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Convocation 2017

I would like to welcome each of you to the University of North Florida’s 2017-18 Convocation. As we embark on a new semester and academic year, this is always a special day for us, a morning that we set aside to express our gratitude to our veteran faculty and staff for the years of service and commitment to making UNF an often declared national treasure. I also want to thank, and officially welcome those of you who have joined us over the last several months, or the last few weeks. We are heartened to have you as the newest members of the UNF family, and we encourage you to make this your home.

Today is also an occasion when we pause to recognize some of the various accomplishments of our faculty and staff over the past year, including our distinguished professor of the year, Dr. Catherine Christie, professor of Nutrition and Dietetics. This annual award is given by our faculty to an individual who has had a distinguished and balanced academic life as an educator and scholar, and a record of active service within the community. That description certainly fits Dr. Christie.

Before we honor our colleagues, I have been asked to make some observations on UNFs most recent achievements and also to lay out a broad plan for our future, or at least the next nine months of that future. For many of us, the year brought challenge and change and at the same time, it provided some very notable achievements.

Let’s start the year with a recognition that actually took me a little bit by surprise. This year, AffordableCollegesOnline.org, which is a leader in higher education information resources and rankings, recognized UNF as the “Best Online College for 2017” for its excellence in certain online programs. When I heard this, I wondered how we achieved this with a growing but still nascent set of online programs and courses, and when we certainly are not trying to become a primarily online university.

Affordable Colleges Online recognized our nutrition degrees in the Brooks College of Health, as well as our RN to BSN Program, also in Brooks. This is not surprising since both are from flagship areas of study. It became clear why these programs were recognized when I looked at the selection criteria. The primary data points used to find the best online colleges of 2017 include: in-state tuition and fees, percent of full-time undergraduate students receiving institutional financial aid, number of online programs offered, and student-to-teacher ratio. These are all areas of importance to us and areas where we excel for on-campus and online students.

A similar honor was echoed by the U.S. News & World Report’s “2017 Best Online Programs” rankings, released in January. We ranked among the top 50 colleges and universities in the country for “Best Online Bachelor’s Programs,” which includes data from more than 1,300 distant-education degree programs nationally. Ranked #48, UNF is the only regional higher education institution listed among the rankings in this category. The university was also named among the graduate-level “Best Online Education Programs” and “Best Online Criminal Justice and Criminology Programs.” U.S. News assessed schools based on student engagement, faculty credentials and formal training in distance education, student services and technology, and peer reputation. We may have been slow to come out of the box in distance learning, but we are coming out strong. And I have always argued, catch the second wave of technology, not the first.

At the same time we are making these inroads in distance learning, consistent with our overall mission, we maintain our status as one of the best colleges in the region and the U.S., as attested to us by U.S. News & World Report, Princeton Review for eight years in a row, and also the publication, College Factual. When national rating agencies such as Kiplinger’s, Affordable Colleges and Washington Monthly look at UNF, they consistently rank us high on the quality of our education, as well as the affordability of our programs.

While these accolades are great and help tell part of the UNF story, we have other ways of judging our success. This summer, our Board of Trustees and administration had an opportunity to respond to a series of questions the Governor asked at each of Florida’s universities. In doing our research on these questions, Jay Coleman and his team came up with some answers that put us in good stead, compared to the state rating system. For example, while 17 percent of the degrees the state system produced addressed the Governor’s high-need areas, 22 percent of our degrees addressed those areas of growth. Five percent of our graduates entered nursing fields, compared to 4 percent for the rest of the state. Three percent of our graduates were in computer fields, compared to 1 percent of graduates of other institutions in the state. At the same time, 4 percent of our graduates finished in health administration and health science, compared to 2 percent from the other state universities schools. Numbers such as these will add another 6 points to our overall metric scores for the upcoming year.

Not only are our students enrolled in high-demand majors at a higher rate than our sister institutions, more UNF grads stay in the state as champions of Florida’s economy. When it comes to accounting graduates, 81 percent of UNF alumni work in Florida. And a full 90 percent of our nursing students are supporting the state and region’s growing health care systems.

It is safe to say that UNF is working hard to fulfill critical state and local needs. And in doing so, we are making major contributions to the quality of life of northeast Florida, and beyond. When the Governor asked what we did with the increase in higher education funding, we explained that, when accounting for inflation, in 2016 we actually saw a decrease in funding compared to FY 2008. This has been impacted by our designation among the bottom three schools under the Board of Governors’ metric program, a practice that is counter-productive to the fiscal and reputational health of the system, as attested to by the five other schools who have also held this ranking at one point or another.

It seems amazing to me that we can be on the verge of laying claim to the best state system in the country, when over half of the schools in the system have been wrongly forced to bear the stigma of what they call the “bottom three.” Somehow that doesn’t compute. We believe the Legislature is starting to understand. Nonetheless, through creative and conservative budgeting, we were able to keep the ship more than afloat. We stayed true to some of our most basic commitments, such as raises for faculty who were tenured or promoted to a higher academic rank. We also pieced together the funds to improve the quality of the education we have been offering our students through increased advising, writing center enhancements, and a new math placement test for entering students, improvements in career service offerings and, of course, Supplements Instruction sessions used by more than 40 percent of our students in some of UNFs most difficult classes. Supplemental Instruction accounted for a 66 percent reduction in students withdrawing from, or getting Ds or Fs in these classes. This was a dramatic change in what we refer to as our D,F,W rate. For those faculty members who are reticent to use Supplemental Instruction in their classes, I would asked that they study the improvements where it has been used.

The Governor also asked if we had increased internship experiences and we were proud to tell him that we had gone from 41.5 percent of our students enrolling in one or more internships to more than 50 percent, over the past six years. We know that these internships are the gateway to employment after graduation, as well as an understanding to what community engagement can mean in building a better city. However that answer does not even begin to reveal UNFs impact – our ability to transform both our students and our community. The Center for Community-Based Learning team documented the depth of impact of our engagement work for the first time, with your cooperation.

During the last academic year, 255 faculty and staff offered almost 700 different community-based courses or internships. Additionally, UNF staff members provided 332 co-curricular community engagement events. These faculty and staff members provide truly reciprocal opportunities: the students benefit and so does the community. Thanks to this hard work, our students spend nearly one million hours engaged in community projects and endeavors.

Our faculty and staff are true citizens of the Northeast Florida community, contributing over nearly 60,000 hours of service to local non-profits, churches, schools and community organizations. As a campus, we walk the talk.

Changing our focus, I want to talk about equally impressive numbers for our six-year graduation rate. In 2008, 45 percent of our 22,002 first-time-in-college students completed their bachelor’s degrees within six years. Our preliminary numbers for 2017 give every indication that the 45 percent rate will have climbed to 56 percent for the freshman cohort that began in 2011. This is the second highest increase in the state university system. This is yet one more increase that will move us ahead on the performance-based funding metric.

When we compare ourselves to national peers, we are already ranked fourth in the nation for metropolitan, comprehensive, public universities. It’s possible we could move up in that rating as well. With numbers such as these, we are in good stead for the 2017-18 performance-based budget. But even before that comes to fruition, we have managed to budget for a faculty and staff salary increase. This is something the Board of Trusties and administration have pledged to do. And while we would have loved to have given even more, I hope each of you understands how important you are to us – that we have been able to squeeze it out of an essentially flat budget over the last 10 years. I would add a further note in saying that the university’s vice presidents and deans all voted to take no raise whatsoever, even after members of the Board protested that executive staff should be compensated for their efforts, on behalf of the university.

So with this, a retelling of recent accomplishments, and foretelling of good news, what’s ahead for the year to come? Let me state clearly, we are not putting the ship in idle and waiting for the next executive officer to be chosen. We are preparing for the next president to walk onto an even better campus than we have today. We have a significant renovation to complete and get up and running. Janet Owen and I will seek out new funding in Tallahassee to retool and expand current buildings that will address faculty needs and program expansion.

As a Carnegie community-engaged campus, this year we will be celebrating long-standing and new community partnerships. To kick off that celebration, I want to begin by thanking you, our faculty and staff members, for dedicated leadership and hard work to improve the quality of life in Jacksonville and our region. Without your commitment and innovated design of learning opportunities, we wouldn’t be able to report the remarkable impact that I mentioned earlier.

We also need to double down and figure out how to multiply the achievements we have had with students, making them even better at planning and prospering in the right programs of study. We should not be admitting students who can’t make it through to graduation in a discipline that doesn’t match up with their individual strengths. This means coming up with mechanisms to provide intrusive and intensive advising, paying particular attention to meeting the needs of the working student. It also means requiring more robust admission standards and better guidance in identifying the right career path early on. In some cases, that means as soon as the student walks on to campus. We have been gathering data to help us tackle these problems, and can use that now to help guide our students. And that is all it really is – is to help guide.

Another area I hope we can work through is better work assignments for faculty with rewards and recognitions for the faculty, fitting with their individual contributions to the university. Top researchers needs more time to up their research productivity and actively engage our students in that research. Top educators who are often senior faculty need to work with our most challenged students, helping them find success. And faculty who engage our students in the community each need to be compensated and promoted accordingly. Of course, all of the faculty must show research in teaching skills on their way to promotion to associate professor.

After saying all of this, it’s apparent that we have a full plate for the upcoming year. To take on these tasks, we are going to need continued collaboration and renewed commitment to work together. We are a better school than we met in this facility 14 years ago. Let’s prepare to welcome a new president to an even stronger institution. It’s an ambitious but achievable agenda.

Now if you will indulge me for just a minute, closing my remarks, I would like to thank each and every one of you for allowing me to work alongside you to get UNF in the position that we are in today, a nationally ranked and recognized metropolitan university, located on what I consider to be the most beautiful campus in the state. This is a campus with a diverse, bright and growing student body. It has more than 2,400 of the best faculty and staff imaginable, all focused on student success.

I began my day today with an email from a student, as I often do, complaining about parking. We’ve had a lot of contact with this student. She transferred from a community college and, with her parents, there was a snarl up with her financial aid. As I have found in almost every single case, it is the paperwork provided by the student and the family that ends up being the problem. She is living in the Osprey Fountains, taking education classes in Petway Hall and wants to be able to park, both at Housing and Petway Hall. Her complaint this time was that she got a ticket for parking on the grass. And she pointed out that the car next to her was owned by a veteran who also had a parking ticket and shouldn’t veterans be able to park wherever they want. Seemingly, every day I get an email from a parent or a student complaining about something or with the idea that they know a better way to run a university than we do. I explain to the students that you can’t park at a university like you park at the 7 Eleven.

This afternoon, my youngest daughter, who graduated a year ago in nursing is closing on a house. My oldest son, who received a bachelors and masters from UNF, has recently published an article on the monuments issue that has more perspective and temperament than I think anything else we have seen. My mother has been a frequent flyer at the Herbert University Center and the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, and my dad has seen more UNF athletic events than about anybody on this campus, other than the athletic director. Right now, he is in hospice but he has his UNF baseball hat on and a UNF blanket on his lap. When you get those student complaints, when you get those tough issues, when you look at your paycheck, do realize that this place does great things that certainly gets under your skin. God bless you all, thank you. 

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