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The recent news that Oscar-winning actor Robin Williams committed suicide once again brings the topic of mental health to the forefront of our collective conversations.

As President Obama said in his public statement, “Robin Williams was an airman, a doctor, a genie, a nanny, a president, a professor, a bangarang Peter Pan, and everything in between.”  Williams was also a victim of depression—a disease that can be as deadly as cancer and one he expertly hid from the world behind his comic genius and memorable characters.

With the start of a new semester just around the corner, Williams’ death can serve as a cautionary tale for anyone working in higher education. Let’s remember new and returning students may view the pressures they face in the University environment as fierce. Some students may already suffer from depression, and others may succumb to anxiety, stress, and substance abuse over the course of a challenging semester. In order to help students realize their dreams, we must first ensure they stay physically and emotionally healthy.

Earlier this year I attended a mental health and wellness event called A Town Hall Without Walls on Pace’s New York City Campus. The event highlighted our nationally accredited Counseling Center’s great work helping students address depression and other issues that can lead to suicide.

The event’s speakers emphasized that depression is treatable, but only if the person seeks treatment. We can all contribute to suicide prevention by keeping an eye out for students who are chronically depressed, never happy, and consumed by helplessness. Helping these young men and women get the counseling they need from trained professionals, like those in the Pace Counseling Center, is part of our sacred trust to look out for the welfare of our students.

I recently saw a television commercial for the Thai Life Insurance Company. The commercial is called “Unsung Hero” and it reminded me how powerfully our words and actions can reverberate with others and across time.

In the commercial, a young Thai man regularly waters the same dying plant, helps the same sour-looking woman push a heavy product-laden cart over a curb, feeds the same stray dog, leaves fruit for the same elderly neighbor, and gives money to the same barefoot, poorly dressed, sad-looking little girl on a street corner. Each time, onlookers shake their heads in disbelief. The expressions on their faces speak volumes—what a waste of time and effort!

Over time, however, the plant slowly sprouts buds and turns green. The woman with the heavy cart begins to smile and treat her customers better. The dog becomes the man’s best friend, and the elderly neighbor returns his kindness. In the most moving scene, the young man approaches the spot where the young girl sits on the sidewalk. His head is down as he looks in his wallet. He finally looks up and realizes the girl isn’t there. A worried expression crosses his face. Then the girl calls out from down the street. Instead of dirty clothes, she is wearing a brand new school uniform. The girl is smiling.

The commercial reminded me that we never realize just how much our empathy and efforts can help others. Once, early in my career, an acquaintance was lamenting his failure to land his dream job. In these situations, I try and remain upbeat and supportive. I probably told him to keep refining his skills, networking, interviewing, and, eventually, he would get the job. Years later we reconnected. He said he was working in his dream job; just as I had said he would. He remembered our conversation years later. I am sure that it was not my words that gave him the hope he needed to chase the role he loved. It was the human connection, my willingness to help and express my confidence in him.

Our small acts of kindness can not only change one life, but many. If the Thai man’s acts of kindness encouraged the little girl in the commercial to excel in school, she might become a doctor or a teacher and change the lives of people she would never have touched if not for the kindness of the commercial’s hero and others like him.

We all have the power to create a ripple effect of positive behaviors and outcomes. While these acts ordinarily won’t make us rich financially, they make us rich of heart and spirit. And sometimes they make us better off financially as well. See the interesting book Give and Take by Adam Grant. Grant’s analysis shows that being a “giver” rather than a “taker” often leads to career success.

I toured the Pleasantville construction sites last week. After three years of reviewing architects’ renderings, financial projections, and construction plans—three years of wondering if the reality would match the dream—it was an incredibly exciting day.

The new Environmental Center buildings are rising from the ground in a beautiful combination of stone and cedar that blends seamlessly with both the stone of Paton House and the wooded area that the new Environmental Center occupies. The two buildings that have been framed and clad bring a tangible reality to those renderings, projections, and plans, a reality that exceeded my expectations.

 That reality makes it possible to more clearly imagine the major changes that will be finished this summer and next year. Most of the other sites are currently holes in the ground; including the site of Alumni Hall—the new residence hall that will frame the campus green stretching to the front of the new entrance to the Kessel Student Center—and the site of the old Environmental Center that will contain the second new residence hall. But with the Environmental Center as a guide and some imagination, every hole becomes a beautiful building bustling with student life. I can almost see the campus green, Alumni Hall, and the new Kessel shining in the sun.

 This project is a great tribute to years of hard and imaginative work by so many committed people—including our architects, construction manager, regulatory consultants, and others—under Bill McGrath’s superb leadership. While construction has just begun, it will move quickly and it will truly usher in a new era for Pace in Westchester County.

Graduation Days

In May, we had our usual four Pace University Commencement ceremonies. You probably think the Provost and I get tired of shaking hands with all those newly-minted Pace alumni, but we don’t. There is nothing like the sights and sounds of Commencement exercises.

From my vantage point on stage, I look out at thousands of graduates and their families. Our graduates’ faces display all sorts of emotions—pride, happiness, nerves, apprehension, anticipation, melancholy, and so many more. But mostly, Commencement is an incredibly happy event for everyone. Looking at each graduate, I was reminded of an old movie called The Naked City. At the end of the movie a narrator intoned, “There are eight million stories in the Naked City. This has been one of them.” At Commencement, there are thousands of unwritten stories on the faces of Pace graduates, and each graduate will have a story that is unique and worth retelling.

We were very fortunate to have honorary degree recipients at each Commencement who had some extraordinary stories to tell. Each individual was very successful in his or her own right and had devoted some part of their lives to public service. Judge Robert A. Katzmann is chief judge for the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and he has authored influential decisions on a wide range of cases. Emily Kernan Rafferty is the president of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. She is the museum’s first woman president in its 135-year history. George Rupp, PhD, led the world’s leading global relief agency, the International Rescue Committee, for 11 years and was president of both Columbia and Rice universities. Alumnus Michael Dezer is a businessman responsible for the development and transformation of large parts of Chelsea in New York City and virtually all of Sunny Isles, Florida. And Lawrence Otis Graham is a lawyer, a best-selling author, and a television journalist with a commitment to improving race relations in America. What a joy it was to have such a distinguished group giving our students the benefit of their experience and wisdom.

Mr. Graham asked our former students to use their Pace degrees to fight against bigotry, poverty, sexism, ignorance, and apathy. Ms. Rafferty encouraged them to see the world through the lenses of travel, literature, music, art, and poetry. Dr. Rupp advised graduates to continue to think critically, but to balance that critical approach with value-driven judgment, and Judge Katzmann spoke eloquently of the need to treat our immigrant population fairly.

Watching our hard-working, driven graduates move on is always a little bittersweet. We are, at least intellectually, in loco parentis with our students. The pride and satisfaction that attends the amazing transformation through which so many of them travel is tempered with a sense of loss. We become, at least for the moment, academic empty nesters. Our nest is soon full, however, as an academic cycle that has been going on in Western education since the founding of the University of Bologna in 1088 starts anew. I hope and trust that our brand new alumni will return often and help future generations of Pace students write stories that are unique and worthy of retelling.

Last semester I attended an art exhibit in the Schimmel Lobby and a program in the theater devoted to young artists on the autism spectrum. The evening was co-sponsored by our OASIS program and the Brooklyn nonprofit Strokes of Genius, which trains and promotes artists with autism.

It was an inspiring evening. The principal speaker was Temple Grandin, PhD. She also spoke at our Convocation in 2010. Dr. Grandin has autism and her work, books and other achievements are wonderful examples of the power of the human spirit. Listening to her talk about the way in which people with autism perceive the world, we quickly see that helping artists with autism is not so much about overcoming disabilities as it is about turning differences into strengths. The power to do that is something that we all share.

The strengths of these young artists were apparent in the works exhibited in the Schimmel Lobby. Seven students in the Pace OASIS program were among the exhibitors. The artists’ strengths were also apparent in the remarks by a small group of artists who spoke about themselves and their work. One young woman explained that she had been diagnosed with autism when she was seven-years-old, that she recognized that she was different and that she was proud of her differences. Another young artist did not feel comfortable speaking to the group about his paintings, but his brother explained that the artist’s work was in the Venice Biennale, a magnet for work by the best young artists.

Training the Talents of Artists with Autism made me feel very pleased and proud of what Pace is doing in this area. The OASIS program of multifaceted support for students at Pace on the spectrum, founded by Dianne Zager, PhD and now led by Mary Riggs Cohen, PhD, is one of the best in the country. We educate and train K-12 teachers of students with autism and other disabilities; and we are a center of discussion by distinguished experts like Dr. Temple Grandin.

Friendship

Life’s lessons often come to us when we least expect them. Perhaps it is better that way, since they are more striking when we are caught off guard. I recently had two very different experiences, but the lesson was the same.

The first experience was the celebration of the life of a friend who passed away after a long illness. I had known him for about 30 years. We were not close friends, but our lives were intertwined because we were deeply involved with American Ballet Theatre at a challenging time in its evolution. In addition, one of his sons is a current student at Pace, which gave me a deeper connection to him.

The service was truly a celebration of his life. His good friends spoke of his extraordinary lust for life. He was an investment manager and was passionate about learning as much as possible about every company in which he invested his clients’ funds—not just because his clients trusted him to make wise investment decisions, but because each company genuinely fascinated him. He loved good food with an equal passion, and his never-ending search for new and wonderful restaurants was a constant source of amusement for his friends. His commitment to his other interests all benefited from his time, his intense interest, his leadership, and his generosity. But most of all, he loved people—meeting new ones, deepening and broadening his friendships with old ones, gathering them together, and going to dinners, parties, and events. He didn’t go to be seen, but to broaden his circle.

As I listened to friend after friend talk with obvious conviction and affection about the same qualities, I thought about how much I had missed by not knowing him much better than I had. I felt a similar loss after a recent discussion with a college classmate whom I had barely known in college. I had not seen him since our graduation in 1959, but we were dinner partners at a mutual friend’s house. Then we had breakfast together a few weeks later. He was such a complex, multi-faceted, and interesting man. After a stint in the Marines, he spent a year at Union Theological Seminary and then graduated from law school. He went on to a series of leadership roles not in law, but in investment banking, investment management, and in a number of nonprofit organizations. As we talked, I thought about how much I had missed by not knowing him in all those years after college.

My thoughts are not so much about these two men, although I truly wish I had spent much more time with them. Rather, my thoughts are about the need for balance in life, and the fact that this need extends to time with friends as well as family. With both friends and family, time once passed is irretrievable. We don’t get do-overs when it comes to time. We spend so much time wrestling with the demands of modern life. The search for balance is a constant struggle. One of life’s lessons is the essential truth of so many clichés—in this case “nobody ever decided at career’s end that he or she did not spend enough time at the office.”

Recently a friend invited us to see Act One at the Lincoln Center Theater. Act One is a dramatization of Moss Hart’s wonderful autobiography of the same name. The book was originally published in 1959, but it is still amazingly fresh and relevant today.

Hart was one of the great playwrights of the 20th century. He collaborated with George S. Kaufman on You Can’t Take It with You, The Man Who Came to Dinner, and other shows in the 1930s. He was also a sensitive and successful director, his credits including My Fair Lady; and an accomplished screenwriter. Hart wrote Gentleman’s Agreement, Hans Christian Andersen, and A Star Is Born.

Hart came from a desperately poor family. He had no formal schooling beyond the 8th grade and he wrote a play that was produced for Broadway at the age of 20. It was a monumental flop during its out-of-town run, but, still, no mean feat.

Act One depicts Hart’s early years, and his first successful production, Once in a Lifetime, began his long collaboration with the already very successful George S. Kaufman. Prior to the play, we were treated to an introduction to Hart and Act One by Professor Larry Maslon of the Tisch School of the Arts. I was struck by Professor Maslon’s rumination from Hart that closed his introduction: “I have had many successes and many failures in my life. My successes have always been for different reasons, but my failures have always been for the same reason: I said, ‘Yes’ when I meant ‘No.’”

Saying yes when we mean (or ought to say) no helps us avoid difficult conversations, bad news, and other unpleasant encounters. It is also a recipe for failure, in the theater and in most other endeavors.

Saying yes is almost always easier than saying no. It not only avoids the conflict and disappointment inflicted by a “No,” it responds to our need to be liked and thought of as a team player. Saying no takes greater confidence—confidence in yourself and in your beliefs. Most important, saying no puts the prime consideration—whether it is the play, the organization, or the student—first.

We talk a lot about what’s important—the value of good classroom experiences combined with opportunities for experiential learning, and setting goals and working towards them—but nothing is more important than our health and the sanctity of human life.

That’s why our recent event Mental Health and Wellness on Campus: A Town Hall Without Walls, was so important. The Jed Foundation, the Clinton Foundation, and Facebook hosted the event.

When students are anxious or depressed, their academic performance suffers, but more important, so do their lives. One out of every four young adults experiences an episode of depression before the age of 24, and nearly one-third of college students report an episode of feeling so sad or depressed in the past year that they have trouble functioning.

I was happy that Pace students practically filled the Schimmel Theatre to hear our panelists discuss these topics. We also reached another 13 million people through Twitter, and the Clinton Foundation continues to make a video of the event available to its website visitors.

Richard Shadick, PhD, director of the Pace University Counseling Center and adjunct professor of psychology, was part of the panel that discussed the prevalence, challenges, stereotypes, and dangers of prescription drug misuse, self-harm, and suicide on campus. The three most important messages Dr. Shadick and the others delivered to students were: 1) you are not the only person who gets stressed out or depressed; 2) you are not the only person who needs help to feel better; and 3) there is no stigma attached to getting help.

Dr. Shadick and his team in the Counseling Center are doing great work. The Center is nationally accredited and has received close to a half-million dollars in grants to prevent suicide and substance abuse. The Jed Foundation has also recognized our Counseling Center, awarding Pace its Jed Campus Seal of Approval. The Foundation gives the award to colleges that demonstrate strong, comprehensive solutions to students’ mental health needs.

Counseling works, but only when people use it. No one should be embarrassed or ashamed to take that first step towards mental and emotional health.

Outside of the New York City area, more Pace alumni reside in Florida, California and China than in any other locations. On our recent trip to Florida, Jennifer Bernstein, VP for Development and Alumni Relations, and I met with alumni who care deeply about Pace and support the University and our students in a variety of ways.

Brian Smith, who graduated from Pace with an MBA in 2000, is a senior managing director of First Republic Bank in Palm Beach and is very enthusiastic about Pace. Brian hosted a lunch for us with about ten wonderful Lubin and Dyson alumni and parents from the Palm Beach area. We had a fascinating discussion. Everyone was interested in hearing more about the Pace Path and curricular initiatives. The lunch was also a good opportunity for alumni to connect. Their interest in learning more about each other and exchanging ideas and information reinforced my belief in the importance of the Pace Network. Staying connected to Pace and other alumni has many benefits throughout life.

That evening we had a delightful dinner with Professor Harvey Stein and his wife Shirley, who graduated from Pace with an MBA in 1981. Harvey taught accounting as a full-time faculty member for 15 years. He was a practicing accountant and lawyer at the same time. Harvey describes his time at Pace as “among his most rewarding.” Harvey retired from Pace in 1984 to build Pencil Pushers United, Inc., one of the first successful computer-driven tax form preparation programs for professionals. In a wonderful example of the power of a Pace MBA, Shirley went back to school at Pace for that degree and served as President of the company. The Steins sold the company in 1998 and retired to Florida. Harvey then established a scholarship for an accounting student at Pace and recently funded $100,000 to name a classroom in Alumni Hall, a new residence hall being built in Pleasantville.

The next morning we had breakfast with John and Carol Anne Stiglmeier and their son Jack. John and Carol Anne are the parents of Fairleigh, a sophomore who is majoring in women’s and gender studies in Dyson. Jack is following his sister to Pace and will start in the fall as a freshman in the new BFA in Acting for Film, Television, Voice-Overs, and Commercials. John and Carol Anne (who has an impressive background in curricular planning for K-12 education) will introduce us to the secondary school acting network in South Florida. They are a terrific example of the increasingly active and involved Pace parents.

Jennifer and I ended our visit with a long and very productive lunch the next day with Peter Sacripanti, a Pace Law School alumnus who is the CEO of McDermott Will & Emery, a large and successful international law firm.

In selected areas like Florida, California, and China, there are significant needs for a senior Pace administrator, dean and/or faculty member to visit every year. When we solidify the relationships of alumni with both the University and with each other, we leverage the full power of our Pace Network.

The members of the Pace Network of successful thinking professionals care a great deal about Pace University. They’ve got great ideas how we can enhance the University experience for today’s students. Many are also interested supporting students directly—through mentoring, referrals, scholarships, and other creative opportunities. We try and get out and meet with alumni as often as possible.

Recently Jennifer Bernstein, VP for Development and Alumni Relations, and I connected with alumni, friends, and parents of current students in Florida. As always, I was struck by the important role that the University played in the lives of so many of them. Everyone was delighted when I told them how we are modernizing our New York City and Pleasantville locations. They were also very enthusiastic about the “Pace Path” because it is the modern manifestation of Pace’s historic commitment to graduate students who are ready to function as real professionals. 

I met with Don Boudreau during the trip. Don graduated from Pace with a BBA in Marketing in 1970. He rose to become Vice Chairman of JP Morgan Chase and served as a University Trustee for years. Don and his family established two endowed scholarships at Pace. He is now Trustee Emeritus, and remains deeply interested in the future of Pace. In fact, following our conversation in Florida, Don informed me that he intends to give $250,000 to the Campaign for Pleasantville. In recognition of this extraordinary generosity, we will dedicate the Susan and Donald Boudreau Student Lounge in our newly renovated Kessel Student Center in Pleasantville. Don’s life and career is a wonderful example to our students, and I am so pleased that his name will have such a prominent place on our campus for years to come.  

I also saw friends of Pace, Ellen Kramer and her husband Arthur Keyser. Both of them are active in the theater in Sarasota and elsewhere. Ellen studied theatrical lighting design in the early 80s with Chris Thomas, former Chair and Professor of Performing Arts. She established a scholarship for lighting and theatrical design students in his memory. Arthur was a successful Philadelphia lawyer and, when they retired to Florida, he began a new career as a serious playwright at the age of 80. Arthur’s work continues to be published and performed in Florida and elsewhere.

I am very proud that so many Pace students, alumni, and friends compete successfully with the best students from the best schools in America and rise to the highest levels within their professions. Don and Ellen are just two examples from our vast Pace Network who not only achieved their dreams, but who help current students achieve their dreams as well. 

More on this trip in my next post.

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