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University President

University of Central Missouri
Administration 202
Warrensburg, MO 64093
Phone: 660-543-4112


August 2008 State of the University Address: The Next Frontier

University President Aaron Podolefsky

(As prepared for presentation )


Thank you for joining us today – and welcome to this first faculty and staff gathering of the new academic year.  

Thank you, Ms. Davis, for opening this session.  I look forward to working with you and the rest of the Faculty Senate this year.  I also want to thank last year’s campus leaders – (please stand) Jack Rogers, Charlie Rutt, Debbie Combs, Mark Lyle and Darren Doherty – for their service to the university.

The Next Frontier

I’ve titled this address “The Next Frontier,” and I am afraid some of you may think I was watching too much Star Trek over the summer, so I’d best explain.  It’s a bit of a story.

Over the past several years, some of you have heard me talk about my eldest son’s meanderings through higher education, changing his major time and again as his intellectual curiosity took him in different directions – biomedical engineering, art, theater and finally his BS in physics.  Well, this summer Ronnie and I at last had the pleasure of attending his Ph.D. graduation ceremony, and of course we had a great time.  While driving back from Boulder through Kansas, we pulled into a rest area.

Now, with all due respect to our neighbors to the west, Kansas rest areas don’t usually bring to my mind glorious scenic beauty or profound intellectual insights.  Yet, engraved on the wall, was the following wonderful 1910 quotation from Carl Becker, the famous American Historian.

“Idealism must always prevail on the frontier, for the frontier … offers little hope for those who see things as they are.  To venture into the wilderness, one must see it not as it is, but as it will be.”

Maybe it was because I was on the road back from a marvelous outdoor graduation ceremony high in the RockyMountains, or maybe because it harkens back to my inaugural address when one of my themes revolved around Simon and Garfunkel’s song The Sound of Silence, which includes the idea that the words of the prophets are written on subway walls and tenement halls.  But whatever it was, I couldn’t help stand there and imagine how this passage related to my life and our university enterprise.

Just as there are those who see the glass half full and others who see it half empty, so there are those who see the world as it is and ask, “How do we keep it thus?”  While others see it as it can be and ask, “How do we make it so?”

Progress Toward Achieving Our Vision

The University of Central Missouri’s vision is to be “a nationally recognized, comprehensive university that delivers a world-class university education by providing a small-college learning environment coupled with large‑university opportunities.”  And of course, the ultimate purpose is that as we actualize this vision, we make the world a better place.  We make the world better in many ways – one is by graduating students who are well prepared in their fields.  Another is to uphold the ideals of truth, wisdom, learning, beauty, tolerance and civility alongside our more mundane goals.  If we do not convey these core values and then we offer only technique, not education, we are mere widget makers, not a university.

I am proud that this university does stand for core values, and has made these clear in statements of our values, our motto, and our community creed.  These are firmly in place, but can benefit from periodic reaffirmation.

As I’ve said in years past, we must retain our values and our purpose, while we continually reinvent our strategies to maintain our forward momentum.

We are working hard together, and through our combined efforts we’ve seen tremendous progress over the last few years.  We have risen in the esteem of our colleagues to be ranked by both The Princeton Review and U.S. News & World Report as one of the best universities in the Midwest.  We’ve already been notified this fall by The Princeton Review of our continued ranking this year as a “BestMidwestern College.”

UCM is also recognized as one of America’s Best Value Colleges.  Last year, U.S. News reported that our graduates carry the lowest average student debt compared to graduates of any other public or private master’s institution in the Midwest, and we rank 14th nationally.  And this is very important to students and parents and is a tremendous accomplishment.

According to our freshman survey, more than 60 percent of our entering students express concerns about financing their college education.  Many of us can recall vividly those feelings.  I know I do.  You can be proud that UCM offers high‑quality education at a reasonable cost;  our tuition, room and board rates are 8percent below the national average for public four-year colleges and universities and more than 61 percent below the national average for private four-year colleges.

Our freshman survey also tells us that – for the past decade – the top two reasons students choose Central Missouri are “low cost” and the fact that our “graduates get good jobs.”  And these are good reasons.  However, last fall “academic reputation” emerged in a three-way tie for the most important reason why students choose to attend our university.  For those who understand enrollment management, this is a signal indicator.  And though it is too early for the final count, all indications are that we will see a significant increase in freshman enrollments this year over recent years.

We can be proud of where we’re taking this institution. 

Just a few facts and figures from last year:

Our faculty care about students and student learning, and also continue to be engaged in important scholarly pursuits.  This past year, our faculty:

And we can mark a range of other significant accomplishments that advance the university and contribute to the community.

We are also gearing up to offer Dale Carnegie courses on campus, and, last week, several of our faculty and staff members participated in a condensed version of Carnegie’s primary workshop to gain a better understanding of the course.  We are exploring several other joint initiatives with Carnegie, and will keep you informed as those develop.  I appreciate the support of George Boddy and faculty across several colleges for helping us do this right.

Thanks to all faculty and staff members whose contributed to these efforts.  Let’s give ourselves as round of applause.

Strong Start to the New Year

This year is already starting out well.  We are beginning our third consecutive year with increased state funding, and I want to thank Governor Blunt and our area legislative leaders, Senator Chris Koster and Representative David Pearce, for their support.  And I also want to recognize all my colleague university presidents for pulling together in working with the governor.

Now, while I appreciate all the support, these increases have barely kept up with inflation and leave us far behind where we were at the start of the decade.  We will need to do more with less – no doubt about it.

Over the past three years, we’ve been able to award respectable faculty and staff salary increases.  I would characterize these as necessary, but not sufficient.  Since I have been here, we have put salaries as the highest priority after mandatory cost increases such as health care and utilities.  This past year we reallocated a modest portion of institutional budgets into salaries; in this way we were able to provide increases somewhat greater than had we relied solely on new revenues, as we have in the past.   We will continue to do our best to make salaries competitive.  I was pleased to be able to offer higher percent increases to those at the lowest end of our salary scale.  These good people, who work hard to keep this university operating, are the hardest hit by the recent cost increases – such as gas prices.  And I have been particularly pleased with the positive response from the rest of the campus about this decision.

Also with regard to finances, we are implementing a procedure that allows units to retain 90 percent of their yearend carry-forward budgets.  The remainder will be used to enhance campus security and reduce our deferred maintenance backlog.  We are also implementing procedures to ensure that at least 2 percent of each division’s budget will be reallocated annually to advance the institution’s strategic plan.  Based on my experience, I am confident this is already being done.  But I’d like it to be more purposeful and more visible.

Although it’s too early for our enrollment figures to be finalized, projections show that our freshman class is 3percent larger than last year, and FTE is up 8 percent.  This represents our largest freshman class in over a decade.  It is a significant increase and is right in line with the projections we have been working with in our master planning.  In addition, graduate student enrollment continues to rise, too, and is up more than 4 percent over last year. 

Our enrollment growth is one indication that our image‑building and branding efforts are paying off.  As I said earlier, academic reputation is now a top reason our students choose to attend UCM.  Great credit is due our colleagues in Enrollment Management, Student Financial Services, Graduate and Extended Studies, and University Relations.

Given the structural deficits in the university’s budget of three years ago, I am pleased that we have at last put the university on solid financial footing, at least for now, and that overall the state of the university is good.

Charting Our Course into the Next Frontier

If you are heading into a new frontier, it is a good idea to chart your course.  No doubt, we will encounter obstacles and detours, and maybe even some changes in direction along the way, but it still pays to aim for a destination.

During fall 2005, I challenged the campus to develop a draft of a strategic plan by spring 2006.  Well, you can’t say we haven’t taken ample time for reflection and consultation.  However, given the very difficult budget experience of the 2001-2005 years and other mitigating circumstances, I’d prefer this to a job hastily done.  And, given the number of new deans, provost and so on, I think we were wise to proceed as we did.  In fact, it is sometimes said that the process of strategic planning is more critical than the outcome.

This year’s highly consultative process resulted in a revised mission statement and set of seven university goals, which came forward from the Strategic Planning and Resource Council this spring.  The Cabinet and the Board of Governors reviewed these and agreed that we are on the right track. 

The SPRC asked the Cabinet to draft objectives for each goal and set of key performance indicators.  Over the course of this summer, we have done just that.  The draft plan is being distributed to the campus, and we will have a final round of conversations to ensure that the plan conforms to our view of the future.  I ask that the plan be kept parsimonious, because, in my view, clarity and brevity are keys to usefulness in this exercise.

I expect the SPRC to send forward comments and recommendations by the end of September.  I will then submit the mission, goals, objectives and possibly performance indicators for Board of Governors’ approval in October.  As our campus community finalizes the document, it will be up to each cabinet-level administrator to ensure units develop strategies and any additional performance measures they feel will be important to implement the plan.

This new plan will be a clear and effective guide to keep us on track as we carry out our mission, achieve our vision, and judge our performance.  At the same time, such plans cannot be so rigid that the university cannot react to new opportunities and new strategic directions.

I want to thank the SPRC and entire university community for the work that’s being done to create this vital and dynamic document. 

The university’s strategic plan and its master plan for facilities should, in theory, be in alignment.  Late last fall, the architectural firm Gould Evans was selected to facilitate a comprehensive master-planning process for our campus.  A communitywide steering committee, led by VicePresident Betty Roberts in conjunction with the President’s Cabinet, has provided oversight and direction.  In addition to Gould Evan’s expertise, the firm hired sub‑contractors to provide a comprehensive evaluation of UCM’s interior space utilization, and student housing.

This planning team has collected, analyzed and synthesized data and discussed findings and various options through numerous focus group sessions and campuswide forums, and we are looking forward to the next draft of their ideas.

You cannot talk these days about what is important for the future without thinking about sustainability.

As you may know, I was among the founding signers of the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment.  As part of that pledge, we have agreed that the design, construction, operation, and maintenance of all new buildings will follow the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED rating system guidelines, with an emphasis on energy and water conservation. 

The critical issue for UCM is that many of our heating and cooling systems, windows, lighting, and so on are aged, inefficient and require a lot of costly maintenance – not to mention not providing decent climate control.  VicePresident Roberts recently brought an exceptional idea to the table that may help us make a huge leap forward in a fairly short time.  The idea is to contract with an energy service company – orESCO – that will do an extensive, in-depth audit of the conditions of the physical plant and the opportunities to increase efficiency and then provide a plan and a guarantee for energy usage.

We believe we will be able to come up with a plan that will spend $10-15 million on replacements and upgrades with the annual bond payment covered by the savings in energy costs, maintenance and scheduled replacement.  While this will not save the university money, it will significantly improve our living and working environments and reduce our carbon footprint.

An energy engineering firm helped draft a request for proposal that was let in June with a goal of awarding a contract in October.  If the project goes as envisioned, we hope to be able to complete all the replacements in about two years.  Being a founding signatory on the Climate Initiative, it turns out, gives us access to significant help from groups like the Clinton Climate Initiative for this really exciting project.

Further, I believe we have responsibilities to future generations, as well as to our present employees and students, to make even more efforts to reduce carbon emissions and create healthy working and learning environments.  Last year I asked Mike Gebeke to take the lead in putting some immediate actions in place and at least a rudimentary plan.  We have reduced waste and begun using green products in cleaners, carpet glue, and a range of related products.  But more needs to be done.

So, it is now time to engage the full campus community.  This fall I will appoint a President’s Commission on Sustainability consisting of administrators, faculty, staff, and students.  The commission's charge is to recommend actions for improvement in areas such as recycling and waste minimization, greenhouse-gas emissions, energy-star equipment purchasing, and transportation.  We should do – and we want to do – all that we can to take a leadership role in helping neutralize greenhouse-gas emissions.  If you are interested in serving on the commission, please send your name for consideration to VicePresident Roberts.  It is our responsibility to make a difference, and we can use all the help we can get whether it is incentivizing students to bring bikes, not cars, creating recycling programs, or increasing plantings that reduce carbon.

The Community Creed: A Celebration

Our responsibilities are, of course social, as well as environmental.  This year, we celebrate 10 years since the adoption of the UCM Community Creed.  As you look around the room today, you’ll see banners that depict elements of the Creed.  Duplicate banners are hanging in the pedestrian mall outside to remind us about our responsibilities as members of the UCM community.  Choosing to become a citizen of the University of Central Missouri implies an acceptance of the common goals and purposes of the community and a willingness to contribute to those goals and purposes.  We share the creed with our students each year, but I think it’s important for us to take a few minutes to reaffirm our commitment to UCM’s community, as well.  The creed reads:

As a member of the Central community, I will join in building ...


Reading the Creed reminds me of my first visits to UCM and my impressions of the campus and what impressed me about this university; and, it reminds me of the inaugural address I made in October of 2005.  I spoke then about the ideas expressed by Aldus Huxley in Brave New World and Neil Postman in Amusing Ourselves to Death, who talks about the way some media trivialize our lives and insult our intelligence by turning complex issues into nine-second sound bites.

Two months earlier, in my State of the University Address, I drew upon Sir Thomas Kuhn’s work in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and Franz DeWaal’s work in Chimpanzee Politics to discuss deeper ideas about what it means to be educated.  I have tried in these addresses to give you something to chew on, not just a list of accomplishments or facts about the “state of the university.” 

Reading the Creed also makes me miss the classroom and the day-to-day interaction with students.  I love teaching, and I love research and scholarly activity.  And I think I was pretty good at both.  I know I enjoyed it immensely.  So, why do I administer rather than do these things I love?  It’s because I love the enterprise and why we are here more than I love the day-to-day pleasantness of student interaction and excitement of discovery through scholarly endeavors.

But we have a problem, you and me.  The problem is that the public has no idea what our work looks like.  Most, even those with a college degree, do not have a framework for understanding mind work or knowledge work.  I recall a story Gordon Gee, now president of The Ohio State University, once told. 

He described an irate phone call during which the caller reported that a member of the faculty was outside mowing his lawn at 9:00 a.m. on a weekday, and shouldn’t he be at the university working.  Well, Gordon decided to look into it and learned that it was one of the university’s surgeons, and he had spent eight hours that night in the operating room.  Mowing the lawn was his usual way of decompressing, so he could get some sleep.  We don’t always work 9 to 5.

I also recall an experience of my own.  Many years ago – it must have been about 27 or 8 years ago – I was sitting in the living room, apparently staring off into space as I recall.  My son Noah, who must have been about 6 or 7, came over and asked me to play with him.  I recall saying “No Noah, I’m working.”  I still recall the puzzled look on his face.  To him, I was just sitting there.  So how do our lives appear to others?  How do we explain?

I wrote two books in my first four years at West Virginia University, and still had to contend with folks saying, “So, I guess you’ve got the summer off.”  Yeah, right.  Well, whether it is figuring out a better way to teach a concept, or to start a journal article, or to design a mural, academic work is hard work, but it is noble work.  What you do to advance knowledge and create beauty, to engage and inspire students, and to serve our communities, is the heart of the academic enterprise.  My hat’s off to each and every one of you.

So, what is “The Next Frontier?”  Well, I don’t know.  I can only tell you that it is a metaphor for a conversation.  Two years ago I titled my address, “I’m All for Progress, It’s Change I Can’t Stand.”  Last year it was about “Forward Momentum.”  And this year it is about what’s next.  I hope that this leads to conversations about exciting opportunities and good works.

In the time we’ve had together this afternoon, I’ve tried to give you a brief overview of the “state of the university,” as well as some food for thought.  But what I’ve mentioned today is just a snapshot – a moment in time.  We are a vital, dynamic institution, and new things happen here every day.  I want each of you to feel that vitality and to help make this a great place to work.

Thank you for coming today, and I hope you can stay around for a while and enjoy some refreshments and conversation.