President's Report to UO Board of Trustees, March 2022

March 14, 2022

Good morning.

This has obviously been a busy and productive period for the University of Oregon.

Although we are going to discuss it in detail later in the meeting, I would like to make a brief comment about the Ballmer Institute. I am incredibly pleased about the outpouring of support, enthusiasm, and excitement the University of Oregon has received in connection with the creation of the Ballmer Institute. As you will hear shortly, the Ballmer Institute is a whole new way to think about how to address the children’s behavior and mental health crisis our nation is experiencing.

Thanks to the generosity of former trustee Connie Ballmer and her husband, Steve Ballmer, the UO is able to use its expertise to partner with schools, the state, families, and community partners to work to quickly address this urgent problem.

Thanks to our strength in psychology and education, we will create an entirely new profession and workforce of practitioners. These will be undergraduates who can earn their degrees in behavioral health as well as mid-career professionals who can earn certificates. With this training, our graduates will be able to help children in schools and other settings, where they need it most.

There are many approvals, plans, and work ahead, but we are all so very excited and I look forward to us discussing more coming shortly.

I am also excited about the purchase of the Concordia campus. As many of you know from visiting it, it will provide the Ballmer Institute with a wonderful home. In addition, it will ultimately serve as our base in Portland. In addition to housing many of the programs in the White Stag, the University of Oregon-Portland will open up many possibilities we can only dream about now to serve a diverse and dynamic population.

It is important to me to recognize Provost Phillips for his work bringing together our faculty to create this proposal. I also want to recognize Mike Andreasen for his work on this incredibly important project. 

Next, I would like to update you on our response to COVID-19 and how the UO is moving into the next stage of this pandemic.

Like the rest of the nation and communities throughout Oregon, the university saw a spike in cases at the start of winter term due to the Omicron variant. Fortunately, our case numbers have been declining steadily, mirroring what we are seeing in the community. Indeed, we expect to move from high to low severity shortly.

One thing one learns about managing COVID is that one has to be nimble. As all of you know, the Oregon Health Authority lifted its mask requirement over the weekend. That still left institutions with the ability to have more stringent requirements than the state. 

After consulting with our county public health authority we decided to be a bit conservative and continue masks until the end of the term—which is Friday, March 18. So starting Saturday, March 19, everyone will have the option of wearing masks in classes, offices, and other indoor spaces, but will not be required to do so. 

We recognize there are a lot of perspectives about wearing masks. Some people in the university community may not be ready to stop wearing them while others are eager to do so. Everyone has the personal choice to continue to wear a mask as an effective strategy to protect themselves and we are asking that everyone respect that choice. In particular, individuals who are not up to date on COVID-19 vaccines are strongly encouraged to follow the CDC recommendations to continue wearing a mask.

We will also continue to provide free KN95 masks to students, faculty, and staff.

Overall, this is very good news. But we still need to be vigilant about the possibility of new variants. With that in mind, we are keeping our testing program at Mac Court just in case. We will continue to serve the UO community as well as Lane County. 

When I think about the past two years I draw two or three key lessons:

We are a resilient institution. Our administrators and faculty were asked to change how they did their work, how they taught their courses, and many took on two or more jobs at a time to get us through the pandemic. And it worked! We delivered quality education and services to our students in a very difficult environment.    

Despite or perhaps because of this experience, I am more committed than ever to our mission as a residential, in-person university. Our experiment with remote education tells me two things:

In-person instruction is more effective and more equitable for our students. Although online teaching has its advantages in terms of convenience, our students learn better and are more emotionally stable when we are together in person.

Indeed, our comparative advantage is that we have just the right mix of excellent academics, world-class athletics, co-curricular programs, and opportunities for engagement. No wonder our students and their parents are always so excited about their time here.

Third, COVID-19 showed us once again the value a research university can provide to our community and the state. When testing needed to be done in Lane County we stepped up.

I am happy and proud of the ways in which we adapted to the pandemic. I will be even happier if I don’t have to talk about COVID as much at our next Board of Trustees meeting.

As you all know, student success has been one of my top priorities since I started as president. Over the past six years, we have made significant strides in supporting student access and success:

  • We improved four-year graduation rates.
  • We opened Willie and Donald Tykeson Hall, hired 23 new advisors and six career coaches, and launched a revamped advising framework to support timely graduation and career readiness.
  • We also increased institutional and philanthropic support for the PathwayOregon scholarship and advising program, increasing the number of Federal Pell Grant-eligible Oregon residents who pay no tuition or fees.

But we have much, much further to go.

  • We must continue to build upon what we’ve accomplished and continue to increase our four- and six-year graduation rates.
  • At the same time, we need to address disparities in graduation and student success metrics across low-income, first-generation, underrepresented students, and other demographics.
  • In addition, we must also focus our energies on making our students career-ready.

These elements are critical to what we are calling Next-Gen Student Success at the University of Oregon. Provost Phillips and I have charged Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education and Student Success Kimberly Johnson to lead this effort.

Another very important effort the university is undertaking internally is a climate survey of faculty, staff, and graduate employees. This will begin next month and last for three weeks. The purpose of the survey is to measure and positively impact our workplace culture here on campus. The IDEAL Climate Survey of Employees will gather insights through a confidential survey administered by Gallup, a nationally recognized workplace survey firm.

The idea to conduct a survey came from employees as our campus explored how to better create an inclusive, welcoming environment for all. We had originally hoped to conduct the survey in 2020, but the operational disruption caused by the pandemic delayed the survey. COVID-19 is likely to be a part of our lives for the foreseeable future, and we believe this important work to understand and improve our campus culture can no longer wait.

The survey is confidential and anonymous, and the results will be published in ways that help us learn but that won’t compromise individual privacy.

I will close by saying, I am extremely bullish about the future of the University of Oregon. In addition to the Knight Campus and the Ballmer Institute, we continue our work on the series of ambitious research and teaching initiatives that Provost Phillips and I will continue to keep you apprised about. They include data science, sport and wellness, innovation and entrepreneurship, the environment, data science, and racial disparities. Each has the potential to be game-changing. If we do this right, everyone in the university will have a role in advancing these in a cross-disciplinary way.

As we enter spring term I am hopeful for our university, and our entire community. I am also excited to be teaching again…this time with Vice President and General Counsel Kevin Reed. Our goal will be to let the students do most of the talking rather than argue with each other the whole class. We’ll see if we meet that goal!

Thank you.