State of the University: Convocation 2013

Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013

Good afternoon, and thank you for joining me today.

Welcome UAF students, faculty and staff to today’s convocation. I’d like to welcome our guests: members of the University of Alaska Board of Regents, UAF Board of Advisors and Fairbanks Community Advisory Council.

Most of you are, of course, returning to UAF, but I want to especially acknowledge the 50 new faculty who are now members of this community. I know we have in the audience members of the Faculty Senate and Staff Council, the UAF governance groups with whom the administration shares responsibility for this institution.

Our colleagues at community campuses, research stations and extension sites have joined us online. Finally, I’d like to extend a special welcome to the board of the alumni association and the alumni who are here to celebrate a weekend of reunion activities.

I want to recognize the loss of some of our colleagues, and our friends, during the past year. In very different ways, each helped build this university, and we are all indebted to them for what they gave. Please join me in a moment of silence.

Thank you.

We’ve come to the end of a glorious summer, one with record-breaking temperatures, cloudless blue skies and a bumper-crop of berries. Here in Fairbanks we got a reminder of the changing seasons yesterday. And as that dusting of snow tells us what’s coming, we can already see signs of a changing future at UAF. Change can be challenging, but just as we adapt to snow in September, we Alaskans can adapt to a changing fiscal environment.  

Here in the North, we understand intuitively and intellectually that we are all linked, through time and space. Where I stand today, where I work every day, as do many of you, is on the ridge known as Troth Yeddha’. This is where Athabascan elders met to share information, as we do now. Those elders knew their lives depended on understanding and heeding the complexities of the world. They knew, as we know, that we are never separate from the world around us.

Like every other university in the country, we are engaged in a national discussion about higher education. Does it cost too much? Are we preparing students for jobs? Can we get them out of school faster? Can we simplify the process? Can we do it all online?   

While we do need to be concerned about costs, and employment, and speed to graduation, I’d like to suggest today that in both the national and local discussions, we need to remember the value of a liberal arts education. Higher education is not just about preparing people for jobs. It’s about preparing people for life.

Traditionally, the liberal arts are those subjects a person needs to know in order to engage in civic life. In ancient Greece, that included rhetoric, grammar, and logic. Later mathematics, music, and the sciences were added.

But what is a liberal education today? What do our students need in order to function successfully in the 21st Century? UAF’s Faculty Senate is grappling with this through the General Education Revitalization Committee. The Senate has already adopted the overall learning objectives, saying students need four basics:

  • Knowledge of human institutions, socio-cultural processes and the physical and natural world;
  • Intellectual and practical skills;
  • Tools for effective civic engagement; and
  • The ability to integrate and apply learning.

We’ve come a long way from rhetoric, grammar and logic. But life today is far more complex than in ancient Greece. We know that most of our students will, at some time in their careers, hold jobs that don’t exist today, just as many of us who’ve been here a while do things that were unimaginable when we were in college. So we teach for life, teaching students to learn how to ask questions and how to answer them.

A sustainable society needs thinking, innovative workers. We need people who can analyze, create and collaborate. Our job isn’t just jobs. Our job is helping students see the world beyond themselves and their career pathway. It’s ensuring they have basic knowledge of history, the humanities, arts and sciences. Our job is helping students discover their place in the world is more than a paycheck, that it is also the best of their intellectual, emotional and moral lives.

This is a fundamental issue, and one we need to address along with those other discussions of budgets, costs and time to graduation. We cannot forget that we are a university, and the students who are with us for a short time must be prepared to live in society for a far longer time. I want to thank the faculty members who are working diligently on the general education requirements, and ask others to assist them. I consider this the most important initiative at UAF today. Shaping our students’ future is shaping Alaska’s future.

Another national issue facing UAF and institutions like ours across the nation is the threat of reductions in federal support, and the impact it will have on us.

Sequestration, a word few people had heard a year ago, is now, unfortunately, part of our vocabulary. It has become an all-too familiar term, and one we are likely to continue to hear in the coming years.

What does this mean for UAF? It means we need to focus. UAF must continue to conduct world-class research on arctic issues and climate change. Our campuses, outreach and learning centers across the state must continue to offer training that allows Alaskans to get jobs and provide for their families.

Alaska needs us, and the world needs us, too. We live and work amid some of the greatest environmental change the modern world has seen. As the ice melts and the coastlines shift, we have to ask — and answer — questions about human migration, biological extinction, food security and national security. We don’t just have a front-row seat to the drama of climate change: Our world is the stage, and we have a starring role.

So we are both central to the world and interconnected with it. The university provides a foundation for life in Alaska. We educate Alaskans, opening them up to the possibilities of being creative, savvy, adventurous and tough-minded.

It takes many to build and grow a state. We have a responsibility to Alaska. Every class we teach, every project we undertake, every student we inspire, or legislator we convince — everything has the potential to build something greater than the sum of its parts.

Those parts, of course, require investment. The decisions we make today will impact where we are, as a state and a university, tomorrow. When people think about shaping Alaska’s future, many recognize UAF as a good investment. From research projects to student-life initiatives — government, industry, foundations and Alaskans support UAF because they know they will see a return in the form of new knowledge and in smart people who can apply it.  

We are going to need their support, and yours, for the biggest capital challenge in our history — construction of a new heat and power plant for the Fairbanks campus. We have been building awareness of the need for replacement for several years. We have been working on the necessary permits, and by next year we will be ready to start construction. The heat and power plant is our biggest risk — we obviously cannot operate a campus in Fairbanks Alaska without heat. But it’s also our biggest opportunity, to save more than 40 percent on fuel costs, and to significantly reduce emissions from the plant. It’s a good investment.

The combined heat and power plant will join other tangible evidence of real progress in investment and renewal of our university. Last fall we secured the public-private partnership for Wood Center that continues the reinvigoration of student life on the Fairbanks campus. We launched the Sikuliaq, the most advanced arctic research vessel in the world. Winter brought the opening of the Hulbert Nanook Terrain Park, the nation’s first certified ski and snowboard park on a university campus. We broke ground on the engineering building in the spring. After a decade of effort, we completed the Margaret Murie Building for life sciences teaching and research.

On the research front, we identified the world’s oldest circumpolar umiak, we’re adding new sensors as we launch unmanned aircraft, we’re understanding adaptation to climate change, we’ve begun investigating geothermal power for Nome, and far more.

When I say “we did this,” I mean you. Each of you — students, staff, faculty, researchers, and administrators — all of us played some part in some aspect of our success. It’s only because of you that we did this.

We have this great momentum … and yet. We all know the fiscal realities. Each of you can think of someone or something affected by budget cuts. Everything we do at UAF has value to someone. Whenever we stop doing something, someone feels it. But people are counting on us to continue making UAF better, keeping our education relevant and cost-effective.

We are a public institution. We are a research university. We reach across Alaska, coastal and inland, rural and urban, old and young, college prep and postdoctoral. We serve the underserved, provide vocational training, and produce research doctorates. We support students compelled to do more, intellectually and professionally. We conduct groundbreaking research respected around the world.

But in an era of ever-shrinking resources, can we do it all? I know we can’t. If everyone’s plate is full, what do we take off so we can put on something new?  These are not decisions I can or should make by myself. If it were easy to stop doing any of our activities, we would have done so already. Change, and focus, are things we must all talk about. We are many separate parts but we are still one university. We need to come together and stay together. We have to listen to each other and incorporate the best ideas from every quarter. Over the next several months, I hope to meet with many of you to talk about what we can no longer afford to do, even if it’s good and important work, and to talk about what we cannot afford not to do.

What we will do better, and what we will stop doing are real questions, and we have to answer them. Those answers will come only if we are working together.

Now is not the time to retreat to old ways or to hide. Last year I talked about the safety mantra of “see something, say something.” I’d like you to think about that approach for everything we do, whether it’s a money-saving idea, or energy saving, a way to recruit new students or a way to combine resources in the lab. The more efficient we are, the more nimble we will be. We’ll be able to respond to the curve balls that will inevitably be thrown at us. We can let them knock us over, or we can hit them out of the park.  

One of the things I heard over and over from throughout UAF was that, in dealing with declining dollars, we need to cut vertically, not horizontally. No more across-the-board cuts that weaken everything, whether already weak or strong.  This has meant making some hard decisions, but any cut is going to be hard.  We will see services change — some already have. Sometimes the change will increase efficiency, but some services will, frankly, decrease. Because we take pride in the work we do, we naturally resist changes that diminish it. But we do have to face the fiscal realities. Some doors will inevitably close, but others will open. I’ve talked with Staff Council about how to improve UAF’s training and professional development programs, so all staff are prepared for a changing university, and are able to take advantage of new opportunities that await us.

We have so many choices, but we will greet the coming years with excitement and determination — and we will do it together.  

“UAF is ... naturally inspiring.” Our new brand strategy, introduced last year, has created a strong and unified message about who we are and what makes UAF  unique and special. I could go on for hours about what I find naturally inspiring about UAF, but I won’t, and I suspect each of you can think of several things at UAF you find inspiring.

And our brand is working — UAF’s numbers are up this fall, counter to expectations and counter to the trend in Alaska higher education. Thanks to all who have embraced it. Thanks for understanding it is not just about a tagline or a logo, it is about the UAF experience. This year I want to share with you what it means for our students — from their first contact with an admissions counselor to when I congratulate them when they walk across the stage at commencement. Our students remind us of who we are and why we are here: Because we are curious, we dream big and we are always game. 

This is our university, made by every student, every classroom, every laptop, data point and teaching moment. We are complex. Sometimes complexity can be a drawback, but I believe that far more often it is one of our greatest strengths.

The magnitude of UAF’s programs is breathtaking. We have rural campuses and learning centers, deeply rooted in the communities they serve. We have research centers, forging new futures of discovery and development. Our students graduate with certificates, licensures, associate, baccalaureate and master’s degrees and PhDs. We deal in ice and volcanoes, birds and rockets, mask making and engine repair.

No other university does what we do, covering such a broad geography, such diverse cultures, and with such a comprehensive mission. No other university leads a network of more than 100 international arctic institutions. No other university has the northern focus on climate change, people and the natural world that we do. No other university has you, the students, faculty and staff who shape this institution. No other university is shaping Alaska’s future like UAF does.

Whatever lies before us, it is a privilege to be part of an institution that cultivates and celebrates such diversity, creativity and curiosity.

Thank you for being that inspiration. Thank you all for being part of Nanook Nation.

Let’s go get some ice cream!

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