Dr. Michael Driscoll

Dr. Michael Driscoll welcomed the Indiana University of Pennsylvania community to the 2020-21 academic year with remarks that capped a 70-minute New Year celebration Friday at Fisher Auditorium on the IUP campus. The IUP president said, “We are striving to be a student-centered university,” and backed that up by announcing that each student would get a one-time $300 grant out of the IUP operating budget.

And putting some money in their pockets.

“Our students are the future,” Driscoll told an audience that largely was watching online through the iup.edu website, where a replay is available.

“They will lead the next generation and set the bar high with their successes, and so I am excited to announce that we are going to show our belief in our students’ potential by directing roughly $3 million to support every one of them, with a one-time grant of $300.”

Driscoll said it is an acknowledgment that the students are dealing with tough circumstances that no one foresaw, amid the COVID-19 pandemic that has impacted university operations for the past five months.

Those circumstances extend to more than finances. The IUP president noted ongoing divisions in the nation.

“From the pandemic, to the killing of George Floyd and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, to the upcoming presidential election, everywhere you look, people are digging in their heels and taking sides, rather than working together,” Driscoll said.

He zeroed in on a topic that has come up often in his eight-year tenure as IUP president.

“While it is OK to have differing opinions on many things, we must agree that racism, not just the person-to-person kind, but the systemic racism that has affected generations of Black and Brown people, has no place at IUP, or anywhere, for that matter,” Driscoll continued. “This summer we spent time listening to our minority students, through programs such as Building Bridges and Breaking The Barrier, we had honest discussions that were uncomfortable, and they taught us some harsh truths.”

The IUP president said he heard Black and Brown students who felt they were pushed aside, and did not get the help they needed, or whose opinions were disregarded in classes, or who felt unsafe just walking around campus.

“We heard students say, how from the day they arrived here, they felt that the deck was stacked against them,” Driscoll said. “It is clear we must make changes in the way our Black and Brown students experience IUP,” changes that will include Driscoll himself as well as other university leaders.

“Let’s dare to be different,” Driscoll challenged the IUP community. “Let’s dare to be leaders of change by making our great university even greater by assuring all our students get the opportunity to make a lift that will positively impact all others.”

Meanwhile, that announcement of $300 grants came with acknowledgments about declining enrollment, a state appropriation that “though helpful does not match our needs,” and a need to make fundamental changes because “belt-tightening is not enough,” Driscoll said.

“Absolutely, the budget is tight,” IUP Executive Director of Media Relations Michelle Fryling said, “but the decision was made to make this a priority to invest in our students to help them during this difficult time.”

It also isn’t the first bid to tap IUP coffers to help students. At the May 7 Council of Trustees meeting, Driscoll announced, “We refunded over $10 million to our students, to represent the fundamental changes that have happened in their lives.”

That was less than two months after the pandemic emergency set in, an emergency whose impact included a virtual presentation Friday morning, rather than the usual gathering before a full house at Fisher Auditorium.

That presentation could be summed up in a limerick University Senate Chairman Dr. David Piper offered at the urging of IUP Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Dr. Timothy S. Moerland.

“PASSHE wants System Redesign to thrive, while COVID-19 is still alive,” Piper intoned. “We have all the tools, our employees are no fools, once again IUP will survive.”

And possibly thrive, others suggested in an event that also referred to the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education’s System Redesign effort, as well as other changes thrust upon the second-largest PASSHE institution.

A change for all 14 PASSHE schools came with the signing of Act 50 on July 1 by Gov. Tom Wolf,  which calls for shared services at many of the institutions.

“We are part of a system, we are linked together, we are not isolated,” Moerland said in remarks opening Friday’s 70-minute event. “We wonder what will come next.”

Driscoll said the IUP community is excited about the opportunity to share infrastructures, to help other PASSHE schools and to benefit from their help. He also noted that West Chester and IUP will not be included in planned integration of the smaller PASSHE schools.

“This means our destiny is in our own hands,” Driscoll said.

On the other hand, Driscoll said, PASSHE Chancellor Dr. Dan Greenstein is studying financial implications of integrating operations at California and Clarion universities; at Slippery Rock and Edinboro universities; and at Lock Haven and Mansfield universities, “with Bloomsburg as a supporting player.”

Greenstein is expected to make the results of that study known in October.

Driscoll also touched upon other matters in his speech, including the upcoming 150th anniversary of the school now known as IUP in 2025, and an anticipation about having another Celebration of Philanthropy this coming spring.

“We are this close to reaching the $75 million goal of Imagine Unlimited,” Driscoll said, referring to the fund-raising campaign that has reached the $73.5 million mark as of Friday evening.

Moerland opened Friday’s event by pointing to changes in the world during his eight years at provost.

About COVID-19, for instance, he said one could “wax nostalgic and remember when people wearing masks were the bad guys. That has turned completely around. Don’t be a bad guy.”

He said IUP has coped with challenges both inside and outside the campus community.

“IUP survived, and not just survived, we are a stronger place because of our ability to meet the needs of our students, in a manner that is more far reaching than it was before,” the provost said. “And, arguably, we made that transition with a dash of style and substance that was notably absent elsewhere.”

Piper followed, recalling how “in a week this campus turned on a dime,” as faculty, staff and administrators came together to deal with COVID-19.

“We changed IUP and the hope is we will be better as a result,” Piper said.

He urged faculty to get involved, be it in the union or the senate.

Next was Dr. Erika Frenzel, a professor in the Criminology and Criminal Justice Department and new president of the campus chapter of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculty.

“This has been a summer of steep learning curves in my first 82 days in office,” Frenzel said.

She said it also has been a year of discussions about what she termed a moving target, with program moratoriums, “a five-year sustainability plan, with attrition, leading to a balanced budget, that was forced to become a two-year sustainability plan,” and a student-faculty ratio set by the Office of the Chancellor that may force a reduction of faculty if student enrollment continues to shrink,

Amid all that, Frenzel said, “Our focus has always been to keep the students, the IUP community and the Indiana community safe.”

Also speaking was Erin Fritz Wood, assistant director of IUP’s Financial Aid Office, as well as president of the IUP chapter of the State College and University Professional Association, who said SCUPA members believe that each day is a positive opportunity to change a life.

“Working side by side with students, helping them envision their future, supporting their individual needs and dreams, providing supportive programming, and developing community engagement experiences, these are all small successes that lead to supporting the vision of IUP,” Wood said.

The last speaker before Driscoll was Alex Fefolt, president of IUP’s Student Government Association and a member of the PASSHE Board of Governors, who hailed the “tireless effort” of IUP faculty, staff and administration “to fundamentally pivot this university,” to get as many students as they could into on-campus education despite the pandemic.

Hailing IUP’s providing “high-quality education at an affordable cost,” Fefolt said, “Many are here because we were one of only a few schools which they could afford to attend.”