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Fall 1999 Convocation Address

  • Date: 09/09/1999
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

    It is a distinct pleasure to add my warm welcome to those of you who have joined us this fall and a special return welcome to all who are members of the University faculty.

    Mr. Chairman, I appreciate your participation in today's events. And, I want to thank you for the support exhibited not only by yourself but by all of the members of the Board of Trustees of the University. Your presence here today bears witness to the strong and unanimous support which this University enjoys from its Board of Trustees.

    I also want to thank all of you, the members of the University family, for joining us here this afternoon - and for the warm welcome and enthusiastic support you have shown me in the very short months that I have served as your president. And . . . a special note of thanks to the Mary Schiller Meyers School of Art for their thoughtful gift of creative expression.

    Let me, before I continue, ask that you please recognize a few of my predecessors who are here this afternoon. President Emeritus Norman Auburn, we are delighted to have you with us. My immediate past predecessor . . . Marion Ruebel. And, we are blessed with the presence of another president on our campus, Dr. Dominic Guzzetta.

    Since coming to The University of Akron last January, I have made every effort to tour as many of the departments and units on our campus, and to talk with as many of you as possible. And, I will do so again very soon - because I need to know you better and because, since my coming , you have made enough progress that I simply have to keep up

    I continue to be energized by your ideas, your ideals, and your support - and to be extremely pleased at the depth and breadth of excellence that is represented within our university.

    Now, I am told that traditionally this forum has served as an opportunity for the president to give a "State of the University" address. I hope I shan't disappoint you too much, when I decide to depart from that tradition and, instead, speak with you somewhat formally, somewhat informally about four topics:

    First, to give you a sense of what I think I have seen and heard from you, the University community, and so as to give me the opportunity to get some feedback and see if I have listened correctly;

    Secondly, to give you a sense of what I think this University is, as an institution;

    Thirdly, to tell you what it is that we have already done and what we must yet do in the near term;

    And, finally, to ask what it is that we can yet be.

    Now, before proceeding with my report, a couple of caveats!

    Forums like this are fraught with an immense capacity to be misunderstood! And perhaps no one knows that more than I.

    Secondly, communication is an interactive process, so I will encourage you following this event to join me afterward in the lobby and to ask any questions you may have, and to continue with your e-mail correspondence that many of you have chosen to undertake with me. Because that has been extremely helpful and, through it, we have had a very informative dialogue. And finally, don't hesitate, please, to ask me to repeat the message. I'm only happy to do so.

    Now, this being my first formal presentation to the entire University community, reminds me of the time now, perhaps only too distant in my memory, when I was an assistant professor joining the faculty at the University of Georgia in 1971, that long ago. And my department at that time was concerned about many of the very same things that you are concerned about. They, of course, invited the university president, Fred C. Davison, to come down. He had served 19 years as the president of The University of Georgia, a great leader.

    As I listened at that time to the president trying to respond to our questions, I was a little disappointed. Because, when we asked about how we might find funding for the next professorship, he talked about what the interests were of the legislature and what the climate was for private giving and what was going on in Washington and all of those things. Frankly, I thought he was completely ignoring our basic needs. It seemed he did not understand what really mattered. A few years later, however, I had the pleasure of serving President Davison, and I began to realize that, by addressing those "big picture" items, he was very much speaking to the basic needs of my department. I just didn't know it at the time.

    So, I ask that you please bear with me as I talk in very general terms about the University, and I hope that you will give me some latitude with the knowledge that I do understand, very much, what you are about and what your concerns are about, because I've been where you are not so long ago.

    So, what is it that you have told me? What have I seen and heard?

    Well, you, of course, told me that you're concerned about salaries. The University of Akron perhaps (although we need better data) ranks below the average of Ohio institutions.

    You're concerned about equity and fairness issues. And you stated that fairly plainly in a variety of ways, from the Status of Women Report to the work that you've done more recently with the Provost, which we must address.

    You are concerned very much about the prospective loss of colleagues, with so many of them now entering the fourth phase of our early retirement program and leaving our campus at the end of this academic year.

    You're concerned about the quality of our student body, about the quality of our facilities, and about access to technology.

    That is just at the very top of the list.

    It may or may not help you to know how very similar your concerns are to those of other public and many private universities. Purdue University, where I just came from, was immersed in discussions about just those very issues. So, we are not alone. We can learn from the experience of other colleagues, but at the same time, it is important that we strive to create our very own solutions, because we do exist in a local setting in the State of Ohio.

    I have, of course, also found some institutional issues as well as opportunities.

    For example, we have an exceptional opportunity to appoint an almost-new senior staff, and I hope you are following the search processes that have been initiated. And, I am please to tell you this afternoon that the provost search committee will next week be receiving the first group of candidates from our search consultant. Dean Roger Creel is serving as chair of that search committee.

    I have also found that we are challenged in the knowledge of ourselves and that we must improve our institutional research function.

    We also have very little in the form of an enrollment management program, even though 93 percent of our budget is driven by enrollment.

    Of course, we have budget constraints . . . but what university doesn't. And, we will have to attend to some administrative processes in various areas to improve them to make it better to serve all of us, particularly our students.

    Deferred maintenance is also an issue, but it is also not surprising, regrettably, because it is typically the first to be sacrificed by most universities in the type of budget crunch you faced a few years ago. They make maintenance the last priority and let it go, a terrible mistake which we have to correct and pay for many times over. We have to face up, of course, to the replacement of our aging facilities, as Mr. Arshinkoff indicated.

    We do enjoy a highly dedicated and enthusiastic staff, wherein we will have to create stability and reduce the number of interim appointments. But a tremendous energy comes from a quality staff.

    So, what is it that we are as an institution today?

    What I also heard you say during my many visits to each and every one of your units is that you have a great pride in what you are doing. And I saw genuine excellence in every corner of the university, and a deep hunger to be better!

    I also have been heartened by the wonderfully balanced goals that YOU articulated - to simultaneously achieve recognition as a Carnegie Teaching Academy and as a Research II university. Nothing else could state more clearly the commitment of this University to its students as we now move into a knowledge economy.

    But what this also says is that The University of Akron is very simply an under-celebrated resource in Ohio!

    In fact, I recently gave your deans a nine-page draft of superlative statements about our University, and the overwhelming response that I received back from them was that there is much more to be added! Indeed, my own personal satisfaction has come from discovering so many wonderful things that nobody bothered to tell me about as I was being recruited.

    All of this tells me that The University of Akron is clearly, without question, the leading public university in northern Ohio. But nobody knows it, not even The University of Akron itself! Not even ourselves!

    So, what we have done and what we must do in the near term?

    Based on what you have told me, what I have seen, and the general environment for higher education in the nation and in Ohio, I have communicated to the Board of Trustees, vice presidents, and deans the beginning a four-pronged strategy to enhance our academic programs.

    This strategy is designed, and let me state it in unequivocal terms, this strategy is designed and intended to improve our competitiveness in faculty and staff salaries and to make The University of Akron the preferred university in northern Ohio. In other words, it is a strategy focused on our people - our faculty, our staff, and our students.

    Let me briefly enumerate the four elements of this strategy and then speak briefly to each:

    First, there is a campus development guide plan, which Chairman Arshinkoff spoke about, and a $200 million capital construction investment.

    Second is a differentiating-competency approach, based on creating synergy among our academic programs and leverage from our academic strengths.

    Third is an ambitious and aggressive enrollment management and enrollment growth program, which we simply must have.

    And fourth . . . a vigorous program of state and federal relations and of private fund giving.

    Of course, let me hasten to add that we must consider other strategies as well, and they will emerge from your participation in our planning and shared leadership process in the months ahead.

    So first, let's look at the master plan and capital construction investment.

    As many of you may know, and as the Chairman indicated, our Board held a special meeting this morning to approve a plan to invest $200 million to reshape our campus during the next few years. You may well ask, " Why is this important to students, and faculty and staff salaries?"

    Quite simply . . . because this move will help restore our competitive position and may, in fact, allow us to leapfrog ahead of the competition. There are brochures about the Campus Development Guide Plan at the lobby desk outside, and I invite you to pick up a copy as we leave here this afternoon.

    During the next few years, you will see the campus be transformed through approximately 20 major projects.

    We will add six completely new academic and student services structures. Eight buildings will have extensive renovations and improvements, too. Two, and eventually a third, of our existing academic facilities will receive major additions. A new 1000-vehicle parking deck will be erected, and other parking facilities will be upgraded and improved. And eventually, two additional parking decks will be constructed. Sections of two major streets that cut through our campus will be closed to help unify our campus and to enhance its aesthetic appeal. Campus green space, including tree-lined pedestrian walkways and bicycle trails, will nearly double - to more than 66 acres. In fact, we will be planting more than 30,000 new trees and 20,000 edge plants - a remarkable transformation.

    This is a plan, quite simply, to enhance our University. And it is about much more than bricks and mortar.

    The Campus Development Guide Plan, master plan, will be integrated with academic planning and programming, budgeting and fiscal decision-making, and enrollment management efforts in our strategic planning process. And it will create much more of a campus, much more of a park-like environment, and much more of an academic community.

    And, beginning today, we will be telling all of Ohio about our plans in an aggressive publicity campaign.

    But, again, you may well ask, "How is all of this related to faculty and staff salaries? Why can't we apply those same $200 million to compensation-related enhancements?"

    Well, since state appropriations and tuition are the largest components of how we earn revenue, they constitute 93 percent of our revenue, as I indicated earlier. And, since both are enrollment-dependent, anything we can do to improve our competitive position for students is, quite simply, critical to our economic well-being and, thus, to our ability to recruit and retain top students as well as to pay staff and faculty better. By making this investment in our campus and our facilities, we are positioning The University of Akron to increase revenues and, in turn, to more aggressively address salary priorities.

    What is more, investing in the campus plan at this time was also fiscally sound because of interest rates and the dramatic success we have had in our bond issuance. We achieved 5.72 percent interest, while the money is in the bank earning 5.9 percent. And, we were able to retain our favorable bond ratings despite the increased indebtedness, to receive a very low bond insurance rate of 0.14 percent (saving $700,000 over the going rate), all of which serves as a strong vote of confidence in our plan and in Ohio's credit-worthiness. Please thank Hank Nettling and his staff for their tremendous effort in that regard.

    Again, let me state it unequivocally: Aggressively increasing our faculty salary position in relation to comparable universities is a top priority.

    I do understand why many of you have said that the 3 percent salary pool in the current budget seems modest, even though it represents an ongoing new expenditure of $2.8 million. What you may not know, however, is that the current budget also includes additional, direct salary and compensation allocations.

    For example, we have allocated an additional $475,000 for salary adjustments required to implement the Mercer Study, as soon as the law allows us to do just that, and these will be retroactive to July 1 of this year. Also, we allocated an additional $150,000 for raises for exceptional performance and to address equity issues. And, together, this brings our total monies for salary increases to 3.84 percent. Moreover, we also allocated well over one-half million dollars in additional compensation-related allocations, all of which add up to nearly 5 percent of new monies going to benefit you! In fact, we budgeted nearly every available new dollar into directly benefiting each and every one of you.

    Of course, I would have liked to have that number to have been even larger. And it would be nice if it could be optimum, so we could bring our salaries to the desired levels in a single step in one year.

    What we did was to accomplish a significant increase at a time when our enrollment is level (or perhaps, what the figures suggest and will be final next week, may have dropped a slight amount - about a half percent or so.) Also, we achieved these numbers at a time when we had anticipated that the state would give us just over 0.1 percent. So, that's not so bad, if it's testament to prove what we did in Columbus and to the willingness of our Board of Trustees to approve an increase in tuition.

    While we are touching upon budgetary issues, it may helpful of me to just comment that funding for personnel and operational costs is quite separate from facilities. In fact, the law at the State of Ohio requires that those two pots of money be kept separate. So, we do not have the freedom to borrow from capital funding, that may be available, to use for salary issues.

    The second element of our strategy is that of establishing differentiating, academic competencies for The University of Akron. Simply put, this says that we cannot be all things to all people and asks that we decide how it is that we want to create academic strength and preference opportunities. This is not just rhetoric; it is what we must do to achieve our goals. Creating synergy and leverage among our academic programs are important elements of our competitive strategy.

    In order for us to make progress in this regard, we will have to focus on recruiting, retaining, and placing the right people in the right places to support our strategic intent.

    We have begun this process with instructions to deans on the importance of hiring the very best possible faculty, some of whom are with us today, and staff, and for addressing the full issue of faculty salaries diligently, including equity. As we prepare to replace so many of our colleagues who will be retiring at the end of this academic year, we will be prepared to make the needed allocations to be competitive in the marketplace.

    We will need to exercise good communication about this process, to empower ourselves through shared leadership, and to do so with a sense of direction, with ambitious and disciplined goals.

    Believe me, it will not be easy, nor will it be accomplished in a single year. We will need patience and perseverance, but it is a necessary step in our continued quest for academic excellence.

    The third element involves an ambitious and aggressive enrollment and growth management program. Please note that this is not to be a "stack 'em deep and teach 'em cheap" strategy. Rather, it is one of doing what we must do to make The University of Akron the preferred university in northern Ohio.

    Tom Vukovich has developed an outline of what this strategy might be, and I will be asking him in the weeks ahead to communicate this and his thoughts widely, because of all of you have to be deeply involved for this to succeed. This is an issue that is critical to the management of our budget, critical to improvement of student quality and to our long-term reputation - and success, ultimately, in alumni relations and private funding.

    Along these lines, you should know we have charged the search committee for the vice president for student affairs to identify a person who will expand our campus vision for student activities so as to make each and every student experience ancillary to our academic programs. In other words, what we want to do is to make all student activities part of student learning. That will require close articulation with the provost and, indeed, with all of our academic departments, schools and colleges.

    The final strategic element involves a vigorous program of state and federal relations and private fund raising. You may ask, "Why is this important? Why should we care what happens in Washington?" Well, it is important because we must seek additional revenue sources so as to have the investment resources needed to make good things happen.

    A program of federal relations is simply key to our achieving Research II designation, because that designation is achieved based on a measure of federal obligations. If we exceed $15.5 million annually in federal obligations, we will be so designated. As you may have read, we have retained a Washington firm to assist us in that process. Many of you have already met with the principle of that firm, Dr. Kirkland, in order that we may begin to consider our greatest opportunities and to develop those proposals that can have the most chance, the greatest chance, for success.

    A state relations program is equally important and is designed to enhance our opportunities for enhanced funding both from the legislature as well as from agencies of the State of Ohio. I have joined the presidents of Ohio State University and the University of Cincinnati in an approach to persuade our legislature to provide increased state funding preferentially to our three universities. Other states do so to their special interests, while Ohio does not. Of course, you can understand that I would realize that this approach will not be welcomed by our competition in Ohio. But it is worth a try, and if we don't ask, the answer will certainly always be NO!

    Finally, private fund giving is becoming critical to our having resources to achieve a margin of excellence. Already, we have experienced, thanks to John LaGuardia and his staff, two record years of private giving in a row. We recorded more than $15 million in gifts in each of the last two years, after having received only $8 million in the in previous years. Moreover, we recently received spectacular gift of over $1.75 million gift from Dr. James D'Ianni for the support of our research agenda, the largest individual gift in support of research in this University's history.

    I have asked John LaGuardia to develop a plan for an even more aggressive fund raising campaign, and we are, of course, blessed with many fine corporate and private friends that share our enthusiasm.

    And now, finally, what can we yet become?

    Shortly after I arrived on campus, I began offering a seminar-of-sorts to our vice presidents and deans. Then, I gave them some homework! It is intended to engender a thorough and ongoing discussion of issues and opportunities and to provide a common framework for our daring and ambitious goals, for our strategic intent.

    Shortly, we will be expanding this discussion to include all of you. First, I have this week appointed a steering committee to help guide that process, and, later this month, a group of about 100 to150 of you will gather for a retreat to discuss these vital strategic planning issues and to begin developing long- and near-term objectives in that two-day retreat.

    The goals that emerge from those in-depth discussions will be communicated and the process then expanded to include task forces that I urge all of you to participate in, as this will affect the well being of this university and every one associated with it. And, every one of us simply must be involved.

    We all must be engaged and excited about where we can go and what we will become.

    The way I have begun to state what I think we can be, to state a strategic intent, is to say that we want to become recognized as the leading public university in northern Ohio . . .

    (I say "recognized," even though I believe you already are.)

    . . . to assume in northern Ohio a prominence comparable to that long enjoyed by Ohio State in the central part of the state, and gradually becoming true also for Cincinnati in the southern part of Ohio.

    While that may seem like a bold and ambitious statement, I am confident that the goal is achievable in the very near future. As I said about this in the beginning of my remarks, I think we already are. We just haven't allowed ourselves to go in depth.

    And thus, in keeping with our strategic intent in becoming recognized as the leading university in northern Ohio, we must first set new standards for each and every one of our programs.

    We must insist that every one of our programs is first among all public universities in northern Ohio. But what is more, in selected areas, we seek to become acknowledged as the best in the state, the best in the Midwest, the best in the nation, or the best in the world, as cases permit!

    I wish that time allowed me to recite a full listing of all of our programs in which this can happen. I have the list here, but it would take us until about 4:30 just for me to reiterate the list. So, let me just tell you one or two things that you may not know.

    I know that all of you know about our strengths in polymer science and polymer engineering, something you should thank Frank Kelley for, for the treasure he has built here. But what you may not know ladies and gentlemen is that the standing that the polymer programs enjoys allows The University of Akron to say that we are the only university in all of Ohio, this includes Case Western Reserve, the ONLY university to have a science-based graduate program ranked in the top five in the nation No other university in Ohio has such a science-based graduate program like this university. And our industrial/organizational psychology program is ranked seventh in the nation.

    I could go on and on, but I would embarrass myself and surely omit someone and I would keep you too long. I brought the list; it's right here. But I clipped it, because I didn't think that I would have enough time. And, indeed ,it's best that I don't.

    But in nursing and in law, intellectual property, biomedical engineering . . . in every department, in the very presence of this hall here . . . (and I thank Dan Dahl for allowing us to meet here today after a very ambitious remodeling of this structure) . . . we simply have the capacity to excel, and we will.

    So, please join me - because we have much to celebrate, much to tell, and much upon which we can build.

    I apologize again for not citing every example of excellence throughout the University. My list truly included examples from each and every one of our different colleges and schools. What is important for you to understand, for all of us to understand, is the value of each of those outstanding achievements to the University as a whole. We shall build upon that basic strength.

    In an integrated, synergistic vision each accomplishment enhances the stature of the university. It creates opportunities for leverage across the university and moves us collectively toward a higher standard.

    So, we do have much to celebrate - and a great story to tell - and much, indeed, upon which we can build. We are the leading university in northern Ohio!

    So, let us begin by acknowledging our already remarkable achievements, and let us proudly tell that story. And, in so doing, let us remember that, while some universities may have to advertise that they are "the premier university,"

    WE SIMPLY ARE!

    Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for your attention. Please join us for a reception in the outer hall, where I will be happy to take your questions.

    Thank you very much!

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