Grace and celebrity

A few weeks ago, I accompanied two of our students to a small reception for The Kevin Spacey Foundation (KSF): America.

The event was hosted by business leader and philanthropist Adrienne Arsht at her splendid house in Washington D.C. to thank some of the larger supporters of a concert for Mr. Spacey’s global foundation. Adrienne is a wonderfully generous patron of the performing arts (e.g., the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami). Adrienne and I also served together on the Board of the American Ballet Theatre many years ago.

The KSF sponsors the creation of new works, designs, and tailored educational opportunities through KSF Learning. The Foundation also offers scholarships. We were very proud that the first five scholarships in the U.S. were awarded to Pace Performing Arts students. The two sophomore scholars, Larissa Jeanniton and Nicholas Delgado, were invited to the reception.

It was a lovely evening with an interesting group of people. Both Adrienne and Kevin Spacey spoke movingly about the Foundation’s important work. Among the highlights for me and for many of the people there was Larissa and Nicholas’ maturity, charisma, and dedication to their art.  I was very proud of them and their representation of Pace and its students.

For Larissa and Nicholas there is no doubt that the highlight of the evening was when Kevin Spacey took them aside to talk to them and give them advice about their careers as performing artists. He talked with them for some time, and had we not had a plane to catch, the conversation would have continued. As you can see from the photo below, his interest in them and their careers was genuine and very inspiring.

Kevin Spacey Pic

Pace supporters display true holiday spirit on Giving Tuesday

First there was Black Friday. Large retailers co-opted the day after Thanksgiving to kick off the holiday shopping season. Small mom and pop retailers weren’t about to be left out. They proclaimed the third day of the four-day weekend as Small Business Saturday in the hopes of drawing shoppers to their stores. Online retailers followed suit, electing the following Monday as Cyber Monday to push their products and sales. Even shippers had their own day—Free Shipping Thursday on the final Thursday before Christmas.

The holidays are behind us, but with so much focus on shopping and sales each holiday season, let’s applaud the United Nations Foundation and New York City’s 92nd Street Y for creating Giving Tuesday in 2012. The two groups created Giving Tuesday in response to the overemphasis on consumerism during the holidays. The day has its roots in the Bible verse, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”

I am enormously proud of the way our Pace family members embraced Giving Tuesday this year. After raising approximately $13,000 in 2013, we set a Giving Tuesday goal of $25,000 for 2014. A generous alumnus had agreed to match contributions up to $25,000, so we hoped to meet our goal and raise $50,000.

Thanks to the spirit and generosity of our Pace friends, alumni, and supporters, we met our goal by the afternoon. By the end of the day, almost 300 donors contributed more than $76,000—providing the University with a total of $101,700 to support things like curriculum development, scholarship programs, and student activities.

Even after the holidays, it is appropriate to give thanks. At Pace we are thankful for everyone who recognizes that the United States cannot succeed in an increasingly complex and interconnected world unless the great middle class of students—not just students from the most selective colleges in America—receive first-class educations that combine high-quality classroom instruction with real world experience. Pace educates these students every day and they go on to fulfill their promise and potential. We are thankful for the support of our friends and extended Pace family members whose generous gifts allow us to help these hardworking young men and women achieve their dreams.

My warm wishes to you for a happy, healthy, and successful year as we begin 2015.

Four tragedies and one unfulfilled dream

Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, and Rumain Brisbon never knew each other. Garner called Staten Island, New York, home. Rice lived in Cleveland, Ohio; Brown hailed from Ferguson, Missouri; and Brisbon came from Phoenix, Arizona. Yet despite the distance between them, their names will be forever linked as the four unarmed African American males whose lives were cut short during the latter half of 2014. That their deaths were senseless and tragic there is no doubt. And there is also no doubt about the need to improve the tense, stressful relationships between many police departments and the communities of color they serve. We cannot be satisfied with a society in which African American mothers and fathers fear the simple act of their sons walking down the street.

Deep and vigorous discussions of these issues are good ones. Questions need to be asked, and peaceful protests can emphasize to officials the seriousness of these discussions. No other unarmed African American males, or anyone else, should die needlessly. All lives matter.

Remember that the legacies of Garner, Rice, Brown, and Brisbon are more than instruments of social change. They were fathers, sons, and brothers. Their deaths left dreams unfulfilled and huge empty spaces in the lives of the people who loved them. Those spaces will never be filled.

Remember, too, that police departments and the officers who comprise them are not single, monolithic entities. In every police department, there are officers who excel at their jobs and others who are unsuited for the work. There are officers who are hailed as heroes for risking their lives to save others one day and who are condemned for split-second, life or death decisions the next day. Let’s never draw conclusions without all the facts.

Finally, remember that, while discussions about race relations are good, there is so much more to accomplish. I was a young lawyer working in Washington, D.C., during the 1960s and was one of the 250,000 people on the Washington Mall in August, 1963 when Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. That day, Dr. King reminded us that it had been 100 years since President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, but there was still work to do before anyone was truly free. Fifty one years later, the killing of four unarmed, African American males at the hands of the police in the last six months is proof there is still much work to do.

Campus safety is everyone’s concern

Colleges, states, students, administrators, and the White House are reexamining what more everyone can do to prevent sexual assaults and to assure campus safety. We must take additional steps to curb this growing national epidemic.

According to some studies, 20–25 percent of college women will be sexually assaulted during their college careers. Another approximately two percent of college men will be sexually assaulted – and many researchers believe sexual assaults on men are grossly underreported. Among college women, nine out of 10 knew their attacker.

At Pace, we are absolutely committed to preventing sexual assaults and addressing these situations promptly and appropriately when they do occur. It is one of our highest priorities. Every student deserves to pursue her or his dreams in a safe learning environment. We are reexamining our policies and procedures to make sure that students, whether they are in class or visiting friends on campus, feel secure and protected.

Last month the White House launched a campaign called “It’s on Us” to enlist communities in the fight against campus sexual violence. President Obama and Vice President Biden called on students to help keep their friends safe. “One of the most effective ways to prevent rape is to mobilize men and women on campus to join together in stopping perpetrators before they can commit a crime,” said Scott Berkowitz, the president and founder of an advocacy group partnering with the White House on the campaign.

The reviews that are underway at Pace will provide a number of occasions for us to engage in open dialogues about the circumstances that lead to unwanted sexual activities and what everyone can do to combat a complex problem that is far too big for any one person to tackle alone.

Bo’s story

I often talk about the amazing stories at Pace University. These stories recount victories of exceptional students and teams of students, highlight the accomplishments of our well-respected faculty, and demonstrate the heart of our University—like when everyone pulled together after Superstorm Sandy.

Then there is Bo’s story. It is a story that embodies the best elements of all our other stories combined. Bo’s story reminds us that Pace is a very special place, made up of very special people.

Nine years ago, 10-year-old Robert “Bo” Jones was diagnosed with Medulloblastoma—a form of brain cancer. The little boy that loved to run and lift weights underwent surgery to remove tumors. He endured radiation, chemotherapy, and more doctors’ visits and tests than most adults face in a lifetime.

During Bo’s ordeal his mother introduced him to Make-A-Wish—the national organization that grants wishes for children diagnosed with life-threatening medical conditions. While most kids wish for a trip to Disney World or to meet their favorite celebrity, Bo, who was then a teenager and in remission, wished for one year of strength and conditioning workouts with a Pace athletics trainer.

“I was struck by his determination,” Mike Bohlander, Pace’s strength and conditioning coach said. “He could have had anything with his wish. But he chose to come to Pace three days a week for one year and have me push him to improve his cardio and strength fitness. He had a plan and it was a pleasure to help him.”

Bo said he had wanted to attend Pace since high school, and his plan was to build himself up before his freshman year. Bo accomplished both goals. He started at Pace in Pleasantville earlier this month. He’s an education major. He’s also a Make-A-Wish volunteer. Best of all, Bo remains cancer-free.

Coach Bohlander said he still works with Bo, but Bo knows what he wants to accomplish and doesn’t need anyone’s help. “Bo inspires me,” he said. “The amount of progress he made in a short amount of time was truly remarkable. You can’t teach desire, and every day I work with him I get to see him accomplish something new.”

As I said, there are many amazing stories at Pace. I think one reason we have so many great stories is because our students, faculty, and staff support and care about each other. I also believe that the very special qualities that everyone brings to Pace will lead to more great stories in the future. I just have a feeling, however, that it will be difficult to top Bo’s story.

A new school year begins and our renewal continues

So many exciting things are happening at Pace this year. There is a wonderful renewal taking place and we’re making great progress in a challenging environment.

It’s not easy to convey the excitement and pride many of us feel about Pace’s future in a post, so I put together a short video that updates you on our progress and plans for the future. You can access it by clicking here.

As you watch the video, I hope you’re as proud of our progress as I am. We are renewing a great University that will help current and future students succeed for many years to come.

The pain behind the laughter

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.

The Power Within

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.

Renewal Made Tangible

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.