Sept. 28, 2016
SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - When a new university president is inaugurated, the event is often accompanied by lofty expectations of a bigger and brighter future. Such was the case four years ago today (September 28, 2012) for Cheryl Norton, who had already spent five months at the helm of Slippery Rock University as its 16th - and first female - president.
Considering the state of the University at that time - with no new state appropriations having been allotted to SRU; personnel and operating costs on the rise; and enrollment on the decline - is it any wonder people were looking for change?
It was a situation that Norton termed the "perfect financial storm."
Under the Cleveland-native's direction, University administration joined faculty and staff in a fiscal belt-tightening that resulted in a 9 percent reduction in spending. That action allowed SRU to quickly redirect those funds inward, investing in the University's infrastructure and developing degree programs that prospective students wanted and employers needed.
"We did not work simply on reducing expenditures, but we reduced expenditures to increase revenue by investing in ourselves, and that was a key concept," said Norton. "We had the need - reduce our expenditures; and we had the opportunity - expand our educational offerings; but we needed seed money to do that.
"We gave the faculty and staff the encouragement to take chances and let them know that if they had a good idea, could give us a good plan, tell us why it would make a difference for our students and how it would allow them to succeed, that we were right there to support them and help develop that programming. Everyone rose to the occasion."
Over the past four years, that collaborative mindset has led Norton to preside over a University that is able to paint quite a different picture from when she first took the oath of office.
"Four years ago, we were faced with great challenges, but we came together and looked to shape our future," said Norton. "The result is a more solid footing with reduced risk that has made SRU the second most financially stable institution in the system."
Stabilizing the institution's ledger is just one of the many feathers which Norton can count in her SRU cap.
Since taking office, Norton has overseen the implementation of more than a dozen new degree programs that have helped to bolster SRU's enrollment to the tune of 8,881 students for fall 2016. It is the largest enrollment in the institution's 127-year history.
"One of the unexpected privileges of having a residence on the campus is being surrounded by the hopes and dreams of nearly 9,000 students every day," said Norton. "Their excitement and energy is contagious. Waking up every morning and being among all of these individuals who are working towards the next step in their educational and life journeys is invigorating.
"I know it's an old adage that 'we are here for the students,' but the fact of the matter is, I'm here with the students. Henry (Norton, husband) and I can't go for a walk and not see someone who is going about the business of becoming an adult who could make all of the difference in the world, and they're on our campus. It's my hope that I can do some small part in nudging them along their way, or at least help to remove any barriers to their successes, and that's really the goal."
It's that mindset that has helped SRU to emerge as one of the Pennsylvania's State System of Higher Education's great success stories featuring Norton's selection as the right leader at the right time; and the evolution of SRU as a "best choice, first choice" institution.
"After spending four years here, I think my understanding of the depth of excellence within this institution runs much deeper than I realized when I first started," said Norton. "I certainly came to SRU because I believed in its potential, but to have the dramatic reinvention of this institution and the willingness of the faculty and the staff to participate in developing the future direction that the institution is taking was above my expectations.
"We, as a group, are prideful and determined to succeed. It's my appreciation of SRU and its ability to embrace the future that I had not fully been prepared to recognize but am thrilled to see come to the forefront."
Norton points to her belief that SRU has broadened its understanding of its educational mission as proof of the institution's evolution since her arrival.
"When I first came here, we were focused so much on being a residential undergraduate school - and we continue to do that exceptionally well - but what we have done in the last three years is embrace education as a lifelong learning process," she said.
"At SRU, we've embraced the fact that no one is too young to continue to be educated or too old to stop being educated. The fact that we have expanded our graduate programs, that we have built on our strength of the health care professions through our physicians assistant program, that we expanded into engineering and utilized our science foundation while continuing to develop our education and liberal arts programs, is a testament to the institution's recognition of its own maturation."
Further evidence of that maturation can be seen in an almost constant flood of accolades SRU has collected under Norton's watch.
Included among the most recent are being named:
• "Top Public Schools - North" and "Best Regional University - North": According to U.S. News & World Report, SRU ranks among the top 24 public schools and top 100 regional universities in the North, which includes those universities in Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Maine, New Jersey, Maryland, New York, the District of Columbia, Connecticut, New Hampshire and Vermont.
• "A College of Distinction": Collegesofdistinction.com cited engaged students, great teaching and a vibrant community in naming SRU a national "College of Distinction;" a Pennsylvania "College of Distinction; and a Public "College of Distinction." To be designated a "College of Distinction," a school's curriculum must emphasize core competencies such as critical thinking, writing, oral skills, research and global perspectives. The institution must also offer dynamic out-of-classroom learning and study abroad programs.
• "A School of Distinction": SRU earned 52 badges of distinction including 33 "best value" designations ranging from "Best for the Money" in Pennsylvania to "Best for the Money without Aid" nationwide from College Factual, a data-driven college choice resource, in ratings released by USA Today. College Factual awards badges to those universities that finish in the top one percent, five percent, 10 percent and 15 percent of each of the categories being evaluated. SRU earned 12 badges in the top five percent; 15 badges in the top 10 percent and 25 in the top 15 percent.
"It's with a great sense of enthusiasm, almost like a proud parent, that I watch as our institution has been recognized in so many areas regionally and nationally for its excellence," said Norton.
"There's hardly a week that goes past where we aren't recognized for our academic prowess, the success of our students, our practices or the community in which we live and work. Where we used to be somewhere in the middle of the (State System) in terms of performance, we are now a leader, and that I think is another sign of an institution coming of age ... maturing for the 21st century."
Part of that maturity is cultivating a community for students that goes beyond the classroom and helps provide for the individuals and the world in which they live.
With that in mind, Norton created the President's Commission on Wellness upon her arrival. The mission of the commission is to facilitate initiatives that promote awareness of wellness and empower individuals to make choices and enact behaviors that positively influence their wellness. Each September, the commission looks to actively combat potentially lackadaisical attitudes towards health and wellness through a series of free programs and events that encourage staff, faculty and students to get up and get active.
"(The commission) is SRU putting its stake in the ground and saying, 'We are a community that respects health and wellness as a lifestyle,'" said Norton. "That's been reaffirmed, thankfully and most appreciatively, last summer when we received the Green Ribbon Award from the U.S. Department of Education that recognized our institution for its sustainable curriculum not only in terms of the environment, but also for the health and wellness for our community. Wellness can be contagious just as much as disease, and it is the hope of the commission that people can continue to find this beautiful campus as a place that they can enjoy in a variety of ways."
One of the many events the commission stages each year as part of the month's activities is the President's 5K Run/2K Walk. In addition to promoting wellness, the event acts as a fundraiser for undergraduate scholarships, bringing in thousands of dollars each year.
"My hope is that these initiatives continue - and hopefully make an impactful difference on people's lives - long after I'm no longer president," said Norton.
Another piece of Norton's potential legacy could be her efforts to foster a community of caring and inclusion at SRU.
To that end, Norton noted in her 2016 State of the University address, an initiative - "Cultivating a Civil Community" - that she hopes will engage students, faculty and staff in discussing and understanding the differences between individuals and groups, in order to foster a caring and inclusive campus community.
"I view this initiative as an important milestone in the University's long-term commitment to creating change through education, collaboration and vigilance in that it moves us beyond simply offering programs to changing the way we work and study," she said.
"The diversity programming regularly provided by the Office of Multi-Cultural Affairs, Women's Center, Pride Center, Veterans Center, student organizations, the Presidential Commissions and academic areas will of course continue and are critical to advancing our diversity, equity and inclusion goals. But what the 'Cultivating a Civil Community' conversations will do is compliment those programs and offer a combination of speakers, workshops and activities throughout the academic year to inform our thinking, discussion and actions.
"Creating a respectful and inclusive community is not just a year-long activity, but one that continues as a behavioral objective of the community. It is a great concern of mine, as it is for many, many people, not just what is happening in our local society in terms of terrorism, but the insults that have been thrown around in our national politics ... the racism and the bigotry that have been stated openly in a society that professes to value everyone.
"As a community, it is my belief that we should truly value and respect each other as individuals regardless of singular beliefs and values. Our country is a melting pot filled with a variety of thoughts, ideas and points of view, all of which have merit and bring something to the table for all to share in. As a microcosm of that, our campus shouldn't lose sight of that fact. If this type of program can help open the doors to mutual respect and inclusion, that again, is a stake in the ground that I would like to plant."
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