As President José Padilla completes his sixth month serving as Valparaiso University’s President and approaches his inauguration, The Torch reached out for comment on his current and ongoing projects.
COVID-19, vaccine requirements, mascot changes and the closing of the Confucius Institute have all been key issues addressed by Padilla throughout his term. In addition to these more unexpected events, the University’s financial status has remained a dark cloud over Valpo’s future.
On Oct. 30, President Padilla will be officially inaugurated into his role. Despite his term beginning March 1, the timing comes after COVID-19 gathering size restrictions and remarks from other universities that presidents should wait for an inaugural until they have completed a full year in office.
“First of all, I couldn't do it because of COVID but second of all, it's a way for me to get to know the campus, because the inauguration is not really an event for me. I know it's me getting inaugurated, but to me it's a campus wide event, it’s a celebration of Valparaiso,” said Padilla. “I'm trying to invite as many people outside Northwest Indiana, like from Chicago and Washington where I have contacts and have worked, so they see this wonderful university. I'm exposing other parts of the region or the country to this great little University.”
In addition to the main event, Padilla is anticipating a week of various events leading up to it, as well as religious services on Sunday, Oct. 31.
The Saturday programming will begin with service projects on and off campus. The ceremony itself will take place around 2pm and include musical performances from Valpo students and/or faculty.
“After the ceremony there’s going to be a reception in the library. We're going to try to set this up in a way which we expose [the attendees] to our students and our faculty… The following day there's a prayer service in the chapel in the morning and then there's a mass that will be at [St. Teresa’s] at about five o'clock. The local bishop for the Diocese of Gary will lead the mass, praying for me and the University,” Padilla said.
More information will be released as details are finalized, but the entire campus community is welcome to attend the inauguration events.
The closure of Valpo’s Confucius Institute and investigation, brought forth by Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita, have brought concerns surrounding the possibility of Chinese propaganda and improper funding. However, Padilla has refuted these claims, citing federal pressures and the actions of other universities as reasons for the closure.
“We also are in the process of sending those documents [financial records] to the US Department of Education because they're really the ones that have jurisdiction over this matter. You know, I think the Attorney General's investigation is questionable, but nevertheless we have nothing to hide,” Padilla said.
Prior to his official start as President, Padilla had already received messages stating concerns over Confucius Institutes at a federal level and maintaining funding for the University.
The closing of more than 80 Confucius Institutes, as well as a Senate bill that passed unanimously pushed Padilla to make the decision to close the Institute in the fall.
As communicated to the campus community via email, Padilla aims to set up a new program to increase cultural awareness and fill the gaps the Institute’s closure will leave. While elementary outreach was a major aspect of the Confucius Institute, the replacement of these programs may take longer to implement.
“The replacement that I want to have will be primarily music. It's going to be focused on more than just China, because there's obviously other cultures worldwide that we want to expose our campus community, and the community as a whole, too,” Padilla said. “One of the things that I want to do is to bring more of the community to campus, and vice versa us reaching out to the community in a lot of different areas. It's not just the Confucius Institute, but right now it probably wouldn't have any components for elementary education.”
In addition to connecting further with the community, Padilla is looking to develop the University through strategic planning, conquering COVID-19 and growing admission rates.
As part of the strategic planning, Padilla aims to create collaboration that emphasizes the student, faculty and staff experiences.
“We're in the process of going through strategic planning. It's the campus community, the faculty, the staff, the leadership and the board coming together to develop the goals for the next five years. So that's a work in progress. When we do strategic planning correctly, It's a bottom up exercise, as opposed to a top down, or José Padilla is saying we will do this, this, this and this. My goal is to have a great collaborative strategic planning process that sets the course for the next five years,” Padilla said. “The other goal is to make sure that hopefully it's a bold, strategic plan that really examines how we're going to operate and educate persons for the next five years. It's one that takes into account the changing landscape of higher education… It's a plan and a way of doing business that will lean into the challenge as opposed to shy away from the challenge.”
While planning a bright future for Valpo, Padilla has faced pushback and concerns over the institution’s financial security. On April 29, he reassured citizens at a luncheon, put on by the Greater Valparaiso Chamber of Commerce, that the University is not at risk of shutting down.
“I just heard anecdotally that people in the community thought that Valpo was on the brink of death. Primarily because of the law school being closed, I wanted to rebut that and let people know that we are alive and kicking, we're open for business. I did not leave the University of Colorado, where I worked before, to preside over a funeral. I have better things to do than do that, why would I want to do that? I did it based on my research and information, and my own sense of the campus. This place is going to be around for centuries,” Padilla said. “I want people to know that we're here and don't count us out. We're going to continue to be a presence in the community. I keep on hearing that from time to time, I think it's kind of dying down, but I thought it was important in my initial exposure to the community to let people know. Don't worry about us.”
Despite the closure of the law school and several undergraduate programs, Padilla is confident that admissions will increase as COVID-19 rates go down. To assist with strengthening these numbers, he has hired Brian O’Rourke to serve as Vice President for Enrollment, Marketing and Communications with a goal of recruiting an incoming freshman class of 720 students for fall 2022.
“With respect to the programmatic cuts, I think it was in part heavily informed by COVID, but also because we are a tuition-dependent, enrollment-driven school. You have to get enrollment up to support the operation, support the university. I think that was a focus in order to respond to the changing environment, and the environment has changed dramatically, primarily because of COVID...,” Padilla said. “Now, we still have challenges, and I analogize it this way. If you live in a house that's been around for a while, eventually the foundation may be strong, but any house is still going to develop cracks in the foundation. The reason that occurs is because the earth is moving. Well, in our case, we have some cracks in our foundation, which doesn't necessarily mean that the house is going to crumble. It just means that we have to be nimble enough to stay ahead of the movement of the earth and to make sure you fix the cracks in the foundation so it stands firm for decades ahead. But there's still going to be those cracks.”
As the University continues to change and grow, he hopes to add faculty created-programs to Valpo’s offerings.
“New programs I want to be driven by faculty, because they’re the ones in the classrooms and they best appreciate what would resonate and what would help students get the best education for the kind of careers that they want. I'm hoping we start seeing some of that by the end of this academic year,” Padilla said. “I'm still relatively new and so forth, but I want it to be faculty driven. I'm hoping that we start seeing some of that by the end of the year. I'm not going to say ‘okay I want five or six programs.’ The thing that makes that a little more challenging and complicated is strategic planning. Strategic planning will kind of be the roadmap of where we're going to go. Then from that springs the new programs that would fulfill that plan. So, we may see some of it this year, but I would hope to see more of it next year after the plan is in place.”
Even once the pandemic has concluded, Padilla believes the experience will have a lasting impact on the University and the way classes are offered. While in person learning is preferred by many, the ability to deliver classes online provides access to college that those with busy lifestyles or various obligations may not be able to commit to in person. As a result, Padilla is considering expanding online offerings to stay ahead of the curve and lean into addressing issues head on.
While more online classes may be offered in the future, vaccine requirements instated by Padilla have allowed for in-person learning and looser mask restrictions.
“We mandated that [vaccinations] sometime in April. I think there are over 700 universities now that are mandating, we were around the 100th. I thought it was just imperative that, one, you be as healthy as possible so we weren't necessarily always testing and quarantining. Also I wanted to stop the spread of this, I wanted to get our own version of herd immunity,” Padilla said. “So that was the principal reason, a secondary reason is I wanted you all to have as normal a college experience as possible. Unfortunately, we had to have you wear masks again in the classroom and labs, because of this Delta Variant, but I don't think that's going to last forever, so hopefully we'll get past that. I've seen the energy that you all have shown when you're outside, or having fun on the quad or whatever, you're not wearing masks.”
Forthcoming recommendations will be based on the numbers being reported by Porter County, but Padilla is optimistic. With 93% of students and 95% of staff being vaccinated, the university has experienced little to no cases, with a total of 19 for the semester as of Sept. 16 and noted no spike after loosening restrictions on masks indoors.
While COVID-19 regulations have received their own pushback, no campus changes have been sensationalized during Padilla’s term like the choice of Beacons as the University’s nickname. After months of committee meetings, community recommendations and surveys, Padilla announced his decision on Aug. 10.
“The reason I chose the Beacon was first of all, it has a role in our history, you know, light. Our yearbook is called The Beacon. It's been a term that the community has been familiar with in one way or the other. I felt that it had an application beyond simply athletics, you know a lot of times when we talk about these nicknames it only has a context in athletics. I wanted to have more and I thought it would have more; Beacons are something we can talk about in the chapel, not only on the football field or the basketball arena. I also thought it would be a nice bridge between the older and younger generations of alums. As you recall, it was the younger generations of alums who advocated for getting rid of the Crusaders and the older generations who wanted to keep it. That wasn't going to happen, we weren’t going to keep it, we already made that decision. But I felt that the Beacon was a bridge between those two.”
While Twitter has become enthralled with new versions of representing the nickname visually, Padilla is satisfied with the graphics shared by the university.
“In fact, there are some people actually weighing in trying to change the artwork for the Beacon and so forth. We're probably not going to do that, we'll hear them out, but I thought we had some great designers and IMC (Integrated Marketing and Communications) did super work. To the extent that others are complaining now about, or trying to change the artwork, from the outside means they've kind of bought in on the concept of Beacon, which I think is great.”
However, he is open to student input on creating the mascot, which has a hopeful launch date of the beginning of basketball season.
“We're going to be, at some point in time, asking the student community to work on the mascot and give artwork for that. So it involves them because it's really your mascot. Who knows whether it's going to be a walking lighthouse, I kind of doubt it, but there might be some other representation, could be a superhero,” Padilla said.
Instead of immediately selecting a mascot, Padilla was drawn to the versatility of Beacons as a campus wide nickname.
“The nickname Beacon can be represented in different ways. It may have a different representation in the chapel than it would have on the athletic field. The mascot is really something that you'll see more in the athletic venues. You're not going to see a walking lighthouse in the chapel; you could, but I doubt it. Or in a musical performance. It would have a different context so we wanted to maintain flexibility on how we depict it, depending on the venue,” Padilla said.
Most recently, Padilla addressed the campus community in a Sept. 13 email regarding tuition and fees. Here he announced that 2022-2023 tuition will be frozen, meaning it will not incur the traditional 2-3% increase in price. Additional costs, such as room and board, are not included in the freeze and will reflect the needed amounts to maintain campus functions.
“In all of higher education there's this unsustainable race to increase tuition, particularly in the private universities. We felt that we had to stop it somewhere, so that's why we decided to do the freeze for next year all across the board. There's a risk there because you're getting less revenue, but we feel that it's in deference to you all because, we're trying and it's a little small measure, but a bold one, to stop this race. Because is it going to be like you know, having $67, $70,000 in the sticker price for tuition if it lets go to natural progress?” Padilla said. “We can't let that happen. Our job is to transform lives and we have a lot of first generation students, we have a lot of students who are middle income, they can't afford that so it’s our little step of trying to stop it. Hopefully that continues.”
When envisioning his lasting impact on the community, Padilla believes that is for the students and faculty to decide after his term has ended. However, he hopes to create individuals who are passionate for both their careers and their community.
“[I want my impact to be] that I served young men and women, helped transform their lives. That I helped them understand that not only do we provide them with careers for life, a life where their value is measured by more than the number of zeros in their paycheck, that they understand that they have a commitment beyond themselves and that they see their ultimate value is measured by what they do for their fellow men and women on this earth,” Padilla said. “I don't expect all of you to be ministers or pastors, by any stretch of the imagination, but if you're going to be an engineer, being an enlightened engineer, if you're going to be an accountant being an enlightened one where your life is measured more than by the engineering schematic, by the accounting ledger, by a patient record. It’s measured by what you do for them, for your fellow human beings.”