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Fall Faculty and Staff Convocation 2004

President David Maxwell's Address
September 14, 2004

Welcome, and thank you for coming this afternoon. We seem to be off to a resounding start to the new academic year, and I want to thank all of you for the hard work, commitment, and creativity that has made that possible.

It is genuinely difficult for me to believe that this is the sixth fall convocation address that I’ve given; it does not seem to me, or to Madeleine, that we’ve been at Drake University for over five years, but this milestone is a good time to express our appreciation to all of you for welcoming us into this wonderful community, and for your encouragement, guidance, and friendship.

Traditionally, the fall convocation has focused on two topics: an overview of the state of the university, and the recognition of people who have served Drake in outstanding ways. And we will continue our attention to those topics today, but I’m going to add a third, in the middle—and that is to share some important thoughts with you about the future of our university—both challenges and opportunities.

State of the University
There are all kinds of ways to measure institutional health, from quantitative and objective indicators through more subjective, anecdotal measures. But no matter how you look at it, it’s safe to say that Drake is—in many ways—thriving. We’re not just in better shape than we’ve been in a long time—we’re in very good shape in an absolute sense. That doesn’t mean that we don’t have a lot more work to do, and that there aren’t daunting challenges before us—and I’ll get to that in a minute—but it does mean that all of the hard work—the incredible dedication of time, energy, and commitment on the part of several hundred people through program review and the development of our strategic plan have made a difference, and have begun to bear abundant fruits. I’d like to share several indicators of institutional health with you, and you’ll notice—I hope—that most of them are important targets in our strategic plan.

  • This year, for the first time in at least a decade, our budget is balanced with an appropriate level of payout from the endowment.
  • Equally important is that it is a strategic budget: a budget in which the allocations match our institutional goals and priorities, and that is structured in a way to help us manage the unexpected in a reasoned and responsible manner.
  • At the same time, over the past two years we’ve added $3.4 million in new money to the University’s compensation budget, as one component in a strategy to ensure that we continue to attract and retain the very best faculty and staff; we’re committed to taking the final steps to get everyone to the appropriate level, and hope that it will not take much longer to do that.
  • In the past five years, we’ve had a 30 percent increase in undergraduate applications, and an 11 percent increase in first-year undergraduate enrollments. We’ve also had a significant increase in Law School applications and in the quality of the applicant pool; we had a record number of visitors to campus during Iowa Private College Week, and our inquiry pool for next year is very strong.
  • A related figure, but one I want to note separately, is something that Provost Ron Troyer mentioned in an e-mail last week, and that is that our freshman to sophomore retention rate rose almost 2.7 percent this year, from 83.4 percent to 86.01 percent. That’s a 5 percent increase over the past five years, and while those may not seem like large numbers, I can tell you that they are powerful indicators that we are choosing the right students, that they’re choosing the right institution, and that all of the things that we are collectively doing for our students are resulting in increased levels of student satisfaction and success.
  • We have, as you know, improved in our US News & World Report rankings, moving from No. 5 to No. 4 among the Midwest Master’s institutions, and from fifth to third on the “Best Value" list. More important is the fact that survey research data, such as the National Survey on Student Engagement (NSSE), show that we’re doing an extremely good job for our first-year students. (I’ll have more to say about that in a minute).
  • We’ve created new international exchange relationships with Germany and China, adding to those in France and Spain, and Drake students and faculty have already begun to take advantage of those new opportunities. In addition, we had two graduating seniors who won Fulbright awards to do research and study abroad, and another who received a coveted National Security Education Scholarship for international study.
  • In the past five years, we’ve put nearly $30 million into the campus physical plant, and I’m sure that has something to do with both our admissions and our retention rates—particularly Goodwin-Kirk Residence Hall, the Pomerantz Student Union, and the constellation of Helmick Commons projects. Jolene Schmidt and the physical plant crew are to be congratulated on their wonderful work on the grounds; I get comments weekly from visitors on the beauty of the campus.
  • The Drake Stadium project is moving ahead at an exciting pace. We have $8.5 million of the $11 million needed for phase 1 of the project, and I’m optimistic that the remaining funds will come in the near future. There is a strong chance that we will be able to do the project next summer—if we get all the funds necessary committed in coming weeks.
  • And we’ve got a lot to be proud of with our athletic programs, as many of our teams and individual players were not only impressive on the courts and fields, but were recognized regionally and nationally for their academic excellence.

The Challenges Ahead

Those of you who attended last year’s convocation may remember that I gave a dramatic reading of strategic plan tasks that had been accomplished to date—it was three pages of bullet points. What I’ve just described in the past few minutes are just some of the big-picture highlights of the past year. We’ve got a lot to be proud of.

But we’ve got serious challenges ahead of us. As those of you who’ve been around for a while know, I tend to look at challenges as opportunities, not as obstacles—so it’s in that spirit that I want to share with you some of the challenges that we need to manage and exploit as we move forward.

  • Number one on the list derives directly from my statement a second ago—that we’ve got a lot to be proud of. One of the biggest dangers that we face right now, looking back on all we’ve accomplished in the last five years, is to sit back, give a sigh of relief, and think to ourselves, “Wow, we’ve done it.” As Provost Troyer has reminded me several times, Drake has a history of doing that—of tackling some difficult problems and solving them, and then relaxing in a false sense of security and stability while things sink back into disorder.

    The reality is that we’ve never done it; we’re never “there,” no matter how much we’ve accomplished, no matter how much we’ve fixed, no matter how much we’ve moved ahead as an organization. All of the variables in the external environment that affect the ways in which we function—student demographics, the economic environment, federal regulations, health care costs, and so on—continue to change, often in unpredictable ways. In that kind of fluid, dynamic environment, stasis guarantees failure. We cannot afford to stand still and say, “We’re there,” because the “there” moved somewhere else while we were sitting around congratulating ourselves, and we’re not “there” any more.
  • Budget—As I’ve emphasized, our budget is in better shape than it’s been in a long time. At the same time, we are faced with escalating costs in some major areas (e.g., health benefits; scholarship support; the need to ensure that our salaries are competitive; addressing deferred maintenance). Maintaining a strategic budget with integrity, based on conservative assumptions about revenue and expense, will always be an ongoing challenge. Generating increased gift revenue to the annual fund in support of the operating budget is a major priority, and a major challenge.
  • Student demographics are a looming huge challenge—there are dramatic shifts taking place in the American population. The number of high school graduates in our core undergraduate recruitment area is declining over the next decade, and there are significant changes in who these students are in terms of culture, educational and economic background, learning and career goals. In addition, over half the students now enrolled in college are over the age of 25, with family and work schedules that often conflict with the traditional academic calendar.
  • The student experience—As I noted, the NSSE data suggest that the experience for our first-year students is very strong—compelling testimony to the efforts of those who have worked to reconfigure and revitalize that experience. But that data show that the same does not hold true for our seniors—that the level of satisfaction, engagement, and academic challenge for our seniors is not living up to our expectations—or theirs.
  • Increasing competition—As the number of high school students decreases, the competition among colleges and universities for the best students is intensifying, with most schools incurring huge costs in merit scholarships to enroll the students whom they want. In many fields, there is a shortage of qualified faculty as well, with a resultant increase in the salaries required to hire and keep the best. Add to that mix the rise of proprietary (for-profit) schools, often providing much, if not all, of their education on-line, that are—little by little—being seen as a viable alternative to traditional institutions.
  • Diversity—Drake University’s commitment to a campus environment that is hospitable to difference, and to attracting and retaining a diverse population of students, faculty, and staff, is very real and very powerful. But beyond our efforts to bring people to the Drake campus, the real challenge is systemic, and it is vital that we develop partnerships with K-12 school systems and community organizations that can increase the persistence rate and academic success of people who have historically been under-represented in America’s colleges and universities, so that more and more are qualified to go on to post-secondary education.
  • Physical Plant—Drake is blessed with a campus filled with architectural landmarks and historic buildings, and our efforts at campus beautification in recent years have made a huge difference. But to achieve our aspirations for the University, we must refashion our classrooms and laboratories into 21st-century learning environments, and reconfigure our residence halls to further enhance the connections between student life and learning.
  • Local environment—Both Des Moines and the Drake neighborhood have seen exciting development in recent years, and the City of Des Moines is a huge asset for our students—particularly as a venue for career-related internships and job opportunities upon graduation. But the Drake neighborhood still lacks the level of retail, residential, and recreational vitality that we would ultimately like for our students and staff, and both Des Moines and our immediate area suffer from less-than-positive (and usually completely inaccurate) perceptions on the part of prospective students and employees. With the leadership of our Board of Trustees’ Buildings and Grounds Committee, and the collaboration of the Drake Neighborhood Association, we are undertaking an update of the University’s master plan, which will map out a strategy for addressing both on- and off-campus issues—a process that will start with a number of discussions in which, I expect, most of you will take part.
  • The economic and philanthropic environment—There are a variety of economic factors over which we have, of course, no control, but which have significant impact on the University. The downturn in the U.S. economy has negative consequences for people’s ability to afford higher education (particularly private institutions), and—of course—on the value of the University’s endowment (although we are now seeing some recovery). Stock market fluctuations and overall economic uncertainty have led to the first decrease in philanthropic support of colleges and universities in decades. The parents of our students are suffering increased pressures on their own finances, from taking care of elderly parents through major increases in their own health benefit costs.

There is little question that Drake University is positioned to manage these challenges, and to turn them into opportunities. The efforts in which we have all engaged as a community in the past five years—particularly Program Review and the Strategic Plan—provide a firm foundation and a strong sense of direction. The spirit of collaboration and goodwill with which the Drake community carried out these initiatives was truly extraordinary, and has attracted national attention for the results. In order to address the challenges ahead, we have worked hard to develop an organization that is in all respects—operational, cultural, behavioral and structural—innovative, yet respectful of its history and values; mission-driven and strategic in its decision-making; not only resilient and responsive to change, but a change-agent—and at the same time thoughtful, reflective, and deliberate in its behavior. We need to develop a culture of assessment—an environment in which we’re constantly measuring our performance against our goals and our aspirations, constantly measuring the assumptions on which our strategies are built against reality, and in which we use that information for continuous improvement of what we do as individuals and as an institution.

Looking Ahead

This brings me to the final point that I’d like to make, and that has to do with one of our next big challenges.

  • I’m about to use a term that strikes fear and loathing into the hearts of most people in higher education—a term that invokes sensations similar to that of root canal without anesthesia—accreditation. Drake University will be up for reaccreditation in 2008, and we have already begun to prepare for that. Now before you indulge in anxiety-inducing fantasies about the need to create phone-book sized compilations of every number and fact related to University operations, and about a campus visit from scowling colleagues reminiscent of the Inquisition, let me reassure you that the process has changed, the expectations have changed, and the way we’re going about it has changed.
  • The new approach to reaccreditation is about institutional self-definition and self-determination—and ultimately about how we behave as an organization.
  • Our accrediting organization, the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association, is no longer telling us what we have to do—to put it very simply, which is all I have time to do today—they are asking us to define who we are as a university, identify what it is that we’re doing, demonstrate that what we’re doing is driven by our mission, and demonstrate that we are constantly measuring the quality and relevance to the mission of what we’re doing.
  • To put it even more simply, they’re asking us what promises we’re making, why they’re the right promises for our institution, whether or not we’re keeping those promises, and how we know that we are.
  • The Higher Learning Commission requires us to address five criteria in our self-study. In the interest of time, I won’t take you through them now, but a one-page overview of the criteria is available for you to pick up on your way out this afternoon. As Provost Troyer points out, we’re in very, very good shape on many of the criteria, but we still have much to do.
  • You’ll be hearing a lot more about the process in coming months, as we schedule a variety of campus discussions.
  • We have a steering committee in place, and five committees of faculty, staff, and students focused on each of the five criteria.
  • But at this point, I’d like to ask you to keep just a few things in mind:
    • The issue is not reaccreditation as a thing—the issue is institutional change and institutional quality.
    • The issue is not reaccreditation as an event—it is a process. We want to use the fact of reaccreditation to shift ourselves into an ongoing, self-reflective discussion about our mission, our goals, and our effectiveness as a community of learners.
    • It has to be a discussion about integrity—about continuous improvement, about values, transparency, and quality—about keeping the promise.
    • It is a change in institutional behavior and culture.
    • The changes that we have to make—changes in behavior, culture, operations, and so on—are not things that we need to do simply to have our accreditation renewed. They are the things that we need to do to advance Drake University to the next level, the things that we need to do to ensure that we continue to fulfill the promise of our mission—the promises that we make to our students and their parents, to our alumni, to the community, and, ultimately, to ourselves. If we approach them in that way, accreditation is not the goal—it is a natural outgrowth of the way in which we function as a university.
  • At its core, this is yet another instance—a vitally important instance—in which we can turn a challenge into an opportunity. For the overall health of the University and for the stability of our future, there are few things more important and more meaningful that we can do than immerse ourselves in a continuous discussion—and examination—of the extent to which we are keeping the promises.
  • As we look ahead, I am confident that you will find these discussions, and this process, to be exciting, invigorating, and useful—and immensely helpful in informing the ways in which we all serve our students and our community on a daily basis.


It is now my pleasure to begin the awards portion of this afternoon’s convocation. Since 1992, it has been a custom in the fall to recognize individuals whose contributions to Drake University have made possible Drake’s place among the top private universities in the Midwest. You’ll find a full narrative on each of the recipients of the Drake Medal of Service in your program. For the medal of service this afternoon, we honor two recently retired faculty members who, each in his own way, exemplifies the very best of what Drake can be as a university. From a personal perspective, they are both people on whom I have relied on for wisdom, insight, and direction since my arrival at Drake—and I am grateful to them both for their generosity of spirit and for their friendship.

  • Our first recipient of the Drake Medal of Service is R. Dean Wright, Ellis and Nelle Levitt professor of sociology, who retired last May after 30 years of exemplary service to Drake. Dean came to Drake as assistant professor of sociology and went on to serve as chair of that department and director of the criminal justice program. Dean’s teaching interests include the areas of poverty, homelessness, juvenile delinquency and racial disparity, and through his work in these areas, both in and out of the classroom, he has exemplified the humanitarian ideas he instills in his students. He is one of those rare academics who have been able to bridge the gap between theory and practice—and not just in an abstract sense, but through his own engagement in the community. As you all know, in addition to his academic work, Dean has immersed himself in service to Drake in a variety of ways, and the institution has changed in profound ways for his having been here. Please join me in congratulating Dean Wright.
  • Our second recipient of the Drake Medal of Service is another icon of the faculty, Herbert Strentz. Herb joined Drake in 1975 as dean of the School of Journalism. Building on his expertise in the journalism field, he has become a fervent defender of the First Amendment. Herb’s commitment transcends the classroom, and today he is highly respected in freedom-of-information circles nationwide for his legal knowledge and vigilance. Journalism peers cherish his opinions, and he is often quoted in stories about the public’s right to know. I first came to know Herb when he served on the Review and Priorities Advisory Committee five years ago, and from that time on I have been impressed by his wisdom, his insights, and his commitment to the University. Please congratulate Herb Strentz.
  • The next award is the 2003 Madelyn M. Levitt Award for Distinguished Community Service. Before I announce the recipient of that award, I’d like to ask Maddie Levitt to stand so that we can recognize her for her generous support of this important award – and for the truly remarkable role that she plays in the life of Drake University.
  • The 2004 Madelyn M. Levitt Award for Distinguished Community Service goes to Donald V. Adams, Special Counsel for Institutional Advancement. Don cannot join me on stage today—he and Carol are on a well-deserved vacation trip to Italy this week.We are honored and proud to have Don as a member of the Drake family, and I look forward to presenting his award at a reception after he returns from his trip abroad.
  • It is now my pleasure to present the 2004 Madelyn M. Levitt Employee Excellence Awards. We have two recipients this year.

    The first is Joan Anderson, Program Assistant 2, in the Department of Psychology.
    Joan was hired as the psychology department secretary in 1986 because the person who recommended her said she was “the smartest girl at East High School.” Joan has been putting those smarts to work for Drake since, while exhibiting a commitment to excellence as well. Joan as been described by her nominators as courteous, warm, professional, and a pillar of calm in the midst of chaos that may erupt. She is an energizing force for many students as well as the faculty she works with. Her nominators say: “We often joke that were it not for Joan, no one would want to be chair of the Psychology Department. The reality is that this is not a joke.”

    With her clear dedication to Drake, Joan still makes time to help her children and grandchildren as well as care for her aging mother. Joan, I am pleased to present the 2004 Levitt Employee Excellence Award for your outstanding contributions to Drake.
  • The second 2004 Madelyn M. Levitt Employee Excellence Award is presented to James—or Jay, as we know him—Goodell.

    Jay is a Special Skilled Maintenance Person for the Drake Grounds Department. Beyond that formal title, it’s much more accurate to say that Jay is “Drake’s flower wizard.” He is the artist who paints the picture of what Drake looks like beyond the buildings and sidewalks. You see Jay’s passion as you walk through campus from spring to fall—flowers and plantings that add just the right touch that communicates to visitors that this is a special place, and that add beauty to our lives on a daily basis.

    Jay’s nominator speaks of his vision for a future Drake. “Time and time again, Jay tells me that what he wants is for people 100 years from now, not to know him, but to know what he was doing was done correctly, with thought, and with the future in mind.”

    Jay is able to translate the picture of the future Drake so that his coworkers in the grounds department can help that vision become a reality. We are truly fortunate to have Jay as a member of the Drake family. Please help me congratulate Jay Goodell.

This concludes this year’s convocation and awards ceremony. Thank you for all that you do for Drake University and our students, and for coming this afternoon.

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