A President's Reflections

Campus Culture

Posted on May 1, 2010

It has been a while since I’ve added a post to my blog.  We are in one of the very busiest times of year, the ramp up period to graduation, with its myriad events, along with the wrap up of the budget process for the next fiscal year, an upcoming meeting of the Trustees, and a high “squirrel factor.”

While the term “squirrel factor” is not commonly known, the syndrome is widely observed.  It’s that range of “it must be the end of the year” behaviors that often induces eye rolling and a weary acceptance among long time higher ed professionals.  It’s that bit of craziness — I recall here a faculty member who decided to once spend the day , all day, out on campus (including an afternoon game of tennis) in nothing but a bathrobe  or a group of students who thought their dorm furniture might make great fuel for a bonfire or a college president who thought all-male wrestling in his basement, as the Greeks did it (if you get my drift), with students might be fun — that induces a “What the heck were they thinking?” reaction as one reads the announcement of their early departure from campus.  By the way, none of the examples cited above involved SNHU or anyone on our campus, though all of them are true.

That’s not to say that the squirrel factor does not seems somewhat elevated on our campus.  It’s the end of the year, so to be expected.

However, the end of the year also provides ample opportunity to reflect on why it is so wonderful to work on a university campus.  Highlights from this week alone:

  • Last evening’s Take Back the Night March across campus, where scores of students and staff gathered in a march through campus to protest domestic and sexual violence, with live music (from our own Michelle Strout and hubby Eric), readings, and a candle ceremony.  I loved that more than 300 male students signed the pledge against sexual violence (though it begs the question “Who were the men who didn’t sign it?”) and the leadership shown by one of our fraternities around that initiative.  The womens’ teams were out in force and the Women’s Basketball Team really should go on the road with their version of “Lean On Me.”  The march was followed by late night breakfast served by staff and accompanied with services that ranged from massage to spray tans to hair cutting to Wii games (where Pat came from behind to beat me in the last frame of our Wii bowling match and earn weekend bragging rights).
  • The Inter-Greek Council awards dinner where Greek organizations and individual students were honored.  These six student organizations saw their membership grow 50% this year, contributed over 1000 hours of service, and hosted a wide range of campus activities. 
  • The Athletics Award Dinner in which we honored our student athletes and teams.  I came away so impressed with our students, not only for their sporting prowess, but for their collective academic performance (an average GPA higher than the student body in general), their graciousness, and their high spirited support for each other.  They reinforced my belief that Division II athletics continues to have the right balance of high competitiveness with healthy culture.
  • Visiting one of the Game Design classes and being wowed by the quality and complexity of the work, the studio approach of the course, and the passion and pride of the students.  If you want to see what engaged teaching and learning looks like, visit a Game Design class. 
  • Visiting an SNHU Advantage class in Nashua and chatting with the students, hearing the goals of the program (affordability, support and personal attention, and a pathway to continued education) reaffirmed, and being reminded that one of our ongoing strengths is the range of ways we reach out to students.
  • Attending a panel presentation in Walker Auditorium with four international journalists discussing the future of their profession.  There is much doom and gloom about the state of journalism today, but I came away more optimistic that while we are in a period of dramatic shifts and change in journalism, there are exciting new forms new possibilities emerging for the future of journalism, even if it looks quite different from what we have known (we are entering a similar period in higher education).

I wish I could attend all the events going on during this end-of-year period.  They reaffirm so much of what we do and what we are about. 

Indeed, there is an important shift underway at SNHU.  When I interviewed for my job here some seven years ago, members of the search committee expressed frustration that there was not a more robust cultural and intellectual atmosphere on campus.  The university is a very different place now.  Rick Cook has brought music to campus.  Debbie Disston has expanded the presence and celebration of the visual arts that started with Bob Craven.  Over 600 students participated in service learning this year and there are active student groups around social justice and the environment (thank you Sarah Jacobs and Eleanor Dunfey-Freiburger).  We now house the NH Writers Project, the World Affairs Council, and NH International Trade Association.  We routinely host visiting speakers and dignitaries (the Indian Ambassador just last week – -thank you Masood Sami).  Faculty members are leading the way with new programs: Game Design (Lundy Lewis and Harry Uman), Creative Writing (Diane Les Becquets and Bob Begiebing), Justice Studies (Pat Cullen) and those programs have brought wonderful visitors to campus (just last week we had Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis, an alum, visit with faculty and students).  The common book is now an accepted part of the freshman experience.  I’m making way through the latest issue of our journal, Amoskeag, and I think it’s never been better (I’ll post more when I finish it).  It adds up to a rich and robust campus culture and our two new buildings finally give us space in which to host these far ranging activities.

Perhaps referring to all of the changes we are making in our recruitment or marketing or program development strategies, someone apparently grumbled that we are “becoming like Kaplan or Phoenix”  (my bet is that it’s someone who never shows up at the events I just described).  I have to chuckle and scratch my head when I hear something like that in the context of the campus life I just described.  In so many ways, SNHU is becoming more of the traditional university those search committee members yearned for some years ago, but then I remind myself of the squirrel factor.  People can blurt out all kinds of unexamined notions and if they are wearing bath robes, it must be that time of year. 

One more final and happy note: the investments we are making in marketing and student recruitment, the new program offerings, and the superb work by the admissions staff and advisers (and a lot of other people from inquiry management through financial aid to faculty members at admissions events) are paying off.  We are seeing good recovery for this spring term and strong numbers for the fall.  Indeed, the deposited student pool has three times the number of students with 3.5 or higher GPAs than we had in our record 2008 year.  While there is still work to do to bring in an FY11 budget, I feel very optimistic about the year ahead.

Improved finances, a healthy and inspiring campus culture, and steady progress on our strategic plan?  Heck, I might grab my bathrobe and go out for a little tennis!

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