2021 State of the University Address

January 27, 2021
by Jere W. Morehead, President
Zell B. Miller Learning Center

2021 State of the University collateral is available here

Good afternoon, and thank you for joining me for the 2021 State of the University Address.

236 years ago today—January 27, 1785—the charter of the University of Georgia was adopted, creating our beloved institution and setting into motion a powerful movement toward public higher education in America. Throughout its long history, our University has seen it all—both good and bad times, trials and triumphs—but I suspect very few years have been as turbulent as 2020. 

Indeed, over the past 12 months, our world has undergone extraordinary change—change as dramatic and fundamental as any in our lifetimes. COVID-19 swept across the planet, transforming our daily lives, threatening our friends and loved ones, and disrupting the operations and cherished traditions of our institution. 

Amidst the distress caused by the virus, our nation also reckoned anew with issues of racial justice. In the wake of senseless acts of violence and hate against Black citizens, our campus reflected upon our core values of diversity and inclusion and recommitted to building a better, stronger UGA, a UGA characterized not only by academic excellence but also by unity and the strength of our community.

And earlier this month, we were stunned and saddened by the violent events in Washington, D.C., and the assault on our U.S. Capitol. However, our Constitution and the rule of law prevailed, and our great democracy has affirmed its enduring strength.

In my nearly 35 years at this institution, we have never confronted a set of circumstances as broadly complex and demanding as those of the past year. Yet, this difficult chapter in the story of our University has revealed the very best of who we are: our perseverance, resilience, and resolve; our determination to lift up individuals and communities—even in the midst of a global pandemic.

Today, let us look back at one of the most trying periods in our history as a way of understanding the “state” of our University. From there, we can look forward, into 2021, at the obstacles and the opportunities that most certainly await us.

COVID-19 Response

Last March, in what felt like the blink of an eye, the University of Georgia was forced to suspend instruction.

In the face of these unprecedented circumstances, in just a matter of days, our faculty moved over 4,500 courses and 11,000 sections online. Staff members worked tirelessly to support this astonishing transition, even delivering wireless hotspots to students with unreliable internet connectivity. Our students demonstrated tremendous flexibility, quickly pivoting to the new online instructional environment.

Meanwhile, scientists and scholars from across disciplines shifted focus to tackle COVID-19. Some began searching for vaccines and treatments. Others began forecasting the spread of the virus and exploring how to mitigate the pandemic’s impact. We designed and manufactured face shields for doctors and nurses in our local community. We delivered meals to those in need. Our Small Business Development Center helped Georgia businesses secure more than $60 million in CARES Act funding to stabilize their operations. Our alumni also stepped up, contributing substantial resources to help students address emergencies related to the pandemic.

That was just the beginning. The response of the Bulldog Nation was immediate; it was courageous; and it was widespread, engaging all parts of our University and reaching all parts of our state.

As we progressed into the summer, nine teams—comprised of nearly 150 faculty, staff, and administrators—took up the monumental task of planning our safe return to campus for the fall. In short order, our University procured tens of thousands of face masks and thermometers; installed tens of thousands of feet of plexiglass shielding; and delivered millions of sanitizing wipes, all to protect classrooms and workplaces. We marked off spaces for social distancing, updated our HVAC systems, and developed a university-wide training and awareness plan. Our Athletic Association implemented rigorous plans and protocols to enable our student-athletes to safely resume competition.

Despite significant challenges to the supply chain, we built from the ground up a robust surveillance testing program and exceeded our testing goal by over 30%. We also laid the groundwork to begin distributing vaccines to our campus community. Throughout it all, the University navigated one of the most difficult budgetary environments we have ever faced. We lost tens of millions of dollars of revenue and spent millions more for surveillance testing and other mitigation measures. However, with commitment and resolve, we have been able to maintain campus operations and protect jobs.

By working together, the UGA community accomplished something many thought was inconceivable during the summer months: a productive and successful fall semester.

I want to thank the many faculty, staff, and students who rose to meet the occasion. You helped to identify and implement solutions, when the challenges were most daunting. You volunteered to help, even when you were tired and stretched thin. You inspired unity and community, when others tried to pull us apart. You embraced the University’s mission when our state and world needed you most. Thank you. Thank you for your hard work, your leadership, and your dedication to the University of Georgia.

Major Achievements

When we look back on 2020, the pandemic was not the only storyline—far from it. Our University also logged a number of major achievements. The four-year completion rate of our students, for example, rose to a record 71%, while the six-year completion rate held strong at 87%, exceeding the averages of our peers and aspirants. U.S. News and World Report ranked the University of Georgia #15 among the nation’s best public universities, marking our fifth consecutive year in the top 20.  In addition, last year saw the selection of our 25th Rhodes Scholar, 61st Goldwater Scholar, and sixth Schwarzman Scholar.

We also launched a comprehensive professional development program for staff to enhance their growth and career trajectories at UGA. Meanwhile, our research enterprise continued to expand. Research and development expenditures topped $495 million in FY20, an all-time high and a 41% increase since 2013. Moreover, the University was ranked #2 nationally for bringing research-based products to market. To date, UGA has helped to generate more than 800 commercial products and now ranks 10th in the United States for “innovation impact.” Earlier this month, the new Innovation Hub opened at the corner of Spring and South streets as the next phase in our exciting Innovation District initiative.   

Construction on the first phase of an I-STEM research complex will be completed this summer, and planning and design are underway on the second phase. This massive project represents our most extensive capital investment ever in the research enterprise, and it holds the promise of world-changing discovery and innovation. Final renovations to the Driftmier Engineering Center are scheduled for completion, too, providing essential space for our growing engineering programs. Planning and design have begun on a new Poultry Science Complex, which will support a vital Georgia industry and solidify UGA as a global leader in poultry research.

I would like to thank Governor Kemp, the General Assembly, the Board of Regents, and Chancellor Wrigley for supporting these key capital projects. I also would like to thank our state leaders for making higher education a priority amid the very difficult budget challenges resulting from the pandemic. Their unwavering support has allowed us to avoid the painful layoffs and furloughs undertaken at many other institutions across the nation.

In 2020, we continued our focus on economic development across Georgia. UGA’s economic impact on Georgia is now estimated at $6.5 billion. It is no surprise that the University was designated again last year as a “Community Engaged Institution” by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and as an “Innovation and Prosperity University” by the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities.

The past year also saw the conclusion of the University’s most successful fundraising effort in our history. Over 175,000 donors contributed $1.45 billion, surpassing the campaign’s original $1.2 billion goal 16 months ahead of schedule. Our alumni and friends created more than 3,600 new scholarships, nearly 100 endowed faculty positions, and helped to build 900,000 square feet of new learning and activity space on our campus. That is real impact. That is generosity and loyalty in action.

I would like to offer my deepest gratitude to every single person who invested in the University of Georgia during the campaign. Your gifts are changing the lives of so many people, and you are proving that, with the support of our alumni and friends, no goal, no aspiration is out of reach for our University.

In 2020, we also celebrated the naming of the Mary Frances Early College of Education in honor of a pioneering educator and UGA’s first Black graduate.

Through the New Approaches to Diversity and Inclusion grant program, we launched new initiatives to foster a more diverse and inclusive community. I was proud to learn that because of these and other efforts, UGA was awarded the Insight into Diversity Higher Education Excellence in Diversity Award for the seventh consecutive year. In addition, last year the University System of Georgia Board of Regents also formed an advisory group to review and study the names of buildings and colleges on USG campuses, including the University of Georgia.

Yet, we are committed to doing even more. That is why, in July, I announced the formation of a Presidential Task Force on Race, Ethnicity, and Community. We have dedicated $1 million to this effort, and several Task Force recommendations have already been funded, with more to come. For example, the University has established the Judge Horace J. Johnson Lecture in the Schools of Law and Public and International Affairs; created a diversity fellowship position to expand diversity and inclusion training throughout campus; and planned the installation of campus markers to recognize the nine historically Black fraternities and sororities that are members of the National Pan-Hellenic Council.

I also charged the Planning Committee on Diversity and Inclusive Excellence to cast a longer vision for UGA by developing a five-year plan that operationalizes the value we place on diversity and inclusion.

Meanwhile, throughout this year, we will celebrate the 60th anniversary of the remarkable courage and determination of Hamilton Holmes and Charlayne Hunter-Gault, who became the first Black students to enroll at UGA in January 1961. Mary Frances Early enrolled as a graduate student later that year.

A series of special events was launched earlier this month and will continue throughout 2021, providing our campus with meaningful opportunities to commemorate and reflect upon this significant milestone in our history.

Diversity and inclusion are—and will always be—central to our academic community, and these values will continue to be a priority for me and my administration.

The Year Ahead

Let us talk now about the year ahead. 2021, like 2020, will likely be long and difficult. Although COVID-19 vaccines herald a hopeful return to normalcy at some point, our University will continue to be constrained by the pandemic. How will we confront the new complexities, the new uncertainties, that surely await us?

As we take on a new year and continue to battle the pandemic, let us keep our mission, our purpose, at the fore—teaching, research, and service. Let us embrace our values of learning, inquiry, and discovery; of diversity of thought and freedom of expression; of inclusion, integrity, and service.

Let us also not lose sight of the fact that we are an academic community. How we treat each other during this pandemic matters. Civility matters. We must recognize that there are no easy answers for our most pressing challenges. We can have different points of view without being disrespectful and unkind to one another. Open and civil discussion is a hallmark of an institution of higher learning, and by working together constructively, we can accomplish so much more. I urge all of us to resist the negativity amplified by social media and to engage others with constructive and respectful dialogue, seeking to solve problems and to address points of disagreement in a spirit of goodwill and collegiality.

Regardless of what 2021 brings, our mission and our values will light our path forward and unite us in common purpose. Together, we will continue to strengthen our nationally recognized learning environment, ensuring that our students are well prepared for a knowledge economy that rewards critical thinking, teamwork, and leadership. Together, we will continue to expand our research enterprise to do even more to solve the grand challenges of our time. And together, we will continue to find new ways to serve the citizens and the communities of this great state and beyond. Nothing less will do.

Going forward, we must continue to do everything possible to protect each other from the spread of the virus, including following best practices for mitigating transmission: wearing a face covering, maintaining social distance, washing hands frequently, avoiding large groups—these actions are even more important today than they ever have been. Only by caring for each other and making safe choices on and off campus can we ensure another successful semester for our University.

Conclusion

I want to conclude today with a message of hope and optimism for all of us.

Our struggle against COVID-19 will, one day, be over. The day will come when we emerge from the pandemic; when our Tate Center is bustling again with student activity; when the desks in our classrooms are no longer six feet apart; when virtual meetings are the exception, not the rule; when the Performing Arts Center has a full house and Sanford Stadium is filled with over 90,000 screaming fans.

That day will come, and when it does, the University of Georgia will be in a position of great strength because of our outstanding faculty, staff, students, alumni, and friends. Indeed, despite a very, very difficult year, the state of the University of Georgia is strong, and it is strong because of you.

Thank you for your perseverance. Thank you for your resilience. Thank you for your determination to serve our state, nation, and world.

Ours is a great University and, with a commitment to our core mission, it will continue to be.  Thank you, and I look forward to serving alongside you in the year ahead.