Campus Reunion speech

President Gary L. Miller

Aug. 20, 2021, at 9 a.m., at Jean Hower Taber Student Union Ballrooms

Remarks as prepared.

Welcome to our Campus Reunion.

It is important we take time after a most unusual year and a half to reunite with one another; to celebrate the way we worked together to overcome the challenges we confronted, and; to take some time to look ahead at the coming year and beyond.

I think it is appropriate, symbolically, that we are all standing here, together, feet planted firmly on the ground.

Because, after a year of instability and insecurity, of shifting and sometimes even scrambling — we are still standing.

The most important thing I want to do this morning is to recognize all of you who did what it took to keep the University operating during a global pandemic.

For the faculty, please reflect, for a moment, on what you accomplished, since the ground began to crumble beneath our feet in March of 2020.

Think of how everything, including our very sense of place, of what it means to be a campus, was shaken and upended.

Yet, in a matter of two weeks, you found your footing.

In a matter of two weeks, you completely transformed your classes, learned new technologies, and adapted instructional methods.

You worked deep into the nights and weekends, building modules, recording lectures, and video conferencing with students.

Many of you tended to family members, took care of children — and, importantly, took care of one another. And over the next year and a half, you continued your work as scholars.

During the COVID period, the faculty here at UA increased scholarly productivity:

  • Publishing papers and books;
  • Speaking at virtual conferences;
  • Earning prestigious grants and awards; and
  • Advancing knowledge in your fields.

While everything around you seemed to totter and fall, your commitment to your profession, to our students, to this University, and to our community, never wavered.

I know that, for many of you, what enabled you to stand firm was your love for our students, and the joy of working with them.

That’s why it gives me great satisfaction to share a brief video that captures the heart of teaching, the joy that motivates our fabulous educators.

We saw Toni Bisconti in that video — I think she’s here with us today — and I want to congratulate Toni on being elected president of Akron AAUP this past spring.

I want to thank the AAUP for their deep commitment to this University and its future.

Our new bargaining agreement is proof of that commitment, and of our shared resolve to make this University even better.

To all our faculty, let me say that the only way we can make this University better is if we continue to work together, as we have done over the past year and a half.

I also want to thank Linda Saliga, who chaired the Faculty Senate through this difficult time.

Like so many other members of this great faculty, Linda worked tirelessly to find solutions to some of the most unique challenges higher education has ever faced.

I would also like to say that nothing happens at this university without the dedicated work, creativity and commitment of our staff and contract professionals.

Like our faculty, you have worked tirelessly to support our campus community.

There is simply no way we could have survived the past eighteen months without:

  • Our IT and web teams, who worked behind the scenes to move our operations online.
  • The commitment of our Res life and Housing staff, who answered interminable phone calls and emails about housing and quarantines.
  • Our Admissions team, who offered virtual campus tours and information sessions.
  • Our advisors and counselors, who provided academic and emotional support to our students when they needed it most.
  • The amazing folks in Communications and Marketing, who continued, in the darkest times, to tell our brightest stories — stories about the heroism of our students, who:
    • Manufactured and distributed face shields and PPE;
    • Offered online tutoring to K-12 students;
    • Delivered groceries and medication to housebound and vulnerable community members; and so much more …
  • I want to thank the Department of Athletics for doing everything they could to ensure the safety of our student-athletes under the most challenging circumstances.
  • And, of course, we cannot forget our colleagues in Physical Facilities and Operations and UAPD, who physically transformed our entire campus, and kept our spaces clean and our campus safe.
  • And I must commend our grounds crew. Have you noticed the flowers outside, and how beautiful they have made this campus?

It is because of you, our faculty, staff and contract professionals, that we’re standing here today. Give yourselves a round of applause.

Let me now turn to some thoughts about the future.

I do not believe it is an exaggeration to say we are in the most pivotal moment of this University’s history.

Having found our footing, we can rest for a moment — but we cannot rest for long.

To quote our provost, “We are solidly planted on our feet, but we need to move forward. If we stand still, we’re going to fall back down again.”

What does it mean for us to move forward in this time of great challenge?

I believe we must double down on our vision as an Opportunity University. We must continue to be a research university

Our partnership with the city of Akron must continue to grow. There is no doubt our success is bound to the success of the city.

It is essential we work to find ways for all learners in our urban region to have a chance for a higher education. This will be one of the most important conversations we have with one another in the coming months.

The economic prosperity of this region depends on this University, and we have to be prepared to be a value-adding partner at all levels of commerce. This is a time to not only be innovative. We must also be creative. To overcome our challenges, we may have to do things in a completely new way. This will take courage and imagination.

The strength of this community is our diversity. Our programs and campus community must reflect and leverage that diversity.

The University of Akron offers some of the most relevant academic programs for the future. We must continue to support that future in our academic programming.

People in the region depend on us. They trust us to continue to keep our promises.

Here are some things we are doing at the administrative level:

  • We are working to restructure our debt to relieve some of the annual debt service burden.
  • With the support of the Knight Foundation, we have retained a consultant to help us resolve our real estate portfolio.
  • We are working with a new athletic director to position the University to be one of the most efficient and student-focused athletic departments in NCAA Division I.
  • We have begun — although we’ve had to temporarily suspend — a vigorous outreach to our alumni and friends around the world in support of faculty and academic programs at the University. We are back on track to meet our $150 million fundraising goal in the next five years.
  • We are also resuming our regular calls and conversations with community leaders, to keep them informed and engaged with the University.
  • We have embarked on an update of our ERP system, which is set to expire in a matter of years. This will give us the analytical and predictive power we have needed for decades.
  • We are moving forward with a strategic plan outlining a set of key actions for the coming year.
  • We have initiated the AkronArts program and a reimagination of the Polsky Building as a way to connect the University to downtown Akron.
  • We are reimagining enrollment, challenging everyone, and not just the Office of Admissions, to get actively involved in recruitment and retention.
  • We are continuing to expand opportunities for students to access higher education, through our Zips Affordability Scholarship and new Presidential Scholarship.
  • With our faculty and staff colleagues, we are following an enhanced shared governance model that will ensure we all play an appropriate role in the important decision making at the University.
  • With faculty collaboration, we are very actively recruiting leaders at the dean and director levels.

Importantly, in the coming months, under the direction of our colleague Rebecca Erickson, we are going to provide the University community an opportunity to reflect on our relationships and our future as a way to turn our attention to the years ahead.

Here are some things I ask of you:

  • In the coming weeks, the provost, chief financial officer and I will be organizing meetings with the colleges and other large units to begin a campus discussion about the coming year.
  • We want to hear your ideas about how we move forward.
  • I would like to ask you to consider this reunion as the beginning of a semester of listening, of reconnecting with one another.
  • I would like to ask you to understand that our immediate challenge is to provide more opportunities for students to come to UA for their college degrees and to give all of your creativity in making that happen.
  • In particular, we need to hear your ideas about how we can increase enrollment at the University. This is something the Provost, CFO a and I will want to talk about during our coming visits.
  • Finally, I would ask that we commit ourselves above all to understanding one another and to supporting one another.

I want us all to get back to the food and fellowship; but, before that, I want to make two announcements:

Many of you are aware that the University Council routinely fields ideas from faculty and staff and makes recommendations to us about those ideas.

For example, it was UC’s idea to create a bank for annual leave hours left unused during the pandemic. Another example was our recent food truck, celebrating our return to campus.

We want to hear your ideas. UC has agreed to serve as the campus-wide innovation hub for non-academic innovations and solutions, whether connected to strategic planning or otherwise. You can submit those ideas on UC’s webpage, under the heading, “Submit a Topic to University Council.”

I want to thank our University Council members — and especially the UC chair, Tonia Ferrell — for their willingness to serve this important function. You will hear more about this in the coming days.

I am also pleased to announce that, with the approval of University Council, we’re reviving Blue and Gold Fridays. So wear your Zips gear each Friday, as a badge of our unity and pride.

I stand in deep admiration of each and every one of you. I have never worked with a more committed, resilient and collegial group of faculty and staff.

I have never seen a university take on such unprecedented challenges with such courage and commitment to its students.

I am humbled and grateful to be here at this time with you. I pledge to you I will do everything I can, working with you, to ensure that this University’s future is bright, and that each of you have a chance to fulfil your professional goals.

In this time, more than ever in our history, we must and we can rise together.

Thank you.