Friday, April 20, 2o18
from W. Joseph King, Ph.D. 18th President of Lyon College
(Presented in Couch Garden and Quadrangle on Friday, April 20, 2018 at 2:00 pm.)
During the Long Depression of the 1870s, one of Lord Byron’s poems, The Destruction of Sennacherib, became popular. The first stanza reads:
“The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold, And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold; And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea, When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.”
This campaign, chronicled in 2nd Kings, ended in the fall of Jerusalem to King Sennacherib. It is a tale of siege, both literal and figurative. It captured the feeling of helplessness brought on by the worldwide depression. I suspect this feeling is not too different than the feeling of existential crisis that much of higher education is currently experiencing. I must admit that there are days when I feel it in my bones. That probably explains why I put a hundred-foot sign down the side of the administration building that reads: Perseverance conquers all, God willing. In addition to being the college’s motto, it is good advice. Perseverance is, more often than not, the difference between success and failure.
However, perseverance is not enough. Success also requires knowledge and strategy. We have to understand what is challenging higher education. Demographics, for example, will shift dramatically over the next twenty years. Many of you know that high school graduation rates are already falling, significantly in some regions. We are blessed, here at Lyon, to be in a state where graduation rates will continue to climb, albeit modestly, and to be proximate to Texas and Oklahoma, both experiencing double-digit growth. This is a tremendous opportunity for the College, thus we have established regional admissions counselors in both states.
It is also an opportunity to serve more first generation and underprivileged students. Situated in the foothills of the Ozarks, we have a long and successful tradition of making a real difference in the lives of these sorts of students. In my brief time as president, I have met many alumni who talk about how the College reached out to them, provided them with an opportunity they never thought they would have, and changed their lives. They have gone on to be doctors, lawyers, teachers, judges, pastors, legislators, writers, entrepreneurs … in short, they have lived lives of significance and made a difference in their communities and the world. They are our legacy.
We are also blessed to be a liberal arts college. I know that there is plenty of derision in this world aimed at liberal education. In fact, I regularly read about its impending doom. However, consider this, the Baby Boom generation held almost twelve jobs during their careers. That was with an average lifespan stretching into their late 60s. By comparison, the student looking at colleges today will live to almost 90 – 20 percent will live to 100. Their careers could easily span 50 years. With 2070 as the horizon, students and parents today are contemplating careers with dozen of jobs, movement between industries, lifelong learning, and professional development, not to mention entirely new industries and jobs that simply do not exist today.
Also, consider the unique differences of this generation. They have been steeped in building, simulation, and gaming their entire lives. Unlike previous generations that relied on Lincoln Logs, Lego, and Monopoly, they have created vast structures and machines in Minecraft, developed elaborate strategies in Dota 2, and built surprisingly complicated things using 3D printers. At school, they have designed web pages, built robots for competitions, and told stories with video in addition to performing in the choir, playing on the basketball team, or writing the best short story. They have learned by performing, making, and creating. They are not “Millennials” any more than someone born in 1700 was an “18th Centurion.” They are the Creative Generation.
Therefore, they need a higher education that is broad-based, supporting and producing creative, free thinkers. The Greeks and Romans were keenly aware of this need. They developed a set of artes liberales, Latin for subjects and skills worthy of a free person. In the American Republic, founded, as Lafayette noted, “on the unalienable rights of man,” liberty, freedom, and freethinking were paramount concerns and an educated citizen must fully embody them. This is the basis of the liberal arts college, but it is the beginning, not the end. The end is a perpetual process of reinvention and renewal that brings us to the modern liberal arts college, one that is deeply committed to creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurial spirit. We can and will prepare students for 2070 and all that it portends.
In that spirit, my colleagues and I have spent this year deeply considering options and have alighted on four strategic goals. The first is enrollment growth to between 1,100 and 1,250 students. Considering the College’s current and historic enrollment, that would be a substantial change. We have a four-pronged approach in mind. First, we will improve Lyon’s systems and processes based on reliable data. Second, we will focus on retention, as both a commitment to our mission and a reliable way to grow. Third, we will begin the cultivation of potential students in their sophomore year of high school – targeting schools in growth markets. Fourth, we will utilize an approach that we call affinity mentoring. Essentially, we will systematize what liberal arts colleges have always done well, namely creating strong student-mentor environments that bring and bond the student to the institution. Mentors may be faculty, coaches, club advisors, or a combination. The key is to build that bond around something for which the student has a strong and lasting affinity.
Our second strategic goal is to develop a more robust, interdisciplinary liberal arts academic program, enhanced by opportunities for experiential learning and a culture that fosters creativity and innovation. We will begin by re-examining the core curriculum. That work has already begun and should be completed next year. We will promote innovative academic programs, specifically developing and enhancing majors, minors, and areas of concentration. Experiential learning opportunities will be expanded, thus providing more opportunities for study abroad, internships, and undergraduate research. Finally, we are committed to providing substantive support for faculty and staff, particularly professional development and compensation. Our hope is that these activities, together, will define a more unique “Lyon Experience.”
Our third strategic goal is to have a diverse and inclusive residential community focused on educating the whole person. In that vein, we will be more intentional about recruiting and retaining students, faculty, and staff with diverse backgrounds and outlooks. We believe that the residential college experience is as important as what happens in the classroom or on the playing field. Therefore, we are committed to enhancing it. We plan to update and increase residential facilities, particularly as we grow. We plan to increase the number of faculty and staff living on campus, creating a more vibrant academic community. In educating the whole student, we will be equally committed to community service, wellness, and spiritual life.
Our fourth and final strategic goal is to build a broad-based and fully engaged college commonwealth including strong alumni connectivity and local and regional partnerships. We will enhance alumni relations through deliberate and focused marketing, multigenerational events, and mentoring programs. This will become central to reengaging alumni who may feel estranged from their alma mater. We will build on existing local and regional relationships to provide more opportunities and be better partners and stewards. Finally, we will commit to engagement on a local, state, and national level for the betterment of the College and our World.
Taken together, these goals will lead to a sustainable Lyon College. This will be sustainability writ large, not simply financial or environmental. These goals will also lead to a better Lyon College. That will be our task for the next four years as we approach the College’s sesquicentennial in 2022. I know that we are equal to the task, and I have great optimism about what we will achieve together.
However, it is not just about the next four years and our 150th anniversary. The next 150 years are equally important. We should ask ourselves what Lyon will be in 2172. What will we make it? I think it will be a place that deeply cares about each and every student. I think it will be a place that is proud of its alumni and strives to remain connected and relevant in each of their lives. I think it will be a place that is passionately committed to scholarship and service. I think it will have faculty and staff who are truly devoted to their important work. In short, it will make a real difference.
If that sounds a lot like the Lyon of today, it is no mistake. It is our legacy. It is why a community of Presbyterians founded this college during one of the worst financial calamities of our nation’s history. It is why they and so many others have stuck with the College through thick and thin. It is why donors have given hundreds of millions of dollars to the institution. It is why volunteers come out in force anytime we ask for their aid. It is why we are here today. We are here securing our legacy for generations to come. Thank you.
Lyon is more than just a college. It's a community distinguished by its academic curriculum, unique honor and social systems, and award-winning professors.