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President’s Message/The View in the Crystal Ball

The other day my colleague Phil Oswald gathered his team in College Advancement for a day devoted to planning, and he asked me to come by to share whatever I was seeing in my crystal ball for St. Norbert College and higher education in general. If I welcomed the invitation, I was rather less enthusiastic about being assigned what Phil described as the “highly coveted post-lunch slot.” How might I fend off the dreaded 1:30 p.m. stupor that descends on any group of conferees like an ether cloud? Then I had a brainstorm.

What if I developed a taser app for my cell phone? How useful would that be! Doze off on me, will you – ZZZAP!!! So satisfying – and effective! I liked the idea so much, in fact, that in my mind’s eye, I was already pitching my iTaser on “Shark Tank” (a pro-taser bunch if ever I saw one!). Yet suddenly, here’s Phil, snapping me out of my reverie – good thing for you, Phil Oswald, that this taser app isn’t to beta stage yet! – and insisting I get on with things. All right, all right … Here we go.

We are in the Great Shaking: While I was still in my journalistic short pants, I learned that context is crucial to understanding anything of consequence, so I start with my widest lens. Through that I see an America experiencing its most seismic shifts since the sixties. What a scary coming-together of forces: our socioeconomic cleaving into the haves and have-nots, and the related anxieties of the shrinking middle class; the escalating frustrations and tensions of many non-whites, and the simultaneous fear of many whites over a society they see rapidly becoming minority-majority; a lurching, globally interconnected economy whose only predictable element is volatility; the relentless march of disruptive technologies and social media; terrorism; the ugly, pandering politics of fear and class warfare. For many Americans this all adds up to disorientation and dread – the feeling, as Yeats observed, of a similarly convulsive time, that “things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” 

Higher education is not immune: Study a college president these days and you may well detect some disorientation there, too, as our own industry pitches and rolls. Most of our institutions are enrollment-dependent, but there’s a shrinking pool of traditional-age students – and a growing list of options available to them, from fine technical and community colleges to entirely online degree paths. Tuitions, appropriately, are under intense scrutiny and pressure as student debt mounts. The idea of “free” college continues to gain traction. Beyond that, once we do get students, the expectations keep piling up as to what we should be doing with them: preparing them for (and placing them into) lucrative careers; making sure they can read, write, grasp philosophy (and history and economics and …); helping them with their medications; teaching them a second language; teaching them tolerance; teaching them no means no. Facing such escalating pressures, private colleges already operating at the margin are buckling. With each year, more and more will simply disappear. Takeaway? In such an environment of uncertainty, it’s imperative that a college have a strong sense of itself and its mission. It must know what it does well, and then work constantly to do that better yet.

St. Norbert is still building, and upon a strong foundation: We are fortunate in so many ways. Our college’s unique Norbertine mission hasn’t changed in 118 years. We are in the strongest financial and academic positions in our history. We have a stellar, and growing, reputation. We live on a beautiful and modern campus. We graduate our students. And, at least by competitive standards, we remain quite affordable.

There are no guarantees: None of the aforementioned advantages inoculate us from the shaking all around us. Thus we continue to scour our costs even as we raise more financial aid, all in trying to keep the SNC experience within reach of any student who qualifies for it. That, in turn, will secure our enrollment base – always job one – but “enrollment” must go beyond a raw number to reflect a diverse body that represents a variety of life experiences. And we must be flexible and smart, teaching in ways rooted in the best of our traditions while embracing the best of modern innovation. 

That – to all of us who share in the commitment to advance St. Norbert College – that is how I see our challenge.


March 14, 2016