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Commencement Addresses

2007 State of the University Address

  • Date: 10/15/2007
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Chancellor Fingerhut, Provost Stroble,
    students, Trustees, members of our foundations' boards, faculty, staff and administration,
    esteemed alumni and guests,
    Ladies and Gentlemen,

    I offer my deepest thanks to each of you for joining me and The University of Akron today to reflect on - how far we have come, where we are heading, and how we will get there. At this historic time of opportunity for Ohio, our University has a powerful story to tell, an abundance of experience to share, and a great potential to help lead our community, region and state to long-term prosperity.

    You have read some of that story in our recently published Report to the Community, called "Inventing the Future." The highlights it contained were shown on the screen before we started this part of the program.

    We also have employed powerful, and sometimes humorous, metaphors to describe ourselves. Allow me to offer one of my favorites:

    "Our mascot is an adorable kangaroo that we affectionately call Zippy.
    In the metaphors of financial markets, you need to know that this kangaroo is bullish on Akron and on Ohio!
    It packs quite a punch, puts quite a zip into the economy and, yes, it is always one giant leap ahead of the competition!"

    Back when I was just getting to know Zippy and most of you - eight years and two days ago - I stood on the stage of E.J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall, nearing the end of my first year as president and being formally invested. At that time, I talked about the university as an engine of regional economic growth, about our symbiotic relationship with our community and regional business and industry, and about emphasizing research, outcomes, and science and engineering.

    I was, in 1999, not offering some radical new direction for the University, but simply building on its documented and well-established strengths. And I again must acknowledge and thank our founders and Trustees, along with the faculty, staff, administrators, students and supporters who together shaped an institution that was innovative, productive, relevant and immersed in its community more than 130 years before "community engagement" was trendy . . . an institution that was exemplary for accomplishments in science and engineering back when the now-popular science-technology-engineering-mathematics acronym, "stem," simply referred to part of a plant.I am pleased today to say with absolute confidence, and some pride, that The University of Akron is stronger, more vibrant and more vital than ever . . . and it has been my honor to play some part in this, the third cycle of profound transformation for our University.

    While I now consider myself a native Akronite, I know many of you have been involved with our University much longer than I. So, on behalf of the entire University family, thank you for your tireless support and for being here today. Because of you - our students, alumni, donors, faculty, staff, administrators, Trustees, partners and our surrounding community - our University's future is bright, exciting, promising . . . and, most important, it is a future that is shared by us all.

    Yes, the University has evolved to the point that it is recognized as a state and regional resource, and a model that might be shared and extended to greater benefit. We have come to this point, and will remain vital, only if we continue to be true to our roots, which I repeatedly have shared using these words:

    "Our expertise creates the new materials for the new economy
    and shapes the communities that we serve.
    We are The University in, of and for Akron, the public research university for Northern Ohio.
    We are you."

    That is the truth,
    That is our strength,
    And that is the basis of our past, present and future success.

    Even as I acknowledge that we must continue to change and expand our benefits and our sphere of influence, because an integral part of our history and tradition is innovation, and because of changes affecting higher education nationwide - I assure you that The University of Akron will never abandon our roots or our home. We will continue creating a bridge to the future for our community, and indeed the entire region, and we will move forward together.

    We have kept our promises, built on our legacy, made giant leaps toward achieving our full potential and demonstrated effective leadership in transformation and a spectacular return-on- investment. We have made those strides by leveraging our historical strengths of exceptional collaboration and community engagement, STEM expertise, productive research and innovation, and a strong and broad undergraduate experience, combined with a keen understanding of the global knowledge economy.

    Now we are exactly where Ohio needs us to be at this time of change and opportunity.

    And, as we take the lead in the new global knowledge economy, we're also helping to shape the role for metropolitan universities across the country.

    In 2006 I co-chaired the first-ever joint forum of two national groups focused on the importance of metropolitan universities and how we might become more powerful resources for our regions through three strands of activity - talent development, strengthening communities and improving health services.
    Taking the needs of the region as a starting point is the purpose of metropolitan universities, and speaks to much of what the state is seeking now.

    When Governor Ted Strickland and Chancellor Eric Fingerhut recently unveiled The University System of Ohio, they recognized that the state's diverse set of institutions represent the building blocks of a comprehensive and world-class higher-education. They talked about differentiating our universities' missions and building centers of excellence, of which we have much that would be recognized favorably around the world.

    In a separate effort, the Northeast Ohio Universities Study Commission continues to analyze how we can best address efficiency and excellence.

    I am pleased that the Chancellor attended our senior leadership retreat this summer and, as a result of those conversations, Provost Stroble brought together nearly 70 people, including many of you in our community, into interdisciplinary teams to better assess our academic assets and see how best to align them with the emerging priorities within the state. What has come from that process is a compelling and powerful way of seeing our University.

    We see that innovation is part of our institutional DNA, and we have 137 years of experience and success in anticipating, addressing and leading change to the benefit of our community, region and state. Our roots in the fledgling rubber industry of the late 1800s, in the Allied war efforts during World War II, and in helping Akron transform from the "Rubber Capital" of America into the polymer center of the world have brought forth an exceptional collection of expertise and accomplishment in - research and teaching in science, technology, engineering and mathematics; workforce development and training; and the development, protection, marketing and commercialization of new technologies . . . combined with a strong and broad undergraduate student experience.

    Going forward, we want to catalyze more and more cross-disciplinary initiatives to take advantage of synergistic strengths from throughout the university. In that manner, we can achieve significant gains for our students, community, region and state in three broad areas - first, economic vitality, job creation and workforce development; second, growing talent and capacity; and, third, improving life and health for individuals, organizations and communities.

    Let me elaborate just a bit on each of those areas.

    First . . . the University's role in economic vitality, job creation and workforce development.

    Understanding that federal studies predict that the knowledge economy will add 6.4 million high-technology jobs by 2012, our preeminence in STEM education, research and scholarship and providing real-world learning experiences for any qualified and interested undergraduate shows immense opportunity to enhance economic vitality, job creation and workforce development in critical fields. Further, our research into biomaterials and other advanced materials, nanotechnology and a broad range of chemical sciences offers hope for astounding medical and technological breakthroughs.

    But that's not all.

    As pioneers in the plastics industry, the University established Ohio as a world leader in soft materials and polymers. Its impact is unmistakable - the $500-billion U.S. plastics and rubber industry employs 900,000 people in America.

    This is good news for America, and even better news for Ohio, because roughly 25 percent of the state's largest companies work with soft materials and polymers. They have combined revenues of more than $147 billion. And more than 56,000 Ohioans are employed by the 20 largest material and polymer manufacturers in the state. Our University of Akron has become the intellectual and geographical epicenter of Ohio's polymer industry.

    Our engineering program enrollment continues to grow even at a time when other schools' engineering enrollment remains stagnant. Upon graduation, most engineering students (as well as students in other disciplines) have gained co-op experience and accept full-time positions right here in Ohio. They become active members of local communities and contribute greatly to Ohio's economic vitality.

    Our distinction in the development, protection, marketing and commercialization of new technologies comes from numerous programs in a variety of disciplines. For instance, we have an intellectual property law curriculum ranked fifth in the nation, and we were the first institution in Ohio to offer a master's degree in intellectual property law. Moreover, our exceptional technology transfer productivity recently was recognized by the National Science Foundation and by the Ohio Board of Regents, among many others.

    Other segments of the workforce and the economy are benefiting from our influence, as well. By offering new degrees and certificates in e-commerce, direct marketing and international business, with a focus on entrepreneurship, more students are being prepared to lead the next wave of an ever-changing economy.

    Of course, the need to prepare for tomorrow does not apply only to university students, and we are leaders in engaging with P-12 school districts to develop the talent supply chain for science, technology, engineering, math and medicine.

    By tracking and addressing the emerging needs of a changing economy and workforce, we are fueling Ohio's progress and protecting Ohio's future.

    Obviously, that also is an example of growing talent and capacity, our second area of significant potential.

    Our students learn through experience, with many taking advantage of co-operative education, internships and externships, on-campus work through paid research experiences, service learning, and authentic undergraduate research. Though these programs often extend a student's term, the benefits of a hands-on education far outweigh the added time - for both students and future employers.

    By exposing students first-hand to great innovators, practical challenges and integrative learning programs across disciplines, we plant seeds of creativity and entrepreneurship. Our students become heirs not only to the knowledge they've gained in the classroom, but also to a fundamentally different way of thinking that applies to, and matures in, a variety of life and workplace experiences.

    Through an unprecedented level of access to top-rate higher education and a commitment to enriching a broad range of students' educational experiences - through teaching and learning excellence, experiential learning and undergraduate research, and exposure to global and entrepreneurial perspectives - the University is meeting the needs of the region and the state. And the scope and strength of our undergraduate experience serve as a firm foundation for superior graduate programs.

    Our third area of expanding benefits involves improving the life and health of individuals, organizations and communities.

    Problems surrounding health care continue to worry most Ohioans, and with good reason. By 2014, Ohio will see a shortfall of 32,000 nurses. And access to high-quality medical care and advanced health technologies continues to be a major concern. As the U.S. population grays, the need for better-prepared and more up-to-date professionals will increase dramatically. And, as the pace of change continues to accelerate in our professional and daily lives, we see a growing need for professionals to help us manage that change and improve our quality of life.

    The University is tracking these changing conditions and addressing them.

    Our interdisciplinary program for research and nurse scientists has received nearly $25 million in government funding to expand its life-saving mission. University professionals work cohesively through programs in 15 academic departments and seven interdisciplinary centers of excellence including the Institute for Health and Social Policy - the largest health and social policy research center in Ohio - and our nationally ranked programs in counseling and industrial/organizational psychology, which help individuals and organizations manage change and growth.

    Faculty with nationally-renowned credentials lead research in areas such as - substance abuse, trauma and violence, traumatic brain injury, applied gerontology, assistive technology, psychoneuroimmunology, bioterrorism, applied politics and much more. This work produces first-rate health care and human service professionals who are actively researching health, human services and organizational problems, developing innovative models of service delivery and demonstrating those models and best practices through an expanding network of community partners.

    In health care alone, we serve more than 5,000 people each year through University-based clinics. By working with more than 140 community partners, such as school districts and hospitals, our nursing and allied health students gain important, first-hand clinical experience while offering essential services. More than 95 percent of those graduates are quickly employed by medical and health organizations that count on top-notch preparation to make the difference.

    So, at this special time of need and opportunity, we are poised to further leverage synergistic strengths university wide to achieve significant gains for our students, community, region and state in three broad and vital areas - economic vitality, job creation and workforce development; growing talent and capacity; and improving life and health for individuals, organizations and communities.

    And, along the way, we will continue our 137-year-old mission of providing our community with much-needed artists, musicians, teachers, lawyers, nurses, business executives, politicians, technicians, and countless other professionals - forged from individual personalities and the elements of a comprehensive education. Your University will continue to provide a sense of permanence - a stabilizing and energizing force for Akron . . . a growing and vital enterprise that will not be moving or sold - while simultaneously helping to reinvent our region.

    Thanks especially to our Board of Trustees, who started our campus on a journey now known as the New Landscape for Learning, we are riding a wave of progress and success that some may have thought impossible to achieve. But, together, we have achieved it. There is, today, incredible momentum for us to continue on our current course toward higher levels of excellence.

    To capitalize on that momentum, I am pleased to announce that we are launching today a comprehensive fund-raising campaign with $500 million goal.

    Aspire. Attain. Advance. These are the watchwords that will guide this bold undertaking and build the bridge to our future.

    We aspire to be even more effective, relevant and beneficial to our students, to our community, to the region and state, and to our nation and the world.

    Our success has shown that our institution and community can attain any goal. I believe that we will again be successful - though this "stretch" goal will require unprecedented effort by our university, by the individuals who have supported us so generously in the past, and by some who will become involved for the first time as part of this campaign.

    The $500 million generated by this campaign will provide the financial resources to advance our university to even greater levels of academic excellence, to contribute even more to the economic vitality, strength and quality of life of our community, and to further intensify the benefits of our unmatched research and educational resources.

    Some of the best ideas and greatest talent coming out of our university have been fueled by bold philanthropic gifts. Time and time again, visionary donors saw that their gifts could bring swift, dramatic outcomes and have stepped forward to become some of our most vital partners.

    In fact, I am pleased to tell you that we have been in the quiet phase of this campaign and already have received more than $275 million in gifts, grants and pledges. So, as we launch its public phase today, we are more than halfway to our $500 million goal, and our endowment is among the top 100 of public universities in the U.S.!

    Aspire. Attain. Advance. Together, we have built powerful positive momentum, and I would like to acknowledge several of our alumni and friends who have provided significant lead gifts to propel us along this trajectory.

    First, please allow me to introduce our campaign co-chairs: Gary and Karen Taylor, and Phil and Peggy Lloyd, will you please stand?

    The Taylors funded the creation of the Gary L. and Karen S. Taylor Institute in Direct Marketing, and made a lead gift for InfoCision Stadium.

    Phil and Peggy Lloyd, and the rest of the Beatrice McDowell family, have committed to fully funding a chair in the School of Law.

    And, the Taylors and Lloyds have shared their wisdom and talent with us through service with The University of Akron Foundation. We are blessed to be a beneficiary of their good will and leadership. Will you please join me in thanking them?

    (Lead applause.)

    Now, it is my happy duty to introduce several more lead donors to the campaign. Not surprisingly, two of them represent our primary partners in the University Park Alliance.

    Rob Briggs is the vice chairman, and Vivian Neal is the program director of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Rob and Vivian, will you please stand?

    Due to their diligence and the vision of many members of Knight Foundation, the University Park neighborhood is benefiting from Knight Foundation grants totaling some $13 million, which have helped attract more than $300 million in current and proposed investments in the area. Vivian and Rob, please accept our gratitude for your efforts and those of your colleagues.

    (Lead applause.)

    Also with us today are colleagues from our neighbor and partner Summa. As an investment in our community and neighborhood, Summa has made a significant, long-term commitment to our on-campus stadium, which will be the home of Summa Field. I ask that Summa Health System President and CEO Tom Strauss and SummaCare President Marty Hauser please stand.

    Summa has a long history of support for this University, including being a founding partner of the University Park Alliance. The University of Akron could not find a better neighbor than Summa and, in my opinion, our region would be hard pressed to find a better corporate citizen.

     Thank you, Tom and Marty.

    (Lead applause.)

    Of course, as I recognize community partners, I must mention our first and foremost community partner, the city of Akron. Will Mayor Plusquellic and other representatives of our city please stand?

    (Lead applause.)

    There is one more significant alumnus I would like to acknowledge at this time. Will Dr. Paul E. Martin please stand?

    Dr. Martin is an active alumnus, a valued advocate and a long-time supporter of countless University priorities and good things across our campus. Paul, you have my deepest gratitude.

    (Lead applause.)

    Finally, I want to publicly thank the Margaret Clark Morgan Foundation, Freda and the late Lou Stile, and Jim and Vanita Oelschlager for their exemplary gifts. Unfortunately, they could not join us today, but they are most deserving of our appreciation and recognition.

    (Lead applause.)

    Those we have just acknowledged, along with many of you here today and thousands of others, have opened their hearts and shared their time, talent and treasure to advance this institution and its mission. And they have seen their investments in our students and faculty, programs and facilities applied wisely and generate genuine, tangible and long-lived results.

    In centuries past, a region's wealth was defined by its access to rare metals. In the 21st Century's knowledge-based, global marketplace, wealth belongs to those regions with deep reserves of innovative thinking, entrepreneurial drive and well-educated workers.

    Aspire. Attain. Advance. Through this campaign, we are setting a new gold standard for ourselves and this region. We are creating a commodity with a value much greater than that of any physical element. We are creating a source of intellectual, social and technical capital that will return enormous dividends for centuries to come.

    If you, like me, believe in the promise of discovery, of ideas, and of the potential of our students, then it is incumbent on each of us to break down the obstacles, financial and otherwise, that obstruct our path to realizing that potential.

    You see, I think that universities are magical places - places of discovery and places of transformation. That is why I often say that Akron is a place where you can dream and dare and do the things that it takes to change the world.

    Just listen to these words written by Nobel Laureate George Wald and you, too, can sense some of that magic:

    "Surely this is a great part of our dignity . . .," he begins.

    "Surely this is a great part of our dignity . . . that we can know, and that through us matter can know itself; that beginning with protons and electrons, out of the womb of time and the vastness of space, we can begin to understand; that organized as in us, the hydrogen, the carbon, the nitrogen, the oxygen, those 16 to 21 elements, the water, the sunlight - all, having become us, can begin to understand what they are, and how they came to be."
    (George Wald, quoted in: Philip Ball, Life's Matrix: A Biography of Water, June 2000, p. 3)

    There, in a few short sentences, lies the magic of universities.

    It lies in the relentless pursuit of truth, in the progressive discovery of knowledge, in the connectedness of life, in the sense that we can and we must advance our common future.

    Ladies and gentlemen, that is worth preserving; that is worth supporting; that is worth celebrating.

    Aspire. Attain. Advance. Today we launch a bold campaign that will define the future not only of The University of Akron, but of our city and region.

    Today we recommit to leveraging our collective experience, talent, academic assets and legacy of relevance for the greater benefit of our community, region and state.

    We need not lose our institutional identity or ask any other institution to do so, and we will not do anything to disadvantage our community or dishonor our heritage . . . but we can and we must lead the way and work collaboratively in a regional and statewide posture of enabling innovation to create further prosperity. Because of our demonstrated leadership and documented capacity, The University of Akron should be formally designated as the public research university for the region - a strategic partner and a transformational force to create sustainable economic vitality and a model for a fresh paradigm for public higher education.


    "Our expertise creates the new materials for the new economy,
    And shapes the communities that we serve.
    We are The University in, of and for Akron,
    The public research university for Northern Ohio.
    We are you."

    We have a common vision built upon bold and powerful ideas, ambitious goals and uncompromising standards. Through this campaign, we will work and invest side-by-side with our community, alumni, donors, friends and partners to create a prosperous and vibrant tomorrow.

    Aspire. Attain. Advance.

    Thank you.




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