Reflections on Receiving the Theodore M. Hesburgh Award
Posted on March 21, 2018
I recently received the TIAA Institute’s Theodore M. Hesburgh Award for Leadership Excellence in Higher Education (phew, that’s a mouthful), named for the storied president of Notre Dame, Father Ted Hesburgh. In front of a packed ballroom of some 2,000 colleagues from across higher education, I accepted the award (here’s the video) and as I’ve told friends afterwards, it was far more emotional than I expected.
In the days since, I have been reflecting on why that was so. I mean, I was already some combination of flattered, proud, humbled, and nagged by some bit of “imposter syndrome.” Previous winners are leaders in higher education for whom I have great respect, bordering on near reverence in some cases, presidents like Gail Mellow, Patricia Maguire, John Sexton, Scott Cowan, Eduardo Padrón, Brit Kirwan, and Freeman Hrabowski. So, of course, I was moved and I am incredibly honored to be included in their company.
However, I think there were three other factors at play in my response.
First, I was struck by how far we have come as an institution. I can probably tell the story of that journey better than most and I can reel off the numbers – from 2,500 students to over 100,000; from a $50m organization on our way to $750m; from unknown to #1 for innovation in national rankings – but it had more to do with what people were saying about us. When we came into the ballroom there was a slide show highlighting our growth, our work with refugees and our recent DACA initiative, our innovations around competency-based education and more. I am usually so focused on the work currently in front of us and the things we want to do in the future that I rarely stop to look back and consider the ground we have traveled.
However, as I nervously prepared to go on stage, I watched those slides and the fifteen years of work seemed to come together as one and while I was the person getting the award, I was filled with gratitude to those who have been part of this success story, without whom there would be no story. People like Marty Bradley, Steve Painchaud, and Bob Seidman, the trio that created our three-year degree program. There was George Commenator and Steve Harvey, who grew our international program. Early supporters like Addie Walker (pause and see her picture next time you enter Walker Auditorium) and more recent donors like Ed Wolak, Rob Freese, and Ed Shapiro. People like Steve Hodownes, Johnson Au-Yeung, and David Eby helped lead the team that really grew our online division, Kris Clerkin and Kate Kazin brought College for America to life. Some have passed away, others left to pursue other opportunities, and many who were part of that journey are still with me. People like Patty Lynott, Amelia Manning, Scott Durand, Heather Lorenz, Yvonne Simon, and Don Brezinski. There are many others, but listing everyone would make this already long blog post, far too long. All of these people and their teams all played important roles and have a piece of the award I accepted on stage.
Sports analogies are tiresome, I know, and few people outside of New England want to hear a Patriots analogy, but whenever Bill Belichick gets excessive praise after a big win, he reminds people that he is the coach, but players play the game. Wins come because of their work, talent, sacrifices, and execution. I have been lucky, I am lucky, to have an amazing team. I found myself wishing they were all there with me, as well as my Board, as well as the students I have come to know and love over my years at SNHU. I was once asked to name my heroes and the first person I named was Ashley Speicher. Some readers will remember this amazing student, wheelchair bound with deteriorating health and a clock that was winding down far too quickly. She ate up everything SNHU had to offer, was indomitable and tough, and went through every day with a smile — right up to her last day. We have other students like Ashley Speicher today and they are an inspiration. I recently met another student named Ashley in Los Angeles, a DACA student overcoming hardships and then overcome with gratitude when I told her Rob Freese, one of our Trustees, was making it possible for her to come to NH and finish her last two years on campus. They and many others were on my mind before going on stage.
Secondly, there was something deeply gratifying about our being recognized for the work we do and the students we serve. I often call us “Underdog University,” a place that serves those “for whom college is not a guarantee,” and I have a deep conviction that education is not just an instrument of social mobility, but also of social justice. Our students are veterans, single parents, refugees, immigrants, people juggling full-time jobs and kids and their education, undergrads who have to work on the weekends, and lots of first generation college students. No one is handing it to them and they would never be accepted into the elite institutions that we most often celebrate in America. In some ways, we are like them, scrappy and inventive and focused on just one thing: their success.
However, that work for which we are so passionate does not often carry status with it, and is not often recognized. Indeed, we occasionally hear reports of college leaders disparaging what we do. On this day, however, it felt like our colleagues were standing and applauding and recognizing SNHU for its good work. That was pretty powerful.
Finally, on a more personal level, I found myself thinking about my parents and my siblings, about our immigrating to the US so many years ago, about a teacher that said to my mother (words she never forgot) “You know, Paul could go to college someday,” when we did not know a single person in our family or neighborhood who had ever gone to college. College was for the kids of the wealthy families whose homes my mother cleaned. Higher education changed the whole trajectory of my life and made possible for my girls lives their grandparents could scarcely imagine. I talked about this in my remarks, my American Dream story, and the ways it is slipping away from too many people. My sister later emailed:
I went on YouTube and saw your award presentation and also the speech. I am so happy for you. It also made me cry, mom and dad would be so proud.
I think that was a big part of my emotional reaction to the day. In Hillbilly Elegy, the much-read memoir, the author escapes the bounds of his poverty (and the poverty of aspiration that is often worse than financial need) because one person, his grandmother, believed he could. My parents similarly believed I could do better and I started believing them at some point.
In a conversation this week with a researcher, he explained to me that hope requires two things: persistence or grit (the belief than you can overcome) and pathways (a sense of how you can make it). I would add love, or at least add, that version of it in which someone believes in us, hopes for us, more than we might deserve or have earned. That’s what SNHU does: we believe in our students, we hope for them, and we innovate pathways so everyone has some chance at that degree that can help them transform their lives. In other words, we are in the business of hope.
In a world of learning science and ed tech and workplace alignment, I feel like a hopeless romantic here, but I think I often learned best, worked hardest, for teachers I loved and who had high expectations of me. They had expectations because they believed in me. I wanted their approbation. I wanted them to feel their belief was justified. In some ways, the award was approbation. It was for Pat and my girls, for my parents, for my colleagues, for my students, and for that 6th grade teacher who once said to my mother that I might go to college someday. For him, wherever he is, and all the others I wanted to say, “I did okay, didn’t I? We’re doing okay, aren’t we?”
If you read the program booklet from the award ceremony, I like to think the answer is yes.
If you stayed with me through this extra-long blog post, I am grateful. The act of writing has helped me sort out the jumble of emotions I felt this past week. I often say I write to know what I think. In this case, I wrote to know what I felt, or at least to sort it out.
Father Hesburgh once wrote:
“Our moral blindness has given us a divided America and ugly America complete with black ghettos…We allow children to grow up in city jungles, to attend disgraceful schools, to be surrounded with every kind of physical and moral ugliness, and then we are surprised if they are low in aspiration and accomplishment.”
America remains divided – maybe never more so – and too many children are being left behind still. Institutional racism and a yawning class divide pervade our society. A US Senator said to me somewhat wistfully, “I wish I was serving in a different time when we could get good things done for people.” I get it. But these are the times when we are called upon. America and the world need a higher education up to the task, designed for the times in which we live, and giving people hope and the tools to act upon it. So enough looking back. We have work to do and students to serve.