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2009 State of the University Address

  • Date: 10/27/2009
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: E J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall, Stage Door Venue
  • (Following opening video)

    Good afternoon! And thank you for joining us this afternoon for the 2009 State of the University Address.

    We are honored to have with us today a large number of local, state and federal officials and their representatives, as well as Board of Education members, members of law enforcement agencies, and members of the judiciary.  Will you all please stand and be recognized? 

    I am particularly pleased the representatives of our great partners in our City of Akron and Summit County governments are here, including Summit County Executive Russ Pry.  Thank you so much for being here.  Will you all please stand?

    We also are fortunate to have so many donors in attendance, and I especially want to recognize Mrs. Kirstin Toth of The GAR Foundation and Mrs. Vivian Neal of The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.  Will you please stand? 

    Joining us today also is Dr. Frank Douglas, president of the Austen Bioinnovation Institute in Akron.  Frank, would you please stand and let us recognize and welcome you?

    I also ask that we remember Gary and Karen Taylor; as you know, Gary is recovering at Edwin Shaw and we wish him the best.

    Finally, it always is my pleasure to introduce the past and current members of our Board of Trustees, who do so much to make this institution a successful and valuable asset to our region.  Please allow me to introduce them as a group before applauding.  Joining us today are former Trustee Mr. Howard Calhoun; Board Chairman Mr. Philip Kaufman; Co-chair Mrs. Ann Amer-Brennan; Trustees Mr. Edward Bittle, the Honorable Jane Bond, Mr. Kevin Thompson and Mr. Warren Woolford; and Student Trustee Mr. Joseph Rich.  Will you please join me in greeting our Trustees?

    As the video showed, our recent accomplishments build on a long legacy of transformative change, and today we gather to celebrate our progress and consider how we can pave the way to an even brighter future.

    Of course, the individual transformation that enables student success is our foremost priority.  So, let me introduce you to several faculty members and students who exemplify what we mean by student success.

    Already, you have met music students Theron Brown on piano,  Mike Forfia on bass, and Holbrook Riles the Third on drums. Thank you, gentlemen, for the beautiful jazz.

    (Dr. Proenza conducted five four-minute interviews/demonstrations with faculty/students regarding their projects and successes:

    • Engineering professor Tom Hartley with students Nick Sanelli, Brian Haynes, Kyle Hamblin, Michael Beavers and Tom Vo: RoboGames success 
    • Archeology professor Tim Matney and graduate Chelsea Jalbrzikowski: historic tablet find and student involvement in digs
    • Students Julie Repko, Jamie Montgomery, Alexandra Frost, Annazette Hudson and Zachariah Szabo: Silent Signal entrepreneurship award
    • Polymer Science professor Ali Dhinojwala with students Alyssa Stark, Liehui Ge, Sunny Sethi and Jacqueline Vanni: gecko research)

    Finally, I would like you to meet the students who are here producing our Webcast.

    (Introduction of ZTV students Amy West and Karen Sponseller with Dr. Phil Hoffman from the School of Communication by graduate student and event co-producer/floor director William Kollman

    These students and faculty members demonstrate exemplary achievement, and yet represent just a fraction of the important learning, discovery and transformation taking place every day throughout the University, all creating significant momentum in our University's path to greatness.  Consider a few highlights of what we accomplished in the last academic year:

    • The Carnegie Foundation recognized the University with a Community Engagement Classification in two categories-Curricular Engagement, and Outreach and Partnerships-something that only one other public university in Ohio (Ohio State University) can claim.
    • We extended our international engagement by expanding our partnership with China's Henan University to become one of only 42 Confucius Institute sites in the United States.
    • Our faculty were again recognized nationally for research productivity in the latest Association of University Technology Managers' report, which ranked us 1st among public universities in Ohio in technology licensing, 7th among all U.S. universities without a medical school and 1st nationally when normalized with respect to research expenditures. We also ranked 1st in Ohio for patents produced per research dollar and 3rd in Ohio for number of patents held-and, during 2008-2009, we reported $48.3 million in grants and contracts awarded, up 40.9% from $34.3 million in 2008.
    • We also set a new fund-raising record in 2008-2009 and announced that we had exceeded our $500-million comprehensive campaign goal, reaching $606 million.
    • Our fall student headcount showed a 7.6% increase, reaching almost 28,000. Student credit-hour production increased by 8.4 percent to make our full-time-equivalent enrollment the highest ever.
    • Our New Landscape for Learning, which first was conceived as a $200-million investment for 6 new buildings and 8 additions or renovations, has expanded to 16 new buildings, 17 major additions and renovations, 34 acres of new green space, and still several more facilities underway for a total investment of $500 million. In September, we opened InfoCision Stadium-Summa Field to a capacity crowd; dedicated the Wayne Student Life Building; and broke ground for the National Polymer Innovation Center. It will open in 2010 along with the Phase One Multiplex Residence Hall and the new South Campus Parking Deck.
    • Just a few weeks ago, our Inclusive Excellence efforts earned a national award from the non-profit Minority Access Inc., which named UA among an elite group of only 43 colleges and universities as a role model institution for promoting diverse academic environments.
    • The University earned its second NorthCoast 99 award, which honors the very best places to work in Northeast Ohio.
    • And lastly, the International Economic Development Council at its 2009 annual conference honored the University Park Alliance, our collaborative effort to transform the 50-block area around our Akron campus. This is a prestigious international award that I am proud to share with the many UPA partners.

    WOW!

    WOW, indeed!

    So let us remember that these accomplishments are possible only because of everything that each and every one of you do to contribute to this success and which collaboratively weaves the unique tapestry that is The University of Akron. 

    For that, a grateful university salutes you.

    For the balance of our time, I first want to share some progress in planning for the future, then to begin a discussion on how we might further build on our momentum, and conclude by giving you a glimpse of things to come. At the heart of my message today is the conviction that we can succeed only by what we do to earn and secure our own economic future - no one else can or will do it for us.  We do this by supporting student success-which means constructing relevant learning environments that support faculty and student efforts to more productively connect scholarly inquiry with real-world problem solving.

    Last year, I announced that we would "begin a broadly collaborative and very essential conversation to create a formal 10-year strategic plan that (would) 'chart the course' to our new destination," and I promised to bring you a status report of that plan as part of this address today.

    During the past 10 months, hundreds of you throughout the University and community have engaged in our strategic planning process looking toward 2020.  It has included an array of activities, including forums, focus groups, guest speakers, online discussions and a workshop.  Earlier this month, the first draft of the strategic plan was released for wider review, discussion and revision.

    The goal of this process is for us to craft a plan that reflects our collective vision and wisdom, sets aspirational, yet attainable, goals and positions us as a driver of economic development and educational attainment, so that we earn and create our own success.

    Importantly, one highlight of this process is a reminder to reflect on the origin of our name. "Akron"  is derived from the Greek "akros", meaning "highest".  This meaning is further emphasized by our location in Summit County, and both reinforce the respect we have gained as well as our aspirations to excel.

    Indeed, while we are finalizing the draft, this reminder about the origin of our name should strengthen our resolve to distill our plans into brief and powerful language.

    Our process began with the formation of a steering committee and several facilitated discussions beginning with the Disney Institute, which reminded us that we must increasingly be "telling the story". We then invited several notable leaders in higher education to come to campus and share their perspectives on the future.

    • Chancellor Eric Fingerhut shared his vision of building on historical strengths at each of Ohio's public universities to create global Centers of Excellence that would attract talented students, teachers and researchers to Ohio and stimulate business and job creation to fuel the state's economy.
    • Nancy Zimpher, chancellor of the State University of New York, discussed community engagement and the unique role of urban-sited universities today.
    • Ron Ehrenberg, author of "Tuition Rising," discussed economic realities, suggesting that universities need to focus on mission differentiation and plan for a future of limited resources;
    • University of Phoenix president Bill Pepicello helped us to think about developmental courses in new ways, such as by employing a just-in-time method; and
    • Arizona State University President Michael Crow presented a rationale that may typify our external constituents' view of higher education in America. He noted that:

    "Over the past 2,000 years, organized learning has evolved dramatically."

    "There is a tradition of change in higher education. We trace it back to the Greek academies, which set the precedent for European medieval universities and led to the German research university model. The United States imported that model, but the American research university is a significant departure from training centers for the religious and civil elite. American land grant colleges have provided a practical education and American research universities have played a crucial role in economic and social security."

    "Today, however, the very identity of the university is at stake . . . American society has undergone massive shifts over the past 50 years, but our universities have hardly changed at all. (Thus) there are economic, societal and cultural needs not being met" . . . and so, we must reinvent higher education.

    From the process that those speakers helped to inform, a new version of "Charting the Course" is emerging. 

    At this point in the process, there is broad agreement on the components of the plan, which now are embodied within five goals:

    1.       Strengthen Akron's historical commitment to inclusive excellence to enhance student access, transformation and success.

    2.       Create vibrant, healthy, and diverse campuses that are deeply engaged with their surrounding communities.

    3.       Establish selected cross-disciplinary clusters of academic distinction that are recognized nationally and internationally.

    4.       Achieve national recognition for a curriculum in which entrepreneurship and 21st-Century global competitiveness skills are comprehensively embedded.

    5.       Be a primary driver of economic competitiveness in northern Ohio and a leading contributor in the state.

    The draft plan is growing more robust with each discussion and contains background information, detailed mission and vision statements, and suggested initiatives to implement each goal.  

    Charting the Course taught us that this process is really about strategic thinking and that our plan remains a dynamic document, subject to improvement. Thus, at every stage, I ask that you offer suggestions to ensure that it reflects a shared understanding of our core values, and that we all have contributed to the ongoing process of crafting succinct and powerful language that tells our story.  After all, this plan must build upon our momentum and extend our legacy; and it is a plan that must bring together our collective wisdom and resolve, together with the realization that it is for us to accomplish - no one else can or will do it for us.  It needs to express both our aspirations for a better future and the agreements upon which we will take our most immediate and concrete steps in that direction.  It is part celebration, part imagination.

    Regardless of how the draft document continues to evolve, we know that we have established great momentum through our New Landscape for Learning, New Landscape for Living and New Mindscapes for Learning initiatives.  We know that we have worked assiduously to align our efforts with those of the University System of Ohio.  We know that we have become a recognized leader in many ways --through our initiatives, alliances and execution of our earlier strategic plan, Charting the Course. And we know from impressions strongly echoed by our visitors that we are ahead of many in addressing significant challenges.

    However, we know also that standing in stark contrast to our successes are the challenges of an economic recession and the demands of an increasingly competitive environment for higher education.  Let me address both of those factors briefly.

    Across the country, serious state revenue deficiencies are likely to extend through the next year of this biennium and into the next.  Ohio's current budget includes a short-term, one-time fix from federal stimulus monies as the source for 20 percent of the state's investment in higher education.  Even with the budget adjustments we already have made and the enrollment growth we continue to enjoy, the University's recently adopted budget had to accommodate an initial projected deficit that approached $18 million.  The current situation is not something that simply can be waited out; the worst effects of the major recession are yet to come for Ohio, and all public agencies and institutions are facing significant cuts into the foreseeable future. 

    We have been fortunate in that we have done better than others.  In fact, we are among just a few institutions not resorting to layoffs or furloughs.  I appreciate your enduring the lack of compensation increases, reduced operating budgets, and all of the many short-term sacrifices you have made, to enable us to put our people first in providing a certain degree of job security.  
     
    Our students, their families, our faculty and staff - all have made significant sacrifices to help us weather this economic storm without abandoning our bold plans to advance our University and better serve our students and society.  
     
    If we are to have more tangible ways by which to put our people first, or to provide our students with a high-quality educational experience, we must craft our economic future even more aggressively. Indeed, we must do better at rewarding, incentivizing and compensating those activities that will further our success because that is the only way in which we can transform ourselves and shape our own future, lest we become regulated into oblivion or suffer decline by stagnation.

    In addition to budget challenges, an increasingly competitive environment for higher education also confronts us and some would assert that universities cannot continue to operate with an educational model that is 200 years out of sync. 

    I, too, am convinced that  "seismic rumbles of change" are transforming traditional paradigms for research and higher education. Like many other industries, higher education is on the threshold of major, complex changes that must yet be directed to favorable outcomes. Indeed, representatives from around the world will be converging in China next week to address these questions at the 2009 Beijing Forum, where I have been invited to present a paper based on our success here in Akron.

    How can we direct The University of Akron to favorable outcomes? I believe we can do so by continually enhancing the University's relevance, connectivity and productivity. And to do that, I think we must first assemble our resources optimally, so that they better serve our mission, vision and goals. We must first engage in what our chemistry colleagues refer to as "combinatorial optimization".

    Although we previously tried to bring down our academic silo walls and build connections through the four clusters of excellence idea, our success has been modest at best.  So, I believe we must try to do so again and this time we must succeed-together.  We need to shape an organizational structure framed around our mission, vision and goals.  We need to remove bureaucratic obstacles and provide streamlined, effective support that is directly linked to the academic enterprise and which actively facilitates work on core priorities such as academic programming, interaction with students and community engagement.  Yes, this is about relevance, connectivity and productivity.

    Therefore, tomorrow I will send a letter to the University community that expands on these ideas and asks that we engage in the timely and necessary conversations to bring this about. I am sure many lively and constructive ideas will be brought forward, but we must approach this with a sense of urgency because, as I have said before, doing business as usual is not an option. 

    Having now noted many of our recent achievements, described our strategic planning progress and outlined some of the challenges we face-let me provide a brief glimpse of things to come.

    First, with the notable success of our New Landscape for Learning initiative, we are actively exploring ways in which we can attract private investment for the continued physical transformation of our campus, as well as of our surrounding neighborhoods in University Park. We are looking to use private dollars to build at least 3 new academic/research buildings, 3 or more additional residence halls, and 2 to 3 more parking decks, and I am pleased to tell you that well over a dozen potential private partners are eager to work with us.

    And just as we have done in partnering for the Austen BioInnovation Institute, we must find additional opportunities that will enable us to attract more faculty to the University and to our community.  Dr. Frank Douglas, the newly hired president of the Institute, is leading the formation of a critical mass of new talent in biomaterials and medical applications, coordinated across the five partners. In similarly innovative arrangements, we must find a way to attract no less than 100 to 200 new faculty over the next ten years to bring our centers of excellence to scale and thereby enhance our recognition and economic success.

    We also will seek other innovations that position The University of Akron among a new set of institutional peers, but which are globally competitive peers. Thus, we have begun to identify a set of comparably situated and differentiated universities worldwide. And rather than concerning ourselves with comparisons among the full set of other Ohio or American universities or aspiring to best the local competition (except in sports), we will strive to be among the best comparably differentiated universities on a global scale.

    Finally, we will continue to measure ourselves against our New Gold Standard of university performance, which says:

    "Unlike others, we shall be measured by how much value we add in enabling the success of our students, not by how many students we exclude. We shall be measured by the collaborative impact that we create for each other and for our common future, not by the barriers we erect between our communities and ourselves. And we shall be measured by the integration of our disciplines as applied in solving the problems of today, not by their isolation."

    We must be mission, vision and goals driven. We must be the instruments of our own success - no one else can or will do it for us.

    I have every confidence that, together, we will triumph-because we all have heard and answered this call before.  Allow me to conclude my remarks by quoting from my investiture address of a decade ago:

    ". . . in realizing our destiny, we recognize that we build upon the shoulders of those who have come before us . . .

    We recognize that we build our future together . . .

    as a community that is the University itself,

    and as a community in which the University joins with its sponsoring society and transforms that larger community, and is itself transformed.

    We create this new landscape for learning with the knowledge that education is itself all about transformation. . . . . that education is the infrastructure of the new millennium.

    Before us lies the exciting opportunity of fulfilling this university's destiny.

    To this end, our responsibility is to create the context and direction wherein the University can productively focus its energies.

    Let us become engaged intellectually and emotionally in the quest for building one of the best universities in the nation.

    Let us generate ideas so bold and so powerful so as to generate passionate commitment to a common vision.

    Let us be driven and disciplined by ambitious goals.

    And-to paraphrase Goethe-whatever we do, or dream we can, let us begin it!

    'Boldness has genius, power, and magic to it.'

    Let us join together, and shape the future.

    THANK YOU!"

     

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