Open Mike: Defining Excellence

September 20, 2016

Dear Colleagues,

As I look at my calendar, I am excited about the start of the new academic year and eager to welcome our students back to campus. While every fall brings a fresh opportunity for us to build upon our high aspirations for the university, this year is especially thrilling. We have a year of strong momentum at our backs—fueled by the arrival of new academic leadership and brisk faculty hiring; the launch of the Oregon Commitment for student success and on-time graduation; strong research collaborations reported almost daily in Around the O; the creation of new diversity and inclusion initiatives; the opening of the renovated EMU; the achievements of our athletes on campus and in Rio; and our passage of the halfway mark in our $2 billion campaign. The enthusiasm on campus is palpable.

In my “sophomore year” as president, I will not slow the pace of progress. In fact, we must accelerate our work to ensure that the new initiatives we have begun are successful and fully realized. As many of you may remember, in my investiture speech last June I talked about how important it was for our university to constantly strive for excellence in everything we do—particularly in our work to create new knowledge and to pass this knowledge on to our students.

But what do I mean by excellence? Some members of our community hear the word “excellence” and yawn—treating the word as a noun with no content. However, I strongly believe that while it may be difficult to define in a few sentences, excellence does indeed mean something and must guide us as we move our university forward. I was once told by a very wise mentor to be careful of people who believe that there is only one type of excellence and that they know what that is. Excellence in an educational institution can take many forms and be found in virtually all of our disciplines.

Indeed, at the UO I see excellence around me every day. With respect to research, I see faculty members in the humanities and social sciences filling my bookshelves with extraordinary books that examine the history of religion and gender, the determinants of social movements and language, or the economics of trade and the politics in the United States. From our professional schools, I read books that probe environmental legal issues, analyze global markets, illuminate media trends, display wonderful art and design, and I listen to CDs of beautiful music—all created by members of the UO faculty. I read (or try to read) articles authored by our faculty on genetics and molecular biology, green chemistry and high energy physics, algebraic geometry, and exercise physiology. I host dinners with faculty members who have earned early career research grants, been inducted into the national academies, and earned recognition and honors for their books and publications. Their accomplishments take my breath away.

I also get to celebrate excellence in teaching. I sometimes have the opportunity to sit in on a lecture where I can hear firsthand a faculty member’s mastery of a subject. I have also had the privilege of surprising faculty members in their classrooms with distinguished teaching awards to the applause of students. And perhaps most significantly, I have talked one-on-one with so many students about faculty members who have changed their lives by opening them up to new worlds and insights.

Does the fact that there are different types of excellence mean that all scholarship is equally important or that excellence can only be found in the eye of the beholder? Of course not. Our profession guards excellence with peer review. While we at the University of Oregon certainly get to weigh in on what is excellent, we also look externally to our disciplines and our peers to ensure that we have sufficiently high aspirations that are undistorted by personalities, politics, or self-interest. The surest way to mediocrity is to tell ourselves that the metrics widely adopted in peer review don’t apply to us. While objective indicators such as those provided by the AAU, Academic Analytics, or the National Research Council may not always put us in a flattering light, the appropriate response isn’t to ignore or disparage them. Instead, where the indicators are appropriate we should redouble our efforts to get better. And where the indicators are inapt, we should strive to understand where they fall short and supplement them with other indicia.

As for me, as many of you have come to understand, I hold traditional academic values. Academic excellence is built on research faculty members who are ambitious and productive scholars like so many I have met over the past year. Excellence is reflected by peers who read what we write and find it valuable. Excellence is reflected in productivity, in the striving to create knowledge, and in the desire to transmit knowledge to the next generation. Excellence is reflected by success in getting peer-awarded research grants, recognition, exhibits, and lectures. As we build our faculty, it is this excellence that I will seek to encourage and promote.

One way that we will build academic excellence is to retain our outstanding scholars and recruit more extraordinary professors, researchers, and graduate students to the university. In the sciences we need to provide the facilities that will make possible discovery and invention. In the nonscientific fields, we need to find ways to expand seed support for research, summer support, and, where possible, teaching relief. We need to make sure that merit-based compensation truly rewards merit. And we must break down any barriers that exist to doing what we have always done best—interdisciplinary research.

In short, we need to incentivize excellence throughout our university. Last year we made a number of decisions that reflect this commitment. The Graduate School allocated new graduate fellowships to departments that had strong records in on-time degrees, placement, and student satisfaction. New faculty hiring was focused in departments with high productivity and clusters with strong academic leadership. In the coming year, the new financial model will reward departments that both attract students and reflect excellence in research productivity.

Our state deserves a world-class flagship university devoted to the principles of academic excellence. I will do everything in my power to make that happen. I invite all of you to join me in that endeavor. If you have further ideas about what we can do to support this mission, please send an e-mail to I look forward to the coming academic year and wish you a wonderful start to the fall term.