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2008 State of the University Address

President David Ashley Convocation Speech
September 9, 2008

 

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(This speech is printed as given.)

Good morning, faculty and students. Good morning, staff. Good morning, alumni, community leaders, and special guests. Good morning to you all, and welcome to this academic year at UNLV.

This convocation…marks the beginning of a year of learning. A year of research. And a year of discovery. Yet this occasion also represents a continuation…a continuation of our strategic approach…of our search for new opportunities…and our unyielding resolve to overcome the challenges before us.

The unique circumstances of this year…with the potential open to us…and the challenges we face due to the state's budgetary crisis…bring to mind a statement by Sir Francis Bacon. He said, "If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts…but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties."

Friends and colleagues…in the spirit of those wise words…let us now begin by acknowledging our doubts.

As an institution that relies on state funding, the current budget crisis creates great uncertainty for us…but as Sir Francis Bacon implores us, I urge us to acknowledge this uncertainty and doubt…and commit ourselves to forward motion. By pressing onward, we will travel from the murky unknown…to the full light of the known.

This year, we have many goals…and achieving them depends on forward motion. It requires us to take bold action. Today we will discuss those goals in detail…and identify teams and individuals who will help us accomplish them.

The Invent the Future Campaign is progressing well and will conclude soon. This year, we will also begin preparation for our 2010 accreditation visit. It is important that we all fully engage in these efforts…by doing so, we will maintain and enhance our stature as an institution.

We have also defined other important objectives…along with roadmaps for achieving them. These are the product of a strategic plan called Focus 50–100.

This plan was a university-wide collaboration. Last year, we held 16 town hall meetings. Students, faculty, staff, alumni, and members of the Southern Nevada community attended and engaged in frank and fertile discussions regarding our future.

These discussions were reviewed further at a planning retreat held last spring. There, many university stakeholders gathered to aggregate the collective wisdom of our planning sessions and define our current identity…and make a bold plan for our future.

The plan describes our institution as a place where we confront challenges…and remain committed to research and educational programs that improve our community.

Because the city we call home is truly one of a kind…UNLV enjoys virtues that are completely unique. Along with high expectations for our students…a commitment to research, scholarship, and creative activity…and a culture that nurtures equity, diversity, and inclusiveness…we are also an institution that is entrepreneurial, innovative, and unconventional.

Let me repeat that…entrepreneurial…innovative and unconventional. Think about these three words for a moment. Few institutions can claim them. Yet these very descriptors represent some of our most valuable strengths. And this year, these strengths will fuel our actions.

Through analysis of data gleaned from competing institutions of comparable size, our strategic plan is organized around three areas of focus: infrastructure, research, and student success. These areas are of equal importance in advancing our institution this year…and into the future.

Beyond identifying our areas of focus, the plan outlines goals and methodologies for addressing them…and although there is some budgetary uncertainty, what remains certain is this: our priorities will not change — we are resolute in not allowing budget actions by others to redefine them.

Just a week ago, The New York Times published a business-page headline stating, "Caught in the Uncertainty of a Storm." This headline could very well have been a summary of UNLV's current situation, instead of being about oil rigs and hurricanes. What we can take from this parallel goes beyond the notion of uncertainty…it is about the importance of planning and action… and the consequences of failing to do so.

Our plan gives us a platform for clarity and purpose…it provides a framework of action for when times are good…and in uncertain times, it serves as a guide for what we need to advance and protect.

Winston Churchill once said…"Kites rise highest against the wind." He was speaking of adversity…and leveraging it to reach greater heights. Such is the value of our plan. Like a well-built kite, it has a sturdy framework. With this framework, we take the powerful winds that blow against us…and use them to soar higher…and farther…than ever imagined.

Let us begin with infrastructure…which the plan defines as faculty, classified and professional staff, facilities, and technology.

Our human infrastructure is most important, so let us first discuss faculty and staff. Given the realities of budget, I recognize…and I urge all administrators and staff to recognize…the additional stresses placed on our UNLV family. Our institution is committed to fostering a rewarding, enriching place of employment for us all…and it is our hope that the changes we make will kindle an atmosphere of optimism about our collective futures.

In short, uncertainty has raised questions, and action is our answer. Although our budget problems are very real, we will remain faithful to our commitments to our faculty and staff — our standards for promotion and tenure will not waver.

We will also strive toward a service-oriented culture with local authority and accountability. As a large institution, we want to be deliberate in entrusting units with greater responsibility. It is in this way that we can effectively utilize the talents of our leaders at all levels. This will allow for greater effectiveness…and most importantly, greater creativity…when it comes to solving problems and overcoming challenges.

We must not forget that, in order for our people to advance the institution, we must also advance our technology. This year we will begin the implementation of iNtegrate…a campus-wide and NSHE-wide information database system. This first phase — a new student-information system — will directly support our students…and serve our faculty and administration. Throughout the institution, we will advance our technology…and use best practices…to ensure that we are at our most efficient and effective for our students.

Our focus on infrastructure also takes shape in new facilities. We saw a strong need for classroom and research space, and we are answering that need with the opening of Greenspun Hall and the new Science and Engineering Building. These facilities are a testament to UNLV's commitment to our students, faculty, and staff.

I am appointing an Infrastructure Action Team to monitor our progress in this area…and to create realistic milestones for fulfilling our infrastructure needs.

Creating a campus that meets and exceeds all of our expectations…today…we are committing to this action.

Developing the proper infrastructure enables us to pursue new avenues of research. This year we will embark on several specific initiatives. First and foremost is a renewed emphasis on research that makes a positive impact on our community. As a university, we are the city's primary engine for change. A nexus of thought…and action…that is unique to us and us alone. As such…it is incumbent on us to serve the place we call home.

A recent report from the Brookings Institution has identified Nevada, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona, as the "New American Heartland." Las Vegas has been recognized as one of the so-called "Mountain Megas" within this region. These "Mountain Megas" are rapidly growing metropolitan areas...and the report emphasizes the importance of universities in maximizing the potential of these cities.

This is an important role, and it is one UNLV must be prepared to play. As part of this preparation, we will be outlining specific mechanisms to increase graduate student support during this academic year. We will focus on investments that maintain and support our current research strengths…while applying ourselves to emerging efforts. And we will continue to emphasize competitive research funding.

Collaboration will be the keystone to our efforts this year. Internally, we will continue to foster multidisciplinary research with the President's Research Awards. Throughout these tough budgetary times, we will maintain our commitments to initiatives begun as part of this program.

Externally, we will seek new partnerships with public and private entities throughout the state…and the nation. These actions will help improve our community…and enhance our outreach efforts.

Further, this year we will encourage a culture of discovery at every level…beginning with our undergraduates. Faculty and administration will collaborate on realistic, achievable steps to make research a key component of the undergraduate experience. It is the research environment that creates the curious, creative students…those who challenge the world with new ideas.

Turning these objectives into realities will be the purview of the Research Action Team…a group I shall immediately appoint. These individuals will lead the charge in creating research milestones…and galvanizing our efforts toward achieving them. After all, the very notion of research will serve us well this year and beyond.

In fact, every state dollar invested in UNLV yields $4.50 in economic activity. In this way, we can enhance the funding of our institution…and help fuel economic resurgence across our region and state.

Dedicating ourselves to research that advances our campus and community…today…we are committing to this action.

Our third area of focus, student success, will be addressed several different ways. With a new Academic Success Center, we will foster a smooth transition for students who are first entering UNLV…and eliminate the maze of bureaucracy. This center will be vital in creating a foundation for our students…and instilling in them the work habits and focus they will need to pursue their academic goals. The center will also provide student-to-student mentorship opportunities…so they can learn through the power of example…as well as instruction. In these ways, we will make another bold step toward improving retention and graduation rates…and meeting our obligation to helping our students succeed.

Beyond this, we continue to be committed to reforming general education. The budget situation does not change our intention…only our timeline. From this year forward, our general education program will reflect new values. Values of critical thinking. Independent learning. Openness to the exchange of ideas. Appreciation of aesthetics. Problem-solving ability. And accurate methods for assessing performance.

This year, we will also create metrics that will hold us all to a consistent standard. This takes shape in a comprehensive assessment program that will be developed throughout 2008 and 2009.

The formation of our comprehensive assessment program is driven by a variety of forces, including the ultimate outcome of the budget situation. It is critical that we continually assess our effectiveness…and that we create the metrics to measure action against outcome.

In the coming year, we will also accept a greater role in education across the state. As an institution of higher learning, we are part of this larger education landscape that begins in early childhood and continues through graduate school. Thus, UNLV must help Nevada P-to-12 schools create students who are ready. Capable. And enthusiastic in their pursuit of knowledge. These efforts must be complemented with a seamless transition to higher education. This is a student-centric approach that will help unlock the true potential that resides within all of our young people.

And, more students have chosen UNLV this fall than our most optimistic projections. Our freshman, transfer, and graduate enrollments are all notably greater than last year – overall enrollment is also up when the prediction was down. This heightens the challenge, and further emphasizes our need to serve them.

To help us achieve these goals and address the challenges in the coming year, I am appointing an Education Action Team. This group will create milestones and strategies for accomplishing our objectives.

Serving our students with dedication and creativity…today, we are committing to this action.

In this way, we honor our commitment to the students we serve. As our institution changes, these individuals are changing, too. We have spoken before about a new kind of university student…more engaged…more involved….more proactive…and I am pleased to note that more students of this caliber are becoming the norm.

At last year's convocation address, we discussed sustainability as a core value of UNLV. Driven by strong student interest, we formed the UNLV Sustainability Task Force last year.

This task force included students, faculty, and administrators, and represented a cross-section of campus. The first mission of the Task Force was to assess the environmental landscape of our institution. Together, they focused on four key areas: resources, livability, academics, and connections to the community. They returned to me with an extensive outline of action items, including efforts to be undertaken immediately…and into the next decade.

Proper stewardship of the planet…as we all know…is a long-term proposition. But every plan for environmental stewardship must be both immediate and forward-looking. Therefore, here are the actions we will be taking this year.

We will enact the first official sustainability policy for UNLV later in the academic year. I also recently signed the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment letter…which puts UNLV among the leading institutions dedicated to reducing greenhouse emissions 80 percent by the middle of this century.

We have within the last month appointed a sustainability coordinator to help put our policies in motion…and we have just completed a comprehensive carbon footprint inventory. We will also partner with campus departments to embrace sustainability in our purchasing efforts. This includes formally adopting a purchasing policy requiring Energy Star-rated products in all available categories. Additionally, we will incorporate sustainability requirements into formal contracts. This way, we can ensure our vendors maintain the same commitment to the planet we do.

Expect further efforts, including the finalization of a campus, multi-modal transportation plan…and a greater emphasis on sustainability-related research and development in our labs. Furthermore, in the course of 2008 and 2009, we will commit to programs that will help make UNLV a central resource on sustainability for the entire community. As part of this, we have already experienced great success hosting sustainability conferences on our campus.

Protecting our planet now and into the future…today…we are committing to this action.

This spirit of action…of addressing our challenges with vigor and creativity…will characterize UNLV throughout the coming year and beyond. Last year, we looked back on our first half-century. This year, the only direction we look…is forward

Education has reached a critical turning point in Nevada…and the choice is clear. As citizens of this state…we must embrace the value of education…and capitalize on the social, cultural, and economic opportunities afforded to us as a Mountain Mega in the New American Heartland.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this address, the current budgetary situation remains unsure… but we can overcome this challenge together. Throughout my career as a civil engineer, it has been my privilege to engage in many large-scale projects…with a chief emphasis on management decisions and planning. Many of these projects entailed uncertainty with literally billions of dollars at stake….and numerous financial constraints. These experiences…in undertakings as diverse as the Panama Canal expansion, the new Taipei subway system, and a new copper mine at the top of the Andes…have helped me develop a comfort level with navigating uncertain waters…often, along rocky shores. Now is not the time to drop anchor. Instead, together, we will keep moving toward the lighthouse…remaining true to the course we have charted with our plan.

Obviously, it is preferable to operate in times of surplus rather than shortage. Yet success is within our grasp. That success, however, is predicated on overcoming uncertainty. Eliminating fear. And avoiding paralysis.

Action is the antidote to uncertainty. This must be a year of action. Remember the commitments we have made to our students. To research. To our community. To one another…as members of this great institution.

We share these commitments. We share a plan. We share a vision. In this way, we will use the powerful winds in this storm of uncertainty to reach greater heights. As with Churchill's kite…the strong force that moves against us…will carry us upward.

With this…we are confidently committing to bold actions…and marking the beginning of this academic year.

Thank you.