Meeting with alumni of our University, and speaking with them about our history is one of the great pleasures afforded to me as president of Fairfield. Saturday, September 24, however, was a particularly special and emotional day, as I had the opportunity to meet with the reunion of the Class of 1951 — the first class to graduate from Fairfield University.
These men — and they were all men — were in most instances the first in their families to go to college. They had grown up in tough economic times — tougher than ours — and in many cases they were young men who had left high school to go straight into the Army or the Navy to spend the next four years of their lives in the war.
By the time these young men arrived at Fairfield as freshmen, they had already seen a lot. They had seen enough to know that they wanted to make something of their lives, to make the world a better place, and to build a future based on the values of fellowship, justice, hard work, and generosity of spirit.
And they did it. Here they were, 60 years later, back on the campus — retired doctors, lawyers, scientists, monsignors, and leaders in business. They had led successful, generative lives. They were happy, humble, and decent men, and each one I spoke to said the same thing to me when I had a chance to have a few words with them: “Fairfield changed my life. Fairfield was my bridge to the future.”
In 1947, when they entered, and Fairfield University was effectively a one-room schoolhouse, these men had been full of determination and brains, but not necessarily young men with financial resources, or with family backgrounds that made the transition to college an easy leap for them. Fairfield University had only recently come into being itself, but it was poised to make a giant leap to meet the needs of that historical moment. Fairfield was there to give the Class of 1951 what they needed to make a mark on the world.
Fairfield University continues to change lives. Fairfield is still a bridge to the future for thousands of young men and women who need the intellectual foundation and the moral and spiritual guidance that we can give them. The times have changed — the world is vastly more complex — but the fundamental human story does not change.
We are at a similarly critical juncture now in the history of our University as we were when we enrolled our first freshman class. The economic times are difficult, and that is putting pressure on our institution to evolve and adapt to new realities, to meet newly emerging demands placed on us by circumstances, and by a swiftly evolving technological, cultural, and economic milieu.
Our students and their families also feel these pressures, as they come to us for the formative educational environment that we have to offer.
We must — and we will — meet the needs of our families and our University community, seizing the opportunities that lie before us, determined as we are to become a leader of the renewal of Jesuit education for the 21st century.
The young men and women who come to our University at this point are remarkably promising — they have been exposed to a tremendous volume of information; and they are decent, kind, loyal, and enthusiastic.
But they are also desperately in need of a learning environment that broadens their minds, that compels them to think deeply and meaningfully about what it means to be truly alive; they need a life-shaping experience — just like the class of 1951 — that will give them the confidence, the relationships, and the sense of personal authenticity and responsibility for others that will serve them as a bridge to their own unique futures.
This kind of learning environment does not just come together by accident. It is an environment held together by design, informed and enlivened by teaching scholars who are among the best in their areas of expertise, and from a University dedicated to making this environment accessible to any young man or woman who has the desire to reach for it — regardless of their financial resources. These principles are at the heart of Ignatian educational values. They informed the Fairfield of 1951, and they inform our University today.
As you will see within these pages, Fairfield continues to excel. Our graduate and professional programs continue to evolve, and are recognized nationally as among the best in the country. Over the past 18 years, 59 of our students have been Fulbright Scholars, an impressive testament to the quality of their education and the preparation we provide them. Our faculty scholars are conducting significant research, and making important contributions to their field and to the common good. We are receiving national attention for our work, with funding from the Ford Foundation, The Carnegie Corporation of New York, the National Institutes of Health, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and other significant national funding bodies.
So our University is thriving. Still, if we are really going to take the leadership position that we have the character, the location, and the capacity to take as a University community, then we must raise the bar.
First, and critically, as a Jesuit and Catholic institution, we have an obligation to provide a quality education to every capable young person who wants one — regardless of his or her financial resources.
It is simply unacceptable that there be young men and women of promise who cannot come to Fairfield because they cannot afford it. We should be a university that is about opportunities — think of the opportunities that we gave to the Class of 1951. Increasing our endowment so that we can embrace promising students of all backgrounds is critical. It is in our DNA and we must do it.
Second, we must invest in our teaching-scholars so that we continue to take leadership positions on the scholarly, scientific, and social concerns of our time. We should be a thought leader in a range of areas that concern our world — economics, health care, the dialogue between faith and reason. These are areas where Fairfield can and should be making its voice heard.
Third, we must ensure that our teaching facilities are state-of-the-art. This is particularly pressing for us in the nursing and life sciences areas. Our School of Nursing is already filled to capacity. We have first-rate research scientists exploring new frontiers in biology and chemistry. We need to make sure these scholars have the tools they need to succeed, and to prepare our students at the highest level.
In coming months and years, you will be hearing a lot from me on this theme. I am personally asking everyone in the Fairfield University community — faculty, staff, and most critically, alumni, to join me in embracing this challenge and making this stretch so that Fairfield can take its place as a leader.
As I write today, I’m filled with gratitude for the many blessings we have received together by having found our place within the Fairfield community. The work that lies before us is noble work, but it wouldn’t be given to us to do if we weren’t a University with the capacity to meet the challenge. I thank you all for joining with me as we work together to make Fairfield the leader in the renewal of Jesuit education for the 21st century.
Jeffrey P. von Arx, S.J.