Thank you for joining me, and thank you for all you do for Clark.
I start today’s address with heartfelt appreciation for each and every one of you — because what I am able to say about the state of our University is attributable to the work we have done together.
While we may have different job descriptions and specific responsibilities, each of us is ultimately working to provide the most engaging, relevant, and rigorous education for our students. We are working to further knowledge and deepen understanding through research and scholarship. We are working to be a good institutional partner to our neighborhood, our city, and to one another as a campus community. And, yes, we are working to first imagine and then to help Clark achieve an ambitious set of possibilities that strengthen our institution and lead us to even greater distinction, impact, and pride.
Being ambitious as an institution is not new to Clark. In fact, our University was born of ambition when Jonas Gilman Clark was spurred — almost certainly in part by competitive spirit — to found a university here in Worcester just two years after his friend and fellow businessman Leland Stanford founded one in Palo Alto, California. To achieve his ambition and to make Clark University stand apart, Jonas Clark put up an exceedingly large amount of money and recruited as Clark’s first president the first American to receive a Ph.D. in psychology. We know that in the years that followed, G. Stanley Hall and Jonas Clark did not agree on every aspect of what our University should be, but each in his own way had aspirations for greatness.
Elements of the nature of our founding, along with lessons learned from both the opportunities and challenges of our institution’s formative years, persist today in our values, culture, and identity. Things like intellectual nimbleness, creative audacity, grit, unconventional thinking, compassion for others, an eagerness to defy expectations, and even the ability to overcome adversity are fundamental to who we are and what we believe in.
I often hear people refer to Clark as the engine that could, as punching above its weight class, or as a hidden gem. Is it not time to more fully come into our own and seize our place in the spotlight? More specifically: How do we draw on the best of Clark University’s extraordinary history now, well into our second century, to chart a course toward our brightest possible future? That is the question in front of us.
Welcome to the 2021 State of the University Address.
I’ve organized my remarks today into four sections. I want to begin with strategic planning, and then will share with you some details about the strategic framework we have developed. I will then share some highlights of the past year and touch on some key accomplishments. Finally, before I conclude, I want to briefly address University finances.
So let’s begin.
Last year, in my first State of the University address, I challenged us all to embrace a culture of possibility. I did so not only to counteract what I found to be a broadly shared mindset of limitation and acceptance of what is, but also to ignite some sense of excitement about what could be. What might it mean, I wondered, to chart a forward course for Clark — connecting dots along a path of heightened aspiration that we pursue vigorously because all that precedes this moment enables us to be bold if we so choose. Let me repeat that: What might it mean to chart a forward course for Clark, connecting dots along a path of heightened aspiration that we pursue vigorously because all that precedes this moment enables us to be bold if we so choose.
This exercise of imagining more for our institution, I believe, is the first critical step in the process of actually achieving more. But I know some of you have been skeptical and may remain wary. You need to see greater resources flowing before you allow yourselves to dream — and that’s understandable. But the two are directly related. Our very success in attracting additional resources is tied to some degree by the ambition and impact of what we propose to do and what we are getting done. We are engaged, then, in a generative and catalytic process — one that will take time and therefore require patience but one which has already shown signs of bearing fruit.
There may also be some skepticism about talk of bold plans at a time when there is so much uncertainty about so many aspects of our daily lives. This, too, is understandable. While we worry about what will happen with COVID, with the economy, with politics in our nation, and with higher education, among other issues, we may ask ourselves: Is this really the moment to act? I say “yes.” In fact, these circumstances demand that we take an active role in making choices about our institution’s future rather than waiting to see where things come out on their own.
Actively planning for our next three, five, 10 years is what we’ve been doing for over a year now and so many of you have engaged in various forms of this work with great energy, optimism, and collegiality. Thank you for that, and thank you for all your ideas, insights, and encouragement. I am so grateful for and proud of what we’ve accomplished so far with respect to planning.
Under the leadership of Vice President for Planning and Strategic Initiatives David Chearo and a Strategic Framework Steering Committee that has broad representation across faculty and staff, our entire community has been engaged in this planning process. Forms of engagement have included:
- Faculty- and staff-wide ideation and brainstorming sessions;
- Town halls;
- Open forums;
- Small group working sessions;
- Faculty committees;
- Programs developed by student planning and strategy ambassadors;
- An all-faculty retreat; and
- Special sessions of our Board of Trustees.
The focus of all these sessions has been to build a strategic framework, so let me start by explaining what that actually is.
The strategic framework is a set of five interrelated elements that combine to form a system to situate and contextualize our plans. The five elements of the framework are:
Our mission, which we pursue according to our institutional values. This is essentially the core of what we do, why we do it, and the cultural ethos we bring to our work.
Overarching goals that we believe must be achieved to advance Clark.
Core strategies to achieve those goals most effectively.
And, priority areas of focus and initiatives.
Let’s go into a bit more detail. As a reminder, you always can learn more at our planning website: future.clarku.edu.
Again, we start with the Mission Statement of Clark University, which we have not altered in any way as part of this process. We have instead accepted the mission as written, although at some point we may wish to review it.
Next, we have articulated five overarching goals to ensure we fulfill that mission.
- First, foster excellence by leveraging traditional strengths, encouraging innovation, and creating synergy across academic departments, centers, and programs.
- Second, ensure an inclusive and equitable environment that supports our diverse community and allows everyone to thrive and that makes Clark a more welcoming place, especially those who have been excluded historically.
- Third, promote a sense of shared community and vibrant campus life for students, faculty, and staff. This will require us to improve Clark’s facilities, grounds, and campus operations to inspire and enable opportunities to thrive, individually and as an institution.
- Fourth, amplify Clark’s distinctive story, by exercising convening power; bringing renewed focus to our international efforts; deepening ties to the Main South community and Worcester; and creating additional opportunities for lifelong learning.
- Fifth, do more with more. We need to recruit, retain, and cultivate talent; attract and drive resources toward impact; build strength through strategic partnerships; and catalyze momentum.
To achieve these goals, we have articulated two core strategies: one academic and the other foundational. Think of a strategy as the big-picture ways in which we will ensure that our goals are met most effectively.
- Our academic strategy is to promote Clark as a destination university that provides a transformative liberal arts education and pursues research to address real-world problems. Here, we build on Clark’s distinctive model of a small research university combined with a liberal arts college.
- Our foundational strategy is to support and promote excellence across our entire University and prepare it to better meet the needs of students, faculty, and staff in the coming decades.
Each strategy is further refined by specific areas of focus that not only help us achieve our goals in a strategic way, but directly contribute to how we fulfill our mission and advance our institution.
Under our academic strategy, our areas of focus are:
- Climate and global change: arguably the most critical threat we face today.
- Creative arts, media, design, and technology: several of the world’s most rapidly evolving and growing fields.
- Science and health: from basic science to drug discovery and biomedicine.
- Social and urban issues: partnering with local communities to better understand and solve enduring challenges impacting urban life.
Under our foundational strategy, our areas of focus are:
- Promoting student success at all levels and beyond Clark by, for example, further developing career path programs, strengthening undergraduate pre-major advising, and enhancing student financial aid.
- Building on and celebrating distinctive elements of our culture and identity, and fostering achievement and possibility for all our students, faculty, and staff.
- Enhancing the physical environment of our campus through improvements in buildings and grounds.
- Increasing our environmental sustainability, including a new comprehensive campus sustainability plan.
- Amplifying excellence through additional financial resources and opportunities that multiply our impact across all areas, including investments in IT, enrollment, and grant-seeking capacity.
Finally, initiatives that will drive action and progress within each area of focus. Early in the spring semester, we will be sharing a first set of initiatives. This will be an important starting point. The process of identifying, assessing, and implementing initiatives will be ongoing.
So, think of the strategic framework as the structure that will guide our collective efforts for many years to come. It is intended to be fluid and easily adaptable to changing circumstances or evolving conditions, while still providing critical direction and informing priorities for achieving our goals as a University. It is also flexible enough to accommodate changes over time, and to allow for new initiatives in the future.
Our objective is clear: to reinvest in our people, our programs, and our physical plant, and to do so at an accelerated pace that can be sustained over time. We do not have the capacity —financial or otherwise — to do everything at once. But through an intentional approach that prioritizes investments and effort and that continues to stimulate imagination and innovation we can generate the resources we need to achieve our strategic goals.
In reviewing the details, you may find the strategic framework daunting. It is ambitious. It does challenge our own institutional convention, and it will require tremendous effort by us all. But, it also is achievable because it harnesses all of our current strengths and distinctive character. This effort is not about transforming Clark into something new. Quite the opposite. It is about preserving and promoting all that makes Clark so special and channeling it in new and even more impactful ways.
In fact, our strategic framework is a recommitment to what we know and love about our University.
As we have been planning throughout the year, we also have been moving forward with major new initiatives — all consistent with the goals of the strategic framework, and all laying the groundwork for future action.
One example is our decision last spring to move quickly and with determination to establish the Becker School of Design & Technology at Clark as of July 1. The idea of bringing internationally ranked game design and MFA programs — and an Esports team! — to Clark may for some seem as counterintuitive as anything the University has done in decades. But the closing of Becker College supplied us a rare opportunity to merge the very best Clark has to offer with a cutting-edge curriculum that compels us to engage with the world in innovative ways. It can take years to accomplish this kind of transformation, but we did so together in just two months because we were open to the possibility, saw the potential, and said, “Let’s go.”
Similarly, the purchase of seven acres of land, just a few blocks from the center of campus, has opened up a world of potential. For more than a decade, that parcel sat idle. Now, because we seized that opportunity, we have a tremendous new asset that greatly expands possibilities around campus design, facilities, and our student experience, as well as engagement with our neighboring community. Our willingness to see, and to believe in, what is possible has now positioned us to advance in ways we couldn’t have imagined even a year ago.
Seizing the moment to pursue a financing initiative that infused the University with $100 million in new capital is another example of the tremendous momentum underway. Thanks to the very hard work by Executive Vice President Danielle Manning, Budget Director Paul Wykes, and Controller Anne Randall, we now can proceed with our plans for much-needed capital improvements and pursue other initiatives within our strategic framework that simply would not have been possible before. Yes, it involved taking some risk, but instead of shying away we figured out how to manage that risk, use it to our advantage, and create opportunity.
I am tremendously excited about our plans for a new, innovative, interdisciplinary academic building that will not only house media arts, computer science, and the Becker School of Design & Technology but also offer the entire Clark community exciting opportunities for pedagogical and research collaboration and innovation. I’m also energized by the work already underway to improve existing facilities and enhance the campus experience at Clark, including renovations at Michelson Theater, Goddard Library, and the front entrance along Main Street. The Campus Design Initiative — based on input from students, faculty, and staff — will bring forward recommendations for a campus that is more inviting, more accessible, and more supportive of the student-centered experience we aim to provide at Clark. All of this is a sign of forward movement. And all of it speaks directly to the goals articulated in our strategic framework.
When, in October, Provost Royo and I announced the creation of a $300,000 faculty innovation fund to promote research and interdisciplinary collaboration, neither of us knew what to expect. The response was outstanding. Sixty-eight submissions were received — all of them interesting, creative, innovative, and outcomes-oriented. I am sure it was difficult for the review committee to select the proposals to fund. The projects, announced just yesterday by Provost Royo, will jump-start some of our aspirations for excellence and move us closer to realizing our strategic goals.
So, yes, this has been a year of great progress. A year of seizing what is possible and making it real. These initiatives are just some of the more visible signs of the momentum underway.
Let me now turn to the third part of my address. This has been a year of great accomplishments by our students, faculty, and staff. It is such a privilege for me to witness what you achieve every day.
Our academic community continues to thrive at the forefront of the urgent issues of our time. Take climate change: In February, when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change releases its eagerly awaited Sixth Assessment Report, its key authors will include Ed Carr, director of IDCE, and Elisabeth Gilmore, associate professor of environmental science and policy. And geography professor Abby Frazier has been selected to lead the U.S.-affiliated Pacific Islands chapter of the Fifth National Climate Assessment, a congressionally mandated report that assists the nation in understanding, assessing, predicting, and responding to the human-induced and natural processes of global climate change.
This past summer, a group of students in the Graduate School of Geography’s HERO Program took to the streets of Worcester’s hottest neighborhood — a so-called “heat island” — to monitor air and surface temperatures and ozone concentration. Their study will help the city prioritize sites for tree plantings and other green solutions to mitigate the effects of intense solar exposure for Worcester residents simmering in a landscape of unshaded brick and asphalt.
As much as we wish it wasn’t so, COVID-19 continues to cast a long shadow over everything we do. Some at Clark, however, have turned that into an opportunity to examine how we respond to a pandemic through the lens of our mental and physical health. I’m fascinated by the work of Professor Shuo Niu and his student research team into people’s reliance on YouTube as a remedy to curb their loneliness during lockdown. It was also satisfying to follow the story of Anton Deti, a Clark senior who grew up in the Main South neighborhood, as he’s worked in Arshad Kudrolli’s lab to develop protections against COVID transmission.
One of the great joys of this job is to be exposed to the work of our world-class faculty who never fail to inspire us to think differently and critically:
- Kristina Wilson’s insightful essay in The New York Times revealed the overlooked legacy of the African American designer and craftsman Addison Bates.
- The Economic Geography journal, edited by Jim Murphy, ranks an incredible second in citations globally out of 85 journals in geography and 377 journals in economics.
- Abbie Goldberg’s intensive scholarship is consistently referenced across academia and in the media as it challenges us to reconsider our assumptions about LGBTQ families and couples.
- Parminder Bhachu’s book “Movers and Makers” celebrates migrants who harness lessons gleaned from lives of movement and change to creatively disrupt the worlds of tech and art.
- In screen studies, Hugh Manon, Rox Samer, and Soren Sorensen have created a podcast to cultivate dynamic dialogues about cinema among their students.
- The Mosakowski Institute for Public Enterprise opened a state-of-the-art Sensory Immersion Room at the Solnit Children’s Center in Connecticut as a major step forward in responding to behavioral episodes in schools and other youth-serving facilities.
- And Edouard Wemy in economics masterfully interpreted the policies of the Federal Reserve for a mass audience in a widely read article in the news outlet The Conversation.
Just a few weeks ago I had the good fortune of hosting the Steinbrecher Fellows at Harrington House. The fellowship program, which is generously supported by Stephen Steinbrecher, Class of 1955, gives students the opportunity to conduct independent research. This year’s fellows embarked on an impressive array of projects, sparked by individual passions, that were researched and presented with confidence. They reminded me of something Congressman Jim McGovern told our graduating seniors at our May Commencement: “When historians write the story of this century,” he said, “you’ll give them something to write about.”
I’ve never doubted it.
I can only imagine the future contributions of students like Garren Kalter, who has developed a comprehensive plan to transform public transit in Worcester; Dillon Prus, who helped reunite a Belgian university with a 17th-century manuscript that was believed lost forever during World War I and was discovered in Clark’s archives; and Margarita Perez-Maza, who with fellow student entrepreneurs launched a food truck business that merges sound business principles with community engagement in our Main South neighborhood.
Across campus, our students, including those on Student Council and in the Black Student Union, rightfully insist that we work toward a Clark that is just and equitable for all who study, live, and work here. Their work and leadership make a tremendous difference for so many — one example being the food pantry, which they envisioned and continue to make possible. Their stories of life here remind us of our responsibility to foster a culture of inclusion and mutual respect, and inspire us to continue to pursue actions that result in a better, more welcoming Clark.
Our staff continues to do wondrous things to allow Clark to grow and thrive. Reopening campus to fully in-person operations this fall required an extraordinarily collaborative effort, and as we conclude the semester you deserve to take great pride in the countless ways you bring life and, yes, order to this complex and lively institution. I offer a special thank-you to everyone who engineered the successful incorporation of the Becker School of Design & Technology into Clark’s ecosystem, and that includes helping displaced Becker students know they are welcome and valued here.
I’d like to note the tremendous efforts of our CARE Team, led by Becca Kitchell, which provides specialized assistance and outreach to all our students and their families who may be struggling through difficult circumstances. Their work is so needed, especially in an era where COVID amplifies every challenge to emotional, social, and academic well-being.
Turning to other aspects of life on campus, we have so many things to celebrate. Our classrooms and labs are humming this semester. Our student playwrights and performers recently staged original works in the New Play Festival which had been suspended in 2020. Fall Fest returned in person, giving our students an opportunity to present their original research and creative work directly to members of the campus community. And our student-athletes are again competing with Clark pride on the field and court, and in the pool. Our men’s basketball team, under the guidance of Coach Tyler Simms, is undefeated this season. We even have an Olympian in our midst, swimmer Atu Ambala, who competed for Uganda at the Summer Games in Tokyo and who is now smashing school records as a first-year Clarkie.
2021 has been a year of goodbyes and hellos. We said farewell to Jack Foley, who over the course of his 45-year Clark career substantially deepened our impact in Worcester and the Main South neighborhood. And to Jim Collins who retired for a second time last year after more than four decades of service to Clark. Jim’s wise and sure hand with Clark’s financial investments has strengthened our ability to pursue a strategy of institutional growth. We also said not goodbye but “see you less often” to Davis Baird, who as provost graced Clark with 11 years of astute and caring leadership of our academic programs and is now enjoying a sabbatical.
Over the year, we welcomed new members to the leadership ranks who bring their own varied talents and fresh ideas to Clark. If you haven’t already, I hope you will take the opportunity to welcome our dean of students, Kamala Kiem; our vice president for government and community affairs, Joseph Corazzini; our vice president and general counsel, Kendall Isaac; our vice president and chief officer of diversity, equity, and inclusion, Margo Foreman; and, of course, our provost, Sebastián Royo.
Turning now to finances. The University’s balance sheet remains strong and has been further strengthened by impressive endowment performance. However, we still have work to do to increase our annual operating revenue to meet our near- and long-term goals and objectives. Two years of smaller incoming class sizes for both undergraduate and graduate programs has put pressure on our annual operations budget. We are using our new long-term financial modeling tool to inform our decision-making for our upcoming fiscal year, the 2022–2023 annual operating budget. We also will be working very hard in the years ahead to raise additional revenue — through grants and contracts, through gifts, and through the next capital campaign for which planning is underway.
The new capital investments we are making are designed to improve our operating revenue over time and allow us to then invest in programs and people, but this can’t happen overnight.
While we focus on improving our financial position, we also must focus on our human capital. In the spring of 2022, we will be embarking on a comprehensive review of our employee job classification structure to better align our position specifications, job titles, responsibilities, duties, and qualifications with the current employment marketplace. This will allow us to evaluate how our total compensation structure (base salary and benefits) aligns with current employment market conditions. It can take a year or more to complete this process, but it is critically important as empowering our most important asset — our people … you! — is essential for our long-term and sustained success.
To conclude, I have shared with you before that I believe we are at an inflection point for our University. We face challenges here on our campus and within the higher education landscape. But about this I am certain: Our strategic framework will strengthen our University for the long-term, and our human capital will enable us to tackle any challenge head-on.
In pursuing this bold path forward, we affirm an indisputable fact — that our institution matters. That we are all a part of something worthwhile and important, and that the world needs Clark. That our faculty discover new knowledge and deepen understanding. That our students find at Clark an educational experience that is compelling and empowering — an education that teaches them critical skills, and to be resilient and resourceful, and that helps them to come to greater meaning about themselves and their place in the world. That our staff is actively engaged in fulfilling our mission and transforming students’ lives. It all matters.
Last December, when I sat in this very spot and spoke about the state of our University, I reflected upon an extraordinarily difficult year, one that involved a sudden shift to online and hybrid learning, the cancellation of sports seasons and theatrical performances, a campus bereft of activity. And yet the pride I felt for this place was nearly indescribable because of the way our students, faculty, and staff persevered, rallied, and adapted through the pandemic. To see our campus full and active again fills me with joy and gratitude. That Clarkie spirit is precisely why I am so confident that we can and will do great things together.
As I said at the outset, Clark University was born of ambition. Without it, we never would have achieved all that we have since Jonas Clark envisioned a university whose influence now extends well beyond Worcester and across the globe. With ambition propelling us, we are together building momentum that makes us not just an engine that could, but an unstoppable force that is destined to change our world for the better.
Thank you very much.
Michael and I wish you a peaceful holiday season.