November 23, 2020
Dear University of Oregon colleagues,
As I think about Thanksgiving this year, I am flooded with conflicting emotions. Like many of you, my plans to visit family and friends have been canceled, one more unfortunate change in a difficult year. Since many, if not most, of our students will leave Eugene to return home, our campus and much of our university neighborhood will have an empty feeling that will carry through the winter break. I worry about our community and our nation and pray that the hopeful vaccine experimental results reported in the news over the past couple weeks will mean a safe and effective way for us to curb the pandemic and allow us to get back to some approximation of normalcy.
But most of all, I am grateful and full of optimism for our future. Our community has come together better than we could have hoped for back in March when the contours of the pandemic first became apparent. Our faculty members once again demonstrated their devotion to our students by turning on a dime to convert traditional in-person teaching into remote or online education. Our students rose to the challenge with resilience; the vast majority have stayed with us and those I have spoken with are making the best of a sometimes difficult situation. Our classified staff and officers of administration displayed flexibility, understanding, and courage as they kept our campus open and safe. Our administrators worked weeks and months without taking a day off to help us manage an ever-changing environment. And, our alumni and supporters gave generously to support our students, donating close to $1 million to our student hardship fund.
I am also optimistic for our nation. While the election results reflect a nation that remains very divided, I am buoyed by the early statements of President-Elect Biden and Vice President-Elect Harris. While our university comprises people of all parties and ideological perspectives, we are united by our commitments to research and science, to equity and inclusion, and to honesty and the pursuit of knowledge. I am hopeful that our nation—and our university—will return to these ideals even as we may disagree about how to put them into practice. I am also incredibly optimistic about our university. Although I am biased, I believe that we have made tremendous progress over the past six to seven years and I believe that progress will only accelerate in the future. In the years before I came to Eugene, the UO successfully led the effort to disband the Oregon University System and establish our own institutional board, which effectively freed us to chart our own path toward excellence. Our faculty union and my predecessor negotiated our first collective bargaining agreement that gave our career faculty substantially greater job security and compensation. We launched an extraordinary and unprecedented fundraising campaign that, to date, has raised close to $2.5 billion to fund scholarships, academic initiatives, new buildings, endowed professorships, and much more. And most importantly, we reaffirmed our commitment to academic excellence by focusing our resources on research and student success, an effort that was recognized and praised last year by the Association of American Universities.
Next month, we will celebrate the opening of the Phil and Penny Knight Campus for Accelerating Scientific Impact, the biggest change to our academic and research program in decades. The Knight Campus is committed to the principle of science advancing society—transforming basic scientific knowledge into interventions, technologies, innovations, and cures to improve the human condition. The Knight’s $500 million gift remains the single largest donation ever to a public university and a wonderful vote of confidence in Phil’s beloved alma mater. I invite each of you to join us for the virtual opening on December 2.
Importantly, the Knight Campus didn’t just come out of the head of a donor or president. Instead, the concept was organically developed by and for our faculty, who had long viewed the absence of applied science as holding the university and our students back. Similarly, over the next year we will see groups of faculty work with Provost Patrick Phillips to develop ideas for other new academic initiatives that will propel us forward in spite of the pandemic and our uncertain budgetary climate. These initiatives will include broad interdisciplinary efforts on the environment, sports and human performance, racial disparities, and innovation. I anticipate that each will be fed by philanthropy. It is important to me that all parts of the university see themselves playing a role in these efforts.
I am also hopeful and confident that our progress in creating a more equitable, diverse, and inclusive campus will accelerate next year. We have already done a lot of work in this area in terms of increasing our representation of students of color and providing new and enhanced curricular and co-curricular opportunities. But we need to do more. We need to hire more faculty and staff of color, and we need to create an environment in which they can flourish. We need to continue to increase access to our university and we need to make sure that all groups of students—regardless of race, socioeconomic status, or other characteristic—feel a part of our university and succeed. This is the moment for us to make progress on all of these fronts: the nation is focused; our students demand it; our University Senate is committed to making progress; and so is our university administration and board of trustees. Shame on us if we don’t meet the challenge.
One thing I have learned from my time here at the University of Oregon is that we tend to be a skeptical bunch. I am sure some of you think I am blowing hot air. How can Mike talk about progress and new initiatives in the face of a pandemic that is sickening or killing our citizens, eviscerating our economy, and generating budgetary problems for the university that will take years for us to dig out of? The answer to that question is that we owe it to our students, to our state, and to posterity to continually strive to produce knowledge and transmit that knowledge to the next generation. That is why we are part of this community. That is why we work here. It isn’t just our job; it is our calling and mission. A university that stands still forsakes its mission, because knowledge doesn’t have a finite end and human progress knows no bounds.
In closing, I want to wish each of you a good holiday. I am thankful that I am your president and that I am part of this community. While we might not engage with each other in the way I most like—face-to-face and arm-in-arm—I want each of you to know how grateful I am that you are part of our university family.
Michael H. Schill
President and Professor of Law