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2013 State of The University Address

  • Date: 11/06/2013
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: Ball room A, Student Union
  • Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for your thoughtful introduction, and for your tireless leadership in Northeast Ohio.

    And thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for joining us this afternoon.

    I extend a warm greeting to all of our faculty, staff, students, alumni and friends.

    Before I begin, permit me first to recognize a number of special guests who are with us today. I ask them to stand as their names are called, and please hold your applause until all have been recognized.

    From The University of Akron’s Board of Trustees:

    • Chairman Richard W. Pogue
    • Vice Chairman Jonathan T. Pavloff
    • Trustees Jennifer E. Blickle, and
    • Olivia P. Demas,

    And a special welcome to community leaders or their representatives too numerous to mention. We thank you for your service to our city, state and nation.

    Please join me in expressing our gratitude and appreciation to these individuals who contribute so much.


    Video: State of the University Address


    Today I deliver my 15th and last State of the University Address.

    Thank you for not bursting into wild applause at the word “last.”

    We are the University in, of and for Akron! You are The University of Akron!

    I am sure I will have many other opportunities to thank you, but I want to begin and end my remarks today by thanking all of you for what you have done to help make this University the success that it is. Thank you!

    As the process for selecting my successor continues, I want to make it clear that this institution shall remain productive and energetic during the transition. In fact, it should be obvious to all that challenges old and new press upon us the need for continued action with a clear focus on the goals established in our Vision 2020 strategic plan.

    The past 15 years have witnessed perhaps the most substantive and dramatic transformation of this University since its founding in 1870, and even since becoming a state university (in 1967). Our collective efforts have achieved far more than even we envisioned when we began. And yet, as we approach the university’s 150th anniversary, we have new opportunities ahead and the responsibility to continue this upward momentum.

    In 1999 when I arrived, we were concerned with declining state funding for higher education. Little did we know then that such funding levels would come to be known as “the good old days.” In fact, state spending on higher education in 2012 was $2.33 billion – almost the exact amount spent in 1999. [i] In case you’re wondering, if state spending had at least kept pace with inflation over those 15 years, current annual funding would be $3.2 billion.[ii] Instead, Ohio now ranks 46th among all 50 states in its per FTE support of higher education. [iii]

    Enrollment was a top priority then as now, but the picture in 1999 was truly daunting. Enrollment was flat for the third year in a row after having fallen dramatically during the previous decade.

    Shared governance was much on the minds of many, and an unprecedented number of retirements and other personnel actions had winnowed the ranks of our community.

    However, there are very significant differences between The University of Akron then and now.

    In 1999 our connections to the community were largely at the individual or departmental level. Today we are recognized as a regional catalyst for creating collaborative public-private partnerships. Publications ranging from the New York Times to the Akron Beacon Journal cite our importance to the vitality and health of this city. As you leave this afternoon, you can pick up a copy of the new 2013 Report to the Community, which this year focuses on our role as The University in, of and for Akron.

    Fifteen years ago it was rare to find positive mention of our University in major media or at national policy meetings. This wasn’t for lack of material – there was ample evidence of excellence on this campus. Sometimes we were unaware of this excellence, other times…we simply didn’t talk about it. Perhaps we had succumbed to that famed Midwestern malady toward “ostentatious modesty,” which humorist Garrison Keillor characterized as “(if you) give us a gold trophy we will have it bronzed so you won’t think that we think we’re special.” [iv]

    And finally, recall what our campus looked like in 1999. Traffic quadrisected our community north to south and west to east. Deferred maintenance had left many buildings in need of major renovation or replacement.

    But it was clear in 1999 that this university community was ready and eager to advance. Among our first goals were to gain recognition as a Carnegie Teaching Academy and as a Research II university, something that we accomplished in short order.

    And over the past 15 years we have acted thoughtfully and boldly; purposely and aggressively; individually and collectively to enhance our relevance, connectivity and productivity – the three guiding principles that now define the Akron Model.

    A few key initiatives will illustrate some of what we have accomplished:

    • The New Landscape for Learning Campus enhancement program
    • The University of Akron Research Foundation
    • The Austen BioInnovation Institute in Akron, or ABIA
    • The University Park Alliance
    • The STEM middle and high schools
    • Our industrial collaborations, including the
      • National Center for Education and Research on Corrosion and Materials Performance
      • The Timken Engineered Surfaces Laboratory, and
      • The National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute, among many others
    • Our Vision 2020 strategic plan, which includes our progress on
      • Academic Program Review, and the
      • Achieving Distinction Program
      • The Akron Experience initiative, including the Successful U app and a comprehensive focus on student success
      • The Pathways to Student Academic Success program
      • The creation of University Council
      • The introduction of the Integrator/Assessor Model of online learning, now being explored by the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities and other partners.

    Return on investment

    We have undertaken and done much over the past decade and a half, so a reasonable question for us to ask is: what has been the return on our investment?

    In 1999-2000, enrollment was 23,000. By 2011 it had soared to nearly 30,000. Yes, a number of variables – including a demographic drop in the number of college-age students, mounting economic pressures on students and their families, and our positive actions under Pathways to Student Academic Success – have brought that total down to just over 27,000. But Fall 2013 enrollment remained more than 17-percent higher than 1999, and initial indicators give us reason for optimism. Applications for next fall are up and about 2,000 prospective students and their parents attended our Fall visit day last Saturday.

    Notably, our total degree production has soared by 35% over the past 15 years, to 5,083 in 2012-13 from 3,766 in 1998-99. Last year we graduated 6% more students than in the previous year, with a 12% increase in STEM graduates. And this year’s freshman class has the highest incoming GPA in 20 years.

    Fundraising may be one of the least-celebrated major success stories of our University. Keep in mind that every donation, every gift is an affirmation of the giver’s belief in our institution, mission and vision. There is an old political maxim that the sincerest vote a person can make is with their wallet. And, by that measure, I am pleased to tell you that voting for The University of Akron has been very, very strong indeed.

    The past 15 years constitute the most successful fundraising period in this institution’s 143-year history. In 1998, annual giving totaled just over $15 million, but by 2012, we had more than tripled that amount, with private donations alone bringing in nearly $53 million annually. In 2007 we launched the comprehensive campaign “Aspire. Attain. Advance” with a goal of raising $500 million by 2012. We raised more than $600 million by 2009! And we soon will reach the $1 billion mark.

    One of the many factors that has contributed to our success is the literal transformation of our physical campus. Prior to the start of our campus enhancement program, our enrollment was suffering. And it wasn’t hard to see why. With traffic slicing through campus, worn buildings serving as classrooms, few student facilities, and sidewalks and parking lots dominating our landscape, we made a less-than good first impression upon prospective students and donors.

    Since 2000 we have added 22 new buildings, made additions or renovations to 18 other structures, added 34 acres of new green space, planted more than 30,000 trees and bushes and created countless plazas, walkways and terraces that have made ours perhaps the most beautiful metropolitan-sited campus in the country.

    The investment has been large, but so, too, has been the return. And this investment will continue to produce returns both tangible and intangible.

    Returns like the pride of our students, faculty and staff when bringing visitors to campus.

    Returns like a sea change in the community’s perception of our University.

    Returns like the effect this attractive environment has on our own productivity, our own engagement and our own happiness.

    Indeed, in some ways this New Landscape for Learning is yet too new for us to fully appreciate its effects. As with the University’s E.J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall, which on its 40th anniversary is hailed as a “flagship performance venue” and as a “powerful economic asset for downtown Akron,” the coming years will only further validate the wisdom of our investment in the New Landscape for Learning.

    Our University has grown not only in physical size and reputation, but also in its presence beyond Summit County. In 1999, Wayne College in Orrville was our only physical location outside of Akron. Today, we have facilities in Medina, Brunswick and Lakewood.

    In addition, our Distance Learning classrooms are linked to 13 area high schools, a number of other universities and colleges, and other notable institutions across Ohio. Through these facilities, we have hosted events in international capitals such as Berlin, Moscow, Tokyo, Beijing and Buenos Aires.

    Our research enterprise has more than doubled and now stands at approximately $60 million. And our productivity is nothing short of phenomenal! On average we disclose more than 70 new inventions annually, and we have been ranked #1 in the world in patents per research dollar, and #1 in Ohio in licensing revenue among public universities, and #7 in the U.S. in total licensing revenue for universities without a medical school per unit of research input. [v]

    The University of Akron Research Foundation, created in 2001, is a success by almost any measure, boasting more than 50 spin-off companies, participation in five joint ventures with major corporations, and nearly $500 million invested in companies that were selected to present to its 550-member angel investor network. UARF manages 286 U.S. patents and 430 patents worldwide, and is engaged in 115 industry-sponsored research agreements.

    Indeed, our faculty has accrued a significant record of research achievement. Thanks to their excellent work, our statement that “The University of Akron is the public research university for Northeast Ohio” is not just a claim or a boast – it is simply a fact.

    In 1999 I often remarked about the under-celebrated and even undiscovered excellence of this University. Our situation is considerably different today. Our faculty, staff and students have consistently earned increasing national and international acclaim for their achievements in teaching and learning, research, service and co-curricular activities including athletics. The University as a whole has become recognized more broadly on the national stage and even at the global level. Just last week, we were prominently mentioned at three national meetings. And, institutionally and individually, we have become passionate about telling our story.

    Each success story contributes to the growth of our institutional reputation. Though returns on investments are most often measured in dollars and cents, they also come in many other forms that bring external validation that we are among the best in class.

    While I have barely scratched the surface in outlining the returns on our investments over the past 15 years, it should be evident that we have come a tremendously long way together over the past one and one-half decades.

    Indeed, The State of the University of Akron in 2013 is strong.

    The path behind us shows our progress. And while we have earned the right to celebrate, we now must look to the path before us with a determination to build on our momentum.

    Thus, to go forward we must first strengthen the financial basis for our University. We must do so by serving students in ways that generate full enrollment, retention and completion strategies for our students. We must do so by increasingly serving as an engine of economic development for our region. We must do so by furthering our foundational principles of relevance, connectivity and productivity.

    And to do so, we must adapt to our changing environment. For many years now I have shared with you Chuck Vest’s famous phrase that “seismic rumbles of change” were transforming traditional paradigms for research and higher education. We all can appreciate the dramatic shifts that technology has brought to the educational landscape over the course of our careers. When I started, personal computers weren’t even on the horizon, and PDAs were beyond our imagination. And we all are witnesses to the kind of disruptive innovation that Clayton Christensen of Harvard Business School, and Anya Kamenetz, author of “D.I.Y. U,” discussed in a series of articles that appeared in the “Education Life” section of the New York Times this past Sunday. [vi] It is imperative that we all act to align our institution with these new realities.

    Just a few weeks ago, our Board of Trustees approved a revised balanced budget. The actions we took to balance the budget underscore the direct and indirect effects that recruitment, retention and degree completion have on every employee of this institution.

    Indeed, with state funding for higher education at historic lows, tuition revenue generated by enrollment becomes one of paramount importance. There are some who may not like to hear it, but reality presses upon us the simple economic truth that a dollar not brought in is a dollar that cannot be paid out.

    Thus, our highest priority in 2013 is improving student recruitment, student retention, and student progress to degree completion so they can have a more effective and efficient path to their career success. These challenges are not new, nor should we think them daunting. We encountered enrollment declines in 2000 and again in 2003-2004. Both times we emerged stronger and more vibrant, and I am confident we shall do so again.

    Next week, we will hold a two-day UA Summit on Retention, subtitled “Building an Action Plan from Persistence to Completion.” As a reflection of our shared leadership, this event is sponsored by University Council, Faculty Senate, the Diversity Council and Undergraduate Student Government. We have scheduled two days because every faculty and staff member is invited and encouraged to participate in at least some portion of this summit. Nationally recognized scholar Dr. Vincent Tinto will present his research findings and best practices, but the success of this effort will hinge on two things: our collective participation in the creation of an action plan on retention, and on our follow through. If you have not yet signed up on the website, I urge you to do so soon.

    Keep in mind that furthering the principles of relevance, connectivity and productivity requires selective and thoughtful attention to new initiatives as well as to what we are doing that is no longer adding value.

    In this regard, I believe it is important to revisit with urgency and purpose the suggestions I put forth four years ago in my letter of October 28, 2009 to the campus community when I challenged us to consider how we may better align and organize our University.

    We held discussions as to how we could remove organizational impediments and how best to optimize our ability to execute on emerging goals. The return on that investment of time and energy was the successful convergence of the Buchtel College of Arts & Sciences with the College of Creative and Professional Arts, as well as the creation of a new College of Health Professions, with its focus on an inter-professional approach to care that better prepares students for that professional world.
    But that is not enough.

    Therefore, when I address the Faculty Senate tomorrow, I will make the following recommendation, which will require the Senate’s prompt action to bring it before our Board of Trustees at their April meeting, with a goal of having it in place prior to the arrival of my successor.

    To put it simply, we must work together to encourage and reward interdisciplinary research and teaching, and to remove structural barriers to that goal. Therefore, I will call for the creation of a series of interdisciplinary institutes or centers based on our strengths, opportunities in the marketplace, and challenges that now hinder economic development in Northeast Ohio. These centers and institutes will be focused on those areas of emphasis identified in Vision 2020: regional solutions, innovative technologies, medicine and health, and the human condition.

    We already have taken the first steps in creating such collaborative enterprises. There are the two interdisciplinary projects funded through the Achieving Distinction initiative: one involving biomimicry research and another related to proof-of-concept, intellectual property and entrepreneurship. Think also of our National Center for Education and Research on Corrosion and Materials Performance, and the Center for Biostatistics and Health.

    Of course, we should explore other possibilities. For example, we could enhance our focus on biomaterials to better facilitate existing collaborations across several of our colleges, as well as organizations such as ABIA and biomedical entities throughout the region and nation. Another possibility might be a focus on teaching and learning innovations in urban settings with an emphasis on talent supply-chain management approaches to improving the educational and workforce attainment of our region. This could include extending our collaborations with organizations such as the Summit Education Initiative, United Way, social services agencies, as well as the emerging Regional Innovation Institute.

    Regardless of the interdisciplinary areas we choose to fund in the next round of the Achieving Distinction program, all would promote the development of joint proposals, shared graduate students and publications across participating colleges. Moreover, to better develop this interdisciplinary environment, I will work with the provost and deans to ensure that faculty hires create clusters of expertise related to these and other areas. Of course, individual disciplinary expertise, which is at the core of interdisciplinary collaborations, will continue to be valued.

    To further facilitate and foster interdisciplinary opportunities, I also will ask the university community as a whole to address three other equally important issues:

    First, we must assure a successful and innovative outcome of our Academic Program Review process. These recommendations already have been made and shared and include proposals for areas of disinvestment, as well as for new investment opportunities from those savings. We now must move to implement them.

    Second, as I did in 2009, I will ask that we again revisit the organization of our schools and colleges, precisely to ensure the interdisciplinary success being sought by so many of our faculty.

    Third, and finally, I will ask that we implement the proposed revision of our general education curriculum, including the reduction to 120 credit hours to graduate with a baccalaureate, and that this be accompanied by the assessment of learning outcomes.

    It is vital that we have a seamless first two years that can be applied toward almost any major; that we maintain the high completion rates of students admitted directly into majors and colleges; that we assess student learning; and that we facilitate the movement of students from pre-major status to major status. I also ask that general education courses be offered not just during the day – and certainly not just between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., but also online and in the evenings and on weekends – because we must accommodate the nontraditional schedules of so many of our students, and provide them the ability to progress efficiently toward a degree.

    In 1862, under conditions so desperate they make our challenges seem minor and inconsequential by comparison, Abraham Lincoln said in his message to Congress, “As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves…” [vii]

    Lincoln’s words have particular value for us as we take our University forward.

    We, too, must think anew to meet the challenges and needs of these times.

    We, too, must act anew, to leverage the strength of our collective talent and creativity as we find new answers and answer new opportunities.

    And we, too, must disenthrall ourselves from misperceptions or apprehensions that hinder our ability to think and act with boldness and confidence.

    In recent months, even more returns on our investments have filtered through the noise and clatter of daily life. There are many that have been noted and many we will celebrate in other forums. For now, let me highlight just one, namely that . . .

    · The University of Akron offers students the best return on their investment among all public universities in Northeast Ohio.

    Yes, we have come a long way! And whereas The University of Akron once was an institution of undiscovered excellence, we now recognize it as a university of growing and undisputed excellence.

    You – the students, the faculty, the staff, the alumni, the friends – you are The University of Akron. You possess the undisputed excellence that will carry us into the future.

    I thank all of you for your efforts, your accomplishments and your support!

    Let US be cheerful and plunge ahead!


    [i] Akron Beacon Journal, Oct. 20, 2013: http://www.ohio.com/editorial/editorials/college-math-1.438606

    [ii] Akron Beacon Journal, Ibid

    [iii] Policy Matters Ohio: http://www.policymattersohio.org/college-bound-taxes-and-tuition-in-ohio-2

    [iv] http://prairiehome.publicradio.org/features/deskofgk/2006/old_scout/12/19.shtml

    [v] http://www.uakron.edu/research/about.dot

    [vi] “The Disrupters,” Education Section. New York Times, Nov. 1, 2013: http://www.nytimes.com/pages/education/edlife/index.html?ref=education

    [vii] American Presidency Project: Abraham Lincoln, Second Annual Message, Dec. 1, 1862. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=29503

  • Topic Category: State of the University Address
  • Tags: returns on investments, progress, interdisciplinary, academic program review, general education curriculum
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