University President Dr. William Behre will be inaugurated on Friday morning, serving as the midpoint of a 17-day celebration of his presidency.
“I wish that somebody would have reminded me that a 17-day celebration lasted two-and-a-half weeks,” Behre chuckled.
All joking aside, Behre said that he has begun to fall in love with the culture of SRU and wants to take in as much as he can more his first year in office.
“Slippery Rock is a tapestry from what I can tell so far,” Behre said. “There’s an abundance of great programs and students that make up the culture of the university. I’m kept pretty busy and I work some long hours, but it’s evident that me at work beats a lot of people at rest.”
A majority of that work so far has rested on how to market the culture of Slippery Rock to a wider audience. Clarifying that message has been a primary area of focus for Behre, who hopes to showcase what he believes is one of the best brands in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE).
“We’ve got to be constantly asking ourselves where we are going, what’s our elevator speech?” Behre said. “I don’t know the answer to that yet, so we’re studying ourselves in order to understand what we do best and how to move forward.”
Behre said that while SRU used to be almost solely known for their programs in Exercise Science and Physical Education, two distinctions he remains proud of, it is a disservice to view the university that way now.
Safety Management is an area in which Slippery Rock has begun to build a national reputation according to Behre. He said that in his short time as president, he’s heard from several companies that they look to SRU first when hiring safety experts.
“You have to look at assets that we have that other institutions of higher learning don’t, and our Safety Management program is one of them,” Behre said.
Behre also hopes to cultivate the Petroleum Engineering program at Slippery Rock. He lamented the fact there were some open seats this semester, something he attributed to today’s political climate and some students being unable to obtain visas.
Financial autonomy is another focus for Behre. He said that the greatest obstacle to a college education is cost, and wants to explore avenues that make Slippery Rock more affordable. A big portion of that comes with negotiating with PASSHE to allow SRU to increase tuition rates. Behre said that the additional revenue would be used for increasing financial aid, but understands that he will likely face pushback from this decision.
“I’ll get beaten up for it, but I still think that it’s the right thing to do,” Behre said. “The headline will be that we increased tuition, and it’ll probably have a nasty pull quote thrown in there. But it must be understood that any potential increase in cost comes with added financial aid opportunities for students. We’re not simply trying to increase our revenue without helping the students of Slippery Rock.”
In addition to better leveraging university resources, Behre has spoken a lot about diversity since arriving on campus. Currently, there are 91 international students on campus, and nearly 90 percent of students come from somewhere within the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, according to Behre. Making sure that the university continues to reach out and bring in a wide range of diverse students remains one of his top priorities.
“For me, becoming a more diverse university isn’t just a social justice issue,” Behre said. “A lack of diversity limits the quality of education that you can offer as an institution. A criticism that many people bring up is that because we are a state-funded institution that we should focus on solely serving students within the commonwealth. I would argue that bringing in diverse students helps us serve our students better than if they were in classrooms with only students from Butler and Allegheny County. That type of ancillary learning is invaluable in my eyes.”
Behre acknowledged that Slippery Rock students will be part the most diverse generation in history and wants to expose them to new conversations and experiences. During his State of the University Address in September, Behre unveiled a scholarship plan for underrepresented students on campus in the amount of $100,000 per year over a four-year period. Behre said that those numbers will actually increase to $1.2 million over the next four years, tripling the original annual amount.
Standing on the shoulders of giants is how Behre described his current position as SRU’s 17th university president. He credits past presidents for laying a strong foundation for him to add to their respective legacies. Behre has looked to Bob Smith and Cheryl Norton, SRU’s two most recent university presidents, for advice on how to carry out his own tenure.
“Bob Smith placed a large emphasis on cultivating the arts at Slippery Rock, while Cheryl looked towards developing more graduate programs at the university,” Behre said. “I’m trying to learn from the best of both worlds in that sense. Their legacies left the university in a very stable financial situation, and I’m grateful for that.”
Above all, Behre said that he remains most grateful for his interactions with the student body.
“I prefer ending the day on campus, walking our dogs with my wife,” Behre said. “I enjoy being around the students and engaging them. I really get a kick out of it.”