2015 State of the University

[Editor’s Note: After consultation with the Faculty Senate, the President’s annual State of the University report transitioned from a spoken address to a written account. Below is 2015’s edition; readers are encouraged to post questions and comments.]

President Barbara R. SnyderWe begin the semester’s final week of classes at a moment of great promise for our university—and for the world.

This fall, we witnessed students protesting discrimination and isolation on campuses across the country.

We grappled with critical questions regarding refugees from Syria, and wept as we learned the toll of terrorist acts in Paris.

In each instance, and many more, we asked, “Why?”

And then, “What should we do?”

Our university’s mission calls on us to discover new knowledge and deepen understanding. We live in a time when both are desperately needed. We stand as an institution uniquely prepared to contribute.

Consider history associate professor Peter Shulman’s recent tweets of 1930s polls regarding U.S. attitudes toward European refugees. They have drawn thousands of retweets and articles in Time, The New York Times and more. The attention comes because the information from decades’ past offers invaluable insights for today.

As Shulman told Time, “You can think about all the other instances of looking back and saying we should have done something different. … It’s almost predictable that the next generation will look back and say, it really should have been different.”

This State of the University includes traditional reflections about the year that has passed. But I am even more focused on our future. What can our earlier experiences teach us about those to come? How can our efforts inform and improve society? And, just as important, what additional steps can we take to support one another within this campus community?

This fall we opened Phase I of the Milton and Tamar Maltz Performing Arts Center at The Temple – Tifereth Israel with a remarkable concert. Musicians from The Cleveland Orchestra played Violins of Hope, instruments rescued from the Holocaust and painstakingly restored by Israeli luthier Amnon Weinstein. Each song that sounds from their strings honors those who endured unimaginable horrors—and helps ensure that their suffering is never forgotten.

That same week we opened the first floors of the Larry Sears and Sally Zlotnick Sears think[ box ], the innovation hub housed in the Richey Mixon Building on the southwest corner of campus. As many of you read this weekend, 1962 alumnus J.B. Richey died last week at 79. Richey, the developer of the world’s first commercially available full-body CAT scan, joined with his friend and colleague Mal Mixon to help lead Invacare from a small, sleepy company to a global powerhouse. In 2011, the pair became among the first public contributors to think[ box ] by making a $5 million commitment. We will miss J.B.’s intellect, ingenuity and powerful commitment to inspiring future inventors and entrepreneurs.

Even the project’s tiny pilot space, opened in 2012, helped catalyze 20 student start-ups. Their products range from a high-tech wristband that stores user passcodes to an emission-free electrical bike. Among other projects to emerge from think[ box ] is a foot-powered cell phone charger for remote villages; two students designed the device as part of a course called “Engineering for the World’s Poorest,” and won a $15,000 federal grant for further development and field testing.

That project is just one of many where our students not only identified a challenge and imagined a solution—but also built and implemented it. Such examples span the campus, from the law students who worked with detained immigrants on their spring break to those who help local adults studying to earn their GEDs.

On the same day that we dedicated the Richey Mixon Building, we also broke ground on our historic partnership with Cleveland Clinic for a 485,000-square-foot Health Education Campus. Scheduled to open in 2019, this space will be home to medical, dental and nursing students. Research tells us that team-based health care leads to better patient outcomes and increased satisfaction among those who treat them; coupled with state-of-the-art technology like Microsoft HoloLens, this truly interprofessional approach to education will provide our students extraordinary preparation for their roles as future health care leaders.

Our students from the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences also will participate in interprofessional education with health sciences students, but they will stay in a building now amid a $9.2 million renovation. Once complete, the building will offer collaborative spaces required for the school’s innovative approaches to learning. The lead gift for the project came from the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Foundation, the same organization whose support allowed the building’s original construction in the late 1980s.

“The hallmark of our philanthropy,” the brothers once said in an oft-quoted statement, “is our commitment to invest in people with the values, ability and passion to change the world.”

Our Mandel School students meet that charge even before graduation, as they annually devote 176,000 hours—the equivalent of about 90 full-time social workers—to social service organizations across the region. They also are part of the interprofessional Student-Run Free Clinic at the Free Medical Clinic of Greater Cleveland. Our health sciences students also provide screenings, tooth sealants and other services to Cleveland schoolchildren, while the Center for Civic Engagement and Learning coordinates dozens of other volunteer activities in Northeast Ohio.

Such community involvement provides invaluable opportunities for hands-on education. But we also recognize the imperative of engaging directly on our own campus. Events last fall underscored the work we still must do to create the kind of welcoming, diverse and inclusive community that is central to our values. The formation of the #webelonghere movement showed that our students would act strongly on their own behalf. Then, last spring, undergraduates’ overwhelming vote for the Undergraduate Diversity Collaborative illustrated campus-wide recognition that this group merited a seat on the Student Executive Council.

As Vice President for Student Affairs Lou Stark wrote in The Observer in October 2014, “We, as a campus community, together define our principles…”

Our university leadership has embraced this spirit as well. In the fall of 2014, all incoming undergraduates had to complete a series of online modules regarding the kind of campus we aspire to be. We repeated that model this year, and added Diversity 360 training sessions for the entire entering class. This program evolved from the university’s participation last year in a national initiative called Sustained Dialogue, which provides a model designed to encourage deep listening with the goal of meaningful understanding and improved relationships.

In addition to the Class of 2019, participants in Diversity 360 to date include President’s Council, the Weatherhead School of Management, School of Dental Medicine, members of the Board of Trustees and many other individuals and units. To schedule a program with faculty or staff, email elfreda.chatman-walter@case.edu; for one with students, email naomi.sigg@case.edu.

We also recognize the vital importance of creating a more diverse community among students, staff and faculty. In 2009, when Vice President for Enrollment Management Rick Bischoff arrived, underrepresented minority students totaled 7 percent of the entering class. This year, it was 13 percent. While we have no specific numeric goal, we do know that we have more work to do—both in terms of the proportion of underrepresented students who enroll, and the experiences they have once they arrive.

During that same time period, applications from underrepresented students have climbed by 360 percent, and the number of admitted students has grown nearly as much. The challenge has been to persuade accepted students to enroll. Six years ago, 64 students from underrepresented groups joined the 2009 entering class; this year, the number was 162. It’s an impressive increase, but well short of our aspirations.

What’s more, our definition of diversity extends beyond race and ethnicity. It includes geography, socioeconomic status and more. One of the university’s previous admissions’ strengths involved the proportion of Pell grant recipients in each entering class. That figure has fallen significantly since 2009, and we attribute much of the decline to an aid practice called gapping. In it, the university does not meet the full demonstrated need of about a quarter of admitted students. Those young people either choose another campus, or take on significant additional debt in private loans.

“An offer of admission means little,” Vice President Bischoff has said on several occasions, “if you cannot afford to come here.”

In reflecting on our enrollment trends and direct experiences with anguished families considering massive debt—or transfers because the amount has become unbearable—we began exploring alternatives. Meeting full need appears to reflect the fairest, most humane approach; under its terms, all accepted students would receive aid packages to cover their demonstrated financial need.

To achieve this result under our current need-blind approach would cost an additional $15 to $20 million per year. The university would need to raise $500 million in endowment to cover this expense, or would need to cut funding to other programs to achieve it. Because we are not willing to damage the quality of students’ academic and residential campus experiences, we are considering an approach that considers the financial circumstances of about 10 percent of applicants.

I have been briefed on last Monday’s forum, and understand the concerns students expressed regarding potential negative effects of this proposal. To be clear, it would not affect any currently enrolled students. It also would not reduce the amount of funds the university devotes to financial aid. And it absolutely would not reduce our commitment to raising more support for scholarships—a key priority of our expanded capital campaign.

Any change creates uncertainty. That said, our admissions record over the past five years has demonstrated ongoing progress in academic excellence, continued internationalization, and improved diversity. Those results should offer comfort to those with doubts because they demonstrate not only a commitment to those values, but an ability to achieve them. More to the point, continuing along the current path assures increasingly negative results: fewer low-income students, stagnation in diversity, and ongoing challenges of affordability for students with gapped packages.

We will continue to seek community input as we move toward a decision regarding meeting full need. For now, though, please recognize that our commitment to diversity is unwavering—and the need for improvement extends beyond the student body. Among faculty, Hispanic scholars comprise 2 percent, while international and African-American professors each total 3 percent. These numbers are unacceptably low, particularly in light of the efforts devoted to attracting a more diverse faculty.

As important as recruitment efforts are, we have found that a key issue with regard to our faculty from underrepresented groups is our ability to retain these individuals after they arrive. Marilyn Mobley, our vice president for inclusion, diversity and equal opportunity, is working with the Office of the Provost to identify some of the reasons for this challenge and ways we might better address it.

We must enhance diversity and increase mutual understanding across the university. As challenging as it can be to forge community here, it is even more daunting in the broader civic and global arenas. We arrive at a university with a sense of shared purpose: to learn, to teach, to engage the most intriguing questions and, when possible, to bring answers to the world.

Sometimes, we need to remind ourselves of that shared foundation, and do more to embrace our enduring values. Our bonds are strong enough for us to disagree without danger. So long as we listen, respect, and seek to understand, we will help forge the kind of campus—and society—that some may think is beyond the possible.

At Case Western Reserve, we welcome such skepticism. It emboldens us to do more, and better. And it makes our success all the more satisfying.

Please join me in working toward another year in which Case Western Reserve’s achievements inspire us all.