Dr. Patrick F. Leahy's Address
Mesa Higher Education Expo
September 21, 2012
Good afternoon everyone. I’d like to begin by recognizing 3 groups of people who are here today. First, let me thank Mayor Smith, members of the City Council, and all the members of the City of Mesa economic development team. Your vision for the future of Mesa and your care for its residents is admirable and inspiring. Second, let me recognize our partners in the Higher Education Initiative. We are thrilled to work with you in this innovative new effort. And third, let me thank the people of Mesa, AZ – its universities, its businesses, its media. We had heard about Southwestern hospitality, and we have experienced it from all of you. For this initiative to reach its full ambition, all of us will need to work together. Thank you all for being here today.
I welcome a brief opportunity to tell you why Wilkes and Mesa are such a perfect fit. But, to do that, I need to go back to 1933 and the Great Depression, the year when Wilkes was founded. You see, there is an unmistakable parallel between then and now that I think is important. In 1933, Wilkes was chartered to help a region educate its first generation students and to serve as an engine of economic progress. It was started by civic and city leaders. Today, city and civic leaders in Mesa are seeking to expand the education offered to its citizens during the Great Recession. Wilkes responded to the needs of the Wilkes-Barre, PA community then, just as we will respond to the needs of the Mesa, AZ community now. History will repeat itself.
I have been president of Wilkes University for all of about 75 days, so I can’t claim to have had the brilliant idea to go after this opportunity. But, as I learned about what Wilkes has to offer Mesa and about what Mesa has to offer Wilkes, I became its strongest advocate. Mesa City officials selected Wilkes because of our program mix and because of our ability to offer the kind of personalized attention for which liberal arts institutions are known. Wilkes will offer Mesa residents and the surrounding business community a brand of education that is delivered by faculty who will engage students on a personal level and give them hands-on learning opportunities from the very beginning of class. Mesa will offer Wilkes a chance to expand our mission of serving students with personalized attention in a new part of this great nation.
Wilkes has the right DNA to thrive in a world in which higher education is under increasing pressure to keep costs down and outcomes up. To do that, we embrace what Michael Porter, the leading strategist of our time, believes is the key to competitive success. We aim to create unique value by embracing what is unique about our university.
Here’s how Wilkes University is unique.
One, Wilkes has a unique dedication to student success. In fact, nowhere are faculty and staff members more committed to student success. That’s a bold statement at a gathering where there are so many great colleges and universities represented. But, the idea of mentoring is not just a catchphrase at Wilkes; it is a commitment imbedded in our community. Let me give you one example of this commitment. Today by some estimates 50% of our student body are first generation college students. Our outcomes with this student body profile are remarkable. Imagine the number of families, including many of you here today perhaps, whose lives have been forever changed because of a higher education. Wilkes has been changing the lives of first generation college students for nearly 80 years. And, we will continue this laser-like focus on student success. We will continue to push every decision – whether at our Wilkes-Barre campus or our new Mesa campus – through the following filter: How does this decision – whatever it may be – impact the student experience?
Two, Wilkes has a unique program mix. We have five colleges: 1) arts, humanities, and social sciences, 2) science and engineering, 3) nursing and pharmacy, 4) business, and 5) education, covering a broad array of student interests today. Wilkes University currently has 2,200 undergraduate students and 2,600 graduate students enrolled in some 45 programs, including terminal degrees in education, pharmacy, nursing, and writing. In fact, the Chronicle of Higher Education recently recognized Wilkes as one of the fastest growing universities in the country. Now, I know not all of these programs are available to Mesa residents. But, despite having a program mix much like a very large institution, our relatively small size enables us to provide a very personalized education – the kind of personalized education that is tougher for larger institutions to offer. We take pride in being a “small university.”
Three, Wilkes has a unique history of partnering with our community. Wilkes University has been an economic engine in the City of Wilkes-Barre for nearly 80 years, by some estimates contributing today nearly $200 million in economic impact each and every year. We will look to support Mesa as well. Why? Well, because it is the right thing to do, of course. And, because it is in everyone’s best interest to make coming to Mesa to go to school as attractive as possible. Mr. Mayor, our commitment to our new host city of Mesa, AZ will not wane in the years ahead.
And four, Wilkes has a unique culture. Call it innovative, creative, entrepreneurial – whatever – Wilkes has it, and we will continue to develop it in the years ahead. Again, Michael Porter says: “Competing to be the best feeds on imitation. Competing to be unique thrives on innovation.” In fact, in my opinion the only real way to deal with the challenges of the future is to innovate, which is a word not often used to define higher education institutions. But, Wilkes University is innovative: secondary school outreach initiatives, low-residency programs, select online programs, remote locations throughout the State of Pennsylvania and here in Mesa, AZ, partnerships with Discovery Education. And, I could go on and on. This innovation will help us serve the residents of Arizona with state-of-the-art programming.
Four items – a unique dedication to student success, a unique program mix, a unique history of community involvement, and a unique culture – four items which make Wilkes and Mesa a great fit.
Let me say a few things about the specific programs we are offering.
One, the Masters of Science in Engineering Management. This degree will serve industry professionals by preparing them for a leadership position in an engineering or manufacturing field. As engineering and manufacturing get more and more complex, this degree will get more and more valuable.
Two, the Masters of Business Administration. The Wilkes MBA provides students with graduate-level knowledge in the fundamentals of business, and the skills needed to make informed decisions as a leader of an organization. It’s a program where business IQ and business EQ are equally important.
Three, the Master of Arts in Creative Writing. This low-residency creative writing program already enrolls students from all over the United States. Our students have gotten their works published by major publishing houses. The program offers studies in fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, screen writing, and playwriting.
Lastly, we will offer two master degrees for teachers – Teaching English as a Second Language and Classroom Technology. Wilkes is one of the largest providers of continuing education to teachers in Pennsylvania. So, these programs have been developed by teachers, for teachers! The master’s degree in teaching English as a second language qualifies individuals to instruct populations whose first language is not English. The master’s degree in classroom technology is designed primarily for teaching professionals who want to use the latest technology to enhance learning outcomes and keep students engaged.
These programs all start in this coming January. In the Fall of 2013, we will add bachelors degrees in mechanical engineering, accounting, and entrepreneurship, as well as a masters degree in mechanical engineering. These are large university programs, delivered in a small college manner.
In recent conversations with President Crow and Mayor Smith, we learned of their commitment to bring college attainment in this region up to national levels. We learned how the only way to achieve such bold goals is to innovate education. We learned how additional innovative educational platforms, like the Mesa Higher Education Initiative, will help accomplish that goal. But, how do we make this successful? Partnerships. As Wilkes establishes itself here in Mesa, we will be looking for partners - in the public schools, in the business community, in the cultural community, and of course, in the higher education community. As I suggested at the beginning: for this initiative to reach its full ambition, all of us will need to work together.
In closing, I am reminded today of Wilkes University’s founding president, Eugene Farley. Way back in 1947 he said: “If education has ever been isolated from reality or from the ordinary affairs of life, it is now challenged to re-examine its structure and, if necessary, to rebuild it.” These words are as prescient today as they were then. Joining the Mesa Higher Education Initiative and partnering with the City of Mesa is nothing short of rebuilding higher education for the 21st century. Wilkes University is proud to be part of this effort. Count us in – all in.
Thank you very much.