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Fall 2006 Convocation Address

  • Date: 10/09/2006
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: Student Union Ballroom
  • The work of our distinguished professors represents the highest levels of performance of our core mission and the essence of what we must celebrate.

    This afternoon, I want to focus on some of the principal opportunities and challenges that we face. Before I do so, however, I want to touch on some highlights of our recent accomplishments.

    While there is no single ranking that accurately measures the true value of higher education, it remains somewhat gratifying that we fare well in the big picture of rankings.

    Two of our graduate programs are ranked in the top 6 by U.S. News and World Report, and Princeton Review rates Akron as a Best Midwestern College and one of America's Best Business Schools.

    According to the 2006 Academic Ranking of World Universities by the Institute of Higher Education at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, Akron continues to be one of only four Ohio universities ranked among the top 500 universities in the world and among the top 200 in the Americas. Joining us on the list are Ohio State, Case and Cincinnati.

    Worldwide, our university figures prominently in all categories of a new Milken Institute report titled, "Mind to Market: A Global Analysis of University Biotechnology Transfer and Commercialization." In the report's four Innovation Pipeline Rankings, we were ranked-first in Patents issued Per Million of Research Expenditures, second in Invention Disclosures, sixth in Patents Filed, and eighth in Startups.

    Two weeks ago, we hosted a team from the National Science Foundation that is doing a report in which we will be featured as a "best practice" case study in technology transfer and economic development, just as we were in a December 2005 M.I.T. report on "Universities, Innovation, and the Competitiveness of Local Economies."

    Indeed, the creation, application and dissemination of new knowledge from our university all have a direct impact on the asset ledgers of existing companies and in the formation of new enterprises.

    Our impact is every bit as significant but even more pervasive when we consider the effects of our service activities on the surrounding community.

    As I often have said, economies transcend artificial political boundaries. The same can be said of our community. While we have clearly defined portals that provide our campus with a renewed sense of identity, we also are working to create a sense of belonging, a sense of engagement, of integrating our campus into the neighborhoods, at the same time that we invite others to join with us as we advance our common future.

    It is hard to believe that it has been only five years since we began our work with the University Park Alliance. The University and our UPA partners continue to invest not just in buildings and parks, but in the people who live, study, work, play, learn, shop and do business in this area that is becoming a hotbed of talent and innovation for our region.

    When we started the project, we assumed it would generate, at best, about $50 million in investments by this time. Well, already those investments have exceeded $150 million, and we now expect UPA to catalyze additional investments of between $500 million and $1 billion. Much of that funding will be earmarked for housing, with incentives built in to encourage faculty, staff and contract professionals to make University Park their home.

    The Knight Foundation has declared this the most transformational project that it is supporting in Akron and, indeed, throughout the country. And we have asked that the foundation consider renewing its support at an even greater level, about which we should be hearing in the next few weeks. Should that grant be successful - we will increasingly blur the boundaries between the university and its surrounding community by creating an energetic, high-density, mixed-use environment in which everything that happens is about learning, health and wellness, and an increased quality of life and sense of vibrancy.

    The University as a whole has benefited from a tremendous outpouring of support from foundations and organizations, business and industry, governmental agencies, alumni and friends.

    Last year was our second-best ever in fund raising, exceeding $25.2 million in donations. And, within the next few months, we will be announcing the largest campaign in the University's history.

    We also set a record in 2005-2006 of $30.7 million in awards for all externally funded research and other sponsored programs, and licensing revenue reached an all-time high of $1.87 million. Already, we have surpassed that record in 2006-2007, with our largest technology licensing agreement ever . . . a multi-million-dollar agreement with Boston Scientific to expand its rights to a family of novel polymers developed by our researchers. Through our University research, copyright and patent policy, one faculty member earned $1 million as his share of the licensing fees.

    Most important to our ongoing success, we have posted three consecutive years of record-setting numbers of applications, and this fall we welcomed nearly
    3,800 new students, our largest freshman class in 15 years. As a result, our preliminary 14-day enrollment headcount is up 4 percent University-wide, and student credit hour production is up 5.3 percent. At the same time, and despite the large number of new students, we also posted gains in the quality of our student body as judged by an increase in the composite ACT scores.

    To put it simply, we have become the place to be, the place that everyone is talking about. And our success has gotten a lot of people watching - especially our competition. Thus, our new challenge is to demonstrate the capacity to sustain and enhance the momentum and success that we have gained.

    In my view, the biggest challenge we face is continuing to progress as an institution during a time of extensive political transition and greatly increased public scrutiny.

    This transition is comprised of two parts - a new governor and legislators in Ohio, and an historic national focus on higher education as reflected in the report of Secretary Spellings' Commission on the Future of Higher Education. To me, this scrutiny will be for higher education of a similar magnitude of that generated for K-12 education in 1983 by the publication of A Nation at Risk. We can expect the critical attention by the public and its representatives to continue and intensify, as signaled by the Secretary of Education's own words.

    In a September 27th guest editorial in the Houston Chronicle, Secretary Spellings wrote, "Parents, students and taxpayers pick up the vast majority of the tab for higher education. Over the years, we've invested tens of billions of dollars and just hoped for the best. It's time to ask what we're getting for our money."
    (Spellings, M. (2006, September 27). Let's really throw open doors to higher education. Houston Chronicle.)

    The Secretary went on to describe recommended actions to address concerns regarding accessibility, affordability and accountability in American higher education. Among them are-the alignment of "high school standards with college-level expectations," simplifying and better funding federal financial aid, and developing "a voluntary, privacy-protected higher education information system that longitudinally analyzes performance."
    (Spellings, M. (2006, September 27). Let's really throw open doors to higher education. Houston Chronicle.)

    Secretary Spellings concluded her editorial stating, "...we must act now. Our goal is nothing less than full access to the American dream for every American who chooses to pursue it."
    (Spellings, M. (2006, September 27). Let's really throw open doors to higher education. Houston Chronicle.)

    I would take her conclusion one step further.

    I believe that America's national interest as well as its security are at stake in the measure of our collective educational attainment. After all, it is America's differential rate of learning among nations that will distinguish its ability to compete in a global economy. And, given world events since 9/11, we cannot doubt the complex interplay of global economic leadership, enlightened views of diverse world cultures, and what we have come to know as "homeland security."

    Yet, according to recent reports from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, America's educational standings have worsened since the release of A Nation at Risk. Once the world leader in secondary educational attainment, the U.S. now trails 18 other countries. And, even after the dramatic increase in college graduates stimulated by the G.I. Bill, the U.S. has dropped to fourth in higher education attainment worldwide.

    I would assert that today's crisis calls for rebuilding the productive human infrastructure of America just as much as war-torn Europe needed the recovery enabled by the Marshall Plan. Why? Because anymore, secondary education is just the first stop on the road to a lifetime of learning. And so, as we transition further into the 21st Century, I believe it is again time to advance our nation's educational requirements, just as we did at the turn of the 19th to the 20th Century when we asked for compulsory secondary education. Now, America must be so bold as to progressively embrace a college education for all of its citizens.

    Before we can even begin to generate the broad base of political will necessary to take that step, however, higher education must respond to the increasing call for change, as echoed in the Spellings commission report. We must improve accessibility, affordability and accountability.

    Further, I would argue that the current call to action is even more urgent and crucial for urban universities, such as ours, because of the key roles we can play in shaping the talent needed to meet workforce demands, in closing the health-care delivery gap in our cities and meeting the needs of urban health-care professionals, and in strengthening the communities we serve.

    Satellite image of NEOOf course, a picture is worth a thousand words, and this nighttime satellite image reveals our Northeast Ohio region as a single, luminous whole that is inclusive of Cleveland, Akron and Canton, integrating many adjacent communities across several counties.

    A wider nighttime view of the United States reveals a collection of cities, municipalities and urban centers agglomerated into several significant regions.

    Consider these national statistics:

    • 68% of university expenditures nationwide are spent in the urban core. That amount grows to 81% when the urban fringe, or "metro area," is added1.
    • 83% of students nationwide are attending colleges and universities in urban core and fringe areas2; and
    • 85% of all jobs are in urban core and fringe areas3.


    1. (1. Peirce, N. (2002, May 29). Wake-up call for academia. The Washington Post.)
    2. (2. NCES, NSOPF. (2004). 2004 Study of Postsecondary Faculty.)
    3. (3. Cited at Council on Competitiveness Regional Innovation Summit. (2005).)

    In other words, there are thousands of universities employing hundreds of thousands of people, educating millions of students, and spending billions of dollars, all in the urban core and fringe.

    So it is easy to understand why Neal Peirce said, ". . . universities could and should be a resource, a secret asset, for the health and growth of great cities . . . there is an appetite out there for attuned universities, truly engaged with their communities."
    (Peirce, N. (2002, May 29). Wake-up call for academia. The Washington Post.)

    In my presentation at the inaugural summer forum of the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges Commission on the Urban Agenda and the Urban Serving Universities Coalition, which I co-chaired with University of Cincinnati President Nancy Zimpher a few months ago, I described how universities might become more "truly engaged."
    (Peirce, N. (2002, May 29). Wake-up call for academia. The Washington Post.)

    We must acknowledge that the competitive and comparative advantages of our campuses are inextricably linked to the vitality of their surrounding communities. We must move beyond land-grant focus toward the necessary application of all disciplinary knowledge for the public good. And we must be effective innovators locally, regionally and globally.

    Both the national call for accountability, affordability and accessibility and the urban university agenda of enhanced revitalization, relevance and regionalism provide the starting points for creating what I call a new gold standard of university performance, a fresh and definitive standard for a new great American university, a university appropriate to our times.

    You see, in the common but outmoded model of higher education, institutional "excellence" is defined largely by selectivity and expense - by how many students are excluded and by how much money is spent per student, regardless of outcomes.

    By contrast, we seek to be measured by our effectiveness - by outcomes and achievements and the efficiency of our investments. In short, we seek to be known by the actual results that we achieve and by the success of the communities that we serve. As I said, we seek to define nothing less than a new gold standard of university performance.

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

    So, let us keep moving forward to forge the new gold standard for a great American university by implementing the principles of leadership, engagement, innovation, inclusive excellence, and assessment to build this new University of Akron.

    Let us take the next step toward capturing our rightful destiny by continuing to differentiate ourselves as the public research university for northern Ohio, the University dedicated to the production, integration and dissemination of knowledge for the public good and to the education and success of its students.


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