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Fall 2004 Convocation Address

  • Date: 10/04/2004
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: Student Union Theater
  • Welcome, colleagues, to this our 2004 Convocation.

    We come together this afternoon, as is our custom, to celebrate the success of our University, to welcome new colleagues and to shape our future.

    And we come together at a special time in our history, a time when our campus is experiencing its third cycle of expansion, a time when we have great successes to celebrate and a time when "coming together" itself serves as a metaphor for so much more, because coming together means that we create our future as a collaborative enterprise based upon a common framework of understanding and direction, respectful of our history, grateful to our founders and excited about our future.

    So, let us examine where we have been, where we are, and where we have yet to go.

    When I arrived here six years ago, our Board of Trustees had outlined three fundamental goals to be accomplished by 2006: first, to complete a master plan for the University, and to begin the physical transformation of our campus into "A New Landscape for Learning;" second, to gain recognition for our teaching excellence by achieving the designation of a Carnegie Teaching Academy; and third, to gain national recognition for our research programs by achieving classification as a "Research II" university.

    Well, it is now 2004, two years ahead of schedule, and we have accomplished all of these goals through the hard work, diligence and perseverance of our faculty, staff and contract professionals - all of you and many who could not be with us this afternoon.

    In point of fact, we achieved the Carnegie designation for excellence in teaching in 2003, three years ahead of schedule, and this year we went above the $15-million threshold in federal support of research, $30 million in sponsored research and nearly $50 million in total research expenditures.

    And this week, we celebrate the completion of the first phase of our New Landscape for Learning, which grew to comprise a $300-million investment in 9 new buildings, major expansions or renovations to 14 other structures and the creation of 30 acres of green space, walkways and plazas.

    And all of you are invited to join in this celebration this Thursday and Friday as we dedicate our new Honors Complex; the second phase of the Student Union; Simmons Hall, which is our new student services building; and our new Student Recreation and Wellness Center and Field House.

    But we have done so much more than simply achieve the expectations of our trustees two or three years ahead of schedule!

    Starting with the framework we created in Charting the Course, and through the metaphor of "New Mindscapes for Learning," we have made an ongoing commitment to achieve even greater student success by enhancing what goes on inside our buildings and indeed elsewhere and everywhere around the campus.

    Thus, for example, I am pleased to report that The University of Akron will retain its Carnegie Cluster Leader designation for the upcoming academic year, which means that we continue to be recognized nationally for our leadership in teaching excellence.

    We have laid the foundation for a cutting-edge information technology infrastructure that has made The University of Akron the most "wired for wireless" public university in Ohio, and the seventh nationally - a campus where our students and faculty do not have to be plugged in to be wired in to the worldwide Web.

    Our Honors Program has grown by record numbers and is moving into its new facilities just as it also celebrates a quarter-century of excellence.

    Our Institute for Teaching and Learning is enjoying its renovated and expanded facilities in Leigh Hall, just as it also continues to advance our core competency of advancing student success.

    Our Office of Multicultural Development, under the able leadership of Dr. Janice Taylor, continues to foster student success and inclusiveness through several programs, such as PASSAGE (Preparing Akron Students for Success and Great Expectations) and the Advanced College Enrollment Program.

    Recently, the efforts of this office were recognized at the national level. In August, the Association of American Colleges and Universities selected The University of Akron, Stanford University and seven other institutions to assist in the development of a diversity framework and participate in a yearlong initiative supported by the Ford Foundation entitled "Inclusive Excellence: Diversity Inclusion and Institutional Renewal."

    Other milestones in our relentless focus on student success include our development of Summit College, which we will launch in the Fall of 2005, our continued enhancements at Wayne College and our planned Medina County University Center.

    Overall, The University of Akron is involved in 47 separate collaborations and 92 articulation agreements with other institutions to provide seamless educational pathways to degree completion. And across the breadth of our campus, well over 600 other collaborative programs emanate from schools, colleges, departments, laboratories and the efforts of interdisciplinary centers and institutes.

    This past year, we attained the full 10-year North Central Association continuing accreditation, which serves as the strongest external validation of the significant progress that we have made.

    And thanks to the support of the Knight Foundation, we are leading a University Park Alliance, whereby we are revitalizing the 40-block area that surrounds our University campus into a New Landscape for Living - transforming the University Park area into a great place to live, study, work, shop and play.

    This is, indeed, an exciting and proud time to be a part of The University of Akron.

    Still, we have faced many challenges. Whether from successive budget cuts from the State, or in our individual and collective failures, we have been pressed and felt pressured.

    Over the last three years, six successive funding cuts have drawn $15 million of state support out of our budgets, and the prospects for the next biennium are no better and maybe worse.

    And although we have done much to advance a higher education agenda for Ohio, we still face the challenge of raising public awareness about the importance, indeed the necessity, of access to higher education for all Ohioans and then the still greater challenge of converting increased awareness into increased and sustained investment in higher education by the General Assembly.

    On our campus, like so many others across the country, we have learned that we must communicate better; we have learned that it is we who must identify and resolve our institutional challenges in a timely manner and use the enormous resources inherent to our campus community to implement solutions.

    Put plainly, colleagues, we can choose to work passionately and collectively for the good of our University of Akron, or we can discover too late the impact of the words attributed to Pogo: "We have met the enemy... and he is us."

    And, as has been the increasingly focused topic of many recent senior administrative meetings on both the academic and operational sides of the University, we have learned that many of our business processes must be improved and modernized if we are remain competitive and meet our goals.

    And so, in this context of accomplishments and challenges, we must now prepare to take the next steps as we continue the quest to capture our rightful destiny - that of being recognized as the public research university for northern Ohio, a place of access and excellence, and a place of discovery and innovation for the betterment of students and our community.

    Therefore, in the year that our physical transformation has literally come together and under the metaphor of coming together, this afternoon, we will discuss two themes: "academic primacy" and "operational excellence" - themes that build on our work and our successes while being cognizant of the challenges that lie ahead.

    I will discuss each one briefly and then call upon our Provost, Dr. Elizabeth Stroble, to share some exciting details of what we look for in the future.

    The first theme is that of academic primacy, and it is a simple and bold assertion, backed up by a five-year, $10-million investment plan - an assertion that the success of the University derives first and foremost as the result of the work of our exceptional faculty in service to our students and to our community, work that is supported by a talented cast of staff and contract professionals.

    The theme of academic primacy will serve to implement our New Mindscapes for Learning metaphor, and it will do so by first laying out an academic plan, which the Provost will discuss in a few minutes. This plan will define where we want to be academically three to five years from now, while being cognizant of the realities of state funding today as well as of other national trends important to higher education.

    Of course, the academic plan will touch on many areas such as inclusive excellence, entrepreneurial activity and information technology.

    But today, the important message is that the completed academic plan will be used to guide our investments during the budget process and to set priorities for long-range planning. In other words, the academic plan will have budgetary primacy, period!

    The second theme is one of operational excellence. Quite simply, we must institutionalize the concepts of total quality management and of continuous quality improvement, along with a commitment to transparency of process and effectiveness and efficiency in all that we do.

    Continuous quality improvement, as most of you know, requires that we continuously ask what it is that we do, who we do it for and how we can do it better.

    And one of the fundamental elements of operational excellence must, indeed, lead us to a culture of service, not only service to our students but service to one another. Because we should remember that quality of service is gauged by the person receiving the service, not by the individual delivering it.

    Peter Leahy, one of our own colleagues, recently had this to say: "If we (do not) focus on the fundamentals, especially prompt and courteous (service), all of the physical enhancements in the world will likely leave us swimming upstream."

    And quality of service must increasingly differentiate us from the competition.

    Of course, operational excellence is also about improving communications as well as our systems for collegial shared governance, or shared leadership as I have called it. We all are part of this collective enterprise we call The University of Akron, and our decision-making processes must include appropriate consultation and effective communication in finding all of the vehicles that would help ensure our success.

    That is it. It is as simple and has hard as that: academic primacy and operational excellence. That is all, and it is all important.

    And so, in closing, let us be relentless in our pursuit of excellence and inclusiveness in student success, knowing that we must build our future together, as a university community and knowing that education is itself about transformation.

    Together, let us capture the rightful destiny of this, our University of Akron!

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