President Olian sees future of university as bright, vows to forge circumstance into opportunity

Photo of the Quinnipiac clocktower from the side, on the quad

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uinnipiac is a strong university with a bright future, President Judy Olian told students, faculty and staff on August 31 at this year’s virtual Convocation. (Watch the recording now.)

“The pandemic has reshaped broad aspects of what we do, but it will not redefine who we are,” she said at the kick-off event to the 2020-21 academic year. “Time and again throughout our history, Quinnipiac has forged circumstance into opportunity. We do no less today and into the future.”

She urged her Bobcat family not to turn away from the realities of the year, but to confront them with the confidence that brighter days await.

“We must rise to meet these realities, and soar past them. We shall and we have,” she said. “True to our past and to our character, we will not allow circumstance to steal 2020. It will not be a ‘lost’ year, but a year of discovery and growth in which we demonstrate to ourselves, to our students and to the communities we serve how adversity and uncertainty uncover new strengths, elicit innovation, surface compassion and kindness, and teach new skills that infuse added meaning and purpose into our lives. This is the spirit in which we go forward into this new year.”

She commended the university community — from across every school, department, division and unit — for laboring over the challenges of not only returning to campus, but doing what it takes to ensure our community is able to remain on campus, complete with the characteristic excellence in teaching, operations and student care that have come to define a Quinnipiac education.  

“We have devised a complex testing program before and after students arrive; we’ve implemented dedensification; isolation; health self-assessment; contact tracing capabilities,” she said. “We’ve revamped dining procedures; introduced Zoom technology in each of our 225 classrooms and, of course, totally transformed our teaching approach and delivery through the new Q-Flex model.”

She described the past five months as “nothing short of astonishing to see how our entire university has galvanized to problem solve, to make the impossible possible and to put institution first.”

This academic year, 93% of our students have elected to take in-person classes.

“I have spoken with many students over the last week and they are overjoyed at the opportunity to be studying on campus and are so grateful that we are indeed open, on-ground, for learning,” Olian told said.

As of last week, there are a total 2,016 first year and new transfer students arriving from 34 states and 30 countries, including the United States — up about 250 more students from last year. Also increasing with the Class of 2024 is the average GPA of 3.49, which is higher than previous years.

Although natural to focus on what’s happening on our campuses, she urged the Quinnipiac community to remember the broader society.

“Throughout the summer — and right up to this past week in Wisconsin — we have seen images of cities crowded with protesters demanding justice for their fellow citizens, as the struggle continues to overcome the bias and discrimination that has defined long eras of our natural history,” Olian said. “In July, our university committed to a 10-point plan of action to advance racial justice to bring about change in our community. We cannot deny or turn away from actions or words that have caused harm within our own Bobcat family.”

She said being against racism and bias is not enough.

“We must take action that brings about fundamental and lasting change, and equips our students, and later our graduates, to counter discrimination in society,” Olian said. “Lasting change requires us each to engage in true soul-searching and self-examination of why, and how, we act and think. It includes education about the roots of racism, and an understanding of history — of how meaningful change is achieved.”

She said this fall will bring expanded training on equity and inclusion for students, faculty and staff — as well as the examination of curricula to identify opportunities to incorporate and contextualize across disciplines the historical and contemporary drivers of oppression and social change. The university is also implementing a clear and easily accessible system to report and follow up on bias incidents and is enhancing the recruitment pipeline for students, faculty and staff of color.

“We have a lot of work to do, but we are making some progress: Students of color comprise 21.3% of our incoming class, which is 2% above last year,” Olian said. “In particular, through our partnership with New Haven Promise, I am gratified that we increased from three to 12 first-year students joining us through the Promise program.”

She said our collective diversity enables us all to learn from each other, to become more enlightened global citizens and to forge relationships built on mutual respect.

“Our mission is to prepare students for a world that is changing where events are shaped and ideas improved because of diverse views,” Olian said. “For many of our students, this campus may be where they’re exposed for the first time to ideas, and theories, and points of view that challenge what they’ve been surrounded with all their lives in their homes, schools or neighborhoods — and that’s a good thing.”

She noted that the university is working to attract non-traditional adult learners through certificates and programs designed for the emerging skill and knowledge needs among this population.

“A couple of weeks ago when I was welcoming the 308 graduate students joining us this fall, I noted an impressive statistic,” Olian said. “Students in this incoming graduate class range in age from 17 to 59! That tells me that Quinnipiac is already attracting and engaging adult learners who embody a commitment to lifelong learning.”

Tom Ellett, chief experience officer, told his students and colleagues that where some see fear and concern, he sees exciting opportunities.

“Together we are starting a new academic year — a new era, really — full of promise, potential and possibility,” Ellett said. “Together — faculty and staff — we have the opportunity to make our mark, and benefit not only our students’ experience, but the generations of Bobcats who will follow.”

As part of his role, Ellett is responsible for imagining what can be done to better the student journey.

“As diverse as our community is, there is one thing that ties us all together — everyone loves this university and is committed to making it better,” he said. “A key part of that is through honest, real dialogue that can sometimes make us feel a bit uncomfortable.”

Part of Ellett’s role is to push students out of their comfort zones — to learn about new possibilities, opportunities and things about themselves.

“It’s up to each of us to take responsibility to improve Quinnipiac where we find opportunity for improvement,” he said. “One thing that most excites me about this university — and all of you — is how nimble this community is. Quinnipiac embodies the nimbleness and agility of say a Bobcat, yes a Bobcat — easily able to reposition and adjust relatively quickly, even though it may not always feel that way.”

Provost Debra Liebowitz said there was a tremendous opportunity that comes from the unusual nature of the times.

“I am really pleased to be part of a community of faculty, staff and students who have been drawn here because they are dedicated to this kind of exploration,” she said. “Our community see and embrace the complexity of their moment and innovate toward the future, and are willing to figure out how to use technology in new ways, and walk beside our students to assist them in figuring out their own path in navigating their environment.”

She said she believes this approach will help students to figure out how to ask the important questions.

“Engage actively,” Liebowitz urged the students. “Explore the options that are here for you and let your mind tackle the complex problems and questions even when you don’t know exactly what the outcome of doing so will be.”

Don Sawyer, vice president for equity and inclusion and chief diversity officer, said being physically distant has taken a toll on many members of the Bobcat family.

“At Quinnipiac, our goal is to foster conversation, exposure and engagement with all people, thoughts and ideas from all corners of the world,” he said. “Inclusivity and diversity help our students develop empathy, compassion and appreciation for the differences that make the world a fuller place.”

Sawyer said inclusive excellence is a habit that must always be practiced consistently.

“We will not always get it right, but we will continue to work along this path to improve and continue to transform our institution. I know it can work because despite the few stumbles we may have had historically, I have seen our institution change for the better over the past two years,” he said. “These small changes give me hope for the possibilities of our connected futures.”

Sawyer said he remains hopeful as he looks toward the future.

“With all we are facing in our nation, we must connect with one other and see our humanity,” Sawyer said. “Our humanity is a fragile thread that connects all of us. Together, we can do our part to create a more beautiful and humane existence for all.”

Sophia Marshall ’21, president of the Student Government Association, told her peers that they stand at a critical time in history.

“These unprecedented times have charged a period of transformation within our communities, within this nation and in the world,” she said. “We have the power this year to enact massive change by banding together as one, whether that be on a national level, by proving that Quinnipiac cares about and will vote in our national and local elections, or simply by, as a whole community, committing to reach out to a next-door neighbor when we feel them becoming distant. Big or small, the choices we make at Quinnipiac will shape us and pave the way toward our futures.”

She urged her fellow Bobcats to overcome the challenges 2020 has presented them — and make a positive difference.

“We have the unique power to make this school year the year we want it to be — one full of connection, love and change,” Marshall said. “Please remember to do your part in keeping our community safe.”