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University President

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


2009 State of the University Address
University of Central Missouri

Uncharted Waters - click play button below to watch the full speech

Aaron Podolefsky

Kicking off a new academic year, University of Central Missouri President Aaron Podolefsky presented his State of the University Address Aug.  18 in the Elliott Union.

More than 400 faculty and staff members gathered in the ballroom on the first day of classes to hear his presentation, Uncharted Waters, in which he outlined progress made at the university and some of the challenges that lie ahead for the current and next fiscal year.


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 again this year.  I also want to thank last year’s campus governance group leaders for their service to the university.  Would you please stand and be recognized?

Uncharted Waters

The start of a new academic year is always an exciting time on a university campus.  Returning students bring a new life to these halls and spaces, and the anticipation on the faces of our new first-year students reminds us why we are each, in our own roles, here at this university.  I look forward, also, to this opportunity to provide you with an update on the condition of the university.

Each year I have titled this address to reflect my thoughts on the year to come.

In 2005 it was “A Focused Vision.”

In 2006 it was “I’m All for Progress, It’s Change I Can’t Stand.”

In 2007 it was “An Institution of Opportunity.”

And last year, in 2008, it was “The Next Frontier.”

This year the title is “Uncharted Waters,” a theme drawn from a recent gathering of American Association of State College and University presidents.

Finding a short, crisp title for an address like this is a challenge.  This time I was wandering around campus trying to get an inspiration for a theme, a direction, maybe even a vision, and it appeared that, quite frankly, the state of our university right at this moment is pretty darn good – yet I am wary about the future.

As a campus community, we are currently making extraordinary advancements and taking advantage of new opportunities.  I will explore some of my reasons for choosing the theme “Uncharted Waters” in a few minutes, but, first, let’s take a look at the current state of our university.

Pardon our Progress

As I was crossing the campus, I found myself walking around construction fences and stepping over various messes, and I began thinking that by the look of things you really wouldn’t know our country is undergoing its worst economic downturn in generations.  In contrast, it’s been over 40 years since the campus experienced this level of capital development.  $36 million for the renovation of Morrow-Garrison and construction of the new Student Recreation Center, over $36 million in energy-related improvements to 25 buildings, and we’re up to $5 million in externally funded work on the Swisher Skyhaven Airport.

During my inauguration address, I spoke about the themes in Simon and Garfunkel’s classic song “The Sound of Silence.”  Well, this summer it was anything but the sounds of silence on this campus – it was, in fact, the sounds of progress.  Every day from either above or below my office there was sawing and drilling and pounding.  We also had an interesting variety of strange odors and a small fire that caused the evacuation of the building.  And, in two weeks, we’ll lose air conditioning in the Administration Building for the rest of the year.  But it’s all worth it knowing that we’re moving forward, and when we’re finished with our Energy Savings Initiative and our other capital development we’ll have a healthier, more effective learning and working environment on our campus.  That’s worth a little inconvenience.

For those of you who weren’t on campus over the summer, I asked John Kennedy to put a short video together to show you what you’ve missed.  Let’s take a couple of minutes and catch up.

Progress at UCM - click play button below to watch the full speech

As the video points out, capital development on campus can be annoying and inconvenient and disruptive – but sometimes we have to make small concessions to accomplish great tasks.  And sometimes we must make large concessions – such as temporarily parking in places we’re not used to – to ensure the success of our endeavors.  Please bear with us, and, as they say, “pardon our progress” as we work together to improve and enhance our university environment.


I want to take a minute to thank you for the outstanding work we accomplished as a campus community last year.  We completed our strategic plan, which was approved by the Board of Governors last October and which will set institutional direction for the next five or more years.  Then, working with the Strategic Planning and Resource Council, we outlined key performance indicators for our goals.  The President’s Cabinet is currently reviewing those Key Performance Indicators and setting targets, and we will present our recommendations to the Board of Governors for discussion and approval.

We also worked together collegially to complete a campuswide master plan, which was approved by the Board in January.  It provides a comprehensive framework for development of a campus environment appropriate to a high-quality, world-class university.

We also partnered to design the Morrow-Garrison renovation and the new Student Recreation Center.  The collaborative design optimizes space usage for all the facilities and emphasizes energy efficiency.  In fact, the buildings will be models of environmental stewardship, and we’ve already met all the requirements to be LEED silver certified, and it is likely we will reach the Gold standard.

In the area of budget management, I want to thank everyone for working together to help us establish this year’s financial plan.  We collaborated in a transparent and participatory budget process that encouraged widespread input and involvement.  This approach is vitally important to our planning, and I encourage each of you to stay involved this year.  After threats of 15-, 20-, and 25 percent core cuts, we were pleased to receive no reduction in our state appropriation in exchange for keeping student tuition flat.  Missouri’s public university presidents worked closely with Governor Jay Nixon to negotiate that agreement, and we appreciate the governor’s and the Missouri legislature’s support .  I want to thank Senator David Pearce and Representative Denny Hoskins, who are with us today.  And we went one step better by also holding flat our room and board rates and student fees.

Of course, flat funding doesn’t take care of mandatory cost increases; but, our financial planning process resulted in the development of a thoughtful, balanced approach to our budget challenges.  We implemented a reallocation model to realign this year’s budget, protect our core academic mission, and allow us the flexibility to prepare for future budget years.  We made intelligent decisions in our cuts – using a scalpel instead of a cleaver.  I very much appreciate the position taken by the SPRC and the governance groups that this was not a year in which we could afford across-the-board salary increases.  Nevertheless, it is unfortunate that we weren’t able to give them this year, and I apologize for that.  But we did address our budget shortfall with no layoffs and no furloughs, as occurred elsewhere.  And we did provide a modest salary increase to those among us who earn less than $25,000.  This is, in my mind, a moral imperative!

We do have some good news on the health benefits front.  Through our negotiated contract with Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Kansas City, we’ve received some reimbursements from our healthcare provider.  Most of these monies were paid by the institution on behalf of our employees.  I asked the Healthcare Alternatives Task Force to review the data, consider our options and make recommendations for the use of these one-time funds.  Following their deliberations, they recommended that we set up health reimbursement accounts – known as HRAs – to pay for some portion of employee and family out-of-pocket health expenses, and the Board has approved this action.  We have just received the draft agreement from the company that will administer the accounts, and we are working out the process. 

As soon as everything is in place, you will receive an information packet with all the details.  Ireally appreciate the good work that the Healthcare Alternatives Task Force did on your behalf, and I thank them.  The plan is to provide $120 for single coverage and $180 for family coverage to each employee on our health plan.  This will take place on October first this year and again on January first 2010.  That’s a nice tax-free benefit.

And, again, I thank all of you for your willingness to work together in the best interest of our institution. 

FY09 Facts and Figures

We can be proud of the many ways this university is moving forward.  Just a few facts and figures from last year:

I could take the time to cite the many experiences and successes of our students last year – but that would keep us here well into the evening.  However, there is one group of students I want to mention that has been successful way beyond the norm, and that’s our criminal justice students.  Last year, our students claimed the American Criminal Justice Association national championship for the seventh consecutive year.  That’s phenomenal, that’s unprecedented, and it’s an exemplary testimonial to the quality of our faculty.  I’d like for the criminal justice faculty to stand and be recognized for your dedication to our students.

It is obvious that our faculty members care about our students and student learning, and they also make the time to engage in important scholarly pursuits.  This past year, our faculty:

Last year, our faculty and staff submitted 127 external funding proposals, and received 109 awards totaling $9.3 million.  Our externally sponsored activities have increased by an average of 5 percent annually for the past three years.

And there is a range of other significant accomplishments that advanced the university and contributed to the community. 

For a campus that is becoming recognized nationally for its sustainability, we have been far behind in our recycling efforts.  This weakness was recognized by two of our senior students, Manny Abarca of Kansas City and Nick McDaniels from St. Louis – and, they decided to do something about it.  With the support of Vice President Betty Roberts, Manny and Nick launched a successful recycling pilot project this summer, and plan to have the initiative implemented campuswide by mid-September.  In addition to paper materials, we are able to recycle plastics, aluminum and metal cans.  During this summer’s pilot – with just a few buildings online – we averaged about eight tons of recycling per week.  And, since the first of June, we've saved over 41 tons of recyclable material from going to the landfill.

Nick and Manny are with us this afternoon, and I’d like for them to stand and be recognized for their leadership and commitment in launching this important campus initiative.  Let’s give them a round of applause.

There’s another extremely important group that I want to recognize in regard to our recycling efforts, and that’s our custodial staff.  They are doing a tremendous job ensuring that this initiative is successful, and I appreciate their dedication and hard work.  Would the members of the custodial staff who are with us today please stand and be recognized?  Thank you so much!

And I want to thank all faculty and staff members who contributed to our efforts campuswide throughout the past year.  By working together, we continue to take our university to new heights of success.

Back to Uncharted Waters

So, if I end this speech right now, the “state of the university” is wonderful.  But, regrettably, it’s time to get back to my “Uncharted Waters” theme.

Frankly, I can’t let you walk away today thinking our future is as rosy as the picture I have just painted.  There are storms brewing out there, and I want you to know about them.  Though, like the weather, conditions are somewhat unpredictable, I think it’s important to put the current information in front of you, so we can work forward from there.

The Perfect Storm

To put it bluntly, it appears that a perfect storm may be brewing for Missouri higher education.

Although the term “perfect storm” has been around a long time, many of you will remember it best from Sebastian Junger’s book, and subsequent movie by the same name.  “The Perfect Storm” chronicles an actual occurrence in 1991 when three storms converged simultaneously to wreak havoc on ships off the coast of Nova Scotia.  In the movie, Captain Billy Tyne of the ship the Andrea Gail heads out with five other crew members to capture prime fishing spots in the North Atlantic.  Unfortunately, they are met head on by an unprecedented storm pattern – the perfect storm.  They are caught off guard when 10-story-high waves and 120‑mile-an-hour winds develop, and they don’t return home.

Well, we are not going to get caught off guard, and our ship is going to weather the storm that’s coming.

So, let’s look at the three elements that are coming together to define our perfect storm.

The First Storm: Missouri Tax Revenue Decline

On July 22, 2009, Missouri Budget Director Linda Luebbering sent a letter to state department directors and budget officers that outlined a sobering fiscal outlook for our state.  I’m going to read a few paragraphs from her letter.  She writes:

“National economic conditions are the worst in a generation, as nearly double-digit unemployment and dramatic declines in equity markets have forced consumers to sharply cut back on spending.  While an economic turnaround may be in the offing, it often takes six to eighteen months for such improvements to be fully realized in Missouri’s revenue collections.

“Fiscal Year 2009 ended with general revenue collections down by a higher percentage than has been seen in over 30 years.  Collections declined 6.9%below Fiscal Year 2008 collections.  This was $779 million below the 3.4% increase that was assumed when the budget was passed last year.

“For Fiscal Year 2010, we are currently projecting a continued decline in collections of 1%, which would result in a shortfall of over $380 million in revenue collections compared to the estimate used for the Fiscal Year 2010 TAFP [Truly Agreed and Finally Passed] budget.

“The next few years will be made yet more challenging by the phase-out of the federal budget stabilization funds.  Even assuming a turnaround in the economy and state revenue collections in Fiscal Year 2011 and Fiscal Year 2012, there will likely be a significant gap between available revenue and normal spending growth.  Therefore, the state’s normal spending growth trends must be curtailed.”

Bottom line – expect state revenues to again be below projections; don’t count on large, if any, appropriation increases.

The Second Storm – Loss of Federal Stabilization Funds

When Director Luebbering mentions the budget stabilization funds, she is referring to federal monies that were used to backfill state appropriations for education while those state funds were used for other purposes.  This year, our state appropriation includes about $6.5 million in federal stabilization funding.  We expect to receive that amount again in FY11.  However, at this point, the stabilization funds will not be available in FY12, and if general revenue funds are not on hand to reinstate our core budget appropriation, we may be faced with a major budget reduction – possibly the full $6.5 million.

Just to be clear, Storm 1 suggests no increase in state appropriation, and Storm 2 suggests that, though stabilization funds will be in place this year and probably next, we may be $6.5 million short the year after that – FY12.

Storm 3: The Decline in High School Graduates

The third storm is a major change in student demographics.  The number of Missouri high school graduates – our prospective freshmen – is projected to peak this year and fall dramatically over the next two years before leveling out at the lower point. 

Projected Graduates

As these smaller classes move through the university, they will cause a compounding reduction in enrollment numbers.  This will happen simultaneously with the potential major budget reductions in FY12.

Compounding this demographic challenge are several corollary conditions:  First, a new Missouri law limits our tuition increases to the CPI unless the Commissioner of Higher Education grants an exemption – even though our tuition/fees, room and board rate for in‑state undergraduate students is 11.2 percent below the national average for public four‑year colleges and universities and 62.6 percent below the national average for private four-year institutions.  Second, economic conditions compound this challenge as students give up their dream of a four-year college experience and seek out lower-cost education at community colleges.  And third, the economy is impacting our endowments and limiting our ability to aid our students.  This year, our Office of Student Financial Services received federal student financial assistance application data for 10,945 students compared to 7,122 students last year – a 54 percent increase.  There is a tremendous growth in student financial need.  For this reason I have been working with the Senior Advancement Council to develop an initiative to raise more private dollars for scholarships. 

Taken together, falling tax revenues, disappearing federal stabilization funds, and demographic shifts in high school graduates create the potential for a perfect storm.

So what are we to do?

The Way Forward

As a kid in California, I experienced earthquakes – no warning.  We in the Midwest are used to tornados.  While we do get tornado warnings, the storms themselves sweep suddenly out of the sky and there is not much time to prepare. 

The East Coast parallel is the hurricane.  With hurricanes there is an indication a tropical storm is brewing, and we begin to watch it on our radar.  We scrutinize it as it grows from a tropical storm to a full-blown hurricane, and we are able to track its course.  In fact, we can predict its course and its destructiveness with varying degrees of probability, and we can therefore plan our response accordingly, adjusting over time as new data become available.  But, of course, we are in the realism of probabilities, and we know that small deviations, when compounded, can make tremendous differences.  In fact, the hurricane may change course with dramatic results, or it may turn into a gentle rain.

I’ve called this talk “Uncharted Waters” because I have never before seen this sort of convergence of three storms.   On the positive side, I am seeing them clearly, far in advance, and I have some sense of how they will grow and compound one upon another.

How we proceed depends on the answer to a rather unusual question – which I am asking in the negative because I think this frames it especially well.  It is:  What sort of mistake do we most wish to avoid making?  Do we plan for the worst, and then find it turns out to be far less than we feared?  Or do we fear not, plan for the normal course of events, and then discover the storm turns into our worst nightmare?  Where is the balance?

We could just hope that good news prevails, and ignore the whole thing for now.  We could concentrate on all the good things happening on campus, and decide that we don’t have any problems – that the state budget will repair itself and that students will come in great masses.  We can decide not to pay attention to the predictions and probabilities, and wait until the storm hits.  If my goal is to make our lives easier this year, this has a lot of appeal.

Or, as a campus community, we can take heed of the forecast, and prepare.

I have put together my own rather amateurish high-level, multi-year budget model that factors in tuition, appropriation, mandatory cost increases and salary increases, along with the elimination of the stabilization funds.  Even without the enrollment decline, the picture is not pretty, though there are some strategies that might help.  I will share this at the earliest opportunity with the Strategic Planning and Resource Council, so we can thoughtfully, deliberatively, collaboratively and expeditiously move forward and make some decisions about our preferred level of preparedness.

UCM’s Vision

As we start these conversations, the place to begin is with our strategic plan.  First, we know that we have a clear vision firmly in place:

“The University of Central Missouri aspires 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.”

Second, we must embrace our core values and our community creed, and we must understand that it’s essential we work together.  We need all hands on deck and sailing in the same direction.  As the saying goes, we will all hang together or we will hang separately.

Third, I don’t believe in “hunkering down.”  I will ask that each division of the university develop an “Implementation Plan” that will move the university strategic plan forward within the constraints of the new and emerging reality.  Theinstitutions that come out well on the other side of this storm will be the ones that stepped up to the challenge with a positive can-do attitude.

I will ask Vice President Roberts and her staff to work with the SPRC to develop a multi-year, high-level financial model, superior to my draft, that allows us to make adjustments as new realities become known.  At present the future is fuzzy, but it will clarify over time.  We need a model that allows for adjustment as new realities emerge.

I will ask Provost Wilson and each of the Vice Presidents and University Directors to develop implementation plans that focus on our strategic plan’s highest priority items – those that must be accomplished to preserve the core mission of this institution.

I believe we must set about what I will call “The Year of Retention.”  I will ask Provost Wilson and Vice President Morrell to take a renewed look at undergraduate student retention and progression to graduation.  And I challenge us to increase our first-to-second-year retention at least 1 percent per year.  As both an indicator of quality and as a prerequisite to budgetary stability we must focus on:

Retention, Persistence, and Graduation – RPG

I can show you the models, and there is no doubt that student success is the only route to enrollment success.

To tell you the truth, I feel, paradoxically, that we need to “hasten slowly.”  That, on the one hand, we have time to plan, BUT, if we do not implement strategies and set processes in motion and set dollars aside now, we will be sorry when the storm arrives.

Uncharted Waters Ahead

As I asked four years ago in my inaugural address – Am I depressed?  No, I’m fired up!  Why? – because there are so many tremendous things happening right now.  In fact, I take our ESCO project as a shining example.  We were looking at a $30million deferred maintenance backlog.  Facilities, like the Morris Building, could not heat themselves in the winter, cool adequately in the summer, or transition properly in fall and spring.  Across campus, fire alarm systems, water pipes, windows and roofs had been allowed to deteriorate, lighting was not what it could be, and I could go on.  This single project will resolve $20million of that deferred maintenance, solve many of the above problems and more, and with not an additional dollar over what we were spending on utilities and other energy-related costs.  If we can be that creative, what else can we do?

This speech is about the state of our university, which is fine, and its future, which will be fine if we go forward thoughtfully, boldly and collaboratively.

As the American author William Arthur Ward once wrote: 

“The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.”


As I bring these remarks to a close, I want to be crystal clear about what I mean by “the realist adjusts the sails.”  In today’s business language, it is the strategies and tactics that must change while we hold clearly to our fundamental purpose.

I first came onto a college campus as a freshman 45 years ago, and, with the exception of a few years as a public school teacher, I have spent those 45 years at universities.  It was this month in the year 1964, and change was in the air.  The lecture halls were crowded with the first wave of boomers, and the primary teaching technology was a piece of chalk.  We wrote computer programs in machine language or Fortran, and typed our programs onto key punch cards.  And, Ibelieve, like the students who begin today, the world looked a little less certain than it did to those who had entered five years before.  The times were a changing.

What I have learned over these 45 years, simply stated, is that at its core this is an academic institution.  It is a place where we and our students undertake scholarly pursuits.  It is a place where all of us in the university community engage in civil, yet spirited, dialogue.  It is a place where we cultivate those habits of mind expected of educated and civil people.  It is, as Robert Pirsig says, “the church of reason” – an Ivory Tower, in the best sense of the words.

The university is a place where our purpose is the search for truth, for wisdom, and for beauty.  It is a place where students learn not simply technique, but to apprehend the world differently.  They learn not simply to “do,” but to understand.  Of course, students do learn technique, and they learn to “do,” but this is not a training factory, for goodness sake.  They must learn to create and to innovate.  Our nation’s economic future rests not with graduating producers for the 20th century industrial economy, but innovators for the 21st century knowledge economy.

We take great pride in our students’ exceptional career placement rates.  We are proud because we know that they are well educated and prepared to thrive in a knowledge society and to learn as they live.  And we are even more proud when we know our graduates are prepared to go out and make the world a better place, to be individuals with a moral center, and who have the integrity to stand by their convictions.

To me, following through on today’s nautical theme, a university is a lighthouse that, through its illumination, guides those who pass its way.  And you who are here today are the ones that make it so.  Each and every one of you does your part to create who we are.  There have always been those who don’t see the university this way, and they will try to bring you down with their obtuse and their mundane annotations.   But you have a goal – a vision of what this university can become and you are on your way. 

To get there, you must uplift each other.  You must offer a kind word, a comment of encouragement, a hand of support.

Let us imagine the future together, and then let us make it so.