I remember my own university days as a time of rapidly accelerating change and revolutionary upheaval. Those four years, from 1965 to 1969, saw the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the escalation of the war in Vietnam, the Prague Spring, and evolution of the counter-culture, to name only a few of the events that were in the air during my years at Princeton. The apparent certainties that my generation had grown up with were collapsing faster and more unpredictably than one could keep up with.
We are living — I think — in a similarly challenging time of accelerating change, characterized by a paradigm shift in the fabric of daily life, an explosion of global interdependence and instantaneous communication that has penetrated every minute of our day — in tweets, and e-mails, and text messages.
For most of our students, this is an ocean of information overload that they have been swimming in for years, and as a result the number of activities they accomplish and integrate during the course of a day is staggering. I’ve had to learn how to keep up.
So, the pace of change has accelerated once again, and a university like Fairfield has to adapt to that pace if it is to remain relevant.
At the same time, we must be clear that our fundamental obligation is to create a learning environment where there is room for reflection, for the thrill of genuine scholarship. The University must be a container in which there is time and space to stop for a moment, and experience oneself in the deepest sense.
In a nutshell, this is the challenge before us: We’ve got to change swiftly to remain relevant. At the same time, we must be true to the roots of the Ignatian tradition of education; we must maintain a residential, transformational environment that touches our students at the core of their self-experience. It’s our obligation to help our young people discover who they truly are — freed from the continual background hum of the culture around them — and this requires time, patience, and a refusal to be distracted by the ephemeral and momentary.
Looking back over 2011-2012, I’m delighted at the progress we continue to make on so many fronts. There is an unmistakable sense of momentum throughout the University community, and this is being reflected in our many successes — only a few of which we are able to touch on in this annual President’s report.
As you’ll read within these pages, that momentum is evident in the enrollment of new students for the Class of 2016, one of the largest classes in our history — and they are an excellent class in terms of their talents and accomplishments. This did not come about by accident, but through a focused effort by our staff, faculty, alumni, and trustees — all of whom worked cooperatively to use the data we had available to inform our recruitment decisions and outreach.
Meanwhile, our Advancement Division, which includes Alumni Relations, have worked tirelessly to build a more robust network of alumni events and activities. More alumni are getting involved. This is essential! The progress we have made in such a short time is remarkable and I’m looking forward to further leaps as our alumni network continues to grow and deepen.
The pace of change also means that we have to quickly identify the key areas of potential growth for our University — and move swiftly to address them. First and foremost, we recognize that the economics of higher education have changed under our feet (and I refer you to the interview with our new Chairman of the Board of Trustees, William Atwell, P’08, on page 32, for further thoughts on this). Many of you will be aware that today’s students are shouldering a student loan debt that is unsustainable. At Fairfield, we have responded by reigning in our costs and moderating our tuition increase (this year, the lowest in 35 years) and at the same time doubling our financial aid in recent years. But we need to do more. Building our endowment to increase our offerings and endowing chairs to sustain the quality of our faculty are paramount priorities.
We know, too, that the health sciences are an area of exponential growth. We already have an excellent School of Nursing and science departments, and we certainly send many of our graduates to medical schools, but there are also new areas and professions opening up — places where the health sciences intersect with management and other business skills, or where the health sciences and the computer sciences and engineering come into relationship. These are rich areas of exploration, and we are ideally situated to develop greater program offerings in these areas — if we take the initiative and keep up the pace. We are working on that now, and supporting this initiative is one of our key priorities.
Yet, as much as we do to adapt to the world as it evolves, there are dimensions to the human experience that transcend the exigencies of the moment. As I have written in these pages, the work of Fairfield University is the continuation of a mission in education that is over 450 years old, and inspired by the insight of St. Ignatius of Loyola. He came to the conclusion — better yet, it was revealed to him — that he had a unique purpose and mission in life. That he was part of something bigger that would give his life deep purpose and meaning, and that God was, in effect, always trying to teach him about himself, and about the nature of the Divine. When all is said and done, what we hope for our students is that — through focused attention from dedicated scholars, and through an opportunity to explore their own capacity for reason and creativity — each of them will come to an analogous experience of how unique they are, and of their responsibility to the well-being of the human community.
You can rest assured that, at Fairfield, we will never lose sight of this dimension of our mission. It is the source of all that we do; it is the tradition that informs every decision that we make. Indeed, it is our collective obligation — as men and women in the service of others — that we embrace this mission together, and continually rediscover how to authentically fulfill this mission in a rapidly changing world.
Jeffrey P. von Arx, S.J. President