Welcome to all of the new members of the University of North Florida faculty and staff, and to the veteran members. I look forward to convocation each year because we take time to honor our faculty and staff for the many contributions they have made in teaching, scholarship and advising, as well as furthering internationalization and diversity, and service over the past year. In addition, we get to hear an address from our distinguished professor of the year, Dr. Dominik Güss, a strong and well-regarded teacher and researcher in psychology. Before we move to these important festivities, I have an opportunity to offer a few short remarks to the university community.
My commentary at this event is sometimes billed as the State of the University address. I find that a bit of an over-statement and would rather refer to these remarks as commentary of the person who is fortunate to have an amazing job, executive officer and chief advocate for a truly remarkable metropolitan university that places student learning and the success of our graduates at the core of our mission. While we have changed in so many ways over the years, this core mission, stated in slightly different forms from time-to-time, has not, and hopefully will not change. It is the essence of who we are.
Prior to the start of today’s convocation, I previewed the slides that were on the screen and I could not help but remember that 16 years ago, before I arrived on campus, Dr. David Courtwright, the then-distinguished professor of the year, took it upon himself in his convocation address to justifiably criticize the architecture on our campus, saying, “Have you ever noticed that there are no architecturally distinguished buildings on this campus? Most of our buildings, if you will pardon a triple oxymoron, are polygonal, utilitarian clinkers.” Others who held similar sentiments would, at times, refer to the campus as, “An ugly shopping mall-like facility with late ‘60s junior college architecture in the center of endless treeless and uninspired parking lots.” My own description, “Soviet 1960’s architecture.” I am happy to report that Dr. Courtwright’s opinion has changed over the past 16 years. Today, when I drive onto or walk across our campus, I am struck by how attractive and welcoming it is. Not just because of the beauty of the campus, albeit it is the best-looking campus in the state system, but because that beauty is emblematic of so much of the progress we have made over the years. As Dr. Courtwright suggested in 1998, “at all times, we need to pay attention to the quantitative and qualitative growth of this institution.” We are in the debt of Dr. Courtwright, and many of you, for issuing the challenge to change the aesthetics of this campus and foster a maturing university culture while staying true to our foundation.
As I read the multiple news clippings that we receive throughout the year, I become ever more convinced that it is not only the beauty of this campus but also the quality of the academic offerings, balanced with our affordable price tag that makes us a true gem. Kiplinger’s and College Factual have ranked us for the quality and affordability of the programs we offer. The Princeton Review and U.S. News & World Report label us as among the best institutions in the southeast and the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard rates us well on the quality of the students we admit, our annual graduation rates and the salaries our alums earn 10 years after graduation. In addition to these awards and rankings, we can proudly point to the strength of our Disability Resource Center, our recognition as a military-friendly campus and the fact that this year, we will receive INSIGHT into Diversity magazine’s Higher Education Excellence in Diversity (HEED) award for the second time in four years, due in part to our commitment to a steady increase in the percent of minority students attending UNF.
Fifteen to 20 years ago, we were not receiving these accolades, nor were we labeled a community-engaged campus, bestowed on us by the Carnegie Foundation, in its first listing, recognizing the hours upon hours our faculty, students and staff have spent involved in community service and engagement. Last year, 38 percent of our student body engaged in one form of a transformational learning opportunity or another and many, if not most of these, were community-based learning experiences which often lead to internship positions.
Of course, not everything went as we wanted. For 11 years, our budget has barely moved – about three-quarters of a percent per year, losing ground to inflation. At the same time, we still had inertia costs, such as promotional raises for faculty, and we were committed to no layoffs and we refused to cut faculty travel and research funding. With all of this happening, we essentially had 11 years of budget cuts, a management and administrative nightmare. We and our Board of Trustees wanted to focus on pay increases but instead, we had to focus on keeping people working and keeping the institution functional.
Despite the negative, and as a result of the positive forces, we certainly are not the commuter campus that admitted most students who applied for admission 44 years ago. This year, we have nearly 4,000 students living on campus – 10 years ago, it was half that. What we are is a maturing university that is beating other municipal, comprehensive universities across the country on the key measures of success that we have set as our goals. I am fortunate to have joined the UNF family at a time when, together, we could make all of this happen, building on the work of those who went before us. I cannot tell you how proud I am to be able to call all of you colleagues.
Certainly, we are unfortunate to have had to do deal with the 11 bad budget years but this is the time to tell the positive parts of the UNF story loudly and clearly. It is a compelling story when it is told in its entirety and not summarized in sound bites with missing data or minus an in-depth analysis of the facts. When you came into the auditorium today, you were given a blue card highlighting some of these accomplishments. What I encourage each of you to do is to read that card and think about the university where you get to work. Share those facts when you are out in the community. Help greater Jacksonville understand who we are. We need not stay proverbial light under a bushel basket.
As we are telling our story in the shopping market and at the gym, it is also time that we focus on writing the next chapter in UNF’s history. This is the chapter in which we build on our current successes to make UNF an even stronger institution, one that climbs to the top among our national peers. We fully understand that universities with different missions and different peer groups will more than likely have different retention and graduation rates. But I know, without a doubt, that UNF can, and does rank among the top 10 institutions in the nation who are in our same peer category – metropolitan, comprehensive universities – when we measure retention and graduation rates, employment rates of first-year graduates and the salaries of graduates 10 years out. And we certainly want to include other measures of quality added to the mix.
We can also be at the top of the list when our students and alumni tell their personal UNF stories about community engagement and stories about faculty and staff mentors who changed their lives. None of these goals is impossible, in fact, they are well within our reach. When we look at the current overall profile of our student body, we see a range of students, including some with incredible academic achievements.
To flourish in the next UNF chapter, when we bring these students onto campus, we must provide each of them with the individual guidance and resources to prosper and these will vary from student to student. This means making some cultural changes in UNF’s next chapter – in particular, changes in the way our staff, advisors and faculty work together as a team.
We have already started this process with a newly designed student orientation that is focused on the importance of and the path-to-degree completion. This orientation also offers a thorough understanding of what is likely to happen after graduation, depending on a student’s major and career choices, providing detailed information on employment and graduate school opportunities.
In this new chapter, we are talking about our students’ future, and at the same time, we are assessing their entering skills, allowing us to guide the individual UNF student into the appropriate major. Data analytics show that if a student does not come in with a certain math SAT score, the student is not going to succeed in computing, math or engineering at UNF. Going forward, we need to help the student understand this before they start declaring their majors, otherwise we are setting them up for frustration and increasing the possibility of them dropping out, an outcome that serves no one.
In our new chapter, one of our most critical goals must be to help the increased number of UNF students achieve success in their first year. Mr. Albert Colom, associate vice president, Enrollment Services, and his colleagues brought us a larger freshman class and now we need to focus on their first-term academic achievement which will tell us a whole lot about their success rates – a 2.5 GPA does not mean sailing through. What 2.5 or lower means is more time with the student’s advisor and faculty mentors, two critical players in student success.
To build success in the first semester, we propose a second change to the UNF culture, moving the majority of students to a 15-hour schedule. Believe it or not, taking a 15 hour course load instead of a 12-hour load can mean a higher retention rate for most students. In this new chapter, 15 is the new 12. That will not work for every student but for those who it can, we need to encourage a change in behavior.
When we consider those 15 hours of course work each term during the first two years, we know that they must be taught by the best faculty this university has to offer. This requires another shift in the culture. Teaching the lower-division courses must become a badge of honor bestowed on our strongest teaching faculty. We need to recognize that successful teaching at this level becomes compelling evidence of superior teaching when it comes to tenure and future merit pay, as does having the pedagogical skills to turn the gatekeeper course into the gateway course. Failing a large group of students is not the badge of honor. The professor who finds a way to successfully help students master the difficult and complex deserves the award.
In this next chapter, when that academic advisor is called in to help, different things need to happen. Some hand-holding, followed by engaging the student in tutoring and supplemental instruction and listening intently for the roadblocks the student is experiencing: too much partying, too many work hours, significant financial strain. When these barriers are found, student and advisor or faculty member need to work, in collaboration with other UNF units, to create a plan to work through the issues.
In our new chapter, one call asking a student to come in for advising is never enough, if that call goes unanswered. When the student is engaging in a new support program, there needs to be follow-up to see if the student is actually participating in the program. Advisors may need to become proxy helicopter parents for some students. If there are early warning signs that this major is not working out, we need immediate counseling on all other options available to the student. If the student is taking unneeded courses and is not progressing toward graduation because the student wants to keep financial aid flowing, we need to shut that down.
In this new chapter, we need to be sure to give an equal or even greater focus on the bright student who is moving through in quick order. Each student’s situation is different, not one size fits all and 15 hours is not for everyone. Our concerns for these students are whether we are sufficiently challenging them and are we building a loyalty to UNF so they do not leave us to graduate from another institution. If we keep these students, we will see an ongoing increase in giving from alumni. Last year, alumni donors increased by 30 percent.
When we look at the most recent six-year graduation rates, shown in the college portrait, we find that 13 percent of the students who started as full-time, first-time-in-college (FTIC) students left us to transfer to another institution and got their degree from that other institution. UNF did not have 55 percent of its FTICs graduate, rather it had 68 percent of its total FTICs graduate, with 13 percent walking across the wrong stage. Another seven to eight percent of UNF students are still working to complete their degrees.
In the new UNF story, we need to build a campus life and a rigorous academic life that will engage and keep bright students with us. We also need to study what other barriers drive good students to other colleges. One thing we know from graduation surveys is that, as often as not, it was the professor who took an interest in the individual student that kept that student at UNF. This ever-better university is going to be more involved in building this community and discovering new knowledge with our faculty working alongside our brightest students.
The amazing thing about writing this new chapter is that the efforts we put forward to make ourselves better are not only going to enrich our students, they are going to enrich our lives and the lives of the community we serve. To accomplish this, we need to find better ways to reward the faculty and staff members that are bringing about these results, in terms of the resources and financial support we offer our employees. We certainly would have liked to have given larger and more frequent raises but as you probably know, the state has not given us new recurring dollars that could be used for salaries. We have new money to cover health insurance costs and new one-time money to construct and renovate buildings. All of that is good but we need new recurring dollars that will fund raises. That has to be part of our new chapter. We have a myriad of reasons to be proud of where we are and we have a number of opportunities to make UNF even better. Where we are is, in large part, due to your past contributions. As we grow even stronger, that growth will be because of your dedication and a wise use of our current and future resources. We are beginning to write the new chapter and we need to do it with intention and commitment to our students and this community, as well as staff and faculty.
A few weeks ago, I handed a fourth degree to one of my kids, fifth to a family member. She passed her nursing exam yesterday. I know how good this place is. Thanks for your part in this.