Building a Culture of Competitive Excellence

State of the University Address
President Marc A. Johnson
Oct. 9, 2013

Distinguished guests and friends from the community ... faculty, staff, students ... thank you for joining me here today. My talk today will focus on the accomplishments of our University over the past year ... where we stand relative to the key pillars of our mission - Learning, Discovery and Engagement - and where we are headed.

First I'd like to share a story. In August, I was standing with our Vice President for Development and Alumni Relations, John Carothers, in our parking lot. A young woman who is one of our 46 National Merit Scholars approached us. She told us, "I'm just getting back from a summer research project at the University of Minnesota. It's great to be back at a university which cares about you." When this student got home, she realized that Home Really Does Mean Nevada ... that our University really is a place where people care. This comment speaks to the very essence of this University and why we all find this place special. Visitors, parents and students provide a consistent refrain: "The University of Nevada, Reno has a beautiful campus, offers a high quality education at affordable prices, and the people here are so friendly." These comments reflect the character of this university which is a foundation for our future, in a competitive higher education environment.

As we talk today, this notion that we, the people of this university, care about our students, about our work, about our University, and about our community will be a recurring theme. You will hear me use the terms "Learning," "Discovery," and "Engagement." A year ago I promised you that the University would finalize a comprehensive marketing and communications plan. These terms are from that plan. They convey ideas and images that we know are tightly woven into our fabric as an institution. These are our pillars: We are committed to Learning, which includes fostering a culture of student success; Discovery, which includes the world-improving research we do; and Engagement, which is the outreach connection between our campus and the communities and businesses we serve.

As a university, we are at a critical time. We continued to lose state funds in this biennium because of the way the new formula was implemented. That does not and should not mean we will lose more state funds in the next biennium. With the combination of authority to retain tuition and fees, and continued attractiveness to a growing student enrollment, we can see a path for growth. Our strategic actions must be carefully planned to make the most effective use of net revenue growth to position the university for a brighter, more impactful future. It will take several years to climb out of the severe state fund budget hole left by an $80 million reduction in annual state investment compared with Fiscal Year 2009, which has only partly been filled by increases in student tuition and fee revenues.

All of our faculty and staff have had to pitch in to sustain the quality and character of this University during the hard times. Salaries were cut and furloughs were required. Salaries have been restored, but we remain on six days of furlough. Our faculty responded to the call for "teaching resource management" to teach more courses to maintain quality teaching during the last two biennia. However, this is not sustainable, and we knew it was not. Our student to faculty ratio exceeds that of most of our peers. Our expected teaching loads exceed those of our peer research institutions. It is time to re-balance so each of you can build the rewarding career you expected to accomplish when you arrived in Reno.

I need to acknowledge right now that I appreciate the great sacrifices that all of our faculty have made as we've pulled ourselves together to preserve a quality university during dark times. Some have complained, but most of our faculty and staff have soldiered on, realizing this university's promise and career potential, despite the temporary rough spot experienced by most of the nation. I can't thank the faculty enough for the record-setting level of professional productivity that all of you have established. We need to acknowledge this. Thank you.

Similarly, our classified and administrative personnel have endured pay cuts and furloughs, too, and have rallied to do a great deal of important work to ensure the smooth and friendly operation of our campus, despite many fewer colleagues to share the burden. These individuals have been doing more with much less, as well. Please join me in acknowledging the hard work and dedication of our classified and administrative colleagues.

Now let's take stock of what we've accomplished and how we plan to chart a path into a period of growth in a highly competitive environment.


I'll start with Learning. Our human capital in this area is strong. Over the past year, the accomplishments of our students and faculty have been remarkable. Take a good look at our accomplishments. It's a list worth remembering. A strong theme underlying this success has been how the faculty has found innovative ways to make active, experiential learning part of our students' lives.
These are people like Bob Felten in Journalism ... Kristen Clements-Nolle in our School of Community Health Sciences ... David Sanders in Engineering. These professors spend long hours and countless weekends with their students as they prepare for national student competitions or for important presentations. Is it any wonder, then, that in the last year student Ethan Leaverton won the national acting crown at the Kennedy Center... or that political science student Chelsea Lee won a national competition to present her paper before the members of Congress ... or that our speech and debate and concrete canoe and integrated marketing student teams continue to rank among the nation's best? To all of our great teachers and great students, who bring the best out in each other on a daily basis on our campus, I wish to thank you.

Discovery and innovation

Great teaching also is one of the prime catalysts when great research happens. Not long ago I had the pleasure of listening to English Professor Eric Rasmussen during one of the College of Liberal Arts "Great Conversations" talks. One of the stories Eric told was how he and his graduate students tracked down every one of the original collections of Shakespeare's plays. These were first edition, hand-scribed editions that sometimes cost several million dollars at auctions. And I remember thinking as I heard Eric tell this story, "Here's one of our English professors, one of the world's foremost authorities on Shakespeare right here in Reno, flying all over the world along with his students, thanks to the research grants he had received, studying editions of Shakespeare's words that probably the rest of the world had never seen."

We have so many success stories like this, where our culture of research, scholarship and artistry extends far beyond our campus. In understanding where we must go with our research, we must first understand how we've directed its growth in the past. We have a strong institutional record of providing support for departmentally determined research areas. This approach has, in turn, created critical mass. We've seen this happen in the Department of Physics and the creation of the Nevada Terawatt Facility which is home to one of the nation's largest university lasers, in a program that produces professionals with graduate degrees; In Physiology with the ground-breaking and grant-attracting and nationally acclaimed work done in smooth muscle plasticity; In Engineering with its world-renowned Earthquake Engineering laboratory, which has increased dramatically our research capacity and reached around the world to make large-scale structures safer, including the new Bay Bridge in San Francisco; With our scientists who host Nevada's INBRE program and three NIH Center of Biomedical Research Excellence programs, the most allowed for a single university for basic research in health sciences.

Going forward, we are looking to place new emphasis on research and graduate education by re-creating the position of Vice President of Research and separating a Vice Provost for Graduate Studies and Dean of the Graduate School. Actually, we have augmented the VPR position into a Vice President of Research and Innovation to reflect the importance of driving research creativity toward active innovation. This approach is already seeing exciting results like the new business, DX Discovery, a medical diagnostics biotech startup created from our own campus by Tom Kozel and David AuCoin of Medicine. I would like to take a moment to introduce the person charged with making much of this come together: Mridul Gautam, our new VPRI. Also, I would like to introduce our first Vice Provost for Graduate Studies and Dean of the Graduate School, Marsha Read. I want to thank Marsha Read for providing leadership for our research efforts as VPR for the last five plus years. Thank you, Marsha.


Now on to our third pillar, Engagement. I could list hundreds of areas where our engagement has made a difference beyond the campus grounds. Let me boil it down to three broad areas. They provide an excellent sampling of the transformational inroads we're making for our communities.

1) University Outreach Organizations

There are a number of university organizations engaged in the diversification and renewal of our region and our state. A representative list is behind me. These groups not only have provided knowledge and know-how, they've provided a clear path to people and processes that have a meaningful impact on our state.

2) Infusion of civic and service, social and wellness engagement.

University psychologists operate clinics in town and graduate students provide psychological services throughout the community. Health sciences professionals and students provide clinical services to citizens throughout the state. The Nevada Media Alliance connects Journalism students to the RGJ, KNPB and KUNR to deliver the news in multi-media formats. Our agricultural and environmental specialists provide applied research and management advice to Nevada's farmers and ranchers, both rural and urban. The new Office of Service Learning and Civic Engagement will expand the impact of students on local agencies and service centers and the new Career Studio connects our students with businesses and agencies of northern Nevada. Our College of Education is addressing the key, national, public issue of educational system performance by preparing tomorrow's teachers and principals to implement the nationally- and Regents-recognized Common Core Standards to improve the performance expectations and results of our public schools.

3) Instilling the "college town" feel.

There has been a lot written and reported on lately about this whole "college town" idea. Never before has the University and our community been more perfectly aligned for this to happen. We are seeing this in how our University fits so centrally into the Smarter Region Initiative led by the City of Reno, City of Sparks, and Washoe County, and supported by IBM. How do you become a Smart City, or a Smart Region? Our community leaders have answered that question--you have to start with a great, nationally competitive University. We are one of the prime reasons why this region is engaged in knowledge-based diversification. We must continue to be this key catalytic element ... this key kinetic pathway for learning, discovery and engagement ... for this region to grow.

Our future

Maintaining this momentum will require several years of strategic growth with several clear goals. Enrollment growth is essential to generate the number of degree completions required by NSHE's Complete College America initiative. Enrollment growth will also be essential to generate the amount of revenue to fulfill our goals. Let me explain, briefly, what funding mechanisms we have in place, and why our enrollment plays such a key role as a productive lever in expanding our potential revenue.

Universities essentially have four sources of revenue at their disposal and we have active plans to expand efforts in each of them.

  1. Tuition and fees - wholly dependent on enrollment growth and level of fees;
  2. State funding - with the new higher education funding formula, NSHE institutions that grow their weighted student credit hours at the highest rate will receive higher levels of state funding; this stream largely is dependent on enrollment;
  3. Philanthropy - philanthropic contributions are almost always directed toward specific objectives of the donor; this stream will grow with our comprehensive campaign.
  4. Grants and contracts - a key to improving research capacity, and in recruiting and retaining faculty, but funds are generated to fulfill specific scopes of work; more resources have been added to OSPA to facilitate this revenue stream.

All four of these sources are extremely important. You've no doubt read recently, for example, of several major gifts we've received from community foundations totaling $16 million, plus another $7.5 million in pledges for student-centered capital improvement projects. But if we wish to meaningfully expand our budget, build out the campus and provide the broad support that will benefit all areas of the University, the conversation must start with a commitment to attracting more students, both undergraduate and graduate. It includes an opportunity to create new revenue and new growth. By growing our enrollment, we will have more of the funding we will need to sustain our culture of competitive excellence.

Since 2011 we've embarked on a path to manage growth in student enrollment by about 2 percent each year. The ultimate goal is to reach an enrollment of 22,000 students by 2021. We need to keep this 22,000 number in context. We will achieve it by growing by about 360 students per year. The companion goal to this is equally important. We will be working to expand the faculty at a rate that will exceed our projected student growth, so that professional flexibility and achievement by the faculty will be attainable. Consideration of faculty workload is of great importance. Our provost, Kevin Carman, is working diligently with all of our vice presidents, deans and units to ensure that support is scaled appropriately in the face of student growth. It is imperative that we strike the best balance for faculty for time spent in the classroom and time spent pursuing scholarship and research. The best universities are able to strike this professional balance so faculty members have the time to excel in the classroom and in their arena of research and scholarly work. It is also important to remember that we are doing this as we continue to stress the remarkable student experience that our students have during their time at our University.

Our tactical focus on faculty workload will include the following:

  1. We are growing by more than 40 faculty positions this year and next;
  2. Based on the projected revenues of a growing student body and fee income from differential fees in some colleges, we are planning to continue to grow the faculty by at least 20 new positions each year for the next four years;
  3. We are using a Request for Proposal approach for these new positions in an effort to hear all needs and all voices from across the entire campus. I encourage your continued input and ideas, your innovative approaches and solutions, to facilitate our plan for continued growth.
  4. Kevin will be working with our colleges, departments and units to reduce the teaching workload of all tenure-track faculty to levels competitive with our peer research universities in the West;
  5. We are making a firm institution-wide commitment to reduce the student to faculty ratio so that we can bring this figure toward 18 to 1, or near the national land grant median. Adding new faculty will certainly help us, as will the planned reduction in teaching load. And again, the emphasis on this area will be to allow faculty flexibility to focus on scholarly pursuit and research productivity.
  6. We are also working to provide more administrative and classified positions in key areas. This has included the hiring of more workers in our financial aid office to handle a dramatically increased workload, additional IT personnel for technological support all over campus, more librarians, more administrative assistants, more advisors, and help in the Office of Sponsored Programs, among many areas.

As we are doing this, we need to double the national impact of our research enterprise over the next five years, particularly in the programmatic areas where we are developing critical mass. Our target should be the Carnegie designation of "very high" research. Though this goal will require significant growth in faculty positions and doctoral graduates, the "very high" Carnegie research designation is a useful guide. Consider our western peer research institutions of Oregon State, Washington State, and the Universities of Oregon, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah. Each is classified by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching as Arts and Sciences/Professions balanced, comprehensive doctoral granting with either a medical school or veterinary school (except the University of Oregon), and Research University Very High. We have the same designations except for the "very high" research category. We soon will be the size of the University of Oregon and Oregon State. Appropriate applications of funds and choices made will determine whether we will move in the directions of development experienced by these Western U. S. peers.

How do we double the impact? By following these three tactical tracks:

  1. Growing the number of tenured and tenure-track faculty on our campus;
  2. Encouraging the formation of more multi-disciplinary teams in research areas that have potential for "critical mass". Multi-disciplinary approaches will enhance opportunities for our faculty and students, forge productive relationships between research disciplines, funding agencies, and our sister institutions, and partner with industry to support economic development and technology transfer in our region.
  3. Investing in and growing our base of graduate students.

This strategy includes two immediate steps: We're adding more graduate teaching assistant positions and we're increasing our graduate student stipends by $1,500 per year to attract high-quality students from throughout the world. This investment should yield increased graduate enrollment, retention and help fortify our overall research capacity. Increasing research and graduate program capacity has a major, positive impact on the quality of our undergraduate offerings: more graduate teaching assistants directly impact capacity in the classrooms and labs; more research activity increases the opportunities for undergraduate research which our students seek. If we do these things, I believe we can increase the impact of our nationally-competitive and world-improving research programs.


So here we are. We are at a good moment in the history of our University. We've weathered difficult times, and now we are poised to excel in the most competitive arenas. We have a unique intellectual and social ecosystem on this campus. It gives us inherent flexibility in reaching our goal of building a culture of competitive excellence. This is our moment to lead our state ... to be outstanding and to do awe-inspiring work. This is our moment to be bold ... where we must go all in to recruit more students in order to build our University; to graduate more students; to grow our faculty faster than student growth; to re-balance faculty workload to meet nationally competitive teaching loads; to build research and graduate programs to move toward the Carnegie Very High Research ranking like our peer institutions in the West.

If our recent history is any indication, we are capable of all these things ... and so much more. I want to wish all of you a very successful 2013-2014 academic year. Go Pack, and thank you all for being here today.