State of the University: Convocation 2014

Friday, September 26, 2014

Good afternoon. I’m happy to welcome each of you to the start of the new academic year. It’s nice to see so many of you here in person, and I’m pleased that others are joining us online from our rural campuses, research and outreach centers across the state.

I’d like to begin with a safety minute. If you don’t know where the exits to this concert hall are, please look around to find them. Please also check to see if anyone sitting near you might need a little help in an emergency. Thank you.

Here in Fairbanks, we stand on Troth Yeddha’, wild potato hill. This is a place whose history is far older than our buildings and classrooms. Wherever we are in Alaska, whatever campus, learning center or research site, we are on land where people have been learning and teaching for thousands of years — Inupiat, Yup’ik, Ch’upik, Alutiiq, Dene Athabascan.

The people here before, the people here now — we are the people of UAF. We are students, faculty, mentors, advisors, researchers.

Some of us are alumni. If you are here as part of this weekend’s alumni rendezvous, I welcome you back to your alma mater. This morning we opened up the time capsule from 1964, when students listened to the Alaska Flag Song on a 45, they were living in the brand-new Lathrop Hall, and we had a proposed budget of $5.2 million.

And in the time capsule was a copy of the Polar Star student newspaper’s Lathrop Hall edition. I’d like to quote from that issue:

“Perhaps President William Wood most adequately summarized the intricate vastness of this University when he said in his inaugural address: ‘Where but in Alaska could one find a single University with a fur farm, a musk-ox herd, a square mile of glaciers, several tons of bones of prehistoric animals, and ice stations on the Polar ice cap 400-odd miles North of Land’s End, a world famous scientist with a special alarm system to awaken him whenever the aurora borealis flashes across our Northern skies, two satellite tracking stations, no social fraternities, no sororities and no losing football team for the alumni to use as an excuse for firing the President.’”

I am pleased to say we have no plans for a football team at UAF.

We are the people of UAF. UAF could not exist without our work and our belief in our mission.

Our mission brings us together, and it makes us friends as well as colleagues. We’ve lost some friends and colleagues this past year, and I’d like to take a moment to remember them.

We will really miss them.

It’s autumn again, and even as we look back, we can’t help but look forward, too. The Equinox Marathon was less than a week ago. It’s a tough race. Many of you were part of it, part of something difficult but ultimately successful. It’s a community event and a point of pride for us.

Each of us at UAF is running our own kind of race. We are all here for different reasons, for personal or professional growth, because we enjoy working in an academic environment, or to make our mark on the world.

Some of us are in it for the long haul — we have people who have worked for UAF for decades. Others are just getting started, and we want to give you a hearty UAF welcome.

No matter how long you’ve been at UAF, this is a race we are all in together.

UAF has recent finishes — successes — to be proud of. Each started as an idea, and for some it took years of hard work for our ideas to become reality.

The Sikuliaq will shortly make its way through the Panama Canal.

The Kuskokwim Campus is getting much-needed deferred maintenance.

We’ve remodeled the Bristol Bay Campus science building and the Northwest Campus student center building.

We have been able to make improvements at Toolik Field Station.

We are now accepting applications for entrance to the new UAF-Colorado State University 2 plus 2 veterinary medicine program, which will start next summer.

Of the 60 people who wrote the National Climate Assessment Report, four were UAF scientists. Other researchers discovered a major new site for dinosaur fossils in Alaska.

In May, we celebrated the largest graduating class in our history, with more than 1,400 students receiving awards.

In June, hundreds of elite musicians and classical music fans came to UAF to participate in or watch the Piano-e-Competition, and thousands more watched online.

Our students and student offerings continue to grow and improve. In 2014, for the first time, every athletics team had an average GPA above 3.0.

We have 200 students in the Honors Program, 80 of them new to UAF.

We have expanded courses in our emergency management program, and busy students can now earn their MBA completely online.

This semester, students, faculty, and staff are using are using the new student union building, the addition to Wood Center that makes living and working on the Fairbanks campus even better.

Next spring, the NCAA rifle championships will come to Fairbanks for a second time.

Our Development and Alumni Relations Office, aided at times by our great student callers has done outstanding work to help support institutional priorities. Last year’s target was $8 million. They reached over $13 million.

This year we hope to raise $8.7 million to support UAF priorities, and we’re already on our way. We thank the Douglas Island Pink and Chum hatchery, which has donated more than a million dollars to fund a fellowship for fisheries graduate students.

We appreciate Kinross Fort Knox for its second million-dollar commitment to UAF, and the many donors large and small who make a difference here. At tonight’s Nanook Rendezvous we will announce yet another special gift.

We led the way in securing an $18.8 million grant from the National Institutes of Health for the University of Alaska to study health, disease, and the environment.

And I am pleased to announce that this morning, we received notice of a $23 million NIH grant to support minority student biomedical research opportunities. That one is a partnership between UAF’s biomedical researchers, veterinary medicine, our CRCD rural campuses, and UA Southeast’s campuses.

The new engineering building is taking shape on the southeast corner of the hill. Just a month ago, construction workers placed 360 yards of concrete for the facility’s strong-floor, where engineers will be able to create mock earthquakes. It is one of the building’s unique features, and the only one of its kind in the state.

We still have funding challenges to complete the engineering building, but we’re working on it. UAF produces the most engineering graduates in Alaska. In fact, we’ve more than doubled the number of engineering undergrads since 2007. The state relies on engineers, and we rely on the state to help us invest in Alaska’s economic future.

We had tremendous support from the Legislature, who invested in construction of a new combined heat and power plant in Fairbanks, the biggest single project in the university’s history. If you see your legislators, please thank them, and thank you for your continued advocacy for the university.

Now we welcome a new opportunity, with the Troth Yeddha’ Legacy. After 10 years of hard work, we have a design in hand and a campaign to raise the money for a park and an Indigenous Studies Center. This legacy will be a destination for scholars from Alaska and the world, and a physical reminder of this hill’s meaning to the Tanana Athabascan people.

The very location of Troth Yeddha’ Park, where it sits between the University of Alaska Museum of the North and the natural sciences of the Reichardt Building, symbolizes the bridge between culture, science and traditional knowledge.

It’s the transition into our next century, where the integration of science and culture will transform life in the North. It is where today’s students will become tomorrow’s leaders.

Three weeks ago, at the gathering to honor the establishment of the park and future center, I was struck by how many times I heard someone say, “When I was a student here.”

So many of our Alaska Native leaders, our community leaders, our state leaders, have personal roots at UAF. I am extremely proud that UAF and Troth Yeddha’ are one, and I cannot wait to see our future students and leaders using the park, and eventually the Indigenous Studies Center.

For the Tanana people and now for all of us, Troth Yeddha’ is a place to gather, to think, and to work together, as a community, just as we are a community at UAF.

We spend years of our lives at UAF. We know each other as colleagues and friends, even sometimes as family.

We help each other. We watch out for each other. If we see something wrong, we say something, and we do something about it.

We work every day to keep our buildings and grounds safe. We look for ways to make UAF safe and welcoming for everyone, regardless of race, age, gender, sexual orientation or disability, and regardless of whether that disability is visible or not.

I’d like to take a minute to explain why it’s so important we care about safety. It’s not just a matter of completing safety training or reviewing our emergency action plans for departments. This is about ensuring that none of us gets hurt—or worse. It’s important that what may seem like a small issue is NOT overlooked. When it comes to safety, small things add up to big problems.

So please report concerns, and encourage others to do so. Don’t take them lightly. We need to be an example for students, so they will be prepared for what they will see in the workplace.

Many of you participated in the safety pilot program and received the supervisor’s tool kit for safety and awareness. We will use it to help achieve a culture of safety. That, of course, is a goal for all of us. I encourage each of you to make safety part of your own culture at UAF.

I’m also very pleased that nearly all UAF employees have successfully completed the Title IX training, and I hope the others will complete their training very soon too. The training is a necessary reminder that we can’t have equality in education if we don’t have a safe and welcoming campus for everyone.

We must go farther than talking about a safe and welcoming campus. Sexual assault and sexual harassment are endemic in Alaska. We must be part of the solution — the solution to help victims continue their education without barriers, and to create opportunities where, in the past, there have been disparities.

We need to be part of the solution that ensures there are fewer occurrences each year until there are none, and to heal where there has been harm.

The discussion at the national level creates an opportunity not only to meet the needs of our students, but to provide an environment where students can create their own futures and thrive, and I am very pleased ASUAF is working with us. And it is also critical for our faculty, our staff, and their families and communities.

The federal Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights will be in Fairbanks October 6th and 7th and at the Kuskokwim Campus in Bethel on October 10. They will be reviewing UAF’s compliance with the Title IX law, ensuring we prevent and respond to sexual harassment and sexual assault.

They will conduct a series of listening sessions and interviews. Please encourage your students and employees to attend. Tell your stories.

As I said at the beginning, UAF is made up of people. We must never forget that. We are not statistics or FTEs. We are students, alumni, and employees working to do the best we can for ourselves and, I hope, for each other.

That is why it’s crucial to remember that the challenges we face are not strictly institutional challenges — they are personal as well.

We are still managing the effects of this year’s budget shortfall, about $14 million. Although much can change in an election year, we know that we will still face budget challenges in the next few years due to declining state revenues.

The Legislature reduced funding for operations by $8 million, but our fixed costs — the ones we can’t control, like utilities and negotiated contracts — continue to increase, and there’s only so much that we can absorb without negative consequences.

We continue to introduce energy-saving measures, and, with the new Sustainability Master Plan, we’ll have more ways to reduce costs and waste. In Fairbanks we’re saving money by continuing to move off-campus units back to campus. We’ve cut travel. We’ve cut budgets. We’ll continue the 90-day hiring delay. Some positions will not be refilled.

The business of budget reduction is difficult, because most of what we do requires people, and reducing budgets means fewer people to do the work. We spent months gathering information, comments, and analysis to develop a plan for the next two years. The Budget Options Group developed an initial set of options.

The Planning and Budget Committee, made up of staff and faculty throughout UAF, did a tremendous amount of work to come up with a series of recommendations. Shared governance takes work. It is shared work and it does matter.

I asked, and the Planning and Budget Committee asked, for your suggestions and recommendations, some of which we’ve already put into effect. Here are just a few examples:

We reorganized Dining and Polar Express with the Bursar’s Office and eliminated vacant positions.

We consolidated space for the Office of Information Technology. We merged SNRAS and the Cooperative Extension Service into the School of Natural Resources and Extension.

There have been reductions in overall services you may have noticed, including reduced shuttle service, a limited grounds crew, and fewer staff to answer the phones. We’re going to feel the effects.

We’ve spent nearly 100 years finding ways to do what we need to, not just to survive, but to excel.

This year, 2014, marks the 50th reunion of the class of 1964. That was the year of the earthquake that caused such devastation in parts of Alaska. Some of the students who came here in the aftermath had lost everything. But they rebuilt.

UAF has not lost everything. We still have students, faculty, researchers and staff whose integrity and willingness to work hard rival any university in the country. Despite current budget challenges, we have a bedrock foundation of people and expertise that will keep us strong.

It’s images like these — of where we’ve been, and how far we’ve come — that will inspire us as we continue to do our work for Alaska in the face of growing budgetary pressure.

There are limited means for the university to raise revenue. One option is to increase tuition, which is one of the lowest in the country.

However, last Friday, the board of regents voted against President Gamble’s request to raise tuition by four percent. The proposed tuition increase would have brought in an additional $4 million to the statewide system, including about $1.5 million to UAF.

The board of regents challenged UA’s leadership to reduce the number of academic, research and support programs we offer.

Even if we receive the same state funding as last year, and with unavoidable cost inflation, our predicted budget shortfall for next year, FY16, is another $14 million, which would mean a repeat of the scale of this year’s reductions. If state funding allocations for the university actually decline, it will be even more challenging.

A tuition increase would make only a small dent in that amount, but would offer some relief to the cuts we face. We have no more options for simple or pain-free reductions.

We don’t know what the governor and Legislature will decide, but I need to ensure we are ahead of the planning and budget curve.

Therefore, I have asked the vice chancellors to explore further reductions, and I have asked Provost Henrichs to reconvene the UAF Planning and Budget Committee this fall instead of next spring to renew the process of identifying areas where we can cut significant amounts of money. And to look again for new or expanded revenue sources.

My tentative timeline is for the Planning and Budget Committee to complete its work in December 2014, right after the governor announces his UA budget.

Once we know our target, I will work with the committee and my Cabinet to make the tough but necessary decisions to have a balanced budget, and I will announce those decisions shortly thereafter. This schedule will allow us to notify staff of any layoffs, so everyone has time to prepare, and so we are ready to realize budget savings when the new fiscal year starts on July 1.

I take this personally. I know it is not “fat” we’re cutting. It’s real people, real programs and services. It means a university that cannot do everything we do now, at the same time we are adapting to changing societal demands from higher education.

These are the constraints we must work within. There is not an alternative.

Many of us are feeling pain because of what we are giving up. It is vital that I hear your concerns and your suggestions. Last year we held two forums where I took your questions, and, I hope, answered them. The next one is Tuesday, November 25. In the meantime, I urge all of you to continue to communicate with your director, dean, vice chancellor, the provost, or with me, if you have ideas to help UAF manage during this time.

Although UAF receives strong support from the Legislature compared to many of our peer institutions, we must continue to remind our state leaders that a strong UAF means a strong Alaska.

For example, the Alaska Center for Energy and Power needs more room to continue its work finding affordable, sustainable energy solutions for Alaska and the world. A successful fundraising campaign will allow us to finish the fourth floor of the new engineering building dedicated to ACEP.

We still need an expanded early childhood education lab school and child care program for the Fairbanks campus.

And we must finish land and building arrangements on the Northwest Campus, so we can set the stage for improvements in the future.

We have to deal with deferred maintenance, and renovate our nearly 50-year-old research facilities on the West Ridge.

Our teaching and research won’t stop. We must continue to enhance our classroom and distance learning technologies. We’re developing a centennial scholarship fundraising campaign, so more students will be able to afford a college education.

We will continue to teach the students who will one day be our leaders, and they will continue to learn, in our classrooms and libraries, from our faculty, and from each other.

We’ll continue to reach out — online, in print, through social media, by radio, on TV, and person-to-person.

We’ll continue to conduct research that helps us develop new industries, respond to new challenges, and live better lives.

The research we conduct here directly affects us. If affects how we live our lives, and how well we live them. The work we do — it’s tremendously exciting. It’s important and necessary. It’s inspiring.

This is footage from a recent commercial shoot that shows a small slice of the work we do here. We do so much more, and we will continue to tell the world about it.

But if we are to be heard, we must have a clear and consistent voice. UAF is made of many parts but the one thing that links us all together is being a part of the UAF brand. Our brand defines why we're here and where we're headed.

It's who we are and what we stand for. It's how we express ourselves, and how we present UAF to the world.

It is important that our students, donors, legislators, community members and policymakers understand what UAF contributes to Alaska, the nation and the world. We can do this only if we stand together as one united university.

In the coming months I will share plans for how we can all tell the UAF story more coherently. This is something I consistently hear we need to do better.

We will only be able to position UAF as a leading student-centered research university and America’s arctic university if we work together.

We’re in an election year. Legislators and candidates are going to be very interested in your opinions, and in what you know about the university. About how we make a difference in Alaska’s economy and workforce development. About how we strengthen the state’s education system and social fabric. About how we provide intellectual capital, and about how we serve Alaska.

States with healthy and strong economies all have strong research universities. And paralleling that, for us to be a strong research university, we need to ensure there is a vibrant state economy; that is a key part of the land grant mission of this university.

Your legislators and candidates are listening. So talk to them. Tell them what you know about how to make Alaska better.

Around the world, no other university’s arctic research has been cited as often as UAF’s. We do outstanding work, and the world is taking notice.

We’re part of the international education and policy community through the University of the Arctic network of 170 universities, colleges and research centers. Our faculty and administrators have leadership roles in a wide variety of Arctic scientific organizations.

We are actively advising the US State Department in support of the coming US chairmanship of the Arctic Council, and our faculty support every one of its working groups.

Arctic nations and other stakeholders are engaged in discussions about the Arctic, such as opening sea routes, resource exploration, and the major social changes such activities create. We have the expertise and the reputation to make significant contributions to these discussions.

UArctic and its member institutions strengthen our capacity to be the primary U.S. resource for practical, science- and scholarship-based information about the Arctic. We can be the authoritative U.S. academic voice among our arctic neighbors. UArctic is one of the ways we are taking leadership in the Arctic and enriching our own education and research programs in the process.

UAF staff and faculty are increasingly productive inventors. Invention disclosures have gone from six in 2011 to 75 this year. Last fiscal year we licensed one technology. This year, we licensed 40, and presented our first royalty checks to UAF faculty and staff.

And our students might be giving their faculty members a run for their money. For example, the UAF robotics team won an innovation award from NASA for the four-wheeled mining robot they developed.

Our unmanned aircraft testing center is the largest research facility of its kind in North America, but our reach goes around the globe. Our unmanned aircraft staff are helping track wildlife in Africa and sea lions in the Aleutians. They’re monitoring oil spills and helping fight wildfires.

And, as an FAA test site, they’re helping develop protocols and best practices for using unmanned aircraft in research.

Last month we hosted the U.S. special representative for the Arctic, Admiral Papp. Four weeks ago, members of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly Committee on Science and Technology met at UAF to discuss international arctic security issues. UAF arctic leaders and scientists made presentations to the delegation, and the meeting included an overview of UAF's abilities to address needs through innovative research and applied science.

I am very excited about the opportunities there will be for our students and faculty to engage with the international community on Arctic issues.

For example, in 2016, the world’s biggest arctic science conference — the Arctic Science Summit Week — will be right here at UAF.

These successes come from the hard work of many individuals throughout UAF. It is because we work together, collaborate, and cooperate that UAF is a world leader.

UAF is, of course, also part of the larger statewide system. Just as we collaborate within UAF, we collaborate with our colleagues in Anchorage and Southeast, and with the UA system office.

Shaping Alaska’s Future is the result of the system’s conversations throughout Alaska. It is the board of regents’ policy, and a framework for the kind of institution the University of Alaska aspires to be. It is our framework as well.

I’d like to highlight a few efforts from Shaping Alaska’s Future that UAF is already well on its way to achieving.

One is that UA become a recognized world leader and international collaborator in arctic research. Done. UAF is there.

Another goal is to have our graduation rates at the same level as our peer institutions nationally. We’re doing that. In four years, UAF’s six-year graduation rate went from less than 32 percent to 41 percent. Room to improve? Absolutely. On the right upward trend? Absolutely.

Yet another goal, and the last one I’ll talk about today, is “excellence everywhere.” As Shaping Alaska’s Future puts it, “UA is often judged, not by the quality of its education, research or outreach, but rather by the personal experience that an individual encounters when accessing those programs.”

Each of us has a role in recruiting and retaining students. It’s not just the responsibility of Admissions and student services. It is imperative that we create and nurture a culture where students feel welcome, safe, respected and wanted. As times get tough, that’s more important than ever -- for our students and for each other.

So, excellence everywhere. At the front desk, on the phone, on the web, in the classroom, in the field. Excellence for the people of Alaska. Excellence for each other. Why would we be part of this great university, in this great state, if we did not want excellence?

We are America’s Arctic University. Now that the Arctic has the world’s attention, that means we have to work harder to stay in front.

We have to invest in new and continuing faculty in emerging areas. We need to become more interdisciplinary, building bridges between disciplines and partnerships with other institutions.

We have to renew our focus on indigenous languages and cultures, intensifying work on preservation of Alaska Native Languages. The Indigenous Studies program can be an international magnet to UAF.

With the Cornerstone Centennial next July, we move into a new era.

Our second century as a university will be defined by how we use science to inform policy and actions in the Arctic

And by how we use indigenous knowledge to inform policy and actions in the Arctic.

By how we blend the two, so science learns from traditional knowledge and indigenous peoples can benefit by our science.

By how we serve the needs of the people of Alaska and the North.

And by what we pass on to the next generation of northern leaders and northern citizens.

Many of us came north from somewhere else, and found it a life-changing experience. Now it’s our turn to do the same for others.

Our research is profoundly changing what we know about the world.

Our teaching is giving us people who will know how to interpret and communicate what we find. That allows us to extend our knowledge throughout Alaska. We’ll have business leaders and engineers who will help develop our economy, and teachers and health workers who will help us care for our families.

We’re helping to shape the thinkers who will shape our culture, in Alaska and beyond it.

We want to know what is over the next hill or around the next bend, and we know there will always be something to which we can look forward.

But for now, in the very short term, I am looking forward to sharing some refreshments with my Fairbanks colleagues in the Wood Center multilevel lounge, where we also have an employee resource fair. Please join me at Wood Center.

Thank you for coming here today, or for watching or listening online, or for gathering at our many campuses and research sites throughout Alaska.

To our Jewish friends and colleagues, L’Shana Tova – happy New Year. And to all of you, I wish you a happy new academic year

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