President's Forum 2012

Dr. James M. Harder
September 11, 2012

Thank you for your presence this morning at the 2012 President's Forum. I always look forward to this event, which is the first regular Forum of the academic year. It is my opportunity to share with our campus community some recent achievements and developments of Bluffton University, and to look forward at some things to come. It is also my custom at this event to join as a member of this active community of learners in sharing some of my own reflections pertaining to our annual civic engagement theme. So now you know what to expect from me this morning!

This is always an exciting time of year on a college campus. It is already my sense that we are off to a very promising year. As I get around campus, attend events, and hear from others, I am aware of the abundance of energy and talent found within our campus community--in our new and returning students, and among Bluffton's faculty and staff. That energy is so clearly evident in the classrooms, labs, studios and rehearsal halls, in weekly Chapel, on the football field, volleyball and tennis courts, soccer fields and cross country course. It fills the Commons at meal times, surprises us at Faculty and Staff Follies, inspires at Artist Series concerts, and runs late into the evening in our residence halls, Student Senate meetings, club and intramural activities, and student life programming...and the school year is barely two weeks old. This community of Bluffton University is a very rich and vibrant environment for discovery and learning in the fullest sense of the word.

This fall we have welcomed into the Bluffton University community an enthusiastic incoming class of 275 new full-time traditional first year and transfer students. Already you are making your mark here in many good ways, and I hope you are feeling at home. Your presence, along with returning students, students enrolled in our adult and graduate programs, and students enrolled in our dual enrollment programs brings Bluffton's total enrollment this fall to 1,198 students.

Unexpected challenges—campus impact of the June 29, 2012 windstorm

As has been the case throughout Bluffton's 113 years of existence, each year brings new opportunities and changes. Sometimes developments are carefully planned and implemented. Other times we find ourselves reacting to unexpected circumstances. The powerful windstorm that swept through campus at 4 p.m. on Friday, June 29, was one such circumstance—and of course its impact was felt on a much wider region than just Bluffton University. We are blessed with a beautiful and natural campus setting, but as with periodic floods of the Little Riley, nature can also claim a new look. In the space of 15 minutes, the 90 mile per hour straight line winds from this summer storm caused considerable tree loss across campus, but fortunately less extensive damage to buildings and roofs. Twenty-six trees were uprooted or snapped off—including about a dozen of the largest century-old giants on campus—with many additional downed branches, leaves, and toppled light poles obscuring the sidewalks and lawns in all directions. The home run fence at Memorial Field was bent to a noticeable angle by the wind, and several tons of fine infield dirt were swept away (and subsequently replaced). The north goal post on the football field was twisted, requiring repairs. Power was largely out on campus for three days following the storm. Fortunately there were no injuries, although a group of summer youth baseball players who had taken shelter from the storm in the main Buildings and Grounds facility endured the fright of having the roof above their heads literally roll up and peel away in the roaring wind. Eight other building roofs on campus sustained damage, with some still scheduled for repair.

Clean-up and storm-related repairs required well more than 400 work-hours by university groundskeepers and maintenance staff, in addition to a half-day of assistance by nearly 100 staff, faculty and summer student workers who responded to an invitation to help cut wood, rake piles and haul away tree branches the morning of July 3. Without that concentrated community effort of so many additional hands, it would have been many more weeks before campus was anywhere close to normal. A big thank you to all who played a role in the cleanup. Later this year, we will complete that effort by planting some replacement trees for future generations of Bluffton students to enjoy.

Achieving a dream: The Sommer Center for Health and Fitness Education

Fortunately, the other major changes this year are ones we had the opportunity to plan for. I have no doubt that the change many in this room are most eager to realize is the upcoming dedication and opening of the Sommer Center for Health and Fitness Education. Yes, as is now quite visible, we are nearly there, and you will be the first group of students to use it! After at least two years of careful building planning and design work, and six years of extensive fundraising as part of Bluffton's "Extending Our Reach" campaign, the finish line for this wonderful building is in sight. Some of you were present for the groundbreaking ceremony the morning of July 12, 2011. Now, just 14 months later, the $14.7 million Sommer Center construction project is 95 percent completed.

Almost exactly one month from today, on Homecoming Saturday, October 13, members of the Bluffton community will gather to dedicate this new health and fitness education facility at a short ceremony beginning at 11:30 in the morning. As with similar building dedications in Bluffton's history—for Centennial Hall, for Yoder Recital Hall, and for previous projects—these are truly transformative moments in the life of the school. They mark significant steps forward in campus facilities for the benefit of all students. And they are only possible because of the conviction of so many alumni and friends of the university who contribute funds toward construction—believing as they do, that the university's enduring educational mission is worth the investment. Based on their own Bluffton experiences before you, they want current Bluffton students to be able to learn, to develop in mind, body and spirit, and to go out into the world as graduates prepared to continue Bluffton's long tradition of serving others for the purposes of God's universal kingdom.

I invite you to be among those present at the Sommer Center dedication ceremony on October 13, where we will celebrate this fine building and a great achievement for Bluffton. We will recognize members of the building's namesake family, the Sommers of western Illinois. They have long and deep ties to Bluffton as students, athletes, parents, alumni and members of the Board of Trustees. We will also celebrate the generous contributions of all of Bluffton's many donors—including those who are members of this community and are present in Founders Hall this morning.

And yes, we will finally be able to take a look around inside the new building, but we will need to be patient and wait perhaps a couple more weeks until late October before all final building inspections are completed, occupancy permits are in hand, and we can begin using Sommer Center. And use it we will! This will be a building for all Bluffton students to use and enjoy in many different ways, from basketball, volleyball, intramural and course-related activities on Copeland Court, to many special events, lessons, and activities in the Reichenbach Room, to the indoor walking/jogging track during cold weather, for sports medicine needs, and for formal training or recreational use of the newly-equipped state-of-the art 5,000 square foot personal fitness and weight training facility.

Bluffton's first major building planned during the 21st Century will also become Bluffton's most environmentally responsive building—as it should. It is on track to become LEED-certified at a high level. Care has been taken to minimize environmental disruption during construction. Whenever possible, construction materials contain recycled content or have been sourced locally, reducing transportation requirements. Building features encourage biking or walking to work. Large, well-insulated windows will bring abundant natural daylight into the majority of the building, reducing the need for artificial daytime lighting. Heating, cooling and lighting systems are well zoned and highly energy efficient. Plumbing systems and fixtures are designed to conserve water. Parking lots, landscaping and a water retention system are designed to reduce solar heat absorption and reduce rainfall runoff and flooding. The Sommer Center for Health and Fitness Education will be both good for us and compatible with the environment.

Before moving on, I want to highlight the many other benefits to Bluffton of the "Extending Our Reach" comprehensive campaign, which was completed successfully by Bluffton's advancement staff on June 30. Over the past six years, the original $30 million goal was exceeded, with more than $32.75 million raised. In addition to the nearly $15 million raised to fully fund the design and construction of Sommer Center, the campaign provided $8 million to support annual university operations during the life of the campaign, and has raised $1.9 million for a variety of special projects and $8.2 million in cash and commitments to increase Bluffton's permanent endowment fund. Each year in the future, these endowment gifts will support student financial aid and provide additional funds for faculty and student research and scholarship projects. We have much to celebrate! The successfully-completed "Extending Our Reach" capital campaign offers tangible evidence of the strength of the bonds that connect Bluffton's past with present generations of students, faculty and staff, and that give us reason to believe that Bluffton's remarkable educational mission will remain vital well into the future.

Implementing Bluffton's 2011-15 Strategic Plan goals

Last year at this event, I introduced Bluffton's newest five-year strategic plan that is guiding our efforts toward the future. It is a roadmap for further enhancing the quality of a Bluffton education, for strengthening our institutional capacity in key areas, and for fostering innovation in our educational program and internal processes. Let me mention just some of the work that was undertaken during this past year—the first year of the current strategic plan's implementation.

I begin with the goal of further strengthening Bluffton's student recruiting and retention processes. It has long been a particular characteristic of Bluffton to welcome students of all backgrounds who are interested in becoming part of this educational community. As part of that recruiting process, we need to do the best possible job of communicating the unique qualities that define a Bluffton educational experience. The better we can do this, the more likely it will be that students who choose to enroll at Bluffton will be retained from year to year and will succeed in becoming Bluffton graduates—our ultimate goal for each Bluffton student and an increasingly important national higher education goal.

I am particularly excited by the development during the past year of Bluffton's next generation of admissions and recruiting materials. I know that many of you were part of that process in one way or another. We have just received the first shipment of some of the new printed pieces. A major re-design of the admissions portion of the Bluffton website is scheduled to go live next week. It will include a new interactive digital viewbook, designed for access on tablet devices and smartphones. I am quite sure that even current Bluffton students will find it interesting to explore this new window into Bluffton's world—a campus committed to exploring and living out values that we believe are critical to a good future for the entire world. And prospective students will be able to see better than ever before how the total Bluffton experience reflects our enduring values of discovery, community, respect and service.

This past July, Bluffton's new vice president for enrollment management and marketing, Ron Headings, began his work. He is already helping Bluffton further shape and refine our strategies for student recruitment and retention—seeking better alignment of those efforts. I know from my own conversations with him that he is very interested in hearing your thoughts about your own Bluffton experience.

Bluffton's new vice president for student life and dean of students, Dr. Julie DeGraw, also began her work this past summer. She is committed to achieving the best possible total student life environment at Bluffton. Julie brings with her experiences and perspectives from several other Christian liberal arts colleges and will be working to achieve Bluffton's strategic plan goals for enhancing our co-curricular experience and developing stronger ties between those activities and Bluffton's academic program. She also places a high priority on getting to know you on an individual basis and to be an advocate for student interests. I hope all of you can get to know Julie—and not only when she receives a referral with your name on it!

During this past year, I implemented what I believe is one of Bluffton's most important strategic plan initiatives. I established an Athletics Advisory Committee with representation from academics, athletics, enrollment management and student life. We are building on an already strong foundation at Bluffton, but the charge of the committee is to integrate even further the intercollegiate athletic experience with the academic and full co-curricular experience—because we know that all programs on campus are stronger when this occurs.

For many students, a vibrant athletics program has long been an important component of a complete residential liberal arts education experience. As an NCAA Division III school, Bluffton believes in a balanced approach, providing rich intercollegiate athletic opportunities while maintaining a clear priority on academic achievement for each student. At the same time, we encourage all students to full participation in more than one area of the school's program. Having the best possible well-rounded athletic experience is important to Bluffton and to our many student-athletes. In each of the past several years, about 35 percent of our full time, traditional 18-24 year old undergraduate students have engaged in one sport or another. We are already off to a promising year—go Beavers!

The new strategic plan has already seen steps being taking to further strengthen Bluffton's academic and student programs. The Bluffton Center for Teaching and Learning has been established to promote additional opportunities for faculty development in these areas. This morning I am also pleased to announce an opportunity for expanded faculty research with the recent appointment of Dr. Alex Sider as the Harry and Jean Yoder Scholar in Bible and Religion, with endowed funds to support his research.

A student employment task force completed its work last spring, seeking to further strengthen the operations and outcomes of Bluffton's Learn and Earn Program, which each year matches campus job opportunities and experiences with the interests of about 600 Bluffton students. We believe in the important intersection between the jobs you hold on campus and your entry into the job market when you graduate.

New academic programs and discerning future facilities needs and priorities

Perhaps of greatest direct importance to students are continuing enhancements of Bluffton's academic program offerings—designed to best meet evolving student interests and needs—and to do so in ways that help contain the cost of your education. Each year, faculty and administrative efforts typically produce some changes in our academic offerings. In just the past three years, while two lower enrollment majors have been phased out, a number of new majors have been added at Bluffton. These include exercise science, graphic design, public health, public relations, sport and recreation leadership, and strength and conditioning. And Bluffton's newest academic program, health care management, available to our adult degree completion students, was approved in its final form by Bluffton's faculty just yesterday afternoon. This fall, we enrolled our current maximum limit of eight students in the first year our new dietetics internship program, which will help meet the growing need for registered dieticians in this region and throughout the United States.

During the current year, I will initiate processes that will address additional strategic goals. The current facilities master plan guided the completion of a new academic center, Centennial Hall, and following that, the Sommer Center for Health and Fitness Education. It is time, this year, to begin the process of updating our facilities master plan to consider Bluffton's future facilities needs. Quite obviously, this is long-range planning at this point, but it is important work that will help determine future construction projects and shape major fundraising efforts. It is work that will reflect perspectives from Bluffton's Board of Trustees, but that also will seek input from all campus stakeholders, including you, our students. Parallel with these planning efforts, we will develop more detailed multi-year plans for addressing other campus maintenance and capital improvement needs. In these behind the scenes ways, it will be a very full year.

One additional administrative priority in the near future provides me with a segue into my reflections this morning pertaining to this year's campus-wide civic engagement theme. The priority I refer to is our recognition that it is high time that Bluffton find a way to upgrade our current administrative computing system. The current system, which has been stretched and stretched again by Bluffton for at least 19 years of use, increasingly faces limitations in meeting our data management and access needs. A careful months-long process led by our information technology staff, with input from most staff computing system users, was completed in June. The President's Cabinet has accepted its recommendation that we should begin upgrading to the Jenzabar EX enterprise resource planning system as soon as possible—a complex conversion and training process that will take about 18 months. Pending the availability of funding, we expect to begin that process during the next budget year.

It is an investment that is hard to imagine doing without. Every college and university has come to depend on its computing systems to facilitate just about every aspect of campus operations. We realized that critical role again in the days following the windstorm on June 29. Without electrical power and thus without access to most of our information, there wasn't much most of us could productively do (other than go outside and help pick up branches!) until power and computer services were restored.

Introducing Bluffton's 2012-13 civic engagement theme

Such is the world we have come to live in. And this reality—felt a bit differently by each of us depending on how we interact with technology— brings home the importance to all of us of this year's campus-wide civic engagement theme, "Virtual Living: Technology's Impact on Culture and Learning."

It is a very timely theme for our consideration and exploration. It is also a theme that intersects with every academic discipline in some way. The ever-more-sophisticated digital technologies that define these times are collectively pulling us into ways of working, learning, recreating, shopping, traveling, communicating and even worshiping that didn't exist—and for the most part—couldn't have even been imagined only one generation ago. What does all that mean for us? The human existence is certainly more complex and more globally connected. Today's information technology has eliminated barriers of time and distance, while allowing for the inexpensive flow of information in quantities that were previously impossible.

Most often, people assume that new technology is a good thing, but of course it's always more complicated than that. Sometimes technology yields very unintended or even tragic consequences. A classic example is the sedative drug thalidomide, which was prescribed to pregnant women in the late 1950s to treat morning sickness. But tragically, it was later discovered that the drug was the cause of serious birth deformities, and before the drug was withdrawn in 1961, it had affected as many as 20,000 babies in 46 countries.

The power and perils of digital information technology

Yet in spite of such examples, most people remain "technology optimists" and believe in the value of human ingenuity and they assume that technology is good. Few of us would want to do without most of what humankind has invented, particularly in the areas of information technology. With each new advance in communication ability and information search and storage capacity, it isn't long until we wonder how we could have survived without it in the past. It gives us tremendous power to communicate and connect instantly and anywhere around the world. Imagine what it means for a Google search to be able to review the contents of billions of pages of stored information and return to our desktop screen exactly what we were seeking—all in a fraction of a second!

I have a good friend and professional colleague living in another state who has always impressed me with his awareness and use of the newest forms of productive information technology. Over the years he's filled many hours in the car with acquiring knowledge by listening to books on tape. Later, that passion transferred to his new Kindle e-reader for use in other settings. Smart-phones and wi-fi enabled laptop computers gave him access to real-time communication at work, and to all the productivity tools and information resources of the internet wherever he was. And for specialized functions, nothing beats the power of the perfect app. He was using technology very effectively and intensively.

Yet, as he recently confided in me and some of his other close friends, he had a vague and slowly growing sense that something wasn't right in his life. One day, on a four hour drive to a meeting, the idea came to him that he should make the drive without any information technology resources. He put all of his electronic items in his car trunk, so he wouldn't be tempted to use them. It was a nice day, so he turned off the air conditioner, kept the radio off, rolled down the windows of his car, and spent the next four hours in quiet thought and self-reflection.

He said it was then he realized that he had developed an addiction to technology, one that had come to own him. He said he realized how many times a day he stopped whatever he was doing to check and attend to operating needs of one of his devices. Instead of running them, they were running him. They needed constant care; whenever an update was available, he had to download and install it. His technology was the last thing he checked just before going to bed at night, and was the first thing that occupied his mind in the morning. He recognized it was difficult to be really centered and focused in such a reality. His discovery has caused him to set careful limits on how and when he uses technology, and to create a structure so that it serves him as a tool rather than be a source of domination.

Others have noted similar phenomena in work settings. Professional organizer Julie Morgenstern suggests that a "technological workplace offers endless distractions that allow us to confuse activity for accomplishment. It also tempts one to disconnect from personal interaction with others... Successful people make sure to use technology as a tool and an aid, rather than as a substitute for talking with and meeting people."1

These sorts of concerns about technology are not entirely new. The new production technologies associated with the earlier industrial revolution also had consequences on the ways of human life. French philosopher, lawyer and sociologist Jacques Ellul considered this in his book, The Technological System¸ first published in 1977. Even before personal computers came to dominate our lives, Ellul observed that technology tended to evolve in ways determined by the needs of technology itself, not always according to the best interests of people. For example, as factory production machinery became more complex and expensive, it became financially necessary to run it 24 hours a day—forcing us to reorganize how we structure life itself. Many employees had to adapt to the challenges of working evening and night shifts, regardless of family interests and personal consequences. And in many cases, technology requires standardization, so that difference and diversity itself came to be seen as a problem.

Let's take a closer look at the role of information technology within our own industry—within the world of higher education. It's changing here as rapidly as it's changing anywhere else, and we still don't fully understand where it will ultimately lead us.

Vignettes from Bluffton's history: the impact of the computer age on this campus

Bluffton's own history of electronic information technology is contained within the campus experience of Dr. Mike Edmiston, first as a Bluffton student and now as professor chemistry and physics and Bluffton's current longest-serving faculty member. He has recorded his interesting memories of Bluffton's journey with computers. He was a Bluffton College sophomore in 1969 when the school's first computer of any type arrived, an NCR Century 100. In those days, computers were largely the domain of scientists, and Bluffton's first machine was purchased with a $100,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. It was a "single-task" computer and was programmed by punched cards. In 1978, when Professor Edmiston joined the faculty, Bluffton used its own money—$50,000—to purchase its second computer, this one from Digital Equipment Corporation (a PDP-11/34). It was a time-sharing machine, meaning up to eight people, including faculty, students and administrators, could use the computer at a single time thanks to multiple computer terminals connected by copper wire. Other computers, mostly for use by the science department, followed. Later in the 1980s Bluffton joined the growing movement to acquire its first PC-compatible microcomputers for general use.

Fast forward many years to the present time. Bluffton's IT staff manages the IBM AS400 i-series administrative computer, maintains and services about 500 personal computers owned by the university, and assists students with issues related to their own computers. According to network administrator Art Shelly, Bluffton currently maintains about 3,500 e-mail accounts that receive about 11,400 off-campus messages a day. Copper wire has given way to a network of fiber optic cable connecting campus buildings. The campus internet connection is sometimes running near its maximum current capacity of 100 megabits of data per second. Campus bandwidth needs have roughly doubled every two years, and planning is underway to quadruple today's capacity to 400 megabits per second. And many on campus have come to assume the benefits of wireless network access, from any one of 99 wireless access points on campus.

Bluffton's public relations efforts have also been transformed by changes in information technology, allowing friends of the university to maintain virtual contact with us in many new ways. This use is growing almost exponentially. Bluffton's web communication manager, Sara Kisseberth, oversees the university's 12,513 page website—measured as of last week. She reports 32 million page views on the university's website last month alone, compared with just over one million page views four years ago, in August 2008. Within the last year or two, Bluffton has also moved its presence into social media. On Facebook, our mascot J. Denny Beaver has 966 friends, as of September 5, and wonders who will be number 1,000. There are now 17 twitter accounts representing university entities ranging from the alumni office and the baseball team to the Student Senate and the Dean of Students.

A few library statistics illustrate a different dimension of virtual learning on campus. According to Bluffton's director of libraries Mary Jean Johnson, Bluffton's library collection recently reached an historical marker. In 2011, our library's print collections and e-book collections reached equal size for the first time, with nearly 150,000 volumes in each category. The scale of those resources is augmented with current access to more than 175 research databases available through the Bluffton library. Today's faculty and students have unprecedented and often immediate access to academic information from all corners of the globe—and being located in a smaller institution in northwest Ohio no longer presents the information access challenges it once might have. The implications for learning and scholarship are tremendous.
Academic futurists struggle to predict where all of this evolving technology is leading us within the world of higher education. Certainly it is facilitating new ways of learning—and Bluffton is experimenting with them as well. On-line learning, both synchronous and asynchronous. Course management systems—formerly Jenzabar and now Moodle. We know that soon, students who since middle school have been accustomed to reading almost exclusively on laptops or tablet devices, will begin enrolling in college—perhaps some are already in this room!

Pondering the future impact of digital technology on higher education

A recent publication by The Chronicle of Higher Education titled Rebooting the Academy focuses on educational changes induced by the availability of digital technologies. Unlike the world of business, the authors suggest that education "has been slow to adopt significant change." The book—which, quite appropriately is only available in virtual form—explores "disruptions" in status quo education that are occurring "due to maturing of low-cost computers, high-speed Internet connections, and smartphones."2 The collection of essays explores what might be on the horizon, and speculates whether it will arrive gradually or more in the form of a revolution.

Just a few examples of some of the pieces of today's new reality: The Khan Academy, with its library of thousands of 10-minute educational YouTube videos, can now deliver quality on-demand content to any student for nearly zero incremental cost. The HathiTrust Digital Library project replicates that goal with more than 10,000,000 fully-digitized books now available on line, many scanned from the world's top academic libraries. Some of the largest universities are offering what are known as MOOC's—massive open online courses. Typically they convey no academic credit and offer no human feedback, but they can enroll more than 100,000 people in free online versions of popular lecture courses. Others are demonstrating that amateur science enthusiasts can participate actively in cutting-edge science via the web.

There are other pieces of today's reality that might bring some pause. With today's information analytics capabilities, the federal government is planning for data collection systems that will link together an individual student's elementary, secondary, college, and perhaps even employment records as we move through those stages in life. This will, for the first time, allow researchers to attempt to judge which schools, which programs, which teaching approaches, and perhaps even which teachers, were most effective—or ineffective, as the case may be. How will that influence our educational systems? Will it lead to genuine improvements in quality, or simply repeat and perhaps magnify the mistakes of the "No Child Left Behind" obsession with external evaluation and meeting common standards?

A call for engaged learning

I'm out of time, but as you can tell, I'm not out of enthusiasm for this year's Bluffton civic engagement theme: "Virtual Living: Technology's Impact on Culture and Learning." I believe there are plenty of important avenues related to this theme waiting to be explored in every academic discipline.

The study of virtual living and technology is a perfect fit for a liberal arts environment. As we engage this topic during this academic year, we need to think carefully about the meaning of technology in our lives. Not just the how associated with technology use, but also the more crucial questions of why we use a particular type of technology and to what end we use it? In the same way that we are stewards of the resources within our natural world, we must also be stewards of technology, and use it in ways that benefit human kind and nourish our beings.

You will likely be drawn into considerations of forces that are impacting you now—ones that will directly impact your education and perhaps the quality of your lives. Dig in. Learn. Stretch your knowledge and understanding to become an expert on a force that is shaping your world.

Best wishes as you engage in this undertaking. Have a very good year at Bluffton University.


 

1 Cited by Sergej Khakimullin at Shutterstock.com, August 22, 2012.

2 Rebooting the Academy: 12 Tech Innovators Who Are Transforming Campuses, edited by Jeffrey R. Young and Tim McCormick, The Chronicle of Higher Education (available by download), Washington, DC, quotes from the introduction.