Welcome and welcome back! It is a special day today. I’m excited to see the seniors processing because most of them were freshmen during my first year. And I am also excited to be standing in front of the largest first year class in the history of Maryville College. The second largest class was 333 in fall 2005, so this year’s total of 350 is the highest by a margin of five percent. Our largest academic building and oldest building on campus, Anderson Hall, is being comprehensively renovated, and the renovation will be completely funded by gifts from alumni and other friends of Maryville College. If ever there was a day for Maryville College to “be confident in the flesh” then this is it.
In the words of this Biblical passage, though, Paul reminds us that success is not sufficient. In a familiar rhetorical move to increase the credibility of the message, Paul begins by reciting his impressive resume. He has the right ancestry, he’s had the right education, and he’s done the right things to impress all the right people. In terms understandable to those of us involved in 21st Century American higher education, recruiting Paul as a student would definitely help boost a college’s ranking in U.S. News & World Report.
But there’s a twist. Paul’s point is not that he’s so wonderful that we should try to be just like him. Instead, he emphasizes that the impressive resume doesn’t matter; in fact it is a loss to the extent it prevents him from reaching his true goal.
The rankings by magazines like U.S. News & World Report take the opposite approach. They focus not on the goal of the college, not on the development of students during their time at college, not on what the students accomplish when they leave, but solely on the collegiate version of “born in the right family and did everything right before getting to college.”
Maryville College takes its direction more from Paul than from U.S. News. We don’t go so far as to count the impressive achievements of our incoming students as loss but impressing a magazine’s editors is not our goal (although we don’t fare too badly with them). What matters here is achieving our mission, “Maryville College prepares students for lives of citizenship and leadership as we challenge each one to search for truth, grow in wisdom, work for justice and dedicate a life of creativity and service to the peoples of the world.” We care about how much you grow during your time here and what you do after you graduate, not where you started. Our priority and our challenge is to press on towards that goal, no matter what number a ranking ascribes to that work.
If rankings aren’t important, then what is? That vital question must be answered individually, and the experience here is centered on helping students discern their true calling and prepare to undertake it. In our Statement of Purpose, we describe this work as helping students “enhance career opportunities and develop a true sense of vocation.” What we mean by vocation goes deeper than just the question of what field of study a student concentrates in and what profession the student enters upon graduation. Vocation refers to the deeper meaning of your life, with one expression of vocation being the choice of career but other expressions of vocation including development in faith, service to the community, and building vibrant relationships with family and friends.
You will hear three letters all fall, QEP. They stand for Quality Enhancement Plan, part of the process of reaffirmation of our accreditation by SACSCOC, which happens every ten years. The QEP at Maryville College is titled “Maryville College Works” and it is an integrated, sequential, and developmental program with three components. Students (1) prepare a personal vocation and career preparation and implementation plan; (2) participate in a significant, practical, vocational experience; and (3) reflect on and articulate how their education – including the significant practical experience – has prepared them for professional opportunities.
That sounds like hard work. In Heart of Darkness (by Joseph Conrad, New York: Penguin Classics, 1969, pp. 59-60) the protagonist presents a viewpoint on work that resonates with our QEP.
“No, I don’t like work. I had rather laze about and think of all the fine things that could be done. I don’t like work, - no man does – but I like what is in the work, the chance to find yourself. Your own reality – for yourself, not for others – what no other man can ever know. They can only see the mere show, and never can tell what it really means.”
Finding and reflecting upon vocation is hard work, yes, but worth it for the ultimate goal of knowing that the work has revealed to you the way that your individual and collective work matters.
Maryville College Works emphasizes the importance of reflecting on how one’s experiences in and out of class are tied to vocation. This is not a new approach, but rather reflects a long-held belief at Maryville College about the importance of students being directly involved with the world.
For example, here’s what the Maryville College catalog says about science: “Nature herself is interrogated no less than are textbooks. From the beginning of the course, the student investigates nature and its forces. Thereby, he acquires better knowledge and experiences a more pleasant life by his acquaintance with nature, by his forays into the fields and woods in search of specimens.” (By Faith Endowed p. 121)
OK, that’s really the Maryville College Catalog of 1890. But the underlying principle remains and not only in science. When an accounting student is out of the classroom confronting the actual experience of business, when a theater student spends the summer performing multiple roles as part of a professional group, when a teacher licensure student is in an elementary school classroom discovering the remarkable potential in working with children, when a Bonner Scholar is immersed in the daily magic of service provision, when a Bradford Scholar sees the miracle of adults completing their GED, he or she certainly “acquires better knowledge and experiences a more pleasant life” and both Maryville College and the world are enriched as well.
An important reason that we combine academic pursuits with external activities is to develop perspective, both in the ways that our academic work is useful and in the ways that our academic work is incomplete. Most summers I try to read a classic book that I had not previously read. This summer’s choice was War and Peace and I sincerely recommend it, although you students will probably have to wait until between semesters because I know that the faculty will already make sure you have plenty to read this fall. One passage from the book struck me as illustrating the nuanced approach that Maryville College takes towards knowledge reflecting our Reformed tradition that recognizes that all human understanding is limited and therefore provisional.
(War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, 2008, NY: Vintage Classics, p. 639)
"[Pfuel] was one of those hopelessly, permanently, painfully self-assured men …. [he] is self-assured worst of all, and most firmly of all, and most disgustingly of all, because he imagines that he knows the truth, science, which he has invented himself, but which for him is the absolute truth."
We hope not to find ourselves in this description. Rather, we use the mastery of the knowledge of today as a foundation for building the knowledge of tomorrow, recognizing that some of today’s absolute truths will be tomorrow’s fundamentally flawed views.
Sometimes the work seems to be drudgery, but one never knows what will be important. In the book of Ezra (especially chapters 3-6) we read the story of the return of the Jews to Jerusalem after the Babylonian exile. Under the leadership of Jeshua and Zerubbabel the rebuilding of both the temple and the walls of Jerusalem begin. The neighboring countries write to the King of Persia warning him that the last time Jerusalem had walls, the residents caused great trouble, such as stirring up rebellion and not paying taxes. They warn that once the walls are rebuilt, problems are bound to follow. To prove their case, they ask the king to check the records about Jerusalem and rebellion. He does so, and discovers (Ezra 4:19) “that this city of old time hath made insurrection against kings, and that rebellion and sedition have been made therein.”
The king naturally responds by ordering Jeshua, Zerubbabel, and company to cease and desist. Fortunately, someone had kept good records of correspondence with his predecessor. They say (Ezra 5:17, very loosely translated), “go look in your files and you’ll see that we have permission from your predecessor, Cyrus.” He looks in his files, and agrees, so the work is permitted to continue. Keeping good files and clearly communicating their contents in correspondence are important skills.
Naturally, this story resonates now. The strategic plan, Renewing Our Strength, is designed to reinforce the stability of Maryville College while also building new programs on its strong foundations. The story in Ezra is about renovating physical structures (temple, city walls) that are central to daily life and represent the people. The connection to Anderson Hall should be obvious. Less obviously, some of the crucial work for accomplishing the Anderson Hall project includes the detailed unglamorous work of crafting course schedules that accomplish our academic goals this year without using our largest academic building, working out details of plumbing and wiring, and of course making sure that we have permission to proceed with the work and carefully filing that permission.
Another point is that the return to Jerusalem was a great success. But there were still threats as well as opportunities, so real work remained. The graduating class of 2014 was the smallest freshman class in eight years and this year’s freshman class is the largest ever. That change is a great success, but work remains for us to do.
Paul writes in II Corinthians chapter 4,
8 We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair;
9 Persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed
I’m pleased to report that description does not apply to Maryville College in 2013. However, in some ways it is easier to motivate effort when we are beset on all sides by troubles than when we have achieved some success. This is where we must get one thing right, according to Paul: “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead.” Let’s take a brief look at some of the goals that we are straining forward to achieve.
I’ll set some context for the first goal by referring to some history. In By Faith Endowed: The Story of Maryville College 1819-1994 (p. 115), Dr. Walker and Dr. Blair describe the state of Maryville College in 1875, a few years after the second founding by Thomas Jefferson Lamar and just five years after Anderson Hall was constructed. The good news is that the budget of $3,388.60 was balanced. The bad news is the way in which it was balanced. Quoting Professor Lamar, “This account leaves a deficit on salaries for the last year of $1566.48 and, in addition to this, there is due the President and one Professor in back salaries an aggregate of about $3000.” In other words, there was about 150 percent of the annual budget owed in unpaid salaries. In today’s terms, that would be a figure in the tens of millions of dollars.
The Maryville College budget for 2012-13 was balanced, and a good sign of progress since 1875 is that we paid salaries in full. But our compensation to faculty and staff has fallen behind our benchmark, which is not a sustainable situation as we work to recruit and retain the best possible people. During the past summer we have been working to update salary plans for faculty and staff, and I expect to bring these plans for Board approval at the October meeting. This year’s budget includes a mid-year salary increase, which is a start, but it does not yet get us to where we need to be. There remains work to do, and we are focused on the goal ahead.
During the past summer, in addition to the work on Anderson Hall, we completely replaced the roofs on Copeland and Davis, continuing a process begun in the summer of 2012 when we replaced the roofs on Sutton and Thaw. But it is not merely repair and maintenance of the facilities currently in use that is called for. There are three substantial areas where progress needs to be made in improving the campus.
First, the welcome news that our residence halls are almost filled to capacity also causes anxiety, because we are not yet at the enrollment envisioned in the strategic plan. With another 100 or more students yet to go, and expecting 75 percent of them to live on campus, where then will they live?
Second, our record in preparing students in science is long and distinguished. But the Sutton Science Center is now over 40 years old, and renewed investment in laboratories, classrooms, and equipment is needed. How can we best proceed to develop academic space that brings our physical facilities closer to the quality of our faculty, staff, and students? (I hope never to work at a college where the physical facilities are better than the people!)
Third, our strategic plan emphasizes the importance of wellness for everyone. In addition, we continue to believe that varsity athletics is an important component of the development of the whole person that Maryville College emphasizes. How do we improve the fields and grounds so that every student can take advantage of our incredible campus to develop physical health to complement their intellectual and spiritual development?
These are important questions and we will address them thoughtfully and collaboratively. You will have the opportunity to help shape the plans for the future of Maryville College, and together we will find good answers to those questions and others that confront us.
We have achieved great success, but we haven’t reached the goal. As we continue our journey, there are a few highlights to mention that we can expect to see this year. First, we have added a new approach to international travel, with it being incorporated during spring break into a spring semester course in addition to the usual J-term options. Second, we continue to improve our advising and mentoring, already a strength of the college. Third, new partnerships have already begun and more will be developed as Maryville College Works launches.
One feature of a college campus is that it is new every year because of the graduation of some students and the arrival of others. We are also seeing that renewal among the faculty and staff, with some new faces in prominent positions, including Cyndi Sweet (admissions director), Blake Smith (GM, Clayton Center), and Suzy Booker (VP, Advancement). We also have some familiar faces in new places, like Jason Troyer (assistant dean for first year), Karen Beale (chair of QEP), and Susan Schneibel (co-chair of QEP). And even those of us who are in the same positions know that every year – well, every day – brings new challenges and opportunities. Let us join together and strain forward to reach the prize ahead.
May God bless us all throughout this academic year.
Maryville College is ideally situated in Maryville, Tenn., between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Knoxville, the state‘s third largest city. Founded in 1819, it is the 12th oldest institution of higher learning in the South and maintains an affiliation with the Presbyterian Church (USA). Known for its academic rigor and its focus on the liberal arts, Maryville is where students come to stretch their minds, stretch themselves and learn how to make a difference in the world. Total enrollment for the fall 2013 semester was 1,168.