University of Pittsburgh-Johnstown

President’s Message to Campus, December 2023

President’s Message to Campus, December 2023

I hope this note finds you and yours safe and sound, ready to celebrate and relax a little during the holiday season. This season of the year, perhaps more so than any, reminds us all of the many blessings, people, and things to be grateful for. Even without overthinking, the list of reasons for gratitude is plentiful.
Among the many reasons for gratitude and joy are our students. You hear it time and again: Our Campus is graced with so many young people full of promise who work very hard to fulfill their highest potential. We are thankful to you, our students, that you chose UPJ to fulfill your aspirations and are grateful that you work exceedingly hard to make the most of the experience.

There is also a boundless wellspring of gratitude for our faculty and staff. Through your excellence and dedication to educating, serving, and supporting our students, you reify our commitment to an "up-close-and-personal" teaching, advising, learning, and living environment.

Thanks to the successes of all of you, the students, faculty, and staff, we are able to maintain high-quality programs that have garnered some of the highest retention,  graduation, and placement rates among peer institutions. Your efforts are not going unnoticed. I am especially grateful that the latest U.S. News & World Report rankings show UPJ moving up this year!   We are now ranked in the top 10 of all public regional colleges in the North and 5th for veteran-friendly schools!

The excellence of the rankings was also reflected in numerous faculty accomplishments across the Campus, including through award-winning faculty research teams. For example, four faculty members, Drs. Jill Henning, Manisha Nigam, Matthew Tracey, and Luis Bonachea received over $100,000 in funding from the coveted Pitt Innovation Challenge (PinCH). Our faculty's research and teaching excellence also received favorable mention in Pitt's Research magazine and, most recently, in the Pitt Research Annual Report (Pitt-Research-Annual-Report-2022-23.pdf).

Our students also excel on the PSAC/NCAA playing grounds. For example, our Women's Volleyball Team qualified for the NCAA Tournament after earning the No. 5 seed in the Atlantic Region. The team competed in its fifth NCAA Division II Regional Tournament this year! Head Coach Justin Haupt was selected as the 2023 PSAC Western Division Volleyball Coach of the Year, extending the historic Haupt dynasty at UPJ. Meanwhile, Mauricio Hernandez led our Golf Team to sixth place at the highly competitive PSAC Championships!

Our community engagement efforts were ramped up into high gear as we announced our commitment to develop Future Ready in downtown Johnstown collaboratively. The proposed facility will help Johnstown's revitalization by fueling innovation, upskilling in advanced manufacturing, and bolstering workforce readiness. Our efforts have engendered goodwill and plaudits from the community and state officials, such as Secretary Siger from the Department of Community and Economic Development. 

To be sure, this has been a more challenging year for us than usual. A campus that went for decades without a deficit now confronts significant challenges. The shortfall in enrollment, precipitated by regional demographic decline and exacerbated by the pandemic, resulted in our smallest entering class in recent memory and a concomitant $4 million structural deficit.

Despite what W.E. Henley called the "menace of the years," we have maintained a fighting spirit, working inventively to hold down costs and generate savings including through programmatic innovations and building alternative sources of revenues. 

In this regard, I am also grateful to you all, the students, faculty, and staff who have had to make enormous sacrifices to lay the groundwork for a strategic approach to achieving a more sustainable campus enrollment. To that end, we are seeing some hopeful signs that our efforts are bearing some fruit, although it is still very early. Our recruitment efforts have been turbo-charged due to our newly formed partnership with CompleteU.  The initiative involves contacting over 20,000 prospective students and connecting those interested to UPJ Admissions for follow-up conversations and relationship building. We are also taking a more aggressive posture in advertising on social media, newspapers, and billboards across the region. The optioning arrangement with the Oakland Campus is proceeding much better this year, with roughly double the number of option students compared to the same period last year. These and other initiatives have led to higher applications, admits, and deposits this year – at least for now. 

Notwithstanding the challenges, we continue to implement various strategic plan initiatives to support the success of our people, strengthen our programs, and vitalize our place. The aging and crumbling chairs in classrooms were replaced. New computers for all staff are a reality – albeit installation is still a work in progress. Our facilities team has been provided with a new fleet of critically needed utility carts. We have also initiated the first stage of improvements to campus lighting. To the delight of our students, we have successfully tackled the longstanding and very frustrating residential Wi-Fi problem with the installation of new infrastructure.

While much has been accomplished, there is a long list of to-do's, including filling many faculty and staff positions, fixing our website, improving our 'problematic' athletic facilities, tackling wide-ranging deferred maintenance issues (including HVAC) in academic buildings, residence halls, and the student union.  These and other unmet needs are the unfortunate consequence of the precipitous downturn in enrollment and shrunken revenues. The pace at which many of our challenges can be addressed is inextricably tied to our success at stabilizing enrollments.

Nonetheless, despite the looming challenges and adversities, I hope we continue to row forward together – “undaunted,” "unbowed," and "unafraid," as Henley put it in that indelibly memorable poem. 

Recall we kicked off the holiday season with our traditional Goodwill Arches in University Square. I fervently hope all the light-up displays in this season of goodwill help illuminate the oft-shadowy walkways of life, brighten all hearts and minds, and strengthen the ties that bind one and all as a human family, sailing together on what one sage dubbed a "pale blue dot."

I wish you all and your loved ones a Happy New Year filled with bountiful success, well-being, happiness, and greater fulfillment of life's purpose(s).

Jem Spectar