Sept. 8, 2010
Fall 2010 Convocation
Thank you for being here today. Thank you for your commitment to the University of North Texas. I know why you came. I saw all the free food out there. (Audience laughs.) But I know you're here for other reasons as well. Your very presence here suggests a commitment to our institution.
Warren, thank you for the introduction. And thank you for the superb job you're doing as provost. You never know what you're going to get when you get an introduction. I was in rural Washington one time and I was introduced as, "He's strong as an ox and twice as smart." (Audience laughs.) So it was better than that. I appreciate it.
Thank you, Donna for representing our distinguished faculty as our Faculty Senate Chair, and for all that you do.
George Niebling, Staff Council Chair, representing the thousands of staff who really make this university function, who make our surroundings pleasant and who make higher education possible here. Without you, we simply fall flat. And so we appreciate what you do.
It's always great to be with Kevin Sanders. I was with him last night for a little bit. I can assure other students and student leaders that Kevin works hard to represent students. He takes this seriously. He tries to be everywhere he can be.
We have some student leaders here today. Would you raise your hand and identify yourselves? Thank you for coming today.
And on these few front rows, we have the leadership of the institution, the President's Cabinet and leaders. Raise your hands and let's give you a round of applause.
Notice the lapel pins. Let's get them on. It's time to put these UNT (pins) on and walk with a swagger. This is a great institution and we need to be proud of it.
New academic year
Convocation ushers in a new academic year. This is a special time of the year. For me, this is New Year's. It has always been New Year's because I have always been in school. It's the time of new faces, new starts and new dreams. This year, it's also time for a new president. Or at least an old president who went from retired to retreaded. (Audience laughs.) I'm pleased to be with you.
For the past four months, frankly, I've thought of little else than the past and future of the University of North Texas. I'm absolutely consumed with thinking about our opportunities and our dreams, about what we can do.
So I wanted to start this morning by addressing, very candidly, the four most frequently asked questions of me.
Changes in leadership
The first has to do with leadership and changes in leadership. Folks wonder if this place will be able to attract a great president. And I guess I didn’t ease that fear. (Audience laughs.)
You never go through a transition such as the one the institution has been through in the past few months without disruption. We would be foolish to say there is no disruption. But the truth is, the institution is what it is. And the people who do the work, the staff and the faculty who deliver the goods for this great institution and who teach the students, are in place. And we have been fortunate enough to find some very capable people to fill these positions and keep us moving.
Budget and economy
Second question is what about the budget and the economy? Things are really bad out there, are we going to have a lay everybody off? Are we going to have to go without pencils and paper?
We are very lucky in the state of Texas. That doesn't mean we're not going to experience some financial hardships. But if you look around the country right now, real hardships — 50 to 60 percent cuts in the state appropriations part of the budget — are not uncommon. And in those kinds of cases, it's really difficult to maintain momentum and to maintain a strong attitude, let alone services.
We've had some small budget cuts here and it looks like we'll have a few more. At the same time, we have some additional revenue from the enrollment growth and, hopefully, from other factors as well. I think this is a healthy financial institution. I believe that if we pursue carefully, we can move forward at a pretty good pace and not be derailed by the budget problems we are facing.
The third thing is what are you doing with all of this reorganization?
Well, we're trying to not to really do any reorganization. But the one thing we are doing is putting together some groups that I call councils that will share the decision-making across this institution and provide us with, I think, an even stronger base for our critical decisions.
I have found that we have deep expertise in the critical areas of this institution. And it's important that we share that expertise in our decisions. So I've created some councils that go across organizations. For example, when we talk about enrollment — we have probably one of the top enrollment management operations in the country. That's one of the reasons we are growing so fast. But we really need to ask the Student Affairs people, how does this affect you? We really need to make sure that across the university, we're thinking about what we want to do. I can assure you that whatever goals we set, we have the effective people to deliver us those goals.
National Research University
The last question is about the National Research University goal.
Let me say that being a National Research University is not really a destination. It's a way of being. It's a transformation to a different kind of operation, and it isn't all that much different. We already have on this campus many units that are better than the comparable units at a number of so-called Tier One institutions that I've already been associated with. Don't worry about the quality side. If you're worried about it, it probably means you're not doing as much as you could be, so do more.
But the truth of the matter is, we're pretty good. For us, the matter of the National Research University is not fundamentally an issue of quality. We have quality standards. We pledge to those. Donna spoke to them on the faculty side. The staff is as good as any staff as I've ever seen. And the students are good students and are getting better every year. In fact, the students are as good as those at many Tier One research universities.
So what is it all about? It's about advancing and balancing the institution by creating more research-funded operations. By creating some different traditions. And by finding more money — that we have to do through the political process and we have to do it through the private fundraising process because the things that we need to have to be a National Research University are expensive. We have plans to do that. I think we know how to do that.
This is not a footrace. This is a long-term marathon. That means we may pass the finish line but when you pass the finish line to be a National Research University, you just keep running. We'll hit these targets. These targets that were set by the Texas Legislature are not unreasonable targets, certainly for a university of our size, in our location, in this day and age. We will do that. I'm not going to predict the date. But we will do it. Then we will do what? We just keep going. We will keep climbing because there is nothing so good that it can't be better.
And we owe it — particularly to this generation of students — to be as good as we can possibly be. Because this is a transformational experience. All of us went through college. We knew a lot more then. Oscar Wilde once said, "He wasn't young enough to know everything." So we knew more when we were going through college. And my knowledge has declined ever since. But that experience for me as a first-generation college student was transformational. It forever impressed on me the value of higher education. Not just to bring an income, but to give me a life, to give me a different kind of life than I ever dreamed of when I was shoveling ditches on a potato farm in southeastern Idaho. So it's a dream. And this institution is part of that dream.
Now when you look at this institution, is it changing? I'm reminded of the story of the farmer with his ax. He had this ax and was chopping some wood. A stranger came up to him and said, "How long have you had that fine ax?" He said, "I've had this ax for 30 years. That's a long time to have an ax. But it's a fine ax. It's had five new handles and three new heads, but it's just been a great ax." (Audience laughs.)
It kind of reminds me of where we are. I had lunch the other day and spent some time with a former faculty member who still volunteers here named Bob Rogers. How many of you know Bob? What a wonderful man. I had lunch with him and his wife. He talked about UNT and what it meant to him, what it meant to him to be a student here — I don't know 70 years ago, he's in his 90s now. And he was passionate about it. He did not talk about this university as something that was in the past, even though nobody who was here when Bob came here as a student is still living, let alone still working. So that's all gone. The people have all changed. The buildings weren't here. The roads weren't here. Was it about the institution that survives over generations that is still the University of North Texas? You'll leave, I'll leave, we'll die, and the University of North Texas will still be here. It will be something. And what is it about it that doesn't change?
I think there are traditions. I think there are values that are inter-generational. And I think it is incumbent upon us as a generation to make sure that those values are continued. They are the things that Bob Rogers cares about. Let me just mention a few of those.
First of all, we are student-centered. We say that. I love it when we say that we are a student-centered research institution. It's why we're here. If you doubt that, just imagine how much funding we'd get if had no undergraduate students here or graduate students here. We are about students. It's the most important thing we can do. And we do it well. It was such a joy to be here on moving day and see students helping students and faculty out there helping students. Moving day is just one day, but it's symbolic of the fact that we care about students. We care about their needs. We care about what they are doing. It's a very important part of our tradition. And Bob Rogers was able to talk about the faculty members who cared about him, his piano professor who changed his life. What an opportunity.
Secondly, we are and have been for a long time, world-renowned in a number of areas, especially in the arts, humanities, business, education, and several important areas related to the jobs and needs of this region. You know those areas, whether it's journalism, graphic arts, rehabilitation, teacher training, accounting, biology. This is a strong academic background that serves this great region, in a way, quite frankly, that the region doesn't fully understand. And we need to run that up the flagpole every chance we get. I know you are. But we're going to get bigger flags because they need to understand how important that is. And it's not just that we do these areas, we do them better than anybody else. I mean, this is world-renowned quality in these areas.
This is an institution, and I would not have come here had this not been true — and I did check it — this is an institution that is committed to diversity. It goes beyond obtaining balanced numbers to the provision of an environment where all differences are accepted, understood and valued. That is something you can be proud of. It's not true everywhere, but it's true here. It doesn’t mean everybody. It means the culture. It means what we've institutionalized here. I know that's true. I talk to students about it. I ask them if they are comfortable here, particularly students who have something that's a little different about them, and I'm getting very good responses.
Supportive, friendly environment
Fourth, a mutually supportive and friendly environment where we celebrate the attainments of others. That's not an easy thing when someone got the publication, or the grant, or the award, or the raise, or the promotion, to feel good about that. When you start feeling good about that, then you're family. And I see a lot of that here.
And we are the higher education foundation of this region and have been for a long time. So I see in UNT a place with traditions that must be maintained. But I also see a place with some dreams, beyond what we are now. When the Bob Rogers of tomorrow talk about UNT, there need to be some other things in there as well.
Daniel Burnham, who was a late 19th century architect and who was actually the chief architect at the Chicago World Fair, said something that I like. He said something like, "Make no little plans for they have no power to stir men's blood." Well our plans ought to stir your blood. Because they are not little. They are not easy. They are not inevitable. But let me list a few of the things — the new heads and the handles that we need to put on this ax.
Building greater balance, as mentioned by Provost Burggren, by increasing our emphasis in the colleges, schools and departments in the science and technology areas.
Raising our standards across the university to encourage even greater outstanding performance and to provide greater rewards for eminence. We have eminence — it's a hard word — to me that means better than good, better than excellence. That means top of the drawer. We need to find a way to make sure those people are recognized so that they become the examples. They are the backbone of our institution.
We need to prepare an organizational and planning structure that assures that our highest priorities are always served first. Never sacrifice that which is most important for that which is less important. And you need to be prepared to make those kinds of decisions.
Prepare to be one of the really big universities in America. Big in every way. We're already one of the Top 50 in enrollment. We know who those big universities are. Not many institutions can do this. I said to folks the other day, when we were talking about what we want to do with enrollment. We can decide. If this institution decided it wants to be an institution of 50,000 people, that can be done. If you're in Nevada, you don’t have that choice. If you're in Idaho — my home — you don’t have that choice. You don't have that choice if you're in Tennessee. You don't have that choice in very many places. We can decide what we want to be. We're in the right place, at the right time, with the right stuff. Now you probably are going to hear that it can't really be done. It's an opportunity that must not be sacrificed at this institution. This is our time, this is our place and we can really do that.
We need to build world-class facilities in research, and they're already underway.
We need to be more aggressive in finding and claiming our territory. Who are we? This is our territory, this is our home. You know, I love those football players. After the game on Saturday, which was a good game — we have some kids who can really play football. They have to believe in themselves. But as is typical if you've ever been into a locker room after a football game, a couple of the fired up players will always make a speech about next week, and say, "They're not going to beat us in our house."
This is our house. This is where we are. This is our place. And we need to be aggressive in claiming this territory.
We need to step up in athletics, since I mentioned athletics. Like it or not, athletics is a window to all universities. It is part of the American culture. It has become a very important part of the identity of universities. Unless you're an Ivy League institution, you just can't get that kind of attention without that window being bright, clean and wide open. And I think that can happen. We have plans to do that.
I'm very optimistic about where we are going. These are difficult times, I suppose. But I'm proud to be with you. I think this is the time where we plant acorns so that some folks in the future can sit in the shade of the oak trees. We need to plant wisely and carefully. We're sitting in the shade of some oak trees that other people planted.
This is a good place. I almost didn’t come here for one reason, and I told them, "You know what's going to happen to me is that I'm going to go there and I'm going to fall in love with this place and then I'll have to leave and it will break my heart." But I've had my heart broken before. I get over it. (Audience laughs.)
Now I asked for nominations. I said, "This is a great institution. What are the Top 10 things we've done in the last year at this institution?" I got hundreds of nominations, and so somebody is going to be upset because I can't pick hundreds and call them Top 10, though you'll probably notice that I squeezed a few in. So these are just mine. You know, people think that presidents have a lot of power. We have almost no power. But we do have the power to select the Top 10, so I did that. (Audience laughs.)
Thank you all for being here. But more importantly, thank you all for being a part of the UNT family and for creating this Top 10 list. It could have been 100. But you should applaud each other one more time because everybody in the university participated in all of those things.