While the first day of fall classes is a couple of weeks behind us, in keeping with tradition, we use this convocation as a ceremonial beginning for the new academic year. It is a time to welcome all of our new faculty and staff and a time to honor some of our returning faculty and staff who made significant contributions to UNF over the past year. Among the faculty we are honoring is Carolyn Stone, this year's distinguished professor of the year, a tremendous representative of the university.
My own remarks at this event are often referred to as the State of the University address but, as I have said before, this title seems a bit grander than I suspect my comments might warrant. However, having this time at the beginning of the year does provide a platform for talking about our successes and aspirations, as well as discussing a few of the critical issues we have before us.
When we look at how this year is starting off, and back at key events from the last academic year, it is clear that we continue to be an amazing institution in many ways. One of our greatest points of pride will always be our students and I am thrilled to report to you that this fall's entering freshman class broke all records for academic profile. The fall freshman class had an average high school GPA of 4.02 and average quantitative and verbal SAT score of 1218. UNF is increasingly becoming the institution of choice for bright and talented young men and women, strengthening our reputation.
Because of campus-wide efforts, our graduation rates are exceeding our long-standing trend. UNF now ranks in the upper 17th percentile for public Masters universities, which is our peer group. Also, UNF ranks at the top when it comes to preparing our students to be successful after they receive their bachelor's degree. Our graduates currently have the second highest rate of first-year employment and/or attending graduate school across the State University System. That speaks volumes about who we are, what we do and how well we do it.
UNF's national recognition continues to be fueled by the academic strength of our student body and the quality of our faculty and staff.
- For seven consecutive years, UNF has been named one of the Best Colleges in the Southeast by The Princeton Review.
- Other high rankings have come from U.S. News and World Report and Kiplinger's Personal Finance News.
- We have also maintained our status as a Military Friendly School.
- According to the Institute of International Education, UNF ranked 11th in the nation for its short-term study abroad programs, which speaks to our efforts to provide Transformational Learning Opportunities to all our students.
- For the first time in our history, INSIGHT into Diversity magazine honored UNF with its Higher Education Excellence in Diversity Award, a recognition which celebrates our efforts in building a diverse campus and an award that causes us to rededicate ourselves to work even harder. Last fall, 29 percent of our student body from the United States was composed of ethnic and racial minorities. This is an 11 percent increase over the past 10 years. Our numbers for minority staff are also strong. We have some work to do in recruiting more minority faculty, however, and we are focused on doing just that.
Our academic programs and colleges also continue to receive accolades.
- For eight consecutive years, The Princeton Review ranked the Coggin College of Business one of the nation's best business schools.
- The Brooks College of Health's Physical Therapy Program was named the best in the country, according to GraduatePrograms.com.
- In June, UNF's Jazz Ensemble 1 was recognized as the top college Large Jazz Ensemble by DownBeat magazine. This is yet one more in a string of student music awards our Jazz program has earned since 2002.
These are just a few of the many examples across our campus. I brag every chance I get.
Campus pride reached an all-time high in March, when all eyes were on the men's basketball team. Students, faculty, staff, alums and supporters throughout the region packed into the UNF Arena to watch the Ospreys win the Atlantic Sun Championship, a record 6,155 fans. Alums all over the country held their own watch parties, cheering on the Ospreys as they earned their first ticket to the Big Dance. What an incredible team of student-athletes and coaches! We have to give a shout out to Stephen Putman, our animated "UNF Band Guy," whose wild dance went viral. I do not know how many of you were getting phone calls from family and friends from across the country, but I do know the number of calls I got climbed each time we stepped onto the court, on our way to Dayton. Coach Driscoll, we want to thank you and your team. Please stand and be recognized.
At the same time we were celebrating March Madness, we were also on pins and needles to see how we did in the State's university rankings on the infamous 10 performance metrics. There were moments of tension as these rankings were being released and then re-released, after correcting the calculation. In the end, UNF increased its score by 7 points, earning us an additional $4 million in performance-based funding, but the whole ordeal demonstrated how precarious State funding is going to be as we go forward. Each year, we, along with several of our university peers, stand at risk of not receiving any new funding from the State. Unless the rules change, we could even have funds cut from our budget in a given year.
While I do not want to get bogged down in more detail than we need to at this event, it is important to point out that the new dollars we do get, through performance-based funding, come as non-recurring funds. Non-recurring dollars are not the kind of money you use to hire new faculty or staff. It is the kind of money you hope you will continue to get in the following year. I think is also important to point out that, while there are 10 metrics, four are the most critical:
- second-year retention rates,
- six-year graduation rates,
- the cost per undergraduate degree, and
- the percent of our graduate degrees in areas of strategic importance: STEM, healthcare, some fields of education and several other specific fields.
With the work we are doing to improve opportunities for our students, we should make significant improvements in at least three of these key metrics. But these improvements won't happen overnight and they require our constant attention and perseverance.
Even as we improve, with some of the quirks in the performance-based funding system, it is possible that we may miss the mark in some year or another. We can certainly see this played out in the fact that New College of Florida, a nationally highly ranked liberal arts college in the Florida System, has had money cut for two years in a row. As a result of the uncertainty of this funding, we are budgeting more conservatively than we would have if the new money was recurring.
In looking at our budget, we recognize that we need to increase enrollment for the 2016-2017 academic year but we need to do that with care. If the new freshmen we admit do not stay at UNF and graduate in a timely manner, it will hurt us in the state metrics and could cost us State funding. This State funding is critical when you understand that students only pay for 40 percent of the cost of their education. In other words, 60 percent of our budget comes from students, and that dollar amount does not increase if we add enrollment.
In addition to looking at changing the formula we use in first-time-in-college admission decisions, we are also working on our collaborative efforts with the State colleges, which have been experiencing a decline in enrollment, a trend that directly impacts us. In addition to putting mechanisms in place to increase undergraduate enrollments, we have also funded additional teaching assistantships to use in recruiting and attracting more graduate students into areas of strategic need.
One of the things we need to pay particular attention to, as we bring in new students, is that we are scheduling courses to meet student needs. We cannot have departments offering their required courses in competing time blocks and the time blocks we use have to allow students to enroll in a full 15 hours per term. The days of 12 hours per term as the norm are over. The State expects our students to graduate in a timely manner and they can only do so if they can get all the courses they need, when they need them.
This month, we sent a proposal to the Faculty Association to change our Honors Program into an Honors College. While various segments of our community have talked about what this would do in recruiting some of the brightest students from the region and beyond to UNF, only recently did two long-time UNF supporters step forward with a seven-figure financial gift that would allow us to make this into a reality. We eagerly await the recommendation/advice that will be coming out of the Faculty Association. As former provost, David Kline once said, it is a lot easier to teach a smart kid. No longer is UNF an open enrollment institution, built for locals. Less than one-half of freshmen come from northeast Florida. We are now a destination university.
I am often asked why we pursue, as David Kline pithily commented, smart kids - because that is one way to build our academic reputation. We style ourselves like the classic small, private liberal arts school, with four professional colleges - a public private. The former chair of the Board of Governors refers to UNF as "the Gem of the System." The quality of our research is high, judged by how often our faculty's work is cited in the academic work of others but our quality, measured by the amount of funded research we do is the lowest in the State system.
Finally, allow me to share with you an exchange that occurred last week. We invited a small number of students to speak to our Board of Trustees, sharing the stories of their journey to UNF and their experiences here. The stories were amazing. A first-generation student told us her family questioned why she would go to college and why she chose UNF. As they have watched this young woman grow and succeed, the talk around the family table has changed. She now stands as an inspiration for other family members as she plans her career in law. There was another young woman who talked about being shy and not joining in easily. After one term in a residence hall, all that changed. She is now a student leader who credits her metamorphosis to her residence hall connections and experiences. An international student from Belize spoke about how warm and welcoming everyone is on campus, which has now become his home away from home. As he sat on the tarmac in his airplane in Belize, a graduate of UNF from decades earlier tried to talk him out of attending. He is really glad he did not take the advice. Another student spoke about a faculty mentor who is pushing him to challenge himself in and out of the classroom. Each and every one of these students talked about how they found a way to connect to UNF, and how specific faculty mentors and staff supported them in pursuing their dreams.
Every Trustee was impressed, and I was re-assured that our hard work is paying off. We are transforming students, one at a time, and for that, we have you to thank. I am grateful for the work you do every day and am personally thankful to work with such a talented and caring group of professionals. You are changing lives and I appreciate all you do.