Q&A: President Mullen on the 2014-2015 year

President James H. Mullen Jr.  Photo courtesy of allegheny.edu
President James H. Mullen Jr.
Photo courtesy of allegheny.edu

The Campus: What are your hopes for this year? Is there anything new or exciting you’re looking forward to for this semester?

President Mullen: I think this is going to be a terrific academic year for a number of reasons. First of all, Allegheny has tremendous momentum and I think we’re seeing it both on campus and we’re seeing it in the national conversation about liberal learning, liberal arts colleges. On campus, I think that we have a wonderful new class of students. We have, in terms of the new students coming to Allegheny, for the first time in the college’s history more than fifty percent are from outside Pennsylvania. There’s remarkable diversity in every way in the class. I’ve had a chance already to chat with some of our new students informally, as I walk around the campus and I’m struck that they’re hitting the ground running, they’re already part of the community, and I sense just a lot of excitement there. I’m particularly pleased that we’re welcoming such a wonderful new group of students. This is also an interesting time of the year for me because I welcome back students that are coming back for their sophomore, junior and senior years. It’s particularly meaningful for me for the seniors, because you all in ways you don’t even know, have had such an impact on my life and thats something that I always feel somewhat emotional about because I know that in a few months you’ll be walking across the stage and going out into the world but I just sense a great excitement this time of year on the campus. I think that many of the initiatives that are underway on the campus are going to create even more excitement. We are certainly looking forward to the Bicentennial which is coming up upon us in 2015, we’ll start the celebrations in 2014. How many individuals ever get the chance to be part of an institution as it celebrates its 200th birthday? I think its for all of us, very powerful for the students who will be here as we begin now walking into that bicentennial. Also for alumni [….] I hope that there’s a tremendous source of pride in the institution, both on campus and beyond. When I think about the year ahead from a national perspective, Allegheny has certainly claimed its place among the most distinguished liberal arts colleges in the country. We’re seeing that in what’s being written about us across the nation, we’re seeing it in the kind of applications that are coming to the college. We are truly one of the great national liberal arts colleges and its nice to see that we’re beginning to receive the recognition that Allegheny has so long deserved. And I think we’re making a difference on a number of important issues, I would use for an example our work on civility in public life. We’re trying to encourage young people to embrace the public arena, to enter public life. And we’re trying to point out individuals that come from very different ends of the political spectrum who are in that arena, fighting the tough fights, but trying to do it in a civil manner. That has received tremendous national attention for Allegheny and I look forward to this year continuing that effort. I’m very excited, I love this time of year, it energizes me. And the reason it energizes me is I get to walk this campus and see tremendous hope for the future in all of you.

C: You mentioned something about initiatives and you mentioned the Bicenteniall, can you say something as to what other things are going to be happening this year?

M: Yeah, I think we’re going to be, we’ll be entering our annual themes of the year and we’re very excited about that. As we move into the bicentennial we will look at the Civil Rights Act, 50th year of the Civil Rights Act and also the Voting Rights Act as we enter the bicentennial period, we’re very excited about that. We’re going to have tremendous speakers coming to campus, including Julian Bond who is one of the most significant figures in the history of the civil rights movement. I think that’s going to be a very exciting period as we embrace those annual themes. I also think that we’re going to continue to do work on important initiatives here around teaching and learning on campus. Several years ago we developed a strategic vision for Allegheny, and that vision was built around one question, ‘What does a student have the right to expect from the best liberal arts education in the country?’ and we have talked about how to answer that question. That question involves the best classroom experience in the country, and I would argue our faculty provide that, the most rigorous education. I think that when you look at the rigor of the Allegheny education, it matches against any in the country. I think that also that strategic vision incorporates preparing students for the world that they’re going to inherit. And, we have worked very hard on the campus to offer that kind of preparation. The world you’re going to inherit is a diverse place and that diversity includes an international perspective. It also includes, we believe, a commitment to civic engagement, to making a difference in the world. And it involves succeeding in your chosen career. What we’re trying to do now is provide that preparation in a way that is most supportive of students, and that what the gateway that you might have heard about is really going to focus on. We’re very excited on the progress that’s being made in the campus community, around the programs of the gateway. You’re going to see this year some early pilot initiatives coming out of the gateway and I think thats going to be something that is going to be very exciting.

C: Can you tell us a little bit more about the gateway and what you hope it will be?

M: In a sense the gateway name tells you a great deal. It’s about preparing you for that gateway into the world that you are, as I said earlier, going to inherit. That world will expect certain things of you in order for you to succeed. It’s going to expect you to be able to do the things that a liberal arts education prepares you for; critical thinking, the ability to synthesize data, the ability to work in groups, the ability to present argument in a rational and thoughtful and rigorous way. That, Allegheny has done for 200 years almost, and it will match up against anyone in the country. The classroom preparation, the core rigour of our academic experience is as strong as any in the country. We want to take that and layer onto it the realities of the 21st century, which is a world that is interconnected in very complicated ways, and we believe we have an obligation to prepare students for the complexities of that world. So we want to intentionalize in new ways, building on the programs we already have in place which are terrific, new opportunities for students to have international and study away experiences. We want to also recognize that the world is a very diverse place with different perspectives, different religious beliefs, different socio-economic backgrounds. We need to prepare our students to understand that world, that world which includes different relationships in terms of power and privilege. All of that it’s important that we prepare students for. And we also want to prepare students for, and encourage students, to a commitment to civic engagement. One of my great moments of pride every year is the when I hear the difference that students make in the community around the college, in Meadville and Crawford County. When I hear that our students are doing 60,000 hours of service in this community, meaningful service, service that is supporting every non-profit in this community, supporting important health initiatives in this community, supporting partnerships with the school systems, that’s something we should be very proud of. And we believe that it’s part of preparing one for citizenship in the world. And finally, when we look at all of that we want to prepare students for their careers. Academically rigorous preparation, understanding of the international environment, respect and sensitivity to diversity and understanding diversity, commitment to civic engagement all lead one into being successful in their career and life. That’s what the gateway want’s to do. And we’re trying to pull together the programming on this campus that encourages that set of outcomes.

C: How do you think that Allegheny fits into those annual themes or how do you think that Allegheny reflects those themes?

M: Civility is something that should be a hallmark of the liberal arts. When you step back, our campuses should be and are about discussion of significant issues, discussion of complicated ideas, discussion around matters that we don’t always see through the same lense. That’s what the liberal arts should be about, that’s what learning should be about, sharing perspective, sharing understanding of issues, sharing who we are as individuals. I think that Allegheny has always represented that kind of civility, I think we’ve represented it as we’ve discussed issues on this campus that are of importance. Over the last year we had the beginnings of a conversation around natural gas exploration. I was very proud of this community, there aren’t a lot of places that would’ve had that conversation in the civil manner that we did, beginning with the Trustees, with the faculty staff, with the students of this campus. Many different perspectives, but we had a conversation and tried to learn together. I think that we need to continue to model that on this campus, I will continue to ask all of us as we engage in that arena of ideas to do so in a civil and respectful manner. In terms of the themes of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, these were seminal events in the history of the United States. We continue today in America to deal with issues of race, we deal with issues of individual rights, we deal with issues of respect for the individual, so I think for Allegheny to step back at its 200th anniversary and look at these two seminal acts in the history of the United States and pause and think about the lessons that we can learn, the challenges that we still face, I hope every member of this community will take that moment and think about where we are as a nation, where we are as a campus.

C: Leading into the bicentennial, what is it like for you to be president of the college in its 200th year?

M: To be president of Allegheny is the greatest privilege of my professional life. To be president of Allegheny College at the moment of its bicentennial is, I think, a unique privilege for anyone in higher education. I can’t think of anything that could be more important to me, more significant to me. I recognize the responsibilities that are incumbent with being the president at the 200th birthday. I come in here everyday and I see on my mantle over the fireplace here, a letter from Thomas Jefferson to Timothy Alden talking about the significance of Allegheny in the early 19th century as an educational institution and I have that there because it reminds me of Allegheny’s importance to liberal learning in America. We have a remarkable history here, an extraordinary tradition and the 200th anniversary is a chance to reflect on that, to challenge ourselves for the next era of our history and to have the honor of sharing that and to be president during that period is a unique privilege in higher education, and I’m very honored.

C: To all the students coming into Allegheny at this point in time, is there any kind of message that you would like to give the incoming class of first years?

M: Absolutely. As I tried to articulate at matriculation, Allegheny is one of the great institutions in the United States of America. It has traced the arch of American history, it is recognized as one of the most distinguished institutions in our country. To be part of that as a student, particularly at this moment in it’s history as we approach the bicentennial, is really a unique opportunity for a young person. We have built a tradition here around rigour, around commitment to service, around preparing individuals to make a difference in the world when they graduate, around honor with the honor code and integrity, and around respect for every individual. We’ve also said that we are committed to achieving important ins in matters of societal importance whether its civility or sustainability. We’re part of a very important tradition here and I would ask students to join in reflecting upon the responsibilities that go with that tradition and to help us build the tradition and take it to its next place as we start the third century. The second thing I would say to students is, one of the great outcomes for young people who come to Allegheny is that they build friendships that last a lifetime. And I always say try to embrace those friendships, learn through them and carry them forward for the rest of your life. I meet alumni all over the country who talk about their friends that they met at Allegheny, some of them who have met their spouses or significant others at Allegheny. Don’t miss the opportunity to build those friendships and don’t believe that in the years ahead, beginning while you’re a student here, you can’t make a difference, you can. You can make a difference in the quality of life on this campus and you can make a difference in the community thats around us, and you can carry that forward after graduation into the world. Be engaged. And finally, enjoy these four years, they’re magical years and you should enjoy them.