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Address to Duquesne Society - September 29, 2006

Good evening to all of you—alumni, friends, members of the Duquesne Society. Thank you for joining us for this 30 year celebration, and most of all, thank you for your personal and financial leadership for Duquesne University over the last three decades.

It is impossible to stand before you this evening and report on the University’s progress without first addressing the shock and sadness that lingers with us after the shooting of five of our students here on our campus in the early morning of Sunday September 17th.  Four of our injured students are making good progress toward a full recovery.  The fifth, Sam Ashoalu, is in serious condition at Mercy Hospital.  He is improving but still faces long-term rehabilitation.  Many other students were wounded emotionally, having witnessed the shooting and its horrible consequences.  The rapid response of our Counseling Department, Psychology Clinic, and the Center for Victims of Violent Crime—along with the passage of time itself--are bringing healing here too.

It defies our rational minds to try to understand such a senseless act that caused so much sorrow.  Two 18 year-olds, men with powerful weapons but with the egos of young boys, entered our campus as guests.  Somehow they took umbrage at words—and they responded not in kind, not with fists, but with a hail of bullets from a 9 mm semi-automatic and a 38 revolver.

It is unfortunate and the source of tragedies like ours that in contemporary American society, some people use violence as their first option—rather than a last resort—in settling even the most minor disputes.  Add to this the ready availability of handguns, and no institution—regardless of how safe it may be otherwise--can be wholly immune from calamity.

There is much work ahead for all of us in trying to correct these social dysfunctions.  But in the aftermath of its expression, this community turned to prayer, gratitude, and solidarity with one another.  On that Sunday and on the following Tuesday, we prayed together publicly for the victims and especially for Sam Ashaolu and his family.  Tuesday’s outdoor prayer service was particularly moving and was attended by about 1200 students, faculty, and staff.

We prayed too for the victims’ teammates, friends, and other students who came to their assistance that morning.  Chief among them are members of our Black Student Union whose approved and peaceful event was letting out at the time.  They acted for all of us by aiding our wounded students and expediting access to professional care.

Our professional first-responders, the campus police were there and did what needed to be done.  They secured the scene, guarded the dorms, led the EMTs to the injured, and assisted the Pittsburgh police.  We thank them.

We are grateful to Athletic Director Greg Amodio, Coach Ron Everhart, and our remarkable basketball team.  “Team” has never had a better expression than what we have seen in their response to this tragedy.

The care of our faculty and staff for our students was legendary before this heartache.   They have distinguished themselves even more by their response to our students’ unprecedented needs.

The student journalists of the Duke deserve commendation.  They kept the campus informed electronically, with facts when we needed them.  And we are all grateful for the telling banner headline on the front page of the first print edition after the shooting.   It said in bold:  “A Campus Comes Together.”

This event challenged the University to respond in the public eye.  Our communications professionals helped us find ways to reach out to our multiple constituencies with facts, compassion, and assurances about our future.

Alumni and parents of our students responded with prayers and many, many expressions of support.  Their confidence in Duquesne reinforced our own confidence in ourselves.

A crisis of this magnitude calls a community to its roots.  Ours go back to 1878 and to the Spiritan priests who have been leaders of our family for 128 years.  They were there when we hurt most on that dark morning of Sept. 17th.  They have been there through the healing that has followed.

This has been a trying time emotionally.  First, there was shock.  How could this happen here, on our beautiful urban campus known for its safety?  Then came pain and sadness for our injured and suffering students—innocent victims all.  But after several days of grief, gratitude began to emerge.  So many people rose to the occasion.  So many spontaneously did what was needed and what was so thoroughly Duquesne.  And finally, at the end of one of our most difficult weeks, came pride.  We are proud that we can take a blow like this and overcome; proud that when we were hurt we rallied around our deepest values, and proud that in adversity we became a better Duquesne University.

The Bluff was one of the safest campuses in the nation before this incident—and it remains so today.  A few seconds of madness--literally seconds--cannot change a reality we have known for generations.  But to insure that safety, we have taken positive, immediate steps to enhance our security and our sense of security. Our professional campus police officers and security guards are being increased by 15%.  Surveillance cameras are being updated.  Metal detectors are employed as appropriate.  A committee is now formed to recommend further safety enhancements.

Even more important in the long run are the things that will not change.  We will remain an open campus where visitors and guests are welcome.  Most importantly, we will continue our determined pursuit of a shared vision expressed in our strategic plan —to be one of America’s elite Catholic institutions.  Despite the headlines of the last two weeks, important progress is being made.

Last month, we welcomed our largest freshman class in three years. Our last five entering classes have been the largest in Duquesne’s history. Over the same period, our SAT average has soared, selectivity has improved by 21 percent, and retention rates remain significantly above national averages. There is little doubt that the Duquesne University students of today are the best qualified that we have even served. 

Our faculty’s output of scholarly books and articles continues to rise steadily, and we have documented this in a new compendium of Duquesne faculty publications.  Registered patents are on the rise, as are licenses to use them.  New academic programs and innovative research are gaining increased national notice. Our undergraduate core curriculum is undergoing its first major revision since 1988, focusing more on ethics, faith and reason, service-learning, and global understanding.  All these changes are called for in our strategic plan and intended to align student learning more closely with our Spiritan identity and mission.

Our athletic programs are becoming more and more competitive on the fields and courts while maintaining our traditional leadership in classroom performance.  Women’s lacrosse, men’s and women’s soccer, and cross country are rising to the top of the Atlantic 10.  Given the exceptional leadership and teamwork that Coach Ron Everhart and our men’s basketball team have shown off the court, I am confident about the coming season.  This will be the first year of the turnaround in our basketball fortunes that we have been awaiting for a generation.

Duquesne University took the lead in shaping a proposal for a new Keystone Innovation Zone, raising our profile as a catalyst for regional economic development.  The University led a coalition of fifteen major corporations and non-profits to form a new partnership that will help make biotechnology a growth industry for our City, as well as a field of opportunity for our faculty in their research, teaching and service.

We are changing the face of our neighborhood, as our new Fitness Center rises on the north side of Forbes Avenue, formerly home only to dilapidation.  The Fitness Center will be a new and lasting asset in recruiting students to Duquesne and a major enhancement to campus life.  Our historic construction will also bring to us new retail vitality on the ground level with the inclusion of a Barnes and Noble superstore and a Duquesne-themed restaurant. 

A signature feature of this project is our striking pedestrian bridge over Forbes.  It is connecting the center of campus to the new building and offering dramatic vistas in the process.  Most importantly, it is making an unmistakable statement on the street.  Pass under this steel and glass marvel with gothic Ds and a cross, and you know you are at Duquesne University.

It is not too much to say that for many years and for some good reasons, we developed our Bluff in seclusion from the City, turning our back to it, as it were.  Within the last two years, we completed the work of generations by bringing all of the Bluff into our campus.  Now we are turning north and west to be part of a new Pittsburgh, part of making downtown an exciting place to work, to enjoy, and to live.

In these times of both tragedy and triumph, our identity and mission holds us steady.  We are a Catholic University in the Spiritan tradition.  Our mission flows from our identity and it has five pillars: academic excellence, moral and spiritual values, an ecumenical atmosphere, a spirit of service, and world concerns.  These pillars guide our daily efforts, and they gave us strength and purpose through these recent sad events. As a community of learning and faith, we are now more determined than ever to make the world a better place because of Duquesne University.

I thank you for your support and prayers throughout Duquesne’s recent ordeal.  I offer my congratulations and gratitude for 30 years of the Duquesne Society’s leadership in philanthropic support for the University and the students we serve.  You have kept the Duquesne dream alive and allowed it to mature and thrive.  Because of your support, and the Spirit Who Gives Life, we continue to excel in serving God by serving students.

Thank you.