Where we are headed, together

We welcomed the largest freshman class in our history last week, and as I stood before these new students at Convocation, I was struck by the level of sheer joy and excitement I felt in that room. When the (fully masked) students stood to sing “Varsity” together for the first time, they reminded those of us on stage why there is still no better place to be than on a college campus in early September.

Over the past two weeks, you’ve all heard about our campus Covid-19 protocols and high vaccination rates – as of Sept. 14, 90 percent of our campus community has been fully vaccinated. Among faculty, that percentage is 99%; among all students it is 90.5%; and among all employees it is 92.8%. I want to thank everyone who has taken the time to get vaccinated and encourage those who have not to think about doing so. Having as many of us as possible vaccinated is the single best thing we can do to ensure that we can remain in a community where we can teach, learn and pursue new knowledge together.

While adhering to Covid safety protocols and having a high vaccination rate are important steps to help us reach our destination, they are not the destination itself. There is much that we plan to accomplish during the 2021-22 academic year to move beyond the pandemic, fulfill our university’s mission and ensure its continued excellence.

Improving Educational Outcomes

It is not by chance that we’ve been able to improve educational outcomes while also serving a growing number of students – we are again among the top 10 public universities in six-year graduation rates. These improvements are the result of a strategic effort that we continue to build upon.

Many instructors will be implementing some of the new teaching tools they became familiar with during the pandemic. Even though we are predominantly back in person, faculty have learned how to use new technologies that can enhance learning in their courses and we will continue to provide resources and training to assist them.

Supporting Diversity

Continuing to expand our work on inclusion and diversity is another top priority. Our newest campaign, the Raimey-Noland Campaign, has been a quiet success story. The campaign will support scholarships and programs aimed at increasing diversity, equity and inclusion on campus. We initially hoped to raise $10 million – but before it went public this past winter, we’d already raised $20 million.

I am excited about the leadership that our new Chief Diversity Officer LaVar Charleston, Deputy Vice Chancellor of the Division of Diversity, Equity, and Educational Achievement, will bring to this area. Dr. Charleston is dedicated to creating a model of shared responsibility and commitment that emphasizes a cross-campus approach to creating a more diverse and inclusive campus community.

Administrative improvements

Although it isn’t glitzy, there are many important administrative developments that will affect almost every employee on campus. Our new titling and compensation structure (TTC) will go live in November, giving us (for the first time) a way to do for staff what we already do for faculty — ensure that titles and pay reflect the labor market. No one will have their pay cut as a result of this change, but some will see a pay increase as we move staff salaries that are below minimum in their new salary ranges. We’ll also enhance benefit options beginning in 2022.

The Administrative Transformation Program (ATP) is working to standardize essential business processes, simplify policies and rebuild our finance, human resources, and research administration operations and services. This will reduce the complexity of the current administrative environment and refocus valuable staff time on our mission.

Cybersecurity continues to be a growing concern that can affect anyone at the university. We have a university-wide effort called Cybersecurity to the Edge, to make sure every device is secure. You can help by deleting old files and staying aware of phishing attempts.

Growth in Research

Another focus this year will be growing our research and improving the ways we seek and receive research grants while also providing better support for our faculty and PIs.

We are already off to a great start. When the pandemic forced us to shut down a lot of our research, many of our faculty focused on generating new grant proposals. In the first three quarters of this financial year, we had 200+ more grant proposals submitted than in the previous year, and a nearly $200 million increase in awards.

We want to continue to improve the success of our proposals. That means getting more strategic about targeting research areas where we know there will be big increases in federal funding in the near future. VCRGE will identify areas with substantial increases in federal funding, and talk with faculty, departments and centers that have an opportunity to solicit some of these funds. We need to be setting ourselves up TODAY to put in proposals for this funding in the year ahead.

Good News Looking Forward

I will provide you with an update on the university’s finances later this fall. It warrants its own blog post, but I can share here that the damage is not as great as we initially feared. We have entirely absorbed the financial losses of last year and are moving into this year with no carry-over of financial problems.

In addition to celebrating being back together, we will be celebrating the end of our All Ways Forward campaign on Homecoming weekend, the last weekend in October. Many of our advisory boards are meeting then and I hope we’ll have large numbers of alumni back in town to share in this success.

I want to end by thanking you for your hard work and resilience during difficult circumstances. The last year and a half have been among the most challenging, personally and professionally, that many of us will ever face. But as I hope you can see, our university is strong, healthy and full of plans for the future. It’s great to see thousands of students back on campus and ready for the new semester.