David H. Johnson
There may be idealists who say that the best education takes place in the classroom with a live teacher at the front interacting with live students. But technology is changing the world of education just like it is changing everything else. In an educational world of constant change, there is nothing more important for Providence to do than to fulfill its mission “to teach people to grow in knowledge and character for leadership and service.”
The Internet was commercialized in 1995, only seventeen years ago. Today it is estimated that 97% of all telecommunicated information travels over the Internet. The Internet and the technology that supports it are revolutionizing life and particularly education. This is an exciting time to be involved in higher education at a place like Providence, although our basic paradigm for higher education will change because of technology. It has never been more important for people to become critical thinkers as they encounter millions of bits of information every year. Critical thinking is a major component of our mission. Critical thinking is something we in a small university setting can teach to both undergraduate and graduate students.
People also need to grow in character. The huge growth and rapid spread of knowledge has led to changes in every discipline, which demand ethical decisions by people of deep character. Growth in character is something that only takes place in community. I am proud of our student development department and the work they do. Building character takes place in the classroom too through interaction with faculty and in the hallways through interaction with staff.
Who will lead the next generation through the continuously accelerating change caused by the growth of knowledge? The purpose of a Providence education is to teach people so that they become leaders. People need more than the internet to learn how to lead.
Finally, the western world is sorely in need of servants, people who give themselves for the betterment of others. This too is a purpose of a Providence education and something that cannot be accomplished online alone.
“To teach people to grow in knowledge and character for leadership and service” is rooted in our identity. We are “a Christian academic community in the evangelical tradition.” A Christ-centred education means that all that we do finds its source and goal in the gospel of Jesus Christ. The apostle Paul wrote, “All things were created by him and for him, he is before all things and in him all things hold together.” So we are not just trying to find a place for the Christian faith within our academic pursuits. We are not merely trying to relate our academic pursuits to our Christian faith. To be Christ-centred means that as we pursue our academic and educational endeavours, we understand that Jesus Christ is pre-eminent in everything—in music, in physical science, in social science, in humanities, in business, in sport. With the ancient church as it faced a decidedly pagan Roman empire, we declare that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God.
In a very particular way this means that we need to challenge ourselves and our students with the vision of Christ for his disciples, "The ones who want come after me must deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me" and “The person who wants to be first must be the servant of all.” It is true, the hardest instrument to play is second fiddle. It is not easy to give up everything to be a servant.
With this foundation and mission in mind, the rest of this address will inspire you with a vision of where are we going as an institution. But first, let’s look at from where we have come.
We have made some great strides in the last few years under the leadership of Dr Konkel. Externally, we have gained recognition for our students within the various systems of higher education. So our undergraduate program is now called a university college. Our Seminary has been re-accredited. Internally, we have strengthened our infrastructure with the Student Life Centre and biomass heating among other things, created a structure for a more engaged Board of Governors, codified our shared governance including a Senate, and launched the Buller Centre for Business and the Providence Legacy Fund.
On the downside we have seen a 40% drop in enrollment since the high point in 2003. This is nearly parallel with a steep drop in students living in residence. We have consequently suffered a relatively large financial deficit in three out of the last four years in spite of our reduction in expenses. These deficit years have led to a cash crunch over the summer. This year looks a bit brighter on both the enrollment and financial counts. It appears that enrollment will increase over last year in both the University College and the Seminary. Thanks to some generous donations, the deficit last year was much less than anticipated. This year so far, because of two large gifts in July we are well ahead of our donation goal for July and August. This has also helped our cash flow.
Where we are
When we look at our institution we have some great competitive advantages. We have a great board of governors. They are highly committed to the institution.
Our support staff has stuck by us through thick and thin, mainly thin. They have operated on a shoestring and have done some wonderful projects in the residences, apartments and on the grounds this year.
We have a remarkable, multi-talented faculty. They do their work with diligence and have turned out some outstanding students. With minimal support they have continued to produce scholarship and performances at a high level. Their commitment over the last few years of leanness is sometimes hard to fathom.
Our alumni are all over the world. They are making an impact for Christ. Recently I have had the privilege of contact with some alumni who are fiercely loyal to Providence. We have a diverse student body. We still have a higher percentage of international students than most large schools.
Our co-curricular programs are second to none. Residence Life provides programming and support for growth in knowledge and character. The Music program continues the great Providence tradition of award winning choirs and ensembles. Our Theatre program continues to offer performances that are at least equal to, and often better, than many larger universities. Our Athletic teams continue to outclass much larger Christian universities. Last week I learned that three of our fall teams are ranked among the top ten schools in the National Christian Collegiate Athletic Association in the preseason poll.
After I am finished, the deans will address the vision of the two schools. I want to talk about Providence in general.
Our primary purpose as an institution is to fulfill the Providence mission this year and over the long haul.
The outcome of our mission is to prepare graduates for society and church with six characteristics. Everything we do works toward these ends. We produce students with
“Over the long haul” means ensuring a sustainable institution. A recent report by the consultants Bain and Company asserts that one-third of higher education schools are not sustainable as they are. Providence is among them. By sustainable I mean we will have a minimal annual need for operating donations and government funding, an ongoing surplus budget, and adequate remuneration for our staff and faculty. It will take us some time to get there, but we will get there none the less.
I am now in the position of thinking about the future, not for my children, but for my grandchildren. I want Providence to be a place fifteen years from now where my grandchildren can get a great Christian education and maybe even train for church ministry. That’s how I put shoe leather on the future of Providence. Perhaps you can put a “sustainable institution” in a grid that speaks to you.
A sustainable institution involves increased enrollment, Legacy Fund growth (we now have $2.5 million in life insurance and a number of people who have included Providence in their estate planning), and using all of our resources to generate revenue. It will also mean a continued extraordinary commitment from staff, faculty, and board. If we can sustain a pattern of enrollment growth this year and next year, I think it will be time for us to put together a business proposition for a sustainable future that goes beyond mere survival.
In the short run, we need to regain a sense of institutional robustness. The financial and enrollment plan that Cabinet has put together supports this short term goal. How do we become robust in the next three or four years? What can we do this year?
We have to start today. We have student leaders and athletes on campus this week. How do we serve them?
Next Monday and Tuesday students arrive. How will we make their first day, and their first week, and their first month great? In their first month students will decide if they are coming back. Will they see smiling faces and have friendly conversations? Will they feel that they are important and loved? Will they have fun? It is up to each of us to make their experience positive and memorable.
Together we can make 2012-2013 a year of return to robustness. Together we can fulfill the Providence mission over the long haul.
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Providence University College & Seminary