Opening Assembly

Friday, August 24, 2007

John J. Neuhauser, President

Good afternoon and welcome to what has become a formal opening of the academic year. And a special welcome to new members of our community. Over 35 individuals have joined us since this assembly last convened, a figure which represents over 6 percent of all faculty and staff on campus. May I ask those new individuals who are in attendance to stand and have the rest of the community formally welcome them.

I also want to welcome Joe Garrity, the chair of the Board of Trustees, who will shortly offer his observations on the state of the College. Joe has been enormously helpful to me during this time of transition, and I know from personal experience both how much he understands this College and how deeply he cares about its future.

Thank you to each and every one for the warm reception I have received. I was reminded of a quote in David McCullough’s book on John Adams, and I quote, “At the start of every new venture of importance in his life, John Adams was invariably assailed by grave doubts. It was a life pattern as distinct as any.” As a new person in this position, I still have my doubts about my own abilities, although it certainly is nice to be in the company of John Adams.

Your genuine and open friendship has eased many of my doubts. I knew as a Trustee that Saint Michael’s often was characterized by this, by friendship—or what President Emeritus Marc vanderHeyden would call hospitality—but now I have experienced it firsthand, and I am grateful. It’s not simply the quickly nodded hello, but the rather the way in which so many individuals have genuinely wanted to help me, even when it came to unpacking boxes or taking care of a very confused dog. So, now I know and appreciate much more what friendship means in Winooski Park.

I know that when Marc spoke at opening assembly in the past, he took great care to look back at the year and describe the many accomplishments and even issues which had dominated the past 12 months. Now, much of this, and rightly so, falls to the chair of the Board of Trustees, and I certainly do not want to steal Joe’s thunder—frankly, it would be a foolhardy thing for a president to do—nor do I want to duplicate his observations. But when I look back on the preceding year, I see line after line of good news, good news for which I can take no credit whatsoever!

So, I will reflect with a new person’s eye on just a sample of the accomplishments with which I am familiar, and I apologize in advance if I offend anybody by omission. Yet, as I said, this was a year sprinkled with many achievements, and I emphasize that this was really just the last year of Marc vanderHeyden’s accomplishments. His judgments, his encouragements will be felt for a generation, and for me, who can only pretend to succeed him, I am personally very grateful.

Last evening, we held a convocation for our newest students, and I include myself as a new student for I have much to learn. May I say, as a freshman of sorts, that I was mightily impressed. The event was both serious and grand. The students—the newest first-years and those from the upper classes present as orientation leaders—were attentive, even at times interested, and the music which punctuated our time was terrific. It was clear that each person who spoke had given much time and consideration to the advice that would be given. After Christina Root had offered her address, I nearly tore up my own brief remarks, which seemed then woefully inadequate. I understand that this new student convocation is a relatively new tradition here, but it strikes me as one certainly which ought to be maintained and cherished.

So, when I look back on the past year as a newcomer, what do I see. Well, I see that our finances are in excellent shape, as I am sure you will hear from Joe. It is not that we are wealthy as an institution, but what we have is carefully and responsibly stewarded. I see a first-year class that on many dimensions has exceeded our goals, although I acknowledge that there are less well understood issues that will need to be addressed in the coming year. I see an endowment and fundraising in general that has had a terrific year.

On the academic front, I see a Rhodes scholar, a Pickering fellow, David Mindich as Vermont Professor of the Year, another mention in the Princeton Review’s 366 Best Colleges and a remarkable place in the U.S. News & World Report’s list of national liberal arts colleges. Let me stop here and comment a bit about the U.S. News rankings in particular. I thought when Marc encouraged Saint Michael’s to move to the category of national liberal arts colleges that it was a very risky undertaking. Formerly, we had been in a category where we might expect annually to do quite well, and we would almost certainly have greatly diminished standing in this new and much more competitive arena. Yet, that’s what we want to be, a nationally recognized liberal arts college. So, in Marc’s view, and in mine, let’s be about it.

I do not want to put too much emphasis on these rankings, about which I am more than a little ambivalent because the nature of these externally generated measures may have more to do with magazine sales than with institutional quality itself, but they are something by which we are measured and to ignore them would be foolhardy. I suspect we will spend more time with these in the future than many of us would wish, but at the very least, we are off to a very good start in our new category.

When I survey the year ahead and my coming to know this institution, there are so many areas that quietly go about their business week after week, simply doing good work, never expecting to be singled out for praise, but taking satisfaction simply in the good work itself. For example, the whole area of human resources hums along, and the shift to a new retirement plan—something which has been catastrophic elsewhere—appears to be a normal part of everyday business.

The Edmundite campus ministry provides a wide variety of excellent programs and services, which I am afraid we tend to take for granted, from welcoming our newest students to sending our graduates on their way to all the encouragement and forms of enlightenment that lie between. We should be more grateful than perhaps we express.

In student affairs, we are aware of every catastrophe, yet never seem to notice that it is this area which has the major responsibility for the time our students spend with us. In many respects, Mike Samara and his staff have some of the most difficult responsibilities given to any of us. Dealing with student culture—and the broader culture of behavior and substance abuse—is not an easy task, yet day to day, week in and week out, student affairs provides the environment, the housing, the care that enables our students to grow.

Only recently have we learned to pay attention to our various external stakeholders—our markets, if you like. A decade ago, I doubt there was a college or university president who would utter the word “market,” but now we realize in this society so dominated by consumer issues, by a public which inquires about every facet of an institution’s operations, that we really do have to be more sophisticated. We need to tell the good news because it is this news which is used by prospective students, potential benefactors, even accrediting agencies. Yet, things like a cultural pass, which I happen to think is a wonderful idea, or the new student manual, which went to each of our incoming students, are sometimes scarcely noticed, but seeing things with a new eye, I notice.

Information technology also seems only to be noticed when something does not work or the new computers for first-year students are not shipped on time, yet they can install a new major campus switch or a new executive information system with hardly a comment.

And, it is impossible for a newcomer not to notice how well the campus is kept. The buildings are clean, the grounds are beautiful, and for all this, we should be grateful. In all of these areas and I’m sure in many I have not mentioned, we have come to expect day-to-day success. We only notice when something is wrong which, on reflection, probably speaks to how well things are being done on campus. I want to personally express my appreciation for all this good work.

As far as I am concerned, it is too early to establish an agenda for the new year for I have so much yet to learn. I want to spend much of the year simply listening, with my eyes open, to this community which has adopted me. As you will hear from Joe, we do have a few areas which clearly require some attention. Admissions and financial aid are, after all, our lifeblood, and we must continually strive to better understand how to use those tools available to us to craft an incoming class. We will have two major positions to fill in the coming year—vice presidents for institutional advancement and for academic affairs—unless those of you who might have influence can persuade Bill Wilson that he should hang around just a little longer. We will have continuing worries about student culture, particularly when this involves alcohol and drug abuse. I see no ready solution here, so it has to be continually on our agenda.

Very soon, we will be facing the NEASC re-accreditation, which will occupy the time and energy of many individuals and force us to take a serious look at student learning and how students and faculty do research together. These areas of assessment do not always go down well in a liberal arts college and, indeed, I have my own qualms, yet it is another external measure that we cannot sensibly avoid, and I suspect we will learn a good deal from the process as well.

We also have to work even harder on telling the story of who we are. We are fortunate to have some wonderful bites of good news just now, but we should recognize that these are more an everyday occurrence at Saint Michael’s College than outliers. I suspect that the formal agenda will ultimately play only a small role in the time we give here during the year. Our real business is to help our students learn and to learn ourselves. There is no more noble profession than to attend to the intellectual, the spiritual, the moral, the physical and the social growth of young people. We are each fortunate to be in this arena, and there is nobody in this assembly more fortunate than I. I thank you for your help, for your friendship, and I look forward to an exciting year without that crutch. Thank you very much.

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