2022 Convocation Address | University of Portland

2022 Convocation Address

On August 30, 2022, Dr. Robert D. Kelly gave the following Convocation Address.

Hope, Renewal, Transformation

Good Afternoon everyone. Thank you for the kind introduction, Herbert, and thank you for the invocation, Father Peter.

It’s wonderful to be here today, and to offer the first of what I hope will be many Convocation Addresses.

It’s fantastic to see so many staff and faculty, and to be joined by several students, as well. I know that the start of the semester is an exceptionally busy time. I’m grateful that you’ve taken a moment out of your schedule to join us here today.

As I’ve started out in this new position, there have been a series of milestone moments—events and experiences of significance that have helped me to feel truly a part of this community. These milestone moments have occurred in rapid succession recently. With Move-In Day, my first soccer match, the President’s Welcome, the First Day of Classes, and more now under my belt, we’re truly off-and-running.

Today’s Convocation Address is yet another one of those milestone moments. Having the chance to offer these remarks helps to make all of this feel more “real.” And preparing for today’s event has left me even more energized and motivated to begin serving and leading UP.

As I’ve taken on this role, I’ve found myself reflecting often on the concepts of hope, renewal, and transformation.

Throughout my life, hope, renewal, and transformation have been north stars. They’ve been core, guiding themes. They are both timely and timeless, and thinking about them when setting off on a new journey can be helpful.

Now, as the new President of a Holy Cross institution, they have been on my mind quite often.

Hope is, of course, a quintessential aspect of Holy Cross charism. Here at UP, hope connects us with our mission, it sustains us in times of challenge, and it leads us to the promise of a better future.

Similarly, renewal looks both forward and backward. It acknowledges inherent goodness; the presence of blessings; and a deep richness. But it calls upon us to lean even harder into these things, to ensure that we use all that we have been given.

And finally, transformation. Recent times have called us to stop, to reflect, and to reimagine. In some ways and in some areas, change is needed so that UP’s next 121 years will be as bright as the prior 121 years.

I’ve entitled today’s address “Hope, Renewal, Transformation,” because these will be guiding principles for me during the times that are ahead.

Perhaps you will see these themes woven into my remarks. I’ll return to them directly at the end of our time together.

But before going any further, I want to take a few moments to reflect on the process that led me to this role, and to offer my deepest, most unending gratitude to the people of this community.

Depending upon how you choose to look at it, my journey to becoming UP’s President began either about ten months ago, or about twenty-five years ago.

If you take the longer view, it feels as though my entire career in higher education has culminated in this moment. Like many in this auditorium, I grew up in an environment in which teaching and learning were core values. I carried these values with me, and I’ve dedicated my professional life to serving, leading, and teaching at colleges and universities, most of them Catholic colleges and universities. Through the years, I’ve accumulated and cultivated the skills that I hope will make us, as a University community, successful. And as I’ve noted before, I can’t wait to get started.

But if you take the shorter view, my journey to becoming UP’s President started late last Fall.

Now, the University of Portland was very much “on my radar” already. I had followed UP’s development into a leading Catholic institution of higher education. (In fact, during my time up Interstate 5 at SeattleU, there were a few times in which we were just slightly envious of some of UP’s successes.)

I was contacted about the position and I began my own fact-finding mission. I tried to gather as much information as possible about UP, its history, its areas of excellence, and its future. Everyone I spoke with said the same thing—UP is a wonderful place, with a wonderful community, doing absolutely wonderful things in service to its students, its mission, and the world. In fact, the president of another university that shall remain nameless told me, and I quote, “UP’s trajectory has been unparalleled—unparalleled— and I would be a great fit for the role.”

These views were reaffirmed when I spoke with the search consultants. They offered their view on UP—its strengths, and the qualities that UP was searching for in their new leader.

I then began the interview process with members of the Search Committee. In our conversations, I was struck by just how much these individuals—staff and faculty and alumni and Regents—loved UP. Their passion for UP and its Catholic, Holy Cross mission was palpable.

My feelings that this was the right place to lead and serve came even more into focus.

I was then invited to Portland to tour the campus and meet with members of the community face-to-face. Now it may sound a bit cliché, but the moment that my wife, Dr. Bridget Turner Kelly, and I set foot on The Bluff, UP felt like the place we were called to be.

Our tour was scheduled to last about an hour. Two-and-a-half hours later, we were still having a wonderful time exploring campus and learning more about UP.

What truly “sealed the deal,” as they say, were my finalist interviews. Over the course of two days, I met with almost ninety members of the UP community—students, staff, faculty, alumni, Regents, members of the Congregation of Holy Cross.

I came away from this experience thinking, “this is where I want to serve.” The folks I met with had a love for UP that is not common to many other colleges and universities. In their questioning and in their own reflections on this place, their commitment to UP’s mission shined through. It was clear, too, that they wanted a leader who would help UP to live even more fully into its values and its promise.

When I received the formal job offer a few weeks later, I took the matter to prayer and to my family. After a period of discernment, I concluded that this was the place I was being called to serve.

My family and I accepted the role, and I am so overjoyed to stand before you today as UP’s 21st President.

Growing up, I was always taught, “in all things, give thanks.” And here, I must express my deepest gratitude to so many members of the UP community who have made me and my family feel welcome.

First, I want to thank the Board of Regents for entrusting me with this great responsibility.

Second, I want to thank the Presidential Search Committee, especially Committee Chair Tim Morgan, for their enormous dedication of time and talent to the process.

Third, I thank the Congregation of Holy Cross for its continued guidance of our University, and the Holy Cross Religious in whose footsteps I follow as President.

And last, but certainly not least, thank you to all of you—the students, staff, and faculty. 

The letters, emails, text messages, impromptu meetings on the Quad and in the Pilot House—each interaction I’ve had has been so remarkably warm and kind.

They say that the UP community is known for its hospitality and generosity of spirit, and I have seen that on full display during my two months on campus.

You have made me and my family feel so welcome, and we are deeply grateful.

So once again, personally and on behalf of my family, thank you. Thank you for entrusting me with the awesome responsibility of leading and serving the University of Portland, and thank you for receiving us so warmly in our new home here in the Pacific Northwest.

With the remainder of my time, I’d like to accomplish two things. First, I’d like to offer a few brief reactions on what I’ve learned thus far during my time on The Bluff. I want to share some of these learnings because they will impact how we move forward together.

And second, I want to offer a few brief words on what’s new and what’s next. I’ll identify some of the things we have to look forward to, as well as some of the challenges we must navigate together in the academic year ahead.

I’ll keep my remarks today relatively concise! After all, I’m still learning so much about UP and identifying strategies for how we advance the institution. And in my first year on The Bluff, I want to be doing much more listening than talking.

Once my remarks conclude, I hope that our staff and faculty will join me for a reception taking place in the Bauccio Commons Board Room.

So first: what I’ve learned thus far.

From the moment I accepted the role back in April, I’ve been focused on having as many conversations as possible and collecting as much information as possible. I’m a firm believer in hard data – I like looking at numbers. But at the same time, a university is an inherently relational place. At a certain point, you’ve got to close the Excel spreadsheet and actually speak with lots of people – staff, faculty, students, parents, families, alumni, benefactors, the list goes on.

Thus far, I’ve come away with three principle observations. First, UP is a place of immense blessing. Second, UP is a place in need of healing. And third, UP is a place of remarkable promise.

Let’s talk about our blessings first. 

Because of the challenges that we’ve faced as an institution and as a global community—COVID-19, economic hardship, a reckoning on racial violence and inequity, the list goes on—it becomes all too easy to focus on the negative. (And I don’t discount the negative in the slightest, as you’ll hear in a moment.)

But take it from me, a person who is new to this place: UP is richly blessed. I will say it again: UP is richly blessed. The community I see here, the connections that people have with one another and the mission—it’s real, it’s distinctive.

UP people are kind, compassionate, humble, brilliant, and humorous. They feel a true sense of ownership for this place. They care deeply about inclusion and equity, they want their colleagues to thrive, they want everyone around them to feel as though they belong.

Our profile as an institution is unique, and is a real strength. Without apology, I submit that UP has a combination of characteristics that aren’t duplicated anywhere else in the country. We are a Catholic, Holy Cross comprehensive university rooted in the liberal arts. We offer students a high-impact experience with lots of individualized attention and on-campus residency.

And yet, we have many of the assets of a larger institution: a robust slate of academic programs, good facilities, Division I athletics.

Many of our staff and faculty have been here for years, and they are true champions of our mission.

And we’re blessed with amazing students. Students who are the first in their family to attend college; students from abroad as well as students who grew up just blocks away; students who come to The Bluff knowing precisely what they want to do in life, and students who are still trying to figure it all out.

I could go on. But for now, please allow me to say, as a new member of the community and someone who has worked at several institutions of higher education: UP is a place of immense blessing. Let’s not lose sight of that. Let’s celebrate it. Let’s be proud.

My second observation: UP is a place in need of healing.

It’s important for us to name, sit with, and be responsive to the real challenges that UP has faced. I have heard of these challenges, in direct terms, in my meetings with staff, faculty, and students. I know of the difficult period prior to my arrival, during the COVID-19 pandemic. I have heard of the pain that some community members felt, and are still feeling, when it comes to truly belonging at UP.

These experiences and emotions are real. I can see and feel the hurt, and it would be impossible to not feel sadness and regret.

So my observation is that UP is still a community in need of healing.

True, it appears as though the worst of the pandemic is behind us. And real progress has been made on several fronts to make UP a more inclusive place. But work remains to be done.

People at UP need to be seen and their voices need to be heard. We must recognize that this is our shared University and that we all have a role to play in creating a beloved community. As this institution’s leader, though, I bare a special responsibility. I must see and hear, and I must ensure that every decision we make is informed by lived experience, and takes into account the healing that is necessary. I pledge to you that I will do this.

And my third observation: I’m convinced that the University of Portland is a place of immense promise. As I discussed earlier, our institution is richly blessed. In many ways, we occupy an enviable position within higher education.

Our trajectory over the past decade has been nothing short of extraordinary, as we have emerged as a leading Catholic institution on the West Coast. All of us—all of you—should feel immense pride in the work that you have accomplished to get us where we are.

For all of these successes, though, I firmly believe that our potential as an institution is boundless.

I like to live by the motto, “why not UP?” Why can’t we set a bold vision for our future? Why can’t we navigate the headwinds currently confronting higher ed, and not just survive, but thrive? In the months and years ahead, ensuring that UP lives into its immense potential, in all that it does, will be one of my chief responsibilities.

So to conclude—my first two months on the job have been remarkable. Each and every day, I feel reaffirmed in my decision to join UP, and my gratitude for the opportunity to lead and serve here is reinforced. I’ve learned that we are a place of immense blessing; that we are a place where healing is still very much needed; and that we’re a place of remarkable promise. Using this knowledge, I will endeavor to collaborate with you to bring about UP’s bright future.

This brings me to my next collection of points: what’s new and what’s next.

First, I understand that, at Convocation, it’s become somewhat of a tradition for us to highlight some of the new faces that have joined UP since the previous Convocation.

We’re fortunate in that so many wonderful new employees have joined our community on The Bluff. I can’t highlight them all, and I’m very sorry if I don’t mention you, but I’d like for us all to offer a warm welcome to:

  • First, Dr. Valerie Banschbach, who joined us on July 1 as Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences. Dr. Banschbach most recently served as Associate Provost and Dean of Sciences and Education at Gustavus Adolphus College. It’s wonderful to have her on The Bluff, leading the students and faculty of CAS. It’s funny. When I first met Valerie, she said, “I was nervous taking this job because I didn’t know who the President would be.” I told, “I was nervous taking this job because I didn’t know who the CAS Dean would be!
  • Second, back in December, Dana Lopez joined UP as Vice President for Human Resources. Dana previously worked with a dear mentor of mine at Mount Saint Mary’s University in Los Angeles, and has held HR and student affairs positions at Otis College of Art & Design, UCLA, the American Red Cross, and Loyola Marymount University. It’s wonderful to have Dana as UP’s HR leader.
  • In September, Gerardo Cifuentes joined our community as Associate Provost for Admissions. He leads our dedicated team of admissions pros as we work to attract and evaluate prospective UP students. We’re grateful for Gerardo’s leadership, and the leadership of our colleagues in Admissions.
  • Although not a new name, it was exciting to welcome Dr. Cara Hersh to her new role as Assistant Provost for Undergraduate Scholarly Engagement & Career Readiness, and Director of the Honors Program. I’m confident that Dr. Hersh will do wonderful things to support our students, both during their time here on The Bluff and as they pursue careers and further studies.
  • We’re also thrilled to welcome Ethan Snyder to UP as our new Title IX Coordinator. Ethan comes to us with prior Title IX and higher education experience, and he is already doing wonderful work. His hiring illustrates a renewed investment we’re making in Title IX at UP. We’re grateful to have Ethan on board, and I’ll note that he recently received a standing ovation from our RAs.
  • We’re also blessed to welcome Father Peter Walsh to his new role as Director of Campus Ministry. Father Walsh joins us from St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas. He led efforts to advance St. Edward’s Catholic, Holy Cross identity and he co-chaired the university’s diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. We’re pleased to have Father Peter on The Bluff and blessed to have him as a colleague.
  • Additionally, Father Robert Loughery has joined us as Local Religious Superior. In this role, he supports and ministers to the Holy Cross priests and brothers who live and work on campus and in the local community. We’re blessed to have Father Bob here on The Bluff.
  • Next, we’re honored to welcome Ken Pifer to UP. Ken is our Associate Vice President & Controller, and he joins us with over 17 years of experience as a controller in higher ed. His son Josh is also a UP student!
  • Also, I’m very happy to welcome Greg Pitter to The Bluff. Greg serves as our Chief Information Officer. Prior to coming to UP, he worked in Information Technology at Portland Community College, Portland State, UC Berkeley, and the Wharton School of Business Administration at the University of Pennsylvania.
  • We’re grateful that Terry Favero of Biology has taken on the added role of Directing the Center for Teaching & Learning.
  • And we’re also blessed that Father Ed Obermiller agreed to serve as Interim Vice President for University Relations.

As I said, I can’t mention all of our new employees. But at this time I ask all new staff and faculty who have joined us since last August to please stand and raise your hand, as you’re able, so that we can recognize you.

And finally, I’d like to spend a bit of time discussing a few new initiatives and a few challenges that are on the horizon.

First, I believe in transparency and I believe in frank and respectful conversations about our posture as a University. And it’s important that we have a direct conversation about enrollment.

Last Wednesday, Vice President for Financial Affairs Eric Barger sent a note to all staff and faculty identifying the headwinds we are facing. As many of you know, our financial model depends heavily upon net tuition revenue and residency revenue.

Unlike other institutions who benefit from public funding, large endowments, and other sources of external revenue, the resources we use to advance our mission largely come from our students. We rely, too, on the generous support of benefactors who help us to fund scholarships, research, and other programs.

As Eric noted, this past spring, our enrollment numbers were tracking quite well. In fact, we were bracing for an exceptionally large class of first-year students.

Unfortunately, our momentum was not sustained through the end of the admissions cycle, and we experienced a historic level of “summer melt,” or the number of students who cancel their plans to attend UP.

We’re working hard to understand why this occurred. There are likely several reasons. Some of them are macro, and are impacting all of higher ed. Others are perhaps a bit more specific to UP.

We know that, nationally, undergraduate enrollment is down 10%.

We know that students are deferring higher education due to COVID fatigue and mental health challenges.

The statistics also suggest that the perceived value and return-on-investment for higher education generally is diminishing. More and more, students and families are questioning whether it makes sense to attend college.

In fact, our greatest “competitor” for students might not be Gonzaga or Santa Clara or SeattleU or the University of California System. Increasingly, our greatest competitor might be non-participation in higher ed.

We are also seeing increased competition among colleges and universities for fewer high school graduates. This means that some institutions are discounting tuition by 70 and 80%, just to enroll students.

We also know that concerns about inflation and recession are causing some folks to decline to participate in higher ed.

Finally, public institutions, including many of our primary competitors on the West Coast, are opening up more seats for in-state students. These are students who would otherwise consider UP. But the data are likely to show that they are choosing to attend public institutions, at in-state tuition, instead of coming to The Bluff.

As Eric noted, the end result here is a class of approximately 850 when we were budgeting for a class of 950.

Eric’s note included a table that breaks down the financial impact of this decreased enrollment, and I encourage you to review it if you haven’t already done so. In sum, we are left with a total budget loss of $13.4 million this year.

As a result of all this, we must collectively engage in a process of rebalancing and reinvesting. We are going to need to tap into the imagination of our community members to find solutions. I believe in transparency and inclusivity, and I believe in the value of getting brilliant minds together under one roof to talk solutions.

Last week, I convened a meeting with the Academic Senate Executive Committee, the Staff Senate Working Group, the President’s Advisory Committee on Budgets, the Faculty Compensation Committee, the Associate Deans, the Associate Vice Presidents, Athletic Department leadership, the President’s Leadership Cabinet, and the Provost’s Council. I informally dubbed it a Council of Leaders.

These individuals received the same information that Eric shared in his message of last week, and that I’ve discussed here today. During our time together, we brainstormed on various ways to tackle the two challenges in front of us: First, the long-term task of attaining financial sustainability. And second, the short-term task of identifying savings.

The Financial Affairs Division is now working with each Division, School, and College to address these challenges. As solutions are developed, they will be shared with the community.

I know that this is difficult news to hear. I know, too, that our announcement on new hiring and the decrease in 403(b) contributions are painful.

Know, however, that we will solve these challenges. We will emerge stronger. We’re going to work this problem in a manner that is as collaborative, inclusive, and transparent as possible. We’re going to work in the short term to balance our costs, and we’re going to work in the long term to make UP an indispensable place—a transformative place that attracts students and offers tremendous ROI.

We’re going to find ways to reinvest in our institution, and we are going to develop a plan to help ensure that the next 121 years are as successful as the 121 that have come before.

While we have not welcomed the number of students we had hoped for, and this will impact our bottom line, I do have some good news to share about our incoming students. Notably, UP was the first-choice institution of 60% of our students. That’s significantly higher than it has been for the past four years, when just 40% of our students identified UP as their first-choice. Also, 35.7% of our students are of the first generation in their family to attend a four-year institution, and 59% identify as students of color. The students joining us on The Bluff this year are motivated, accomplished, and brilliant. It’s truly a blessing to count them as Pilots.

Next, I am pleased to announce that we are nearing the completion of a year-long strategic planning process. As you know, this process began in the fall of 2021, and was led by Provost Herbert Medina, Vice President for Financial Affairs Eric Barger, and our Strategic Planning Committee.

Through a series of Deliberate Dialogue sessions and an online survey, nearly 600 UP students, staff, faculty, alumni, and Regents participated in our process.

The plan, which will guide us for the next five years with a mid-cycle check-in, is nearing finalization. It will be approved by the Board of Regents in late September.

In brief, it is centered around six core themes:

  1. Focus on engaged learning and experiential education grounded in ethics;
  2. Embrace and renew our Catholic identity and Holy Cross charism to grow and enhance the UP community, foster faith formation, and promote holistic community health;
  3. Committed to the tenets of Catholic Social Teaching, strengthen efforts in the areas of diversity, equity, inclusion, justice, and access;
  4. Optimize student enrollment and support student success outcomes;
  5. Enhance and expand our human, physical, and financial resources; and,
  6. Expand and communicate the ways in which the University’s Catholic mission and identity animate its students and alumni to make a meaningful impact on the world.

Again, this plan will guide us for the next five years, and I’m excited to begin its implementation.

Next, I want to speak with you about the road ahead. When I joined UP in July, I announced a new initiative, entitled “Hope, Renewal Transformation.” This will be a series of informal community dialogues in which I truly wish to hear from the broadest possible set of University constituents. There is no agenda for these sessions, apart from two questions that will serve as a launching point for further discussion:

  • First, I want to hear your views on what makes UP distinctive. What are the things that make us unique, and that draw people into our community?
  • Second, I want to hear your views on our greatest opportunities. What are the ways in which we can live even more into our Catholic, Holy Cross mission, while advancing our goal of serving students?

Please be on the lookout soon for information on when these sessions will take place. Know, too, that I will also make an online portal available, so you can share your views with me electronically, as well.

Finally, you may have noticed the plants that are displayed. These plants are actually for you!

As we navigate the headwinds ahead, we must become an institution that is devoted to retention—retention of students, retention of staff, and retention of faculty.

We must retain students, because they are our mission. Without them, our University will cease to exist.

We must retain staff and faculty, because they are torchbearers for our mission. Without them, our mission will cease to exist.

We must see retention as a single thread across the University. The success of our institution is contingent upon retaining students, staff, and faculty.

So, I would like for folks to please take a plant. This is your retention plant. Place it in a spot where other colleagues can see it. Water it, give it light, talk to it. When you do all of this, let the plant remind you of the importance of retention. Let it remind you that, through hard work and constant attention, plants grow bigger and stronger and more verdant.

As budgets tighten, as pools of potential students shrink, as competition for resources increases; as Regents, legislators, taxpayers, and prospective students and their taxpayers call for institutional accountability, colleges and universities that put students first, and make retention a priority, will ensure that their mission survives and that their students thrive.

OK and last: a shameless plug: I’ll be documenting my activities this year using Instagram. So, if you haven’t already done so, I hope you’ll consider following me at @UPortlandPresident.

Allow me to once again express my deepest gratitude to each and every one of you for your attendance today, and for all that you have done to make me feel welcome here at UP. It is a blessing and honor to lead and serve our University.

I look forward to seeing you at the reception that will begin in just a few moments over in Bauccio Commons, and I look forward to meeting many of you in the days, weeks, and months ahead.

Thank you again, and God Bless.