February 13, 2013

University System Chancellor says focus must be on students

Release from University System of Georgia (Feb. 13, 2013)


Chancellor’s State of the Student Address 2013
Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Thank you Mr. Chairman.

In recent years, it has become a custom for the chancellor to give an annual “State of the System” address. I’m all for traditions that serve a good purpose, but in this case a change in focus is needed.

“State of the System” may appear to some to be a self-centered approach to our challenges and opportunities. It looks inward, as if it is all about us – our policies, our programs, our budgets and our facilities. In that approach can be found the seeds of many of the criticisms being leveled today about higher education around the country and how we are out of touch, irrelevant and too costly.

We must lift our gaze to a broader horizon. Our focus must always be on our students and how well we prepare them for life in all of its challenges and uncertainties. While we do prepare students for work and careers, we also prepare them for all facets of citizenship and social relations. So today I bring to you the “State of the Student” – what we in the University System are doing now and must do tomorrow to create an optimal state for student access, progress and success.

Since becoming chancellor, I have talked again and again about “the new normal.” This is not a phrase; it is a reality; a reality that some higher education leaders have yet to embrace. Just as our students live in a different world today, so does public higher education. We are in the same boat and share the same challenges. Think about the amazing story in the book and movie, “The Life of Pi.” Survival, like Pi and the tiger cast adrift upon the ocean, depends upon mutual recognition, cooperation and adaptation to a new reality.

Today’s students occupy a very different world from the one that existed when many of us attended college. Globalization and technology continue to remake economies and transform work at an increasing pace. Jobs and entire industries disappear seemingly overnight. State financial resources to support public higher education continue to be tight. Significant cost shifts in higher education funding place greater financial burdens on students and families and compromise access and impede progress toward graduation.

This new reality affects our students every day. One approach we could take in higher education is to tell students to simply “deal with it.”

Former Governor Mitch Daniels, the new president of Purdue University, last month wrote an open letter to the university. In this letter, he catalogues some of the challenges facing higher education and students. And he rejects the “just deal with it” philosophy that is the perception many hold of us and that some in higher education may believe. He challenges the public higher education community to reaffirm our larger and common purpose to society – and to students: especially to students.

President Daniels wrote: “We should all remind ourselves every day that the dollars we are privileged to spend come, for the most part, from either a family or a taxpayer.”

What does this mean for the University System of Georgia? If we start with students first and then understand our stewardship responsibility as the key to how to support our students, then we can chart the optimal path for the University System. In doing so we must explore alternative paths to the ones followed since we were created in 1932. We are not going to be successful simply waiting for change. We must and we are driving some fundamental changes to our structure and to how we deliver higher education.

I will not go into detail, but consider the changes already underway to help us better serve students and to create access, encourage progress and achieve success.

We have consolidated eight institutions into four. We are examining how we utilize physical space. We are looking at how we use and deliver online education. We have a new approach to how we develop our facilities needs. We have a new approach that integrates facilities, budgets and academic needs. We are looking at athletics in a different way.

We have changed course completely with regard to our relationship with the Technical College System of Georgia. We have joined with them and others on the most coordinated, ambitious effort ever to increase college completion rates through the Governor’s Complete College Georgia Initiative.

We are going to find a new approach that links the research we conduct to businesses that can create products and services based upon what happens in our labs. We are going to be a stronger player in the state’s overall economic development efforts.

We have taken a hard line on tuition increases. We are partners in a new approach to funding higher education based on performance rather than enrollment.

All of these actions represent a significant and fundamental change in how we are structured and how we operate. These changes are grounded in the three broad themes I outlined at the beginning of my work as chancellor: performance, partnerships, value.

What is driving this change is a stark fact: in this new normal, we do not have the resources to provide every student with every program, everywhere in Georgia. To be frank, there has never been a time in our history when we were able to fulfill this goal. Today we certainly cannot do this following the old path and traditional models.

But technology and other new models offer us a different path toward this end – one that actually opens up more options for students. We have to be much wiser in how we use the dollars students and taxpayers provide us to create a responsive System that meets the needs of students and the state in an efficient way and in an effective way.

For example, while every student may not have access to every program through every institution, we potentially can offer every student access to every program through a better-organized, coordinated System. It is our job to think differently and act responsively.

Toward this end, Dr. Houston Davis is working with you and others to shape our new Strategic Plan that will help frame how we will continue to remake this great system of public higher education to meet the challenges of today and create the educated population and jobs of tomorrow.

The changes I have outlined are not the conclusion of our work. They are just the down payment on what we must do to ensure the University System is structured and managed to best serve students and the state. We are going to continue to use performance, partnerships and value to frame our decisions and drive needed change. We are going to focus our work on creating access, ensuring student progress and eventual success through timely college completion. We see affirmation of Georgia’s leadership for change in the increasing national attention we are receiving.

Overall, I am pleased with the responsiveness of our presidents, our faculty and our staff to the need for change as we focus on our students. The positive feedback we are getting from the Governor’s office, from the General Assembly and from the business community for our approach and efforts is quite encouraging.

We have sustained our share of budget cuts in recent years, but we also can point to a record of both understanding and commitment to our mission through the Governor’s and General Assembly’s sustained funding for the University System.

But we must continue to work hard and to create a System whose colleges and universities produces results. Ultimately, we must prepare our students to find their way in a new world. We help them best by providing the access they need, by removing barriers and providing them with education of value that equips them to compete and contribute.

At the outset, I noted the world of our current students is different than the one many of us experienced going to college. But one thing hasn’t changed. That is the value of college to change lives and change the world for the better.

I am from a working-class family. My father didn’t go to college, but he had a clear vision in which college was the key for success in a post war world. I was the first to go to college in my family. I worked hard to complete my degree and continue. I absorbed the invaluable lesson my father taught me about the value of college and the values it instills in those who attend.

It is easy to become frustrated by the rising chorus who discordantly sing that college is now a relic, that higher education is the problem and not the solution, that individuals and society don’t need a useless and overpriced degree. Theirs is the siren song of the twenty-first century. It is not in harmony with the tune that the business community and others are singing about the absolute need for a more highly and broadly educated citizenry.

To counter this shrill ensemble, we need to form our own choir with a message that higher education is essential and vital to individuals, to society and to our democracy. We have the data that refutes the naysayers. But we have more than data: we have the success stories of individuals that touch hearts and influence perceptions of our mission and our ability to fulfill that mission.

This is the fundamental truth of higher education – to transform lives and to prepare you to live life fully. If we are successful in this work, then the state of our students will be excellent. This is the only measure by which we should judge ourselves. And by this measure, the University System is on the right path to drive access, ensure progress and increase success for our students.

We live in exciting times and a fast changing world. But we have a strong system of 31 colleges and universities that have the talent and the resources – and the will – to adapt, to establish new traditions and create new paths for our students.

I continue to be honored to have the opportunity to work with this Board and with our presidents, our faculty and staff and our partners across this state on behalf of our students.

Let me close with a visual example of how our changes are working to improve the lives and opportunities for our students. Last month you approved the final consolidations and this touched off events of celebration at the four new institutions. We have a short video documenting this positive story for the state and for our students.

Thank you.