Campus Conversation remarks

The following is President Michael Schill’s presentation from the Campus Conversation at Ford Alumni Center on April 12, 2016. A video of the event is also available here.

Welcome everyone. Thank you for being here and sharing your lunch hour with me. I want to make the most of your valuable time, so I will first provide an update on the university’s priorities, planning, and strategies; and then I will open this up for your questions. We are live-streaming on the web today, so I want to say hello to our colleagues in Portland and elsewhere around the state who are joining us.

A year ago when I accepted this position, it was with determination, enthusiasm, and great hope. I came to the UO for the love of public higher education, with appreciation for your work, and the intent to make a difference. I know that has at times meant shaking things up a bit and making hard decisions, which is part of the reason why I am here today—to share my vision, and be open and clear about our direction.

I also came with the knowledge that there was a job to be done here. There had been changes in leadership, divisions among the faculty, and persistent disinvestment by the state, and all of these things had led to stresses and strains, and perceptions from some people of diminished quality.

I have now been here nearly 10 months and my excitement hasn’t waned, nor has my optimism about the job. But I am under no illusion that the last few months of setting priorities and realigning our resources has been easy. It hasn’t been easy, and it shouldn’t be easy. Nothing worth doing is ever easy. And we are making progress on many fronts. We are getting close to making hires in searches for four deans and for the vice president for research. Last year when I came, and we said, “Can we handle it as an intuition—four dean searches all at once,” and I have to tell you we handled it really well. Those of you on search committees, thank you. The candidates have been wonderful, even the day I had four candidates in my office in one day—of course not all from the same school. It was really quite amazing.

We have 40 faculty searches going on right now. We are increasing our graduate student population. We are halfway, nearly halfway, in our fundraising campaign; that is $1 billion out of $2 billion. And we’ve established cordial relations with the Senate, something that not always happened on this campus.

I expect you will have questions about our budget realignment. And I will answer your questions. At the outset let me say, I understand this has been painful for many people. I know dedicated, talented colleagues received contract nonrenewals, which not only impacts them directly, but also impacts the entire campus. And it impacts the people who don’t know the people, because they say, “OK, what’s next for me?”

I certainly didn’t come here looking to cut positions. I came here with a mission to make us even better as a research university. That is an expensive proposition. But we need to focus every dollar we have—every dollar—and make good, hard, strategic decisions to ensure the future health and growth of this great university.

The fact is, we have not carefully watched our central budget over the years as we should have as our resources shrunk. We have been digging a hole for many years, and if we didn’t act now the hole would be bigger next year, the decisions we have to make would be more painful.

We need to be strategic in where we are making investments to make this a great research university. The only way to do that is to use the budget as a strategic device.

So we will think of our aspirations as a pyramid, with vision on top and then priorities, strategies, and foundation.

Vision

Our vision is for the University of Oregon to be among the preeminent public research universities in the nation.

I think we can all agree, even here at the University of Oregon where we can argue about what color the sky is, that this is a good objective to be striving for.

Priorities

So what are our priorities, what is going to get us there? To achieve this vision of being outstanding, we have established some fundamental priorities. I’ve been talking about these priorities since shortly after arriving on campus.

The first is teaching and research. Second is access and success; we want to be sure we remain affordable for students, and that those students can come here and, most important, that they will succeed. Our third is we want our student experience to be unparalleled. We want to create a diverse environment, a rich environment here, so students can learn outside the classroom as well as outside.

Strategies

Over the last year we have been able to create some strategies for enhancing our teaching and research enterprise.

Teaching and Research Excellence

  • Hire 80 to 100 tenure-track, research-active faculty members—we still have more than 40 active searches underway. Over the years as our university grew, we hired non-tenure-track faculty and we now have too few tenure-track faculty when you compare us with our peers.
  • We also have to recognize, although it’s tempting to talk about the shiny new thing such as the new faculty members, we have to show appreciation for and help to retain our stars who are here. We have a great faculty here. They have been doing great research for years. We need to make sure they are fulfilled and that they are appreciated.
  • Also, a great research university has PhD students, they are the next generation. We train people to go out and teach others to teach people about our field, they bring ideas to us.
  • We need to build research and faculty spaces. As we increase the faculty, we are going to need more faculty offices. In addition, we need more laboratory space. We need to be able to attract great scientists and provide them with state-of-the-art equipment and places where they can make discoveries.
  • Similarly, many of our departments rely on high-performance computing, and we must invest in high-performing computers.
  • The students of the Clark Honors College—they are amazing, these students could go anywhere, and we want to continue that excellence. We want to nurture these opportunities. 
  • We want to grow entrepreneurial culture. At universities everywhere, this entrepreneurial spirit is flourishing. I think one of the reasons why the state legislature doesn’t fund us at the levels that other universities are funded is that they don’t see that we are a driver of the economy—but we don’t facilitate out discoveries getting out on the market.
  • We need to build our Portland presence. We have made a significant investment in Portland. Portland holds the best promise for many of the departments and schools here for additional revenue streams. People are in Portland, the economy is in Portland, our alumni are in Portland. We have a beachhead for four of our schools. We need to enhance them and grow our resources there.

Access and Success

Next is our priority of enhancing access and success. One thing that is incredibly important is that we need to be affordable. As all of you know by now, I’m a first-generation college student and I believe in access. I believe the only reason I am standing here is because I got scholarships to go to college. I didn’t go to a public university, but most of our students in our nation aren’t going to get those scholarships, there just isn’t enough money available. Their chance to move up in the world is through public universities. So we need to make sure they can get here. That means . . .

  • Keep tuition affordable—notice I didn’t say no increases, because our costs do go up, but we need to keep those increases moderate.
  • Expand need-based scholarships.
  • The things that will save our students money isn’t low tuition increases, it’s to get out of here in four years—it’s to graduate in a timely fashion. Everyone in the country has figured this out. The longer you take to graduate, the less likely you are to graduate. We want to increase the graduation rate by 10 percentage points.
  • To do that we are going to track student success and hire student success advisors, provide graduation assistance grants, and hire someone who can coordinate these efforts.
  • The more you are connected to a university, the more likely you are to graduate. That’s one of the reasons we are implementing a policy to have freshmen live on campus in their first year, to keep them connected. People are less likely to graduate if they are not connected in some way.

Student Experience

Enhancing the student experience is essential to helping our future graduates be successful citizens and leaders who can contribute to society and live happy, prosperous lives. We want our students to learn as much outside the classroom as they do inside the classroom.

  • We have an obligation to be as diverse a university as possible. What we need to do is get better at diversity and expand diversity and support inclusion. We need to recruit more students of color and we need to support them. No student should come to me and say, “I don’t feel comfortable as a University of Oregon student.” As many of you know, we have a Black Student Task Force, and we are working on their demands. We will have more on that this week or next.
  • Of course, our first priority to parents and our students is to keep them safe. And one of the ways this school has become infamous is in regard to sexual violence. It turns out our rate of sexual violence isn’t out of the ordinary compared to other American universities, we’ve gotten more publicity. We haven’t maybe handled it as well as we should. But now what we’ve done is we’ve implemented a set of policies. We’ve hired a Title IX coordinator. And we are committed to having a zero-tolerance policy toward sexual violence, and every student out there who feels they have been violated or harassed, feels confident in the process that will go into investigating their complain. And one of the worst things I saw of the climate surveys both here and around the country was people saying they didn’t trust their universities to handle their claims. It is my goal now and in the future that that number will shrink tremendously, as well as the incidents of sexual violence.
  • We want to support our cocurricular and athletics activities. We want to increase undergraduate research opportunities.
  • This is one of the areas of connection, right? Why do we have the research faculty teaching? One of the reasons it’s so important to have the research faculty teaching is the insight and the excitement that they bring to the classroom, and we want to bring in the students to be part of that. Research isn’t only for graduate students, research is for undergraduates. I met recently an alumna who’s been very generous to the school, and we were talking about all sorts of things. “What could you make your gift to? What could you make your gift to?” And everything we came up with was, “Yeah, okay,” but you could tell that nothing excited her. Then we said something about research. And she said, “I used to work two jobs in the labs. Every day I was doing that. I love that idea, so why don’t I give double the amount that I was going to give and fund something like that.” But that’s what you want to see! We want to see our students feel that way. We’d also like to see them give double the amount when they graduate.
  • We want to renovate residence halls. The residence halls, some of them are leaking, some of them are not in great condition. Some of them will remain not palaces, right? Bean is not going to get any bigger, but hopefully you know it will as least be dry, and the toilets will work, and all the stuff like that. But the idea is that we do need to renovate, and we’re obviously in the process of improving our learning spaces, so that’s very important.

Foundation

We build this on a foundation. The foundation is each of these categories: culture and leadership, budget and finance, and infrastructure. This is going to be the last thing I talk about before I open it up for questions.

Leadership and Culture

  • We have what I think is the best board structure of any public university in the country. We don’t have this faraway board filled with political hacks like with most states—and I know you read about it all the time, the experiences. We have a board—and the members, all they care about is the University of Oregon. Most of them are graduates of the University of Oregon. Most of them, almost all of them, are giving money to the University of Oregon, so they care deeply about this place. They are working very hard. They are excited about being new and about working with us. So we have gone within two years from what some would say is one of the worst board structures to, now, one of the best structures. I would have to say, obviously I’m biased . . . they picked me, but the point is I think they are doing a terrific job so far (maybe with that exception) but so far it has been going great.
  • We have this opportunity, I mentioned it a moment ago. What university in one year gets to—really we’re turning over almost our entire senior leadership, and we are going to be doing that. We are going to get great deans into their positions, and a vice president for research. We’ve already changed a lot of my office, and we’re going to be, instead of the gang that can’t shoot straight, the gang that really can transform a university.
  • We want to foster healthy shared governance. Obviously, there’s a history of somewhat difficult relations. Every university has some tensions between the Faculty Senate and the university administration, here perhaps more than others, and we’re already starting to make some progress on this. But this is very important, both that we understand our respective roles and understand that we need to be collegial and helpful with each other for the university to move ahead.
  • We want to improve our employee relations. This last year we had a good year at the bargaining table in terms of our ability to move forward in a constructive way. We have additional bargaining that’s going to start in the not-too-distant future with our graduate students—actually has already started. We don’t want to repeat what happened before, and so we’re hoping that both sides will be very cooperative with regard to that.
  • Instead of demonizing athletics and saying, “You know, athletics is getting all of the resources,” what we want to do instead of being envious of athletics is actually model ourselves on athletics. A wonderful investment of resources and careful, strong execution can lead to excellence. And that’s something that I’ve said over and over again. My job here is not to level down athletics to our relative academic ranking and sort of say, “Okay that makes us feel better.” No, that’s not the way to do it. What you do is, you already have athletics up here, let’s bring academics up there, too, and both be excelling and operating in the best possible way.
  • We want to communicate effectively. Hopefully, you’re seeing a high level of transparency. I’ll answer any of your questions today if I’m able to answer your questions. I don’t think I obfuscate, I try to be clear. You’re going to see even more communication. Some of you may see too much of me—I’m thinking of doing a biweekly column—but I promise I won’t send it to you if you don’t want it. Just don’t put me on your spam filter.
  • The last thing is, every part of this university needs to promote excellence. We need to be excellent in everything we do, not just good enough. Those days, I don’t know if they were ever here, but they aren’t good enough for me. Everybody has got be going at their highest level of achievement.

Budget and Finance

Second foundation element is our budget and finance. We need a new budget model. The current budget model, which is driven almost entirely by students, has led to these waves, right? Of students moving, and we have tenure-track faculty and their long terms. Students are short-term moving around, it’s not a good thing.

  • Our budget model that we are going to work on over the next year—always have something in there for student activity. It has to, because you have to be able to teach the courses. But it’s also going to be strategic. It’s going to reward parts of the university that are doing the things that we want the university to be doing. Research, publishing, performance for schools that research take the form of peer-reviewed excellence. Where the graduate students are graduating on time, where they are getting jobs, right? It’s not going to be formulaic only. It’s going to have built-in strategy for the university.
  • We’re going to work with the state as hard as we can to promote reinvestment. The state was good to us last year, and we’re grateful for that. We see some clouds in the future, and we’re hoping that those clouds don’t break out into a shower. But we’re hoping to continue that element of reinvestment. It’s not going to do what we need it to do, it’s not going to make the transformational changes that we all want, but we should at least not lose anything, and make moderate increases.
  • We need, though, to realign our resources. We don’t control what the state gives us, and we actually don’t control what donors give to us. We don’t fully control tuition, right? Because we can’t raise it that much. What we control is how we spend our money, and that’s what we need to do is spend our money where it is most productively spent. And over 80 percent of our budget is people, so it’s hard to shift that. But it’s necessary to put our money where our priorities are. It’s also necessary for us to be able to convince donors who are going to give to us that they should give to us because we are going to spend their money wisely and we aren’t going to waste it, and not allow us to not follow a strategic plan. 
  • We’re going to complete our $2 billion campaign.
  • We’re going to increase our efficiency and operations over the next three years. We set a target of 3 percent reduction of costs, just by getting smarter in how we do business.
  • And we’re going to explore long-range financial plans. We need a model that will take us into the future and not just year-to-year, how we handle these things.

So the last element is infrastructure.

  • We’re going to explore campus growth strategies. Are we the right size? Do we have the right number of students? Do we have the right size faculty? What are we going to do in regard to that?
  • We’re going to engage in physical planning. We need to address the entire campus. We need to be able to understand where we can build, where we can’t build. What open spaces we want to preserve, all of that sort of thing.
  • And this is, our IT. Our IT needs investment. We have not invested in our IT in a long time, and it’s a big deal. It is big, big, big numbers, it’s like astronomical numbers, but we can’t go dark. We need to make those investments over time. So we’ve already made tremendous strides forward in planning, we just have to find the resources to do implementation. And this will not be next year, it won’t be the following year, it’s going to be always. We always need to be making these investments.
  • Similarly, we need to be stopping leaks from occurring. We need to be bringing our infrastructure up to where it should be, so deferred maintenance is an additional part of the foundation. We rest on this foundation of buildings and equipment and we can’t let it deteriorate.

So that’s the plan, the vision, the priorities, the strategies, and the foundation. And now I’m open to any questions that anyone has.

Question and answer session is available to be viewed on the UO Channel.