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2002 State of the University Address

  • Date: 09/04/2002
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: Convocation - E. J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall
  • Today I want to share with you my thoughts on the state of The University of Akron.

    I will review some key points of the progress we have made in the last 12 months . . . and outline what I believe will be some of the critical challenges that we will face in the coming year.

    I want to elaborate on the potential dividends of achieving our vision for this university . . . remind you of the high stakes that drive and underscore our efforts . . . and challenge us together to embrace the responsibilities that come with such unprecedented opportunities.

    During the past academic year, many of the University's shortcomings and near-term challenges were brought to the forefront in candid discussions among faculty, staff and administration.

    These discussions have been helpful in affirming that with open dialogue we can achieve the kind of consensus that is needed to fulfill the obvious promise and destiny of your University of Akron.

    It is vital that each of us understands what that destiny is and what it means to us. I have described that destiny, that vision, in the following way - The University of Akron is destined to be the public research university for northern Ohio. By the phrase "research university," I mean - an institution that advances knowledge at the same time that it is committed to student success as its first priority . . . an institution whose students know how knowledge is both created and applied.

    I have stated time and again that I have been astounded by the amount of uncelebrated excellence that pervades our University, so much documented excellence that it surprised even ourselves. We must move beyond semantics to unite in a shared bold vision that truly expresses our combined quality and potential . . . a vision that others can understand and embrace, even during these trying times.

    And these are challenging times for us, because we are working to recapture ground lost to our competitors during the decade of the ‘90s at the same time that we are struggling to obtain sufficient state support for all of higher education, at a time when our country as a whole is struggling with difficult issues, economic and otherwise.

    We have, however, found the resolve to move our institution forward and to address our issues and our challenges.

    Our internal conversations have not always been easy or pleasant . . . but they have opened the door for continued and improved communication and cooperation . . . and they have made clear our realities.

    They also have brought a number of key issues to the surface - not the least of which is the desire and need for opportunities to build relationships in an environment of trust and a culture of good intention.

    As we begin this new academic year, I urge all of us to continue our open and candid dialogue. I will make myself and others available for several structured and unstructured conversations throughout the year. And I hope that you will take advantage of those opportunities for learning about the facts and rationale for the work we are undertaking . . . as well as for voicing your opinions and ideas in a collegial manner.

    Communication on our campus is being enhanced through many committees and task forces that have been working hard to address some of the most critical challenges you have identified.

    In particular, I want to highlight the Academic Salary Task Force, the President's Commission on Equity, the Planning and Budget Task Force, and the Joint Task Force on Governance and Decision-Making Structures. All have provided many helpful insights and sound direction in priority areas of concern.

    In the past year, we made significant improvements, not just in our processes, but also in some of our outcomes.
    I would like to focus on one area in particular - compensation for University faculty, staff and contract professionals - something you asked that I address when I first came as your president in 1999.

    To attain our vision . . . we must improve how we reward all of you for the excellent work you do that is the basis for the excellence that we enjoy and upon which we will build our future success. We also must recruit and hire additional high-caliber faculty and staff who must be properly rewarded for their work.

    Two years ago, we engaged in a process that compared staff and contract professional compensation to market. As a result of that study, approximately $550,000 in continuing dollars was allocated to market-driven salary adjustments for University staff and contract professionals.

    Only recently has a sophisticated analysis of faculty salaries been completed, which delves beyond the generalizations provided by annual salary surveys, which are all too easy to quote and not so easy to rely on.

    The President's Commission on Equity and the Academic Salary Task Force have both helped to identify and address salary compression and equity issues among salaries for professors and associate professors . . . while showing that compensation for assistant professors on average compared more favorably to that of our peer institutions.

    We continue to take decisive action to address these issues.

    As promised, a special allocation of $1.2 million was made in the current budget to raise average faculty salaries at The University of Akron to the middle ranking among Ohio's public universities . . . a long time coming. This is just the first step toward moving the University's average faculty salaries to the 75th percentile among its peers over the next three to four years.

    Now that we have reliable and comprehensive data for both faculty and staff, we will establish a parallel process that enables us to continuously position salaries similarly for staff and contract professionals. We also will conduct annual reviews of market compensation to ensure that we remain competitive at all levels over time.

    Two additional elements in the University's 2002-2003 budget enhance compensation during this tough budget year.

    We allocated $750,000 to cover increased health care costs so there would be no additional contributions required from you this year.

    And . . . $4.7 million was allocated to provide a salary increase pool equivalent to 4 percent of the 2001-2002 salary budget for full-time and part-time employees. Pay ranges for part-time and adjunct faculty also were raised during this past year.

    What makes all of these enhancements possible is quite simply the improved student enrollment that we enjoy.

    Because 93 percent of the University's budget is enrollment driven, we must stay focused on maintaining and growing enrollment if we are to continue to improve compensation, sustain competitive salaries and do all of the so many things that we want to do.

    I am committed to working with you to make certain that we are attuned and appropriately responsive to competitive pressures . . . so that we can continue to improve your compensation and in every program that holds distinction or holds the promise of distinction.

    As I noted when I began my remarks . . . we are clearly on a rising trajectory. The question many of you may have is: Looking forward along this trajectory, what can we expect in the coming year and in the out years?

    As for this immediate year, I must be candid with you. We will be facing some critical budgetary pressures this year.

    The fact is . . . all institutions of higher education in Ohio have reason to be concerned . . . and our University is no exception.

    The Ohio Board of Regents has taken action that effectively nullifies a "hold harmless" agreement that college and university presidents had with Governor Taft.

    To safeguard a formula that has never been fully funded, the result for The University of Akron is that the Regents intended to cut our share of the state budget by an additional 1.2 percent. Fortunately, that cut has been reduced to 0.63 percent through a brokered compromise.

    Nevertheless, it still represents an unexpected loss in excess of one-half million dollars in state appropriations.

    Furthermore, with state revenues continuing to fall short of projections, there is talk in Columbus of additional, significant cuts in the state budget following the November election. We cannot be clear on that at this point, and I wouldn't even hazard a guess.

    Therefore, we must increasingly focus on revenues that the state does not control.

    First, freshman enrollment has increased for the fourth consecutive semester, even exceeding last year's huge increase.

    Second, we can and will continue to grow our grants and contracts, as well as our private fund giving. This past year saw grants and contracts grow by 19 percent, and private fund giving was again in excess of $25 million, for one year.

    That is the good news!

    The not-so-good news is that this semester's projected 1- to 2-percent increase in credit-hour production is just about where we expected it to be in our conservative budget model, but it is likely to be below the 4 percent figure we needed to create a balanced budget. What is more, as you know, we would like to do better in retention, which is another variable that needs our dedicated attention and action.

    Thus, I hope you will advise me of those things we can do to ensure that we do not fall behind in enrollment and credit-hour production and by which we can enhance retention of our ongoing students.

    While these developments pose some very real challenges for us, we have taken steps to minimize their impact on the University community . . . and to ensure the security of our current employees.

    As part of the budgeting process for the current fiscal year, we agreed to hold a certain portion of every unit's - academic and administrative - current budget in escrow as a contingency measure to give us greater flexibility in dealing with a potential shortfall.

    In addition, faculty, staff and administrators are working together to revise our planning and budgeting calendar, so that we have a better informed decision-making process as we respond to shifts in the fiscal and political landscape.

    These actions will help us sustain our capacity for providing the high-quality teaching and diverse student services that are among our strongest tools for attracting and retaining students.

    But these are just the details of our budgeting response to a difficult economic environment.

    The greater challenge is to decide how we will react in spirit to the problems here and in Columbus.

    First, these are not just our problems. All of our fellow public institutions . . . and indeed many private ones . . . all around the country, are experiencing comparable effects from the current economic downturn.

    In university communities across the state, there is much "Woe is me" wailing and pointing of fingers of blame for the current state of affairs.

    This is futile and unproductive in many ways, because our state legislators and the Governor didn't "create" the current situation any more than we did.

    But like the rest of our constituencies, they will be looking hard at how we respond to these difficult times.

    Therefore, we must focus on those things that we can control. And so I ask that we all work together to help ourselves . . . and I ask that by our response to the current challenge . . . we show that we have a transcendent vision for this great institution.

    By our response, let us show that while we may be affected, we will not be deterred or denied.

    How can we do this?

    As we already have discussed, the sine qua non of the future benefits we all seek is improved student enrollment and retention. It is the prime driver of our ability to move forward.

    And we are making a comeback at a faster rate than any of our competitors, but they started recovering long before we did. Therefore, we must redouble our efforts to close the gap.

    Accordingly, I cannot emphasize enough how important it is for each of us to remain squarely focused on the daily contributions we can make to improving the student experience and further ensuring student success at The University of Akron.

    This is a matter of both short-term survival and long-term security and prosperity.

    Each of us might begin with an act as simple as thanking each incoming freshman we meet for choosing The University of Akron, making it their university of choice.

    We might ask ourselves if the policies we develop, the instructional decisions we make and the relationships we foster are consistent with a singular focus on student success.

    We also might ask ourselves if the resources that we have requested, that we have budgeted for - and have received - are being used in ways that are aligned with this priority of student success.

    Finally, we must remember that we all are full-time ambassadors for the University . . . that the messages we convey in our daily conversations and interactions with our students and the community at large speak volumes about what we value . . . and what we deliver.

    I know that all of us know this intuitively . . . as well as from experience.

    We all recognize a business or institution "on the move" when we hear all of its members speak with conviction and energy about their missions. It's what we must do here at The University of Akron.

    Maintaining quality and staying positive in the face of fiscal pressure is just one challenge we will face in this new academic year.

    We also must continue to address in meaningful and constructive ways issues that surfaced during last year's efforts by outside parties to organize and represent you, The University of Akron faculty. That is not our way, and it is not the answer.

    Still, as you know, your message was heard, and it has resulted in important actions that still are unfolding and continuing to create opportunities for improved communication and collaboration in the governance of our university.

    There is no area where I am more committed to accelerating progress than in the area of communication.

    I ask for your commitment, too, because we all know that the only meaningful communication is two-way communication among all of us.

    Open and honest communication is essential to ensuring the aligned synergies of thought and action that will lead to institutional excellence, internally and externally.

    Toward that end, the Faculty Senate is now working with the University's administration to review existing governance structures . . . and to identify opportunities for improved communication in areas such as planning, budgeting, capital facilities, technology, curriculum and others.

    We are working diligently to develop a campus culture of full and open communication where all members of the university community understand not just what we are doing, but why we are doing it . . . and how they can help shape and benefit from our common efforts.

    For example, this semester we will be activating a new link on the University's web site to solicit input from faculty and staff . . . and to disseminate information, answer questions and address concerns.

    In addition, we are working on plans for a series of informal discussion sessions with faculty, staff and students to ensure that the two-way flow of information is sustained throughout the academic year.

    Today I renew my pledge to keep you informed and involved. And I ask you to make a similar pledge to me - and to your colleagues.

    I am committed that during the coming year, we will have many, many opportunities for candid, constructive sharing and discussion. Whether you see that as good news or bad is open to some speculation, I suppose, but I will take an optimistic view.

    The people who can assure our future are not outside, third-party organizations. Instead, they are we - all of us in this room.We also must continue to address in meaningful and constructive ways issues that surfaced during last year's efforts by outside parties to organize and represent you, The University of Akron faculty. That is not our way, and it is not the answer.

    Still, as you know, your message was heard, and it has resulted in important actions that still are unfolding and continuing to create opportunities for improved communication and collaboration in the governance of our university.

    There is no area where I am more committed to accelerating progress than in the area of communication.

    I ask for your commitment, too, because we all know that the only meaningful communication is two-way communication among all of us.

    Open and honest communication is essential to ensuring the aligned synergies of thought and action that will lead to institutional excellence, internally and externally.

    Toward that end, the Faculty Senate is now working with the University's administration to review existing governance structures . . . and to identify opportunities for improved communication in areas such as planning, budgeting, capital facilities, technology, curriculum and others.

    We are working diligently to develop a campus culture of full and open communication where all members of the university community understand not just what we are doing, but why we are doing it . . . and how they can help shape and benefit from our common efforts.

    For example, this semester we will be activating a new link on the University's web site to solicit input from faculty and staff . . . and to disseminate information, answer questions and address concerns.

    In addition, we are working on plans for a series of informal discussion sessions with faculty, staff and students to ensure that the two-way flow of information is sustained throughout the academic year.

    Today I renew my pledge to keep you informed and involved. And I ask you to make a similar pledge to me - and to your colleagues.

    I am committed that during the coming year, we will have many, many opportunities for candid, constructive sharing and discussion. Whether you see that as good news or bad is open to some speculation, I suppose, but I will take an optimistic view.

    The people who can assure our future are not outside, third-party organizations. Instead, they are we - all of us in this room.

    Our collective will to succeed together will infuse our student body . . . and our community . . . with energy and enthusiasm. A decision to dwell on discord and contention will do the opposite. That is why I am so committed to improved communication.

    Optimism is, in fact, the overriding message of my remarks today.

    At this current place and time in the history of our great university, we are strongly positioned to forge something uniquely powerful and lasting.

    As I said when I began, our rightful destiny is to be recognized as the public research university in northern Ohio - the university that advances knowledge at the same time that it is committed to student success as its first priority . . . the university that produces students who know how knowledge is created and applied, and who have explored the foundations of human knowledge together with you in the classroom.

    We seek to attain a prominence in northern Ohio comparable to that of The Ohio State University in central Ohio and the University of Cincinnati in southern Ohio.

    To be successful in this quest, we must all recognize - and be guided at least in part by - four principal realities:

    First . . . and I want to be absolutely clear about this point . . . realizing the University's vision is not a zero-sum game.

    Pursuing recognition as the public research university for northern Ohio does not mean we will ignore teaching in favor of research . . . nor does it mean that we will ignore other disciplines in favor of science and engineering.

    Excellence and recognition in each of our clusters of excellence will generate resources that create new and exciting opportunities in other areas . . . so all University stakeholders will benefit from increased public recognition of the University's documented excellence and regional preeminence.

    That is not only our goal - it is our firm expectation.

    Students will benefit from broader academic offerings and expanded learning opportunities . . . better support services . . . a more stimulating and challenging environment . . . and enhanced competitiveness when entering the job market.

    Faculty and staff will benefit from increased research dollars . . . well-deserved pay increases. . . new partnership and leadership opportunities within the University and beyond . . . and a vibrant intellectual environment.

    Alumni, friends and supporters will enjoy a heightened sense of pride . . . greater dividends from their investment in the University . . . new opportunities for future investments . . . and new avenues for reconnecting with the University they know and hold dear. There is a powerful message that I have received from many of our alums who have said, "thank you for restoring our pride in the University."

    Our community and the world beyond will benefit from the University's expanded capacity for community service . . . new resources directed at solving real-world problems . . . increased supply of highly skilled graduates ready for the workplace . . . enhanced economic development . . . and broadened cultural enrichment.

    Second . . . We must continue to build on the University's historical strengths and existing excellence.

    We are seizing every opportunity to set ourselves apart and build competitive advantage through our unique strengths.

    We are building technological and programmatic excellences related to our rich legacy of innovation and invention . . . and to our setting at the hub of a thriving, dynamic regional economy that we call Northeast Ohio.

    While we have many reasons to be proud, inspired, even celebrated . . . we cannot rely solely on historical strengths and proven advantages to reach new levels of excellence. The competition is simply too strong.

    The key to garnering widespread public recognition of our regional preeminence . . . and to reaping its attendant benefits . . . is to leverage our core competencies in an aligned and strategic effort to update, redefine, and re-energize our university. That, in fact, describes much of the work in which we currently are engaged.

    Third . . . to accelerate progress toward realizing our vision, we must continue to make significant investments of time, energy and capital in three priority areas: our faculty and staff . . . our campus environment . . . and our technology resources.

    We must continue to enhance our campus and strengthen our community partnerships . . . to help create optimal learning and living environments where our students, faculty, staff and community partners can all dream and dare and do the things it takes to transform and improve the world.

    We must continue focused efforts to increase enrollment and retention, enhance and diversify revenues, and achieve greater efficiencies . . . to generate the revenues needed to fund competitive compensation packages for our faculty and staff.

    At the same time, we also must continue to improve communication and our mechanisms for soliciting and obtaining faculty and staff input.

    And we must continue to accelerate efforts to advance the University's infrastructure, technology, capital facilities and delivery systems . . . to improve our efficiency and to prepare our students to be leaders in a knowledge-based world.

    And fourth . . . to be successful, all members of the University community must enter a new compact of shared responsibility for attaining our vision and securing our future.

    When all is said and done, our success will be determined by the work each of us does, every day, in his or her job.

    What we seek - and what we do - as a university, as administrative units, as colleges, as departments, as programs and labs, and as faculty and staff . . . must be aligned and integrated. It is up to you and me.

    We are currently working on a Balanced Scorecard methodology that will help provide good analytical and planning tools to assist us in this endeavor. Good tools, however will not be enough. True alignment and consensus are only possible in an environment where there is trust, commitment and open communication.

    Each of us must embrace change with an open mind, a collegial spirit and a commitment to collaboration and ongoing constructive dialogue.

    If we do, we will be better able to endure the disruption and inconvenience that are the inevitable byproducts of progress and change.

    Thus, while these are challenging times for The University of Akron, we have begun to forge a new identity . . . a clear destiny . . . through a powerful combination of industry, creativity and zeal.

    The immediate challenge is to not lose our momentum . . . or our resolve.

    Just one week from today, our nation will turn its eyes inward to reflect on its collective response to a challenge inconceivable to most of us prior to September 11, 2001.

    As we prepare for the challenges that confront our University of Akron, let us draw inspiration from the way our fellow citizens, our leaders and our nation have risen quite literally from ashes in the last year . . . and have asserted a resiliency, a pride and a unity of purpose on a scale of historic dimensions.

    And so inspired, let us reaffirm our own independent, democratic, undaunted and entrepreneurial spirit . . . and in doing so, embrace our larger - and rightful - destiny.

    Through our efforts, we will create a new era of excellence for our University of Akron . . . relevance to our community and world . . . and most importantly, advantage to our students.

    And that is the Akron Advantage!

     

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