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Remarks from the President of the University of the Sacred Heart

 

The Global Imperative for Higher Education
A National Symposium
November 21-22, 2014
University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras
San Juan, Puerto Rico

 

President Gilberto Marxuach-Torrós, University of the Sacred Heart

I want to begin by thanking Governor Sila Calderón and her staff for hosting this marvelous event today at these beautiful facilities. I want to thank Debra, the Faculty Resource Network, and NYU for the kind invitation to participate in this panel with you this afternoon. It is really a privilege, a humbling privilege, to share a stage with President Sexton and President Walker. And I want to take a moment to thank the Faculty Resource Network on behalf of Sagrado Corazón. I think José Jaime’s vision and longstanding collaboration with Debra, President Sexton, and NYU brought us here today and I think that’s a wonderful gift for Puerto Rico. It has been a blessing for all of our faculty who have taken advantage of all the seminars, events, and conferences, as I am sure it has for many faculties at many colleges and universities. We are truly honored to be a part of this very generous initiative and to celebrate today its 30th anniversary.

The topic for this panel is perspectives on the global imperative for higher education. I was thinking about this and couldn’t help but think of the contrast between New York City and Puerto Rico—the contrast that was made clearly evident by President Sexton. New York is a world capital. All the world is in New York. All the world wants to go to New York. It is the host of the United Nations. It is the center of world finance, culture, and arts. Truly it is the quintessential international city. President Sexton talked about there being a neighborhood in New York for every country. Puerto Rico is very different. We’re a group of islands in the Caribbean. If we want to engage the world, we have to come out. We have to come out of our borders; we have to engage the world. And we have to invite the world to us. We have to move the world; we have to persuade the world to come to our beautiful shores and to meet our generous and hospitable people. And that is our challenge. And that is the challenge for our universities and that is the challenge for our students.

That’s the challenge I want to think about with you today. I want to think about it from the perspective of our students. Last night we had the opportunity to have a beautiful dinner at the Ramon Power residence in Old San Juan, where I had the privilege to talk at length with President Sexton and President Walker. At one time during our conversation, President Sexton turns around and asks us, what’s the median income of your students? President Walker says about $25,000 a year. Sagrado Corazón’s is very close—we’re just that close to the federal poverty level. Our students, frankly, depend on Pell Grants to pay for their tuition. If it weren’t for Pell Grants, very few students would go to college in Puerto Rico. Many of our students come from families where one or both parents do not have any university education. Many of our students come from families with only one parent. Many of them have not traveled outside of Puerto Rico and only a handful of them have traveled to the U.S. For many of them who live outside of the metropolitan area, where both our main campus for Sagrado Corazón and UPR are located, coming to San Juan is a dramatic change of scenery from their small towns. We have a large residential component at Sagrado Corazón and it’s incredible to see the amazement on some of these kids when they come from other places; it’s like they’re coming to a metropolis. If you look at our College Board results, you will see that the average results of our students in Spanish are frankly not very encouraging. Their English results are not good and their math results keep going south. Yet these are the students that I think we have an obligation and a sacred duty to educate. These students are facing and will continue to face an increasingly complex, diverse web of global interactions really in all areas of human endeavor. In business, science, in medicine and art, culture, you name it. This is the world our students will face. We will have to engage them across countries, across languages, time zones, cultures, histories, and traditions, when many of them are only thinking about getting a job so that they can support themselves or support their families. This international reality is very far from their everyday lives, but it’s going to hit them very hard and very soon.

It’s perfectly understandable that they’re worried about where they are going to get their income, where they are going to get their job. And if you’ve followed Puerto Rico for the last ten years, you know that the economic situation here is very tough. The employment situation is very difficult. So kids are coming to the university wondering, what am I going to do next? What is going to be waiting for me out there when I graduate? So I think the challenge for our universities is how do we reach out students exactly where they are? How they are? How they come to us? Cognizant of their pressing economic realities, family situations, economic situations, their social situations, and at the same time preparing them, not merely for that job that they are looking for, but for this increasing international world that they are going to have to face and live with. I think, from my perspective, this question has to inform everything universities do here in Puerto Rico.

I told you that I’ve been on my job for three months, and I happen to come to this job not from university administration, so I have an opportunity to take a fresh look at many things. And I think one of the first questions we have to ask ourselves is: are our curricula, our pedagogies, our academic structures and programs, are they really preparing our students in Puerto Rico for that world? And it’s not merely a matter of content; it’s a matter of competencies. It’s skills, character, abilities, temperament; it’s really an integrated education. It’s what we’re doing in the classroom; it’s the content of our programs. Is what we’re offering these students what they need in the world in which they are going to live? I think it’s a hard question that we as communities and universities have to face. Are our universities designed for the needs of the students or for the convenience of the administration or the faculty? In Puerto Rico, look at the reality of our students; there is only one answer to that question. Everything that we do has to be for the purpose of best serving our students and trying to put them in the best position to succeed. And if they succeed, Puerto Rico will succeed.

So, as I sit in my office and ponder all of these things, all that I have are questions for my university community all across the board. For example, languages: should we require our students to learn a third language? Is it sufficient for students in Puerto Rico to know only Spanish and English, however proficiently? Should we not merely offer, but should we require a third? Study abroad: is it sufficient to have exchange programs or should we require students to have a significant study abroad experience? President Walker was absolutely right. There is nothing like living in a different country. That will transform lives. Should we require that? Should that be a part of your university experience? What commitments are we willing to make to provide financial support to our students so we can make that possibility a reality? Our career placement offices—I bet most of them look inwardly for job opportunities in Puerto Rico. Should we twist them around and ask them to become aggressive promoters of opportunities for our students anywhere in the world? There are magnificent worldwide companies looking for the best talents. Should our career placement offices be doing that, rather than just looking for jobs wherever they can find them in Puerto Rico? And to the hard question of our faculty: should our faculty be truly internationally diverse or 99% people from Puerto Rico? If we are truly committed to an international experience, shouldn’t the composition of our faculty reflect that? I ask the same about administrative staff. When we go on to recruit our CIOs and our vice president for enrollment management, and for all the other positions, should the composition of our staff reflect the world in which we live in, and should we recruit internationally and bring the best talent possible so that the students in our community come face-to-face with that reality? Not just through the TV, not just through a computer screen.

When we look at international recruitment of students, do we think it only as a response to an economic imperative because our enrollments are down because of demographics? Do we only see it as a market necessity? Or should we think of it as a critical part of increasing the educational environment of our students? We should try to maximize as much as possible a diverse international student body—not because it will improve the bottom line of the university, but because it will really and truly enrich the international experience of the students.

Should we be willing to risk collaborations and partnerships with universities all over the world? Learn from them, have them mentor us? I think we should learn to share and collaborate. In each of these areas and perhaps many others that I’ve forgotten to mention, I think the critical questions are always how can we get our students to engage the world? And the flip side is how do we bring the world to them? And I think that is a challenge that all of us—administrators, faculty, and students—ought to think about every day. I think our responses to that will be critical to our delivery on our promise to our students and to our contributions to Puerto Rico’s social and economic development. I hope this is a discussion that every campus community has and that each implements responses that make sense to each campus community. I think our future and the future of Puerto Rico’s students is riding on it. So thank you very much. It’s been an honor to be here with you.