I want to begin my comments today by congratulating the award winners we’ll be recognizing this morning. Each of you provides a clear example of what we mean when we talk about the contributions of UNF’s faculty and staff. Your dedication to your respective professions and this university serve to inspire us all.
I also want to take a moment to acknowledge the newest members of our faculty and staff who are with us this morning. We’re glad you’ve chosen to join us. I think you will find, as most of us have, that the University of North Florida is a remarkable place to call home.
And finally, allow me to welcome all the UNF veterans here today. Thank you for coming out to congratulate our award winners and to meet the newest members of the UNF community. And more importantly, please know that we appreciate everything you do to enrich the life of this institution and the lives of our students.
In thinking about my remarks for this morning, I considered a number of different options. My first thought was to talk about some of our recent accomplishments. For example, we could spend time celebrating the fact that we finally closed the gap between the number of students who walked onto our campus this fall and the number of students we are being funded for by the State or our success in bringing the new Social Science Building on line and on time, and our record $30 million in PECO funding. We could also talk about the exemplary freshman profile we have recorded for this fall or offer some ideas about why UNF was recognized as the fifth best buy in public education by Princeton Review when all of the universities in our system charge virtually the same undergraduate tuition as we do.
Then I thought it might be every bit as much fun to talk about some of the upcoming opportunities we’ll be working on over the course of the next year or so. In thinking about these opportunities, we could spend time discussing our bid to purchase the AOL building; our commitment to hiring even more faculty, both to replace a large number of colleagues who will soon be retiring and to meet the needs of a growing student body; and our growing support for Transformational Learning Opportunities and other such initiatives.
But in lieu of either of these topics, as tempting as they are, I decided to take a few moments today to consider some core questions that, for me at least, are even more central to our identity as a university: questions about our long term future.
In looking at a variety of recommendations about the future of UNF, coming from both on and off campus, it becomes apparent that there would be no way to meet everyone’s expectation or vision for this university. Individuals from across the spectrum have very different and, at times, conflicting views about who we are and what we should become.
Allow me offer three sets of examples of these diverging views.
When considering the role that UNF might play in regional development, some members of our Board have asked whether we should consider scaling back the number of programs in our curriculum, becoming even more well-grounded in each program that we do offer. In contrast, other members of the Board have suggested that we should be poised to modify our curriculum quickly, adding programs in response to immediate local needs.
In a similar vein, reports emanating from the community have advocated for UNF adding programs that respond to community aspirations in new and cutting edge fields, under the assumption that an academic program in an area of interest will be sufficient to attract an industry to the region.
When we consider ideas about the future size of our student body we also find differing perspectives. We estimate that to meet the goals for baccalaureate prepared citizens proposed in one regional study, UNF would have to increase our undergraduate enrollments to 53,000 students within the next ten years. At the same time, a different voice in the community, who knows and loves our institution well, pleads that we would be better served to take on more of the characteristics of a small liberal arts college, avoiding any temptation to become a mega-university.
Our commitments to research and scholarship provide us with our third example of divergence. In considering the role scholarship should play in the future of this institution, there are numbers of faculty members, as well as community members, who suggest that we must increase the emphasis we place on this part of our mission.
At the same time, data indicate that there are at least some faculty members who show somewhat less enthusiasm for engagement in funded research or published scholarship. And there are those members of the community who would warn that an over emphasis on research could mean a de-emphasis on the quality of our teaching.
While I will stop here with such examples, recognize that these differences on what our curriculum should look like, what size we should aspire to and the degree of emphasis we should place on research represent only some of the divergent views about UNF’s best course to the future.
Given these varying and conflicting perspectives, how do we best plan for that future?
I would assert that the four guiding principles articulated by our Board of Trustees provide the beginning of a solid framework for making decisions about our future. In each choice we make we should be informed by and seek to balance our commitments to excellence, focus, relevance, and accountability.
In applying these commitments, we must also consider our unique institutional characteristics, including our historic and inherent strengths. These latter criteria imply that while we may borrow elements from other universities, we would do ourselves a disservice to try and emulate any single institution. We might well seek the urban focus of a Portland State or the curricular breadth of a Miami of Ohio, but we ought not to seek to become either institution. Nor would I imagine that we would follow the exact footsteps of our sister institutions in Florida, who themselves are seeking for self-definitions of excellence.
We must be uniquely and proudly the University of North Florida.
With this as our framework for decision making, the next question is how do we apply these commitments and our unique characteristics to specific issues?
Let’s look at our vision for the size of the UNF student body. Our commitments to relevance and accountability clearly signal that at this point in our development we can not and should not stop growth in our student body; the region and the State have need for and a right to expect greater capacity from this university.
Nonetheless, I believe our commitment to excellence and the historic strengths of our educational programs preclude us from growing into a mega-university, and very possibly from assuming sole responsibility for greater degree production in this region.
We need to and we will grow – that is a given. But we must do this in measured steps, ensuring that resources keep up with our growth and that the quality of the educational experiences we offer graduate and undergraduate students is not sacrificed for the sake of turning out more college degrees.
While I do advocate for more students on campus, we must resist the temptation to pack large numbers of students into individual classrooms and we must maintain our focus on individual attention and on building relationships between students and faculty mentors. Balancing our growth and our commitment to quality educational experiences will, without a doubt, require deliberate planning on our part.
That being said, we believe that if we are able to secure the fiscal and capital resources we need, over the next five years we should see another 15 to 16 hundred new students on our campus. And, when asked where we should be when we hit full capacity, the 25,000 student enrollment figure that has been mentioned for the last several years seems a workable number, in the context of our institutional goals.
If that is to be our size, what do our guiding principles, our history and our unique characteristics suggest about our curriculum. Established as a regional university, it is clear we must maintain close ties to our community. The importance of these ties is punctuated by our stated commitment to relevance.
When the University of North Florida first opened its doors, our future was inextricably linked to the goodwill of this region. This remains true today. But 30 some years later, we and regional leaders also recognize that north Florida’s future is inextricably linked to the quality and focus of this university.
If we do not have an undergraduate curriculum that is rich and robust we can not hope to become a destination university attracting bright students to the region. Likewise, if we do not have a graduate curriculum that supports the cultural, civic, social, and economic growth of this region, North Florida can not hope to realize its full potential.
As we look out at the landscape, we see clear signs that we need to increase our graduate offerings with a focus on applied fields at both the master’s and doctoral levels. But to ensure accountability, we must be judicious in selecting these new programs. Not everything that we as individuals might want to do will correspond with our community’s needs or with emerging areas of growth.
Continued response to our community’s health care industry, as shown in our effort to add two doctoral degrees in the Brooks College, seems to me to be a given, but dreams of aerospace technology might prove to be a stretch.
And what of our scholarship – As we have said often, the character and history of this university as well as the need for a cohesive plan for a state system would argue against our seeking to be a Research 1 institution. Yet, I hope that the investments we have made in faculty course releases and startup funds for new faculty with significant laboratory needs provide a clear indication of this administration’s support for an increased focus on the scholarship portion of our mission.
It’s our scholarship that helps keep our curriculum alive, it also energizes the faculty who are simultaneously teaching and writing the research. Equally important, this scholarship serves as a one of the university’s significant contributions to society at large.
In promoting scholarship, our commitments to focus and to relevance suggest that we should pay particular attention to research that fits both our mission and our strengths. As an urban institution located in a region where the environment is one of our most valuable assets, we are uniquely positioned to involve ourselves in answering some of the most perplexing problems facing society.
At the same time, our central focus on our students’ education means that we must seek to build even stronger mechanisms for involving graduate and undergraduate students in helping us seek the solutions to these problems. This is how we differentiate ourselves as a learning community.
Earlier this week, the Provost and I, along with other members of our leadership team, spent an afternoon talking with consultants who are helping the Board of Governors examine the future of the state university system. In these conversations, we presented our collective vision for the future of the University of North Florida.
This is a vision that first and foremost has the University of North Florida recognized nationally for the quality of its educational opportunities.
It is a vision that has UNF as significant contributor to regional growth, and one that involves our faculty and our students in building new knowledge and creating new forms of artistic expression. It is also a vision of a growing university that attracts some of this State’s brightest students and employs and supports an incredibility talented faculty and staff.
As we spoke of our vision with the BOG’s consultants, we were readily able to point to a number of indicators that document our capacity to achieve our goals. But the most important of the resources we have are the people in this auditorium. Each of us must take pride in the character of this university and feel passionate about our future.
My hope is that we will a variety of opportunities to talk about our future during the course of the year and to sketch in some of the details about our vision. It is important that we take the time to work together in understanding where we are going and in charting our path into the future.
Thank you for allowing me to spend time this morning, sharing with you some of these ideas about who we are and our directions into the future.