OLLU President: ‘The Lake’ is Strong and Strategic

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has received the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 2012 Honor Award.

OLLU’s Main Building. Photo courtesy of OLLU.

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



19 thoughts on “OLLU President: ‘The Lake’ is Strong and Strategic

  1. As a former student and graduate of OLLU I have been following with interest the series of articles about catholic education in San Antonio, in particular as they seemed to have focused on my alma mater. I’m a product of the catholic education network in San Antonio from K through undergrad. Sadly, 2 of the schools I attended eventually closed down because of changing economic conditions and unsustainable operational deficits. Those closing happened over 30 years ago and here we are in 2013 still struggling with the same issue. A recent New York Times article points out that this is happening in other parts of the country as well.

    Change is difficult for any institutional organization, especially for higher educational organizations. Several years ago I served on the board of directors for a seminary in Chicago and we dealt with precisely the same issues that the OLLU administration is dealing with now: how to position the institution for growth and an increasingly competitive market place for students while still retaining its identity as a seminary. Eventually we developed a strategic plan that addressed changing some programs, making sure that the donors were on board and phasing out some courses. The seminary leadership persevered through the distractions that the changes brought and the school survived.

    The article by Mr Tulley (full disclosure: Tyler lives in my neighborhood and appreciate him as neighbor!) was passionate in his concerns of retaining catholic values, the value of a liberal arts education at OLLU and commend him for taking a position based on his perspective as a student. On those points I agree with him. But, in my opinion, his assertion that OLLU needs to ditch a market or business approach is a little off base. The reality is that all catholic educational institutions operate in an increasingly competitive environment and whether we all agree or not catholic school leaders have a fiduciary responsibility to be good stewards. This means keeping an eye the market place, thinking for the long term, making decisions that may be unpopular and dealing with change.
    As you can assume, I have a warm spot for OLLU and my belief is that the school will come out stronger because of this honest conversation.

    • Mr. Garcia, I very much respect your opinion and perspective and I feel that you make a valid point; however, I would like to reiterate what it is that the University was founded upon in addition to Catholic values: the Liberal Arts. Although Dr. Pollack may have good intentions, myself and many other alumni and current students do not agree with her Strategic Plan. Many of us chose the Lake because our values aligned with the University’s. I respect those who do have a business perspective and I believe that since higher ed is most certainly a business that it is an important perspective to come from…but at what cost are we going to move this plan forward? I have not heard from Dr. Pollack at any point when I was a student from the Fall of 2008 to the Fall of 2011 what it is that she and the administration did to facilitate progress in the majors that will soon be obsolete. Admissions or another related department could have been recruiting more to these majors. You also mentioned that this was an “honest conversation”. Let me respectfully disagree and tell you that again, during my time as a student, I was never given an opportunity to see any possible changes that would be made nor was I given any opportunity to give input in anything (and yes, there were times when I would show up to SVA meetings as I was part of a student organization). Some officials of the University would have you and the public believe that the students did not care to give input. I’m sure if the student population knew what was at stake there would have been a good amount of students showing up to these meetings. I personally believe that these meetings and plans were deliberately kept hidden from students. I may be wrong, but regardless, they were not mentioned to us.

      This article has a lot of nice language and it all sounds really nice in theory, but I suppose we will have to see what will happen in the future. As I commented in Tyler’s article, STEM and the Liberal Arts need to be tied together and in reality, STEM cannot function without the LA. I will still hold the University close to my heart, but in all honesty, I’m not sure how much more I can defend it if this plan continues. I can only hope and pray that there will be changes for the better, and not for the worse.

      Bianca V.

  2. Juan, thank you for your comments. And you are correct about the importance of the conversations that are being had as a result of this challenging time for the university. However, there has not really been much of a “real” discussion on campus. We, the students, and faculty (who are probably the ones to most truly understand the importance of a liberal arts education), have been expressing our concerns for holding onto the values that are at the foundation of this university, and it seems to be falling on deaf ears.

    We understand the market demands for jobs, and the importance as a business, to follow suit with those demands, but do we give up everything that the Sisters worked so hard to maintain? Is it more important to follow market demands, than to educate people who will go out to be of service to others, to be models of charity, and leaders fighting for social justice? Right now, across this nation, there is a major push for STEM programs in education. We have no problem with STEM programs, in fact they are vital to society, but because of the push for most schools across the nation to institute STEM programs, it is pushing the Liberal Arts programs out. In reality, they should co-exist in order to provide the community with an expanse of knowledge in which to pull from, and to balance the ideas of technological innovation in the STEM fields with moral reasoning and human concern.

    The programs that are being pushed out are the very programs that encourage creativity, charity, value for human existence, and the cultivation of wisdom and spiritual leadership. Philosophy, Religious Studies/Theology, Anthropology, Art, Music, Organizational Leadership, Mexican-American Studies, Human Sciences, Natural Science, Spanish, have all been or will be cut at OLLU. History and English have been placed on probation, and are also in danger of being cut. These all contribute to society in a way that STEM programs can not. These programs were also the ones that helped to bring OLLU into the national spotlight.

    While we appreciate the efforts to push the university to become a “Top 20 Catholic University”, we must not forget that it is rooted, right here, in the west side of San Antonio.

  3. I am currently enrolled in the Religious Studies Degree program at Our Lady of the Lake University, my minor is in Mexican American Studies. So both of my degree disciplines will be phased out.
    Well I can certainly respect the gentleman’s comment at the end of the article but I think he is viewing this change through the eyes of competitive enterprise. It is my understanding that Catholic values are not for sale nor should they be tweaked to meet marketability. What’s next, are we going to be charging a dollar at the communion line to receive the Eucharist. I do agree with his comment on being good stewards but not at the cost of undermining the values and integrity of the institution. That’s like placing you in charge of a Muslim oriented restaurant and you take it upon yourself to start selling Pork roast sandwiches to meet market demand.
    Another thing he writes “the school will come out stronger because of this honest conversation.” May I ask what honest conversation? The student body was never asked for any input about the changes that were being planned to be implemented. We were “TOLD” about the changes not “ASKED”… I can hardly call this being honest when you hold close door meetings, disregard the policy bi-laws, and don’t take into consideration the input of the faculty assembly.

  4. Mr. Garcia, as I have previously stated, I have no problems whatsoever with STEM. In the interest of full disclosure, I am pursuing an MA in English at OLLU. My problem is not with adding programs. I will also agree that sometimes, programs do need to be phased out. I do question why the Math program, which only has 2 students pursuing the major, was not phased out while the Human Studies program with 55 students was phased out. In fact, all the programs that were cut were Liberal Arts programs. The English program is now listed as provisional and is not allowed to recruit new students, even though we are charged with increasing our enrollment if we expect to save our program, which means we have been set up to fail. I also have a problem with the fact that the administration bypassed the Faculty Assembly, even though a 2/3 vote of the Faculty Assembly is required before a program can be phased out.

  5. I must admit I’m slightly annoyed with Tyler Tully and his followers in all this. All three of you attacked Juan up there. While I can understand your fervor, you are trying to start a revolution in which stating your disdain is not enough but instead Mr. Tully has gone so far as to add a survey about who would make a better President of the university and calling for Dr. Pollack to resign. I am ashamed there are so many students who are not understanding any of the university’s business model. Actually, there aren’t many students- they did a ‘shock and awe’ tactic by getting 800 people to join a Facebook group in defense of the 12 majors but very little of those 800 are engaging in this discussion. It seems to be the same 5 people.

    I work at USAA and received 2 Bachelor’s degrees, one after another, from UTSA. Guess what: change happens. USAA, the #1 insurance company in the nation by JD Power and financial rating standards, is completely changing our structure ANNUALLY. UTSA is not still the small liberal arts school it was in the 80’s and Trinity University ditched its religious affiliation altogether and remains a high caliber university that most of us probably couldn’t get into. Get a grip and stop attacking poor Juan. He makes valid points and speaks from more experience, too! My grandmother walked the halls of OLLU before obtaining a Master’s in Economics from StMU and then getting Schizophrenia for the rest of her life. I wish I knew that woman who knew 5 languages before she became ill. Walking these same halls makes me proud. But I would never expect the university to be the same as it was then. I have two degrees in the liberal arts, and here I am getting a masters because I can’t do anything with them (but I can make some darn good political arguments!)

    Clearly, this university is having a rough time as far as maintaining its competition. Dr. Pollack did not just come in as an outsider, but she gave ten years of enforcing the current programs that OLLU has had a long time now, and I think the research study and implications for change are fascinating and exciting. I can name you tons of other more affordable universities from which to get a history or other liberal arts degree in this city. Specializing is what’s going to make this university more competitive, and keep it ALIVE. Personally, it will make me more proud, too. In regards to the administration asking students for their participation, I’m pretty sure your input was to be expected, and they knew the current students would support the current majors. I’ve never been asked for input on such a grand scale by USAA administrators regarding our constant change, and I would never expect UTSA to do the same. They are adding a Military Psychology research PhD because that’s what works in this city. Period. A history of an institution is to be cherished in that it’s always changing.

    • Kari, nobody was attacking Juan. I have much respect for his opinion and I think coming from a business perspective is important since I’m sure we are all aware that running a university is probably harder than we think and having a business model is necessary. It is obvious Juan cares about the Lake and has some wisdom to give us… However, I find that you are attacking us in what is very much our struggle to maintain the heart of OLLU. I do not find STEM to be evil or unnecessary, but I feel it should be seen as an ADDITION to OLLU’s current majors and specialties. As it has been argued before, OLLU has its niche and it can find ways to capitalize upon it. Also, I feel you are comparing apples and oranges when you speak about USAA and UTSA in comparison to the Lake. USAA is a big business and UTSA is a part of a major public university system, and it is not the same thing as running a small private Catholic liberal arts university. Ironically, the very fact that many of us have started this “revolution” as you call it speaks to how much the Lake has taught us and how much we have valued the education we have received/are receiving from the university. You tell us we have started this revolution as if it is a bad thing; well, Ms. Carroll, your remarks about us only seem positive to me and they reassure me that I did learn something in the 3 1/2 years that I spent at the Lake. I learned to make a change and participate and not sit around waiting for something to happen. As Malcolm X said, “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything”. I wish you well in your endeavors, and I’m sure we’ll continue to fight for our cause because we feel it is a worthy one. Take care and have a great day.

  6. Kari, I worked at USAA as well so I am quite familiar with their penchant for changing. I also hold two undergraduate degrees from UTSA (the last earned last spring). I agree with Tyler. I haven’t attacked anyone. As I said above, I have no problem with having a STEM program. Yesterday at the SVA meeting, however, Mr. Kantor (formerly of UTSA) point blank informed us that we don’t intend “to be competive with UTSA.” If we don’t intend to be competitive, why are we entering the arena? If I were seeking a STEM degree, using a “business model” perspective, it would be more cost efficient and ultimately more profitable for me to earn my degree from UTSA, which is cheaper and should be a Tier One institution by the time I finish my degree, making it more marketable. Dr. Pollack is currently operating under a vote of no confidence. She also received one at her previous institution before she was asked to leave it. I’m sorry you feel you can’t do anything with your Liberal Arts degrees. Perhaps you aren’t in the proper job at USAA. One of my classmates runs two teams in Corporate Marketing and Branding at USAA, using her journalism degree every day. Perhaps a job change or career change might be something to consider?

  7. Kari, I think you have misunderstood our comments. No one is attacking Juan. In fact, I appreciate his point of view. We are just trying to tell our side. I understand change is inevitable, but OLLU is not USAA, it is not UTSA, it is not Trinity University. It is OLLU, and is quite capable of standing on its own as a great Liberal Arts university if it was given the chance, if it had an administration that recruited as fervently as it has to support their desire to force OLLU into an arena that it may not be able to compete.

    Thank you for your opinion, because it does add to the conversation of our education.

  8. First of all I want to thank everyone for the responses that my comments generated, it certainly made for some interesting reading! Just to clarify: I don’t feel like I’m being attacked by anyone. The comments are taken as part of a healthy discourse and I do appreciate everyone’s opinion.
    I can understand the emotional ties one develops for a school such as OLLU. I have fond memories of my time at OLLU but also of my time at Southwest Texas State University (now Texas State) where I obtained my masters in healthcare administration. Each experience shaped me further into who I am and continue to become. I grew up on the Westside not far from OLLU. I’m the oldest of 9 kids. We were poor. My values were shaped not only by the church and schools I attended but also most importantly by my parents. I learned the value of service and social justice from father who was the president of the St Vincent de Paul Society of our church. I remember getting woken up at 5am by my father on Sunday mornings to put together food bags for the less fortunate in our community. We would then deliver the food bags before mass. From my mom I learned the value of family and persevering through tough times and loss. I would argue that by the time you get to a school like OLLU your value system is pretty much set. A school like OLLU helps to clarify and strengthen those values so that hopefully you can be productive and contribute in the world outside of school. A liberal arts education provides additional foundation to see the world through a tolerant lense, helps one appreciate the diversity of our human experience and hopefully leads one to be creative in solving problems. A STEM education combined with a liberal arts component could be powerful.
    Outside of school, which is really the ultimate goal, isn’t it, to eventually graduate and be productive, the real task is to deal with real world problems. I currently work in the diagnostic segment of healthcare. Healthcare in general is an extremely competitive, volatile and ever changing industry. I’m in an executive position that oversees operations in a 3 state area. That’s my work life. More important to me is my community service life. We live on the near eastside of SA in a neighborhood that is changing and at the same time has great need. I serve as the president of the neighborhood association, my wife and I serve as mentors for the elementary school in the neighborhood, we started a community garden in the neighborhood and I’m involved in several community organizations. I mention these things not to brag about myself but to point out that I’m hopefully living out the values that my parents and schools taught me. My hope is that graduates of OLLU will use the values learned at home and at OLLU to make the world a better place in spite of the changes occurring at OLLU.
    One last thing, change is tough because change is about loss. Some of you have mentioned that the changes or the strategic plan at OLLU were not discussed with the students or faculty. I cannot speak to that. But I will say that change is a necessary part of life. We are in living in an era where tremendous change is occurring at the speed of light. It’s affecting all institutions including OLLU. But change is also a good thing and necessary. You’re living in a bubble if you think that change is not necessary. You cannot grow without change and OLLU cannot move forward unless it makes changes in the way it positions itself in the universe of universities. I seriously doubt that OLLU will lose its soul as some of you claim. What is more important is how we as individuals respond to change and what we do with our lives or careers after leaving OLLU. I truly have enjoyed reading the comments and responses. It’s been an education so far!

    • OLLU’s community should be proud to have alumni like Juan Garcia. And we should all listen to his relevant viewpoints considering the fact that he is a graduate of OLLU, who grew up on the westside, who went on to another University for graduate school, and who now works in the STEM field.

      Ms. Carroll, please do not dismiss our movement by reducing as “shock and awe,” or by calling its members merely my “followers.” Like Juan, and yourself, these are people who care deeply about OLLU.

      Finally, I’d like to point out that although we may not all agree, the main points of contention from our movement remain:

      1. The manner in which the 12 programs were removed (circumventing the legal framework of the University bylaws concerning curriculum changes), NOT the fact that change is occuring.

      2. The false dichotomy presented to us by the current administration, which holds up STEM vs. The Liberal Arts, as if the two could not co-exist, and as if working to preserve their coexistence would somehow mean OLLU would not survive.

      3. The confusing way in which, on the one hand, the current administration seeks to establish OLLU as a “top 20 Catholic University known for its expertise in Mexican American culture,” and on the other hand, has removed the Spanish, Mexican American Studies, and Religious Studies/ Thelogy Majors at OLLU.

  9. Change is good however it should be gradual and with careful attention to detail and an examination of all information. When OLLU decided to move forward with their plans without seeking the position of the students, the university failed the students and the confidence the students had in OLLU seems to have been lost. This kind of change is detrimental to a positive outcome.

  10. Just because you are a student at a university doesn’t mean you get final say on what courses/programs are offered. When you enter the real world, you’ll realize you don’t get to tell your boss what your job will be. Sorry, but a university is a business. In order to survive, it needs to be run that way. From what I understand, these students are being allowed to finish their degrees. Are you willing to pay extra tuition as a student to keep these programs alive? Are you content to leave your university, armed with student debt holding a degree that may not offer you many job prospects?

    • If you are replying to my comment I want to let you know that I am not a student at the university or a student at any college for that matter. The “Real World” actually does allow people to negotiate such things as a job description. I have negotiated salary, duties, and my position with only two of my jobs before. You are correct to say that a university is a business however a catholic university is a whole different animal. They have responsibilities beyond profit. The other questions need to be answered by actual students.

  11. Mr. Reyna, I wasn’t singling you out in my reply. I apologize if it appeared that way. My use of “you” was used in general to students. I absolutely agree with you in regard to responsibilities beyond profit, that holds true for any business, catholic or not. Yes, agreed that you can negotiate your salary and some job duties! I should have been clearer in my statement that you don’t get to tell your boss how the business will be run.

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