Saturday, July 4, 2020

Self-Evident Truths

Self-Evident Truths

I recently had a rich conversation with a friend about the political tensions and social divisions we currently face.

I mentioned that because of Title IV (federal financial aid) expectations, as a university leader, I had often said that I couldn’t be publicly political, but that I had been corrected by a colleague from a sister institution who averred, “We can’t be partisan, but we must be political.”

This is absolutely true. College presidents have an obligation to lobby for education and to engage in efforts that protect and support the missions of the institutions they serve. I have a professional responsibility to advocate for my university on a regional, state, and national level.

I also have an ethical obligation to our surrounding community to pursue state and federal support for our students and the institution. As the largest private employer in Snyder County, Susquehanna University’s success redounds to the health and vitality of our region. It has often been said that “All politics is local.” The implication is that voters are driven by what happens in their own back yards, but the literal meaning of “politics” is “the affairs of the city,” so local has always been at the core.

What does it mean to be political, but not partisan? For years, when students have asked me what candidates I will endorse, I have replied, “I will vote for the person who will best support the arts and education.” I am confirming to them that my choice is driven by platform, and that it is in line with my professional position. I am being political, not partisan.

I have a professional obligation to be political, but not partisan. On Independence Day, I am struck by the realization that this should be the goal of all citizens.

A few years ago, I was visiting with a member of the House of Representatives (from another state), and I asked his position on a particular topic. The response was, “It depends on where the other side comes out.” This is being partisan and not political, and it is a toxin that plagues our nation.

In January, I had the privilege to attend a workshop led by William Doherty, Professor of Family Social Science at the University of Minnesota and co-founder of Braver Angels, a community organization that seeks to depolarize our nation by seeking common ground between “reds” and “blues.” As Prof. Doherty noted, most people are not liberal or conservative. We are each an amalgam of varied positions across a range of topics. An individual may be socially liberal and fiscally conservative. Many who oppose abortion rights adamantly support the death penalty, while others oppose or support both.

Our individual ideologies are often scattered across a spectrum. Not that long ago, that kind of richness existed within our two-party system. When I was a kid, politicians would frequently be referred to as a conservative, moderate, or liberal Republican, or as a conservative, moderate, or liberal Democrat. This fostered opportunities for much richer discussions of ideas and bipartisan achievements than our contemporary “us or them” mantra.

Politics is about values, ethics, and compromise. Compromise is a necessary condition of collective action, but it is not always good.

Where might we be as a society had the Founding Fathers retained the abolition of slavery from the original draft of Declaration of Independence? Would we still be a colonial dependency if the abolitionists hadn’t compromised and struck the clause?

Our greatest triumphs and our most egregious sins as a nation have often been born from compromise. The definition of the outcome has often been whether those in the right or the wrong acquiesced or stood their ground. Progress, by its definition, is incremental, but compromise built on a bet that the next step will be expeditious and continue in the right direction is laden with risk.

Our failures as a nation have occurred when we have been unable to recognize moral issues as being right or wrong rather than right or left. Our greatest successes have been those moments in our history when ethics, rather than affiliation, have won the day.

As I have written many times before, the founders of this nation were profoundly flawed people, as are we all. They seized a moment in history where brave and radical change could be achieved. The Declaration of Independence established an ideological foundation that would not be a lived reality for many in their lifetimes. Although they set a malleable prenatal nation into motion that has since made significant incremental progress, equality, unalienable rights, and a government deriving its just powers from the consent of the governed is a self-evident truth that is not enjoyed in common.

We may be living in another rare moment, when, as a deeply flawed people, we can make another heroic leap, and secure for all our citizens the “equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them.”[1]

I hope we have the moral courage to make good on that promise from the first Independence Day. It is most certainly political, but it is not partisan. It is not right or left, but it is most certainly right.

[1] Declaration of Independence, first sentence.

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Why Division III Athletics Should Report to Academic or Student Affairs

I had the privilege to be yesterday's guest blogger for Spelman and Johnson on the merits of having Athletics report to the Chief Student Affairs Officer or the Chief Academic Officer at D-III institutions. 

That post is linked here:

Thank to Dell Robinson for his excellent support of Susquehanna's search for our new Athletic Director, Sharief Hashim, and for the invitation to provide this installment.

Friday, May 29, 2020

Not Too Distant Tomorrow

Today’s news has been especially troubling, as we see demonstrations turning to riots in the wake of yet more tragic deaths of people of color at the hands of police officers.

As a nation, we had already been driven to our last nerve by the pandemic. Divisions within our country have been growing more intense as we struggle with helplessness and uncertainty. We hear irrational debates about liberty and safety being at odds with each other. COVID-19 has amplified the disparities of privilege that surround and dispirit us: race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, economic opportunity, age, and ability. There is little justice in the margins and the margins are growing by the day.

Then, in this crucible of despair, we witness yet another round of senseless violent deaths steeped in racial and social division. George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery have joined the seemingly endless cortège of stolen black lives in America.

The cure for helplessness is action, but when that comes from a place of despair the irrational can feel righteous. We must not be overcome by the hate we wish to extinguish.

Susquehanna’s Chaplain, Scott Kershner, closes each service with this benediction:

Go out into the world in peace.
Have courage!
Hold fast to what is good.
Return no one evil for evil.
Strengthen the faint-hearted, support the weak, help the suffering.
Honor all people.

In Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote “Justice too long delayed is justice denied.” Progress has been too slow, and in recent years, it has been tragically replaced with regress. How should we move the pendulum back to its forward swing? Dr. King reminded us that, “Nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek.

In a recent opinion piece, columnist, David Brooks wrote:

Right now, science and the humanities should be in lock step: science producing vaccines, with the humanities stocking leaders and citizens with the capacities of resilience, care and collaboration until they come. But, instead, the humanities are in crisis at the exact moment history is revealing how vital moral formation really is.

This is a stark reminder of how much we as a people can and need to be uplifted and inspired by the power of the liberal-arts and why a commitment to equity and inclusion is a critical foundation of a liberal education.

When I was researching Susquehanna as an applicant to be president, one of the elements that attracted me to the University was the Statement on Diversity and Inclusiveness, which was adopted by the Board of Trustees in 2007.

It includes this recognition:

As we seek to fulfill these commitments our perceptions, understandings, and expectations will often come into conflict with those of other members of the campus community. These conflicts are not to be avoided, but should be seen as opportunities for learning and growth. Our responses to such conflicts must be framed by our respect for all people and our commitment to social justice and lifelong learning.

Our new Strategic Plan includes many components aimed at strengthening inclusion on our campus and in the community. One element of that work is to review and update the statement. I have struggled to find ways to improve the document until this week.

It is time to take the next step by acknowledging that our goal is not just to help students to learn and grow, but to prepare them to take courageous, peaceful action. We must commit to steeling them to become engaged agents for the “Change they wish to see in the world.”[1]

Brooks noted that “America is a diverse country joined more by a common future than by common pasts.” That future will be inescapably shaped by those pasts. It is up to us to prepare and to be leaders capable and committed to making that future the one King outlines at the end of his Birmingham epistle:

Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.

[1] Mahatma Gandhi

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Learning Is a Verb

A lot has been written about higher education being forever changed in the wake of COVID-19. Much has been aimed at how this disruption will drive the final nail into the coffin of an outmoded business model, but just as much speculation has been focused on the process of teaching and learning.

Teaching and learning will inevitably change, but all of higher education will not migrate to a virtual environment. What teaching and learning during the pandemic has proved to faculty and students is that some aspects of the academic enterprise are better online, some are worse, some are fundamentally impossible, and, in some instances, it’s a tie.

Applied disciplines like the performing arts and laboratories include many tactile components. It is true that much can be learned by watching and listening to great performers, but kinesthetic learning requires engaging in the practice. Likewise, there is much to be learned from the interpretation of data for a lab report, but developing “lab hands” and facility using research instruments comes from doing the lab.

I have had dozens of students tell me their biggest take away from this spring was that they preferred learning together in community. I know this is true, and I believe that in many cases they learn better together too, but many of our students had their best semesters in terms of grades.

We need to honestly evaluate the successes and failures of the recent global experiment in remote education. What worked, what didn’t, and most importantly, why? Is there a pattern in the types of material, in the types of learners, in the selected modality of delivery? Do synchronous and asynchronous deliveries benefit certain subjects or certain students?

Asynchronous formats accommodate students who are sharing technology access with other family members or have turbulent schedules, but synchronous formats allow discussion and debate. These are limitations of remote learning that are exacerbated by economic disparity.

Three decades ago, one of the mantras in pedagogy was that professors needed to move from being “the sage on the stage to the guide on the side.” It was clever the first time someone said it, but it was hardly a novel idea. Socrates had made the point over 2400 years ago.

The truth is that mere content delivery shouldn’t be a class. If reading a book, watching a documentary, or following a LinkedIn Learning module will duplicate the learning outcomes of a university course, an opportunity to do more has been missed.

This has been the shortcoming of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). They are immensely efficient in reaching many students in a single course, but they have failed to revolutionize higher education because students are not actively engaged.

NYU and WCBS pioneered the MOOC concept with Sunrise Semester, which presented university lectures on early-morning television as correspondence courses beginning in 1957. Distance learning had been introduced in the previous century, the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle (CLSC) began in 1878. It is the oldest continuous book club in America. Participants read the annual selections and can graduate after completing 12 titles. The critical component is extensive discussions of the readings during the Chautauqua season.

Knowledge is a set of nouns. Learning is a verb. Many of us have recently found that we are much more capable of delivering knowledge remotely than we had imagined, but we have also reaffirmed the importance of applying that knowledge. Deep learning requires reflection, analysis, and synthesis.

This is the foundation of a liberal education, putting knowledge into action. The dialectic approach of the seminar is a direct descendent of Socratic learning. This is where students learn to build and test ideas. It is the competitive advantage of a residential liberal arts college

The collection and delivery of knowledge content can be enhanced and expanded through technology. To make the best transformation of education in the coming months and years, we need to critically identify the elements of teaching and learning that can only be achieved together and focus our future in-class and synchronous efforts on those activities. 

The classroom has been flipped, let’s make the most of it.

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Washington’s Disappointment

Washington’s Disappointment

In the midst of a pandemic that has already taken more American lives than the Vietnam War, we are witnessing organized protests calling for businesses to reopen and preventive actions to be lifted in direct contradiction to medical and scientific expertise. Mobs, including demonstrator brandishing firearms and confederate battle flags, are demanding that states ignore the best advice from the most qualified experts because their freedom is evidently more precious than the health and safety of the general populous.

Serendipitously, I recently received an anthology of Richard Hofstadter’s writings as the newest installment in my subscription from Library of America. This collection begins with his book, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, for which he won his second Pulitzer Prize in history.

It is fascinating examination of how the “red scare” of in the middle of the 20th century had deep roots in American history. Anti-intellectualism was the common thread over time. Hofstadter posits that knowledge and intellectual capacity became “unpopular” because they represented power.

“The Founding Fathers were sages, scientists, men of broad cultivation, many of them apt in classical learning, who used their wide reading in history, politics, and law to solve the exigent problems of their time.”[1] He notes that soon after the United States was formed, political challengers orchestrated campaigns that drew an imaginary divide between the intellectual and the practical.

Hofstadter cites a letter Charles Carroll wrote to Alexander Hamilton, in which he says Jefferson was, “Too theoretical and fanciful a statesman to direct with prudence the affairs of this extensive and growing confederacy.” Hofstadter notes, “Even in its earliest days, the egalitarian impulse in America was linked with a distrust for what in its germinal form may be called political specialization and in its later forms expertise.”[2]

It is astonishing that a nation founded by intellectuals has been so frequently shaped by widespread rejection of expertise. The Founding Fathers of this nation were also the founders of the American Philosophical Society and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. We are all well aware of the experiments and inventions of Jefferson and Franklin, but Adams, Rush, Madison, and Washington were actively engaged in the scientific discourse and discovery of the time.

Washington was one of the most scientifically advanced farmers in the colonies. He designed a variety of agricultural devices and systematically planted test beds for each crop, experimenting with different mixtures of seeds, fertilizers, and planting techniques, using the most successful models to increase the productivity of his plantations.[3]

As a young man, Washington had contracted small pox in Barbados. He nearly died, but upon recovery, was immune. This protected him from outbreaks during the Revolutionary War, but in 1777, that disease was as much a threat to the Continental Army as the British.

Washington consulted the expertise of his Medical Director, John Morgan, to determine if variolation, a then controversial process by which individuals were inoculated by being scratched with thorns exposed to the pustules of small pox suffers, could protect his troops from an outbreak. The application produced significantly reduced sickness than the actual disease followed by immunity. Washington ordered 40,000 troops to be variolated. In one year, the infection rate among his army dropped from 17% to 1%. It may well have won the war. [4]

Just as he recognized that engaging the best expertise was critical to his success as a military leader, Washington believed that the development of experts was paramount to the advancement of the new republic.

In his final “Annual Message to Congress,” Washington called for the creation of a national military college, which came to fruition, and a national university that did not. He was an important benefactor in the founding of two liberal arts colleges that bear his name: Washington College in Maryland and Washington and Lee University in Virginia. Our first president believed in the importance of these “Seminaries of learning,” but he believed that the scale of achievement he dreamt for our nation would require an investment that only a nation could make.

The Assembly to which I address myself, is too enlightened not to be fully sensible how much a flourishing state of the Arts and Sciences, contributes to National prosperity and reputation. True it is, that our Country, much to its honor, contains many Seminaries of learning highly respectable and useful; but the funds upon which they rest, are too narrow, to command the ablest Professors, in the different departments of liberal knowledge, for the Institution contemplated, though they would be excellent auxiliaries.

Amongst the motives to such an Institution, the assimilation of the principles, opinions and manners of our Country men, but the common education of a portion of our Youth from every quarter, well deserves attention. … In a Republic, what species of knowledge can be equally important? and what duty, more pressing on its Legislature, than to patronize a plan for communicating it to those, who are to be the future guardians of the liberties of the Country? [5]

The Founding Fathers were as flawed as they were foresighted. They brought forth the Bill of Rights, but they also implemented the Alien and Sedition Acts. They established a democratic republic in which only a minority held suffrage and in which slavery was tolerated, but they had the foresight to create a government that had the capacity to evolve toward a better ideal.

They also recognized that the successful evolution of their political experiment would require leaders well versed in the all the liberal arts: the sciences, humanities, the fine arts, and social sciences. They sponsored the creation of many of our leading colleges to foster the next generation of leaders; they founded leading intellectual societies to review and disseminate the best scientific knowledge of the day; and they dreamed that the United States would develop the intellectual expertise necessary for their young republic to flourish.

Were he to witness these recent demonstrations refuting the collective guidance of our best experts, imagine Washington’s disappointment.

[1] Hofstadter, Richard: Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, Uncollected Essays 1956-1965, edited by Sean Wilentz, 163. New York: Library of America, 2020.
[2] Ibid., 168-169.
[3] Tom Shachtman: Gentlemen Scientist and Revolutionaries: The Founding Fathers in the Age of Enlightenment, 8. New York: St. Martin’s, 2014.
[4] Ibid., 101-112.

[5] George Washington: “Eighth Annual Message to Congress,” 7 December 1796.

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Finding a Compass in the Dark

Finding a Compass in the Dark

What is the right path when you enter unexplored territory? It depends upon who you are, why you are there, and where you want to go.

This is the journey facing virtually all organizations as we begin to come to grips with the COVID-19 pandemic. This is definitely unexplored territory for all of us, and it is ripe with uncertainty. Every business faces its own set of challenges, but colleges and universities — because they are extraordinarily complex collections of enterprises — find themselves encountering especially robust matrices of decisions to be made.

We are complex enterprises, but first and foremost, we educate students in a wide range of subjects, each with unique disciplinary needs.

We provide career and professional support; we provide medical and counseling services; we run elaborate food-service and housing operations; we support a wide variety of research centers, laboratories, performance and athletic venues, galleries, greenhouses, farms, and studios; we run radio stations, we are publishers; and we are fundraisers. We are fundamentally small cities with significant infrastructure and staff to support them ranging from scholars, artists, and scientists; to public safety officers, tradespeople, and gardeners; to physicians, IT specialists, and animal-care technicians.

When our governor wisely issued the shutdown order for all non-life-sustaining businesses, it included colleges and universities. How do you stop a university that operates like a city? The truth is, you can’t.

Many of the enterprises must continue. Faculty and staff continue to work in support of the university. For colleges, instruction can go online, as it has. For students in applied disciplines, there will be necessary compromises, but we will be patient and creative.

We can continue to provide a sense of security for our students. Most could return to their families’ homes, but for some, our campuses are their homes. We are sometimes also students’ main protection from food insecurity. We were called to close, not abandon, and we are committed to protect our campuses and our people.

This brings us back where we started: What is the right path when you enter unexplored territory? It depends upon who you are, why you are there, and where you want to go…

There is your compass!

We are here because of our mission. At Susquehanna University, our mission is to educate students for productive, creative, and reflective lives of achievement, leadership, and service in a diverse, dynamic, and interdependent world.

It drives the choices we make as an institution. Thus, we must model institutional behavior that is consistent with the behavior we are called to cultivate in our students.

How should we achieve, lead, and serve productively, creatively, and reflectively in a diverse world that has suddenly become much more acutely dynamic and interdependent?

The first order of business is that we need to take care of our people – students, faculty, and staff. We need to do all we can to keep them safe, to keep them whole, and to keep them employed.

We need to make every effort to sustain the best education we possibly can for our students. We need to nourish their minds and do all within our power to feed their souls. We have the capacity to bring metaphorical light and space into their and our temporary confinement.

We also need to be good neighbors. We will share what we can to help our surrounding community and, in turn, they will help us. We are a university of the community.

“Community” comes from the Old French, comunité, meaning everyone, which in turn comes from the Latin communitas. It is also the source or the word common, meaning shared — we are in this together. We must make decisions in the best interest of all.

As leaders, we need to communicate with all of our constituencies. We need to help them understand the decisions we have to make to sustain those commitments to our people and our commitments to education. We have to let them know that we don’t have all of the answers, but that we do have all the love for them we can muster as we strive to do what’s best for our living-learning communities now striving to move ahead as a diaspora of sheltered exiles.

We must also give our students and our colleagues hope for the time we return to a new normal. Even though history has taught us that we won’t return, we will find a new normal. It will shaped by the challenges we face, but more importantly, it will be defined by the choices we make.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Finding the Divine in Charity and Love

Finding the Divine in Charity and Love

Over the past few weeks, normalcy has been dashed around the globe.

Like many of you, I have been inspired and humbled by the kindness and grace so many have exhibited in the face of uncertainty and abject change. I have also been moved to see so many people finding solace and community through art and music.

For this installment, I am sharing a piece of my music.

Here is Susquehanna’s University Choir singing my setting of Ubi Caritas.

Ubi Caritas is a Roman Catholic (not my tradition, but a beautiful sentiment) prayer.

The current text is three stanzas taken from a much longer 10th-century poem by an anonymous French author. This prayer is used as the final antiphon for the celebration of Mandatum on Maundy Thursday, which is the service that commemorates Christ washing his disciple’s feet.

The essential meaning of the prayer is that we find the divine where we find love and charity. That has certainly been the case in recent days.


Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.
Congregavit nos in unum Christi amor.
Exsultemus, et in ipso jucundemur.
Timeamus, et amemus Deum vivum.
Et ex corde diligamus nos sincero.

Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.
Simul ergo cum in unum congregamur:
Ne nos mente dividamur, caveamus.
Cessent iurgia maligna, cessent lites.
Et in medio nostri sit Christus Deus.

Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.
Simul quoque cum beatis videamus,
Glorianter vultum tuum, Christe Deus:
Gaudium quod est immensum, atque probum,
Saecula per infinita saeculorum. Amen.


Where charity and love are, God is there.
The love of Christ has gathered us as one.
Let us rejoice and be glad in it.
Let us fear and love the living God,
And let us love one another with a sincere heart.

Where charity and love are, God is there.
Therefore, let us come together as one,
Let us be careful not be divided.
Let us end quarrels and strife,
And let Christ be in our midst.

Where charity and love are, God is there.
May we also see with the blessed
The glory of your face, O Christ.
Let there be immense and worthy joy:
For ages through infinite ages. Amen.


Self-Evident Truths