INTERVIEW: President Mullen discusses future of the college

James Schwendener/THE CAMPUS

The Campus: I was thinking kind of the four big issues that I wanted to discuss with you would be increase in tuition, the strategic plan coming up, construction on campus and the change in the student body with the kind of influx of freshmen this year. So if you’d like to start with the strategic plan. I wanted to talk to you, I read in the Meadville Tribune that you said this strategic plan will be focusing more on programming, rather than the previous one focused a lot on the grounds and that kind of thing, can you explain to me where specifically you’re going with programming. What have you changed from the past?

President Mullen: In the past campaigns, and in the past strategic plans, the college did focus on facilities and in improving teaching spaces and improving spaces where students would gather. That work has been largely done. The great thing about Allegheny is when we devise a strategic plan here, we follow through on it. And throughout its history, Allegheny has honored its strategic plans. The goal for this strategic plan is to focus on a program and increasing our endowment. We’re doing that for a number of reasons. First and foremost, if we increase the endowment, that allows us to draw increased funds through future years to support the important programs and teaching initiatives that take place here. As you know, every year we draw a percentage of the endowment out and invest that in programming, teaching and learning. If you look at the schools, the other institutions, with whom we compete, many of them have much larger endowments. That’s an area that I think the board agrees, the campus community agrees, we need to increase. So you will hear me talking a lot over the next year, over the next several years, about endowment, particularly endowments focused on scholarships, and particularly endowment that is focused on teaching and learning. Allowing us, for example, to have more endowed chairs, to allow us to continue to ensure that teaching experience is foremost.

Q: Are there any specific departmental issues that you hope to address with the upcoming strategic plan or any, I don’t know, initiatives that you hope to expand in programming?

A: Well, you’re going to see, as you see in the plan itself, much work will go into international programs. Study away, the opportunity for students to have an experience beyond the Allegheny campus, to experience the world that they’re going to move in to. There is going to be, as I noted earlier, much work increasing endowed funding for chairs for, endowed chairs for faculty to ensure that we keep our student-faculty ratio at a level where we have small class sizes. Those are going to be areas of particular programmatic focus. We’ll continue to focus our efforts on ensuring that we have a diverse campus. There has been progress made through the years, we need to continue that progress. We are going to have a focus on Meadville, helping Meadville, the community in which we live, we believe we should commit to our community. A that commitment includes service, which we’re already doing, anywhere from 25,000 to 30,000 hours as I understand it of community service a year, which makes me very proud of the students. And also now, perhaps, if we can raise the money, investment opportunities in the community in other ways, still to be determined.

Q: When you speak of endowed chairs, is that in any way equivalent to tenured professors?

A: An endowed chair at Allegheny, we do not go out and recruit someone in to be an endowed chair. Some schools do that. What we do is we will talk to a donor, who may have an area of particular interest, a particular discipline, who wants to endow a chair. We then go to existing faculty here who have earned distinction and ask them to serve in that chair. But what that does is, with the funds that come in from that endowed chair, obviously when we draw those down, they go into the operating budget and they help us to ensure small class sizes and the kind of academic program.

Q: How would you respond to some students who feel like perhaps tenured faculty members provide a less worthwhile educational experience than kind of fresher faculty, and they feel that maybe the professors should be recycled through a little bit.

A: I don’t agree with that. And I haven’t heard many students say that. I know our tenured faculty, and what I find exciting here is they haven’t lost their passion for teaching. They haven’t lost their passion for working with students. You know where you might see some of that with faculty is at a larger institution where there’s teaching assistants. If you come to Allegheny, you’ve made a choice that you’re committed to a teaching and learning experience with students, and I see faculty who are constantly when I have conversations with tenured faculty, who are masterful teachers who are constantly looking for ways to renew and to try out new ideas. Whether it’s part of first year seminars or part of learning communities or serving on courses looking at interdisciplinary learning. I see that across the ranks of the faculty. So I wouldn’t agree with that.

Q: If we could kind of talk about Allegheny’s ranking in the past few years. They’ve kind of gone up and down, back and forth from the 80’s and the 90’s to the 80’s to the 90’s. I know that we’re lower than we were last year. Is it a part of the strategic plan to try and keep that stable or what are you working to do in the future to make sure that our rankings stay stable and high.

A: You know, I don’t, we did not build the strategic plan around rankings. U.S. News World Report is one ranking and I don’t agree with everything the U.S. News Report focuses on, nor do most leaders of academic institutions. There are a number of other rankings out there, for example, Princeton Review. Princeton Review comes to campus, talks to students, I think I looked at Princeton Review when it came out, very positive about Allegheny as a very special liberal arts experience. Washington Monthly does its of colleges that make a difference in the country, a different focus than the U.S. News, a focus that I think colleges should tend to aspire to, to make a difference in the nation. They ranked Allegheny 36th, ahead of many of those institutions ranked ahead of us by U.S. News. That said, while I don’t obsess over U.S. News or any ranking, I think you can gain information from all of them. Um, what U.S News tells me, as I look at the data…one, among our peer institutions who have a vote, we rank much higher than we do in the final outcome. Where we will go up in U.S. News is as we continue to raise these endowment dollars, we will be able to invest strategically in certain areas that will raise our ranking in U.S. News. Also, as we move forward and continue to enhance our national visibility, our national reputation, draw more national students, that will increase our U.S. News ranking. Did we build the strategic plan around U.S. News and World Report or any other ranking, no. But if we implement the strategic plan as we intend, we’ll go up in U.S. News, and continue to remain high in the other rankings that are very high at Allegheny.

Q: Great, um, now, if you don’t mind we can move on to tuition. So, in an article that’s coming out in the paper, tomorrow actually, you should check it out, about the wind energy we’re moving towards which is a great idea. Our reporter indicated that there could have been more money saved on energy that we are already saving because of changes in Pennsylvania law, if we hadn’t changed to wind energy. Now across the board there may be places where we could cut costs, why did you instead choose to go with wind energy or to develop the faculty instead of bringing those savings back to the students.

A: Very good question. Every investment the college makes, I try to be true to a couple of foundations. One, every investment that this college makes, we try to ask the question, is it going to enhance teaching and learning for students. That’s our core enterprise. Is it going to help us create a learning environment here that is at once unique and excellent and will aid students in not only their development in their time here, but also when they graduate from Allegheny as they move into their professions and as you’ve heard me say, become citizens. So that’s where, when we talk about endowed chairs, talk about student-faculty ratio, when we talk about program, study away…those investments, we believe, will enhance the learning experience, teaching and learning experience. Wind energy, I’m a big believer that if you say something is part of who you are, part of your ethics, you live it. We’ve made a commitment at Allegheny to the environment, to stewardship of the environment. We look at investments we make with that foundational commitment in mind. I think the deal that was arranged around wind energy was good economically for the college, but it also reinforced an ethic, and just as I believe we need to partner with Meadville, because service is something I ask students to believe in, so the college needs to model that behavior. If I’m going to ask students to be involved in the community, if I’m going to ask students to care about the environment, I need to make sure the institution’s caring about the environment. So those are the rationales we use. On to tuition, I’m very sensitive, you know, I talk to students all the time, I know that tuition is a challenge. I try to look at tuition as again, return on investment. We’re asking students to make an investment here that’s significant. Our promise in return for that investment is that when you graduate from Allegheny, you’ll walk into the world and get a return on that investment. Both as a citizen but also in the kind of opportunities that Allegheny will create for you. That’s point one, which is another reason we invest in the programming. Point two is it is another reason we want to raise more scholarship dollars. Right now at Allegheny we have a budget of about $70 million. And it’s tight. Now that sounds like a lot of money but it’s not. We run a pretty lean operation across the college. And we try to invest as much as we can in the teaching and learning, not in extra. And that $70 million budget does not include another $30 million of institutional money that we spend on financial aid. What I want to do, what this college is trying to do with the strategic plan is raise more scholarship dollars in endowment that allow us to provide even more opportunities for students. But tuition conversation happens over the year, the question I ask is the return on investment, and when we raise tuition here, we always ask the question, is it going into the teaching and learning experience. And then we also look at, are we doing enough on financial aid.

Q: So the raise in tuition this year, can you give me a specific example where the return on investment is increasing from that increase?

A: It’s more investment in the general academic program, the kind of opportunities that we’re going to have in student life, the kind of innovations that are taking place, whether it’s in learning communities, whether it’s investment in new programming for students or in academic classroom experience.

Q: Now, as for the higher influx of freshman than usual, we all noticed it on campus. Was that initially planned or was that just an unexpectedly high rate of freshmen accepted.

A: Well, it’s a…we have a certain number that we anticipate. We exceeded that year, and we’ll get the final count, that’s not all in hand yet, but we will have more freshmen than we budgeted. I think, as I look at the numbers, the preliminary numbers, what is exciting for me is to know who these students are. You know, we’ve got students from 32 states now, I think we have 25, 26 students from California. We are getting a wider geographic reach, we are becoming an institution that is competing with new places, I know students that turned down places that, if you were looking at U.S. News and World Report, ranked higher than Allegheny. So that excites me. I’m excited by the academic preparation of this class. About 1215 SAT, 27 ACT. Again these are preliminary numbers, so you may get a change. We did not have so many additional first-year students that it put us out of balance. We were within the range. And I’d rather be a few over than a few under to be honest, at least within this period of time. And I’ve been pleased with what I’m hearing from faculty about the first-year class, that they are seeing it as a strong class.

Q: And will this directly translate to any class sizes, any freshman larger than expected?

A: I don’t believe in a way that it is going to affect us in a negative way. Obviously we watch that pretty closely, that’s data that I’ll be getting that I’ll be looking at.

Q: Okay, and provided that it doesn’t affect us in a negative way at all, do you have plans to kind of lower your targets for next year’s freshmen?

A: Yeah, again, we have a target, there can be about 590 first-year students as well as a number of transfer students. I think what we’ll find is that’s a number that we look at could be 580, it could be 600 without us going way out of range. You’d love to hit that sweet spot right on, we’ll probably come in at again, I’ll get you a final number, but I’m guessing we’ll be at about 598 first-year students. We can manage that.

Q: So, as of right now there are no plans to lower class sizes here?

A: No, we’ll look at probably bringing in, you know, the same 580 to 590, will be our goal. Once we get the final count this year, if we need to adjust, we’ll adjust our game plan going forward but I don’t see right now a need to adjust in any direction.

Q: Okay, now on to construction. How would you respond to a lot of students who feel, for the majority of their experience at Allegheny, have seen construction, streets torn up, workers out working on our campus.

A: The first thing I’d do is thank them for their patience because I know that it does create a challenge getting around. So I would thank them for their patience. I’d also, as I thank them for their patience, thank them for being part of the time that I think we have really enhanced the beauty of the campus, enhanced the quality of the spaces on campus, and I hope they will look at their time here as that any inconvenience that was caused was worth it because of the quality of what was done here. You know, I think the new residence hall is terrific. I think the work that’s being done on the horseshoe is going to create a space that students are going to enjoy. This is a beautiful and historic campus and we need to maintain that. So we’ve got to at one and the same time, maintain the integrity of one of America’s great historic campuses, as the 32nd oldest college in the country we have the responsibility to maintain the historic architecture and space, also one of the most beautiful spaces. So we need to maintain that. And then we need to, and there’s been a real push in the last several years, to enhance the teaching, learning, and living spaces on the campus. But I know that, as I walk the campus, I know that there are times that it’s a challenge. But I thank the students for their patience and I hope they feel good about the quality of the outcome as well.

Q: The last question I wanted to ask you has to do with kind of how your perception of the school has changed now that you’ve been here for a few years. Look back to when you came in and you were suddenly the president of Allegheny College. What goals have changed since you first came, how have your goals changed, and how has your perception of the college as a whole changed?

A: I think, you know, fundamentals haven’t changed. I came here knowing that Allegheny was a rigorous academic institution, I came here knowing that it was a really welcoming community, I came here knowing that it was an institution that was entering a very special moment in its history, the bicentennial, I came here knowing that it was an institution that was in a strong position. Those fundamentals haven’t changed. I think what we’ve been able to do in the last two years, I’ve been very fortunate to be able to listen, to watch, to work with the faculty and students and staff, to build a strategic plan that I think is more refined than I would’ve pictured, than the picture I had coming in, obviously, two years ago. I think we’ve got a clear road map ahead of us, we know what we’re focusing on, were going to focus on programming, we’re going to focus on endowment, we’re going to focus on scholarships, we’re going to focus on increasing our national visibility. And I feel very positive, positively about that. I take one thing that has only grown from me, and I mean this sincerely, is the feeling I have for the students. I came in thinking this is place with a great tradition, and I know it’s got strong students. The kindness of the students to me, the way they have energized me, the way they have connected with me is even more powerful than I would’ve imagined. So that’s something I’m very appreciative of.

Q: What unforeseen challenges have you run into in the past two years?

A: I don’t think in 2008, early 2008, any of us expected the economy that we’re in. That has been a challenge for businesses across the country, for young people across the country, people who are going on to college, who are graduating from college. It’s been a challenge for many institutions in higher education. The good news for Allegheny is that we were strong enough, had a strong enough businesses plan, strong enough budgetary model.