Office of the President

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Convocation: Staying the Course, 4 September 2009

Staying the Course

I am so very pleased to welcome you to this year’s convocation, as we celebrate the beginning of a new academic year and honor those colleagues receiving awards that reflect the esteem and respect with which they are regarded. The professors whom we acknowledge today, in fact, represent the collective and collaborative accomplishments of this entire assembly. These men and women are “stand-outs” among an outstanding community of academics who have and continue to breathe life into USD through your teaching, research, scholarship, and dedication to this university and its students. I am grateful for you and for the opportunity to share, over the next few minutes, why.

You are aware, I am sure, that 2009 marks the 60th anniversary of this university. Throughout the year, we have found opportunities to highlight the growth and development of USD, noting in particular its expanding reputation for academic excellence. All cultures mark, in some way, the milestones of their personal, historical, and institutional narratives: birthdays, anniversaries, jubilees, feast days, holidays, and the dawn of a new year. Convocation is one ritual moment in university culture that offers the opportunity to praise our colleagues, celebrate their and the university’s achievements, and consider our future.

In preparing for this afternoon’s assembly, I found myself reflecting on the histories of those institutions that I’ve been privileged to serve as president. In each case, their dramas are a mix of comedy, tragedy, history and—even—a bit of romance. It’s been comforting to have this historical perspective during a time when so many colleges and universities are buffeted by the wind shear of this weakened economy. At USD, the most noticeable evidence has been felt through our interaction with many students and their families seeking additional financial aid. Yes, here at USD the endowment is down; requests for financial aid, money for programs, equipment are up, and—most likely—increasing health care costs loom large. Granted, times are tough, but the advantage of leading three institutions has taught me that, in every case, they survived and flourished, despite moments in their narratives that were much, much worse than our current ones.

Some of these histories are quite colorful, like the beginnings of the California Maritime Academy, established in 1929 at the dawn of the Great Depression. It seems as if California was as divided then as now about supporting its educational institutions, except that the academy—consisting only of a school ship loaded with cadets and a small faculty/crew—found itself stranded on the open seas during cruise when the legislature decided to close it, withdrew funding, and left them to fend for themselves. Yes, the legislature relented, but not before putting the ship, her cadets, and the faculty through years of uncertainty. What struck me about this small school’s history from the very beginning was that everyone—faculty, students, staff, and administrators, were always figuratively and literally in the same boat. Everyone had to pull together and they did, right up to the present time.

I noticed the narrative of USD has similar characteristics. When resources were scarce—and they were for many years as many of your know—the community kept its collective focus on the important things and, undeterred, kept moving forward. You know the story; in fact, some of you here wrote it. Think about the origins of this university, built in large part, by a Bishop who asked for one-fourth of his Catholic parish’s monthly collections to finance USD’s construction and by the non-stop labor of the Sisters who opened the College for Women, teaching by day, gardening after work, and supervising the student residents by night, and by the many lay men and women (some of you) who taught law in the evenings after a long day in the office, assumed teaching assignments, advising and committee responsibilities that tested their stamina and destined them to lives of frugality. But who would have predicted, given the modest beginnings of the College for Men and the Law School and the College for Women—that within just over fifty years, a university with programs, scholars, and alumni of great and growing national and international renown would grace this mesa?

Now, as I enter my twentieth year as a president, I might have predicted this. That is why, no matter how grim things may seem in this economic environment, it is likely that USD will adapt, as it always has, to insure that our students’ education and experience, in and out of the classroom, improves with every passing semester. But this will only happen if we continue to pull together, taking seriously the core values we espouse in our Mission statement and finding within ourselves some of the spirit and courage of the founders and pioneers who built this university and set it on a course to greatness.

We do indeed have a set course, one that you charted five years ago, plotting strategic directions that included a commitment to internationalization, greater inclusion and diversity; a more integrated approach to learning, establishing a new graduate school of Peace Studies. And by keeping our sights fixed on these objectives and by staying on course, we are well on our way toward reaching the destination we recognize as a place known for academic excellence, ethical leadership, and compassionate service.

True, we are neither floundering nor moving in circles. We have a shared vision and, thus far, should be proud of how much has been achieved in such a short time. This year we will refine and complete the Campus Plan to which you have so richly contributed. The Academic Plan that you prepared and the WASC themes on which many of you have been working will help generate a five-year evaluation and review of our Strategic directions during the Spring semester. We cannot afford to hunker down, to furl our sails; rather, we must keep moving, reminding ourselves and our students that this is a university with vision, whose members are purposefully committed and undeterred.

Never forget what strengths we have as individuals and as an academic community and the inspiring narrative composed by those who preceded us. A new academic year offers us the opportunity to write the next chapter, one that features the following:

Your commitment to personalized education. On every survey, our graduates note that the hallmark of their USD experience was the relationships they had with their professors and the genuine care and interest you invest in them. There is certainly no substitute for this, and it continues to be one of the reasons new students are attracted here.

Your advancement of the academic reputation of this university through your own scholarly pursuits, research, and publications. We know that prospective students consider academic reputation as the most important factor in selecting a university, whether for undergraduate or graduate education. USD’s academic reputation has had an accelerated rate of improvement, given its age. Sustaining this momentum will be critical to attracting the best and brightest students and faculty.

Your collaborative teaching, scholarship, and service. One of the most distinctive characteristics of the university, as you know, is the creative and productive work that occurs between and among colleagues within departments, the college and professional schools. And, more and more, between and among the college and the schools themselves. There are very few pockets of “compartmentalized or silo” thinking left on this campus, a tremendous tribute to this professoriate.

As the university marks the 60th anniversary of the granting of its charter, we should be grateful for all that has been accomplished by such a young university and for those who inspired its creation. One of these was the first member of the Society of the Sacred Heart who came to this country at the age of fifty and, with barely any resources, built the foundations of Sacred Heart education in our country. This university is a direct descendent of Rose Philippine Duchesne and her work. When she finally arrived in the United States in 1841, late in her own life, with few resources beyond her optimism and faith, she prayed:

“At last we have reached the country of our desires…there are no difficulties here except when people worry too much about tomorrow.”

May this be our prayer today.

Mary E. Lyons, President
4 September 2009