Matriculation Convocation 2021: Comfort with Discomfort

Thank you for joining us this afternoon.  And what a thrill it is to be here. That music was so incredibly beautiful. It just warmed my heart.

But I want to begin by acknowledging my message to the campus community this morning addressing two recent incidents of concern, both of which involved our students witnessing or being the target of hateful speech in our surrounding community. This is not how I wanted to start this academic year or this Convocation. But we cannot talk about our future without addressing the challenges of our present. These incidents–and others like them–are not acceptable and are in direct conflict with our values as a community. Ensuring that Lawrence is a place of safety and belonging is an essential priority.  And I pledge to you that Lawrence will continue to work closely with the City of Appleton to ensure that the safety of Lawrence students both on and off campus. It is a top collaborative priority. More information about about joint efforts with the city will be shared soon.

I am honored to serve as President of Lawrence University at this moment in history, just a few months away from the 175th anniversary of this renowned College of Liberal Arts & Science and Conservatory of Music. While I was told about Lawrence’s traditions prior to my arrival on campus, witnessing them first-hand last week brought them to life. I was particularly moved to see the hand-off of the purple class flag to the incoming Class of 2025. This is a tradition that not only unites our students and graduates but also honors our ties to Milwaukee-Downer College, whose students brought the class colors tradition with them when our two colleges merged more than 50 years ago. 

I am looking forward to experiencing first-hand more of Lawrence’s rich traditions just as I’ve been looking forward to this opportunity to speak with you this afternoon about Lawrence’s bright future.  

But before I discuss where we are going, I want to take a moment to look at where we’ve been and to express gratitude to Lawrence faculty, staff and students for their extraordinary show of solidarity and sense of community during the 2020-21 academic year.  The manner in which the community came together to support one another during the pandemic is why we are brighter together today.  Thank you for allowing me to join a community that is poised to confront the challenges ahead with a focus on what is best for our students and our mission.   

I also want to thank the facilities and grounds team for successfully completing multiple complex construction projects this summer, many of which were funded by our generous donors or through grant funding. From the replacements of sidewalks across campus to the addition of an accessible ramp on Brokaw Hall to the truly transformational renovation of Youngchild’s lecture hall into the new Science Learnings Commons and the first phase of the reimagined student residence Kohler Hall, the campus looks great.  Providing our students with newly upgraded living and learning spaces is a testament to your dedicated work.  And I would be remiss if I did not thank the volunteers who pitched in to help beautify our campus in preparation for the arrival of our students.  We truly are brighter together.  

The Admissions team also deserves our gratitude for their extraordinary work in recruiting one of the largest first-year classes since 2012. 

I had the privilege of welcoming our newest Lawrentians to campus last week.  I was moved by the hope and anticipation they brought to campus. I met three first-generation college student who want to study biology.  An African-American student who wants to learn more about Korean culture and language.  A track and field scholar-athlete who specializes in hurdles and also wants to be a pentathlete.  And in the truest form of exploration, the student from Tunisia who knows nothing about American football but is serving as operations manager to the team.  

Each of these students has come to Lawrence to challenge themselves in new ways.  They realize that the path to their success requires them to stretch outside of their comfort zone.  After all, this is the way we grow as individuals.  We develop a level of comfort with discomfort that allows us to forge new paths, engage with different people and cultures, and confront and persevere through challenges that have been placed in our way.  Our students also came to Lawrence with the expectation that we nurture and support that growth while we—faculty, staff, and administrators—model this path ourselves. 

Our students have entrusted their education to us at arguably the most tumultuous time in recent history.  We have been in the midst of a global pandemic for more than 18 months with no clear end in sight.  The United States is confronting political strife that has torn families apart.  We are grappling with a racial reckoning that is exacerbated by that divide.  And for schools like Lawrence, we face more complex challenges in addition to these national and global disruptions than ever before. The value of higher education, especially the liberal arts, is under attack by political parties and factions of the media.  And while student loan debt is skyrocketing, college retention and graduation rates are not. Post-graduation placement into work or graduate programs is being scrutinized like never before, and employers are frustrated that recent graduates are not meeting expectations of critical thinking, adaptability and teamwork.  And if that isn’t enough, the nation is approaching a demographic cliff when the birthrate will drop so low that the competition for college-age students in the Midwest will be more intense than ever.

So how will we at Lawrence confront these issues? How will we maintain and amplify the quality of the Lawrence experience and position Lawrence as a leader in higher education now and into the future?  Like our students, we must develop a level of comfort with discomfort.  We will need to challenge ourselves in new ways, ask ourselves hard questions and boldly move forward while keeping our focus on what is in the best interest of our students, sustains the university’s mission, and honors our history. 

I am excited for this work, and I feel uniquely positioned for the challenges ahead.  As an African-American woman and leader, discomfort has always been a part of my journey.  It started as a child when I was often either the only Black person—or one of few—in the room and certainly the darkest.  Later, I added the discomfort of being a female athlete—I ran sprints and hurdles—at a time when femininity and athletics were in tension with the other.  Later, as a professional, I can clearly remember being in roles where I was expected to be present in the room but to either remain silent or only speak on behalf of all Black people.  I recall when seeking advancement, being told that I should not expect to have it all.  The pretext was that being a mother and a professional should be enough.  But with each experience, I grew.  I understood that if I was to achieve my goals, I couldn’t allow the barriers placed in my way to stop me.  I guess in some respects, being a hurdler helped.  Instead of looking down at the barrier I was crossing, I learned to look ahead and keep my eye on the goal of crossing the finish line first.  Being the first woman or the first BIPOC person in a space can come with discomfort, but it can also come with the comfort of success.  And that is how we will proceed.  With the knowledge that if we work together, we will not only overcome the discomfort challenges bring, we will succeed, and ultimately find comfort in our success. I want to be clear that comfort does not equal complacency. Comfort is knowing that we were able to overcome the hurdles we faced and met our objectives. Comfort is also having the confidence that we can face even more discomfort and rise to the challenge again. 

Since the announcement of my presidency in March, I have spent time getting to know the Lawrence community.  I have had conversations with trustees, faculty, staff, students, alumni, parents, and Appleton community leaders.  I want to thank all with whom I’ve spoken for your time, candor and commitment to Lawrence.  It has been invaluable to me in planning for how best to move the university forward at such a challenging and uncomfortable moment in our history. 

I have also learned of the many incredible things happening at Lawrence.  The pandemic has clearly not extinguished the light emanating from this community.  And I’d like to take a few moments to share a few examples of these bright lights from the past year with you.

Multiple faculty members received prestigious awards or grants, including Jake Frederick, Professor of History, who was awarded a short-term Newberry Library/Associated Colleges of the Midwest Fellowship in October 2020.

Beth Zinsli, Assistant Professor of Art History and Curator of the Wriston Art Center Galleries, won the inaugural M.C. Lang Fellowship in Book History, Bibliography and the Humanities Teaching with Historical Sources from the University of Virginia’s Rare Book School in March.  Beth was also named a winner of a National Endowment for the Humanities Preservation Assistance grant to determine approaches to preserving Lawrence’s Downer College Teakwood Room.

In July, Julie Rana, Assistant Professor of Mathematics, was awarded a National Science Foundation LEAPS-MPS—or Launching Early-Career Academic Pathways in the Mathematical and Physical Sciences–grant. And Israel Del Toro, Assistant Professor of Biology, was awarded an EAGER grant from the National Science Foundation to forward his work in bee conservation.

And recently, Lori Hilt, Associate Professor of Psychology and Department Chair, received a subaward grant from the National Institute of Health through Harvard’s McLean Hospital Corporation.

In addition to stellar research, scholarship, and performance, our faculty remain committed to excellence in teaching, a fact that was recognized just this week by U.S. News & World Report, which included Lawrence on its 2022 list of Best Undergraduate Teaching. 

And there’s more: 

Dr. Brittany Bell, Assistant Dean of Students and Director of the Diversity and Intercultural Center, contributed a chapter to the recently published book Teaching Beautiful Brilliant Black Girls

Vice President for Enrollment and Communications Ken Anselment’s podcast The A.L.P. recently received the John B. Muir Editor Award, recognizing the NACAC member that has made the most significant communications-related contribution to the college admission counseling field during the past year.

LeRoy Frahm, electronics technician in the Physics department since 1975 and an Air Force veteran, recently received the 2021 James M. Roche Spirit of Volunteerism Award from the U.S. Department of Defense. 

The Lawrence Conservatory of Music’s jazz program earned an Outstanding Performance award in Downbeat magazine’s annual Student Music Awards, marking the fourth consecutive year the program has been honored. 

Lawrence opened its inaugural varsity women’s hockey season in February. This was the first new varsity sport launched since 1986.

Members of the Class of 2021 received prestigious national grants, including Travis Dillon, how. received a prestigious National Science Foundation award that will assist the mathematics major as he heads to graduate school and pursues a doctorate. Ricardo Jimenez and Ben Portzen were named national recipients of the prestigious Thomas J. Watson Fellowship.  Additionally, 2018 graduate Koby Brown was awarded a Fulbright fellowship to Brazil to pursue his ethnomusicology research. 

And we cannot forget that during some of the darkest days of the pandemic, John Holiday’s performances on “The Voice” lifted our spirits.  I want to thank John for leading our new students and their families in an inspiring rendition of “This Little Light of Mine” at our President’s Welcome last week.

These accomplishments—and so many more that we don’t have time to name here but are equally impressive—pay testament to the strength and resilience needed to propel our scholarship, our work, and our creativity forward even during a challenging time. It is heartening to see that the discomfort of this pandemic did not impede progress at Lawrence. And the external forces that will challenge us in the coming years will not impede our progress either. 

At this moment we must dig deep within ourselves to do more to move the university forward. Through our collective efforts, we must transform Lawrence into a university that is poised to lead in this new environment.  And as the environment evolves, we must be nimble enough to evolve with it.  

Dr. John Kotter, author of “Leading Change” and several other books on the subject, says that “transformation is a process, not an event.”  Unlike the way the world had to shut down almost overnight to mitigate COVID, our process of change will take a little longer, but it must keep pace with the need to provide an exceptional education to students and prepare them for a rapidly changing world, while appropriately responding to the national discourse on higher education.

Just as Lawrentians have shared their pride in the university’s many strengths and accomplishments with me during recent conversations, they have also generously shared their insights on our future.  As a result of those discussions, the President’s Cabinet and I have developed five priorities that will frame our work moving forward:    

  • Strategic Equitable Student Success
  • Lawrence Brand Enhancement
  • Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Anti-Racism
  • An Enhanced Integrated University Experience
  • Strategic Financial Stewardship

While these five priorities touch nearly every aspect of our university, from recruitment and retention to the curricular and co-curricular programs, they all are in service of our students.   And our ability to collectively engage in dialogue and problem-solving around these areas will determine our course for the future. 

In “Leading Change,” Kotter described his change model that evolved in his later book, “Accelerate.” The process involves a parallel construct.  On one side, the traditional hierarchy of our university will continue to operate.  We must press forward with the day to day operations and honor our policies, processes and shared governance.  At the same time, parallel to the traditional hierarchy, we will work through the steps of change using Kotter’s model, which has proven effective for so many organizations.  

Creating a sense of urgency is the first step in the process.  Let’s look back to the issues that higher education is facing in this new landscape.  Declining applications. Declining net tuition revenue. Inconsistent and aspirationally low retention rates. Public discourse challenging higher education, specifically, the liberal arts. High national student loan debt. And the perception of a low return of investment in terms of job placement and continuing education.  

Lawrence is not immune to these issues.  Yes, we have a strong foundation with talented and dedicated faculty and staff and bright motivated students. We have extraordinarily generous alumni and friends who supported the historic Be the Light! capital campaign. We introduced three new areas of study in the last year and recruited one of the largest incoming classes in Lawrence’s history. The university’s outlook has improved thanks to these efforts, and we should be proud of our accomplishments.  But financial issues still need to be resolved, including deferred and other maintenance that will cost in the tens of millions of dollars.  And we can’t forget that enrollment cliff that’s on the immediate horizon. We need to ensure that a Lawrence education is more attractive and accessible to incoming students than ever before.

Do you feel a little more urgency now?  

So let’s work together to strengthen Lawrence’s position and build a brighter future for our university and our community.

Following Kotter’s model, we will build a series of guiding coalitions that will serve as accountable, integrated groups bound by opportunity, strategy and action.  Consisting of a volunteer army of Lawrentians from across the university, the guiding coalitions will form the strategic visions and initiatives to move us forward.  They will work and be authorized to remove barriers so that they are able to generate short-term wins, sustain acceleration, and ultimately institute change. 

Implementation of the process is critical.  Because we have so many challenges ahead of us and some issues require more immediate action than others, we will move forward along three consecutive paths, using our normal hierarchical model, a hybrid model of hierarchy and accelerate, and a pure accelerate model for areas that need immediate, focused attention.  

Let me take a moment to share how this will work.

Our current strategic plan, Veritas est Lux, expires in 2022.  The process to create a new plan will work through our existing governance models.  A strategic planning committee will be formed in the next two months.  This group will be charged with evaluating the current plan.  Once that work is completed, we will be better positioned to begin the creation of a new plan based upon the work of our guiding coalitions.

Strategic Equitable Student Success is our first priority.  No later than October 31, we will use our existing hierarchy and an accelerated approach to begin the creation of a Strategic Equitable Enrollment Management plan – the hybrid model.  The team responsible for the plan will represent a cross section of the campus community.  It will use data and best practices to create a plan that will allow us to grow applications, increase net tuition revenue, and better serve all students by focusing on recruitment and retention strategies that will position Lawrence as a leader in the future of higher education.

We will also begin working through the steps of “Accelerate,” by creating five guiding coalitions.  Each will focus on one area and will be given a charge and timeline specific to that area.  The timelines will begin within the next month and conclude prior to the completion of this academic year.  Each guiding coalition will consist of members from multiple layers of the university hierarchy and will represent all constituents—faculty, staff, students, trustees and alumni.  Each will have at least two co-chairs, one representing faculty and one representing staff.   Some may include additional co-chairs representing other constituents.  Members of the coalitions must have a sense of urgency and a commitment to the change initiative at hand. The guiding coalitions will focus on five areas:

  • Visioning of Our Five Priorities
  • Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Anti-Racism
  • Full Speed to Full Need
  • Amplifying Athletics
  • 175th Anniversary

Our volunteer army will consist of members of the community who are passionate about these issues and are willing to lock arms with others to create meaningful change around them. You—faculty, staff, students alike—have the opportunity to participate, step up and act like never before.  Everyone, regardless of role, can engage in this process, and I truly hope that you will.

For our students, I have heard loud and clear that you feel pressured to not only alert the faculty and staff to the work required to best serve your needs but also to DO the work yourselves. That stops here. We need your ideas, thoughts, and experiences. While your participation is desired and necessary for the success of this process, you should not feel compelled to lead it.  We have heard you and will continue to do so throughout this process and beyond.  

Lawrence’s motto calls for Light! More Light! Remember, the points at which light intersect are brighter than any singular light, and I am asking each of you to bring your light to this process. 

Later this afternoon you will receive an email inviting you to join this effort.  I hope that you will join me and your colleagues and classmates to heed that call. 

Elizabeth Kubler Ross said, “People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light from within.”  Lawrence is known for its light.  And when the sun was shining brightly, meaning before the public discourse on higher education turned negative and the pandemic disrupted the world, our light shone brighter than ever.  But now that darkness has threatened us, we must use the light within us to demonstrate to the world who we are.  

So for a moment close your eyes.  Imagine yourself in this Chapel on a winter’s eve surrounded by Lawrentians past and present.  Then imagine everyone in the Chapel lighting a candle in the darkness.  Imagine the power of that light illuminating the stained glass of this beautiful structure so that it shines beauty and light on the outside world.  That is our path forward.  Our individual lights will join together to face and embrace discomfort and guide our university to an even brighter place. We will be brighter together.