Presidential Address: The Investiture of Michael R. Gottfredson

The Path Ahead, the Path Behind

Thank you all for being here. I am grateful to have you here today—my new colleagues and community: students, faculty, staff, trustees, alumni. I am honored and humbled to have been named President of this great university, and I look forward to the work we are going to do together.

I am grateful to our legislators, our governor, and representatives of the State Board of Higher Education, the Oregon Education Investment Board, and the Higher Education Coordinating Commission for your efforts on behalf of education in our state.

You are engaged in an enormously complicated and important task, and we appreciate your efforts tremendously.

Thank you to the Oregon congressional delegation, representatives of Oregon’s tribes, my colleague presidents, and our community partners for your support for the university and your presence here today.

I also want to acknowledge friends and family who have traveled to Eugene to be here with us—Thanks very much for coming, and for your friendship.

We stand on the cusp of great change for public higher education in this country. And we, here at Oregon, have a tremendous opportunity to affect the nature of that change. We have the opportunity to revisit how we are governed and how we are organized; how we finance our public mission; how we engage our supporters; and how we deliver on the promise of our mission. Today, in the company of friends and colleagues old and new, I look to the challenges ahead with confidence bolstered by our history and the achievements of our past.

I came to Oregon with a profound commitment to the idea of the public research university—I have experienced its benefits, I have devoted myself to furthering its mission.

I was educated at public research universities, as was my wife, Karol. We both attended UC Davis, in the northern California college town where we grew up. We are both multiple generation Westerners, and if my ancestors had taken a right turn around Utah instead of a left, I might have made it to Oregon a lot sooner.

Our parents attended pubic research universities, as did our brothers. (My brother Stephen is, in fact, a Duck; he earned his BA here—welcome back to campus, Steve—and Karol’s father received his graduate training here at the U of O). Our children, Katherine and Bryan, attended public research universities as well.

Public and private investment in higher education made this possible. Not only did it make it possible for us to attend a university—as I know it did for many of you—this investment enabled us to attend some of the finest universities in the world. Public research universities, like the University of Oregon.

When I was a student at UC Davis, investment from the state kept tuition affordable. To pay my expenses, I worked in jobs funded by grants generated by the faculty, supported by investment from the federal government and the Ford Foundation. I didn’t think of it at the time, but that experience, in retrospect, was fundamental both to the development of my own academic career, and to the foundation of my personal commitment to the idea of the public university.

One of my student jobs was as an assistant to a geneticist in a biology lab. Later, I worked as an assistant to a professor of law—collecting data, studying, and analyzing how judges make decisions in the criminal process.

That experience resulted in my first academic publication, and ignited my desire to attend graduate school in my field.

I had the opportunity, as an undergraduate, to spend time with faculty who were actively engaged in research. I witnessed their passion for scholarship. I participated firsthand in that creativity and experimentation, and shared the excitement of discovery. As I continued my career as a faculty member, I saw that same excitement in the work of my colleagues and students. I experienced early on the value of learning directly from those engaged in research—the thrill of discovery, the engagement of learning by doing.

These features of the educational experience defined the research university when I was a student, and they continue to define it today.

I see this every day on our campus—it’s the greatest privilege of my role as president.  I think of two doctoral students I met when I visited our labs at the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology in Charleston. Working alongside their professors in those labs, their basic research resulted in a model that can successfully predict annual crab populations, which has already been useful to our local industries in managing the harvest.

Just the other night I met a student from Kenya, who was unable to study science at the university level in her country. So she is here at the U of O, supported by a McNair scholarship. Her work in Professor Janis Weeks’s lab has led her to discover a career path that will further her research interest in public health—the field in which she plans to pursue her PhD.  

This is what matters.

This is what I get to experience every day when I come to work, knowing that as president, I have the privilege of working with good people, talented people, the faculty and staff who care so deeply about the welfare of our university. I get to do my very best to help sustain this great enterprise, to help solve problems that threaten to interfere with this work that matters most—the teaching and learning and scholarship and research that advance so many interests. This is why we are here, each of us. This is why we care so intensely about the future of this university. Because we share this commitment to our students.

You are where our aspirations reside, and where our obligations lie.

As a premier, public, research university—each of those words as important as the others—we have obligations to you.

We have an obligation to position Oregon among the finest research universities in the world. To focus intently on discovery and innovation; to ensure that we are at the forefront of global progress as the world flattens and our communities diversify. To guarantee that your degree carries the weight of distinguished achievement, and the reputation that confers.

We have an obligation to strengthen our commitment to the advancement of education for Oregonians, and to lessen the financial burden associated with higher education that falls on you and your families, so you may begin your careers unencumbered by significant debt.

It is when we fulfill these obligations— to ignite and foster innovation, to educate Oregonians, to manage the cost of education—that we remain true to our public mission. 

Never, in the long history of this venerable institution, has there been a time when our mission has been more critical, the role we play more consequential, or the validity of the idea of our university more in evidence.

We see this reflected in the work of our alumni—in the liberal arts and the sciences, the fine and performing arts, and in the professions—who are taking the skills and values honed on this campus and changing the world.

I think of Ann Curry, our School of Journalism and Communication alumna who visited campus recently. Raised in southern Oregon, Ann embodies the journalistic standards and responsibility fundamental to a democratic society.  Her experiences as a journalist also led her to embrace philanthropic work with organizations like Doctors Without Borders and Save the Children.

Some of our students who met her said they could see their career aspirations in her work, see their values as journalists reflected in hers—that’s an inspiring thing.

Or how about Marcia Aaron, another alumna and former UO trustee I have had the privilege to meet. After a successful career in investment banking, Marcia now devotes her time to improving school experiences for young people as the executive director of the KIPP open enrollment charter schools in Los Angeles. She is focused on improving opportunities for elementary school kids, on making their chances for success better—something my own academic work—with my colleague and mentor Travis Hirschi, who I’m happy to have here with us today—argues is where our efforts should lie if we want to reduce problem behaviors and increase life chances.

Advancing the strength and quality of this university is in the public interest. Its value is inherent, its importance undeniable. But pragmatic judgment leads us to an inescapable conclusion: the confluence of general economic problems and pressing state needs has shifted the burden of financing our public mission, here and elsewhere.

It has shifted this burden, increasingly, to our students and their families—a trend that is neither desirable nor sustainable.

So we find ourselves at a watershed moment. We have arrived at a moment in which we must discover—we must create—a new way to finance the noble cause of this public university. It is a time in which the decisions we make, the paths we choose, matter a great deal.

So what, then, is the path to sustaining this great university in this time, in this place?

We must focus, with laser-like intensity, on creating a new approach to how we are organized. How we finance the university. How we engage our community and supporters. How we support the careers and aspirations of our faculty and staff. And how we deliver on the promise of an Oregon education to our students, our alumni, and our state.

We must conceive an approach that aligns with the demands and realities of the world in which we live, and holds true to our mission, which is unwavering.

As we contemplate this task, we can do no better than to return to our roots, to the idea of this university itself—what inspired its creation, what established its mission, and what sustained its foundation. It is there that we may find our inspiration.

The idea of higher education in the public interest has engaged American visionaries since Thomas Jefferson linked education to the foundations of democracy as he founded the University of Virginia. When Abraham Lincoln took time out during the Civil War to sign the Morrill Act, he linked together the ideas of access and quality and made them the defining features of public higher education. They knew that higher education benefits both individuals and society—That it is too vital to be solely the province of privilege.

The University of Oregon began with a similar dream and was born in the spirit of competition—not the kind that seeks to keep others down, but the kind that builds up, that originates from innovation and inspires excellence.

It began with a public commitment. Citizens in Lane County came together and proposed a compact with the state to establish a public, nondenominational university here in Eugene. Their method was to combine significant private donations for land and for a building, a local bond for additional resources, and proceeds from the sale of state land to achieve the designation of the University of Oregon as a state university.

So, from its earliest days, the university took a portfolio approach to financing the public interest—private philanthropy, university-business partnerships, state operating funds, and public support.

Eugene won the competition as a site for this university because its citizens successfully argued that it would be good for the city, driving economic development and bringing bright, energetic students to town. Community members raised the $27,500 necessary to buy this land and build our first building, Deady Hall. When that building opened its doors in 1876, five faculty members taught 155 students.

The university was off to a great start. Engaged students, dedicated faculty, support from the community, the beginning of this beautiful campus and the stellar teaching and learning environment we have today. Governance by its own board of regents, appointed by the governor.

But, soon, the state was unable to pay its share of the agreement.

Fortunately, the university’s board of regents was able to secure the attention of Henry Villard—a journalist-turned-railroad baron—who donated 7,000 dollars toward the 8,000-or-so debt that was threatening the closure of the university. And the doors stayed open.

So the university was saved, just as it had begun, by enlightened philanthropy and a community whose primary concern was looking after the public interest, who understood the power of education for individuals and for society.

I share this look back to our roots for a reason. While the way we organize our resources may evolve, our commitment to our public mission is unchanging. It is not so different than it was when the university was first established:

We want an education for our students that will define their future.

We believe universities improve the lives of people in our communities, our state, our nation, and the world.

We are confident of the merit of this effort, but less so about the sustainability of our resources.

Given this new reality, we must focus our resources, our time, and our creativity on what we do best. We must do some things differently. Strategically.

Working together, in collaboration with faculty and academic leadership, we will develop a plan for the strategic investment of new resources, systematically moving our strongest programs to the top of their class.

We will use benchmarks to focus our efforts and solidify our standing among our peers. We will embrace competition at the highest levels of academics and research, creating the conditions necessary to recruit and retain scholars who aspire to shatter the boundaries of their fields.

We will uphold and renew our commitment to Oregon for all Oregonians. In a new economy, with limited public resources, we will develop the private resources necessary to guarantee the future of Oregon for residents of our state. Through research and discovery, we will continue to power the Oregon economy, creating the companies, jobs, and innovations that fuel our state’s prosperity.

We will continue to build a university in the image of our state and our country’s changing demography, to anticipate and meet the needs of the students who have yet to walk through our doors. And we will demand that in everything we do, our approach is inclusive of a diversity of perspectives, points of view, and backgrounds.

We will greatly enhance our campus learning environment, with more and better-equipped classrooms and laboratories. We must have a campus commensurate with the size and quality of our student body, and the aspirations of our faculty. To achieve that, we must have the authority to finance our capital projects ourselves—to decide when and how to create the infrastructure necessary for our faculty’s and students’ needs.

We will enhance our collaborations with our community colleagues across the South Willamette Valley and with the private sector. The new Regional Accelerator and Innovation Network (RAIN) will speed translation of faculty innovations into the market. Our Sustainable Cities Initiative has already realized projects in Gresham, Salem, Springfield, and now, Medford. And our partnership with area school districts and Lane Community College—Connected Lane County—will focus evermore on smashing barriers to educational success for our community.

We will enlist the expertise of our partners in the private sector to build and improve our facilities and create operational efficiencies, freeing up precious resources to be recommitted to scholarship and research, to be invested in faculty, students, and academic programs. 

We will create a permanent endowment that provides every qualified Oregonian who desires to attend this university the means to do so. This endowment must be sufficient to ensure that the best and brightest students in the state will find an offer of admission to Oregon is one they cannot refuse.

We will accomplish this through our commitment to an ambitious capital campaign, one connected to the idea of refinancing the university, with the dual foci of quality and opportunity. We will engage the campus community in determining our priorities and crafting our plan.

But we know this: The campaign we launch will be aspirational; it will be bold—and it will advance and affirm this university’s position as a top-tier research university.

We will engage our alumni and trustees—whose enthusiasm and commitment to this institution is the most heartfelt I have ever seen.

Our financial goals are clear: We will more than double our current endowment.

Our campaign goal will substantially exceed one billion dollars.

With your help, I have no doubt that we will achieve our goals.

One hundred and fifty years ago, this brand new state stood at the cusp of great change for higher education in this country. So the men and women of Oregon—legislators, philanthropists, scholars, and other visionaries—seized the opportunity to lead that change.

As they did then, we will do now.

Today, our state legislature is considering changes to higher education governance that, when adopted, will allow us to capitalize our assets in a way not currently available to us. These changes will provide clear assurances to our benefactors that their assistance will be deployed in a manner entirely consistent with our objectives.

So it is our responsibility, and in our collective interest, to change the game in order to sustain our mission.

This is a time of great opportunity. We have the ability to create a path forward that is remarkable, led by a clear vision of our future, steeped in a full sense of our public mission, and rooted in our noble, singular past.

It is up to us. And we are up to the challenge, you and I.

Together we will make it happen.

Thank you all for being here—I am honored by your presence.