have already heard me talk today about some of the characteristics that bring this educational experience to life, but I want to emphasize that the concept of a personalized education is core to my view, and especially relevant to residential universities like Monmouth University. The importance of higher education in society is clear, and one central role of a residential university encompasses providing and celebrating the personalized experiences of our students.

    As I mentioned, a personalized educational experience involves a full array of learning experiences, curricular and as well as co-curricular. From my perspective, the key to delivering the best educational experience involves identifying academic, athletic, and social programs that are most significant for preparing our students for "life after Monmouth."

    As a community, I challenge us all to think about the personalized experiences that we provide our students—whether it is our faculty mentoring our students on a one-to-one basis, coaching them on the athletic fields, counseling them on majors that best match their academic passions, and identifying internships that prepare them for employment, or field research projects that bring to life their classroom studies, to name just a few examples. Whether these opportunities and experiences collectively add up to a distinctive and life-altering experience for our students is what will be imperative to our ongoing strategic planning exercises.

    A personalized educational experience should be a core institutional value for many reasons, but one of the most important is the success that comes from the retention of our students. Retention of our students increases dramatically the chances of a very meaningful personalized educational experience.

    I have been convinced throughout my career that retaining our students – which is the responsibility of each and every one of us—is best achieved through offering a personalized and sustained educational experience carefully planned out from the moment a student steps on campus until the day of their graduation.

    Second, I’m extremely influenced by the importance and relevance of our programmatic offerings. As I mentioned earlier, as faculty members, we are fortunate to have this wonderful venue called the university to follow our passions. We research the challenging questions of the day; we have the luxury of taking the life-long journey of conducting research and conveying knowledge to our students. But I believe our intellectual passions are best served when viewed in the context of the relevancy of our programs.

    As members of the academy, we serve society by developing productive citizens who discover their intellectual passion and go for it in ways that they have never experienced before. To my fellow faculty members, remember, we are experts in our respective fields, and it is our obligation to place before our students the right programs, the programs that have both relevance and timeliness in their fields of study and future fields of employment.

    And third, note that I said just now, "productive citizens." I should have said, "productive world citizens." I had a faculty colleague at Lehigh University that loved the word, "glocal." I’m not sure that, in fact, it is even a word, but the concept is clear: "Think local; act global." We are all citizens of the world, perhaps as corny as it sounds.

    I made this very point recently to a reporter at the Star-Ledger, who quoted me as saying, "We love New Jersey, but there is a world beyond New Jersey, too." I trust I’m not in too much hot water because of this comment read by thousands of loyal Jersey residents!

    But, I have worked and lived in many parts of the world, and I know that I am a better person for it. We have an obligation to respect and embrace everything global in a cultural, diverse, accepting, and compassionate way. We have an obligation to get our students out of their comfort zone to recognize that while they might be residents of New Jersey or New York or California or Pennsylvania, we are all citizens of the world.

    These are the influences from my lifetime as a member of the academy that I will bring to the comprehensive strategic planning process that will ensue across the campus. And they are key themes for me that I believe can help prepare our students for "life after Monmouth" that begins the first day each student steps on campus.

    I have been an educator almost all of my adult life. I vividly recall the first time I stepped into the classroom as a doctoral student at The University of Texas at Austin, then as a professor at New York University and Yale University, then as a visiting faculty member at various universities in China, Singapore, South America, and Europe, and most recently, as a dean at Lehigh. It’s a calling. Serving society through education takes your mind to wonderful places—it soothes all the pressing issues of the day that weigh on your mind, no matter how heavy or messy they may be. And we are all so privileged to serve the academy.

    You keep our students healthy and well fed; you teach them how to believe in themselves, compete on the athletic fields and excel in the classroom, and then succeed in life; you keep them safe; you ensure that they know their rights and obligations as students; you mentor our students as a faculty member, coach, counselor, or advisor; you open their minds to new things and new people; you teach them how to think logically and critically in an ethical and compassionate way; you get our students out of their comfort zones by exposing them to thinking about things they have never experienced; you keep their athletic fields and resident halls attractive; you keep our buildings immaculate; and you ensure that our students keep coming back and back and back. With your gentle attention you retain them.

    You find the alumni, donors, and friends who embrace us and support us financially. You find the employers who respect and value the students we have educated. You make sure that the bills are paid and the inevitable bills that are placed before our students are paid. And I hope you keep doing it with a smile and burning passion to get better and better at what we do.

    We are doing it right when we know that we are making a difference for the members of our Monmouth family, our wider community, for the broader society and in the wide, wide world beyond.

    You have my unstinting commitment to this goal—and with all my heart—and I know that I have your commitment as well.

    Thank you for allowing me to take this journey with you.

    Paul R. Brown, PhD
    Monmouth University