2017 State of the University Address

January 25, 2017
by Jere W. Morehead, President
UGA Chapel

To everyone joining me in the Chapel this afternoon or watching by livestream, thank you for taking part in this special tradition. I am honored to be with all of you to deliver the 2017 State of the University Address.

During my more than 30 years of service to this institution, I have attended a great number of these speeches, sitting where you now sit, interested to hear the President’s message, while at the same time—to be candid—secretly hoping for brevity, as I am sure many of you are today.

Of course, looking back over my years as a faculty member and administrator, I can remember some of these speeches more vividly than others, but one in particular made a lasting impression on me. The setting was the Law School Auditorium, Wednesday, November 2nd, 1988. In those days, the State of the University Address was delivered during the fall. Dr. Charles Knapp was giving his second address as President. I was in the audience, in the midst of my third year as an assistant professor at this institution.

Dr. Knapp spoke to us that day about the bright future he envisioned for the University of Georgia, and he closed his remarks with a passage that bears repeating today. He said: “The University of Georgia is ready to join together as a community of scholars—one powerful University moving steadily on the course toward academic excellence. I see nothing to hold us back.”

In retrospect, I think Dr. Knapp’s words were nothing short of prophetic. His statement also captured, in the simplest of terms, the essence of this place: our strong sense of community, our relentless pursuit of academic excellence, our belief that the potential of this University is boundless.

Time and again I have observed these qualities during my career at the University of Georgia, and most especially in my role as President. Over the past four years, we have worked together—united by a deep sense of commitment—to blaze a new path for America’s first state-chartered university, a path to reach even greater heights. And much like Dr. Knapp in 1988, “I see nothing to hold us back.”

The state of the University of Georgia is strong and growing stronger—that I can say with complete confidence. Consider for a moment the following accomplishments from the past year.

This fall, we enrolled the most academically qualified class of first-year students in our history—for the fourth consecutive year.

Our four-year graduation rate reached an all-time high of 66 percent, while our six-year rate remained at a record level of 85 percent, both substantially higher than the average of our peer institutions. We implemented our new experiential learning initiative, ensuring that our undergraduate students participate in a high-impact, hands-on learning opportunity prior to graduation.

Laura Courchesne, an Honors Program student and Foundation Fellow, was named a Rhodes Scholar, the 24th UGA student to receive this prestigious international fellowship. Over the past two decades, the University of Georgia has proudly produced more Rhodes Scholars than all but two other public institutions in the nation.

We opened our new Science Learning Center in the fall and completed or advanced a number of other critical capital projects, from Amos Hall to the Center for Molecular Medicine, the Food Technology Center on the Griffin Campus, and the Indoor Athletic Facility.

Major hiring initiatives were completed to reduce class sizes and continue building our robust research enterprise. Funds were established to create 13 new endowed chairs and professorships. We now have 272 endowed faculty positions on campus, up from 227 when I became President four years ago—an increase of 20 percent.

Research expenditures—a key measure of productivity—surged 14 percent in 2016, following the previous year’s increase of seven percent, and plans to elevate graduate and professional education, announced during last year’s State of the University Address, moved forward with great success this year.

The Graduate School established new fellowships to recruit outstanding master’s and doctoral students and launched an innovative leadership program—funded by the National Science Foundation—to prepare graduate students for a broad range of career choices that transcend disciplines. Our Law School named the inaugural class of Alston Distinguished Law Fellows and led Georgia with a bar exam passage rate of 88 percent—13 points higher than the state average.

UGA’s overall academic reputation continued to climb, rising in national rankings of the best public research universities—up to number 18 in U.S News and 17 in Forbes. The University also moved into the top 10 on Kiplinger’s list of public colleges with the best value.

And for the third consecutive year, we received the INSIGHT Into Diversity Higher Education Excellence in Diversity Award for our strong and enduring commitment to fostering an inclusive academic environment. Let me take just a moment to emphasize the importance of this last achievement.

Diversity and inclusion are core values of this institution, and we will continue to provide the support and resources necessary to form an even more connected and enriching academic community for all of our faculty, staff, and students.

Dr. Freeman Hrabowski, President of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, whom I met for the first time in 2013 at a presidential leadership conference, put it best when he stated: “The way we think about ourselves as a society, as a university, and as human beings—the language that we use, the way we interact with each other, the values that we hold—will shape not only who we are today, but who we will be in the future.” I believe this very astute observation frames quite well our ongoing commitment to strengthen the bonds that tie our University family together.

Returning to our recent accomplishments, over the summer, all of us watched and cheered with pride as 37 current and former UGA student-athletes and coaches competed on an international stage in the Olympic and Paralympic Games in Rio, earning 12 medals. If this University were a country, our Olympic medal count would have ranked 27th among the 207 nations that competed in the summer games—an astounding feat for the Bulldog Nation.

The Peabody Awards, which is hosted by the University of Georgia and bestows the world’s highest honor in electronic media, celebrated its 75th anniversary at an awards ceremony in New York City.

And our Small Business Development Center, which boasts 17 offices across the state, assisted Georgia companies in creating more than 3,300 new jobs. I am pleased to share that the latest report indicates that UGA’s annual economic impact on Georgia is $5.25 billion. Indeed, this University is more invested now than ever before in the communities of this state.

In November, we joined together to launch the public phase of a $1.2 billion campaign to amplify the impact of the University of Georgia on this state and around the world. We also received the single largest donation in our history and set a new record in annual fundraising, bringing in more than $183 million in new gifts and pledges, up 28 percent over last year’s record total.

This list of achievements could go on and on—I have only scratched the surface of what we have achieved together this past year—but let me pause, to say thank you.

To our faculty, our staff, our students, and our alumni and friends—these achievements are your achievements, our rise in prominence is the result of your ongoing hard work and dedication. Thank you for all that you continue to do to move our beloved University forward. Please join me in a round of applause to celebrate the collective work of so many that has led to another outstanding year for the University of Georgia.

Let us turn now from our achievements of the past year to our vision for the future. What will the next chapter look like in the great story of the University of Georgia? Answering this question is the central purpose of my address today.

Our next chapter will be guided by three shared priorities:
  1) To increase scholarship support for our students;
  2) To further enhance our learning environment; and
  3) To solve the grand challenges of our time.

By committing to these priorities—as one powerful University—we can expand our impact on individuals, on families, on communities not only in Georgia but also across our nation and around the world.

Increasing Scholarship Support for Our Students

First, I would like to discuss the need to increase scholarship support for our students. At the very heart of this priority is a commitment to ensuring that academically qualified students have access to a UGA education—regardless of their financial background. Georgia’s generous HOPE Scholarship Program and federal and private grants provide critical financial support to our students, but for many, a gap still remains to cover the full cost of attendance.

This gap, if unaddressed, can be detrimental. It can undermine our efforts to recruit the very best and brightest students by dissuading some from even considering this great institution or perhaps driving others to a competitor, where merit-based scholarships and need-based aid are more abundant.

Equally important, however, unmet financial need can diminish a student’s overall educational experience on our campus. Some internships, study abroad opportunities, and other high-impact learning experiences may be inaccessible, and a student’s progress toward a degree could even be hindered.

Overcoming these challenges is especially difficult for our students from low-income backgrounds, who may be forced to work extra hours or take out multiple loans. You may be surprised to learn that one in four UGA undergraduate students receives the Pell Grant, a federal subsidy for students with financial need. Of that population, more than one in three comes to this University from a family that is unable to contribute any significant financial resources to their education.

For all of these reasons, we must increase scholarship support. Our commitment to recruiting top-tier students depends on it. Our commitment to creating a vibrant and diverse campus community depends on it. And our commitment to preparing the next generation of leaders depends on it.

Scholarships are life-changing. They remove barriers and open doors. They create for our students and their families pathways to futures that would otherwise be unreachable.

The Robert W. Woodruff Foundation understands the importance of this priority, and we remain grateful for the foundation’s transformative $30 million gift in November to expand need-based financial aid—a gift that will echo across Georgia for generations to come.

I hope this amazing donation serves as a catalyst, inspiring our alumni and friends to new levels of support for need-based aid. And toward that end, I am pleased to announce today an exciting new initiative—called the Georgia Commitment Scholarship Program—designed to grow dramatically the number of need-based scholarships awarded by this institution each year. Through this program, the UGA Foundation will match—dollar for dollar—any gift in the amount of $50,000, $75,000, or $100,000 to establish an endowed need-based scholarship.

Imagine: a donation of $100,000 transforms into an endowment of $200,000, an endowment that will provide a significant grant, every year, to support a deserving student with unmet financial need. The size of the scholarship award will increase over time as the endowment grows, and the endowment will live on forever, helping student after student to earn a degree from the University of Georgia. This matching program has the potential to create as many as 400 to 600 new need-based scholarships—a giant step toward eliminating the financial obstacles facing many of our students.

Today, I am asking our alumni and friends, and the entire Bulldog family, to band together to make the Georgia Commitment Scholarship Program a tremendous success. Your generosity will create a permanent legacy of support that will alter the course of countless students and their families far into the future. This is an opportunity we simply cannot afford to miss.

Further Enhancing Our Learning Environment

Let us now turn to the second priority: further enhancing our learning environment. Since 2013, we have made remarkable strides in this area—expanding experiential and entrepreneurial learning; reducing class sizes; bolstering academic advising; cultivating our vibrant campus life; and building state-of-the-art academic facilities.

Just last month, The Chronicle of Higher Education featured the University of Georgia in its series on innovation in teaching—one of several instances in recent years when UGA has been the focus of a national story on excellence in teaching and learning. In addition, the University once again received an “A” rating from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni for the strength of our core curriculum. UGA was one of only 25 institutions in the nation to receive this high mark.

We should be very proud of these achievements. Above all else, they reflect the steadfast commitment of our faculty, our Deans, our Vice Presidents, and our Provost to promoting the highest levels of student learning and success. But these achievements also reflect an enduring tendency within our intellectual culture to innovate and to perfect—a tendency that dates back to the inception of this University.

Periodically throughout our history, we have leveraged this pioneering spirit to conduct deep and far-reaching self-examinations to improve the quality of undergraduate education.

Some of you may remember, for instance, the President’s Task Force on the Quality of the Undergraduate Experience, which was convened in 1997. I had the privilege of chairing that task force 20 years ago. The group’s report laid the early groundwork for major initiatives to come in first-year seminar programs, experiential learning, and academic advising.

Seven years later, in 2004, the Task Force on General Education and Student Learning was assembled. Former Vice President for Instruction Del Dunn and I co-chaired that effort, and—once again—the group produced a number of meaningful insights that led to further improvements in undergraduate education.

These intensive studies have helped transform this campus into the dynamic learning environment we celebrate today. But, it has been more than a decade since we last conducted a systematic evaluation of this nature, and I believe the time has come to launch the next iteration.

Today, I am announcing the formation of the President’s Task Force on Student Learning and Success, chaired by Vice President for Instruction Rahul Shrivastav and Vice President for Student Affairs Victor Wilson. Members of this working group will be charged with taking a fresh look at our undergraduate learning environment to identify opportunities to further enhance the rigorous educational experience for our students—inside and outside the classroom—and to strengthen the vital bridge between our academic programs and other student learning opportunities.

They also will be asked to examine whether the expectation for academic performance and achievement at the undergraduate level has kept pace with the dramatic rise in academic quality of our student body. Do our classrooms and laboratories consistently reflect the highest standards of rigor? How do we ensure all of our students learn at peak levels? Are there better pathways to allow more students to pursue combined degree programs that link undergraduate and graduate degrees? These are questions the working group will carefully consider.

The working group also will reflect on the relation between our core curriculum and the world around us, which is changing rapidly, becoming more data- and information-driven, propelled by an endless groundswell of new technologies with extraordinary reach.

To innovate; to communicate effectively across different platforms and cultures; to think critically; to analyze and interpret various forms of data; to see problems from an interdisciplinary perspective—these are the kinds of competencies that our graduates must possess to be successful in the 21st Century. The task force will contemplate whether our academic programs deliver on these outcomes at a sufficiently high level to ensure our graduates are prepared for an evolving global economy.

In the midst of our changing world, however, one reality has remained constant over time: communities—near and far—still need strong, committed, and ethical leaders to face a growing number of complex challenges, and as a land-grant institution, we have an obligation to prepare our students to meet this need. That is why, this time, the task force will focus not only on our instructional programs but also on activities outside of the classroom that prepare our students for lives of service and leadership in our communities.

The work of the task force, which should be completed by December 1st of this year, will guide our longstanding commitment to create the highest quality undergraduate experience possible at the University of Georgia.

I hope this task force, like those before it, will spark new ideas and inspire new approaches, so that we can, to quote University of Virginia President Dr. Terry Sullivan, “make education an even greater force for good in the lives of students.” I look forward to receiving and reviewing the observations of the working group at the year’s end.

Solving the Grand Challenges of Our Time

The third priority of the University is solving the grand challenges of our time. The challenges facing our global society are daunting. Protecting against infectious diseases, eliminating food insecurity, preserving our natural resources—these are but a few of the serious issues confronting the world today. We need additional research and scholarship. We need greater understanding. We need solutions. The quality of life of future generations hangs in the balance.

We can find hope in the American public research university, with its deep reservoir of expertise and technology; its unlimited capacity to generate new knowledge and discoveries; and its longstanding commitment to improve the human condition.

Moreover, to quote a recent report from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Lincoln Project, “Public research universities are dedicated to the public: that is their mission; it is the value that animates all of their activities.” I would ask: What organizations today are better positioned to lead in the search for solutions than our nation’s public research universities?

As the University of Georgia’s standing advances among this important group of major institutions, we will be expected to contribute even more to solve the grand challenges of our time. I have no doubt that we will.

One of the University’s greatest assets moving forward is its comprehensive nature. The broad array of academic disciplines represented on this campus, coupled with vast resources in teaching, research, and service, allow UGA to approach complex problems holistically.

Take as an example our aging infrastructure systems. This area is particularly important to the state of Georgia. Questions like how to strengthen our roadways, our energy grid, or our water treatment processes—these are questions that transcend any single discipline or any one part of the University’s mission. This mindset was the impetus for the creation of a new Institute for Resilient Infrastructure Systems in the fall.

Directed by Dr. Brian Bledsoe, Georgia Athletic Association Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, this Institute will bring to bear on our many infrastructure challenges the best tools from engineering, ecology, environmental design and planning, atmospheric science, law and policy, and public health. Our Public Service and Outreach units have been engaged from the start to ensure this work will be relevant for local leaders, policymakers, and practitioners in Georgia who must implement new infrastructure solutions. The Institute also will offer graduate and professional certificate programs to expand the pipeline of scientists and industry leaders in this critical field.

Let us also consider the University’s comprehensive approach to human health—indeed, a challenge of global scale. We have established interdisciplinary research centers on campus to expand our impact in this crucial area.

Our Center for Molecular Medicine, directed by Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar Dr. Steve Dalton, is a case in point. A new facility to house the Center will open later this year and provide space for up to 10 research groups focused on the development of new therapies, cures, and diagnostics.

The Center for Vaccines and Immunology, launched by GRA Eminent Scholar Dr. Ted Ross, opened this fall and already has recruited an additional GRA Eminent Scholar, Dr. Karen Norris, who specializes in immunology and translational biomedicine. Dr. Norris is one of two GRA Eminent Scholars to join UGA in recent months—and one of five in the past two years.

We also welcomed Dr. Dennis Kyle to the University this year as the GRA Eminent Scholar in Antiparasitic Drug Discovery and the new director of our world-renowned Center for Tropical and Emerging Global Diseases. Dr. Kyle will work with a superb team of scientists that includes—among others—Dr. Jessie Kissinger, an expert in the bioinformatics of infectious diseases. Dr. Kissinger also leads the Institute of Bioinformatics, a major component of our informatics initiative established in the fall to position UGA on the leading edge of the information revolution.

And just last month, we learned that a team of UGA faculty led by GRA Eminent Scholar Dr. Steve Stice will be part of a consortium of universities funded by the U.S. Department of Commerce to establish the nation’s latest Manufacturing Innovation Institute. This new Institute will pursue the vital goal of making the commercial production of biological therapeutics—including stem cells—efficient, scalable, and safe.

After all, the full promise of any new vaccine, drug, or treatment lies not only in its discovery but also in its affordable production and delivery to patients on a global scale. Dr. Stice and his colleagues here and around the country will be on the forefront of ensuring that health-related discoveries achieve maximum benefit for the world’s population.

I challenge our faculty, staff, and students to continue finding new synergies—across disciplines, missions, and institutions—to unleash the full range of this University’s capabilities on the grand challenges facing our state, nation, and world. In the years and decades ahead, our greatest impact will occur when we apply this comprehensive, integrated approach.

To continue encouraging this type of collaboration, today I am announcing a $1 million interdisciplinary seed grant program. This program will award competitive grants to multidisciplinary teams of researchers and scholars who submit winning proposals to tackle grand challenges aligned with UGA’s research strengths as a land-grant institution.

A principal goal of this initiative is to generate new external funding in order to feed the exciting momentum surrounding the research enterprise at the University of Georgia. Proposals should add interdisciplinary dimensions to existing research or encourage new partnerships around the most pressing issues confronting humankind.

Whenever it is appropriate, we encourage the inclusion of outreach components in these seed grant proposals, which will be evaluated jointly by Vice President for Research David Lee and Vice President for Public Service and Outreach Jennifer Frum.

Uniting Around Our Priorities

Let me close today with a quote from Archimedes—a leading mathematician and scientist in ancient Greece: “Give me a lever long enough and a place to stand, and I will move the earth.”

He was reflecting, of course, on the laws of physics, but his words invoke a deeper message about the tremendous power of the human will to shape the world around us. I believe the University of Georgia, the birthplace of public higher education in America, offers both the lever and the place to stand and that working together we will continue to change the world for the better.

So let me return to the central question of today’s address: What will the next chapter look like in the great story of the University of Georgia? Our next chapter will be defined by three priorities:

  1) Increasing scholarship support for our students;
  2) Further enhancing our learning environment; and
  3) Solving the grand challenges of our time.

Today, I am asking our faculty, our staff, our students, and our alumni and friends to unite around these priorities—to help write this next chapter and magnify the impact of the University of Georgia to a scale never before imagined.

And as we forge ahead, we do so supported by our great tradition but untethered to it—reaching beyond the status quo, soaring toward greatness at the highest level, guided by the belief that the University of Georgia is essential to a strong state of Georgia, to a vibrant nation, and to a better world.

Thanks again for joining me this afternoon and for your unwavering commitment to excellence at the University of Georgia. I look forward to all that we will accomplish this year and in the years ahead. Thank you for your continued support.