Good afternoon, and welcome to the 2022 State of the University Address.
I would like to begin my remarks today with a message of deep gratitude.
To our faculty, staff, students, alumni, and friends—to all who comprise the University of Georgia community: thank you. Thank you for your dedication. Thank you for your tireless work and perseverance. Thank you for your extraordinary service.
This past year, like the one before it, was challenging for our University. We celebrated the arrival of vaccines, and we felt hope and renewal as the pandemic improved. Yet, amid our progress, new variants of COVID confronted us, testing our endurance and resolve as a campus community. In the face of the pandemic’s persistent challenges, fulfilling our University’s mission at times seemed like a task too big, too complicated for any single one of us—but not for all of us.
When I look back on the past 12 months—a year with no shortage of obstacles—a clear and compelling story emerges: a story of a community bound by a deep sense of purpose, driven by an unyielding commitment to a shared mission.
This commitment led us to confront the worst of the pandemic, summoning the best of who we are in pursuit of a noble calling. And it propelled our University to exceptional achievements—achievements that reveal a community powerfully shaping a better tomorrow for our state, nation, and world.
Today, let’s look back on this difficult yet remarkable year, a year when the traits that define the University of Georgia—fortitude, commitment, and steadfast devotion to service—were once again on full display. Then, let’s cast our eyes ahead and consider how we can shape a bright, boundless future for the University of Georgia.
A Remarkable Year Forged by Unyielding Commitment
In 2021, UGA’s commitment to student learning and success was unmistakable. Our students’ four- and six-year completion rates soared to record highs, while our retention rate—the percentage of first-year students returning for a second year—rose to 95%, among the best in the nation. We were rated the best tier one research university for service to student veterans, and we ranked in the top 25 of public four-year universities for graduating students with exceptional financial need.
Attracted by our world-class learning environment, the largest applicant pool in UGA history sought admission to the first-year class, while our fall enrollment reached an all-time high, eclipsing 40,000 students. Our first-year students once again entered UGA this fall with record-setting credentials. These and many other achievements earned UGA the number 16 spot in U.S. News & World Report’s ranking of America’s best public universities, our sixth consecutive year in the top 20.
We celebrated tremendous athletic achievements as well. Current and former Bulldogs brought home 13 medals, including three golds, from the Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games in Tokyo. Our equestrian team captured a national championship, and our football team thrilled the Bulldog Nation, securing an undefeated regular season, a victory in the Orange Bowl, and the national championship in Indianapolis, our first in 41 years. Bulldog fans, too, showed why they are the best in college football, with more than 100,000 showing up to honor our team with an extraordinary parade and Sanford Stadium celebration.
Our devoted alumni and friends continue to stand behind all of our accomplishments. In fiscal year 2021, UGA supporters—including a record percentage of alumni—contributed over $205 million. Because of their remarkable generosity, UGA’s three-year rolling average for fundraising now exceeds $200 million per year, a rise of 74% since 2014. I also was delighted to see our Georgia Commitment Scholarship Program, devoted to helping students with financial need, surge to nearly 650 scholarship awards and almost $100 million in endowment.
Meanwhile, UGA faculty propelled our research enterprise to new heights, earning a record number of sponsored awards and driving R&D expenditures to nearly $495 million, another all-time high. Our campus celebrated the election of three faculty members to the National Academy of Sciences, as well as one member to the National Academy of Engineering, and we launched hiring initiatives in data science and artificial intelligence to recruit 50 additional scholars. We also advanced hiring initiatives in precision agriculture and brain and behavioral health, recruiting two Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholars, including the inaugural Johnny Isakson Chair for Parkinson’s Research, established in recognition of the distinguished legacy of the late U.S. Senator and UGA alumnus.
We advanced several major capital projects over the last year. In November, we opened the first Interdisciplinary STEM Research Building, and we look forward to dedicating the second building this fall. Improvements to the Driftmier Engineering Center continued, and we broke ground on a Poultry Science Complex to bolster this vital Georgia industry. We also planned and began designing the modernization of Science Hill to improve some of our University’s most critical, yet dated, research facilities.
I want to offer my sincere thanks to the Governor, the General Assembly, and the University System of Georgia’s Acting Chancellor and Board of Regents for their strong support of these projects. We also are grateful to the Governor and Board of Regents for including the next phases of the Science Hill modernization project in their FY 2023 budgets submitted to the General Assembly.
The University of Georgia continues to generate a significant return on public investment. Our economic impact on Georgia climbed to a record $7.4 billion in 2021 as we leveraged our vast intellectual resources to create new economic opportunity. UGA ranked second nationally for the number of products introduced to the market by industry partners and 10th for the number of active licenses. Over 200 companies have been created from UGA research, and the expansion of our Innovation District heralds even greater possibilities. In December, thanks to the generosity of The Delta Air Lines Foundation, we dedicated the Delta Innovation Hub, the Innovation District’s newest facility and home of our thriving startup program.
Driven by our land-grant mission, UGA’s Public Service and Outreach units were relentless in supporting entrepreneurs and communities across Georgia. The Small Business Development Center helped launch nearly 500 new businesses over the past year, while the Carl Vinson Institute of Government gained national recognition for its efforts to expand broadband internet access. To further support rural Georgia, Public Service and Outreach units piloted research initiatives with our faculty, partnered with communities to strengthen their economies, and helped nonprofits develop future leaders to address grand challenges.
Yet, of all our accomplishments in 2021, I am most grateful for how we came together to enrich and elevate our community. Throughout the year, we commemorated the 60th anniversary of the University of Georgia’s integration while continuing to strive for a more inclusive and welcoming learning environment. We initiated the 16 measures recommended by the Presidential Task Force on Race, Ethnicity, and Community. And we adopted a university-wide plan, developed by the Planning Committee on Diversity and Inclusive Excellence, that will advance UGA’s diversity and inclusion efforts over the next five years. I was proud that in August the University was awarded its eighth consecutive Higher Education Excellence in Diversity Award from INSIGHT Into Diversity.
But we did not stop there. We announced a $30 million renovation of the Holmes-Hunter Academic Building, named for Hamilton Holmes and Charlayne Hunter-Gault, who in 1961 became the University of Georgia’s first African American students. This project was made possible by a generous gift from the Woodruff Foundation. We also named two facilities for other distinguished African American graduates: the Science Library in memory of Shirley Mathis McBay, the first African American to earn a doctorate from UGA; and a new residence hall in honor of Harold Black, Mary Blackwell Diallo, and Kerry Rushin Miller, the first African American students to enroll as freshmen and complete their undergraduate degrees.
When we look back on 2021 and consider these many accomplishments—representing historic success across every facet of our mission—the picture is clear: The state of our University is strong. In the year ahead, as our nation and world seek to move beyond the pandemic into a brighter tomorrow, how can we make the University of Georgia even stronger?
Today, I am announcing several measures that firmly answer that question.
First, I am thrilled to announce a five-year, $6 million initiative to expand active learning on our campus. Active learning is the process through which instructors guide students to actively construct knowledge, to think about what they are learning as they are learning it, rather than merely absorb facts. This approach to teaching and learning will be the focus of UGA’s next Quality Enhancement Plan—a core component of our reaffirmation of accreditation by SACSCOC—and is already widely utilized at UGA.
Our Active Learning Summer Institute, for example, has supported nearly 80 faculty members whose redesigned courses have enrolled almost 40,000 students. Through an initiative launched in 2018, UGA classrooms are being transformed into dynamic, active learning spaces. The investment announced today will build on these efforts: faculty will receive resources to strengthen active learning in their classrooms; new support mechanisms will help students apply active learning across their studies; and instructional spaces that foster active learning will be multiplied throughout campus.
Cutting-edge instruction is not the only hallmark of a UGA education, however. Small classes and tailored student support are also key features of our unique learning environment. With demand for the UGA undergraduate experience surging, now is the time for another bold investment in additional faculty and staff to teach and guide our students. Today, I am announcing an initiative to recruit 20 exceptional faculty members in fields experiencing rapid student growth as well as eight academic advisors to support students in these high-demand areas.
I also am renewing the successful ALL Georgia program for six more years and launching a targeted completion grants program to help students with exceptional financial need. ALL Georgia, which we launched in 2018, supports over 3,000 undergraduate students from rural areas, combining financial and academic resources with mentorship and leadership opportunities. The completion grants program, piloted before the pandemic, also has been a profound success, providing small, targeted grants to students facing financial hardship as they approach graduation.
I also am pleased to announce today a major effort to promote mental health and well-being among our students. Across the landscape of American higher education, today’s college students face unique and difficult mental health challenges. On our own campus, demand for mental health services has grown as students grapple with the pandemic alongside their educational responsibilities. To address this issue, we must foster a more supportive culture that emphasizes and sustains mental health and well-being. I have charged the Vice President for Student Affairs with leading a major effort to expand and strengthen UGA’s extensive mental health and well-being offerings, which include clinical and non-clinical programs, resources, and services. I am dedicating $1 million in private funds over the next two years to further expand well-being support across campus; increase access to quality mental health services; and support students in being more active, healthy, and successful.
Let me now take a moment to focus specifically on graduate education. Graduate students are vital members of the University community, contributing to every aspect of our teaching, research, and service missions. Our graduate programs are thriving, with 6% enrollment growth in the last year alone. We are deeply committed to the success of UGA’s graduate students, and, to this end, I am excited to announce a two-pronged initiative to further elevate graduate education at the University of Georgia.
This spring, we will launch a fundraising initiative aimed at generating more endowed scholarships for exceptional graduate students. The UGA Foundation Board of Trustees has committed $1 million in matching funds for this initial effort, and I look forward to seeing the UGA family support our deserving graduate students by adding to the number of university-wide Presidential Fellowships through this initiative. While this fundraising drive is underway, the Foundation also has committed, at my request, additional resources to be awarded later this year to help recruit the best graduate students to the University of Georgia.
Today, I also am proud to announce the launch of GradFIRST, a seminar series for first-year graduate students. GradFIRST will offer an array of new seminars to supplement our graduate students’ training with rich professional development and networking opportunities. The program also will help new graduate students successfully transition to UGA by introducing them to our vibrant academic culture, while fostering relationships with our world-class faculty. GradFIRST will be launched this fall, and the Graduate School will release more information about this exciting program in the coming weeks.
As a land-grant institution, the University of Georgia holds a strong and special relationship with our great state. In each of Georgia’s 159 counties, our faculty, staff, and students are revitalizing downtowns, boosting local workforces, protecting natural resources, and training community leaders. Today, I am announcing the newest innovation in UGA’s public service and outreach efforts: the Connected Resilient Communities program.
Through this program, we will work hand in hand with communities to build and implement economic and community development plans, harnessing our significant capabilities in data analytics, civic engagement, and technical assistance to help them identify future challenges as well as opportunities for growth and prosperity. After a 12- to 18-month period to launch a resiliency plan, communities will receive a special designation recognizing their efforts. Led by the Archway Partnership, this impressive program was piloted over the past year in Thomson, McDuffie County, and I am pleased to announce its formal launch, beginning today.
Finally, as we look to the year ahead, UGA must continue making every effort to recruit and retain exceptional faculty and staff. Throughout the pandemic, these members of our community have been heroic, going above and beyond to serve, all the while caring for friends and loved ones. In the fall, we were pleased to implement two increases to our minimum hiring rate for full-time staff, as well as two rounds of compression and inversion adjustments to raise salaries for those making below $50,000 annually. During the past six months alone, we have increased the minimum hiring rate 9% over the prior year. We also have implemented significant increases for part-time staff and student employees. And we recently announced another round of adjustments, effective February 1, to help address the most severe cases of compression and inversion for staff with annual salaries between $45,000 and $80,000.
I am grateful that Governor Kemp has emphasized the need to reward hard-working state employees and combat inflationary pressures through the pay increases he included in his recent budget recommendations. Advocating for pay increases on behalf of UGA employees will remain my top priority during the legislative session. I am also pleased that the Governor has recommended funding the University System of Georgia’s formula growth request to support increased enrollment, as well as funds to eliminate the Special Institutional Fee, which will reduce costs for our students. It is my sincere hope that the General Assembly will approve these important measures in the coming weeks and months.
Let me close today where I began, by expressing my sincere thanks to the UGA community.
During 2021, you provided a vivid reminder that the University of Georgia is an essential organization—irreplaceable and invaluable to our state, nation, and world. You revealed once more that across every corner of Georgia—in every community and throughout every aspect of our state’s economy—UGA is making a difference. You reminded one and all that when we are needed most, we step forward to answer the call—ever serving, ever leading, ever creating new opportunity.
In the year ahead, we will encounter further headwinds. Our fight against COVID will continue. But as we confront the obstacles to come, let us remember our noble mission and recommit ourselves to the core principles of this great University: learning, discovery, and service; inclusion, integrity, and diversity of thought. And as we work together, let us be inspired anew by our University’s greatest ambition: to enrich lives, lift up communities, and address society’s grand challenges.
Thank you for joining me today. Thank you for your unyielding commitment to the mission of this vital institution. I wish you the very best in the coming year—a year that I am confident will bring boundless possibilities for the University of Georgia.