Opening of School Address

Jeffrey Stein
President, Mary Baldwin University

August 22, 2023

Thank you, Dr. Low, for that inspiring message, and Reverend Cornett-Scott for leading us in the inclusivity pledge.

Good morning!

Welcome to the 2023-2024 academic year – our 182nd year! And welcome to those participating virtually as well.

I’ve been thinking a lot about time lately. Maybe it’s because…

Our Motto: NOT FOR TIME, BUT FOR ETERNITY suggests that although we live in this moment, we must think beyond this time.

Maybe it’s because next Monday, August 28, our first day of undergraduate classes, will mark the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s “I have a dream” speech.

Maybe because I believe that this is our time to shine at MBU, and I’m a tad impatient.

Maybe because people often ask me how I have enjoyed my time at MBU or in Staunton. And I’m still marking the days . . . today is my 53rd day.

Or maybe it’s because today is my birthday.

It seems fitting to celebrate it with you because today is a beginning:

No matter the reason, we are all focused on this moment and this year. A year that will bring challenges as well as opportunities to build and celebrate our campus community and faculty-staff community, and a year that will impact us institutionally, professionally, and personally.

Because this time, this work, our careers, our work with students is PERSONAL, right?

We are in the business of human transformation.

We – each of us – comprise a community of nearly 450 educators, who shape a powerful learning community and launchpad for students.

We, as Whitman wrote, “contain multitudes” . . . we are new, we are experienced, we are faculty, we are staff, we are black and white and hispanic and christian, muslim, and jewish and male, female, non-binary, trans and so much more . . . and together we make Mary Baldwin what it is.

Inherent in our work are connections to each other and to students, connections that fuel relationships and learning. As Randy Bass from Georgetown has written, “there is not learning without relationships.”

I’m excited to share that this year we welcome 557 promising new students across all programs. This year’s entering class, while slightly decreased in all programs, is quite robust.

Across all programs and modalities, 28 states are represented, and our students range in age from 12 to 62 (one student listed their birthdate as 1884 – placing them at 139 years old, so we removed that one).

Of the 352 undergraduate residential students:

We come together this week to officially restart the engines and relationships that drive student learning.

Let’s begin with recognition of our colleagues. Last spring, a number of our colleagues achieved Service Anniversaries, which can be found in your program. This morning, I would like to recognize them.

Shelly Irvine, would you mind coming down to the stage? Folks, Shelly Irvine came to Mary Baldwin 40 years ago! What an incredible commitment. How about a round of applause for Shelly!?

The individuals on this page represent 560 years of service to this community, a testimony to the power of perseverance and commitment.

In addition to those years of service, the list of faculty and staff publications, awards, campaign completion, progress on summer renovations, and more is long. We have much to be proud of and build upon. Your program also lists retirees who gave considerable service during their MBU careers. How about another round of applause to thank our colleagues!?

I appreciate the opportunity to recognize current and long standing members of our community – just as we welcome new colleagues – as a way to exemplify the power and accomplishments of the community they join today.

So I ask new staff and faculty members if you would please stand and be welcomed.

In your program is also a full list of our new colleagues in alphabetical order. I ask each of us to make an effort to meet and welcome our new colleagues at events today and throughout the year.

For months, I’ve been thinking about how to explain the importance of this moment of our coming together, this moment in Mary Baldwin’s history.

Around us the landscape of higher education is swirling with headlines and “headwinds,” campus and program closures, political rhetoric, affirmative action decisions, shrinking budgets, public skepticism, and demographic cliffs.

On the one hand, we cannot ignore what students, families, and employers are telling us about our offerings and outcomes. On the other hand, as the headlines and political rhetoric swirl, we must be clear on our purpose.

We’ve all seen the news regarding Gallup’s recent report finding that only 36% of Americans have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in higher education, a 20 percent decrease since 2015. Let’s add some complexity to this by considering two other studies.

An April poll by The Wall Street Journal and University of Chicago found that 56% of Americans agreed that a four-year college education was “not worth the cost because people often graduate without specific job skills and with a large amount of debt to pay off” – an increase of 16% since 2013. In other words, Americans are concerned about outcomes, particularly return on investment. Now we could spend all day arguing about learning and human transformation vs. return on investment.

But let’s jump ahead to a study published in July by New America that shows a bit more complexity regarding public views on higher education, including that 70% of Americans believe higher education leads to “greater civic engagement, lower unemployment, and better public health within their communities.”

It’s not that students and families simply want a business transaction. It’s not that they want only a rubber stamp pathway to a high-paying job. It’s not either/or. Instead, it’s both/and. Students and families want it all. They want a high-powered, experiential, transformative education that helps students be their best selves AND to get a great job.

More than ever, they are conscious of the cost of higher education, of loan debt, and tangible outcomes related to jobs, salaries, student loan alumni networks, lifelong career support, and even quality of life on campus. They want their time and their money to matter.

Before I begin to answer the question of how we respond and what we can expect moving forward, I want to share a framing story, entitled, “Day and Night.”

In it, a professor asks her students, “How do we know when the night has ended and the day has begun?”

Immediately the students thought that they grasped the importance of the question.

So the brightest of the students offered an answer: “When I look out at campus, and I can distinguish between my campus and town, that’s when the night has ended and day has begun.”

A second student offered her answer: “When I look up from the hill and I see a residence hall and I can tell that it’s my residence hall and not the hall of my neighbor, that’s when the night has ended and the day has begun.”

A third student offered an answer: “When I can distinguish the people on the hill – and I can tell a first year from a senior – that’s when the night has ended.”

A fourth student offered yet another answer: “Professor, when I know who to blame for noises I hear, when I can see what or who is causing those noises, that’s when the night has ended and day has begun.”

Each of these answers brought a sadder, more severe frown to the professor’s face – until finally she shouted: “No! None of you understand! Her students were stumped, unable to see their way out of the darkness.

Let’s pause here for a moment with the students in the dark of night to examine our situation.

As you well know, we are in a challenging financial position regarding our undergraduate residential program. For many, many, many decades, Mary Baldwin, like many institutions, has faced dwindling revenues, increasing costs, and greater and greater challenges. If we do not act, we will eventually find ourselves in a financial crisis.

I have heard from many of you that for a number of years you have felt this burden and the lack of clarity on how to move the institution forward or to even understand what’s holding us back.

How did we arrive at this moment?

Our challenges and financial deficit in the undergraduate residential program come from a variety of issues, including:

The bottom line? We have been structured in ways to spend more than we take in for the undergraduate residential program. And government funds during COVID-19, as well as revenues from Murphy Deming and online programs through Palmer College have been covering those losses.

Here’s a few slides to show what this looks like.

This is the money we take in, our unrestricted operating revenue, not including funds we have not received, like unpaid pledges or future commitments made in donors’ wills for after they pass away. I’m showing 2021 because 2022 included some larger than normal gifts, and 2023’s books are not yet closed. As you can see the majority of our revenue – 81% – comes from tuition, room, board, and fees.

Now let’s take a closer look at the part of our revenue that we actually keep. Our gross or total tuition for each year is at the top of the yellow bar. The Yellow portion of the bar represents how much of that money we give back in aid. The Black portion represents how much we keep or net. For example, gross, or total, tuition and fees reached $35M in 2017. That leaves the net tuition revenue in black, which was just over 21 million dollars.

As you can see in this chart, in order to fill our undergraduate residential class each year, we have given more and more financial aid, from $12.4M in 2017 to nearly 22 million dollars in 2021, an increase of 9.6 million dollars.

At the same time, our net tuition revenue only grew $4M, from 22.6M to 26.6M.

Now, let’s look at expenses. As you can see here, our 2022 budget was allocated as follows, with the largest portion going to Instruction but with increases during COVID to Student Services. The remaining funds go to auxiliaries such as dining, campus shop, security, etc. and all remaining offices and operations being called Institutional Support, including everything from Advancement to Admissions.

Here’s the kicker. This chart shows all money we take in, represented by the black bar, minus our operating expenses, or budget, in yellow. Notice how expenses in yellow dipped in 2021 as we made cuts during COVID but increased quickly afterward. What you see here is the operating expenses exceeding the revenues . . . the gray bar at the bottom of the chart represents our structural deficit, how much our expenses to run the institution eclipsed our revenues. In 2021 with an influx of COVID funding and decrease in expenses, we ran a positive surplus. This year, we expect and have forecast to include a 3-4 million dollar deficit. We expect a deficit next year as well.

Let me pause to discuss what has already been done to navigate this deficit.

You are familiar with steps ranging from budget cuts and freezes, to freezing salaries, to unfilled job openings, to not adding new positions. But I thought it might be helpful to be specific about the employee and budget changes during the past few years.

In 2017, MBU had approximately 525 faculty and staff. This fall, we start the year with 446 faculty and staff. That is a decrease of 15%. In addition to faculty and staff positions that have been eliminated many positions have gone unfilled including grounds crew, the Provost, faculty, Student Engagement staff, the Vice President of Communications, Chief Health Officer, and many others.

The reality we confront is daunting. And there is no simple solution or singular cause. I wish I could tell you it was going to be easy. But we will face challenging decisions in the months ahead. And we cannot do this work without confronting it openly.

We will eliminate this deficit over the next few years by taking steps to control costs and increase revenues. The path forward requires:

Each of these efforts will be grounded in our most important work: student success, and increasing student engagement, student retention, student graduation rates, and student outcomes after graduation.

Let’s return to the professor in the story, asking her students, “How do we know when the night has ended and the day has begun?”

The students had answers about distinguishing campus and town or between different people or when they knew who to blame for actions and noises.

The professor shouted: “No! None of you understand! You only know how to divide! You divide campus from town, your hall from the hall of your classmate, one student from another, or even who to blame. Is that all that we can do – divide, separate, split the world into pieces? Isn’t the world broken enough – split into enough fragments? Our values want more from us.”

The shocked students looked into the sad face of their professor. One of them ventured, “Then Professor, tell us: How do we know that night has ended and day has begun?”

The Professor stared back into the faces of their students and with a gentle and imploring voice responded:

“When you look into the face of the person who is beside you, and you can see that that person is your brother or your sister, when you can recognize that person as a partner, a colleague, or a friend, then, finally, the night has ended and the day has begun.”

The professor guides us on how to proceed. Connections, working together, and leveraging our many assets represent the way forward. Our personnel, our students, our alumni, our programs, this place, and our values–all must be connected to be the best Mary Baldwin for this time and beyond.

I have faith that together we will rise to these challenges and use this moment to start anew. The people who make this campus come alive have always found ways to adapt in order to ensure we serve as a launchpad for promising young people from all backgrounds.

I believe the students, faculty, staff, and alumni of this institution will create an innovative iteration of MBU for the decades ahead that supports students to succeed in their time, and in that way, we will also address our financial challenges.

I want to provide two cautions at this point. On the one hand, this conversation should not be simplified to a headline of “jobs vs. liberal arts.” On the other hand, we cannot ignore that students, parents, and industry are calling for greater connections between what we do and jobs.

Just last week, Senior Studio Art Major and Marketing minor Charlotte Bradley, responded to my email to students about keeping the best parts of a liberal arts education while providing experiences that create skilled and work-ready students.

Insightfully, Charlotte wrote:
“I think that this is a great take on what it means to have a liberal arts degree. . . . I think that Mary Baldwin should provide more experiences and classes dealing with current technology . . . My experience . . . has been very limited in terms of technology. . . . I wish that I was taught more about how current . . . industry works and what they use because I want to know how to combine my traditional skills with tech. I think that integrating technology into our learning and understanding how to use it is important, and it would be very beneficial for students about to enter the workforce. I also believe that other majors, specifically those in the humanities, might have similar thoughts as well.”

We make a promise to students and families that investing with us will result in students being launched into lives of purpose and professional success. We cannot ignore mounting pressure in and on higher education and how students have been voting with their feet regarding their academics.

There is an energy in this place.

Last spring as I began meeting members of this community, I could feel that energy, passion, and potential compelling me to step away from a place I called home for 21 years.

I wanted to be part of Mary Baldwin’s future.

It was a moment, as Bridges describes in his book Transitions, when like the trapeze artist, I could sense the next bar flying towards me. You know the moment. We are holding on for dear life, but we know we must let go, flying briefly untethered through the air, before grabbing on to that next bar.

I am here because education transformed the trajectory of my own family from some of history’s darkest nights of Nazis and pogroms.

I believe Mary Baldwin, at its heart, is a beacon of light on the hill, always rising, always improving lives, showing courage to endeavor for what is right and equitable, to raise people up, to educate, to fight for those who need it, for women, for the underrepresented, and providing access to education that transforms lives.

This flame of education and opportunity is more important than ever in this country.

And each of us have our personal reasons for being here. Reasons that matter. So I ask you, “why are you here? Why did you come to Mary Baldwin? What do you hope to accomplish?”

My guess is your answers are also grounded in passion, drive, and hope.

So that bring us to the work ahead.

James McCarty, a professor of conflict management at Boston University, who has written extensively on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., argues that today Dr. King would go beyond the moral appeals of “I have a Dream” and with passion, hope, and a sense of urgency would likely say, “Get organized!”

In the years ahead, we will get organized, we will engage in multiple Herculean tasks … at the same time:

  1. We will engage in downsizing and modernizing our general
    studies and curriculum
  2. We will endeavor to increase student success, retention,
    completion, and job and graduate school attainment
  3. At the same time we will work to build relationships and
    community across campus
  4. And also start up exciting engaged learning programs that
    sharpen students’ purpose, passion, and skills.

Already two task forces have stepped up to begin this work.

I’d like to thank the faculty and staff who serve on the Engaged Student Experience and Academic Portfolio creative teams listed on screen. This summer, these teams have been meeting regularly to advance progress on their charges as laid out by the Board on May 25.

The Academic Portfolio creative team is drafting 10 general education courses and organizing majors into four to five categories representing critical sectors of the economy. 10 draft general education courses and a draft of potential new, reconceptualized, and new majors.

The Academic Portfolio creative team is working to ensure students get the best of the liberal arts while folding in industry-informed majors. These majors will be organized within 4-5 broad categories representing critical sectors of the economy. This work will require us to build faculty development offerings, grow institutional research capacities, and increase support for engaged learning across campus.

The Engaged Student Experience creative team is designing a model to ensure every student enters with a residential cohort based on their academic interests and through that residential program will be connected with staff and faculty, social and intellectual programming, and more.

They will be able to build durable power skills through civic engagement/service, leadership opportunities, and the support of a network or team of mentors.

They will have the opportunity to study and work away, take on
micro internships and full semester internships, and they will be supported in finding internships and jobs by the McCree Center of Life Success, which launches this fall.

This work and the vision for the years ahead are grounded in a notion that Student Success is everyone’s job. We are 450 educators, who create a supportive campus environment, challenge and support students, and help them discover their passions and skills, so they become their best selves.

That means every one of us has a role to play in shaping the campus environment, getting to know students, and making them and their families our number one priority, whether they are in-person, online, undergraduate, or graduate students.

This work will enrich our current students, strengthen our reputation, and draw new students to Mary Baldwin.

Here’s four quick starting points for the year:

I am thrilled that we have just signed a contract with TimelyCare as a resource for all students. My thanks to Dr. Jeffries for making this connection and for reallocating budgets to get this 24/7 access to therapy for all undergraduate and graduate students. This is a fantastic resource that our students desperately need, and you’ll be hearing more about how this will work.

In order to build trust and morale on campus, I will charge two campus committees, each led by faculty and staff co-chairs:

First: A Faculty-Staff Experience Committee to consider short and long term suggestions for enhancing staff and faculty work experiences, well-being, professional development opportunities like Dr. Diduch and Derek Bruff’s sessions today, and connections across online, Murphy Deming, and the Staunton campus.

And Second: A committee focused on developing a university DEI plan and implementation list to build on the work of the Racial and Social Justice Coalition. We cannot do our work without a clear focus on intercultural competence, equitable hiring practices, inclusive campus systems, belonging for all on campus, and more. After recent Supreme Court decisions, it has never been more important to ensure that we understand how to make real our commitments to diversity, inclusion, and equity.

A third area of focus will be raising the quality of our operations, such as our ability to access and utilize data to improve our work and support student success. This will require investment over time. But we must increase the quality of our physical campus and services, if we expect to compete.

One way we do this is to create annual institutional and divisional priorities that we track publicly. Via email, we will send you a copy of these priorities, which have specific Executive Staff members assigned to them and for which we will track progress through the year.

Our McCree Center for Life Success will launch this year, and this staff led by Thy Nguyen and Christina Harris will focus on helping students find internships and jobs. This team is already working to build relationships and partnerships with employers all over the country and will be happy to work with academic departments on these

As I travel the country this year, meeting with donors and alumni, I’ll also be meeting with corporations and foundations, asking for their input and support of our industry-
informed academics, experiences that build power skills, and career preparation. I believe we will only strengthen higher education if we can bring academics, non profits, industry, and government together like this–including bringing these groups to campus to better understand what we do and tell us what challenges or problems they are facing and how recent graduates are performing.

And, of course, we will be working with faculty on developing additional connections between and across our academic programs, including 3+2 programs that will attract
undergraduates who can complete their bachelors and masters degrees in 5 years.

You heard me say this work is personal and is about connections. That means we have to know each other, be open, and communicate.

In order to support the development of community, we have asked Chartwells, our dining partner, to provide a meal to staff and faculty on a select day each month. We will start that tradition today.

In advance of launching a campus-wide strategic planning process (this spring), I will engage in a strategic listening tour, coming to campus divisions and colleges, asking you to share your thoughts.

As I mentioned in my recent email, we will also have Town Halls on Thursday, August, 31 and Thursday, September 14, during the Convocation Hour.

And, of course, we will be working on how to better connect the online, Murphy Deming, and Staunton campus students, faculty, and staff. We are one community.

There is a bright future ahead. And your input is essential for that future. I ask that you share with me your thoughts on what is working, what you are proud of, and what needs improvement on campus.

Many of you know of my work over two decades at Elon University – a school that strategically plotted a trajectory based on its own distinctiveness. I stand here today with the belief that Mary Baldwin’s best and brightest days are ahead, and I look to you with optimism.

In order to propel students for the unknown future, we will:

Our students need this personal work from us, in this moment . . .

I will close today, with a note from EB White.

In 1973, White – author of The Elements of Style and children’s books Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web – wrote the following in reply to a follower concerned with the bleak
future for the human race.

“As long as there is one upright [individual], as long as there is one compassionate [person], the contagion may spread and the scene is not desolate. Hope is the thing that is left to us . . . I shall get up [in the] morning and wind the clock . . .

Things can look dark, then a break shows in the clouds, and all is changed, sometimes rather suddenly. It is quite obvious that the human race has made a . . . mess of life on this planet.

But as a people we probably harbor seeds of goodness that have lain for a long time waiting to sprout when the conditions are right. [Our] curiosity, [our] relentlessness, [our] inventiveness, [our] ingenuity . . . We can only hope . . .these . . . traits will enable [us]. . . .”

White closes with these 3 simple sentences:

“Hang on to your hat.
Hang on to your hope.
And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day.”

Colleagues, fellow educators, I wish you a fantastic year ahead. Please stop me on the sidewalk, introduce yourself, and tell me what’s on your mind.

You’ll hear me say, “All in for Mary Baldwin,” ALL IN.

Thank you!