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State of the University Address

President David Fithian ’87 delivered the following State of the University Address on Dec. 15, 2020.

One hundred years ago, on September 15, 1920, our undergraduate college and our research university were joined to form one great institution. Leadership at the time seized that pivotal moment to set Clark on an ambitious, bold march into the future. A century later, we find ourselves at a similar transformative juncture — a moment when we can harness our great strengths and, at the same time, challenge our own convention and welcome and embrace a world of new opportunity for Clark.

It is both a privilege and an honor for me to be able to share with you this, my first State of the University address. It was about this time last year when I learned of my selection as Clark’s 10th president. So, this occasion leads me to reflect not only on our institution as intended but also on a personal level. Like most of you, I had no idea a year ago that we would be facing a global pandemic in 2020 or that would it extend well into 2021. None of us knew the challenges we would face as individuals, or those that would confront our families and friends and the institutions we belong to, care for, and depend on. I hope you feel that Clark has been there for you — there is absolutely no question that you have been there for Clark. And I thank you for that.

As an alumnus, the opportunity I have been given to lead our great University and to do so working with all of you still amazes me. I’m grateful for it every day. And I’m determined to do all I can to lead us to greater strength. My only regret in these early days is that the pandemic has meant that we can’t connect in all the usual, traditional ways that help us get to know each other and deepen our sense of community. I had imagined and looked forward to receptions to open our fall semester, weekly dinners with small groups of faculty and staff at Harrington House, retreats with the leadership team, visits with students in the residence halls and the University Center, and holiday parties this month. Zoom has allowed us to do a lot this past year, but I think we would all agree it is a poor substitute for convening socially. So, I continue to look forward to the time when we can truly be together again.

In spite of these challenges, we have demonstrated that as a community we are strong, and resilient, and adaptable, and that we care. We care about who we are, what we do, and how we do it.

What we might call the “Clark spirit,” that is, our institutional ethos, values, identity, shared purpose, and sense of community, is strong, and so is our University.

The Clark Spirit

For most of our history, Clark has been the engine that could, doing well for itself and good for others, often with fewer resources than peer institutions. That spirit persists today. Clark has for years identified students of great promise and potential and we help them walk virtually any path of their own choosing. That spirit persists today. Clark also has made paramount our civic responsibilities. We see the way in which we are integrally woven into the fabric of the Main South community as a point of pride and obligation. That spirit persists today. There are many other aspects of Clark’s identity and, importantly, our culture that we must preserve and further cultivate as we summon new resolve to move Clark — as Clark — powerfully into this next decade.

What better evidence is there of our determination to succeed, and our ability to do better than most, than the successful semester just ended? Clark managed carefully and well through the pandemic when so many other colleges and universities could not. And Clark, with its enduring spirit, will manage through future challenges as well.

In a normal year, the challenges involved with operating a university are imposing. In 2020, they have been simply extraordinary.

Colleagues in all areas rose to meet each challenge of the pandemic in ways that ensured our educational mission would be fulfilled while also safeguarding the health and safety of our community. These efforts involved everything from rigorous maintenance, cleaning, and sanitizing of Clark’s classrooms and residence halls, to preparing and serving meals to our students, to developing safety protocols and organizing and managing an effective and efficient COVID-19 testing facility. Our front-line student support staff and facilities workers were instrumental in making all of this happen.

Our faculty worked tirelessly to reshape courses that accommodated students who were studying both in person and away from campus. In doing so, our professors displayed exceptional ingenuity and deep compassion to see their students through a stressful and unsettling time while still delivering a compelling educational experience through virtual channels and in rearranged physical spaces.

Among our staff, individual efforts rippled across the University. For instance, this summer, our ITS team, with Joanne Dolan on point, developed a six-week training course on distance-learning technologies that helped our faculty craft engaging online experiences for their students. I should note that ITS also oversaw the widespread introduction of Zoom to our campus. While we all may be feeling a little Zoomed-out these days, it has become the essential tool to keep us connected in our virtual space.

Our students also showed a remarkable ability to navigate the many disruptions posed by the pandemic, and answered calls to adapt and also to serve.

I think of what I’ve learned about pre-med seniors Ethan Lutz and Kendyll Smith who exhibited rare poise and selflessness while working as EMTs. Both placed themselves at risk to treat those in need. Ethan served in New York when the city was at the epicenter of the pandemic; Kendyll worked in the city of Fitchburg, and continues to do so. The experience gave them insight not only into the medical challenges that face many of us, but the societal and economic factors contributing to an imbalance in the quality of care afforded to our citizens.

There are hundreds more examples from across the University of Clarkies going above and beyond within our campus community and beyond our gates, including all that you have done to make the exceptional adjustment to working remotely, juggling everything from childcare, to technology, to staying productive and engaged. I wish I could mention every point of impact and everyone who has made such a tremendous difference. I thank all of you for your individual efforts and sacrifice, and for your spirit of collaboration. I also want to thank all of you for following the Clark commitment and working so hard to keep ourselves and each other healthy.

Finances

I want to turn, now, to University finances.

By all standard measures — our balance sheet, credit ratings, endowment performance, debt ratios, cash on hand — and the great success of Campaign Clark, we are in a strong position financially. However, the quite large additional costs we have taken on to mitigate the risks of the pandemic are placing considerable fiscal strain on the University’s operating budget this year. Our estimate of $11 million of increased costs for the 2020-21 academic year is proving so far to be accurate, as is our overall modeling of ordinary operating expenses. This includes $2 million for additional financial aid to help students and families hit hardest by the economic impact of the pandemic.

We are also facing lower tuition revenues, as students defer their enrollment or take time away from college during this crisis. For the fall term, tuition revenue (undergraduate and graduate combined) was down $3 million from budget and we estimate that number for the year will likely be $5.7 million.

At the same time, the market value of our endowment remains strong, at approximately $435 million as of October 31st. And gifts to The Clark Fund are ahead year-to-date by $85,000.

We therefore find ourselves with strong financial fundamentals overall. Yet we continue to have high demands on operating cash. This will likely remain the case for as long as we are navigating through a health crisis, which could extend beyond the spring semester of 2021 and well into or through the entire fall semester of 2021.

Clark has an exemplary track record of managing its finances and we will continue to do so. But it will be impossible for us to balance our budget this year, and we face ongoing uncertainty as we prepare our fiscal year 2022 budget. This is entirely tied to the COVID environment.

Of course, I cannot address our financial strength without acknowledging this year’s culmination and great success of Campaign Clark, the University’s most ambitious giving campaign ever. Through David Angel’s vision and the tireless and creative efforts of Jeff Gillooly and his Advancement team, Clark surpassed the original goal of $125 million to raise $156 million to support our educational mission. It’s an exceptional achievement that speaks to the generosity and commitment of Clarkies, and their love for this University. I view the campaign not as an endpoint but as a source of momentum for us to continue building the necessary resources to expand our reach and continue to grow in strength and vitality.

Academics and Research

Let me turn next to the core of what we do. Without question, our academics, research, and student experience are the heart of Clark. I am particularly inspired and amazed by our faculty’s commitment in the classroom and the scope of their research and creative endeavors. Our life as a research university features countless examples of intellectual daring that advance areas of thought and spark innovation.

Sometimes these efforts bring Clarkies together in unexpected ways. Again, there are endless examples I could share.

For instance, when Professor Stephen DiRado published the book, “With Dad,” a photographic journal of his late father’s long struggle with Alzheimer’s disease, his colleague Soren Sorenson made it the basis for a documentary. The film has gone on to earn a host of awards, but it premiered right here at Clark on February 27, when members of our community crowded into the Dana Commons Fishbowl to celebrate the artistic union of Steve’s stunning images with Soren’s filmmaking talents.

I was not yet at Clark when the screening took place, though I understand that tears were shed that night, something I can well imagine given my own late father’s struggle with Alzheimer’s, and there was also laughter, and lots of conversation. We’ll have those shared experiences again, and will continue — together — to recognize and celebrate the tremendous achievements of our professors, who remain a source of enduring pride to Clark University.

Let me share just a few of the many examples of important work by our faculty. I think of:

  • Taner Akçam being awarded the Medal of Courage in Paris for his groundbreaking work to uncover the truth behind the 1915 Armenian Genocide.
  • Mark Turnbull, whose students regularly publish their research in prestigious chemistry journals.
  • Karen Frey’s incursions into the Arctic, where she and her students sound the alarm on the impacts of disappearing sea ice.
  • Philip Bergmann’s evolutionary studies that recently earned prominent coverage in The New York Times.
  • Shelly Tenenbaum’s efforts to introduce prison inmates to the history of the Holocaust.
  • Nadia Ward’s work in evolving the Mosakowski Institute’s leadership in research and action in behavioral health for adolescents and young adults.
  • And Arshad Kudrolli’s federally-funded Rapid Response Research to help find ways to contain the spread of the COVID virus.

Our students this year have started businesses, like junior Lilah Feitner, who launched her own clothing line, and Kai Hammond, whose love of working with different metals has inspired him to set up a jewelry-making studio at home.

Fifth-year biology student Quincy Milton plans to combine his science acumen with his love of fly fishing to forge a career in fisheries management and environment consulting. Others have applied their skills to address pressing problems, like mathematics and computer science major Nipurna Dhakal, who assisted the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative in developing a simulator to visualize COVID-19 transmission rates.

And I’m energized by interdisciplinary learning, like the research pursuits of junior Ivana Lopez Nieves as part of her Steinbrecher Fellowship. Ivana is a biochemistry and molecular biology major who melded her science skills with her passion for dance to develop a study about the effectiveness of dance therapy to treat certain neurodegenerative diseases. Many of you have heard me express my interest in exploring whether and how undergraduate research can become a signature of a Clark undergraduate education and a point of distinction for the University. Ivana’s research project, and her reflections on what it meant to her, typify why this is something that excites me, and why I look forward to talking with you more about it as we get into our strategic planning.

I have also been incredibly impressed by our student-athletes, who channeled their disappointment over the cancellation of the fall and winter seasons into a reaffirmed commitment to their teammates and their sport. Because this pandemic is an unpredictable opponent, we are still waiting to see what the spring will hold for Athletics. But I have no doubt that whatever the fate of the spring season, our student-athletes will still find avenues to express their competitive drive in a way that honors themselves, their teammates and coaches, as well as Clark.

Despite the intrusion of COVID into our lives, Clark continues to build on our important partnerships with the city of Worcester, especially our Main South community. In fact, the pandemic has given us the opportunity to collaborate with the city’s administration and public health experts to share information and strategies about how we can collectively anticipate operational challenges.

We continue to explore creative ways in which we can be contributors to Worcester and good neighbors to our fellow Main South residents. For example, this past summer, our Department of Mathematics and Computer Science collaborated with our Hiatt Center for Urban Education to launch Project CODY. Clark students served as lead mentors to teach Worcester K-12 students basic computer programming skills that will help them thrive in a technology-driven world.

Our faculty and staff bring their expertise and optimism to the city. As director of the HOPE Coalition, Professor Laurie Ross establishes community partnerships that help reduce youth violence and substance abuse, and promote adolescent mental health. And within a short walk of Clark, students in Professor John Rogan’s classes have tended to the Hadwen Arboretum, one of the city’s great natural spaces.

Recruiting and Adapting

Another highlight of the year has been our strong performance in recruiting undergraduate students, despite serious downturns throughout higher education since the pandemic hit last spring. Last month, Inside Higher Education reported that the Common Application received 8 percent fewer applications compared to the same time last year, with applications from first-generation students down an alarming 16 percent year-over-year.

According to the data, colleges and universities in the Northeast were some of the hardest hit, experiencing the largest declines in application volume.

Here at Clark, we are bucking those trends. We just hit the halfway point in the recruitment cycle for our fall 2021 class and our overall numbers remain steady. Some key metrics are even trending upward, with first-year inquiries at their highest level in four years. We just finished our Early Action round up 21 percent in applications over last year, reaching an all-time high for Clark. And we are off to a good start on Regular admission, with a month left to go before the deadline. Many factors beyond our control could still negatively impact application activity. However, we remain cautiously optimistic that we will end the cycle strong.

What has made the difference for us is a combination of being incredibly nimble and responsive to the difficult climate, especially for families that are facing financial hardship; and being assertive and innovative in finding new ways to reach and engage prospects. Even during these socially distanced times, when most campus and high school visits are not possible, we are creating meaningful, personal connections.

Our spirit of nimbleness, adaptability, and perseverance has been equally present in our graduate recruitment and program management, where we have the added complexity of an extensive international footprint. The move to a flexible, multi-modality environment happened quickly and seamlessly, which is laudable. But it also became a transformational change in the way we interact with our international students. Rather than expecting them to come to us, we took programs to them.

In a short six-week period, our Graduate Pathway Program and American Language and Culture Institute created an on-site, in-person offering for our students in Shanghai to keep them on track for meeting their educational goals. Located at the prestigious East China Normal University, the graduate pathway curriculum is the same as is taught here in Worcester, with the added benefit of advanced English courses. Students literally half a world away have not only been exposed to engaging coursework with Clark instructors, but have been able to connect and interact with Clark faculty and staff, other Clark students, and alumni who work and live in Shanghai.

This spring, when the pandemic went global and the Peace Corps abruptly evacuated all of its volunteers worldwide, Ed Carr and his colleagues at IDCE turned a time of uncertainty and disappointment into opportunity for returning volunteers.

On a Monday morning in March, Peace Corps volunteer Libby Glabe set off as usual to teach high school biology and chemistry at the Yengema Secondary School in the Kono District of Sierra Leone. Later in the day, she was notified that she would have to leave her post immediately — 18 months earlier than she had expected. Within 24 hours, she had started her journey home to Sister Bay, Wisconsin, with no idea what would come next. The economy here was imploding and pathways forward were evaporating.

Through a tireless outreach effort by IDCE, Libby learned about our strong programs and accommodations for this cohort of returning volunteers, including a streamlined application process, enhanced financial aid, and flexibility built into the academic calendar. By the end of April, Libby had been accepted as a new master’s student in International Development.

With ingenuity, compassion, energy, and speed, Clark opened a door of opportunity when so many doors were closing.

That is the Clark spirit.

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

I would like, now, to turn to one of our most significant institutional imperatives: becoming a more diverse, inclusive, and equitable institution.

On June 18, as president-elect, I joined the entire University leadership in decrying the painful and shameful reality of racism and structural inequities, including within our own Clark community. Together, we expressed our determination to counteract those ugly truths and actively promote justice and equality at Clark. We unequivocally committed to moving Clark far closer to living up to the values we espouse — the values of mutual respect and inclusion, of being a place where everyone feels welcome and everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed. We promised delivery of a concrete action plan within 30 days to advance the goals of equity, inclusion, and diversity at Clark. And we promised to hold ourselves accountable for making progress.

On July 17, I reported back to you all with a summary of actions and programmatic initiatives we began immediately, encompassing efforts in a number of key areas: undergraduate and graduate admissions, curriculum, cultural competency and anti-racism training, bias reporting, student life space, mental health, athletics, policing and campus safety, and business diversity. We knew the work would take many forms, involve all members of the Clark community, and require substantial additional investment. We also know that it is work without end. Our intention, always, has been to continually build upon this plan with further action and new ideas.

I am pleased to share today that we are, indeed, making demonstrable progress against the course we set over the summer. For example:

  • We have created, filled, or are in the process of filling new positions specifically responsible for better supporting and recruiting marginalized students and students of color.
  • Under the leadership of Jie Park and her colleagues at the Center for Gender, Race, and Area Studies, we are actively working to better understand how we teach, what we teach, the culture it creates in our classrooms, and the steps we can take to make the overall academic experience more engaging, more inclusive, and more relevant for our BIPOC students.
  • We have a new Chief of Police, Lauren Misale, who already has started to evaluate and recast as needed the overall relationship between CUPD and all it serves. Through the appointment of a task force, we are exploring new methods of providing and enhancing campus safety and security.
  • Anti-racism training is being conducted with academic, administrative, staff and student leadership over the course of this year.
  • We have engaged the University’s first-ever ombudsperson to provide confidential, independent, and neutral support to help faculty and staff navigate difficult workplace issues.
  • We have invited Staff Assembly and Faculty representatives to be a part of university-wide committees, including the policing task force, the University Diversity Action Council, and others, to ensure we are addressing the concerns of all members of our community.

I mention this sampling of the efforts underway not as end points, since we know we still have much work yet to do. I mention them to illustrate how seriously we are taking the commitments we’ve made and identifying additional needs to address. To further catalyze our DEI activities, I have dedicated $1 million for investment in the key areas of our DEI action plan. This must, and will, continue to be a very high priority and a fundamental aspect of our strategic framework going forward.

Setting Sites on the Future

So, where do we go from here?

We have a strong foundation to build upon and there is so much potential for the future. But to realize all of that potential, we are going to have to think more strategically, act more deliberately, be bolder in setting a vision, and be willing to take risks to fulfill it.

For many years, Clark has delivered impressive accomplishments on limited resources. I know the commitment and sacrifice many of you have made to do more with less. It’s an admirable and selfless legacy.

However, it’s not sustainable.

The more we say “We can’t do that,” the more it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, to the point where “We can’t do that” becomes “We won’t do that.” Clark has reached a critical juncture where our culture of austerity must give way to a culture of possibility.

My interest in accepting the position as president of Clark University was not just to keep the trains running, as they say. I want us to be laying new tracks to new ends that will lead to transformative change. I want us always to be asking, “How can we do better?”

Some of this depends upon greater investment. Some of it depends upon greater ingenuity and innovation, resisting the temptation to simply do things the way they’ve always been done. Across the board, it depends upon becoming more comfortable with risk, especially financial risk, and to be far more aspirational, even courageous in our thinking. But none of this ought to be regarded as reckless or to be understood as taking hold overnight.

How, you may be asking, do we move toward a culture of possibility when resources continue to be strained?

Honestly, it will not be easy. I cannot say to you today that we suddenly have exponentially more funds to expend. In fact, the funds we have are limited and the near-term is wrought with financial unpredictability. The COVID-19 pandemic has become existential for some higher education institutions. The economy is softer than stock market returns would lead you to believe. Many people, many businesses, and many communities are hurting right now. So, we must and will continue to be good stewards of our resources. That is absolutely essential. But, going forward, as we emerge from this national struggle, being good stewards doesn’t mean we have to nickel and dime ourselves into a state of inaction. Nor does it mean that we have to accept that things cannot change.

Things can change if we focus now on what is possible.

So, we are going to have to travel on parallel paths — continuing to manage through the day-to-day crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic while, at the same time, preparing for what comes after. We must focus not only on bouncing back from this crisis, but coming through it even stronger. And being ready to begin a new era of growth. Even during these extremely challenging times, if we set a bold new path for Clark, by virtue of its ambition alone, that path will help attract the additional resources we need to pave it. I am confident of that and I am absolutely convinced that our ability to make further investment begins with a palpable, invigorated, collective belief today in what is possible tomorrow.

Strategic Planning

To lay claim to what is possible and set a course for achieving it, we are embarking on a comprehensive strategic planning process that will kick off in earnest just after the New Year. This process builds upon important work that our academic units completed between the fall of 2019 and the summer of 2020 to develop a 135-page roadmap for strengthening our academic and research enterprises. I want to acknowledge and thank Dean of the Faculty Esther Jones for her stewardship of this work

The strategic planning process necessarily will begin by asking ourselves a series of mission-critical questions, including:

  • How do we envision the Clark University of five, or ten, or twenty years from now?
  • How can we better prepare students to live and work in a rapidly changing world?
  • How can we better support faculty research and creative work with the potential for positive impact on the most critical local and global problems?
  • What do we need to change, about ourselves, our programs, our infrastructure, and what do we need to do differently to achieve what is possible?

To be able to answer those and other important questions, we first must take stock of where we are now and how we got here. This begins with listening, digesting historical research, and gathering data, lots of it. For example, we need to acquire a much deeper comprehension of Clark’s standing in our ever-changing competitive higher education landscape. We need to better understand what truly makes us distinctive, and how we can draw that distinction out even more in efforts to recruit the best possible students to Clark. These are students who can make the most of our rigorous academic programs, research opportunities, and disposition to social change, but who we lose today to other institutions simply because those institutions are better known or better appreciated. Frankly, we are obligated to become more consumer-oriented, because that’s what is driving student decision-making.

In this regard, I must mention the importance of rankings. Rankings may just be a snapshot and we can reasonably debate their value and their role in higher education. But, the truth of the matter is that rankings do reflect key metrics and key expectations of a prestigious institution like ours. Falling from 68 to 103 over the past two years in the U.S. News & World Report rankings is a serious problem for us. This precipitous decline could well continue for another year or two, even if we immediately begin to address some of the indicators being measured. To remain competitive, not only to defend our place in the higher education competitive landscape, but to strengthen it, we cannot delay. We ignore these rankings at our peril.

In fact, taking action to reverse the trend in our ranking won’t only change the numbers. It will fortify our University, overall. Understanding the reasons for our decline, coming up with tangible solutions, and embarking on a course of improvement all will be part of our strategic planning process.

Now, I can imagine that some of you are anxious about the strategic planning process I introduced earlier this fall and the intentional change it will bring about.

That is natural. Though Clark will have to change to remain the vibrant, competitive, thriving place we all know we can be, that does not mean we are going to give up our core sense of who we are and how we fulfill our mission. Quite the opposite. This process is about discovering and better channeling all that is so special about this institution we love. Maintaining the Clark spirit is at the heart of our next chapter.

You can learn more about the timeline and process for development of our strategic framework at future.clarku.edu. Tomorrow, you will receive an invitation to a first visioning session that we will offer to all faculty and staff twice during the week after the holiday break. The goal of this session is to begin to ignite inspiration and to demonstrate how we all can be part of the process. I hope you are able to attend.

As is true of most of what we do here at Clark, the success of our strategic planning process will depend upon collaboration and collegiality, across departments and functions, bridging the academic and administrative sides of the University. There is no predetermined destination. We are going to chart that course together.

To provide some context, I have identified five areas of strategic focus that will fuel development of our strategic framework.

  • First, academic programs and research, which involves fostering academic excellence by building on traditional strengths and innovating new ones.
  • Second, culture and identity, which involves ensuring we live up to our values as an inclusive and equitable institution and nurturing a new, emboldened culture of possibility. 
  • Third, campus environment, which involves enhancing our physical plant to inspire and enable the best work of faculty, students, and staff.
  • Fourth, outward engagement, which involves deepening ties and impact — from right here in our Main South community to around the world — and amplifying our voice.
  • And, finally, institutional capacity, which involves recruiting, retaining, and cultivating talent, and deepening resources to catalyze momentum.

Underpinning all of these areas of opportunity is a constant, permeating focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion.

While each area is an important stand-alone priority, they are interanimating and interwoven as well. We cannot simply take one on while ignoring the rest. We need to make progress on all of these fronts to move forward boldly and purposefully.

A Bright Future

In closing, let me return to where I began, with the decision 100 years ago to unite the liberal arts and research enterprises into a single Clark University and bolster the pursuit of truth, knowledge, and, yes, greatness in all aspects of our mission: including teaching, research, and impact. A century may have altered some of the details, but the core, the excitement, and the power of that pursuit is undiminished.

I ask each of you to join me in seeing all that is possible and harnessing our formidable Clark spirit to realize all our potential.

Let’s seize this moment.