2015 State of the University

January 21, 2015
by Jere W. Morehead, President
The Chapel, 3:30 pm

Good afternoon, and thank you for joining me today.  David, I appreciate that very kind introduction, and I am grateful for your continued service as Chair of the Executive Committee of University Council.

This gathering represents one of the many great traditions at the University of Georgia.  In January of each year, the President has the privilege to provide the campus community with a report on the state of the University.  I am honored to continue that tradition today.

Let me begin with a simple but compelling truth: the state of the University of Georgia is stronger now than at any point in our 230-year history.  The evidence for this statement can be found in the world-class learning environment created by our outstanding faculty, staff, and students, as well as in our expanding research enterprise in areas of local, national, and global significance.

It can be seen in the numerous ways we are extending our vast intellectual resources to promote prosperity in communities across Georgia and beyond.  And, the evidence lies in the important steps we are taking as a community to secure the long-term success of America’s first state-chartered University.

These four broad areas—building a world-class learning environment, expanding the research enterprise, promoting prosperity, and securing our long-term success—will serve as the framework for my address this afternoon.

They also will paint a picture of a University—propelled by its land-grant mission—that is pursuing a strategic course to reach new heights of excellence as a leader among the nation’s best public research universities.

Building a World-Class Learning Environment

This fall, the University of Georgia enrolled the most academically qualified class of first-year students in its history.  You might feel as if you have heard that statement before, and you have.  I made this very same statement during the State of the University address one year ago.

The demand for a UGA degree continues to rise among our state and nation’s most exceptional students.  They are attracted to the world-class learning environment we are building together at the University of Georgia.

The foundation of the rich educational experience we offer is our outstanding faculty, who are firmly committed to student learning:  faculty such as Dr. John Knox, who was named Georgia Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation; Dr. Marshall Shepherd, who received the Protector of the Earth award from the Captain Planet Foundation; Drs. William Finlay and Paula Lemons, who received awards for excellence in teaching from the Board of Regents this year; and Drs. James Hamilton, Audrey Haynes, and David Mustard, who are our most recent recipients of the Josiah Meigs Distinguished Teaching Professorship, the University’s highest recognition for teaching excellence.

Of course, we have hundreds of other faculty members who are creating student-centered classrooms and laboratories and using today’s most innovative instructional methods to facilitate learning at the highest levels possible.

Our many dedicated staff members also contribute in significant ways—seen and unseen—to the lives of our students and to the life of this University.  There is no better illustration of this point, perhaps, than the ongoing implementation of Athena, our new student information system and the product of hundreds of staff members working together, tirelessly, for more than four years, to advance information technology for the benefit of the entire campus.   

With this example and many others in mind, I am excited to announce today that in May of this year the President’s Office will host a campus-wide Staff Appreciation Day.  This event will be the culmination of a weeklong initiative designed to thank our outstanding staff members for their many contributions to the University of Georgia.

I am grateful to the team of staff leaders—representing departments across campus and the University Staff Council—that is planning this celebration.  My thanks to each of you for your work on this important project.

With an eye toward the future, we are constructing state-of-the-art facilities to support the academic work of our faculty and students.  In August, the University broke ground on a new Science Learning Center near Stegeman Coliseum—a dream for many, many years now becoming a reality with its opening in the fall of 2016.

Those who attended the ceremony were moved by the remarks of Meg Babcock-Adams, a senior at UGA and future scientist, as she described—in the way only a student can—how this new facility will position the University of Georgia at the leading edge of science education.

Later in the fall, on our Griffin campus, we broke ground on the Food Technology Center.

Just last month, here in Athens, we began an expansion and renovation project for historic Baldwin Hall to address pressing academic needs in the School of Public and International Affairs.  The project also includes improvements for the Departments of Anthropology and Sociology in the Franklin College and a new elevator to make all areas of the building accessible.

A dedication ceremony is planned next month for the new Veterinary Medical Center.  Spanning roughly 300,000 square feet, the new center will allow the College of Veterinary Medicine to increase enrollment, expand on existing specialties, and create new academic programs to keep pace with advances in veterinary science.

Two weeks later, we will dedicate the new UGA in Washington facility, which will serve as a front door for the University in the nation’s capital and provide an affordable housing option for our undergraduate students who participate in our thriving academic and internship programs offered in Washington, D.C.

Construction on Correll Hall—Phase I of the Terry College’s Business Learning Community—is progressing on the corner of Baxter and Lumpkin streets.  This facility will open next fall.

We were grateful to learn last week that Governor Deal included in his budget recommendation to the General Assembly $43 million in state funds for Phase II of the Terry College Learning Community.  These funds would be joined by $14 million in private gifts, bringing the total contribution from the state and our generous friends and supporters to Phase I and Phase II of the Terry project to more than $90 million.

We are grateful that the Governor also recommended $17 million to build a new facility for our burgeoning Center for Molecular Medicine.  If approved, this investment from the state would be coupled with $8 million in non-state support to create a $25 million center.

In addition to enhancements to our facilities, the 2014 calendar year also saw the implementation of a number of new academic initiatives focused on student success.  We hired new faculty to add course sections in which limited space was shown to impede timely progress toward earning a degree.

We also hired 25 additional academic advisors and upgraded information technology systems.  A research assistantship program was launched that provides stipends for undergraduate students to conduct research in close partnership with faculty and graduate students as part of established research teams.  All told, these new initiatives represent a significant investment in the academic success of UGA students.

Over the past year, we also invested in programs and services to create a more welcoming and open campus that fosters educational growth and understanding for all.  For example, Provost Pam Whitten and I jointly announced the Women’s Resources Initiative in September. This initiative is designed to enhance access to services for women across campus.

This fall, we saw the University unite around the national “It’s on Us” sexual assault awareness campaign.  Numerous programs were organized in support of a safer campus environment.  These events complemented the ongoing work being done, every day, by dedicated staff in the University Health Center, the UGA Police Department, the Equal Opportunity Office—among other areas—to address this critical issue on our campus.

A new space was dedicated in the Tate Center for student veterans—another important advancement in our commitment to serve our students at UGA who have served this country so honorably.

All of us should be pleased that our ongoing efforts to foster an inclusive and diverse campus were nationally recognized this year through honors such as receiving the prestigious “Higher Education Excellence in Diversity Award” and being ranked as a “Best for Vets” college by Military Times

We must, however, continue seeking opportunities to create an even more connected and nurturing academic community for all.  To aid the University in this endeavor, the Provost and I have directed funds to the Office of Institutional Diversity to conduct a campus-wide climate survey this year.

I also am establishing today a $250,000 endowment for that office to expand diversity training opportunities on campus and to expand initiatives focused on the recruitment and success of underrepresented faculty and students.  Strengthening our commitment to a welcoming and open campus remains critical to our future success as a great public research university, dedicated to serving all the people of this state and beyond.

I am proud of our strong commitment to put students first at the University of Georgia.  The institution’s remarkable first-year retention rate is one positive result of this commitment.  We can expect 94 percent of this year’s incoming freshman class to return next fall for their sophomore year.

Another result is our climbing six-year graduation rate, which has reached a record high at roughly 85 percent.  It is worth noting that almost all of these students—around 83 percent—will graduate in five years or less.  Our high retention and graduation rates are part of the reason we were ranked again among the top 20 public universities by U.S. News & World Report.

We learned in the fall that the overall graduation rate among student-athletes reached a record high at 84 percent—on par with non-athletes—and nine sports teams achieved a rate of 90 percent or above.  Additionally, the more than 550 student-athletes enrolled at the University of Georgia earned an average GPA of 3.0 last semester. 

Chris Conley was named SEC Scholar-Athlete of the Year in football, and—just last week—Olympic gold medalist Shannon Vreeland received the NCAA Top Ten Award as one of the very best student-athletes in the country.

As you can see, the University of Georgia is building a world-class learning environment where our students flourish academically.  Just as important, these students will graduate with little debt relative to the national average for similar institutions.  The University of Georgia is among the nation’s leaders in providing an exceptional education at an affordable cost.  Being consistently ranked in the top 10 of Kiplinger’s “100 Best Values in Public Colleges” is one indication of our strong commitment to keep costs low and quality high for students and families.

This commitment must continue, and, toward that end, I am pleased to announce that the University will extend the freeze on food services and parking rates for our students through the 2015-2016 academic year.  In addition, with the exception of the fee that supports Athena, the University did not propose an increase to any mandatory student fees for next year.

I am grateful to the many individuals across campus whose conscientious financial planning is allowing the University to hold these costs steady for another year.

These are all excellent accomplishments in keeping with our commitment to put students first.  However, we should not rest on the accomplishments of today.  We must continue our pursuit of excellence well into the future.

And, it is in this spirit of bold institutional progress that I want to share with you an innovative new initiative being developed to further enhance the learning environment for our students.

Currently, the Provost is working with the deans and our faculty on a proposal that would provide all undergraduate students at the University of Georgia with an experiential learning opportunity prior to graduation.

Recognizing the differences that exist across academic programs, the experiential learning component could be met through a variety of ways: an internship, for instance—like the one completed by Jamie Gottlieb, a public relations major in the Grady College, whose internship led her to NBC Universal to work on social media strategy for various news brands.

Or, a student might conduct a research project—perhaps through our Center for Undergraduate Research Opportunities, where Charles Bond, a biological engineering major in our College of Engineering, recently conducted research on large-scale production scenarios for bioplastics and algae biofuels. 

The component also could be fulfilled by travel study at one of our international campuses in Cortona, Costa Rica, or Oxford; or perhaps by staying closer to home to help revitalize a community in Georgia through a service learning project; or even by working in Washington, D.C. and living in our new residential facility. 

Regardless of what and where, each student’s experience would occur outside of the traditional classroom environment and would be grounded in his or her major and tailored uniquely to aspirations beyond graduation.

Each experience also would help students connect foundational knowledge to real-world challenges, hone critical thinking and problem-solving skills, and build confidence and civic responsibility.  These are but a few of the highly important educational outcomes associated with experiential learning.

Under the proposal being developed, our schools and colleges will define the specific courses and activities that fulfill the experiential learning component for their academic programs, ensuring seamless integration into existing curricula without increasing hours required for graduation in any major.

To offer a tailored learning opportunity to each and every student at a major public research university would be an extraordinary accomplishment.  The proposal demonstrates the innovative spirit of our faculty and their ability to push the boundaries of undergraduate education.  This point cannot be overstated. 

Last Friday, the proposal was presented to the University Curriculum Committee for discussion.  If approved by the faculty, this transformational initiative would begin with first-year students who enroll in the fall of 2016.   I look forward to providing more details in the coming weeks and months as we develop a funding plan—involving public and private resources—to make it a reality.

Expanding the Research Enterprise in Areas of Local, National, and Global Significance

From our world-class learning environment, I now turn to our dynamic research enterprise, which is expanding in areas of local, national, and global significance.  The research conducted at the University of Georgia broadens our understanding of the human condition.  It promotes economic development.  It addresses problems that threaten our security and well-being.  In short, our research changes lives and changes the world for the better.

The research conducted by Drs. Gene Brody and Steven Beach—Co-Directors of UGA’s Center for Family Research—is a case in point.  A team of scientists in the center, led by Professors Brody and Beach, received four grants last year from the National Institutes of Health providing more than $10 million to develop new strategies to improve the health and well-being of young, rural African-Americans in Georgia.

Dr. Samantha Joye’s research provides another great example.  She is leading a multi-institutional project to continue studies of natural oil seeps and to track the effects of the BP/Deepwater Horizon oil spill on the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem.  In November, her team, representing more than a dozen research universities, received a three-year, nearly $19 million grant from the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative.

Over the past year, the senior administrative teams from the University of Georgia and Emory University have been meeting to explore opportunities to collaborate more closely as research institutions, especially in the area of infectious disease.

We are currently working with our Emory colleagues on grant- and contract-funded projects totaling more than $45 million.  Influenza, malaria, and tuberculosis are some of the significant global health challenges being tackled through this cutting-edge research.  Our growing partnership is not only paving the way for improvements in healthcare but also advancing the state’s economically important bioscience sector. 

The research activities of our faculty across campus attracted grants and contracts that last year alone generated more than $190 million in externally sponsored project expenditures.   For the seventh year in a row, UGA was among the top five in the nation based on the number of technologies licensed or optioned by industry, and 28 new products originating from faculty research entered the market.

In order to enhance our position as a premier research university, however, we must continue to expand our research enterprise.  Nothing is more important in this endeavor than recruiting and retaining outstanding research faculty.

Two Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholars will join the University later this year, adding to this growing group of distinguished scientists on campus.  Dr. Robert Haltiwanger, one of the world’s leading glycobiologists, will join UGA’s Complex Carbohydrate Research Center, and Dr. Ted Ross, a pre-eminent infectious disease researcher, will join the College of Veterinary Medicine.

The Provost and I announced in the fall a hiring initiative to recruit grant-active, tenured faculty, whose research is literally changing the world.  This hiring initiative follows one launched in the fall of 2013, which focused on recruiting faculty who conduct research across traditional disciplinary boundaries, where many of the world’s most complex challenges now reside.

Through several faculty hiring initiatives in recent years, the University has been able to add more than 100 new faculty positions to replenish many of those lost during the Great Recession.

I am pleased that this year we were able to offer merit-based raises for faculty and staff for the first time since Fiscal Year 2009.  We also increased the graduate assistantship rate to improve our ability to attract the most academically talented graduate students.

A pool for salary increases was my top legislative priority last year.  I remain grateful to the Board of Regents, the General Assembly, and the Governor for supporting it.  However, the University of Georgia still lags behind regional and national peers in this regard.  That is why improving salaries for faculty and staff will remain a top priority for the foreseeable future.

Governor Deal and Chancellor Huckaby have proposed another salary increase for the upcoming fiscal year, and I intend to articulate to members of the General Assembly the importance of closing the salary gap between the University and its peer institutions.  

Of course, our efforts to recruit and retain outstanding faculty will have limited impact on our goal to increase research productivity without an efficient infrastructure in place to support grant applications and management.  It has become clear that the University needs to make improvements in this area, and a campus-wide initiative is now underway with this goal in mind.

Better integration between pre- and post-award services was a recommendation made by our Deans and leading research faculty.   This semester, the Office for Sponsored Programs, which provides pre-award services, and the Contracts and Grants Division, which provides post-award services, will be moved into the same building.  Close proximity should promote greater collaboration.  A shadowing program between the two units is being introduced this semester to provide valuable cross-training to staff in both areas.

Improving customer service in grants administration is another area of focus under the initiative.  To facilitate this enhancement, a new training program was rolled out in the fall, feedback buttons were added to email signatures, and key websites are being redesigned to provide a more user-friendly interface.  Staff involved with grants administration across campus are now working in teams to identify additional process improvements.

The University also employed an external consulting group to conduct an independent review of the administrative operations supporting research and other sponsored activities at UGA.  The group completed its review in December and provided recommendations that have been incorporated into an implementation plan to further improve our research infrastructure.

The Provost, working closely with the Vice Presidents in charge of Finance and Administration and Research, will be moving that plan forward in the coming weeks.

The end result of these steps will be increased productivity, as our faculty spend more time on their critical research and scholarship and less time on administrative activities.

Promoting Prosperity in Communities across Georgia and Beyond

Now that we have reviewed the University’s world-class learning environment and its expanding research enterprise, I would like to discuss the many significant ways the University of Georgia is fulfilling its land-grant mission to promote prosperity in communities across Georgia and beyond.

We are called by this mission to train the state’s leaders; to solve pressing challenges; to boost the economy.  In essence, we have an obligation to extend our vast intellectual resources to improve lives and to improve communities, and now—more than ever before—we are answering that call with a far-reaching nexus of service and outreach activities.

When public officials across the state need resources to plan for a better Georgia, they turn to the Carl Vinson Institute of Government, which trained more than 22,000 elected officials and public employees last year alone.  Just last month, we hosted the 29th Biennial Institute for Georgia Legislators, which has become a national model for state legislative training.

When Georgia’s blueberry farmers need training and information on best practices, they turn to a team of scientists and extension specialists from our College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, who are experts in blueberry cultivation.

With the agricultural industry and the University of Georgia working hand-in-hand, Georgia now leads the nation in blueberry production.  This significant achievement for our economy comes as UGA Extension celebrates 100 years of improving lives and communities in this state.

When small businesses need financial guidance or support with strategic planning, they turn to the University’s Small Business Development Center.  With 17 offices around the state, our Small Business Development Center helped launch more than 300 businesses last year, employing thousands of Georgians.

When public officials in Hart County needed assistance making their community more attractive to industry, they turned to our Archway Partnership.  This collaboration paid off in December, when a global manufacturing company announced plans to locate its first U.S. facility in Hartwell, creating 800 high-paying jobs for Georgians.

Just last week, we finalized plans to add Griffin-Spalding County as the University’s next Archway Partnership community.

These anecdotes make it clear: the University of Georgia plays a leading role in the economic development of the state of Georgia.  In fact, UGA has an estimated annual economic impact of nearly $4 billion on this state.  This compelling figure symbolizes the strong and special relationship that exists today—and will exist well beyond tomorrow—between our great institution and the great state we call home.

I am reminded of a passage from the late Tom Dyer’s definitive history of the University of Georgia.  In his book, Professor Dyer devotes many pages to describing the rise of the service mission at UGA.  One of the movement’s earliest champions was the 11th president of the University, Walter B. Hill.

Speaking to an audience of Georgians in 1905, President Hill conveyed an insightful message, which has made a lasting impression on me: “The university of the 20th century will be differentiated from its predecessors in this: it will connect its activities more closely with the business and life of the people.”

I cannot help but wonder how Walter Hill would admire the state of the University today, in the 21st century, considering the very close relationship between our teaching, research, and service activities and the needs of our state, nation, and world.

I believe he would be astounded by the breadth and depth of our efforts to promote prosperity.  I also believe he would understand the importance of acting now to ensure that this institution can continue to fulfill its land-grant mission throughout this century and well into the future. 

Securing the Long-Term Success of America’s First State-Chartered University

That brings us to the final theme for today’s address:  securing the long-term success of America’s first state-chartered university.  Each of us has a stake in this priority.  Protecting our valuable campus resources is the starting point, and in 2014 the University made great strides in this area.

Our Facilities Management Division moved forward with a plan, now approved by the Board of Regents, to replace the University’s aging coal-fired boiler with a more cost-effective and energy-efficient solution.  The new electrode boiler is scheduled to be installed next fall and is projected to save the University more than $19 million over a 30-year span.

We took steps to safeguard the University’s historic resources as well.  In the fall, I appointed a campus-wide steering committee, under the leadership of Dean Dan Nadenicek, to develop a preservation master plan for our properties, structures, and landscapes.  Graduate students from the College of Environment and Design will be heavily involved in many aspects of the planning process.

Taken together, these accomplishments reveal a thoughtful and coordinated commitment to the effective stewardship of our resources and to the advancement of campus sustainability.  This commitment will benefit the educational environment at UGA for generations to come.

The long-term success of the University also will be determined by our ability to increase private support.  This past year, we responded in a historic way to this demand, completing the best fundraising year in our history, with nearly 57,000 alumni and friends giving more than $126 million in gifts and pledges.

Since July 2013, working together we have added 23 endowed faculty positions to raise our total number to 251.  Endowed chairs and professorships help us to recruit and retain top faculty and to provide additional support for their vital research.

We have increased the endowment for merit- and need-based scholarships by 26 percent—adding more than $56 million.  Growing this part of the endowment is increasingly important as we strive to continue to attract the best and brightest to the state’s flagship institution and to keep the cost of attending affordable for students and their families.

We have grown our foundation assets beyond $1 billion for the first time ever.  History informs us that state and federal funding for public higher education can ebb and flow over time.  By increasing our foundation assets, we protect the University against changing external factors and give ourselves more security to remain focused on institutional priorities during periods of uncertainty.  

Each of these momentous achievements was made possible by outstanding students, faculty, and staff; by dedicated Trustees; and by faithful alumni and friends.

Your unyielding devotion to this University is making a positive difference in the lives of countless individuals on this campus, throughout this state, across our nation, and around the globe—and I thank each and every one of you.    

We still have much work left to do as we move ahead in the quiet phase of a comprehensive campaign to raise more than $1 billion in private support to secure the long-term success of the University of Georgia.  Our recent fundraising achievements, however, give me great confidence as we aggressively pursue that goal.  The continued strong commitment of the entire University of Georgia family will be instrumental in our success.

Closing

I want to leave you today with a passage from renowned author and lecturer Jim Collins.  He observed that, “We cannot predict the future, but we can create it.”  These words are a powerful reminder of our great responsibility and of our great potential to propel the University of Georgia forward, toward new heights of excellence.

But, these words also beg the question: What future will we create together for the University of Georgia?  Today’s address answers that question convincingly.  Together, we will create a future for this institution defined by unparalleled learning opportunities for students, by world-changing research and scholarship, by strong ties to communities throughout Georgia and beyond, and by responsible planning and management of our precious resources. 

This is the future we are creating together for the University of Georgia, and our many accomplishments over the past year illuminate just how deep our resolve is to achieve this strategic vision. 

Without a doubt, we have much to celebrate.  With faculty, staff, students, alumni, and friends who care profoundly about the University of Georgia, America’s first state-chartered university is in very good hands, and our best days most certainly lie ahead. 

Thank you for being here today and for all that you do to support the University of Georgia.