Remarks to Faculty and Staff at the Fall 2010 Convocation

August 19, 2010


Good afternoon!

As I begin, I want to introduce my partner here for the past 10 years – my wife Carolyn. Our son and grandchildren were just here for a long weekend, and we had a wonderful time, and they saw a lot of the Springfield sites. They just left Tuesday, so we’re still feeling a bit in grandparent mode.

That’s a great feeling, and it’s great to be here to launch another academic year. How's this for a great wake-up this morning? (refers to slide showing newspaper article, "UIS One of the Best.")

Porters carrying lumber, from the book "Three Cups of Tea" feturing Greg MortensonA picture in the book, Three Cups of Tea, which you see here, amazes me. It shows people from the town of Korphe, in northeastern Pakistan, carrying lumber up a rocky, mountainous, dangerous trail. What the picture doesn’t show is this: Just how far their journey was. It was eighteen miles.

Why? Because the only road to Korphe was blocked. They carried all those materials so that they could build the first school in their town’s history. It became the first of many schools built by Greg Mortenson in very rural towns in Pakistan and Afghanistan, especially so that girls could get a formal education. It’s an amazing, inspiring story, with physical, financial and political obstacles that are beyond belief.

I tell the story for two reasons. First, Mortenson will be coming to UIS next March, and most certainly, he will provide inspiration to our students. He’s been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, and that’s exciting.

The second reason I tell the story is that, in hearing about hardships like this, we understand a little more that all hardships are relative, including the ones we face here at UIS. I doubt that any of us could stand the physical labor of carrying lumber for eighteen miles. But in a figurative way, that’s exactly what we do – or at least we’re on the road to doing, each in our own ways. It’s a matter of seeing the journey either as impossible, or simply as the obstacle facing us today.

One autumn in Pakistan, when Mortenson thought his first school finally would be finished, he became discouraged when winter arrived too quickly. But the town leader told him: Don’t fret about it, Greg. Korphe has not had a school for six hundred years. I think we can wait one more winter.

Good afternoon again! It’s wonderful to be here to open another academic year at UIS. It is my tenth and last convocation as chancellor. It is a historic one for another reason, because today, I am announcing the formal launch of the observation of this university’s 40th anniversary!

Forty years of educating. So I have divided these remarks into two parts: 1. First I will reflect on a few milestones in our history; 2. Then I will talk about some opportunities that UIS has this year and beyond. I am optimistic about the future, and I will tell you why.

I am mindful of what the great philosopher, Dr. Seuss, said in his book about scrambled eggs: The places I hiked to, The roads that I rambled To find the best eggs That have ever been scrambled! If you want to get eggs You can’t buy at a store, You have to do things Never thought of before!

I usually talk at convocation about accomplishments of the previous year. But with this being our fortieth anniversary, I want to spend a little more time on our important history.

It’s important to remember our roots. We were called Sangamon State University for our first 25 years. It was an unconventional, upper-division university at first, with an emphasis on public affairs and teaching. Our Alumni Association has stayed in touch with some of the founding faculty members and with some of the charter students; they received the first degrees from here in the 1970s.

Our first buildings were the metal buildings, those one-story 40-year-old structures that everybody thought would be temporary buildings, but we’re still using them. Our first permanent building was Brookens Library, which opened in 1976 and now, frankly, needs a rather complete overhaul. This PAC Building opened in 1980, the same year that we opened our first apartments for residential students. Those, too, coincidentally, are headed for a total upgrade. And the Health Sciences Building was completed in 1992.

In 1985, we took a big step forward when the university’s personal computer network opened in Building H – the one-story building that we now call the Visual and Performing Arts building. The lab area featured eleven IBM personal computers. Users supplied their own 5-and-a-quarter-inch double-sided floppy diskettes—remember them? -- and faculty could schedule sessions in the lab with 15 days’ notice. Ah, the good ole days!

We began a few athletic programs, too, and won national championships in soccer three times in the 1980s and 1990s under the direction of legendary coach Aydin Gonulsen. Aydin was a character much beloved and admired on campus and in the soccer community.

I’m moving along quickly here. For a much more detailed history that has just been written, you can go to our 40th anniversary web site. You will find much more, and pictures and links to even more details.

In any event, some major changes occurred in the 1990s that transformed our university. The first was a reorganization of higher education in Illinois, one result being that in 1995, SSU became the third campus of the University of Illinois. We became the University of Illinois at Springfield. Dr. Naomi Lynn, my predecessor as chancellor, led the transition skillfully. It was ironic that SSU did indeed celebrate its 25th anniversary the same year that its name was retired and the transformation to UIS began.

The second major thrust of the late 1990s was a long-awaited decision from the Illinois Board of Higher Education to allow UIS to admit freshmen and sophomores for the first time and to create a Capital Scholars honors program. Everything that has happened since, in the past decade, has risen on that foundation.

Lincoln Residence Hall opened in 2001, the same year that we actually launched the Capital Scholars program. I arrived here in time for the completion of that, our first residence hall. So it is -- even today, our modern and clean housing is a major recruitment tool. Then we built and opened the magnificent classroom and office building, University Hall, in 2004, and the colonnade and quad in 2005. We also added many new townhouses on the west side of campus, opened the Recreation and Athletic Center in 2007, and Founders Hall in 2008.

Just as significantly, our faculty and others in Academic Affairs created a second new curriculum, having already created the honors program, so that we could expand our freshman class beyond the honors program. So much effort goes into creating a curriculum. It was a magnificent achievement. The two foundations of that curriculum are lifelong learning and engagement, two characteristics that now live in everything that we do. It is deeply satisfying to know, from my perspective, that so much careful planning went into these major developments.

Abraham Lincoln might have been thinking of us when he said: “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” Planning well – sharpening the axe – is hard work. Often, it is thankless work. In some respects, those who came before us and those who did the careful work of planning are like those Pakistani porters who hand-carried building materials for an incredible 18 miles so their town could achieve the vision of having its first school. Like them, our predecessors made some courageous decisions and took many steps to get us to where we are today.

Perhaps our most important work outside of the classroom in the past decade was working together to write a brilliant strategic plan, finishing in 2006. The plan now has deep roots in the UIS community. I have never seen a strategic plan anywhere implemented so well, and taken to heart so deeply by everybody. It built on our traditional emphasis of teaching, public affairs, and a broad-based liberal arts education, and it established the bold vision, which I have called the “bodacious” vision, of UIS being recognized as one of the top five small public liberal arts universities in the nation.

We aspire to be a top five, and we are well on the way. In the past two years, U.S. News & World Report named us the fourth best university in our category in the entire Midwest. We are excelling, and we are being recognized for it. This year, in the U.S. News rankings, our category changed names. It used to be “master’s level institutions,” but now we are in a category called the “Regional University” – and I am happy to repeat what you already saw in the news this week – In the U.S. News and World Report’s 2011 Edition of America’s Best Colleges, UIS is the best public university in the “Regional University category” in the state of Illinois and fourth best public university in that category in the entire Midwest for a third time.

In another category, we did better. Of the 142 top public and private colleges and university in the 10-state Midwest region, last year UIS was 27th. This year, we moved up five slots to 22nd out of 142. The new ranking puts us in the top 15 percent in the Midwest. Congratulations to all of you!

One thing I have not yet mentioned is our national stature in online learning. We began offering online courses at the turn of the century, and by now, one-fourth of our students are totally online students. And many more students take online courses, because our faculty have embraced the possibilities when it comes to teaching online. We have received national recognition and awards for our online prowess. I am pleased by this and encourage it to continue.

Well, that’s forty years of history in just a few minutes. Clearly, we have reason to celebrate this year.

We have more than 31,000 alumni – that’s 31,000 degrees made possible by the combined efforts and dedication of so many people, many of yourselves included.

Due to budget restraints, we had to scale back some of our 40th anniversary plans. But you may have seen the banners in downtown Springfield. They proclaim the three major goals of our strategic plan: academic excellence, enriching lives, and making a difference in the world.

You may have noticed the cover of July’s Chamber of Commerce magazine. It features a good looking fellow – the dean of the SIU Med School, and another guy – both places celebrating 40 years. Also, at the college and unit levels, many of you are planning 40th anniversary events. That is terrific, and it’s not too late to do so. Labeling our activities this year as a 40th anniversary event helps to increase the buzz about UIS and our anniversary year. The official celebration will wrap up in January at our Employee of the Year ceremony.

Forty-five years ago, there was no university in Springfield. Where we stand and sit today was all farmland. Ten years ago, there was no Lincoln Residence Hall, no University Hall, no TRAC, no Founders Hall. Now we have dozens of buildings covering nearly 300 acres, and we’re not finished yet.

Forty-five years ago, Springfield was the home location to zero university faculty. Over the years we have attracted experts and teacher-scholars from all over the world. They, in turn, have transformed this university and this community and, given our rich history of teaching non-traditional students, they have educated three or four generations —“enriching lives and making a difference in the world.” I am so proud that our trend of hiring great faculty has continued this year, and so is our focus on academic excellence. I won’t elaborate on this because Provost Berman will talk about it later, but be assured that this is a great, great source of pride.

It’s a testimony to our having an inspiring vision. Most of all, it’s a testimony to the possibilities that exist when there is a constant focus on what’s best for our students. I said that in my first convocation speech in 2001. Having been here then just four months, I said that the single most important thing I could possibly say is that “the success of our students … is everybody's most important business.” I still believe that’s true. I thank all of you for making students our priority, and I hope that all of you who are new have been told that students come first at UIS.

With that in mind, I want to look ahead to this academic year and beyond. It promises to be another very good one. First, I want to talk about enrollment. This is the year UIS will top 5,000 students for the first time. We were hoping to reach that milestone last fall, but we were 39 students short. The number won’t be official until census day, the 10th day of the semester, but the numbers are looking good. This is a UIS success story – great academic programs, led by great faculty, our new retention efforts and early warning systems, student life and Student Affairs, athletics and coaches, staff who provide support to students and faculty, and our Admissions staff, which works so diligently all year along. Everybody can take a bow for this, and I applaud all of YOU.

I am also proud to say that as we’re growing, we are growing more diverse. We are recruiting more students from Chicago and elsewhere. That enriches everything we do. I am also pleased that over the summer, Student Affairs achieved our promise to hire a full-time LGBTQ coordinator, Kerry Pointer. Thanks to those of you who promoted this hire and served on the search committee.

Well, I do need to say something about our budget situation. I know it’s on your minds. I was assuming a few years ago that someday, I could get through one of these convocation speeches without talking about another bad budget year. Unfortunately, we are going to have another bad budget year.

Generally speaking, there is a 3 percent cut in our operating budget this year, and it was with much regret that I announced the last week in July that there will be no general salary increases for our staff this year. That is very painful. The truth is, these are the worst economic times in many decades in Illinois, and the state of Illinois does not see higher education as an uncuttable priority. Nor do most state governments in almost every other state. Cuts in state support are happening to public universities throughout the United States. That’s just a fact of life. When all of this budget-cutting started—a few months after I arrived, now that I think about it--we used to talk about doing more with less. I think we need to stop saying that.

We’re beyond the days of having to do more with less. I would rather look at it this way: We simply must pursue our vision and implement our mission with the resources we have. It means pulling together like the Pakistani porters who said if we have to carry lumber for eighteen miles, then we will carry lumber for eighteen miles. Because we have a vision, we have a plan, and we’ll do what it takes to get there!

Sometimes that means reallocation of funds and people. It means we have to stop doing some things that we want to keep doing. It means allocating all the resources we have as wisely as possible. It means eliminating some positions and distributing their duties to several people, and reallocating our resources in alignment with our major strategic goals, so that the students and faculty feel the effects of cuts less painfully than anyone else.

While I always talk about the three major goals in our strategic plan, the fourth goal in the plan will get more attention this year. The fourth goal is to strengthen campus culture. It’s a goal that intersects with the top three. You’ll recall, there were two reasons we included that goal. One was recognizing a need to solidify our identity. We have done that with our vision statement and by emphasizing those three top goals. A second was recognition that we can do and should do more to build a sense of community, the kind of community we aspire to be as even as we pursue our vision.

Hence, our deliberate choice to become more diverse, and to teach our students from the rural parts of Illinois, the Chicago area, and from mid-sized cities like Springfield the value of diversity. Hence, our deliberate choice to become more global, to reach out east and west, across two oceans, in search of faculty and students and build a new major in that area. Hence, our decision to conduct a climate survey so that we get better data about how we’re doing. Hence, our deliberate choice to join the NCAA, Division II. A core belief of Division II is that the “student” in student-athlete in more important than anything. This year, we are now a full, active NCAA member for the first time. I am very grateful to Athletics Director Rodger Jehlicka, his staff, and all who cooperated with him in the rigorous three-year process to make this happen.

Hence, our diligence in fundraising, which is also everybody’s business. We are close to our $28 million goal in the capital campaign that ends next year. This remains an urgent priority because of the decline in state funding, and we dare not fail to reach that goal! Let me remind you: We have enjoyed the benefits of our success with many more scholarships for students and with the six named professorships and distinguished chairs, which raises the stature of our entire faculty.

Hence, our choice never to stop dreaming. When a few people in central Illinois began serious dreaming about a university for Springfield, it was about the same time that President Kennedy said we would land a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s. The nation did not say, “It’s too far.” And people in central Illinois did not say, “Oh, that’s just silly.” Neil Armstrong walked on the moon in 1969, the same year that people began planning in earnest for the arrival of students here in 1970. We keep dreaming now because our vision lives, and we are all a part of that.

Perhaps nothing symbolizes our bodaciousness more than our plan to renovate Brookens Library, the heart of our intellectual community. We need at least $51 million, and we’re seeking state funding for this project. We’re not likely to get it soon, but the point is, we have a vision and we’ll keep going after it.

As I get close to wrapping this up, I know that this will be a different kind of year because we have a new U of I president, Dr. Mike Hogan, who started July 1, and you will be getting a new chancellor. Dr. Hogan has been to UIS, and I assure you, he likes what he sees here. He came to the job already up to speed about the best of UIS, and his initial impressions are quite favorable. He is absolutely dedicated to finding a great leader to fill the shoes of this chancellor. The search committee already is hard at work, and I am pleased that Tih-Fen Ting is chairing the search committee. I am confident that under her leadership, the committee will find and recommend people who can take UIS to even greater heights. Speaking of Tih-Fen, I also want to thank you publicly and personally for the great leadership you have shown as the chair of the Campus Senate.

I said at the beginning of these remarks that all challenges are relative, that all obstacles are relative. Like the people of Korphe, we are facing some challenges. But I am optimistic, and I believe we are up to the challenges. I believe that we will not only deal with them successfully, but we will also make progress in pursuit of our vision. I believe that we can walk together for eighteen miles to do what needs to be done for our students and our university.

I take great pride in the upward trajectory that we have created together. Great things happen because of your talent, your dedication and your perseverance.

I was reminded of how long it can take to get something done when the new MacArthur Boulevard interchange opened on Interstate 72 earlier this year. Local officials began working on that one in 1998, I believe it was. So that took twelve years. Who would know it’s that complicated to build an interstate exit? Gee, maybe the 11th Street extension all the way from here to downtown really will happen someday!

Here at UIS, we are all building something far more complicated and far more profound than an interstate exit. We are building a university that our predecessors started. We are growing and getting better in many ways. That means every one of you has a chance to build something special here. It is every generation’s and every administration’s responsibility to leave something positive for those who come along next.

Please never forget that the success of our students remains everybody’s business.

It has been a great pleasure to stand here ten times at this formal convocation. You have my very best wishes as you begin a new decade, heading toward our 50th anniversary.

Well, Dr. Seuss, we have “scrambled some very good eggs,” and we did it by doing “things never done before!” With another year just beginning, hope rises again, our work begins anew, and our vision lives…. our vision lives!

Thank you very much.