Prepared Remarks for Convocation 2011

Chancellor Susan J. Koch
August 18, 2011

Thank you all for coming to this University of Illinois Springfield Fall 2011 Convocation. I want to offer a special welcome today to all of our faculty and staff who are new to the UIS community. I hope you feel, as I do, that you have made a brilliant decision in becoming part of this very fine institution as we begin our fifth decade of enriching the lives of our students and making a difference in the world.

Today I want to reflect on our history, our mission, and our future. In a few minutes, I’d also like to recognize some special guests, but first I’d like to tell you one brief story that may help explain (in part) how I got from the Dakota prairie of my childhood to this liberal arts university here in Illinois.

As was my mother, my father was the first and only member of his family to attend college. He was one of five children of an electrician and a homemaker and the grandson of a coal miner from Spring Valley, Illinois. He joyously embraced the liberal education that he was fortunate to receive in the 1930s at a public university here in our state. (And by the way, the only reason he was able to attend college was that he was very good at sports!) That opportunity changed his life and the lives of his entire family forever. He went on to become a college professor, and he insisted on a university education for his own five children. He wanted each of us to achieve, as Wendell Berry describes in his book, Home Economics, the mandate of a university education, “becoming responsible heirs and members of human culture.”

My liberal education, and that of my brothers and sisters, however, began long before our university experiences; with books and musical instruments and dinner table conversations and travels from our small-town home in South Dakota to the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago and Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. My father was our intellectual mentor and, though we lived far out on the Dakota prairies–the very prairies that Meridel LeSueur referred to as “the waste and ashes of pioneerin”–he expected us to THINK and to have IDEAS and above all, to USE OUR IMAGINATIONS.

But for me, a turning point in my early intellectual life was provided not by my father, but by a neighbor whose name was John Vaughn. John and I shared the steps at the Carnegie Library every Saturday morning, a man of about 30, a girl of nine; waiting to trade in our books for the next week’s worth of fantasy. John was unusual. Even on the hottest summer days, he wore the same clothing: a tired brown plaid wool shirt under bib overalls, tattered boots inside five-buckle galoshes, and a canvas hunting cap with earflaps and a string. With his grizzled beard and shaggy hair, it was no wonder that local boys made fun of him as he walked alone around our small town, mimicking his hulking steps, a burlesque behind his back.

My mother instructed me firmly to “Be polite” and said that “John had a hard life.” So I always said “Good morning,” and when the library door was opened he held the door for me in a courtly manner before proceeding to the large oak table near the newspapers. He would still be sitting there reading when I later checked out my books for the following week.

Our weekly convenings on the steps of the library went on for a very long time, and I began to wonder what it was about those newspapers that held such fascination for my unusual “library companion.” So one day (and I don’t remember how old I was by then) instead of checking out my books, I sat down at the table across from John. He looked up with kind eyes and then pushed a section of the paper across the table. It was the travel section of the New York Times.

So much for the “waste and ashes of pioneering!” The Travel Section of the New York Times, along with the Science, Arts, Style, Opinion, Business and, yes, the news sections became the fuel that fired my imagination and provided the threads that connected me to innovations beyond anything I could ever have imagined.

Though we never had a conversation, from that Saturday onward, my neighbor John and I connected weekly across that broad oak table at the Carnegie Library, sliding sections of the New York Times back and forth until all had been consumed. I remain a devoted fan of the NYT today (though I read more of it online that in print) and I will be forever grateful to my strange neighbor, John Vaughn, for introducing me to ideas and innovations so far beyond the boundaries of my own geography. This was my introduction to a liberal education–in a small-town library in South Dakota, no waste or ashes in sight.

As I stand here today, deeply honored to serve as chancellor of the University of Illinois Springfield, I feel as if I have arisen from that chair in the library still very much energized by the power of ideas, imagination and innovation. I’ll come back to that a little later.

Since this is my first convocation at UIS, I want to recognize the service and the achievements of the presidents and chancellors who have come before me, especially Dr. Harry Berman, who served so ably as interim chancellor this past year; Dr. Richard Ringeisen, chancellor the past ten years who was kind enough to stop by for a visit a few weeks ago; and Dr. Naomi Lynn, who left a legacy of outstanding leadership and careful stewardship here on our campus.

I also want to welcome some special guests who have joined us today:

  • Member of the University of Illinois Board of Trustees, UIS alumna and great friend to our university, Karen Hasara;
  • Dean and provost of Southern Illinois University School of Medicine, Dr. Kevin Dorsey;
  • President and CEO, Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce, Gary Plummer;
  • President of Lincoln Land Community College, Dr. Charlotte Warren;
  • Dr. Tih-Fen Ting, chair of the Campus Senate;
  • Jerry Burkhart, chair of the Academic Professional Advisory Committee;
  • Bobbi Fults, Chair of the Civil Service Advisory Council; and
  • UIS’ Student Government Association President, Erin Wilson.

Please join me in welcoming these special guests to our convocation.

And I am delighted to welcome some special international partners who are with us today from the University of The Gambia:

  • Professor Kah, president of the University of The Gambia;
  • Dr. Kuye, head of the Department of Public and Environmental Health;
  • Mr. Maneh, University Secretary; and
  • Mr. Ofosuhene, Director of Finance.

I’d also like to welcome my “personal” special guest, my husband, Dennis Koch.

I also want to offer a special welcome to any faculty emeriti, university retirees and alums who may be with us today. As I have read the founding documents of our university during the past few weeks, I have developed a deep appreciation for your contributions as past faculty, staff and students. These contributions are part of your legacy and our history. I want you to know that we appreciate what you have done, and I am grateful for your continued interest and commitment.

I also need to take a moment to thank so many of you who talked with me about the university during my candidacy, who have so warmly welcomed Dennis and me to the campus and to the community, and who have worked so diligently to insure a smooth transition of leadership during the past several months. That includes:

  • the members of the Chancellor Search Committee, especially Search Committee Chair, Dr. Tih-Fen Ting,
  • President Mike Hogan, Board of Trustees Chair Chris Kennedy,
  • Trustee Hasara and other members of the board,
  • members of the Chancellor’s Office staff, Interim Provost Lynn Pardie, Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Tim Barnett, and the other members of the UIS leadership team,
  • so many of you who have provided guided orientations of your particular area of the campus, (My goal is to get into every building on campus, so don’t worry, if I have not been to your location yet, it will happen soon.)
  • and those of you who have kindly tolerated my unexpectedly joining you for lunch in the cafeteria.
    Thank you all

During my first week on campus, two students took my husband and me around, and I asked them to give us not only the usual campus tour, but also to take us to some of their favorite places. Guess what? I’ll bet I saw some things that those of you who’ve been here for many years have yet to see! So a special thanks to Dan and Brandon for the inside story on our campus!

I must tell you that in all these interactions these past few weeks; my earliest impressions of the University of Illinois Springfield have proved consistent and true. This is a university that lives its commitment every day to provide an intellectually rich and collaborative learning environment for students as well as for faculty and staff, and it is a university that is serving its communities from local to global. It’s great to be here, and I look forward to our work together in the coming years.

Part of my self-assigned work as your new chancellor has been to understand our history. I have read our founding documents from the 1960s and early 1970s, and one in particular was a memorandum written just three months after we first opened our doors in a downtown church in the fall of 1970. It was President Robert C. Spencer writing to the Academic Vice President regarding “considerations in appointing new faculty.”

One word from that memo already has made a lasting impression on me. That word is innovation. The first president of then-Sangamon State University framed the university’s commitment to students, to teaching, to research, to shared governance, and to “a respect for an involvement with the world of work” as “contributing to the university’s mandate to be an innovative institution.”

As I have been reflecting on those founding documents and more importantly, on the road ahead, it seems to me that there is no better word to frame this particular moment in time and this Convocation 2011 than the word that was actually the original mandate of this university: innovation.

Innovation is most certainly going to be required of us if we are to live up to the mission and vision of our own campus and of the University of Illinois, one of the preeminent public universities in our nation.

We’ve already come a long way since 1970!

  • From 45 faculty then to 209 as of yesterday.
  • From 811 students to about 5,200 this fall – if our projections hold true.
  • From 12 academic programs to a total of 44 different degrees.
  • From a campus with those few small metal buildings on the east side (I’ve heard them called “temporary”; but that appears to be a relative term), to a campus growing so much that every building west of where I am now standing – the residence halls and the townhouses – as well as the two major facilities south of us – University Hall and The Recreation and Athletic Center – have all been built in the past 10 years.
  • From a university where the Internet did not exist to one where online and blended education have become so important that one-third of our enrollments this fall will be from students who are totally online.

The excellence and success of our online programs is the envy of higher education institutions around the world; thanks to the innovative efforts of many of you faculty and staff who are contributing to that effort!

Our public affairs emphasis here in the state capital of Illinois is providing a unique and high-caliber educational experience for future leaders — innovation again!

And don’t even get me started listing all of the achievements of our faculty, staff, students and alums (though I wish I had time to do it). I am just beginning to know those achievements myself, but I think we can probably agree that we’ve taken that “innovation” charge pretty darned seriously in our first forty-one years!

But as we look ahead, perhaps the appropriate question is: “How will we interpret that original innovation mandate for the coming decade? How will we continue to create that “brilliant future” for our students that was promised in our 2006 Strategic Plan? How will we employ our innovation mandate to deliver on our mission and provide every undergraduate and graduate student an intellectually rich, collaborative and intimate learning experience while we serving our local, regional, state, national and international communities?”

With that “innovation mandate” in mind today, I’d like to suggest that, at least for starters, we need go no further for inspiration than that 2006 strategic plan! Let me be clear: I might be able to provide comfort to many in this audience today (though I reserve the right to change my mind if needed) by not calling for a new strategic plan.

But I do think it’s time for us to re-examine that document, to refresh it as needed and to imbed into it even more fully the innovation mandate so necessary for our university’s continued advancement; particularly given the changes in the higher education environment in our country and in our state that have occurred since the plan was first developed in 2006.

Just over a year ago in our 2010 Strategic Plan Progress Report to the Board of Trustees, we described many areas of progress. To name a few:

  • Under Goal 1 –Academic Excellence – we were named the best
    public university at the Masters Level in the state of Illinois!
  • Under Goal 2 – Enriching Individual Lives — we reported the largest number of students ever participating in Study Abroad programs.
  • Under Goal 5 – Enrollment and Retention – we reported record enrollments, topping 5,000 students for the first time, including strong upward trends in minority student enrollments.

But much remains to be done! I am aware that all of the colleges have created their own strategic plans in accord with the UIS plan, and so did many divisions and units such as Student Affairs. It’s going to take a little time for us to sort out exactly where we are, what we need to refresh, what we need to add, and how we will do that. I will have more to say about the process in the weeks to come, after consulting with campus leadership.

In the meantime, we must continue to vigorously pursue academic excellence, enriching individual lives, making a difference in the world, strengthening our campus culture, pushing forward on enrollment and retention, and developing the necessary resources and infrastructure to support our educational endeavors. These are the six goals in our strategic plan and they are worthy ones.

We have to act energetically and creatively even as we continue our careful planning. We can’t afford to wait, because our students have needs right now, our faculty and staff have needs right now and the higher education environment in Illinois and in the nation is becoming more challenging and competitive.

To our credit, we have documented many successes in implementing the strategic plan of 2006. But in re-examining that plan we will surely find important goals and dreams yet to be implemented. That’s why a campus dialogue is so necessary.

What I am so hopeful about is that our strategic plan will continue to provide a launching pad for us to be innovative, because that is what we need it to do.

And I want to take a few moments today to talk specifically about enrollment. The fifth goal in our strategic plan, “Enrollment and Retention,” says that we will improve access and opportunity and that we will enroll, retain and graduate a larger and more diverse student body engaged in both classroom and technology-enhanced education. We set a goal of having 6,000 on-campus students, and I want you to know that I endorse this goal. I believe we need to grow the number of students on campus if we are to be successful in implementing our mission more fully. We also need to increase our on-campus enrollment because our community and our state need more college-educated citizens.

And because it’s clear that we are so successful with online classes and programs, we need to have a serious conversation about the growth of both on-campus and online programs. This combination of online and on-ground programs may be the wave of the future at other universities; but at UIS it is the present. Students have embraced online and blended learning. For many of our students, it is the essential key to access to a college degree. Our faculty (with the support of talented staff) do it very, very well, and a conversation about the “what next” is important for us to continue in our international leadership role.

There are at least two other reasons regarding enrollment that we need to focus on:

One has to do with our vision and mission of being a diverse community. Again, we can document significant progress and success in this area. Our minority student enrollments have grown significantly, and we are doing a better job of supporting our minority and LGBTQ communities with professional staff and student services. But we can and must do better. I am not satisfied, for example, with the diversity of our workforce. We need a more diverse faculty and staff, and I am pleased that President Michael Hogan agrees. We will be participating in the coming year in a university-wide effort to increase the diversity of the faculty in our community, and we need to have a conversation about expanding that effort across all aspects of our community. Diversity matters to all of us, it matters to our board and it matters to our state. It must be a priority.

Living in a global community requires us to increase our international outreach – bringing more international students to UIS, having more of our students benefiting from global experiences and integrating a global perspective throughout our curriculum. I am pleased that we are engaging colleagues and students from China, India, Vietnam, Poland, Mongolia and now Gambia. The more internationally diverse we become, the richer the educational experience that we provide will be.

Another thing I want to say about enrollment: In order to continue to grow and provide a continuously rich intellectual environment, our efforts at innovation must also include examination of the programs we offer and new programs that we ought to offer to meet the demands of our times and our students. This is the approach that our charter faculty members and administrators took in designing innovative programs in the past. We have the same chance to be innovative and forward-looking, but in a competitive higher education environment where resources must be carefully allocated and re-allocated, we will need to be both strategic and decisive. So I am calling on the university community to look at your strategic plans and goals, listen to your advisory board and alums, consider national trends and other relevant data – and see where that might lead us.

Our founding documents mandated that we should be a public affairs university as well as one focused on the liberal arts. That public affairs mandate has taken some twists and turns during our first four decades. While there has been some shift toward a stronger liberal arts emphasis (and our COPLAC membership is evidence of that), I want to acknowledge that I am pleased that UIS has never lost its public affairs emphasis. This is a terrific example of our university asking itself that very important question so central to, as Jim Collins says, moving from “good to great.” That question is: “What can we be best at in the world?” Given our location in the state capital of Illinois and the home of Abraham Lincoln, we certainly can and should be “best at” public affairs. We have always said that we can do public affairs within the scope of a liberal arts institution, and we have done that well.

There is another topic from our founding documents, however, that over the years, seems almost to have been forgotten. I haven’t been here long enough to know the whole story, but I find it worthy of bringing to your attention today. Originally, the Illinois Board of Higher Education also called on this university to – and I quote–“take advantage of the existing medical facilities in Springfield as [we] plan programs in the allied health fields.” Look around. In central Illinois, state government as an industry is slightly shrinking while still critically important, and medicine and health care are expanding exponentially – health care may soon overtake state government as the biggest local employer.

According to a recent article in the State Journal-Register, the health-care industry in the Springfield area generates almost $2.5 billion a year in direct and indirect economic activity and shows great potential for the future. According to an analysis by the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce, despite the nationwide recession, the health care industry in our area will continue to grow and provide employment opportunities in a wide variety of professions.

So as we refresh our strategic plans, I am asking the university community to be mindful of what might have been prophetic wisdom from the IBHE forty years ago when it asked us to serve the needs of the health care industry in this region. Perhaps we have not been innovative enough in these areas.

And finally, I cannot leave the issue of enrollment without saying a few words about the cost of higher education for our students and their families. When I attended undergraduate school at a public liberal arts college in South Dakota, the cost of attendance was about $250 per semester, the state provided about 90 percent of the cost of my education and I completed my undergraduate degree with no debt. Today, that $250 would not even cover a single credit hour at the University of Illinois Springfield. This fall, a freshman in-state undergraduate student will pay over $4,000 for a full slate of courses. State support for higher education now covers less than half of the costs, and the average student debt for an Illinois undergraduate upon degree completion is $18,500! We need more scholarships to help provide access to a University of Illinois degree for qualified students. We need more scholarships to help us be competitive. And with the expertise of our development staff working with me and with our deans and others, with the commitment of our alumni and friends of the university in Springfield and beyond, and with your support, we will increase the number and size of our need and merit-based scholarships provided for our students. I intend to lead by example, and I can assure you I will not be shy about asking for support for our students.

I hope you can see that the theme of innovation is intertwined and inseparable from the need to refresh and revise our strategic plan, and that planning strategically for growth is central to our discussions.

Before I bring my remarks to a close today, I want to raise one more strategic issue that has been on my mind these first weeks as I have been getting to know the campus. That issue is Goal Four of our strategic plan – “Strengthening our Campus Culture.” This goal describes the need for us to provide an intellectual rich and culturally diverse campus environment that will enhance our students’ educational experience and that will also serve as a social, cultural and educational resource for the community. I don’t have a full understanding yet of the progress we have been making in that regard; but I can tell you from my own past experience on two other university campuses, opportunities for students to participate in and be exposed to music and theater, the visual arts, intercollegiate athletics, service learning, volunteering, student organizations and intercultural experiences are very important elements of the university experience.

I am reminded of my own oldest daughter, who attended a very fine liberal arts institution and is now the Senior Advisor for Peacekeeping for the United Nations. When asked what elements of her college experience have meant the most to her success she always says that while in college:

1) she learned to write very well, 2) she learning languages, 3) she volunteered, and 4) she was a collegiate athlete — a competitive swimmer. The first two elements were clearly academic and provided her with the basic intellectual skills of her professional life; the volunteering gave her a broader experience of the world (and caused her to meet Madeline Albright who offered her first job), and the collegiate athletics provided the discipline, the competitiveness, the time-management and a set of lifelong friends.

Each of you plays an important role in strengthening our campus culture. One simple but effective way to do this is to connect your work, whatever that work is, to our mission. If you are a supervisor, make connections for your staff every day between the importance of their work and that bigger mission of providing a rich, collaborative and intimate learning environment for our students. Martin Luther King once said: If you are street sweeper, your should sweep the streets like Michelangelo painted or Beethoven wrote music. You should sweep the streets so well that the heavens will rise up and say, “Here is a street sweeper who does his or her job very well.”

If we all connect our tasks to our mission, we will deliver on that mission for our students, UIS will be a more enriching place to work and we will be visible and more appreciated in the communities beyond our campus.

Let me close today with a favorite saying of someone near and dear to our academic community. He taught journalism at our university in the early 1970s, and he also created one of our most successful programs, the Master’s Program in Public Affairs Reporting, which provides students the unique opportunity to work alongside professional journalists in the state capitol while pursuing their degrees. I am referring to the late Paul Simon, who left UIS to run successfully for Congress and then became a United States senator. One of Simon’s favorite sayings was very simple, but profound: “We can do better.” He wrote a book with that title and he believed with all his heart and all his passion that every citizen and society as a whole could do better in every imaginable way. He spent his life trying to do just that. He challenged his colleagues in Congress to do better, and he taught his students the same thing.

Our Board of Trustees Chair, Chris Kennedy, echoed this sentiment at our July board retreat when he said: “We want our university to be the best at what it does in everything that it does.”

We are justifiably proud of many aspects of our university: we share a deep commitment to the ideas and the ideals of the liberal arts, because we understand that these are the underpinnings of an educated and productive citizen; our faculty and staff take a personal interest in students both within the classroom and beyond in student life, in athletics, in the arts, and in the community. I have been impressed in the short time I have been on campus with the dedication of our faculty to excellence in teaching and with the quality of the scholarship that we produce. I have become aware of the many important functions that our Academic Professionals serve throughout our organization and also of the many contributions of our Civil Service staff.

The depth and breadth of our engagement with public affairs and with the preparation of professionals to serve in leadership positions in both the public and private sectors is well known, and the excellence of our online learning initiatives are the envy of the rest of the country. But if our former colleague were here today, I believe he would say to us, as I say to you now: we can do better.

As we begin this academic year, 2011; I invite you to engage with me in determining how we can best do better.

  • What are we passionate about?
  • What can we be “best at in the world?”
  • How can we build on our strengths and create new ones?
  • How can we better serve the needs of our students?
  • How can we better serve the needs of our communities and the needs of the state of Illinois and beyond?
  • How can we best create a campus culture that contributes to the intellectual, cultural, social and personal enrichment of every member of our community?
  • How can we make that valuable University of Illinois diploma even more valuable?

I will be listening to you in the coming months because one thing I have learned in nearly 30 years in higher education is that leadership is about collective wisdom used strategically.

If my old “friend” John Vaughn were on our campus today, I think he might be on the third floor of Brookens Library, still reading newspapers. And if he were, I might join him from time to time, sit across the table from him and slide a few sections of the New York Times back and forth. I also like to think we would have a conversation (something we never did at the Carnegie Library), a conversation not only about what was newsworthy that particular day; but also about things that matter, taking advantage of our collective wisdom and experience.

I invite you to join me at that table. Let’s light the fires of our imagination. Let’s reinvent together that innovation mandate that drove the founders of our university. Innovation is critical for us, and I am very confident that our collective wisdom will guide our university to a brilliant future; a future that will deliver on the promise that we have made to our students and to the citizens of Illinois.

Thank you for what you do every day to deliver on that promise to our students. I want you to know that I appreciate your contributions and I value your input.

Best wishes for a wonderfully successful and satisfying year.

Chancellor Susan J. Koch