By Jeff Murphy, September 15, 2023
Roger Best, Ph.D., president of the University of Central Missouri, presents his sixth
State of the University address in the James L. Highlander Theatre.
WARRENSBURG, MO – Citing factors that include an overall increase of approximately 10% in fall student enrollment, an operating budget that is 5.25% larger than the previous fiscal year, and a strategic plan that guides the institution, the University of Central Missouri is in a position of strength. That is the message President Roger Best shared with faculty and staff when he presented his annual State of the University remarks on Sept. 14. The president’s sixth consecutive SOU address since his 2018 appointment by the Board of Governors took place in the James L. Highlander Theatre.
“For those of you who know me, you know that I am not prone to the dramatic, so without any buildup, I can tell you unequivocally that we are stronger today, we are in better shape now as a university, than we have been at any point during the last five years,” Best began his remarks. “Today’s strength exists because of tremendous effort from all of us, and it is important that we spend time honoring our work, recognizing our successes, and celebrating the outcome of our efforts.”
Best shared a number of achievements that have occurred over the past 12 months. This included graduating 3,975 students last year, the most in six years; having a 96 percent first destination success rate among recent graduates, meaning they were employed full-time, serving in the military or enrolled in advanced degrees within six months of graduating from UCM; and hiring new Vice President for Intercollegiate Athletics, Dr. Matt Howdeshell. A video produced by the university’s Integrated Marketing and Communications division highlighted dozens of additional accomplishments, achievements and recognitions, including successful program-specific reaccreditation for more than 20 degree programs, millions of dollars received through federal and state grants, and university wide rankings from 43 organizations along with 443 external program-specific rankings and recognitions.
The president continued his presentation with an update on the fall 2023 census enrollment released this week by the university’s Office of University Analytics and Institutional Research. UCM’s official headcount is 12,788 students, which is not only 1,150 students higher than fall 2022, but the highest enrollment in more than six years. This includes a 3.2% increase in first-time, full-time students versus last fall, a 13% increase in domestic graduate students, and 40.3% increase in international students. More importantly, the credit hours generated by stronger enrollment are up by about 5% compared to last fall, contributing to a stronger revenue outlook for this fiscal year.
“When we look within that enrollment, we see some substantial shifts that have occurred just in the last few years in the types of students we serve,” Best said. “For example, of our 12,788 students this fall, 5,585 are graduate students, which is 43.7% of our headcount. This is both the largest number and largest percentage of graduate students in the history of our institution.”
In describing the increase in graduate students and international students, Best said, “These should not necessarily be surprising. In 2019, we openly discussed the need to focus on our domestic graduate enrollment while recapturing a vibrant population of international students. This fall, both of those populations of students increased substantially. Your efforts, our efforts, have been successful, and we owe a big thank you to our graduate (academic) programs, Office of International Student Services, and Office of Graduate Studies for their tireless efforts.”
The positive enrollment outlook and additional support from the State of Missouri have made it possible to achieve a solid FY 2024 budget outlook.
“This anticipated enrollment growth, along with increased support from the State of Missouri, allowed us to set an operating budget for this year that is 5.25 percent higher than last year’s while also keeping tuition increases well under the rate of inflation,” Best said. “We have created for ourselves a positive and strong position, and we are fortunate that we are not facing some of the difficulties others in higher education are facing. Even with our strong financial position, we do know there are many competing alternatives for where we allocate our additional resources.”
He pointed to an employee survey of compensation and benefits last year conducted by Lockton Companies that provided a substantial amount of feedback to university administration. Employees who responded to the survey overwhelmingly cited salary as a priority. As a result, UCM devoted a significant amount of its projected new revenue to salary increases, the president told the gathering. For fiscal year 2024, UCM committed almost $2.9 million to fund base salary increases for all faculty and staff, and $317,500 for promotion and lower limit raises for faculty.
“Besides Lockton soliciting your perceptions and ideas, they also conducted a market benchmark analysis for staff salaries. With this data, and data from our faculty salary model as our guide, we devoted an additional three quarters of a million dollars ($766,735) to fund market salary adjustments for 433 (68 percent) of our staff,” Best said. “Overall, for this fiscal year, we increased compensation for full-time faculty and staff by approximately $4 million.”
Best spoke about challenges that face the university including a national decline in the immediate college-going rate, with a smaller percentage of high school students enrolling in baccalaureate degree programs when graduating from high school compared to 2019. The number of high school graduates is also expected to decline nationally between 2026 and 2036 as a result of changing demographics in the U.S. population.
He provided an update on the re-accreditation process of university programs by the Higher Learning Commission (HLC), and stressed its importance. The university, under the leadership of Vice Provost Tim Crowley, has organized six criterion teams comprised of 42 faculty and staff members who are helping to ensure that UCM’s Assurance Argument and Compliance Report is completed and shared with HLC in preparation for its campus site visit in March 2024. In mid-November, the university will conduct a mock re-accreditation visit to help prepare for HLC in anticipation of the actual visit March 18-19, 2024.
As the campus looks to the future, Best said the university also must continue to address challenges posed by those who question the value of higher education and college degrees, along with the rise of Artificial Intelligence and Extended Reality, and what these technologies mean for UCM.
“These individually and collectively are not small issues,” Best said. “Our ongoing efforts to respond to challenges are grounded in our Strategic Plan, which has six broad goals and 20 associated objectives. Utilizing this framework, we continue to work towards solutions to the current global challenges and others which may arise. But as we are all aware, there are also local, or UCM-specific challenges that we face. Some of these are in the mundane, such as addressing an aged infrastructure with a significant deferred maintenance backlog.”
Best noted that while considering the scope of such challenges, and while pushing to ensure stability in the moment while simultaneously providing long-term sustainability, it will be important for UCM to be fully engaged in at least six priorities in this current academic year. These include: conducting a successful HLC visit that results in re-accreditation; launching a new marketing campaign in cooperation with Integrated Marketing and Communications; increasing new undergraduate enrollment and improving year-over- year retention; and making progress on the Master Plan and continued improvements to the university’s infrastructure. Priorities also include further exploration and integration of artificial intelligence and extended reality; a launch of the President’s Commission on Access, Opportunity, and Community; and a continued focus on alumni engagement and fundraising efforts, which are currently at record levels for the university.
Concluding the State of the University address, Best stressed that while UCM is in a strong position, it cannot rest on its laurels, or “we will quickly find ourselves behind instead of in a position of leadership. But as I also said in my inauguration address four and a half years ago, I believe in you, and I believe in us. With our experience, expertise, strong will and in our position of strength, we will meet these challenges head on, and we will continue to succeed.”