(These are excerpts of Jan. 20 remarks by the president of Georgia’s flagship university.)
Let me start by sharing one of my core beliefs as president of this great institution: there are few organizations more important to the vitality of our communities, to the strength of our democracy, and to the health of our economy than the American research university.
A case in point can be found right here — at this special place — the University of Georgia: our nation’s first state-chartered institution of higher education; a land-grant and sea-grant university with international reach; a dynamic knowledge-based enterprise driven by the pursuit of academic excellence.
After all, it is here that students are being prepared to lead in a global society. And it is here that grand challenges are being tackled to improve the human condition. And it is right here that an unwavering promise is being fulfilled to serve the state of Georgia and the world beyond.
These three indispensable functions of preparing leaders, addressing grand challenges, and fulfilling our promise to serve will provide the outline for my address today. As we reflect on our many accomplishments from the past year and look forward to new opportunities that lie ahead, a clear image will emerge of an institution succeeding in every facet of its mission.
Preparing Students to Lead in a Global Society
The foundation of any great public research university most certainly is undergraduate education. Teaching and learning at the undergraduate level inspire excellence in every other aspect of academic life — from graduate and professional education to research, scholarship, and public service. Without a doubt, this maxim holds true at the University of Georgia, where undergraduate education is truly flourishing and students are being prepared to lead in a global society.
As the world changes, so must the University of Georgia, and it is. In this setting one year ago, a proposal was unveiled to provide all undergraduate students at UGA with an experiential learning opportunity prior to graduation. This proposal was approved by the University Council in April and will go into effect for incoming first-year students this fall, making UGA the largest public university in the nation to provide each of its students with a high-impact, experiential learning opportunity.
Through undergraduate research, internships, study abroad, service-learning, and other significant learning experiences, UGA students will learn to leverage course content against pressing issues beyond the classroom walls; they will enhance problem-solving and critical thinking skills; and they will become better prepared for graduate school and careers in the 21st century. I would like to express my deepest gratitude to our faculty and to the many campus leaders who have worked tirelessly during the last year to design and implement this transformational initiative.
I am grateful to the Athletic Association, which not only supports our more than 550 student-athletes but also made a lead gift to advance experiential learning. I hope others will follow in that example because this initiative will require both public and private support to succeed.
I noted that undergraduate research was a key component of expanding experiential learning on campus. In the fall of 2014, we introduced the CURO Research Assistantship Program to offer stipends for outstanding students across schools and colleges to conduct research alongside faculty. I am pleased this program — under the leadership of Associate Provost Dr. David Williams — exceeded expectations in its first year.
In light of this success, today, I am directing funds to increase the program’s annual budget up to a total of $500,000 annually to allow many more students to participate in this enriching educational opportunity. I would like to point out that every UGA student who has won a major national academic scholarship — including Meredith Paker, who was named recipient of the prestigious Marshall Scholarship this past fall — has participated in CURO. This fact reveals the strength of the undergraduate research program at the University of Georgia, and we intend to enrich it even more.
The University also has launched another faculty hiring initiative to promote further student learning and success. More than $4 million was allocated to hire 56 new faculty members, creating more than 300 new course sections across a number of majors. The objective behind this significant investment is simple: to create greater levels of faculty-student interaction and mentorship by reducing class sizes in a number of places. The majority of the new course sections created through this initiative will have fewer than 20 students.
In addition to these exciting academic initiatives, the University also advanced a number of capital projects in 2015 to enhance the learning environment for students. Delta Hall — named in honor of a lead gift by the Delta Air Lines Foundation — opened in Washington, DC, providing a premier residential learning facility to support UGA’s many successful academic and internship programs.
Construction on the new Science Learning Center remains on track, with classes scheduled to open in this superb facility later this year. The renovation and expansion project for Baldwin Hall will significantly improve the learning environment in one of our historic buildings on North Campus. Correll Hall, Phase I of Terry College’s Business Learning Community, opened its doors last semester, thanks in large part to a leadership gift by distinguished UGA alumni Pete and Ada Lee Correll, for whom this state-of-the-art building is named.
Construction now is underway on Phase II of the Business Learning Community; Amos Hall — which honors a major gift by UGA alumnus and Aflac CEO and Chairman Dan Amos — will rest at the center of the second phase when construction is completed in 2017. And, with the support of Chancellor Hank Huckaby and the Board of Regents, we will begin the planning and design of the third and final phase of the Business Learning Community this spring.
As we pause to consider all of these accomplishments, it should be no surprise that the University’s first-year retention rate reached an all-time high of 95.2 percent this year and that the six-year graduation rate climbed to a record 85.3 percent. Nor should it be surprising that, for the third year in a row, the University enrolled the most academically talented class of first-year students in its long history — a class that arrived with an average GPA of 3.91, an average SAT score of 1301, and an average ACT score of 29. And, it should be no surprise that UGA was ranked once again among the very best public research universities in the nation by Forbes and U.S. News and World Report.
While we all should take pride in receiving these accolades, opportunities remain for UGA to become a more open and welcoming academic community. For that reason, we launched a Women’s Leadership Initiative in 2015, with the inaugural class of Women’s Leadership Fellows being named in November. We also conducted in the fall a comprehensive survey to assess our campus climate — the first of its kind at this institution. I am grateful to the committee, led by Associate Provost and Chief Diversity Officer Dr. Michelle Cook, for coordinating this important project.
In the interest of affordability, I am pleased to announce that the University will extend the freeze on food services rates for a third year in a row and also extend the ongoing freeze on parking rates. Moreover, for a third consecutive year, no mandatory student fees will be increased, except for the phased fee increase to support UGA’s new student information system. And the adoption of open educational resources across campus is expected to save students nearly $2 million in textbook costs by the end of the current academic year. These actions have been implemented to help ensure that the world-class education offered at the University of Georgia remains as affordable as possible.
Tackling Grand Challenges to Improve the Human Condition
Let me now turn to the second subject of today’s address: tackling grand challenges to improve the human condition. Dr. Clark Kerr, former President of the University of California System, wrote in his seminal book on the function of the modern research university that, “as society goes, so goes the university; but, also, as the university goes, so goes society. The progress of knowledge remains so central to the progress of civilization.”
In this passage, he appropriately correlates the future of humankind with the strength of our nation’s research universities. His statement still rings true today, and it reminds us of our obligation to extend the frontiers of knowledge through research that shapes the world for the better.
The influence of our vital research enterprise can be seen clearly across three signature research themes unveiled in the fall after a yearlong, data-driven process involving the faculty, the deans, and many other administrators.
These broad themes illustrate the great magnitude of the challenges being addressed by research and scholarship of UGA faculty and include: 1) inquiring and innovating to improve human health; 2) safeguarding and sustaining our world; and 3) changing lives through the land-grant mission.
As just one example of the first theme, improving human health, imagine for a moment a world in which we were protected by a universal vaccine from all strains of seasonal and pandemic influenza — no more annual shots; no more attempts to reformulate vaccines to match dominant strains of the virus; and no more widespread and life-threatening flu outbreaks. That is exactly the world that Dr. Ted Ross is diligently striving to create as GRA Eminent Scholar of Infectious Diseases and Director of UGA’s newly developed Center for Vaccines and Immunology.
Changing lives through the land-grant mission, the third signature research theme, demonstrates UGA’s commitment to conduct research and scholarship to enhance the vitality of the communities in this state. Take, for example, a new project being led by Dr. Ted Futris, associate professor in the department of human development and family science and a UGA Extension family life specialist.
With the support of an $8.2 million grant, Dr. Futris and his team are helping to create positive and stable homes by integrating research-based services designed to improve healthy marriage and relationship skills and to promote economic stability. This project will touch nearly 1,500 families in a 13-county region of northeast Georgia.
Even after implementing a number of major hiring initiatives, the fact remains that our greatest barrier to recruiting and retaining outstanding faculty is the salary gap between this University and our peers. However, important steps are being taken to close this gap. For the past two years, we have been able to offer merit-based raises to faculty and staff.
Governor Nathan Deal has proposed a merit-raise pool for faculty and staff for the upcoming fiscal year, and I am emphasizing the critical importance of this proposal with members of our General Assembly.
In 2015, the University secured funding to establish 13 new endowed chairs and professorships, bringing the total number of endowed faculty positions to 260. It is a point of pride that 33 new chairs and professorships have been created since July 2013 — a 15 percent increase. Our research expenditures also increased seven percent last year, and early quarterly reports indicate that this positive trend will continue through the current fiscal year.
The institution also advanced a number of facilities projects in 2015 to expand research capacity in areas related to our signature research themes. The Veterinary Medical Center opened, for example, allowing plans to move forward to repurpose space vacated in the former facility on South Campus to accommodate the Center for Vaccines and Immunology. Portions of the Chemistry and Biological Sciences buildings also will be vacated once the Science Learning Center opens this fall, and some of that space will be converted into modern research laboratories.
To continue to strengthen our position as a leading public research university, we also must enhance graduate and professional education. The symbiotic relationship between the quality of graduate and professional education and the quality of the research enterprise cannot be overstated: the two functions are highly interconnected and complementary.
This relationship is well understood by our faculty, including Dr. Vanessa Ezenwa, associate professor in the Odum School of Ecology and the College of Veterinary Medicine, who received a grant of nearly $3 million last year to develop an interdisciplinary graduate training program in disease ecology.
As another example, the School of Law will be establishing a Distinguished Law Fellows Program to provide the best and brightest applicants with full tuition and a series of enriching professional development opportunities. This innovative program, inspired by UGA’s Foundation Fellows Program, is being launched by a $2 million gift from the Goddard Foundation that will create the first law fellows named after the late Philip H. Alston Jr.
To enhance graduate and professional education campus-wide, however, a more extensive and coordinated approach is required. Toward that end, Provost Pam Whitten is working closely with the deans and other senior administrators to develop a three-pronged strategy to advance the University in this crucial area.
The first prong will establish internationally recognized graduate fellowships to recruit outstanding master’s- and PhD-level students. The second prong will elevate the role of the Graduate School in fostering new and innovative programs under the leadership of Dean Suzanne Barbour. The Graduate School will begin incubating new interdisciplinary programs and offering tailored professional development opportunities to students — among other steps. The third prong will focus on expanding enrollment by establishing a financial incentive plan to reward schools and colleges for increasing the quality and quantity of graduate and professional students.
Fulfilling Our Promise to Serve Georgia
Woven throughout my remarks today is a special thread, a thread that illuminates the unbreakable bond between the University of Georgia and the state of Georgia. During the 2014 Louise McBee Lecture, Dr. Mary Sue Coleman, President Emerita of the University of Michigan and incoming President of AAU, rightly observed that, “public universities have an extraordinary compact with society, and especially the citizens of our states.”
This University, with land- and sea-grant missions, exists in large part to serve the state we proudly call home — to expand leadership capacity, to promote prosperity, to address pressing challenges. This is our sacred promise, and the final part of today’s address will reveal our steadfast commitment to ensuring that promise is fulfilled.
The University of Georgia long has been a catalyst for economic development in Georgia. Consider for a moment the University’s Small Business Development Center — born 40 years ago as one of the first centers of its kind in the nation and now boasting 17 offices across the state. The performance metrics associated with this program are staggering. In just the last 10 years, the SBDC has helped nearly 3,400 entrepreneurs start their own businesses. Over the same period, SBDC clients have created more than 20,000 new jobs and obtained access to over $800 million in capital.
These statistics make it clear: the small business community throughout Georgia — arguably the backbone of the state’s economy — relies heavily on the expertise and resources of the University of Georgia. With highly effective service and outreach programs, such as SBDC, strategically positioned around the state, it is easy to understand why UGA’s estimated annual economic impact on Georgia now reaches $4.4 billion.
To expand the University’s leadership role in economic development, I am pleased to announce today that the Carl Vinson Institute of Government is launching a new state-wide certification for economic development professionals — called the Georgia Certified Economic Developer Program. The new initiative features a three-year curriculum created by experts from across the state, who intimately understand Georgia’s unique business landscape.
From this point forward, economic development professionals will be able to stay in this state to receive training in an area so central to the vitality of Georgia’s communities. Again, we find the Vinson Institute swiftly adapting to address emerging needs of the state.
The University’s J.W. Fanning Institute for Leadership Development is no different in this regard. Finding a void in advanced training on community leadership development, Fanning is coordinating UGA’s first-ever Community Leadership Conference next month, bringing together industry experts with local practitioners to discuss emerging trends and best practices. Training more than 4,500 individuals in 2015 alone, Fanning continues to build leadership capacity in communities across Georgia.
Developing renewable energy sources as part of a balanced energy mix is a priority in this state and across the nation. The University of Georgia and Georgia Power have teamed up to advance solar energy research and development. A solar tracking demonstration project was dedicated recently near the Club Sports Complex. The new facility will push clean energy into the state’s electric grid, while providing research and experiential learning opportunities for our students in the field of renewable energy.
Last year, the University and Georgia Power also worked together to close the old coal-fired boiler on campus and replace it with a new high-efficiency electrode boiler, a move projected to save the institution approximately $500,000 annually.
Southern Company and its subsidiary Georgia Power have been among our strongest partners in advancing research and development. Our many corporate partnerships showcase the tremendous innovation and impact that can occur when higher education and private industry combine resources to achieve a common end for the benefit of this state.
As you can see, the University of Georgia is — and will forever be — Georgia’s university, helping to advance this state through a far-reaching array of programs and services that supports every major facet of community life, from our natural resources to our human resources. Although the mission of the
University of Georgia is becoming increasingly international in scope, the state’s flagship institution remains firmly rooted at home.