2007 Faculty and Staff Fall Convocation

Building on Our Strengths: SCSU as a Force for Transformation

Streaming Video of 2007 Fall Convocation

Address by President Earl H. Potter III

Thank you, Michael for your welcoming words and to all of my colleagues up here I offer my thanks for the warm welcome you have given me in the last two months. Most of all, thank you for the opportunity to be your president.

It’s good to see all of you here this morning.  Your faces are now familiar to me, and I’m grateful for that.  I’ve had the pleasure of meeting many of you and look forward to becoming acquainted with the rest in the coming months.

To those of you who also are new here – a special welcome.  We’ll be finding our way together.  I’m trying as fast as I can to get to know every aspect of this university.  There’s a lot to learn in a short time – I’ve said it’s a bit like drinking water from a fire hose.

But it is exciting to be here.  I’m where I want to be.  The most important thing I’ve learned about St. Cloud State is that people here make a difference, and for me – that’s what it’s all about.  Being educational activists, having an impact on the lives of our students – one unique student at a time – is the most satisfying and the most significant accomplishment we each can achieve in our careers.

This morning I’m going to talk a little about myself, about my plans and dreams for St. Cloud State University, and a lot about making a difference.  I know that’s a well-worn phrase, especially on campuses.  But I think it’s especially apropos to talk about this as we begin a new academic year at a university which I believe does a superb job of making a difference in the lives of its students.

I truly value the mission of an institution like ours. On my first day here I liked the way it felt to be on this campus. I’m gratified to know that students feel the same thing…they say that coming to St. Cloud State University was the right decision for them. To me, that means we’re doing a lot of things right. 

We make a fine education available to a much wider range of students than many institutions, and that’s no small contribution. Our community and our state need our graduates.  In fact, you might say that our purpose is to build Minnesota one graduate at a time. 

At St. Cloud State we’re offering a wonderful mix of students the opportunity to dig down and discover within themselves the right stuff to take their place in a world that will require them to be critical thinkers and to be able to express themselves in writing and in speaking.  They’ll need to understand science and its role in the economy, in law and in government policy.  They’ll be asked to function responsibly in a world where natural resources are under increasing pressure and globalization heightens cultural clashes and economic competition.  They will face widening income gaps and tough ethical dilemmas.  Clearly we must help our students prepare to live in a world far different from the one in which you and I grew up. 

From what I’ve seen so far on this campus, I believe we’re up to the task – as enormous as it is.

On my third day on the job I had the pleasure of addressing my first student group …about 40 participants in our Advanced Preparation Program.  The program, led by Director of Multicultural Student Services Shahzad Ahmad, has been putting students on the path to success for 20 years.

The group is comprised largely of students of color who come here for five weeks during the summer before their freshman year in college to learn practical lessons in college life – study habits, the ins and outs of financial aid, how to get involved in campus activities and so forth.  They learn how to succeed academically and how to become good campus leaders.  

After telling this group a little about myself and my plans for the university, I asked for questions, and they weren’t shy about asking them. They started with the basics:
“When were you born?”
“What college did you go to?”
 “Do you like snow?”

Then the questions got harder and more complex:
“What can be done to keep down tuition increases?”
“How long do you plan to be president?” 
“What’s the one thing you would like to change about the community?”

They asked what my administration plans to do to improve the atmosphere for students of color.  I gave them my honest answer – that my priority will be to create a learning community that helps all of our students realize their dreams.  My approach to leadership is based on a fundamental respect for everyone here. Every year we welcome a whole new group of people who bring with them attitudes and prejudices from communities across our state and nation. The university has to deal with that, to find ways to create a positive environment so that all of our students have the opportunity to make the most of their years here, to feel secure and safe as they prepare for life.

One of the best things we’ve got going for us is a faculty and staff that is as diverse as our students, not just racially and culturally diverse, but diverse in age, experience, education, background, and beliefs.  Some of you bring new energy and some of you have the benefit of long experience.  What most of you have in common, however, is your desire to find ways to engage and support students, and your understanding of how to do that. 

You know that some students come here with a real clarity of vision for their lives, and others who come here are not yet at that point.  They may not be for years. We must create space for all of them, challenge all of them where they are and help them take the next step, whether they can see clearly what that next step is or not.  

Each of you – no matter how you support and serve our students – is making a difference at a pivotal time in their lives.  During their campus years they are likely to be preparing for a career, experimenting with relationships and lifestyles, exploring interests and abilities and shaping their character.  If we do our jobs they will leave here a different person.

When I think back – way back to 1967– to my undergraduate years at Williams College in Massachusetts, I have a vivid memory of one of my own most influential experiences.  One summer I was fortunate to be one of six students chosen to teach English as a second language at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. They gave us a round-trip ticket to Hong Kong, but for $200 more I could go around the world.  For me – who like many of you and of our students – was the first in my family to go to college – this was a tremendous privilege. I took advantage of the opportunity to go to places I’d read about – such as New Delhi, Jerusalem, Athens, and London.  To the young man from the small New England seacoast town of North Kingstown, Rhode Island, it was an extraordinary trip that changed my life.

From that time overseas I learned what most of our students who study abroad discover:  that international education is not just about things related to international affairs.  It teaches, through experience, that you can make your way in many different cultures. But more importantly you learn that your own way of looking at the world is not the only way.  It’s going beyond just acknowledging others are not the same, it’s about learning to look at the world you know from an entirely different perspective…an experience that humbles and lays the foundation of respect for all peoples. 

Each one of you has had your own life-altering experiences.  And our students will have their own.  If you’re lucky, you’ll be responsible for some of them.  A classroom experience that piques interest and turns a student in an exciting new direction.  A life-altering introduction to a new discipline that sparks a successful career.  It could be something as seemingly minor as being there to offer guidance or to show you care when someone is in need.  Our jobs are important because we have the potential to make a difference – sometimes more than we realize.

Something we do or say or teach can set off a chain reaction of events and circumstances that has far-reaching effects.  And once in awhile, our students succeed beyond our wildest dreams.  I had that experience as an associate dean at the United States Coast Guard Academy.  There was a young officer named Steve Flynn who was selected for assignment to graduate school in order to prepare him to teach at the Academy.  At that time the Coast Guard sought the shortest, least expensive path to preparing officers to teach.  The service would have sent Flynn to get a master’s degree at one of a limited set of “acceptable” institutions but Flynn had the ambition and talent to pursue a different objective.  We worked together on his dream and he enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania where he completed his Ph.D.

While he was there, he caught the attention of Walter Annenberg, who became his mentor. Steve had a vision for what he wanted to accomplish, and I had a vision for what I wanted the Coast Guard Academy to do – not just prepare students for entry-level duty in the service, but to lay the foundation to be admirals.  Today Stephen Flynn is a noted expert on homeland security, a senior fellow for the Council on Foreign Relations and best-selling author of “America the Vulnerable” and “The Edge of Disaster: Rebuilding a Resilient Nation,” released last February.  My role in his success may have been small, but it reminds me how important it is to tune into what we can do to help each student achieve his or her potential.     

I’d like to talk about some examples of St. Cloud State people who in different ways have had a significant impact on students.  I want to emphasize that the seven individuals I’m going to profile here are representatives of our hundreds of faculty and staff who each year make enormous contributions to the future of our world – one student at a time.  They do this through innovative projects and programs and through their commitment to making a difference.  They each believe in the power of education to transform lives.

Ethnic Studies Professor Robert C. Johnson was honored last year with a Minnesota Minority Education partnership award for his efforts to promote success for students of color.  For 20 years his math, science and computer summer camps helped thousands of students discover their potential. As a participant in Robert’s Scientific Discovery program Dennis Luke of Richfield, Minnesota – originally from the Sudan – learned how higher education could help him achieve his dreams.  Now he’s a pre-pharmacy major here.

Community Studies Professor Rona Karasik has had a big impact on students’ attitudes about service to community.  Since 2001 about 600 of her Community Studies students have worked on many aspects of the Kaleidoscope Project – an effort to bring an accessible playground for children of all abilities to St. Cloud’s Wilson Park.  Christa Halonen of Kimball , a senior in business management, says she learned through this project how much could be accomplished when a group of people really put their minds to tackling a goal.  As a student in Rona’s Community and Democratic Citizenship class Christa helped raise nearly $1,800.

Assistant Professor and 2006 Miller Scholar Tara Harl has developed a partnership between her aviation students and Twin Cities corporations.  More than 100 of her students have worked on business aviation projects with major Minnesota businesses.  Recent graduate Shanna Lowe, now an aircraft sales assistant at Elliot Aviation in the Twin Cities, says this experience helped her make the transition from academia to corporate life.  Tara’s program has been so successful that Western Michigan University’s aviation program has adapted it for its students.

Lee Nelson is the dynamic director of the SCSU Concert Choir and has not only made a difference in the lives of his students, but in the many community members who’ve been part of his Great River Chorale.  The chorale brings together our students and faculty with community voices.  Senior Nathan Jacobson, a music and psychology major from Menomonie, Wisconsin, says Lee inspires his students to excel through his enthusiasm for music.

Accounting professor Harv Busta is developing podcasts of interviews with alumni.  The podcasts, called “Humble beginnings,” give alumni an opportunity to talk about their accomplishments and how their SCSU education prepared them for work and life.

When you want to know about how one of our accounting graduates is doing, ask Harv.  He’ll probably know.  Adam Bistodeau, a 2001 accounting graduate now working for McGaldrey & Pullen in Minneapolis says he had Professor Busta in one of his first accounting classes, and they still keep in touch.

Jim Steffes is a good example of a staff person who educates students as he supervises them.  You’ve probably seen Jim during the summer planting and pruning and tending the flower beds and other landscaping designs he created.  As he practices his artistry, he leads a crew of seven students who learn a lot about the satisfaction of working hard and watching something they’ve worked on grow and bloom.  Jared McDowell, a third-year mass communications student from Rapid City, South Dakota; and Neema Jangu, a social responsibility graduate student from Tanzania, appreciated working this summer with Jim.  They say he communicated the hows and whys of each task.  From him they gained knowledge of botany as well as a sense of accomplishment and pride in turning flat beds of dirt into beautiful flower beds.  And for all of you who wonder what Jim does in the winter, when we don’t see him around campus, he’s designing the next summer’s landscaping and working as part of the snow crew.

Jessica Ostman is another one of our many staff members who influences students’ lives every day.  As director of the University Program Board, she leads a staff of students with energy and enthusiasm. Her goal is to make an impact on each one she comes in contact with, and to make them feel comfortable and connected.  Her passion is to help them find their place first at SCSU, then in the world.  Lauren Feely, a junior from Stillwater, says Jessica has been more than a boss to her in her work at UPB. She’s been a friend and adviser who’s helped her in her college career and in preparing for a profession as an event planner.

Jessica has given Lauren and hundreds of other students worthwhile learning experiences.  As for what Jessica gets out of her work here, she says she has the best job in the world.

These seven faculty and staff members are representative of the great things you all do for St. Cloud State and for our students.  Some of them have been award winners for their teaching and their service.  All have been rewarded time and again with the satisfaction of seeing students whose lives they’ve touched bloom and grow.

I appreciate coming to a university with such talented, caring faculty and staff.

And now I’d like to talk about the future of our university – how we can best move forward to take full advantage of the abundant human resources we have in you to serve students better.  I will talk about the goals and priorities that I believe we must establish in order to develop direction and shape the work we have to do to build on our strengths and create this University’s future.  I have shared my thoughts with many of you and with leaders in St. Cloud and across the state.  My hope is that this process of offering and listening will bring our best thinking together with our collective understanding of our challenges and opportunities to fashion a plan for our future.  This plan is a work in progress.  This year we will do much work together on the further development of this plan.  Today I would like to outline some basic commitments and directions that will give shape to the work we will do.

To put it simply, in five to ten years I would like the people of Central Minnesota to be proud of their University.  To reach this objective SCSU will have to be recognized as a key asset that drives with economic and cultural well-being of this region.

We will know that this is true because we have measurable results of our impact not just in economic terms but is cultural and social impacts as well.  You will feel that pride when you enter the city of St. Cloud.  It will be unmistakable that this is a “university town”; the city will have the character and feel of communities that attract and hold talent and St. Cloud State University will be at the center of that city.  How do we achieve this transition?

First and foremost, we must be committed to the success of all of our students.  Thankfully, there are a lot of folks across the country who are thinking about this challenge.  The American Association of State Colleges and Universities has looked at member schools who are achieving the best results in terms of retention and graduation rates.  They held student preparation and per-student funding constant and worked to identify the factors that set these schools apart.  Schools with good results and bad results had many of the same programs in place.  What set them apart was presidential leadership.

Schools who achieve the best retention and graduation rates have presidents who:

  • Articulate a collective vision for student success,
  • They consistently take stock to assess progress toward the vision,
  • They act strategically to build a coherent, integrated approach to student success,
  • They invest in building a culture consistent with the vision,
  • They use the symbolic power of the presidency to repeatedly reinforce the institution’s commitment to student success, and
  • Most importantly, the president in each of these successful institutions actively modeled the institution’s espoused values in ways that faculty and staff could see.

I want to be one of those presidents.  But I can’t do it alone.  It will take all of us to build a culture that supports student success.  To do so we will have to master one of the most important challenges faced by St. Cloud State University and by the city of St. Cloud.  We will have to deal with racism and its impact on our students, faculty and staff.  In fact we must do more than deal with it.  We must become known as a campus that is expert in building community.  We have already brought together a diverse community.  Our faculty includes many people of courage who have come here from around the globe to study and teach in a community characterized by respect and freedom.  That dream has not been fully realized, but if this is to be a great university, one that brings transforming value to the region it serves, that dream must be realized.

Next, we must transform the relationship between the University and the Community.  Achieving this goal will require that we reshape the physical interface between the university and the city.  We will do this as we create a new campus master plan over the next two years.  Right now as you drive into St. Cloud you would not know that St. Cloud State University is in St. Cloud, unless you look really carefully for the sign telling you where to turn.  There is no evidence that St. Cloud is proud of St. Cloud State University.

We’ve played our part in creating this situation.  For a number of reasons we have developed a campus that is inward-looking …ringed by parking lots and big buildings.  I understand that improvements have been made in recent years, but still you have to come into the campus before you see the waterfalls and gardens and encounter a beautiful, quiet space that supports a strong learning community. We say we are part of the community but our physical presence in the community doesn’t communicate that. 

We need a different front door.  We need to push services that are available to the community to our outside perimeter….turn the University inside-out so to speak. The impact of the University on the cultural life of the community needs to be expressed at our boundaries…art, music, our international flavor all need to be within reach and affect the character of a university zone that communicates life and intellectual energy.  We need to be accessible, welcoming and approachable in order to win the hearts of Central Minnesota and we can do better than we have. 

Our master plan will be driven by a comprehensive academic plan that we will develop during the coming year.  It’s my belief that a comprehensive, regional university like ours needs to be understood as an engine for economic development.  It’s also an engine for cultural development and change.  Strong universities make visible contributions to the regions in which they are located.  They become critical assets.  Our economic value to St. Cloud and Central Minnesota is widely known.  We make contributions through the money we spend, through the people who work here.  Our annual economic contribution to the community is about $378 million.  What we don’t know very well is the social impact that we have – the impact of our hockey, of our concerts, of the students who work in the community or graduates who stay here and build businesses.  We make a tremendous difference in the whole life of this region and in fact…Minnesota, far beyond the simple economic value of the university.

As this university grows and develops, our programs need to relate to the character and needs of our changing economy, of Minnesota, and of the reality of a global economy.  As we do academic planning, we need to shift our attention out to the world and to develop programs that address the needs of this region and of the wider world so that we successfully prepare graduates for work and for life.

With respect to preparing students for work and for life…I have noticed that a draft of outcomes for general education includes a commitment to preparing students for civic engagement.  For an institution like this, I think this is also key.  If you look at the SCSU’s results in the most recent the National Survey of Student Engagement, you will see that our students report that they spend less time in activities related to being engaged in their community than do their peers.  Civic engagement and engaged students go together with better student success rates and stronger university/community partnerships.  A commitment to service also means accepting the responsibility to give back.  With eight percent of our alumni giving annually to the university, there is clear evidence that we have not developed in our graduates the expectation of giving back.  We can change that.

Finally, as we develop our master plan, we will give special attention to the role of residential life for our learning community.  We have been invited to create a vision for facilities that will support the development of our learning community.  We will do that to focus more effort on supporting our student life and development opportunities.  That means a campus-wide commitment not only to academic excellence, but to the pursuit of excellence in our residence halls, our student activities, our student services, and our objectives for educating the whole student.

Today as we launch a new academic year, we celebrate our strengths and make a commitment to build upon them – let’s not be so Minnesotan that we understate our own excellence.  I’ve got to tell you, I’m having a great time walking around this campus visiting with every unit and every program we have.  I have been in every building, but now I’m going back to meet the folks who work in them.

When I was in one office the other day, I was impressed by the quality of their work but I could see as I talked about it that they were uncomfortable until one of their managers said, “You know we had a retreat this summer and the room was split in half.  One half of the room talked with pride about our accomplishments and the other half said, ‘You know our motto should be, “Invisible in our Excellence.’”  They didn’t want to be celebrated.  So when I say, let’s not be so Minnesotan that we don’t talk with pride about our accomplishments, that’s not a joke.  We must build the reputation of this university by doing the work that needs to be done and telling a compelling story of excellence.  If we do this well, we will attract more public and private support as well as students who are seeking to build a solid foundation for their futures.

Today we begin another academic year at St. Cloud State…the 138th academic year.  Today we celebrate and begin to build a vision for our future.  And today I’m very proud to say that I am one of you.