2017 State of the University Address

These are the prepared remarks for President Michael Schill's 2017 State of the University Address:

October 6, 2017

Good morning. As you can see from this video, together we have helped the University of Oregon make quite an impact over the last two years. We have much to be proud of!

Welcome, everyone. I am pleased to welcome our faculty, staff, and students today, and to see our campus bustling again with the activity of learning and discovery, discussion and exploration, creativity and pursuit! Welcome also to our many hundreds of volunteers from our school and college boards; our foundation trustees; and alumni, guests, and community members who are here with us today.

Each October since I arrived in 2015, I have invited our campus to come together around a shared sense of purpose. Two years ago, we set our sights on improving access and success for all our students as we announced an expansion of the PathwayOregon scholarship and advising program, and redoubled our efforts to improve on-time graduation. Last year, we announced the largest donation to a public flagship university in history and launched the Phil and Penny Knight Campus for Accelerating Scientific Impact. This initiative will spur scientific discovery and innovation—revolutionizing how scientific discoveries impact Oregon and the world. Today, I will build upon these initiatives as I share our plans for the future.

Over the past two years, we have been hard at work on the university’s priorities of pursuing excellence in academics and research, access and success, student experience, and fostering diversity, equity, and inclusion in everything we do. We have made significant progress. Perhaps the most obvious change has been in the university’s leadership. This past year we recruited a visionary and enthusiastic new provost, Jayanth Banavar, and two extraordinary new deans, Sarah Nutter of the Lundquist College of Business, and Marcilynn Burke of the School of Law. In fact, we have welcomed new deans and vice presidents in the vast majority of leadership positions on campus in the last two years. These leaders and those they join are all hungry to help our students, faculty, and staff succeed and thrive.

One of my top priorities is to increase the research profile of our university. Over the past three years we have increased our tenure-track faculty by 30. They join our exceptional research and teaching faculty and are breathing new life into our research enterprise in such disparate fields as neuroscience, black studies, genomics, obesity prevention, and energy and sustainable materials. This year, Provost Banavar has approved a plan to hire scores of new faculty members. They, together with our amazing tenure- and non-tenure- track faculty who are already here will be a catalyst for growth and progress in the classroom and in the labs.

In just a few months, the Knight Campus will begin to emerge from the ground on the north side of Franklin Boulevard. Under the leadership of Acting Director Patrick Phillips, we have acquired land, received $50 million in capital support from the state, planned beautiful, innovative buildings, and commenced a search for a visionary director. The Knight Campus will build a bridge, literally and figuratively, from our basic sciences and related disciplines, across Franklin to the new campus where research will translate into products, cures, and real solutions to many of our society’s most vexing problems. The enthusiasm on our campus, from our peers and future partners such as OHSU and across our state, about the potential impact of the Knight Campus, is absolutely thrilling.

This fall, we welcomed the most diverse class of incoming students in our history. These amazing students from every county in Oregon, every state in the nation, and more than 100 countries cannot be defined in simple terms. Many of them are the first in their families to attend college, as was I. They are at once wise, worldly, innocent, and determined to make an impact on the world. We are dedicated to helping each and every one of our students find their place, path, and purpose here at the University of Oregon. To do this, we must ensure that every single member of our university community feels included and welcome. Last year we made meaningful progress to support this goal: working with our faculty and black students to double the number of black faculty at the UO, create new pipeline programs, re-name Dunn Hall to Unthank Hall, and plan a new black cultural center. We worked with our University Senate to provide needed services to our DACA students. We worked with leaders across our campus to develop forward-looking diversity action plans to make our campus more inclusive and equitable.

We are taking steps toward helping our students be successful and graduate on-time through investments in advising and progress tracking, by working with the University Senate to revise curriculum and programing, and by enhancing student engagement opportunities through under-graduate research, academic residential communities, and freshman interest groups. The average freshmen carrying load last year increased by more than one credit to 45.3 credits; four-year graduation rates are up from 49 percent three years ago to 53 percent last year. We expect them to further improve when we get new numbers in November. Progress, but we can and must do better, and we will.

We also continue to enrich our student experience. Today we will break ground on the new Tykeson College and Careers building. This building reflects the extraordinary vision of Andrew Marcus and the Tykeson family to connect our students with advising, internships, and mentorship while on campus, and help them make career connections as they prepare to graduate. The opening of our newest residence hall, Kalapuya Ilihi, named after the first peoples of the Willamette Valley, allows us to accommodate virtually all first year students to live on campus, an important contributor to forging student connections and success.

While we can all be very proud of these accomplishments that we have collectively achieved, today is about looking ahead, not backward. Because being a great public research university, as the University of Oregon is, means always striving to become even better. Why must we push for excellence? Why strive to be better? Each of our aspirations is grounded in our desire to make a difference in the world—to create meaningful and lasting impact.

This is our mission. It will be our legacy. To leverage every penny, ounce of energy, and bead of perspiration toward making a difference for our students, our state, and the world.

We live in tumultuous times. The fabric of society is strained with the tension of polarization and cynicism. The underpinnings of our nation that we had come to rely upon are in question—foundations like fair and representative elections, free speech, equality, economic progress, functional government, and our safety and security. One need only glance at the headlines to see the earth is literally shaking, storms are battering communities, and the sea is rising. There are clashes in the streets, sideways glances, legislative and political gridlock, and finger pointing about who is to blame and how we came to distrust each other. Instincts we must resist are to put our heads in the sand or throw up our arms in defeat. I firmly believe that the answers to this litany of woes lie within our grasp, indeed within our campus and campuses of great research universities like ours.  It is only through the production of knowledge in our laboratories and libraries, the transmission of knowledge in our classrooms and studios, the acquisition of critical thinking skills in our lecture halls and seminar rooms, and the understanding and embrace of difference that takes place everywhere on campus that we will solve our global problems and support a civil society.

In short, our mission is to create positive impact on the world around us.

That impact starts in the classroom—with outstanding teachers who challenge their students to step out of their comfort zone intellectually, to listen to each other, and to question the conventional wisdom—with the ultimate goal of becoming informed and effective citizens.  

It extends to our research labs, where

Also to archives, libraries, and art studios where

  • Romance language professor David Wacks and law professor Michelle McKinley have authored amazing, historical books of great significance; and
  • Studio artist Tannaz Farsi provokes emotion with her mixed-media installations that tackle issues of power and memory.

And the impact continues out into the world where

The impact of research is not isolated in the sciences or even our teaching faculty. 

  • Take Bryn Davis, a landscape architecture graduate student in the College of Design, whose research on tsunami escape routes could lead to life saving design changes. 
  • Or, Joanna Goode, a research scientist in the College of Education, who studies how to increase the participation of under-represented minorities in computer science in the Los Angeles Unified School District. 

And let’s not forget about the impact our students have on the world around them even while still here at the UO. Each year hundreds of students participate in the Sustainable Cities Program and leave our Eugene campus to solve complex urban problems in places as diverse as Portland and Redmond. Not to mention the thousands of hours clocked by our Greek students, scholar-athletes, and Holden Center volunteers in service projects. All of this research, teaching, and service generates incredible benefits for our state—employing thousands, attracting grants, construction and tourism dollars, creating an educated workforce and spinning off new businesses. This economic boost will only strengthen with the opening of the Knight Campus in 2020.

What do we need to do at the University of Oregon to create an even greater impact?  To make even more of a difference?

At the core of any great educational institution is freedom of speech and its corollary—academic freedom.  These twin concepts are our religion. Tomorrow’s orthodoxy is today’s outrageous new idea. Discoveries require the free flow of ideas. Teaching students to be critical thinkers requires us to challenge them and move them out of their comfort zones. In turn, they need to feel free to question us and each other in a way that is uninhibited and free from retribution. Yet, today, our commitment to freedom of speech is being tested more acutely than at any time since the Vietnam War. Fringe groups use the openness of the university to spread ugly messages of hate, xenophobia, misogyny, anti-Semitism, and racism. They seek to incite a reaction which at some of our sister universities comes all too readily and violently. In other instances and at other universities, students seek to disinvite or shout down speakers they don’t agree with. Faculty who ask probing questions are sometimes vilified as sexist or racist creating a chilling effect on campus speech and robust discussion.

As part of our commitment to excellence and to producing research and students who will make an impact I want to strongly reiterate the University of Oregon’s core values of protecting freedom of speech, academic freedom, and the virtues of robust discussion and debate. If someone says something we don’t like, we should not try to shut them down. That is not what we do in an open democracy. Instead—to paraphrase one of our most monumental Supreme Court justices, Louis D. Brandeis—the antidote to speech we don’t like is MORE SPEECH.  

However, we do have a responsibility to think about the effect of our speech on others. Just because we have a right to do something, doesn’t mean that we should do it. Racist or sexist speech, hate speech, is not welcome. Speech intended to impede other people’s speech—like booing speakers so that they cannot be heard—is not acceptable. In light of recent tensions and in keeping with Justice Brandeis’s suggestion, I have asked Deans Marcilynn Burke of the Law School and Juan-Carlos Molleda of the School of Journalism and Communication to coordinate a series of public talks this school year on free speech and academic freedom. Each school and college will be invited to participate in this series by organizing an event related to some aspect of the topic. Freedom of speech and academic freedom are necessary but not sufficient for nurturing a university of impact. 

How can I as president, and we students, faculty, staff, alumni, and friends of the University of Oregon support and foster this mission? Through the unwavering pursuit of excellence. Excellence in teaching; excellence in research; excellence in how we develop our young men and women. We will do this by:

  • Investing in innovation.
  • Incorporating equity and inclusion.
  • Leveraging our resources.
  • Rewarding entrepreneurship.
  • Fostering open, robust, yet civil and respectful discussion and debate.
  • Challenging ourselves and each other to do better and be better tomorrow than we were yesterday and today.

Over the past two years I have been enormously gratified that these ambitions and commitments are shared by so many of our faculty, staff, and students. They want the University of Oregon to take its place next to the greatest public universities in the nation. They want us to have an impact on the world. This faith in our university, this desire for excellence and impact, this love for the UO, is reflected in some wonderful news I have to share with you.

Today I am delighted and humbled to announce that this summer the University of Oregon received a $50 million gift to further excellence at the university over the next five years. The anonymous donors have challenged me to use this gift—the Presidential Fund for Excellence—to make strategic investments in initiatives and priorities focused on achieving academic excellence in research and teaching, promoting student access and success, and enriching our student experience—in ways that will inspire other donors to do the same. In consultation with Provost Banavar I will use this extraordinary gift to leverage the impact of the University of Oregon by supporting new and important strategic initiatives. We have been asked to be bold and innovative by:

  • Securing the UO’s preeminence in focused fields of teaching research and discovery.
  • Promoting interdisciplinary work that elevates our mission.
  • Improving student experience and enhancing student success to prepare them to be future leaders and agents of social and economic impact.
  • Adopting innovative teaching and operating practices that improve our ability to achieve our mission.
  • And providing benefit to our community and state through all these endeavors.

The donors have challenged me to use this gift opportunistically, not for business as usual. This generous donation is for building mountains, not filling potholes.

Today, I would like to announce the first five allocations from the Presidential Fund for Excellence.

First, as many of you remember, last month, I announced a new Presidential Initiative in Data Science. Professor Bill Cresko will lead a new interdisciplinary initiative that will bring together existing faculty and recruit new faculty across our schools and colleges to create educational, training, and research programs at the UO. Like all good academic ideas, the Initiative in Data Sciences bubbled up from the faculty.  I have repeatedly heard that we need to develop greater capacity to support our teaching and research in fields as disparate as literature, economics, geography, biology, business, computer science, and design. With the growth of big data comes the need for sophisticated applications and techniques to understand underlying trends and scientific, literary, economic, and social phenomena. And our students need to learn how to apply these methods. Data Science will help connect our disciplines and increase our capacity for discovery.

Second, I will further invest in faculty, because an excellent university is only as good as its faculty. One of the things I noted when I arrived at the University of Oregon was how few endowed chairs we have. An endowed chair is exceptionally helpful in building faculty excellence. It provides funding for salaries, support, research, and summer support. But equally important, it provides special recognition to faculty for their achievements and enables us to compete on an even playing field with schools that have an abundance of these positions. Therefore, I am earmarking funds from the Presidential Fund for Excellence to match gifts to create nine new faculty chairs. Each division in the College of Arts and Sciences, and each of the other schools and colleges will be invited to fundraise one-half of the cost of an endowed chair position. I will match each donor gift to create an endowment of $2 million per chair. The provost will work with deans to develop a set of guidelines for these chairs, but it is my hope that they will be used by each of our schools and colleges to recruit and retain faculty of the highest caliber.

Third, as many of you know, over the past year we have worked hard with the Black Student Task Force to address a series of racial justice issues. Among the top objectives of this group was the creation of a Black Cultural Center here at the UO. Importantly, the students, themselves, stated that their top priority for the center was that it facilitate student success and timely graduation. We have already raised $1.6 million toward the capital cost of the cultural center, just over two-thirds of the amount we need to build the project. For my third allocation, I will dedicate money from the Presidents Fund for Excellence to support student success programming at the Black Cultural Center. I am extremely excited about this project and can’t wait to break ground sometime in the summer of 2018.

My fourth investment will complement our recent investments in science including the Knight Campus. We live in a time of unparalleled growth of scientific insight and discovery. At the same time, the traditional way many of us receive the news has changed and, in many cases, splintered into ideological camps. Thus the challenge of communicating and understanding scientific phenomena has reached a critical point. We see this most obviously in the area of climate change with the weight of science rather overwhelmingly on one side of the ledger and public opinion not nearly as decisively aligned. I am thrilled to support the School of Journalism and Communication’s plan to create a new Media Center for Science and Technology. The Center’s interdisciplinary faculty will explore how scientific discoveries and technological solutions are conveyed and understood by a wide variety of audiences. Through experiential and traditional classroom teaching our students will learn how to better communicate about science regardless of whether they work as scientists, journalists, or as public relations practitioners. The Presidential Fund for Excellence will provide seed funding to begin the center’s programs and research. I also hope this will be a model for other schools and departments wishing to forge connections to the Knight Campus and its new faculty.

Finally, in keeping with our theme of impact, I want to come back to our primary mission—to educate the citizens of Oregon. In recent years it has become harder to enroll resident students despite programs like Pathway Oregon which provide free tuition and fees for low income students. Oregon simply is graduating too few students who apply to college. Indeed, from 2012 to 2017, the pool of people in the state who took the ACT or SAT declined by more than 15 percent. We need to do something to halt this decline and we need to do it now. The future of our state depends upon us increasing the proportion of young people who go on college. 

For my fifth allocation, I am awarding the College of Education funds to seed a new and exciting initiative that holds the promise of improving the quality of schools in our state and increasing the number of college-ready students they graduate. This program—the Oregon Research Schools Network—will place faculty members in up to 10 high schools across the state. Each faculty member will train high school teachers in the newest innovations of pedagogical practice and also teach students. The cost for each placement in this five-year pilot program will be shared jointly with local school districts. We hope that the initial set of placements will occur in schools with high proportions of first-generation and under-represented students. We will explore the feasibility of dual credit offerings. We also hope our presence in these schools will increase the pool of high school graduates qualified to come and study here in Eugene. We will also examine providing additional institutional support to some of our most successful pipeline programs at the university including the Summer Academy to Inspire Learning and the Oregon Young Scholars program as part of this initiative.

Each of these five investments from the anonymous gift is designed to harness our existing strengths, talents, and initiatives and build something new, exciting, and important. Each is about promoting excellence. Each will be combined with additional resources from philanthropy or the public sector. This is how we will leverage impact.

Through these and other investments in interdisciplinary programs, in outstanding faculty within promising fields, in student success efforts, in enhancing equity, and in new ways to deliver outstanding teaching we will push ourselves to be better. The University of Oregon is not willing to trim its ambitions to match its public resources. To the contrary, our promise to future generations is that we will pursue excellence relentlessly. The University of Oregon will not let the multitude of societal challenges daunt us. Instead we will push the boundaries of exploration, curiosity, and creativity to find new solutions, answers, and understanding.

I thank all of you for support, dedication, and focus, for together we will continue to make a positive impact on our state, nation, and world.

Thank you.