City Club of Eugene Remarks

January 14, 2022

Good afternoon. Thank you to the City Club of Eugene for inviting me back once again. It is great to see all of you today. Welcome and hello to those watching via livestream.

I appreciate this opportunity to come talk to the City Club about the “Next Normal” and to discuss the important and mutually beneficial relationship that the University of Oregon and the city of Eugene have enjoyed for nearly 150 years. As we think about our future, we should also reflect on the rich legacy the UO and Eugene share together. Our communities, histories, opportunities, and futures are deeply connected.

For starters, we know that many of our students come from Eugene and the surrounding areas, about 3,000 from Lane County alone. We serve the families of Eugene by providing an affordable, high-quality education to their young men and women. 

We also attract people to Eugene and enhance its skilled workforce. We know that many of our students, faculty, and staff choose to study and work at the University of Oregon because Eugene is such a wonderful place to live. People are attracted by the beauty of this community, by our culture of progressive engagement, and by the opportunity to live in a community that is attractive and, at least as compared to other places on the West Coast—affordable and safe. We at the University of Oregon care deeply about this community and have a vested interest in the success of our region. 

Eugene, Lane County, and Oregon’s fortune is also directly tied to the university. The UO plays an integral role in driving the region’s economy through the jobs we create, the purchasing power our community has, the workforce we prepare, the scientific research we conduct, the businesses and ideas we generate, the fans and tourists our campus attracts, and the impact of our direct service to our community.

By the numbers, the UO generates a $2.6 billion dollar economic footprint annually in Oregon. Much of that is in Lane County. For example, each year we pay $350 million in local wages and the UO community spends more than $800 million with local businesses. Over the past five years, UO’s capital construction projects exceeded $1 billion dollars. The projections for the next five years are about the same. In addition, last year our researchers brought in more than $170 million in grants, contracts, and awards, used in our community to generate solutions, ideas, and products that help improve our region and the world.

These opportunities for innovation, growth, and prosperity continue to increase with the full realization of the Phil and Penny Knight Campus for Accelerating Scientific Impact, and many other exciting initiatives I will discuss today.

As I said at the outset, our fates and futures are intertwined. I do not take this relationship for granted. Nor, should the city of Eugene. We should all protect and nurture it.

As we think about the future, the lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic, and our “Next Normal,” we must first acknowledge what is happening in our community right now.

The University of Oregon, Lane County, Oregon—and the entire world—are all currently experiencing a rapid increase in COVID-19 cases due to the spread of the Omicron variant. The West Coast was slightly behind the rest of the US, and we are experiencing the brunt of the surge now.

We are carefully tracking the volume of cases. The UO’s case rates are on track with the Lane County population and consistent with what’s happening across the US.

Fortunately, current public health data and reports from University Health Services show that most individuals who have tested positive are experiencing mild symptoms. Knock wood, since the start of the pandemic we have seen very few members of our community require hospitalization. 

Our high UO vaccination rate, masking requirements, testing protocols, and other health measures are helping to minimize the severity of the health impact on our campus community, and in the greater community. More than 95 percent of our faculty, staff, and students are vaccinated and many have already received booster shots, which are now also required. We often say the UO campus is one of the safest places in the entire state.

We understand from public health modeling projections that the current spike in cases will likely peak at the end of January, but both Lane County and our COVID-19 Monitoring and Assessment Program are beginning to see a slowing of the positive case rate.

We have developed and continue to benefit from a close relationship with our county health department to support the community. For example, the UO’s COVID-19 testing program this week began symptomatic testing—open to all Lane County residents—to help meet the high level of need our community. We have provided free, safe, fast asymptomatic testing to the community throughout the pandemic. Our program has provided more than 180,000 free tests since its inception, including 8,000 tests just last week alone.

We are expanding our operations to mild symptomatic testing in a coordinated effort to relieve other testing operations at medical facilities so they can focus on individuals who need to more directly interact with health care providers.

We are also providing testing to K-12 schools and to Lane Community College, as well as genomic sequencing to identify which variants are circulating in the community. As we have over the last year, we are also providing support for vaccination or booster clinics, and plan to host a clinic later this month.

Our testing program is a great example of how a public research university can leverage its unique faculty expertise, facilities, and logistical capabilities to serve the state and community.

Of course, the current surge in cases is resulting in many members of the UO community having to isolate while they are potentially infectious, which is creating disruption. The university has taken a number of steps to support students and employees by creating flexibility for absences or remote participation in the classroom and workplace.

We are carefully monitoring the situation and adapting as we can to serve and care our students, employees, and community.

The pandemic has presented the University of Oregon with some of the greatest challenges we have ever faced. Together we are not only overcoming these challenges, but we are more certain and committed to our mission of teaching, discovery, and service.

In these last two years, COVID-19 halted, changed, or disrupted every aspect of University of Oregon life, as it did for nearly every other segment of our society. But history has shown, time and time again, that out of every great crisis comes great progress and important lessons. These advances may not always be apparent in the moment, but they are transformative nonetheless.

For the UO, many of the lessons of the pandemic are already quite clear.

Lesson One – Resilience

The first lesson that became apparent early on is that the University of Oregon community is incredibly resilient and innovative in the face of adversity. Two years ago, we probably could not have imagined most of the university’s operations grinding to a halt and everyone rapidly switching to remote instruction in a matter of days.

We deployed technology, support, and resources to connect our students, instructors, and researchers to education and discovery across the state, world, and globe.

It wasn’t always easy or perfect. We sacrificed a lot in order to protect each other, but we also worked together to ensure our students could continue to pursue their educations. And last June, we celebrated—and some of us were moved to tears— as we watched our students collect their diplomas. Thanks to all these efforts nearly 5,000 students earned their degrees from the University of Oregon.

Through it all, our faculty, sometimes under very difficult conditions, found inventive new ways to teach and mentor.

Our students explored creative ways to learn and create.

And our staff worked tirelessly to support our mission.

Many of our top scholars worked together to create COVID-19 testing labs for our community and conducted COVID-19 research—such as examining how the virus spreads through the air, why misinformation spreads across the globe, and how to support children in the classroom.

And, our donors gave generously to help our students—including giving over $1 million for a student emergency fund.

There are a thousand examples of resilience and innovation. I am proud, grateful, and humbled by this incredible community’s determination not to let the virus keep our students from achieving their dreams or stop our research efforts.

Lesson Two – Better Together and the Value of the Residential University

The second lesson of the pandemic is that while we can persevere while apart, we are, in fact, much better together.

Many of us suffered in the isolation and anxiety created by the pandemic. It was especially hard on our students. We knew we had so much to gain by returning to the classrooms, labs, studios, performance halls, and fields. Returning to campus was worth fighting for.

After more than 18 months of mostly remote instruction due to the pandemic, we were able to return to in-person teaching, research, and activities in fall term. Thanks to the continued work of our faculty and staff, and our partnership with state and local health officials, we created comprehensive safety strategies. This included requiring vaccines, and now requiring boosters, robust testing, mask wearing, case management, and other prevention measures.

Even now, as Omicron surges, we are working to address the needs of students, while addressing very real challenges of many people needing to isolate or quarantine.

Being apart reinforced for me and our community the undeniable value of the residential college experience at the University of Oregon.

When students live on a college campus, they become immersed in their education. For example, here at the UO, students have the opportunity to live with and take classes with faculty members in their residence halls. They participate in academic residential communities or freshman interest groups focused on their areas of study. They are able build relationships with their professors, meet with advisors and tutors, and benefit from the mentorship of the faculty.

Research shows that when students live on campus they do better in their classes, are less likely to drop out, and are more likely to graduate on time.

Our residential campus also allows undergraduates to participate in hands-on research with the world-class faculty who are creating knowledge and making discoveries. This opportunity to work in teams and solve real-world problems prepares our students to be problem solvers and collaborators—two highly sought-after skills by employers.

By living and learning on campus, our students also expand their social circles, experience new perspectives and cultures, and participate in activities that prepare them for their lives after college. This is a crucial part of supporting diversity and inclusion, so essential to a more just and equitable world.

The University of Oregon’s immersive residential experience is part of what gives our students a world-class education.

Lesson Three – Research Universities Importance and Impact

This brings me to the third lesson from the pandemic. The research, innovation, and impact of the University of Oregon—and research universities in general—is more important than ever.

The last two years clearly put on display the crucial role that America’s leading research universities play in helping our nation solve big problems.

Researchers at universities like our own have been at the forefront of creating solutions during this pandemic: identifying COVID-19 and its variants, tracing the virus’s spread, creating life-saving vaccines, finding ways to test for COVID-19, discovering treatments, innovating technology to connect people, identifying health disparities, and providing direct access to services.

At the UO, we were able to draw from our faculty’s expertise in biology and data analytics to turn some of the Knight Campus research labs into COVID-19 testing facilities.

Another example—our researchers who study sustainable design and energy efficiency in architecture studied how COVID-19 moves through the air and helped to create new ways to increase airflow to protect against the spread of the virus.

Our ability to provide these insights, and to shift quickly to address these problems, is made possible because we already had the problem-solving system in place.

That’s the beauty and importance of a research university—we are always innovating. We create solutions for today’s problems and even for challenges whose scope is unknown today.

Progress through the Pandemic

While the pandemic challenged us and taught us important lessons, it did not stop our progress!

This fall we welcomed our largest, most academically qualified, and most diverse first-year class in the history of the University of Oregon.

Our students arrived for in-person classes and they encountered a campus transformed over the last year by the opening of iconic new buildings including the first phase of the Phil and Penny Knight Campus for Accelerating Scientific Impact, Hayward Field—the world’s greatest track and field venue, and DeNorval Unthank Jr. Hall—a state-of-the-art student welcome center, residence hall, and dining facility.

The Knight Campus, thanks to a second $500 million dollar gift earlier this year from Penny and Phil Knight, will expand to a second building, hire more faculty, teach more students, and create additional core research facilities and laboratories that will support applied science and bioengineering research.

Indeed, this fall, the new doctoral program in bioengineering has about 20 students. It’s a joint venture with—hold your breath—Oregon State University, and the UO’s first degree offering in engineering.  

Our Knight Campus faculty continue to make an impact on the world. They have established first-of-their-kind technologies such as high-resolution 3D-printing methods with the potential to make advanced medical implants. These versatile materials have potential applications throughout the body, such as artificial blood vessels and dental implants, bone and tendon repairs, and nerve regeneration.

The Knight Campus also advances local economic development by hosting a 6,000-square-foot Innovation Center, where businesses can lease space ranging from seats at shared lab to private labs and offices. They also have access to UO core research facilities, specialized equipment, and a community of entrepreneurs pursuing research-based startups.

This past summer, Hayward Field opened and impressed the world with the NCAA Track and Field Championships, the US Olympic Team Trials - Track and Field, National High School Track and Field Championships, and the Prefontaine Classic.

We are thrilled to partner with the cities of Eugene and Springfield, Travel Oregon, and Travel Lane County next summer to bring the World Athletics Championships to American soil for the very first time.

I know that the Oregon22 organizers were the featured speakers at a recent City Club Friday Forum to discuss the event and all the many opportunities for our community to benefit from the incredible spotlight that will be on Eugene and the UO. The opportunity is unprecedented and we are partnering not just on event operations but also on creative academic and cross-cultural collaborations.

For example, new sensors installed recently at Hayward Field will help both international and UO researchers advance research on air quality and wildfire smoke. The work will enable better detection, prediction, planning, and response to smoke, providing better planning for a safer experience for fans and athletes.

This project also aligns with World Athletics air quality initiatives. In partnership with the World Health Organization, the United Nations Environment Programme, and others, World Athletics is aiming to put air quality sensors in 1,000 stadiums across the country, including one at the start of the Bowerman Curve in Hayward Field. This research is being used to study both the impact of particulates on the health of athletes as well as the impact of large events on the air quality of the surrounding community. It is our hope that the sustainable event model we implement at Hayward Field will serve as a model for future events all over the world.

Another wonderful collaboration is our Envoy Program. Each World Championship delegation, 214 federations from every country in the world, will be matched with student envoys, selected based on language proficiency or connection to the country of the delegation, or both. Envoys will provide daily support throughout the championships, acting as guides and cross-cultural interpreters. These student envoys will get a wonderful experience and showcase the hospitable and welcoming nature of the University of Oregon and broader community as well as showcasing the global nature of the university. Sixty-five of these student envoys are first-year students in the Global Engagement Residential Community, one of the important residential campus experiences I mentioned earlier.

The university has a strong commitment to academic rigor and excellence, a long history of success and a worldwide reputation in athletics, and exceptional research and athletic facilities. To build on this strength, we have launched a Sport and Wellness Initiative to integrate university areas of study in human physiology, prevention science, community well-being, improving the human condition, data analytics, athletics, and sports industry expertise, including programs in marketing, product management and design, and communications. As host to local, national, and international athletic competitions, like the World Athletics Championships Oregon22, the university understands the power of sport to bring communities together, foster goodwill, and improve overall physical and psychological well-being. We anticipate that the University of Oregon will become the world magnet for people wanting to study the world of sport.

Much of my talk today has focused on a commitment of the University of Oregon to have impact. By impact I mean we want our teaching, our research, and our service to make our community—writ large and small—better, more prosperous, more healthy, and more fair. 

When we consider some of the greatest challenges facing our world today—improving human health; protecting our environment; innovating solutions in business, law, science, and technology; understanding and harnessing the power of data; and working to improve inclusion and end racial disparities—these are areas in which the University of Oregon strives to make an even bigger impact.

These are disciplines in which students and scholars want to make a difference and where society is in dire need of solutions. And as the university continues to attract more students, expand our solution-based academic and research focus, win research grants, and grow in prominence, we will benefit our surrounding community.

The University of Oregon’s “Next Normal” will be based on a commitment to improve our world.

To meet the demands of tomorrow we will take all of our lessons learned and all of our accomplishments to build a reimagined public research university. A University of Oregon for tomorrow, in the Eugene of tomorrow.

A future focused on preparing our students for a rapidly changing job market.

A future focused on innovation and discovery.

A future focused on prosperity and benefit to our state and nation.

And, a future focused on lifting up not just those born with advantage but everyone.

We are resilient, we are better together, and our work is more important than ever.

Together with our city and state, we are ready to move forward.

Thank you.