A President's Reflections

Around campus and beyond

Posted on April 4, 2011

I try to post to my blog about once a week or so, but it has been a busy period of time and I’ve struggled to get back here.  So here are a variety of updates and musings:

1.  We will make a more formal announcement, but I can reveal that our Commencement Speaker is Ambassador Jon Hunstman, Jr, the American Ambassador to China.  He will soon be stepping down from what is probably the single most important ambassadorship in the State Department and he is rumored presidential candidate in the Republican party.  Ambassador Huntsman is a remarkable person — he has enjoyed enormous business success, he is a philanthropist, speaks fluent Mandarin, and (dear to my heart) plays a good rock guitar.  In an age of dysfunctional leadership at the state level, he visits us as a former Governor of Utah, a state that was named Best Managed State by the Pew Center on the States when he was its governor (and where he raised teacher salaries, expanded kindergarten, expanded literacy programs, came out in support of civil unions in a conservative state, led efforts on cap and trade policies for carbon emissions, and worked on portable health care for workers). In an age of polemical and extreme politics, he is a Republican who has served a Democratic President.   Last year he was the Commencement Speaker at Penn and this year he joins us.

2. I mentioned being busy, but sadly much of that time has been spent in Concord working against the current proposals to cut state grant aid to students, eliminate the UNIQUE Scholarship fund, and eliminate the Post Secondary Education Committee.  I’ve described the issues in campus communications, so won’t review them here except to say that it is depressing to see the small minded and small hearted abandonment of the state’s neediest students, those for whom a college degree would be utterly transformative and could change the course of their family histories for generations to come.

3. I’ll instead share a story that touched my heart last week.  I had the opportunity to meet a prospective freshman, a young woman I will call Lisa for the sake of the storytelling and her anonymity.  Lisa came to visit me with one of her teachers.  A ward of the state, she survived a home with a drug addicted mother and an absent father.  She would take her little brother each evening and spend hours at a table in a nearby pizza place nursing a soft drink and bag of fries while they id homework, waiting until closing time in the hopes that her mother would be passed out when they slipped into the house.  Sometimes they’d simply stay out all night and then go straight to school.  She finally got herself and her brother out of that house and into transitional housing.  With relative normalcy restored, she got her GPA back to a 3.5.   She reminds me of the leading character in A Winter’s Bone, that remarkable movie about resiliency and strength.   She loves SNHU and her teacher and principal, alums of ours, rallied around her and reached out to me.  As you can imagine, she has no resources and when Financial Aid completed her package she was thousands of dollars short.  As we have in many other cases, we provided additional scholarship support.  Now the special part of the story: I shared with our trustees her moving and powerful essay (with her name removed)  and within 48 hours more than a dozen of them pledged $30,000 to help cover the cost of her education (and they were joined by some of the university’s management team, I should add).  Remarkable.

I wish the Governor and legislature could meet her.  Eleven thousand of New Hampshire’s neediest students, many with stories like Lisa’s, will lose scholarship aid if current proposals hold.

4. It was a busy weekend on campus.  On Saturday we had over 1,000 people at Accepted Student Open House, a record breaking, standing room only crowd.  One of our faculty members was at a conference last week and said he was chatting with a colleague in a Massachusetts institution who complained that they were losing more and more students to us.  He wrote: “I asked her if this was because we were a small, private university, and she said that it had something to do with our reputation.  She is finding that more and more of their demographic is choosing SNHU based upon our growing reputation.  She seemed quite annoyed by this!” 

On Saturday evening Pat and I attended the Men’s Soccer Banquet (since Iwill be away during the larger Athletic Awards Dinner).  Coach Marc Hubbard’s work with this team is nothing short of amazing.  He  came in and inherited a dysfunctional culture with a losing record and with most of the same players went onto win the NE-10 championship in one year and has continued those winning ways in the subsequent two years.  While there is much that goes into a winning recipe like this one, I think fundamentally it is about culture and values and I often use Marc and what he has done as an example of what happens when a leader can shift the culture of an organization. 

Yesterday was the Honors Induction Ceremony.  It should be an important event in the academic calendar (after all, these are arguably our very best students) and yet it feels like we haven’t got it quite right yet.  Patty Lynott agrees and will take some this year to rethink the event.  It needs to feel more special.  It needs more faculty presence and support.  Not sure what we ought to do, but it cries out for more.

5.  When we were trying to bring online programs into China I made a trip over there twice a year, but with a shift in that strategy (once I realized we weren’t getting traction; or put another less euphemistically way, realizing I got it wrong) and our rough 2009 budget, I have done little travel.  Also, I have started to say “no” to more external commitments in the last year as we focus on our aggressive growth plan, spending more of my time on internal operations (recent Concord events notwithstanding).   So it was with some enthusiasm that Iagreed last fall to attend the upcoming Higher Education Exposition in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.  We have well over 150 Saudi students studying with us and our friends at the Saudi Mission in DC thought it wise to go and maintain good relations.  I’ll fly over a week from this Friday,  attend the Exposition, visit universities in Jeddah and Riyadh, visit Ambassador Jim Smith and his wife Janet, and eat a year’s worth of dates.  However, given the amazing events of these last three months in what has been called the Arab Spring, my real eagerness has to do with being in the region and hearing how people think about the events so rapidly unfolding.  It is an amazing time in the Middle East.  Our daughter Emma is in Damascus right now and while our phone and email conversations are guarded, it is clear that our media reports are overly simplistic and paint the issues with a broad brush when there is endless complexity, nuance, and unknowns.

Now for items not related to campus events (i.e. stop reading if you find the personal and cultural stuff of this blog uninteresting):

6. In my march through the Sy Montgomery catalog, I just finished Journey of the Pink Dolphins, her account of these mysterious Amazonian river dolphins (called botos by the locals) and the myths that have developed around them.  As I think I’ve said before, Sy must be the most intrepid and fearless nature writer alive.  A charming little book for aviation nuts like myself is Alain de Botton’s A Week at the Airport.  Two good reasons for reading it: the style feels singularly British and erudite in ways not common to American writers, almost of another century and probably tiresome over hundreds of pages, but utterly charming in this little two hour read.  Also, de Botton has the writer’s great gift for taking the mundane and familiar and making it new again and occasionally full of wonder.  I love the open and closing scenes of the admittedly schlocky Love Actually and this book reminds me why.  Finally, I am just about done with Robert Reich’s After-Shock, his analysis of what really went wrong in the great economic meltdown (spoiler alert: wealth inequity and loss of buying power for average Americans).  I’m a big Reich fan and while the arguments are not much new, they are persuasively framed and I do think he is right that the role of the average person (as opposed to the nefarious role of Wall Street)  had less to do with being greedy in pursuit of mortgage’s they could not afford and more to do with trying to finance a lifestyle and material well being that the culture has led them to believe in and embrace (and the economy needs them to do) even though their earnings have been flat ever since the Reagan era.  Stay with the botos.

7.  Finally, today is our 25th anniversary.  In reality, we started dating 33 years ago so we celebrate that Fourth of July weekend as our real anniversary, but we were finally married in 1986.  I still remember that deciding conversation.  We sat at the table in the window of Theodore’s on Worthington Street in Springfield, MA, when the downtown was only sort of sketchy and Teddy’s (as it was known) had live bands three nights of three nights a week, cheap beer, and good burgers.  I was a young faculty member at Springfield College, Pat was practicing law, and we had a great little apartment downtown.  On a chilly late fall night we talked about whether or not we should get married.  We were quite happy living together, wanted for little (well, maybe a newer car that wouldn’t break down all the time), and had just begun to wonder if we might want kids.  So it all boiled down to one key question: if we got married would we laugh as much?  Our kids cringe and think that was the most unromantic notion of all time, but actually when I see relationships go wrong it always seems to me that they lose their joy, their laughter.  We often assume that the lack of laughter is a symptom, but I wonder if it isn’t more instrumental than that – -a cause more than an outcome.

Laughter is a deeply underrated quality.  My mother, who is 93 and has worked hard all her life, has a wonderful ability to laugh at herself and finds delight in others and I think this has contributed mightily to her longevity and to her positive outlook.   Humor is a powerful tool of resiliency.  Our family has a passion for travel and many times when something has gone wrong and Pat and/or I are starting to get grumpy about it, our kids have managed to find humor in the situation and before long we are all laughing and making the best of it.  Laughter, as Umberto Eco reminds us in the Name of the Rose, brings the mighty down to earth and elevates the lowly.  I think it makes us more tuned to the absurdities in life and more appreciative of how crazy human beings can be  — a version of the old “you gotta laugh or you’d cry” axiom that makes it tolerable to think that anyone, anyone, would consider Michele Bachman or Sarah Palin suitable for elected office (but some have and do!).  To laugh is not to skate over life’s difficulties.  It’s a way of making them more manageable (thus “gallows” humor) and for the positive things, it’s a way to more fully celebrate the joy they bring.

So about 26 years ago we sat and agreed that we would laugh no less if we were married and we’ve been mostly right.  Pat is still one of the wittiest, positive people I know.  Out of a dead sleep she can utter a line that makes me laugh aloud.   My favorite scene in La Cage aux Folles is when Georges joins the dejected Albin, his drag queen partner, and says he will go with him to Foissey, where they “bury the people in shit.”  “Why?” Albin asks, and Georges replies, “I’m with you because you make me laugh.  So you know what I’m going to do?  Leave everything behind and go with you to the shit at Foissey.  To laugh.”  I can’t think of a better anniversary line.

One thought on “Around campus and beyond

  1. Pat Paterson says:

    Congratulations on selecting and securing Jon Huntsman, Jr. as the 2011 Commencement Speaker. Speaking as a longtime resident of Utah, I can tell you that Ambassador Huntsman was one of the fairest and most visionary governors this state has seen in many, many years. While it was a great honor and a source of pride for Utahn’s to have our governor be named Ambassador to China, those of us on the more liberal side of a very conservative state were saddened to see Governor Huntsman leave. Many of the policies that he put in place have opened the eyes of the rest of the country from a tourism and business side to see the many great opportunities this unique state has to offer. Many here have speculated that Gov. Huntsman’s appointment to Ambassador of China was a bold strategic move to position him as a presidential candidate in the near future.

    Oh, and Happy Anniversary to you and Pat. Live, Laugh, Love!!!

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