Convocation, Fall 2010

Friday, October 01, 2010

This year marks the 33rd year since I received my Ph.D. and the 32nd year of employment in universities. Over the course of those three plus decades I have witnessed many changes in higher education. Some of these changes were anticipated and some came as a surprise. Some were timely and others were long overdue. These changes have occurred for a wide variety of institutional and contextual reasons, and of course, while some of the changes I have witnessed have been incontrovertibly lamentable many, I am pleased to note, have been for the better.

I believe you will agree with me when I say that we are experiencing a moment in higher education when change seems to be very much in the air. Well before the advent of the recession there were calls for greater accountability in higher education, pertaining not only to the determination and assessment of student learning outcomes but, even more pervasively, to every aspect of institutional effectiveness. Three years after the start of the recession, regardless of whether the recession is truly over or in a temporary hiatus, such calls have only increased and there is no reason to believe that the demand for accountability will diminish even with economic recovery. Nor should it.

Of course, the primary impact of the recession and its now prolonged aftermath has been a reduction of state funding which no one expects to be fully restored, leading to the financial paradigm shift that President Delaney already has referred to as “the new normal.” While this shift thus far has manifested itself at UNF in a reduction of some vacant positions and an arrested rate of enrollment growth, up until this past summer the SUS Board of Governors restricted its expectations regarding institutional efficiency to the administrative operation of the eleven SUS institutions.

That has now changed. As I have indicated to you previously in my newsletter, the BOG is now engaging in an analysis of academic programs across the system to identify areas of duplication. Needless to say, such duplication abounds. Fortunately, and to their credit, the BOG is undertaking this investigation without a preconceived notion about whether such duplication is wasteful or justifiable. The BOG is being assisted in its effort by a small group of provosts, myself included. I am confident that the academic leaders of the SUS institutions will be able to provide persuasive explanations for why it makes sense for each campus to have its own department of English, or philosophy, or whatever the case might be.

It is not at random that the two departments that I mentioned are both in the humanities. While I trust that their reason for being is self-apparent to everyone in this auditorium, it is hard to overlook the fact that the STEM disciplines are being incentivized not only in Florida but indeed across the country because of their potential for generating knowledge transfer and thus economic development. That economic productivity notwithstanding, it is incumbent upon educators from every discipline to help our legislators and system leaders understand why the development of new technologies would be impoverished in the absence of a nuanced insight into and appreciation for the human condition, an insight and appreciation best facilitated through engagement with the fullest range of the liberal arts. In any event, it is important to recognize that, as with the recent topicality of program duplication, the related question of whether certain scientific disciplines should be prioritized over others whose practical applications are less obvious and direct has moved to the forefront of public attention.

Compounding the complexity of these matters has been the emergence of the Internet as a viable means of educational delivery. The Internet vastly complicates the issue of program duplication, as it does the related issue of market boundaries. Like UNF, most of the universities in this country are regional in nature, but those regions have become ever less distinct or proprietary as a consequence of the ubiquity of on-line programs disseminated from across the state, across the country, and even from across the globe. The marketplace of higher education is thus quite literally being redefined even as I speak, subject as it is not only to market forces but also to the evolving learning preferences of our students and the rapidly evolving nature of scholarly communication itself. As the ethicist Peter Singer has observed, the result of these transformational processes will inevitably be a fundamental change in the configuration of higher education to say nothing about their influence on patterns of human behavior generally.

So for a multitude of reasons it is undeniable that change is in the air. My own attitude is that such change needs to be regarded not as a threat but as an opportunity, not as an occasion simply to defend the status quo but to anticipate how we might refashion our institution so that it will continue to serve its multiple constituencies in a manner that everyone will agree is both optimally effective and efficient. As stewards of our institution and the educated citizens that we are, we have, it seems to me, both a professional and a moral responsibility to undertake this urgent challenge, which is why I have assembled a task force to assist me in thinking through a set of issues whose complexity certainly transcends the ability of any one person to comprehend or reconcile them all. I look forward to sharing with you the fruits of this group’s work, and to engaging the broader university community in a conversation in which every one of us has such an important stake.

I would like to close my comments on a note of reaffirmation. The quality of our own institution, which I am privileged to know with a unique breadth and depth resulting from my role as chief academic officer of the university, continues to strike me as remarkable, and if I remain confident of anything, it is of the vital role our institution will play, regardless of how it might be configured, in the education of our citizens and the advancement of our State. As reported in the Times-Union last week, dramatic evidence of UNF’s vitality recently has been provided in the proclamation issued by the Bioscience Council of Jacksonville, the tacit implication of which is that if the University of Florida is not willing to expand its Shands/Jacksonville medical school presence to a full four-year program UNF should assume this responsibility. There are many compelling reasons why such an initiative is not likely to gain traction, but the fact that the university even has been encouraged to consider this possibility is itself indicative of the maturity and regard UNF has achieved and the potential it has for further growth in the future. I trust you will agree with me, therefore, when I observe that not only is there change in the air, but that for myriad reasons UNF is right in the thick of it, which is to say, exactly where we would want it to be.

Thank you.