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2015 Convocation Address

Duquesne University Seal - SmallCharles J. Dougherty, Ph.D.
President, Duquesne University
September 10, 2015

In his last Convocation Address after serving Duquesne University for nearly 15 years, President Charles Dougherty shares his personal reflections on his time here and on the future of the University.

I offer my congratulations to our new endowed Chair holders. I also thank those stepping down for all they have accomplished. Over the last fifteen years, the number of faculty Chairs has increased dramatically. Chair holders have used these opportunities to write books, author articles, conduct research, purchase academic equipment, attend important scholarly meetings, and host significant meetings here that have brought scholars from across the nation and around the world to Duquesne. All of these activities have increased our scholarly profile and contributed immeasurably to the growth in academic prestige and peer assessment of our University. I hope Duquesne will continue along this successful path.

As this is my last convocation talk, I have decided not address a single topic at length. Instead, I want to review in brief a series of issues that are likely to challenge Duquesne in the future.

The first is a general issue facing all of American higher education. In the eyes of many, today’s university is no longer the shining city on a hill it was for generations. Our usefulness is questioned by examples of self-made successes in new industries, millionaires who didn’t attend or finish college. Today’s economy is filled with unemployed and underemployed individuals with college degrees—some with advanced degrees. We are criticized as too costly, driven by everything from tenure to salaries, athletics and marketing. And we are now charged with creating or tolerating an environment for sexual abuse.

We cannot be passive in the face of these accusations. We must make the case for ourselves not only on the intrinsic value but also on the economic value of a university education. We must be clearer about the drivers of our own costs and the steps we take to contain them. And we must be very sure that we are doing all we can to prevent sexual abuse and to intervene properly when there is a complaint of it.

The most important issue facing Duquesne itself is the continued vitality of our Catholic and Spiritan mission and identity. The challenge to our Catholic character is the growing alienation of young Americans from organized religion of any sort. More specifically, there is a widespread perception among them that core teachings of the Catholic Church on sexuality are irrelevant, even unjust. Duquesne must find ways to understand and respect these views without becoming unfaithful to our core religious identity.

We have made great progress in deepening our sense of who we are as a Spiritan institution. The faculty discussion groups on Spiritan pedagogy, increasing number of mission-based research projects, attendance at Founders’ Week events and at those held by the Center for the Catholic Intellectual Tradition, participation in social justice and liturgical events—all these give credence to the claim that our Spiritan mission is pervasive. But like so many other religious groups, vocations to the Spiritans—especially from the U.S.—are dwindling. This means that for the foreseeable future, lay men and women at Duquesne will have to more and more embody and preserve the Spiritan ethos.

Another issue is the future of the liberal arts at Duquesne. When I began my academic career, virtually all faculty, including those teaching in the professions, had strong undergraduate backgrounds in the liberal arts. I have known academic physicians, for example, who regularly quoted classical poets and Shakespeare. They did not need to be convinced of the value of the liberal arts. They knew it directly. Their own careers had been enhanced by the liberal arts.

This is no longer the case. Many of our professional faculty now come to us from universities that did not require them to study the liberal arts. Thus the argument for the value of the liberal arts at Duquesne has to be made anew to them. Our liberal arts faculty must make that case with patience and our professional faculty must hear it with openness. And, in my view, it is altogether counterproductive to try to change liberal arts majors into applied practical fields.

Another area of challenge for Duquesne is programmatic renewal. We must remain attractive to new generations of students. This involves the creation of innovative programs, especially interdisciplinary programs. Biomedical engineering has proven itself. With our new Genesius Theater, I hope we will see an expansion of theater arts and related programs. Our new minor in music will be a boon for many of our students, regardless of their majors.

At the same time, we must have the courage to close programs that are no longer filling a need or that now cost far more than they produce in benefit. These decisions always offend some entrenched constituency, some group resistant to facts and to change. I have experienced this first hand. We sold WDUQ, a costly professional radio station that had lost any direct links to our student programs. We shut down four Div. 1 men’s sports to provide for greater gender equity and to reinvest the dollars saved into other more promising sports. We are assisting the Tamburitzans to become independent of Duquesne by way of its own not-for-profit status. It no longer makes sense for us to carry their annual debts. The new Tamburitzans will recruit performers from all over the city and focus more intensively on building revenue through new audiences and on fundraising. Other such choices, each difficult in their own contexts, will have to be made in the future.

We live in an age of rapidly advancing technology. This brings great opportunities for positive change, but it also brings threats. In the educational context, some universities have moved quickly into technological instruction in new and unproven ways. Their presumption appears to be that anything that is fast and electronic is therefore better. Some of it may well be. On-line courses, especially for graduate students and adult learners who are well skilled in learning on their own may be a good thing for them and for higher education.

But we should be circumspect in this arena, especially in application of on-line learning to undergraduates. We advertise to the public that we offer a personalized learning environment with supportive faculty-student relations. It is hard to see how we fulfill this promise if we switch largely to on-line undergraduate courses. Of course, there are many electronic systems that enhance rather than replace face to face faculty-student relationships and these we should embrace with enthusiasm. But we should avoid creating an educational equivalent of a Facebook world of hundreds of artificial “friends” that replaces a diminished world of real friends.

Finally, I want to offer a warning against what I see as a growing homogeneity in American higher education. Part of this is due to professional accrediting bodies, whose motives often appear to me to be self-serving. Part of this is the impact of academic fashions in professional organizations. Part of it is the aggressive public advertising forced on all of us by the declining pool of 18 year-olds and parents who are increasingly sophisticated tuition shoppers.    Part of it is caused by instantaneous internet links, such as the daily Chronicle of Higher Education. Finally, a good part of the new homogeneity is caused by government higher education regulations (now issued at a rate of one per working day), lawsuits and fear of them, and by the power of credit rating agencies. No doubt, there are other factors as well.

Whatever the causes, the risk involved is that all institutions of American higher education will look more and more alike and become less and less distinctive. Then there will be nothing left to distinguish us but location and price. We will be educational clones.

We can resist this trend in two ways; one has already been mentioned. Our Catholic, Spiritan heritage in not only an inherited obligation. It is an opportunity in the future to remain truly unique. No other university has our specific heritage. We should celebrate and use this institutional individuality to its full advantage.

Second, we have spent many generations being a good then a very good Pittsburgh institution. Now we are a nationally prominent university. But we must remain true to our Pittsburgh roots. Duquesne University should be a university from Pittsburgh but not of Pittsburgh. We must maintain in our institutional culture all the best of Pittsburgh: its hospitality, willing teamwork, and lack of pretension. At the same time, we should aspire to greatness at the national and international level, becoming a first rate university in every respect.

As you know, I am stepping down as president at the end of next June. Therefore, I ask that you indulge me by allowing some personal remarks and thank you’s in conclusion.

I am sure that many of you, like me, had no personal experience of a Spiritan or a Spiritan institution before you came to Duquesne. But I know that you will now agree that these are remarkably Spirit-filled men in an equally affirmative environment, one they have cultivated on our Bluff for 137 years. It has been especially important to me, as a lay leader, to have had the unwavering support of the Spiritan community. I am indebted especially to the servant-leaders of the congregation for their guidance, the Spiritan provincials I have been privileged to work with: Frs. Don McEachin, Jim McCloskey, John Fogarty and Jeff Duaime. Their support has allowed me to repeat with confidence and conviction that we serve God by serving students.

I am also grateful for an exceptionally supportive Board of Directors. They have carefully fulfilled their role of providing advice and institutional oversight without interfering with the daily work of University management. I am particularly grateful for the three board Chairs I have been privileged to work for: John Connolly, David Pappert and Marie Millie Jones. They each provided thoughtful and wise counsel, especially in moments of challenge.

I have a great debt to the former University presidents who helped shape the context for what I have tried to achieve on our Bluff. This is true for all of them, back to our first president, Fr. Power. But I am especially conscience of debts to my two previous colleagues, Fr. Don Nesti and the late Dr. John Murray. They began our movement from a Pittsburgh school to a national university.

I have had a great administrative team to work with. I am deeply thankful to all the Vice Presidents currently in place on the fifth floor of Old Main but also to the others who served with me before: Fr. Sean Hogan, Linda Drago, Ralph Pearson, Steve Schillo, Fr. Jim McCloskey, Isadore Langlet, and Carol Carter. Each of these administrators has or has had colleagues who support them and without whom I could not have done my job. They are too numerous to name here, but I salute them all.

I want to say a special thank you to everyone in our Management and Business division. Too often they are regarded as the enemy of academic excellence, a group that would impose budget constraints and a corporate business model on all of us. But the fact is that their efforts have kept us not only solvent financially for 27 consecutive years, but have allowed for annual surpluses. In addition to funding needed capital projects, these surpluses went to endow faculty chairs, to scholarships for minority students and to many important mission-related projects.

The staff here at Duquesne is superb. They are instinctively service-oriented and always more than pleasant. They embody all that is great about Pittsburgh—neighborliness, cooperation, the willingness to go the extra mile. The Spiritan mission is palpable among them, Catholics and non-Catholics alike. My thanks to all of them.

Once again, I would like to name them all, but time forbids it. However, I have to name and publicly thank my immediate assistants Mary McIntyre, Rosalie Sinagra, and Candace King Williams. They keep my office working smoothly and do it not only ably but also with a Duquesne graciousness for everyone. I owe a special debt to the late Sandra Pelc who taught me the basics of the president’s office when I first arrived.

A special thanks to our full time union workforce--tradesmen, housecleaners, groundskeepers, police and communication workers. When I was in college, I worked in New York City during the summers as a member of the International Union of Laborers. I was shocked by the disrespect shown to me because of the work I did by what my union peers at the time called “the suits.”  I resolved that if and when I became “a suit,” I would never act with such disrespect to any working man or woman. I hope that that resolve has been clear in my relationships with these important men and women at Duquesne.

I thank our remarkable faculty. We have traveled an amazing academic road together, bringing Duquesne into greater and greater national prominence with an ever deeper understanding of our unique Spiritan mission.   Throughout, we have been a large and diverse academic community in which freedom to express contrary views is prized. So, inevitably there has not always been widespread faculty support for what I have tried to achieve or how I have tried to achieve it. But there has always been between us a mutual civility, a common commitment to our students, and a deep sense of mission. The record shows that never once during my presidency was any effort made to restrain faculty academic freedom or freedom to dissent. More importantly, I have benefitted immensely from the faculty’s gracious assumption that, benighted as I may have seemed from time to time, at least I was trying to do the right thing. And there have been continuous annual merit pay increases and no faculty lay-offs during my time in office.

Our students are outstanding. I have witnessed them improve in quality and express greater diversity over 15 years. Their aspirations have been shaped more and more by the identity and mission of Duquesne University of the Holy Spirit. A large part of my effort as president has been spent trying to improve their academic profile as well as their learning, living and recreational environments. I have also come to accept—reluctantly--that today’s Duquesne students, as talented and well-meaning as they are, will bump right into me on Academic Walk while texting and ignore me in elevators due to their iTunes ear buds.

I also want to thank our alumni and friends across the nation. When I became president, I committed myself to spend time on the road meeting with them around the country, sometimes for fundraising purposes, sometimes simply to good tiding and news from our Bluff. It has been well-received and has paid off for the University in good will and in a large increase in gifts and endowments. I am confident that more will come from these efforts and hope this practice continues.

Finally, I am not ready to leave office yet. That event stands some ten months away with much work to be done between here and there. But the time draws near. I ask you in the future to give the same level of support to my successor that you have graced me with. If you do, he or she will have tremendous success and the university we all love will flourish.

And I hope that someday when this time at Duquesne becomes a matter for the history books, I will appear this way:  “Dougherty was a good president. Because of his efforts, the president who followed him was able to take Duquesne University of the Holy Spirit to new levels of excellence, levels that no one could ever have dreamt of before.”

Thank you.