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, comunit√©, 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.

Friday, March 13, 2020

Character is Formed in the World’s Torrent

Character is Formed in the World’s Torrent[1]

Covid-19 has provided a reminder on our campus of the profound value of a liberal arts education. We teach our students to navigate difficult decisions with many thorny variables and specters of the unknown. This is what members of our campus community and leaders of organizations across the nation and around the world have been facing as the pandemic spreads and concern rises.

Science, logistics, ethics, and economics all come into play in each conversation, and each next step is found somewhere in the interstices between them all. What has struck me on our campus is that each meeting has taken the form of a seminar. I regularly tell students and their families that we learn best in community, and we have been living that maxim as we negotiate uncharted challenges together.

There are a number of students already on campus for whom travel home is problematic, so we will remain their home away from home. Groups of faculty and staff are making sure everyone remains well-fed and safe. That includes our colleagues as well as our students.

I have been so proud of my colleagues across the Susquehanna campus for their spirit of collaboration and their collective commitment to the health and safety of our students and each other. They have been equally committed to sustaining the education of our students through a yet undefined period of disruption.

At present, we have extended our spring break by a week to allow time for adequate planning and preparation for alternate modes of instruction. We will resume classes one week from now. For students who elect not to return to campus, online options will be available. If we need to suspend face-to-face instruction for some period of time, we will be prepared for that. All students will have the opportunity to complete their courses and their degrees on schedule.

Applied coursework will involve varied and special challenges, but our remarkably creative faculty and resilient students will find ingenious solutions. That’s what a liberal education prepares us to do. We learn to untie Gordian knots, and piloting through our current obstacles is an object lesson in applied ingenuity.

Goethe wrote that character is formed in the world’s torrent. It is certainly revealed by the actions taken in torrential times, and the character of this great university community could not be more admirable.

In these challenging times, I wish everyone could be surrounded by as thoughtful and compassionate a community as thrives at Susquehanna.

[1] Goethe: Torquato Tasso, I, ii.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Hope in Ambiguity

Hope in Ambiguity

So much of what challenges us in life is a perpetual decline in absolutes. Often the more we know, the less sure we become

Years ago, I had a sagacious colleague who regularly told his students that the ideal outcome of a liberal education was a rich awareness of how little each of us really knows.

As a musician, I had a realization around the time I turned 30 that I was finally hearing the way my teachers had. To a small extent is was a matter of enhanced technique from sustained practice, but to a much greater degree, it having heard enough to have amassed a capacity of context. I had listened with intention to enough music to begin hearing compositional architecture in a meaningful way.

As that capacity grew, my awareness of the music I had yet to hear grew exponentially faster. New unknown pieces became progressively easier understand and appreciate.

What a remarkable privilege each of us has when we are asked to consider the imponderable. We have the opportunity to face an infinite natural world and nearly boundless realms of human achievement, good and bad, and we are challenged to identify our place in that limitless expanse.

We must come to terms with the ambiguities that define human existence. For many the result is helplessness, or worse hopelessness. Charting a course in a world of uncertainty requires a leap of faith.

As Francis Bacon wrote: “If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties.”[1]

A liberal arts education bolsters the faith required to make bold leaps. It prepares us to understand and appreciate the unknown and to use what we do know as polestars to navigate the void.

Monday evening, we had the great privilege of hosting Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland, as this year’s Pope Shade Lecturer at Susquehanna University. She spoke about how her religious faith has guided her life of service in the law, then government, then human rights, and now as an advocate to stem climate change.

Our failure to adequately respond to the climate crisis is the result of business and world leaders ignoring long-term consequences for short-term gains against a backdrop of helplessness borne from the seemingly infinite scale of the problem.

If only, more of our leaders would develop the compassion and intellectual heroism necessary to embrace the bold changes needed to navigate the abyss of the conspiring environmental conditions we have created.

President Robinson pointed out that the early effects of climate change are most manifest in the regions of the world least responsible for creating them. These same regions are least empowered to effect the scale of reform required to prevent a cataclysmic future.

Many Inuit communities and island nations find their ways of life and even the persistence of their literal places in the world under immediate threat.

As William Gibson said, “The future is already here – it's just not evenly distributed.”[2]

These communities are the canaries in the collective coal mine that is Mother Earth.

There is much we do not know, but we do know the irrefutable scientific work that exposed and explained the problem of anthropogenic climate change. We need to muster the ethical courage to use the knowledge we do have to guide us as we charge into the void to avert the tragic future currently in our view.

There is no time for hesitation. We must hold tight to what we know and zealously embrace the ambiguity that surrounds it. Right now, that is where our best hope resides.

[1] Francis Bacon: The Advancement of Learning (1605), Book I, v, 8.
[2] William Gibson: The Economist, December 4, 2003

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Dispel Hate: Communicate

The following commentary recently appeared in the Daily Item. Thanks to them for the invitation.

Dispel Hate: Communicate

In a speech given at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa in 1962, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said:

I am convinced that men hate each other because they fear each other. They fear each other because they don’t know each other, and they don’t know each other because they don’t communicate with each other, and they don’t communicate with each other because they are separated from each other.

Despite all of our progress, these divisions are growing again. A Pew Research Center report showed that in 1994, Democrats and Republicans / Conservatives and Liberals had much more in common ideologically than they differed. By 2014, they were divided much more than united, and in the subsequent six years, the schism has continued to grow.

The rise of the Information Age has deteriorated communication. A tidal wave of media is feeding the divide. Because so much of our information is no longer curated, there really is a preponderance of “fake news.” This has delegitimized responsible reporting in the eyes of millions who don’t know how to tell the difference, threatening all of us.

A free and independent press is a necessary safeguard for democracy, which is why it is protected in the first amendment of the Bill of Rights. In a world where we don’t trust objective news sources, it is no wonder we don’t trust each other.

Throughout our nation’s history, we have made progress through an exchange of ideas, but now, we won’t take the time to listen to each other much less develop empathy for each other’s views. The best and some of the worst of our history has been born from concession, but progress has always been the product of compromise.

Cancel culture is a treacherous path — “I don’t like what you say, so I won’t listen.” This is a position spreading on both ends of the ideological spectrum, and it is threatening our communities, our nation, and the world.

This is why we need to teach our students how to have humble and difficult conversations. It is why we need to foster an appreciation of difference and a respect for divergent views.

Good people often form different opinions for thoughtful and legitimate reasons. When we engage in respectful dialog, we must be open to hearing contrary views, and we need to strive to appreciate the shaping forces of those views. Most importantly, in open discourse, we must also remind ourselves that we may be wrong.

Through the GO Program at Susquehanna, all students engage meaningfully in a culture different from their own. The maturity and humility those experiences develop are invaluable. We have also begun an NEH-funded program to foster difficult conversations on campus and in the community.

This is the heart of a liberal arts education, and we have never needed it more. This is how we develop a generation of servant leaders committed to dispelling hatred through rich, empathetic communication.

In the New Year, I hope these conversations and an openness to difference becomes the norm in our community and throughout the region. We all deserve that mutual respect, and we will all be better for it.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

The Value of Investing in a Liberal Arts Education

The Value of Investing in a Liberal Arts Education

In the new study, ROI of Liberal Arts Colleges: Values Adds Up Over Time, authors Anthony P. Carnevale, Ban Cheah, and Martin Van Der Werf, report that although the median return on investment of attending college (enhanced earnings less the cost of attendance) for liberal arts college grads ten years out trails all college graduates by $49,000, the forty-year picture is quite different. Over a career, the median return for liberal arts grads is $195,000 greater than all college graduates.

This study is a biproduct of the earlier report, A First Try at ROI, in which Susquehanna ranked among the top 10% of higher education institutions and 24th among liberal arts colleges.

This new study corroborates a number of other publications that have demonstrated the advantages of a liberal arts education as preparation for a career. Hardwick Day produced a study for the Annapolis Group that demonstrated the advantages of a residential liberal arts education as a preparation for navigating the complexities of life and for developing a career in the evermore dynamic world of work.

In June 2012, I had the opportunity to join a group of educational leaders from throughout Southeast Asia with a handful of American educators at City University of Hong Kong for a conference addressing general education and curricular reform. At the time, higher education institutions in Hong Kong were preparing to move from a three-year to a four-year baccalaureate.

After protests had pushed back an initiative to add Chinese nationalist content, Hong Kong’s educators chose to add elements of American liberal education to their curricula. They had observed too many of their graduates struggling to adapt to changing work environments. I found it ironic that at a time when I had to counter rising opposition at home, these educators were embracing elements of liberal education that have been proven to prepare students for life-long learning, adaptability, problem solving, and leadership.

A series of studies completed by Hart Research Associates for the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) have provided compelling data to support the many ways in which a liberal arts education prepares graduates for the long haul.

In these surveys, employers reported the skills that prepared employees to be successful and to achieve leadership positions. These are the same skills that are the focus of a liberal arts education, which were highlighted in It Takes More Than a Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success.

That report stated that to prepare for career success, students should:
·      Be able to solve problems with people whose views are different from theirs;
·      Develop skills in critical thinking, clear written and oral communication, and complex problem solving;
·      Have field-specific knowledge and a broad range of skills and knowledge;
·      Emphasize ethics, intercultural skills, and a capacity for professional development (i.e. lifelong learning);
·      Complete a significant project that demonstrates their acquired knowledge and skills; and
·      Engage in community-based projects, internships, and independent research.

It has long been said that while many universities prepare students for their first job, liberal arts colleges prepare students for their last job, and more importantly for the path that gets them there. It is no coincidence that over a third of Fortune 500 CEOs have liberal arts degrees.

This is why it should be no surprise that ROI of Liberal Arts Colleges revealed these long-term earnings advantages. We prepare our students for persistence, promotion, and leadership, which…pays off.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Threat No. 8—Limited Reputation

Top Threats to Higher Ed in 2019

Threat No. 8 — Limited Reputation

The first seven threats to higher education applied to the entire sector, especially private, residential institutions. Limited reputation is especially vexing for Susquehanna.

Following the announcement of my appointment as president of Susquehanna, well-wishers at the meetings of many of the organizations with whom I worked in the Midwest, would say something to the effect of, “Congratulations to Jonathan on being named president at—How do you say the name of your new university?”

An alumnus recently said to me, “Susquehanna is the biggest little university in the world. No matter where I go, if I have on fan wear, someone will know SU, and say ‘What a great school.’” 

Last week, that happened to me on a ship in the middle of the Mediterranean, but I also regularly encounter people in Harrisburg (45 miles from campus) who have no idea where we are much less have an opinion about us.

A few years ago, I was at a conference of college and university leaders. A presenter asked the assembly, “How many of you refer to your institution as a ‘hidden gem.’” All eight hundred attendees raised their hands.

Each of us believes we are under-recognized and over-meritorious. In our case it’s true.
  •  Susquehanna is among the top 10% of colleges and universities for financial return on investment (Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, 2019).
  • Susquehanna is 1st in Pennsylvania and 11th in the U.S. for study abroad (Open Doors 2019, Institute for International Education).
  • Susquehanna is among the top 40 national liberal-arts institutions for our contribution to the public good through promotion of social mobility, research, and service (Washington Monthly, 2018).
  • Susquehanna is one of the nation’s most environmentally responsible colleges (Princeton Review Guide to 399 Green Colleges, 2018).
  • Susquehanna is 20th in the nation for the best residential summer programs for high school students (Value Colleges, 2018).
  • Susquehanna was named the ninth most economically diverse student body in the U.S. (New York Times, 2014).
  • Susquehanna is a member of the Annapolis Group, the leading 130 private liberal arts colleges in the nation.
  • The Sigmund Weis School of Business is among the top 5% of business programs world-wide and one of only ten U.S. undergraduate-only programs to have earned AACSB accreditation.
These are just of few of the lights under our bushel.

My New Year’s resolution is to “Burn the Bushel.”

Two years ago, we started including a bragging page in Currents, the University’s biennial magazine. Some of the items above came from it.

We need to mobilize our alumni, families, and friends to boast about these highlights. We need to lift the reputation of the University to the level of its merit. Most importantly, we need to be sure that every student who would benefit from a Susquehanna education knows about us and makes an informed decision.

My charge to you is to share these bragging points, and many others, along with your own stories about what Susquehanna means to you. Do this until your friends are exhausted. Then do it some more. Comment on social media stories about SU; better yet, repost them; and best, post your own.

Happy New Year to you all!



Finding a Compass in the Dark