State of the University Address 2019

Chancellor Steinmetz


Good morning. Thank you all for coming. Before I jump in, I’d like to recognize and thank some of our off-campus partners here today who help make Fayetteville and Northwest Arkansas such a great place to live, work and play, including Steve Clark, President of the Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce, and Ross DeVol, President of Heartland Forward. And while I’m at it, I want to thank my number one collaborator for being here - and that’s my wife, Sandy Steinmetz.

Let me start by saying I feel great about where we currently stand and where we’re headed as a university, largely thanks to the efforts of our outstanding faculty and staff. But, I hope you agree with me that we should always strive to be better and there is much more we can do to distinguish ourselves as a great university in a country full of outstanding universities.

Personally, I hope no one is satisfied with where we are at this point in our history.

So I’ll start today by recapping what went on this past year and then talk about where I think we are headed as a university while addressing some areas that concern me.

Educating students is, of course, our primary mission and the campus has worked very hard to enhance the success of our students inside and outside of the classroom. I believe we have made tremendous progress in this area. I think most people are aware that we celebrated the groundbreaking for a new student success center on September 12.  We expect it to be open at the start of the spring semester in 2021.

I’ve talked extensively about why this center is needed and the purpose it will serve to advance student success even further, so I will not get into all of that today. We do believe the programming inside this building, in partnership with the great things that are going on across campus in our academic units, will provide students with the assistance they need to persist in their studies and complete their degrees. And there are signs that this comprehensive approach is already having a significant effect.

Our six-year graduation rate exceeded 66 percent for the first time ever, and our first-year student retention rate exceeded 84 percent for the first time. And, we are already predicting another jump in next year’s six-year graduation rates due to the fact that the five-year graduation rate for the 2014 incoming class is already over 66%.

I already mentioned the fact that our students are more successful not only as a function of what happens centrally, but rather due to the great efforts that are happening daily across the entire university. Let me give you some examples.

The Walton College revamped its Freshmen Business Connection class this year to shift the course from focusing on what resources are in place to make students successful to asking: "Why are you here and how can we help you design your Walton?" They decided to model this course after Stanford University’s Life Design Studio, which focuses on something bigger than success: fulfillment.

The idea for Walton College to do this came through a collaborative partnership from Fulbright College’s Erica Estes and Deb Korth, and the University Career Development Center’s KayLee Simmons who participated in the Life Design Studio in Palo Alto. This team and others from the University Career Development Center are now trying to identify impactful educational practices and learning opportunities for underserved students—practices and opportunities that can be shared and adapted campus-wide. All U of A students are now able to make “Design Your Life” appointments in the University Career Development Center and with career counselors located throughout campus.

The College of Education and Health Professions recently centralized all their academic advising units to create a better, easier to negotiate experience. The College of Engineering hired a new full-time academic coach, as well as a part-time GA to provide more focused and individual attention to their students. The Fay Jones School did many things, like establishing their own student success center in the garden level of Vol Walker Hall and adding a first year academic counselor who now works closely with their senior academic counselor, recruiter, career specialist and director of student services—a much more integrated approach.

And Bumpers College continues to refine and improve their Early Alert Program.

In this program, faculty notify the Bumpers College Student Services Office if a student seems to be struggling in class or is having attendance issues. Once notified, their student services office contacts the student to help identify resources available for them to get back on track.

I hope everyone here appreciates the great efforts and attention being given across the university in optimizing the success of our students. Further, I hope you also can see that the various approaches have something in common—they are focused more and more on holistic assistance for each individual student—the one student at a time approach we have been talking about the last few years. 

I applaud you for your creativity and, more importantly, for your results.

It is also not a secret that many of our students do not persist here because of financial issues—college is expensive and financing an education can certainly stress a family’s budget. We have made some in roads on this issue as well. This past year we established an emergency grant fund to help students who are encountering acute financial difficulties due to unforeseen circumstances in their lives. Evidence suggests this fund has already had a significant impact.  We just need to figure out how to scale it up.

I’m also pleased that we were able to commit an additional $5 million to increase need-based scholarship to support students from Arkansas. This money will create more than 1,100 new scholarship awards, with an emphasis on addressing unmet need.

The new “First-Year Advantage” scholarship will be awarded to eligible incoming freshmen starting with the fall of 2020 incoming class. Some of these funds will be used for retention purposes as well.

We’ll also use some of this money as matching funds to continue to increase the number of Advance Arkansas Scholarships created by our generous donors. And, earlier this year, we announced the creation of the new Arkansas Transfer Achievement Scholarship. This scholarship enables students who graduated from a UA System two-year college with an associate’s degree to transfer to our campus and continue to pay the same tuition they paid at their two year school.

Ultimately, this means that nearly 90 percent of all of our general scholarship funding is being awarded to Arkansans. I’ll say it again – nearly 90 percent of all general scholarship funding goes to Arkansans, just in case anyone feels like tweeting it, posting it on social media, or including it in some kind of write up.

Let me finish up this discussion about student success with what is perhaps the most important ingredient of all for promoting student persistence and graduation—the influence of our faculty inside and outside of the classroom. We are blessed here at the U of A with outstanding faculty who take seriously their fundamental duty as teachers.  If we needed any evidence of that I could simply point to the fact that 84 of our faculty gave up three days of their summer to attend a teaching retreat in Eureka Springs—this is dedication.

And our faculty take advantage of the outstanding opportunities created by our Teaching Academy and the Wally Cordes Teaching and Faculty Support Center to improve their craft. A week or so ago I attended the Center’s awards reception where Chris Shields, a faculty member from the Department of Sociology and Criminology gave a brief talk on teaching.  His message was a simple challenge: As faculty we should be reaching out to students and not waiting for students to come to us.

I couldn’t agree more—I believe this defines and distinguishes us as a university.

Our faculty care deeply about the success of our students

Let me speak now about another important part of our mission—research, discovery and creative activity. The first thing I want to point out is that we are making great strides in this area: again this year we will see an increase in our overall research expenditures and very importantly in the number of external awards made to the U of A.

Our faculty are increasingly successful competing for external funding. We will have the official numbers in the very near future. For the third year we also awarded $1M from the Chancellor’s Collaboration and Innovation Fund for new projects. As you know, this fund provides seed money for new ideas that could lead to external funding. We do have evidence that this is working—this year some of our faculty who received Chancellor’s Funds in 2017 were successful with federal grants based on preliminary work funded by the internal awards.

And earlier this fall we also announced the creation of the Chancellor’s Fund for the Humanities and the Performing Arts. As the title indicates, this fund is designed to provide support for collaborative and innovative work in the humanities and performing arts, which may lead to external funding opportunities in these areas as well. Right now, we have a $1 million allocated for this fund over the next two years.

Another thing we accomplished last year was the identification of three general signature research areas we believe we can excel in through the creation of key clusters.  They are:

  • Advancing the Data Revolution
  • Improving Human Health and Community Vibrancy; and
  • Innovating for a Resilient and Sustainable Future

These very general areas need further narrowing and definition as we try to distinguish ourselves as an international leader in key clusters like data science, food science and technology, material science, and biomedical-related research. To help in this effort we recently announced the selection of four Chancellor’s Fellows:

  • Jamie Baum
  • Heather Nachtmann
  • Raj Rao
  • Brent Williams

These Chancellors Fellows are tasked with developing comprehensive plans for how we might strengthen our presence in four specific areas through the development of centers of excellence. We expect their reports in the very near future.

I’d also like to say a few words about progress on the Research and Commercialization grant we received last fall from the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation. Thanks to this generous grant, we have made progress in building up our infrastructure for research and commercialization.

First, we were able to create two complementary funds to the Chancellor’s Collaboration and Innovation Fund I mentioned earlier—a chancellor’s commercialization fund, which awarded nearly half a million to 14 projects, and a new Gap Fund, which awarded a little more than $100,000 to four awardees. The take-away here is that between four separate funds, there is almost $3 million dollars available this academic year for faculty collaboration projects.

We were also able to fill some key positions in research and commercialization that were supported by the grant. This time last year, the two biggest had been filled: Vice Chancellor for Economic Development and Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovation, by Stacy Leeds and Daniel Sui, respectively. We’ve since added a research and sponsored programs grant development specialist, a research development support specialist, an industry relations staff position, and Technology Ventures associate director, budget officer, and technology manager. All of these hires are designed to help our faculty and students be more successful at research and commercialization if desired. We have a number of other hires to accomplish this year as well and are moving on that front.

And we are starting to see some success stories in our efforts to help our faculty have entrepreneurial and commercialization success. This past year, three startups licensed university inventions, two of which were faculty led. This seems like a relatively small number, but nonetheless an improvement for us.  We want to be a national leader in generating tech-driven start-ups. This is a start.

In fact, the pipeline for new inventions is strong. We just had a record-breaking year, where the number of invention disclosures, which starts the ball rolling toward patent filings, is an all-time high for our institution.  In fact, we went from 93 to 130. That’s a 40% increase from the year before. And here’s an impressive fact: 47% of our invention disclosures included at least one woman on the team, which places Arkansas in the top 20 states for women inventors – and that will only grow.

Before leaving the research topic, I do want to touch on a very important factor that is holding us back as an institution—having adequate research space. Let me state the obvious: the need for new research space is pressing. Simply put, we’re out of it and that fact is limiting our ability to recruit faculty, secure external funding, conduct pure and applied research, and move discovery to market when that is desired and appropriate.

So this year we will begin planning for the construction of a dedicated research building, which we project will cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $75-80 million. At this point, we can’t say for certain where it will be located, although we have begun these discussions. And we have also had some conversations about who may be in it. We do know we need to move on this if we are to become more competitive as a research university.

In parallel with this, over the last year we have also been looking at the possibility of creating an Institute of Health Sciences Research and Innovation in partnership with UAMS. The foundation of this partnership includes collaborative research space and labs to facilitate innovative, high-impact research that advances discovery and brings in critical dollars to our region, and perhaps intellectual property appropriate for further development. 

I’d like to thank the nearly 100 faculty who provided not only insights, ideas and dreams for what this space could be but a great discussion of joint areas of interest we have with UAMS. We think by pooling our talent, expertise, and resources, we can have a much, much bigger impact on the health and wellbeing of the state while at the same time elevating the research profile of our university.

In summary, while we have a long way to go to be competitive with universities that excel in the areas of research and the commercialization of discovery, I think we are making some progress on these fronts. Of course, none of the progress we have made in our teaching or research or anything else at the university, for that matter, would be possible if it were not for the outstanding faculty we have here at the U of A. There are literally hundreds of great stories that can be told about the accomplishments of our faculty over the past year—I thought I would provide a few examples that are representative of the excellence we have here.

Within a span of two months poetry professor Geffrey Davis won a $25,000 creative writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and a $50,000 Whiting Foundation grant for Public Engagement. This grant was given in recognition of his collaborative project On the Row: Prison Story Project, which started in 2012 and involves guest artists working with incarcerated men and women in Arkansas to explore the art of storytelling through several art forms. This is great example of how scholarship and outreach can be mixed.

Marlon Blackwell was elected to the National Academy of Design as well as selected as a Resident Fellow at the American Academy in Rome, two of the highest honors that can be given to an architect.

“Fisher” Yu, an associate professor of electrical engineering, and Greg Salamo, a Distinguished Professor of physics, received a $7.5 million award from the U.S. Department of Defense, as part of its Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative.

Yu, as principal investigator, and Salamo, as co-principal investigator, will lead a multi-disciplinary and multi-institutional team of researchers who will design, fabricate and test infrared detectors made with silicon germanium tin. This project is highly interdisciplinary and highly collaborative.

I also want to recognize the College of Engineering as a whole, the faculty of which have received 10 NSF Early Career awards over the last two years. This is an incredible achievement for a college and demonstrates the strengths of our newer faculty who have joined the university.  Combined with Career Awards received by faculty in the Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences, the U of A has received 14 of these prestigious grants over the last couple of years.

I’d also like to mention that we’ve continued to make progress on investing in faculty excellence - a priority we established a couple of years ago. Since 2015, we’ve added 29 tenured and tenure track faculty positions, bringing the total up to 804. We also added 26 non-tenure track positions, bringing the total to 388. Over the same time, we’ve also made progress on bringing up our average faculty salaries as compared to the 18 benchmark schools we commonly use for comparison.

We stack up much better than we did four years ago. Our full professor salaries are now at 99% of our benchmark’s median salary, and our associate and assistant professor now exceed the 18 benchmarks median, at 103.4% and 101.4% respectively. We will continue to work to make progress on our faculty compensation.  Attracting and retaining the very best faculty are key to our future success.  As I have said many, many times—you cannot have a great university without having great faculty.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention our outstanding staff who work hard to support our faculty and our students. We continue to work on ways to elevate our staff salaries as well—we simply must be more competitive with other employers in the region if we hope to attract and retain our very best staff.

Before continuing, I need to take this opportunity to recognize a couple of people who have been instrumental in facilitating the work of our faculty and staff. First, I want to thank Dr. Ro DiBrezzo, who just stepped down as Vice Provost for Faculty Affairs. She’s been an absolute dynamo on the job and tremendous advocate for our faculty since 2014.  Ro, thank you for all you have done for the U of A. She will be succeeded Dr. Kathryn Sloan, who’s going to do a fantastic job, as well.

I’d also like to recognize the great work being done by provost and executive vice chancellor Dr. Jim Coleman. So much of what I have mentioned so far, whether its student success or faculty success, is attributable to the plans Jim put in place and the wonderful work he and his staff have done. Thank you Jim.

The first part of my address looked at what the university has done over the past year or so. I think what is vastly more important is to share with you where I think we are heading.  When I think about the future, three questions typically come to mind:

First, how do we distinguish ourselves from everyone else—that is, what makes us “uncommon?”  Second, how do we get better?  And third, how do we accelerate the rate of change for doing well?

I want to use the remainder of this address to look ahead a bit. As most of you know, our sesquicentennial is fast approaching.  2021 marks our 150th year as a university.

By then, our $1.25 billion-dollar capital campaign will have been brought to what will undoubtedly be a successful close the year before. And, more importantly the generosity of our donors will only continue to become more apparent in the form of new academic programs, faculty positions, world-class facilities, and student scholarships.

The sesquicentennial provides a great opportunity to reflect on how far we’ve come as an institution, from the first students traveling up the Pig Trail to Fayetteville by stagecoach, to the integration of the Law School by the six pioneers, to Coach Nolan Richardson unleashing 40 minutes of hell on an unsuspecting basketball world.

But more importantly, it will also be a time to give serious thought to where we’re headed as an institution.

I know one thing for certain, the future will be vastly different from the past mainly because the higher education environment is undergoing unprecedented change in just about every area imaginable.  I have been at universities for over 35 years and have never seen higher education in more flux than now.

For example, an issue that looms large on the horizon is the declining number of high school graduates in Arkansas, and across the country after many, many years of steady growth. Numbers are expected to flatten over the next few years, before declining sharply after 2025 with some predicting a decline of more than 30% in the number of students attending four-year colleges between 2017 and 2029 in Arkansas.

It’s easy to see that this will have a profound impact on our budgeting—we have lived off of additional tuition revenue that has come with a steadily increasing student body over the last 10 years. From 2007 to 2016, we were the fastest growing flagship university in the country. Financial models built on student growth are simply not sustainable and therefore not wise. In fact, this year we saw a decrease in total enrollment for the first time in more than a decade.

We’re presently at 27,599 students, a decline of a little less than two hundred students or about 0.8%. And we think this is likely the new normal – an enrollment fluctuating somewhere between to 27,500 and 28,000 students. Now, the bigger question is, how will we maintain a stable enrollment when the number of Arkansans entering college declines? To address this question, we are adopting some strategies to keep our enrollment steady.

First, we need to keep making the case for the importance of college, so that the percentage of students attending college increases even as the total population declines. And we have capacity here in the State of Arkansas—we are ranked near the bottom in the country in the percent of students going to college and attaining a degree.

We also want to expand the pipeline from two-year colleges. That was part of the thinking behind the new Arkansas Transfer Achievement Scholarship that I described earlier. We’ll also look to increase post-baccalaureate and graduate enrollment in the forms of certificate programs and professional master’s degree programs. We can also expand distance education opportunities for these and other programs. Academic colleges and schools added 4 new master’s and bachelor’s degree programs and 6 new graduate certificate programs last year.  Plans are underway to develop 9 to 12 new online programs in the next year or two. These programs will generate much needed revenue for our academic units.

And, increasing our retention rates will also be extremely important. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: Retaining and graduating students is not just the right thing to do and good public policy, it’s also good financial stewardship. Consider this: If we retain an additional fifty students a year, they contribute nearly $600,000 in tuition and fees. Retaining a hundred, which is a 2% gain, represents nearly $1.2 million annually.

We will continue to recruit students from outside the State of Arkansas and maintain the 50/50 split of in-state and out-of-state students we have successful maintained the last few years We’ll also have to get more creative about diversifying our revenue stream and we’ll have to keep doing things we’re already doing, like: Expanding federal support. Creating more public-private partnerships. And finding efficiencies wherever we can.

Perhaps we will have to stop doing things that aren’t central to our missions.

And, at the risk of being booed out of here, I’m going to say that this may mean embracing changes like the adoption of Workday as our ERP system. I know implementing a huge software system like this is a giant headache for everyone on the front lines—and I feel your pain, to quote a famous Arkansan. But in the end, it will integrate and streamline processes while creating substantial cost savings.

In fact, Workday licensing will cost approximately $1 million less per year than the current maintenance costs of hardware and software for BASIS and UAConnect.

So while there is short term pain, it will pay long term dividends.

Finally, it will be incumbent on administrators to practice good fiscal management across the university. It helps when the market cooperates. This year we had a positive change of $47 million dollars in our net position, which some people refer to as our reserves, due to some interest on investments and refinancing some bonds, and some other changes we have made in managing our finances. This is a good cash position to be in since this money can be used to do some renovation work around campus as well as enable us to borrow a little less for projects like the Student Success Center and a new research building, among other things.

Yes, there are going to be some challenges ahead, as there always are, but the sooner we can begin focusing on them, the better we’ll be able to negotiate them. In the coming year I’m hoping we can initiate a campus-wide discussion about some of the obstacles and opportunities that lay ahead. The vice chancellors, the deans and the vice provosts have already begun thinking about the critical questions that will frame our view of the future – what we’re calling our 2020 Focus.

The point of this exercise isn’t to develop another plan or set of priorities—we have that already and these priorities continue to steer our planning. The purpose here is to shift our focus to 2020 and beyond and to reframe our continual planning efforts at every level.

Not too long ago, we updated our university vision statement to articulate as simply as possible what kind of a university we should be. It reads: The University of Arkansas represents the best of public higher education, advancing Arkansas while building a better world.

I have been thinking a lot over the last year or so what this general statement means to me in more concrete, actionable terms. I want to take this time to articulate how I see this vision.  To that end, I have a list of 10 items I would like to see the university move on in the coming years that I think would help distinguish us as a university.

  1. We should not be satisfied with simply reaching our expected student retention and graduation rates but rather exceed those rates by at least 5%. This can be accomplished through our continued efforts in enhancing student success—we are on the right course.
  1. We should be the premier resource in the State of Arkansas for delivering timely and relevant education and skills needed by industry and workforce in public and private sectors here in the State of Arkansas, through the creation of innovative academic programs for our students. This includes new and relevant programs at the undergraduate and graduate levels as well as post-baccalaureate certificates that provide additional needed education in areas from data science to healthcare law.
  1. We should be the graduate school of choice for students seeking to diversify and amplify their educational outcomes by providing graduate students with the background and opportunities to pursue a variety of career paths in addition to traditional academic careers. This will require us to redouble our efforts to strengthen and grow our post-baccalaureate and graduate programs and more aggressively recruit graduate students to our institution.
  1. We should strive to be a top-caliber research institution, among the very best, one that attracts increased funding from federal and private industry sources. I believe this can be achieved by stimulating and enhancing radically collaborative research, including increased investments in 3-5 focused and targeted areas of research that tap into existing strengths and provide opportunities to attract new talent to campus, building strong centers of excellence and perhaps an Innovation Institute as an umbrella organization for collaboration and innovation.
  1. We need to generate more success for students and faculty in commercializing their research when that is desired and possible. To do this we must create a campus environment where opportunities are abundant, encouraged, and known, and this activity is recognized and rewarded.
  1. We should be a catalyst and significant resource for driving entrepreneurism in the region and in the state through our faculty and our programs by aggressively forging stronger partnerships with the private sector whenever and wherever we can.
  1. We should diversify our faculty along every dimension, including previous experience. We can achieve this by looking for opportunities to hire faculty who have a variety of experiences before arriving at the U of A, be it medical, business, art or other practices and experiences that could benefit our students and our research profile. We can and should create positions and ranks appropriate for those faculty.
  1. We should develop leaders and leadership that amplify and promote inclusion and diversity in our campus community, in the region, and in the state - thus making the U of A the premier resource on inclusion and diversity for the public and private sectors.
  1. We should stimulate the development of what I want to call New Arkansans. We can do this by attracting and retaining students from outside of the state who then, in partnership with the private sector and along with their Arkansas peers, live, work and play here in Arkansas after they complete their U of A degrees.
  1. We simply must be a more flexible, nimble, quicker and agile university to be competitive with our peer institutions. We can accomplish this by refining a variety of university processes to become more nimble and responsive to the needs of our campus community and of the world around us. This includes developing more flexible ways to analyze and capture the overall contributions our faculty make in the areas of research, teaching and outreach; streamlining our curricular and program creation and modification process to shorten time to adoption; and my favorite, decreasing bureaucracy around the university wherever we can.

I know this may be a lot to take in today. What I plan to do is release a series of communications in the coming weeks which dive more deeply into the 10 areas that I just quickly covered. I will also add that these 10 points continue to reflect, encompass and develop the guiding priorities we established as a campus a few years back.

With that, I’ll wind this up. I want to thank our board of trustees and system president, Don Bobbitt, our executive committee, our deans, and all of our faculty, staff and students for the work you do to make this a better place. It’s my great pleasure to work with you toward a better future for this university and for our state.

I want you to know how grateful Sandy and I are to be here and to be a part of this exciting time in University of Arkansas history alongside you.

You may have heard that at the last meeting the Board of Trustees extended my contract as Chancellor through 2023. I am grateful for the chance to lead this great university for an additional four years. I plan to take the next few months to think hard about the structure of our administration to make sure we are efficient, agile, and effectively serving the needs of the university. I believe we have a bright future and that great things lie ahead.

Thank you!