Well into his Jan. 7 piece, “Are Three Catholic Universities Too Many for San Antonio?,” Robert Rivard states that “(a)cademic institutions, from public schools to universities, seem deeply averse to real change …”  Agreed.

These times demand asking questions as Rivard poses.  If questions had been sooner and bolder in coming to housing, journalism, global finance, and numerous other industries in recent years, we all might be in a better place opening 2013.

As the nation’s seventh largest city, San Antonio does not have a population shortage.  We are short in the number of youth and adults who possess a higher education to fill a range of current and projected workforce requirements.

OLLU’s Main Building has received the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 2012 Honor Award. Photos courtesy of OLLU.

Even together, and partnering as Our Lady of the Lake University does with St. Mary’s University and the University of the Incarnate Word, private and public colleges and universities are not satiating regional employer, social service, and other industry needs. What, then, is superfluous in this calling?

The Sisters of Divine Providence, founders and sponsors of OLLU since 1895, have lived their legacy by “responding to the needs of the time” for 250 years. That principle was inherent in their establishment of “The Lake,” and it carries on today in the Worden School of Social Service, the first Weekend College in Texas, the Harry Jersig Speech and Hearing Clinic, a unique Biliterate Certificate, the Center for Information Assurance, and one of only three counseling psychology doctoral programs in the nation.

This past year, we took big steps to get ahead of changing times in two complementary initiatives: an examination of our current program offerings and a strategic thinking and planning process.  Recent decisions at OLLU were not made lightly, in haste, or without challenge.  They bring fresh possibility to the future.

The University of Southern California named OLLU as one of the top 25 colleges for preparing Latino students in the STEM fields.

The first initiative examined current majors. It responded to a Board of Trustees’ resolution in 2011 charging administration and faculty to act thoughtfully and expeditiously regarding undergraduate majors and graduate programs.

Hard work resulted in the elimination of low-enrollment majors at dispersed locations after students in those majors graduate; the creation of new majors; and the revitalization of others.

These outcomes are far from weakening OLLU’s Catholic identity, its historic strength as a national leader in Mexican American student enrollment and faculty, or the liberal arts.

Merely maintaining an academic major with consistently low enrollment does not assure the outcomes of a quality liberal arts experience.  It is our creative energy for new curriculum development that will infuse in all students what Thomas Jefferson argued was the ultimate purpose of education: “a knowing head and an honest heart.”

Higher education needs bold steps that are not always popular to escalate its commitment to the inseparability of the liberal arts to personal, civic, and professional expectations.  When you meet or hire OLLU graduates, you will know them not only by their field of study, but by their faith-based values, their self-respect, and their intercultural competence, especially as we continue to be a majority minority nation.

How will this be done?  Departments affected by program major eliminations will remain as disciplines at OLLU, to be strengthened as programs and minors, and to be engaged in redefining what the general education core should be for these times, at this Catholic university, for all who enter here.  This work has begun as essential to our strategic plan.

The strategic plan, the second initiative, was completed in less than one year.  OLLU affirmed its Mission, Vision, and Core Values, gathered internal research, and conducted external market studies commissioned through Deloitte and Chmura Economics & Analytics. Led by faculty and staff, the process ventured into hard questions, produced real answers, and defined three key actions.

First is to grow enrollment by expanding into the national footprint, varying modes of program delivery, and offering new majors that stand on a strong general education base. This builds upon OLLU’s distinctive doctoral programs in counseling psychology and leadership studies; innovative and growing online nationwide graduate programs in cyber security, nonprofit management, social work and MBA; masters in communication and learning disorders, education, psychology, social work and English; recently launched online bachelor of science in nursing and masters in accounting and nursing; strong undergraduate majors in Arts and Sciences, Business and Leadership, Professional Studies, and the Worden School; and a formal partnership with the Alamo Colleges offering low-cost adult degree completion.

OLLU’s rebuilt Main Building includes a state-of-the-art TV studio.

Second is to accelerate the progress that our metrics show we are making on retention and graduation rates.  Improvement of students’ writing and mathematical skills is pivotal to degree attainment. Failure in these areas contributes to unrealized degrees and the building of excessive student debt across all of higher education.  The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools recently noted that our QuEST program can become a national model by the laser-like approach that faculty gives our first-year students in writing and math.

Third is to capitalize precisely on our location on the Westside and our knowledge of Mexican American culture, a population that nationally now represents the most-widely dispersed and fastest-growing demographic group within the Hispanic population.

Our enrollment goal for a more strategic student mix will bring new synergies between local students reluctant to leave the comfort zones of our city and nationally-recruited students seeking immersion in the bi-literate, bi-cultural experience of “the Lake,” its neighborhood, and welcoming, vibrant city.  While some may be disquieted by the growing majority minority, imagine a calling to prepare students to renew our social structure beyond what previous generations have done?

Our strategic plan derives from the very positions that Rivard has taken. Since the fire of 2008, the Board, administration, faculty and staff have placed the university in a more favorable position for the future.  We have increased overall enrollment by 8%, retention by 7%, and graduation rates by 10%.

OLLU’s enrollment has grown to 2811 students on campuses in San Antonio, The Woodlands, the Rio Grande Valley, and online.

The budget has been balanced every year.  There is very low institutional debt, and the university has excellent credit ratings.

The same philanthropists Rivard wondered about are also generous to OLLU’s students and programs.  In fact, giving to OLLU the past five years jumped more than 52 percent compared to the previous five years.

All of this is a strong platform from which to implement a strategic plan that will take us from “good to great,” quoting growth expert Jim Collins. And yes, we aspire to be a top Catholic university in the nation, using stellar universities as one set of guideposts, particularly when it comes to retention and graduation.

Our Lady of the Lake University is located in the sector of our city having the lowest high school graduation rate, lowest college-going rate, and lowest per capita income of all quadrants in the city. We serve a disparate load of first-generation, college-going students of promise with high financial needs, and OLLU has the highest percentage of Pell Grant recipients among four-year universities in San Antonio.

We are tending seriously to the business of difficult change that is before all of higher education.  We are hardly just another Catholic university.  We are Our Lady of the Lake University, and our sights and strategic plan are fixed on our students by responding to the needs of these times, for this city, and for our nation.

Tessa Martinez Pollack, PhD, has served as President of Our Lady of the Lake University since 2002. She grew up on the Westside several blocks from OLLU. She is an alumna of Our Lady of the Lake High School, San Antonio College, UTSA, and the University of Texas at Austin.

Read more:

Advice From an OLLU Student: Ditch the Market, Follow Your Catholic Values” by Tyler Tully

Are Three Catholic Universities Too Many for San Antonio?” by Robert Rivard

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Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org