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Soulless Academic Year Opening Speeches

Might this be the year leaders change things up and, instead of the usual list of recent accomplishments and goals for the year, talk to us about uncertainty and how the world has changed?

August 16, 2022

Has our world changed so dramatically that it’s time to revise the tone and tenor of academic year opening speeches? Probably. For years now, decades even, college and university presidents have made predictable, and perhaps rote, speeches welcoming the academic year.

The pattern is the same, as if each institution has received a template and instructions for delivery via a CASE conference. The president clicks through a PowerPoint featuring logo-laden layouts not dissimilar to those embraced by Josten’s yearbook staff trainees. The content has been argued and vetted by cabinet members for over a month ensuring divisional parity (and included nothing to give offense or stir campus controversy). The marketing and communication team has assembled the slides, sometimes adhering to the prescribed consensus-driven content and sometimes not. Ultimately, four sections form the PowerPoint presented to higher education employees across the country each August: Previous Year Highlights, Current State of the College, the External Environment and Goals.

1. Previous Year Highlights

a. A montage of readily appreciated/recognized accomplishments by well-liked faculty members who aptly illustrate the institution’s mission. (Wow! We have a scientist who worked on the James Webb telescope!)

b. A video of students hiking perilously close to Icelandic volcano rims while writing poetry, identifying rocks and listening for the distant “music” of ice floes. (Yes, all at once! Don’t you love the drone shots!)

c. Images of student athletes and coaches jubilantly raising an index finger, pridefully owning their prowess in rugby, Ultimate Frisbee, high jump, hurdles or the like. (Their GPAs are also above a 3.2!) Their joy is set to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’.”

d. And spectacular photo of a famous alum (fill in the blank) initiating color wars on the green. (We were so honored she took time out of her busy filming schedule!)

2. The Institution’s Current State

a. Statistics on acceptance rates, incoming student GPAs, enrollment and retention. (Please note these are not final until we’ve reached the census date!)

b. An infographic detailing national rankings (pay attention: some are noteworthy, some dubious).

c. Bullet points on fundraising (note: if there are no trend graphs, assume the results are worse than last year).

d. Information about the endowment and previous year budget outcomes. (Reminder: These numbers are subject to the audit, which could mean the institution had a big deficit or a big surplus. We are never quite sure.)

3. External Factors

a. The same chart seen each year for the last seven years showing the decline of traditional-age students.

b. Why the CARES Act helped with COVID-19 budget shortfalls, but the institution is not out of the woods yet.

c. The political climate (attacks on freedom of speech and academic freedom made by misinformed/uninformed government officials).

d. The list of unfunded mandates.

4. Goals for the Year

a. Construction projects and renovations (read: We are warning you of the deafening noise about to commence; you won’t be able to hear yourself teach. We are removing the UV COVID lights that damaged some faculty’s eyes in classrooms. No, the asbestos has not been removed from the library yet. The library won’t be open again until 2026). Also, let’s give a round of applause to the buildings and grounds department for all the work they do in the summer to prepare the campus!

b. Retention goals. It is our duty to students and their families. (Read: It is more cost-effective to keep students than recruit them.)

c. Strategic planning task force. (Read: The president has appointed the most officious group of nitpickers on campus to create rubrics, Gantt charts and quality measures. Do what they say!)

These annual PowerPoints effectively convey information to campus constituents in less than an hour. They provide a measure of transparency as they cheer on the campus like a pep rally—keep achieving the mission! On the whole, it is a perfectly fine, yet depressingly the same, speech that comes across as a soulless data swirl. It tells you some things, yet says very little.

When I listened this year, I admit it was mostly the same speech I’ve heard every year for the past 15 years. But then, in the end, I heard something else from the president to whom I listened this year. It was a president thinking out loud, speculating about uncertainty, talking about what he personally contemplated as a scholar and a poet in this moment in time.

He conveyed what he thought, not what a cabinet member thought he should think or say to be safe. When he did, I realized I wanted more from a president’s annual speeches. I didn’t want a banal summary of easily manipulated data anyone could find online. I wanted to be hopeful, inspired or at least to feel like leaders knew that life had changed for everyone. I want leaders who can think deeply about today’s problems and inspire others to do the same.

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Kathy Johnson Bowles

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