Artificial intelligence, Boldly Elon accomplishments are the center of annual Opening Day address

Faculty and staff gathered Monday to celebrate the beginning of the 2023-24 academic year.

With recent rapid advances in generative artificial intelligence, higher education institutions have increased their focus on the potential benefits and also moral dilemmas stemming from its use on campus.

It’s been a topic on the mind of President Connie Ledoux Book, and on Monday, Aug. 14, in Alumni Gym, she officially opened the new academic year with the innovative technology front and center. On the screens in the venue, an AI-generated message using Book’s likeness began to welcome the campus back for another school year when the real President Book interrupted and told the audience that the video was an imitation.

“On Nov. 30, 2022 — we entered a new digital space with the launch of ChatGPT, the first in a series of applications and programs that put generative AI into the hands of all of us. New tools that leverage content at scales beyond human capacity to create content to do with as we choose,” Book said. “So, what we choose to do with it is critically important to all of us and for all of us.”

AI will be the centerpiece of Elon’s proposal to the United Nations meeting of the Internet Governance Forum in October in Kyoto, Japan, Book said. Elon’s Center for Imagining the Internet will present a set of global principles designed to guide a healthy collaboration between AI and higher education.

While the list of principles is growing, there has been consensus for these six: people, not technology, must be at the center of our work; we should promote digital inclusion within and beyond our institutions; digital and information literacy is an essential part of a core education; all AI tools should enhance teaching and learning; learning about technologies is an experimental, lifelong process; and AI research and development must be done responsibly.

A working group that includes faculty members Haya Ajjan, Mustafa Akben and Paula Rosinski spent this summer working to understand the potential impact of AI at Elon and prepare the overall community for opportunities to embrace the technology and guard against its misuse. The group collected data from more than 300 community, faculty and staff members, carried out a policy analyses benchmark of peer and aspirant institutions, and created a preliminary report.

Akben, assistant professor of management, provided a snapshot during the Opening Day remarks on what the group has discovered. One element that was consistent in the findings were the strong mixed reaction AI provokes in the higher education community. One-half of people believe that this technology can accelerate scientific findings, increase worker productivity, and further provide adaptive learning spaces for students while enhancing their educational and learning outcomes. The other half raised concerns arguing that this technology undermines the very purpose of higher education, stifles creative and critical thinking which compromises academic integrity.

“One irrefutable fact is: this technology is here,” Akben said. “Given this context and Elon’s position in the leadership and educational landscape, it is imperative for us to investigate the effect of these technologies on our campus and our learning environment.

“However, there is one almost uniform voice among participants [which] indicated that consideration related to AI is an important next step that Elon should take which means we need to prepare and understand this technology much more carefully,” he added.

In response to these findings, there are multiple AI-focused discussion sessions throughout Planning Week open for the community to attend and share their thoughts.

In the fall edition of the Magazine of Elon, President Book focused her column on how new technology is often challenged as it is introduced to the masses. But it is how we use our values to leverage that technology that should be judged, Book said.

“Where human intelligence and artificial intelligence overlap is a future space of great hope that this new technology can be used to improve the quality of life for all of us,” Book said. “It is critical that Elon be a place where an education can drive the future use of AI so that students use this tool to problem solve the great challenges of health care, clean water, sustainable energy, just to name a few.”

President Book also used her Opening Day address to highlight the many accomplishments of Phase I of the Boldly Elon strategic plan, which was launched in 2020. The 10-year plan was built in three phases and the first phase will wrap up in December. Some of the key goals accomplished were the addition of more than 90 full-time positions since 2020 as a commitment to student learning, staff mentors and support to campus operations. New curricular areas in engineering, nursing, business analytics and STEM have been launched on campus.

To support STEM, Elon has invested in new facilities and renovated existing ones to keep the institution on the cutting edge. This fall, Elon will welcome more than 170 nursing students on campus and one of the largest first-year Elon Law cohorts in the program’s history.

The university adopted a new Multifaith Strategic Plan in the spring and is working to create student opportunities to explore faith and purpose.

HealthEU, a comprehensive effort to support the holistic health and well-being of students, faculty and staff was launched one year ago and the initiative has received significant improvements since. With investments in counseling, workshops and 2/7 virtual care through TimelyCare, HealthEU will continue to build on its mission to support the Elon community.

“HealthEU was launched and makes visible that our mission to educate, must include preparing students and our community of faculty and staff for lifelong well-being and resourcing those practices,” Book said.

Book welcomed new leadership at Elon with Dean Kenn Gaither in the School of Communications, Dean Maha Lund in the School of Health Sciences and Dean Zak Kramer in the Elon University School of Law all assuming their new roles this summer. Director of Athletics Jenn Strawley has also joined and will lead Phoenix Athletics into a new era.

The Inn at Elon has generated over $2 million in scholarships for nearly 200 Elon students since its opening. “I love it when strategy works and the vision is realized,” Book said.

Phase II of the Boldly Elon strategic plan has already begun and plans to improve residential efforts on campus with a sustainable living-learning community (LLC) at Loy Farm consisting of 12 sustainable residences. In East Neighborhood, a new commons building providing 90 residential rooms will also be underway.

Phase II of the Boldly Elon plan also includes a new Study USA program with sport management majors will open this fall in Charlotte, one of the nation’s fastest-growing metros. Twelve students will intern with professional sports teams and take classes as part of an immersive semester.

But the focal point for Phase II is cultivating meaningful relationships and mentorship opportunities, with Professor of Psychology Buffie Longmire-Avital and Director of New Student Programs Emily Krechel leading those efforts.

Longmire-Avital told those in attendance at the Opening Day ceremony that the 35 members of Mentoring Design Team have adopted a “meaningful relationships framework” to improve accessibility to meaningful relationships and build these critical skills starting from day one.

“A meaningful relationships framework holistically embraces all the significant connections that make individuals of our Elon community feel valued,” Longmire-Avital said.

Krechel said there are several pilots launched to support this initiative including developing awareness to recognize meaningful relationships, integrating meaningful relationship learning outcomes into signature first-year experiences and supporting retention efforts by connecting students with student success.

“We think these next steps will provide a robust foundation for the continuation of this transformational work and will move us toward our strategic goal of becoming a national leader for meaningful relationships and mentoring,” Krechel said.

Before the president’s Opening Day remarks, two Elon Medallions and the official awarding of five endowed professorships were announced.

The Elon Medallion is Elon University’s highest honor. Elon Medallion recipients during the 2023-24 Opening Day ceremony were:

  • Tom Chandler, Elon life trustee and founder of Chandler Concrete
  • Vickie Somers ’89, former director of auxiliary services

Faculty receiving professorships were:

  • Assistant Professor of Religious Studies Sheila Otieno — Distinguished Emerging Scholar in Religious Studies, which provides support for research, travel and professional development.
  • Associate Professor of Astrophysics Chris Richardson — Japheth E. Rawls Professorship for Undergraduate Research in Science which supports the efforts of faculty engagement with students in the scholarship of scientific discovery.
  • Professor of Classical Languages Kristina MeinkingTrustee Chair for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, established to recognize an Elon faculty member for excellence in teaching and to provide support of their promotion of undergraduate teaching excellence.
  • Professor of Philosophy and Director of National and International Fellowships Office Ann Cahill and Maude Sharpe Powell Professor and Professor of History Mary Jo Festle have been named Distinguished University Professors. This esteemed professorship is conferred occasionally by the Board of Trustees on senior faculty at the full professor rank whose career achievements inspire the University community by their excellence.