State of the University Address 2020
Good morning everyone! I have to say that just like about everything else that has been happening since the pandemic began, I find the format for my remarks today to be a bit strange. Normally, I would be standing in the Faulkner Center sizing up the audience and thanking you all for coming. Today, I have to take it on faith that you are even there—and properly attired, I might add.
I don’t even want to think about that!
While I’ve had literally hundreds of Zoom, Teams, Blackboard, ATT, and Cisco Webex meetings over the last several months, I can say this is the first time I’ve delivered a speech in an almost completely empty room. I do thank our media people and provost for showing up so I am not completely alone here. If anything, this certainly gives me a greater appreciation for what our faculty and students have been doing since March.
Perhaps the biggest thing missing for me here is the chance to answer your questions while seeing you in the room.
As has become the new norm, you can submit questions via Teams chat to firstname.lastname@example.org, a practice I am sure you are all too familiar with at this point. So, if you hear anything you would like clarification on, don’t hesitate to submit a question via Teams.
It doesn’t seem possible, but this is the sixth fall I’ve addressed our campus community. The first time was in early October of 2015 when I was a candidate for the chancellor position and again about three weeks later after I was selected as the sixth chancellor of this remarkable university. I continue to be grateful to the University of Arkansas System board of trustees and President Don Bobbitt for the opportunity they gave me and the confidence they continue to have in my leadership.
For me, this annual fall tradition is important: It allows us to pause and take stock of the university – and in many ways count our blessings. Sandy and I have greatly enjoyed our time here over the last five years and often talk about how fortunate we’ve are to live here and be part of this wonderful university community.
I am going to be honest here. It’s been a challenging year.
Nevertheless, despite the astonishing range of the challenges we’ve all faced over the last year, our regard and feelings for this place has only deepened.
We are extremely fortunate. Without a doubt the key to the excellence of this institution is the dedicated faculty, staff, and students on this campus working together toward its betterment and its wellbeing. That has been made crystal clear these last several months as I think about the campus response to the pandemic.
I am extremely proud of the work our campus community has done to make this fall not just possible, but also safe and successful.
I will, though, say an extra thanks to everyone on our COVID response team, Facilities Management, and the Pat Walker Health Center for going above and beyond, as well as everyone who had to implement Workday while everything else was happening.
As you’ll hear, a lot of great things are happening – far more than we might have anticipated last spring. I am proud that as a university community we simply didn’t turn off the lights and waited for the pandemic to pass, but rather kept pushing forward to a future that may be uncertain but nevertheless is still coming. That’s a testament to you – our campus community.
So thank you!
While I don’t want to spend too much time reviewing the last several months, I do want to highlight some major achievements. Number one on this list in my view is the extraordinary transition our university made during the spring semester and then the subsequent preparation that was undertaken for the fall semester in an environment that posed more questions than answers.
Last spring, we pivoted from traditional in-person courses to 100% remote learning in just 9 days. Obviously, many classes weren’t designed to be remote. Even so, I think we did the best we could under the circumstances – and I have the utmost regard for our faculty who had to scrap lesson plans, revise syllabi, and adopt new technologies on the fly. I know firsthand what an effort this was because I was teaching a class last spring, too.
Hats off to our students as well. They made a similarly impressive transition to a new learning environment and in many cases abrupt changes in their living arrangements.
Fortunately, we had the summer months to get ready for the fall semester even though we had no certainty as to where this country would be in handling the virus. I won’t get into all the nuances of these preparations, but needless to say it was an immense undertaking, particularly with the implementation of new health and safety guidelines, physical spacing of classes, revised course scheduling, development of isolation and quarantine spaces, and all the other areas impacted – every person, every office, every unit.
We also had to ensure our faculty had the resources and support they needed to be successful in navigating the new landscape of online, remote, hybrid and in-person classes. To help with this, we augmented the Teaching Innovation and Pedagogical Support – or TIPS – website, as well as developed the Keep Teaching website to provide teaching strategies and technical support. Additionally, we provided remote trainings attended by hundreds of faculty.
I would be remiss if I didn’t recognize the great work our Wally Cordes Teaching and Faculty Support Center does in providing guidance and support to our faculty. This center has been a great asset for this university. Thank you for your work!
No undertaking of this size and complexity is without hiccups, but by and large we have made a very successful transition. In terms of planning, preparation and execution, this was a major accomplishment. I think we collectively did this far better than the majority of other universities around the country.
Of course, teaching is not the only aspect of a faculty member’s responsibility.
Research and discovery and outreach and engagement are the other two legs of our mission. COVID restrictions didn’t prevent our faculty for achieving some very significant research awards and recognition. I wish I could list them all but let me highlight a few:
Chemist Mahmoud Moradi received a $650,000 National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development award to advance his work modeling the function of proteins at the molecular level, which will deepen our understanding of disease and improve drug design. He is also doing 3D simulations to understand how the coronavirus binds to human cells.
Professor Laurent Bellaiche from the Department of Physics received the Vannevar Bush Faculty Fellowship, which is the most prestigious single-investigator award given by the Department of Defense, which awards up to $3 million over five years.
Jan Emory, assistant professor of nursing whose research interest includes assessment and evaluation, was recognized as a fellow of the Academy of Nursing Education.
And, of course, Marlon Blackwell, professor of architecture, received the American Institute of Architects Gold Medal – and was also named Professor of the Year by the SEC Conference.
These are but a few examples of the excellent scholarship, research, discovery and creative works that go on at this institution on a daily basis—even during the pandemic.
As I believe everyone knows, the pandemic has also created significant economic challenges for businesses and individuals. We have been faced with our own financial challenges over the last several months. Because of lower tax revenues related to the pandemic, the state legislature cut roughly $8.3 million dollars from last year’s budget and reduced this year’s appropriations by an additional $15.7 million dollars.
Last spring, the board of trustees decided to not increase tuition and fees for the fall semester, which was absolutely the right thing to do given the financial challenges our students and their families have been facing and continue to face. Nevertheless, this has made it a bit more challenging to overcome the state budget cuts.
We were also extremely concerned that nationally, the pundits were predicting that large drops in enrollment would further damage the abilities of universities to finance basic university functions. There was a downturn in enrollment across the country. But I’m delighted to report the prediction did not become reality here: We actually saw a slight increase in our enrollment, up to 27,562. I think this is a testament to the quality experiences we offer students here at the U of A.
The revenue picture for the state improved a bit over the summer and the appropriations cut from last year’s budget were restored, thank goodness. The budget cut for this year remains, however. I have my fingers crossed that revenue for the state will continue to come in higher than predicted in the spring and that at least some of our current fiscal year cuts will be restored. I don’t believe we will know that, however, until next spring.
That said, managing the COVID crisis has still had a significant cost to our campus.
These additional expenditures have ranged from issuing housing and dining credits,
lost revenue from closing things and suspending activities like the Rome Center and summer camps, canceling all of our campus summer events, including the Walmart shareholders meeting, fee reductions on summer school classes, cancelling all spring athletic competition and reducing capacity at athletic events this fall, and so many, many other things that had to be discounted, delayed or cancelled.
We also did things like expand our computer loan program through UITS and UA CARES, ordering another 200 computers for loan to students so that now we have 500 computers available to students for daily or semester-long loans. Our UA Cares program also distributed several thousands of dollars in Emergency Funds to students between March and September. These funds were usually between $300 and $500 and helped students who were in dire need of money for the basics like rent and food.
All told, not including our state cut, we estimate that we spent or lost about $22 million by the end of the summer to deal with the pandemic. This number will be higher as we tally Covid-related spending since early August and as we move forward.
Fortunately, the full impact of COVID-19 has been offset by things like the CARES grants from the federal government, which were very helpful – both to the university and to our students, many of whom were facing a much more dire situation personally. We dispersed more than $7.7 million in CARES grants funds directly to our students and have received another $7.5 million dollars to offset COVID-19 related expenses on campus. I am hoping that another CARES grant with funding for higher education will eventually be passed by congress to further defray the cost of the virus.
I have one more accomplishment I want to make sure I highlight, an effort that will benefit us for many years to come. I want to recognize vice chancellor for advancement, Mark Power, and his entire team for bringing to conclusion the most successful capital campaign in university history. Campaign Arkansas raised just under $1.45 billion dollars for our university. These funds will help us is several areas.
A rough breakdown of where these new funds are targeted looks like this:
- 37% for student scholarships and academic programs
- 25% for faculty and staff support
- 32% for capital improvements
- 6% for a variety of other key initiatives.
This translates into more than a 700 new student scholarships and fellowships, as well as nearly a hundred faculty and staff support funds, including 46 new endowed faculty positions. We ended Campaign Arkansas in spectacular fashion, with the $194.7 million grant from the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation to establish the Institute for Integrative and Innovative Research – or I3R – a substantial investment in our university to support research and discovery.
I have written about I3R in the past but will note that it will have a university-wide presence, not owned or administered by any existing academic unit. It will be a place that emphasizes discovery in a collaborative environment that includes strong partnerships with the private sector. It’s home will be a new $100 million dollar research facility, located near the nano building. This project will be presented at next month’s Board of Trustee’s meeting, which, incidentally, will be held on our campus.
We selected this site after a number of informational sessions with various user groups, as well as design and construction management teams. The site will be conducive to promoting radical levels of collaboration as well as be highly accessible to our private sector partners. We anticipate that many of our current faculty and students will be part of the Institute.
In addition, the $194.7 million grant includes funds for 20 new endowed positions, so we will be able to add great new talent to the university in the years ahead. We have long sought to find a way to build on our core research strengths, distinguish ourselves nationally and be more competitive for large federal grants that increasingly favor collaborative teams of researchers. I3R will help us accomplish all three. This is a major step forward for our research mission and I am grateful for the support we received from the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation and the great confidence they have in our faculty, staff and students here at the U of A.
At this point, I’d like to start looking ahead a little. First, as I wrote last week, we will return to our mix of face-to-face and remote courses after the Thanksgiving break.
That is, the campus will not close down after Thanksgiving. I do remind everyone that as has been the case since the first day of classes, students can still shift from fact-to-face to remote learning if they would like to – we provided that flexibility for the fall semester.
Next week we are also kicking off a promotion to encourage COVID testing for both symptomatic and asymptomatic students. The idea here is we want to maintain and improve our understanding of infection rates among our student body, while preventing the spread of infection – particularly before students go home for Thanksgiving. We can now do this since we have rapid tests available. The goal is to test a minimum of 300 additional students per week on a voluntary basis. We will invite students to participate by selecting a sample of students living both on and off-campus. Watch your email for an invite. The incentive is that participants will be offered a gift card for accepting the invitation and getting tested.
And, it bears repeating that we all must continue to wear masks, wash hands and keep a safe distance from folks for all this to work. I can’t stress this enough.
Another big item on people’s minds is commencement. As of today, we are committed to having a fall commencement. As you can imagine, it will look a little different. It looks like Commencement will involve a limitation on guests and participants, staggered events, and extra days so that we can create a safe, physically distant environment. Of course, face masks will be required.
We also expect several students who graduated in May will join the ceremony as well.
A feature we will retain is that students will have the opportunity to walk across the commencement stage in recognition of the perseverance and dedication it took each graduate to earn a degree. It’s a great accomplishment. We know this is extremely important ceremony to our students and to their families and friends. And it is to us, as well. The specifics are now posted on the registrar’s website.
We’re also turning our focus to the spring semester. We are operating under the assumption that a vaccine for widespread use will likely not be available by the beginning of the spring semester. So, we’re looking at several options, including perhaps delaying the start of the spring semester a week if that appears to make sense and distributing spring break days across the entire semester rather than a single week. As it’s been for these last several months, flexibility will continue to be the watchword. The availability of a vaccine, the severity of cold and flu season, and the behavior of our community on campus and off when it comes to observing health and safety guidelines will shape our decisions.
I do, though, want to encourage our faculty to offer as many face-to-face classes as possible this spring and our students to show up in person for these classes. To this point, we’ve shown that attending face-to-face classes can be done safely, as evidenced by the extremely low rates of infection by our faculty, staff, and grad students. The spring schedule of classes is available now, so students can see how their courses will be delivered.
Here is something I want you think carefully about: Face-to-face classes are an important part of the energy and atmosphere of campus – as well as the uniqueness of both the college experience and the University of Arkansas experience. We aren’t an on-line or remote university. It’s not who we are. College isn’t only a formal classroom education. It’s also an experience – an experience that is enriched by contact with faculty and other students. I am saddened that our students our largely missing this experience. I am also saddened that the campus is missing the vitality that makes it the special place it is Collectively, we need to find a balance between remote instruction and what we do best, face-t0-face instruction. Both are great ways to learn and need to be part of the mix going forward. I believe we can provide both experiences and do so in a manner that is safe for everyone.
Now, as we look ahead, I have to briefly return to the past again. Last year, I proposed 10 action items I thought we needed to make progress on. These actions were a means of revisiting and recalibrating our Guiding Priorities, which had been in progress for several years. You know, over the remainder of the fall semester and the first half of the spring semester, I released a series of white papers that built on these actions, offering ideas about where I think we needed to go and examples of specific actions we could pursue. That seems like a long time ago!
While COVID-associated planning has absorbed a lot of our attention since then, we have continued to make progress on these items. I don’t want to review all of them today, but I do want to highlight a few major milestones that indicate we are moving forward. First and foremost, our graduation and retention rates have continued to improve. Last year, our six-year graduation rate exceeded 66% percent for the first time, and we expect this year’s grad rate to reach 68.49%. Our freshmen retention rate is also expected to hit 85%. Both are record highs. Based off this, as well as steady progress on the construction of the Student Success Center, which is on pace to be completed in late 2021 or early 2022, I anticipate that in the very near future exceeding our expected graduation rate will be an annual event and a strong indicator of our efforts to promote and enhance student success.
I’ve already mentioned I3R, which will go a long way toward creating a more collaborative and innovative campus research environment. This was of primary interest in my fourth action item. What I didn’t mention was that $14 million of the $194.7 million grant is going toward a satellite campus in Bentonville. A planning process is underway to determine how we will populate this space with outreach, research and lab space, as well as educational space. In the second action item, I made the case for creating a satellite campus in Benton County to deliver courses and programs to employees of local businesses and industries. So this, too, is now becoming a reality. A special thanks is owed to vice provost for distance education, Cheryl Murphy, and associate dean of the Walton College of Business, Brent Williams, for spearheading this effort. Great work.
I also want to say a few words on diversity and inclusion. Action item 8 stated “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.” This, of course, remains our goal, but I think the intervening months have revealed that we have a lot of work to do on our own campus. Indeed, we are part of an ardent and urgent national conversation about systemic racism. The impact of the murder of George Floyd on our campus community has sparked expressions of desire by students, faculty and staff to support equality, opportunity and inclusion through action. The university is committed to these principles and values and will continue to work toward improving the experiences of the underrepresented members of our Razorback family.
Before I get into how we’re addressing larger concerns, I want to recognize some efforts that have been successful. This fall three teams of university researchers received separate grants averaging a million dollars in support of diversity efforts.
All them touch on the STEM fields. One grant funds the recruitment and retention of doctoral students from populations that are historically underrepresented in the STEM fields, primarily through scholarships. Another will promote equity for women faculty, also with an emphasis on bringing more, and a more diverse range, of women into the STEM fields. And the goal of the third grant is closing America's STEM innovation gap through collaboration with industry. It will recruit diverse STEM students interested in advancing innovation, also primarily through scholarship support. These are significant grants that intersect a number of priorities: investing in and diversifying our graduate students and faculty, advancing innovation and entrepreneurship, and ultimately strengthening our research capacity. So tremendous work is being done that will have clear, quantifiable results. I am extremely proud of the teams of staff and faculty who made these grants happen.
That said, we’ve got some work to do on improving our campus climate.
Over the last few months, I and other campus leaders have been meeting with student advisory groups, alumni groups, and holding forums about how best to address some of the issue we’re facing. We’ve received a number of recommendations that fall under four broad categories. I’ve mentioned these in my regular campus update, but I will run through them quickly now as a refresher:
1) Enhancing our campus climate.
What can we do to make our campus more inclusive? How can we be more welcoming?
2) Strengthen recruitment and retention.
How can we better recruit underrepresented students and ensure we retain them?
Recruitment is only half of the equation—retention is equally important. Students have to feel included as well or they will simply leave our university—this should never happen. Indeed, diversity without inclusion undermines retention.
3) Improving human resources.
What can we do to ensure diverse pools of faculty and staff candidates and how can we better wrap new university hires with training, resources, inclusive best practices and retention strategies? The NSF grants I just mentioned are steps in the right direction, but we have to do more. And finally,
4) Cultivating and fostering student success.
What can we do to ensure all students stay on track to graduation? Certainly, this is the premise behind our Student Success Center - wrapping students in individualized support and keeping them on track to graduation.
To address these recommendations, we’re conducting an audit to quantify what we have so we can better understand what more we need to do. We will also look for ways to get students involved – students of all backgrounds – so that they can be heard and a part of the effort, too. Once we’ve identified our priorities, we will establish a timeline as well as clear benchmarks for change. And this process will be helped by a broad-based Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Group we are in the process of forming. Above all, this group will help us define and organize our priorities as short, medium and long-term goals and also establish benchmarks to measure success on these goals, which we can then share with campus. We hope to have an outline of this to share in the near future.
Finally, I want to go over a few administrative changes and appointments we recently made. At the top of the list, I am thrilled that Charles Robinson has accepted an appointment as Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor for Academic and Student Affairs. The cross-pollination between Academic Affairs and Student Affairs has never been more important given the environment we find ourselves in and what will inevitably be a changed environment when we emerge from the pandemic.
I couldn’t ask for a better leader and partner in running this enterprise.
Charles is doing a great job.
I also want to recognize a few other folks in new positions:
Ann Bordelon has taken over as vice chancellor for finance and administration and is doing a wonderful job helping us to financially manage our way through the pandemic.
I want to recognize Mike White for the great job he did as the interim VCFA when this pandemic began last spring.
Also, David Snow was named interim vice chancellor for economic development.
John English has been appointed vice chancellor for research and innovation and will begin November first.
As will Dean Kim Needy, who has been appointed dean of the College of Engineering.
Finally, also beginning November first, Dean Pat Koski will serve as dean of Graduate School and International Education.
And I thank Dan Sui for his work as vice chancellor for research hand innovation and wish him the best in his new position at Virginia Tech.
With that, I’ll bring this address to a close. Over the last several months this university has faced extraordinary challenges, as so much of America and the world has. We’ve been stretched and strained and asked to do more with less. Like our nation at large, our campus community has also been sharply divided over whether we should be completely open or completely closed. The economic fallout of the COVID pandemic made budgeting for this year extremely worrisome - even a little scary. And while we always knew we were not as diverse as we wanted to be as an institution, we sadly also learned weren’t nearly as inclusive as we need to be, either.
But all of this was an opportunity to listen, learn and engage with our campus community to find the best way forward. To work together for the good of everyone. To address their concerns and fears. And to find solutions that rise above platitudes and quick fixes to meaningful and enduring change. I believe this speaks to the strength of this university - to its faculty, staff, students, and alumni - that even in the midst of the worst public health crisis in a century, we have continued to make progress across a range of fronts.
I think the overall message here today is that we are going to stay focused.
We are not going to let COVID-19 prevent us from moving forward. We are going to retain students and graduate students at record rates and we are going to position them for post-graduation success. We are going to conduct world-class research, continue to build and maintain strong graduate programs, and continue to find ways to provide our faculty with the support they need to be successful. We are going to win grants, gifts, and awards that open doors and create opportunities. We are going to continue diversifying our students, staff and faculty and create a more inclusive environment. And we are going to continue to do everything in our power to keep our campus community safe and healthy.
We simply can’t let COVID-19 stop us from being the university we aspire to be – and will be. This is not the first time our country has faced a crisis or been deeply divided about the way forward. It won’t be the last, either. What I want you to know is that we are going to stay together, and we are going to succeed together. We are going to look back and be proud of who we were and what we accomplished in difficult times. That is the way forward for the University of Arkansas.
And the timing couldn’t be better. We are on the threshold of our 150th year as an institution. I cannot think of anything more fitting than to begin the next 150 years celebrating our accomplishments while we move aggressively forward into the future that I am sure we will marked by new significant contributions made by the University of Arkansas to the world around us.