December 4, 2015


The USD Vista Student Newspaper

As I reflect on my first semester, I wish to thank you, our students, for extending such a warm welcome to my family and me.  Your kindness and generosity has been overwhelming.

Being welcomed and appreciated is a hallmark of the University of San Diego and its Catholic character.  Beyond the culture of care I have experienced firsthand, I am inspired by the resiliency and drive of our students.  You fully embrace the rigorous academic requirements that are part of your college experience, and in spite of those demands, demonstrate your leadership as engaged citizens by applying your knowledge in communities across the globe.

Last week’s inauguration events provided an opportunity to celebrate USD’s remarkable history.  Engaged students are at the center of that history.  I am heartened by the eagerness you have demonstrated throughout the semester to engage on issues of common interest and concern—social justice, peace and respect for all individuals, which are all consistent with USD’s Catholic identity and mission.  During these conversations, especially those regarding the national dialogue centered on equity and inclusion, I have found myself reflecting on the deeper meaning of one of the Catholic Social Justice themes—Solidarity.

Pope Francis has declared a Jubilee Year of Mercy beginning this month, encouraging a global response of solidarity as the world struggles for peace and harmony.  A call for solidarity requires us to commit ourselves to the good of all while respecting the dignity of each individual.  It requires us to move outside of our own comfort zone and demonstrate empathy as we seek to understand the world around us through the multiple lenses, life experiences, environments, and struggles that shape one’s opinions and views.

This is at the heart of what a university should provide for students—environments where complex and sensitive issues can be thoughtfully discussed and considered, enabling ongoing dialogue and discovery; a place where activism, framed in the context of trust, respect and civil discourse, can provide opportunities for understanding and reflecting on many different perspectives beyond our own.  At a Catholic university, such as ours, these conversations emanate from a place of love and establish a basis for action and change—some of which can occur immediately, and some over a longer period of time.

Yet, as we know, change starts from within, and a commitment to change begins with an examination of one’s own conscience.  It requires a pause, an introspection, a reflection of one’s gifts as well as our own shortcomings and weaknesses.  If channeled correctly, that reflection turns into a firm resolve, a metamorphosis, a willingness to improve oneself before effectively engaging with others.  Just as we are called to reflect as individuals, our entire university community is called to do the same.

This process of change continues with listening and engaging each other.  As someone new to the campus, I have been doing a lot of that lately.  Over the past few months, I have engaged in hundreds of meetings with students, faculty, staff, alumni, parents, trustees, community leaders and elected officials.  During those meetings, nearly everyone shared their pride in the university’s progress, and some expressed great optimism and a sense that anything is possible at USD.  There are others who spoke of their frustration around the lack of progress in certain areas and a need for change.  There is unanimity, however, for the university to address our challenges strategically with confidence and clarity of purpose.

You may be aware that some students recently shared with the campus community a series of recommendations for change.  Many in the campus community are reflecting on those recommendations, and since they are perfectly suited for the strategic planning process that has just begun, they will be taken up there.  Those recommendations, coupled with other student input, generated several reoccurring themes that shall be addressed.  Those themes include, but are not limited to; increasing access to financial aid, improving facilities, improving campus climate, enhancing our stewardship of the environment, and increasing diversity across the University.

The strategic planning process is designed to engage the University community in the process of determining areas of opportunity and improvement for USD over the next decade.  This process will be completed by early next fall.  The committee that has been established to help direct the strategic planning process is made up of a diverse group of USD stakeholders, and it is their responsibility to make sure that people are able to express their ideas.  The committee plans to reach out to students directly and invite you to share your vision for the future of USD.  It is critically important that you engage the process, and I urge everyone to take advantage of opportunities to participate in these conversations.  The time is now to come together to share ideas, create a vision, and realize our ambitions to make USD even stronger for the benefit of you, the students, by reinforcing the relationships all of us have with one another and the University.

It requires us to be open, principled, and respectful of different opinions.  Solutions will be identified and implemented—not to check a box, but to create systemic change that endures.  The strategic planning processes at the previous institutions where I served as president successfully addressed similar reoccurring themes as those at USD and generated the kind of positive change over time that we can expect here in San Diego—not only for our campus but for our surrounding neighborhoods.  It has been my experience that sustainable change does not come quickly and requires discipline and making difficult decisions in order to succeed.

This is a Changemaker campus.  Our students and faculty collaborate on remarkable innovations that create positive, sustainable change for local communities and for communities around the world.  We have a pretty good track record of working successfully together.  I am convinced, with your support and participation in this inclusive and collaborative planning process, we can stand in solidarity and envision a brighter future for USD that is a model for all Catholic institutions.

James T. Harris III, DEd