2021 State of the University address

President Brian Sandoval
September 28, 2021

Chair McAdoo, Members of the Board of Regents, Vice Presidents, Deans, Chair Pason, Faculty, Staff and Students, Alumni, local government leaders, community members.

Good afternoon, everyone.

It is my honor to be here today to discuss the state of our great University.

I love history, especially University history, so, I wish to begin by reading to you some words spoken about us more than a century ago.

In 1874, a two-story brick building on a small hill in Elko opened its doors with an expectant hope for its seven students. But a few years later, it was agreed at the end of 1884 that the University would move from Elko to Reno.

In September, 1894, a new University President, Joseph Stubbs, was inaugurated.

Enrollment had reached 200 students, a record. Yet the mining boom of the big bonanza of the 1860s and early 1870s had vanished. This was on the mind of President Stubbs as he spoke during his inauguration. He started his speech with great appreciation, stating: “From the fragrant fields of your beautiful valleys, and the contribution of your local commerce came the means to erect this University, which speaks to the magnificence of your ideals.”

Stubbs then spoke of the University’s need to adapt, to find its most impactful place in a modern world of 1894.

“The College of today is the evolution of the college of yesterday. … If the colleges be true to themselves, they will never grow old. … The ideal university … is an embodiment of the best spirit of the age.”

President Stubbs was known for giving excruciating, long speeches that often sounded like sermons, with passionate fervor for the value of higher education. For today, I promise you that I won’t give a President Stubbs-sized speech, but certainly passionate fervor for the value of our beloved land-grant University!

But I do want to make an important point.

I truly believe our University is the embodiment of the best spirit of our age. This is what I want to share with all of you today.

We represent Nevada’s greatest ideal … where we began, and perhaps even more importantly … where we can go … and what we will be, in the years ahead.

Entrepreneurial, innovative, creative, courageous, unafraid to be bold in the name of broadening our impact in all aspects of our 21st century opportunities.

And yet, there is some uncertainty as I speak to you today.

We are in the midst of one of the most challenging times in our 147-year history. We have a pandemic that has killed more than 7,000 Nevadans, nearly 700,000 Americans, and more than 4.5 million people worldwide.

We are confronting budget cuts that have required us to keep vacant positions open, leaving important faculty positions unfilled.

Our nation continues to ask itself hard questions regarding social justice and societal inequities. What it means to be a person from communities that have traditionally been marginalized or forgotten.

What it means to live in a time where there is constant disruption — technological as well as societal.

What it means to know we live in a time of profound climate change, with the associated impacts of persistent drought, relentless wildfires and uncertain weather patterns.

These are new currents that are requiring us all to reflect on who we are, and to ask more of ourselves when so much has been asked of us already. We must merge our future with that of the communities we partner with and serve. We must embrace the wonderful diversity of our fast-growing state. We must broaden the borders of our campus so that they reach far beyond the boundaries of Nevada — across the west, across the country, and across the globe.

These are our challenges. And these are our opportunities.

Where the proud 147-year legacy of a University can merge with the opportunities of the present moment. But I have never felt more confident that our University is poised to serve as the Silver Gate through which we are the ideal university to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

I am proud to inform you that even though we face a challenging time, the state of our University is strong.

I know this to be true for a very simple reason. Because of our people — the students, faculty and staff of this wonderful institution — are truly Nevada’s greatest ideal.

In the year I have been President, I have seen acts of grace and goodness to last a lifetime. During this time of unprecedented change, the state of our University has come to rest with our students. Their strength, empathy and conviction through this challenging moment has inspired us all. And the future and destiny of our students has come to be guided by our committed faculty and staff. Together, you’ve demonstrated a special sense of duty and a rare kind of humanity and determination that has kept our University moving forward; what I like to call “The Wolf Pack Way.”

I’ve seen this through the undergraduate research of students like Olivia Tahti, who represents the kind of leader our students will become … in Olivia’s case, a new generation of engineers who believe and work toward a common goal: that access to clean water throughout the world and throughout our communities be available to everyone … in Olivia’s own words … “a human right.”

Or students like Jayde Powell, who during her time on our campus founded the nonprofit Shopping Angels to deliver groceries to the at-risk and immunocompromised during the pandemic … and who has said, “At the end of the day, I feel that a life is best-lived when helping others.”

It is, yet again, another sterling example showing why our students … the students of our great University … continue to lead us into the future.

I’ve seen the special sense of duty and humanity that permeates our institution through the extraordinary work of our faculty.

From professors like Lyndsay Munro of Chemistry … Lyndsay has held “After Hours” Zoom sessions for her Chem 121A students … sessions that Lyndsay says, were not necessarily meant for content discussion but “more for connecting beyond the classroom. It was honestly a really nice way to connect with some of my students … I was able to really sense what a lot of them were dealing with at the time.”

Or Cari Cunningham, Associate Professor of Dance, who worked with her colleague, Nate Hodges, and six student choreographers to create a one-of-a-kind fall dance festival. The fall dance festival transformed our campus’ open spaces into compelling performing arts venues. As Cari put it so well, after taking things one day at a time for so long during the pandemic, it was time to recognize that, “every day we can dance is a good day.”

I’ve seen this incredible spirit demonstrated through the dedication and determination of our staff.

People like Christina Estrada, of Facilities Services, who has been responsible for the landscape maintenance around campus, ensuring that even during a pandemic, our campus remains beautiful and safe.

These are just a few examples of the more than 21,000 students, and why 7,000 faculty and staff members who are daily demonstrating why they are the embodiment of The Wolf Pack Way.

Would you mind joining me in applauding these individuals … and so many others just like them?

Thank you.

When I look to the future, I see an institution that places a premium on realizing the hopes and dreams of all of our students. That through this crucible of the pandemic, we are preparing a new generation of leaders, who understand that we must adapt to an evolving societal, technology and climate landscape. Our students are our problem-solvers … the creative minds who will show us how, and ask us all to be a part of their journey.

When I look to the future, I see a University that prides itself on the cutting-edge thought and approaches … one that embeds innovation, entrepreneurship and creativity into our education foundation.

In fact, we are in the midst of creating our next 5-year strategic plan. This framework for our future needs your input. We are already conducting a series of listening visits with our schools, colleges, divisions and units to hear what audacious goals and bold ideas you have. Please attend these listening sessions and share your best ideas. We want this process to reflect in every way our public priorities for the future, with clear goals that steward our resources — human, physical and financial — in the most effective way. Check out our strategic planning website, unr.edu/strategic-planning for more information on how you can get involved.

In the spirit of planning and looking to the future, I’d like to take a quick moment to have you join me in welcoming two new deans to The Wolf Pack Family.

Dr. Muge Akpinar-Elci became Dean of our School of Public Health in August. Dean Apkinar-Elci has extensive experience in Public Health, both nationally and internationally.

Catherine Cardwell also began her appointment in August. She is our new Dean for University Libraries. We look forward to Dean Cardwell’s leadership harnessing even more of the tremendous creativity that our libraries represent.

Please join me in welcoming our new Deans to The Wolf Pack Family.

Thank you.

Planning, as I just mentioned, is of the utmost importance. Our ability to fill vacant positions is dependent on our budget, as well as our projected budget for the next biennium. Student credit hours represent a significant part of our budget. Although our enrollment for this semester is good, we are nevertheless down about 1.5 percent in credit hours. We are planning for a similar scenario for next year as well. This is the year when the state considers our student credit hours for our budget, which has consequences for our future state funding.

We are also dealing with a reduction in salary and operating funds that were not restored in the last State budget. These and other factors have forced us to reduce positions in order to balance our budget. For example, we have only been able to fill about 25 percent of the open state-funded positions needed on campus.

It’s important to note that positions funded from sources other than state funding, like those that are grant funded, funded directly by student fees or other restricted resources, are approved immediately.

For the time being, however, we need to be strategic in how we add state-funded positions. Provost Thompson is leading the review process for these requests. The goal is to ensure that approval for existing vacant and new state-funded positions consider maintaining our R-1 Carnegie Status and student priorities.

A major goal for our entire University is to improve humanity through learning, research and engagement. We want all people, from all walks of life, to know that at the University of Nevada, Reno, they are valued, they are respected, and that their voice is always heard.

These are lofty goals. Let me expand a bit on each of them.

My audacious long-term goal is an aspirational one — to become one of the distinguished 66 universities that make up the prestigious Association of American Universities.

Every audacious goal seems impossible; until it happens.

AAU Membership will not happen overnight. It will take years of strategic planning, investment and teamwork. It will require us to continue the journey we have already embarked upon … but with more scale and purpose.

Competitively sponsored research funding … the impact of our faculty in the research arena … the immense reach of the work we are doing in research across the board … we aren’t re-inventing the wheel on any of these metrics. What we will need to do, however, is develop clear-eyed ideas on how to increase the breadth and depth of the research and other activities we are already doing at our University.

It can be done. It happened here already.

We have seen world-class research groups develop in pharmacology, physiology and microbiology in our School of Medicine. These are faculty members and research groups that rank in the top 25 in the nation by U.S. News & World Report for Federal Research Grants per Faculty Member at the Graduate Level.

We are demonstrating this aspiration in numerous other programs and initiatives on our campus, throughout all of our colleges and schools. We will begin the process of finding the scale, in grant and contract funding, in educational research programs, in community engagement, in gifts and philanthropy, in student success, that we will need as we build toward this transformational institutional goal of achieving AAU status.

Just a few minutes ago I mentioned our students as the leaders of tomorrow. Let me give you an idea of what the students of today are doing. Our latest fall semester census data indicates that our enrollment, even during the pandemic, continues to remain above the 21,000-student mark … 21,034 to be exact. We have set very clear institutional goals on our enrollment. First, “23 by 25” — we want to achieve a record 23,000-student enrollment by the year 2025. Second, “25 by 30” — we want to achieve a record 25,000-student enrollment by the year 2030. We have it within our power to reach both of these goals, which will broaden the already diverse cross-section of students we have from throughout Nevada, the west, the rest of the country, and around the globe.

23 by 25 and 25 by 30 are big goals. But they embody the essence of what this campus needs to be as we work on strategies to go where our students are, and what we will need to do in order to meet their ever-changing learning needs. Our fall enrollment tells us a few other important stories.

In our fall 2021 enrollment, there are 796 Presidential Scholars, 52 National Merit Scholars, and 30 National Hispanic Recognition Scholars. In our freshmen class, we have a total of 273 Presidential, National Merit and National Hispanic Recognition Scholars, which is up from last year.

So much of this success runs through the incredible people who are part of Student Services. We cannot thank these dedicated and caring professionals enough. Would you all please join me in applauding the inspirational work done by the great people of Student Services?

Thank you.

And our 21,000-plus student body continues to be even more incredibly diverse. Forty three percent of our overall student body identify as students of color and 48 percent of our freshmen class identify as students of color. Twenty three percent of our overall student body identify as Latinx. This diversity speaks to our future as a University. It points to the critical role these young people will be playing in the future of our state and nation once they graduate as our new generation of leaders. And, it is a signal that we are fast approaching another major University goal — to become a Hispanic Serving Institution. We are close… so very close … only about two percentage points in reaching this prestigious classification that speaks to the future of Nevada … and that speaks to the very heart of our mission as an institution of higher education.

We are working on enhancing our diversity in other ways as well. I was honored during the past legislative session to support the effort to provide more educational pathways for higher education to members of our Native Tribes, military families, and our Dreamers. The Tuition Waiver for the state’s Native American students is just a first step in what will be a continued emphasis on their success on our campus.

I am pleased to report to you today that the University will also soon be appointing a Director of Indigenous Community Relations for our campus. This individual, who will report directly to the Office of the President, will provide needed connection between our campus and our Native Communities.

The Nevada Dream Act ensures that our Dreamers will not be excluded from federal student aid, scholarships and grants … as well as college tuition and savings programs.

The National Guard waiver expands the fee waiver for active duty Nevada National Guard members to their spouses and children.

We mustn’t waver on our quest. Our University, the University of Nevada, Reno, needs to always be a place where all voices are heard; all experiences are affirmed; and all who are here know they are always welcome and appreciated.

We are also finding new and exciting ways to encourage students from throughout our state to access our campus. We have initiated a new Dual Enrollment Program with two partnering high schools in Clark County, Cheyenne and Centennial High Schools, which is opening the Silver Gate of Opportunity to our campus to join the Wolf Pack Family. In only a few weeks, over 450 students enrolled to jump start their college journey. The University’s Early College Academy is offering the students of these two high schools an opportunity to take up to 15 credits of college classwork before they graduate. The Academy is furthering the imperative of our Board of Regents to increase access for young people to enter college education.

In addition to the administration and faculty at Cheyenne and Centennial, I wish to thank the Superintendent of Clark County School District, Dr. Jesus Jara. He has been such a strong supporter of an initiative that I believe will serve as a model that broadens access to higher education in our state.

I wish to also thank Dr. Kristen McNeil, the Superintendent for the Washoe County School District, for the partnership and relationships we have established with the district. We are excited about the possibilities in dual enrollment, teaching pathways and excellence, and numerous K-12 initiatives for the school children of Washoe County.

During this past summer, the University was approached with a generational opportunity that increased the scope and reputation of our campus. When we were first approached by the leaders of Sierra Nevada University, a well-respected, private liberal arts institution located on a stunning campus near the shores of Lake Tahoe in Incline Village, Nevada, with the proposal to join forces, I still remember my reaction.

“Oh my. This is a dream come true. We have to do this.”

When you’ve lived in northern Nevada as long as I have, it’s hard not to let your mind race whenever Lake Tahoe enters the picture. Sierra Nevada University’s emphasis on entrepreneurial thinking, professional preparedness, liberal arts and environmental sustainability fit perfectly with many of our core institutional themes. This acquisition also gives us the rare opportunity to make the research inroads to preserve Lake Tahoe’s legendary water clarity, clean air and forest health. The educational experience for our students will certainly be enriched when they have the opportunity to learn in the most beautiful setting in all of higher education — Lake Tahoe. This is a win-win for both of our institutions and for all of the institutions of the Nevada System of Higher Education with whom we will share this one of a kind opportunity.

We are in the middle of the approval process, working with the U.S. Department of Education, Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, and the Nevada Commission on Postsecondary Education and plan on completing this process by next fall.

As I mentioned earlier, we must go where the students are. Whether they are in Nevada, across the nation or around the world, we want them to have access to the University of Nevada, Reno. As a result, we must build a University that embraces technology and produces world-ready graduates with skills that meet the needs of a changing society. To do this, we must expand our online presence.

We are in the process of recruiting a new Vice Provost of Online Learning who will assess our current online offerings and capacity, and will help determine the path forward to give our faculty and students the best of both words — an incredible on and off campus educational experience.

We have also commenced the Digital Wolf Pack Initiative, a pilot collaboration with Apple that provided each of our freshman students with a free iPad Air that enhances digital equity, literacy and student success

As an original land grant institution, we cannot be the university that is left behind, or in the words of President Stubbs, grows “old.” Expanding our online learning opportunities will keep us at the forefront of higher education.

Turning to the work of our faculty and staff, what has impressed me during my year in office has been the resilience of our faculty and staff. We cannot praise our colleagues enough for the great jobs they are doing. How one good act on our campus always leads to another. This is what being part of the Wolf Pack Family is all about. The work of faculty and staff over the past 18 months in unprecedented times vividly demonstrate that amazing life-altering and life-affirming work is being done at our University. We are a campus with faculty who care deeply about their students, research, discipline and colleagues.

The Office for Excellence and Advancement in Teaching is a great example of how our institution is placing a premium on having the most impactful and effective instruction possible. Led by Dr. Sarah Cummings, who has a well-deserved reputation for being one of the finest instructors we have on our campus, this initiative is demonstrating how we can support and enhance excellence in teaching across all disciplines and across our entire campus.

Faculty productivity is high and recognition of the work is even higher. All of this in the face of a pandemic, budget cuts and reduced resources. Thank you for your courage and dedication to this campus, our students and our community.

Our Carnegie R1 Classification is a prestigious milestone that our University must zealously defend. The stronger our foothold among R1 Institutions becomes, the more progress we make on the road to AAU membership.

For fiscal 2021, our research expenditures were $168 million — an 84 percent increase since 2013. This significant increase is due in part to the strong reputation the University has built in research. We secured significant funding for fighting the COVID-19 virus.

A partial list of our faculty honors from the past year includes:

  • 8 Career Awardees, representing four colleges … our most ever in one year;
  • A Sloan Fellowship
  • An Andrew Carnegie Fellows Program Awardee
  • An NEH Fellowship
  • An American Council of Learned Societies Fellowship
  • Two Regents’ Researcher of the Year Awards, just to name a few.

Thanks to this effort, we’ve created an “Ecosystem of Innovation” that has reached from our campus into the community. From Knowledge Fund Investment from the State over the past eight years, we’ve raised $108 million in venture capital for affiliated startups and spinoffs, with an additional $25 million in grants, contracts, gifts and agreements, and 29 companies with University-based operations. All of this demonstrates the breadth of the University’s service to Nevada, as well as our firm commitment to forming partnerships to address important issues and opportunities facing Nevada.

In August we opened the University’s K-12 Robotics Center, developed with the support of Tesla and the Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada. The Robotics Center is part of a larger effort to enhance and to continue to grow our Ecosystem of Innovation throughout northern Nevada.

Along with our historical partnerships in the community, we currently have relationships with new companies like Tesla, Panasonic, Redwood Materials, Apple, Google, Switch, Dragonfly Energy, and Flirtey, among many others.

This has also been a time of great cooperation and shared vision between our University and organizations such as EDAWN and our elected leaders from the cities of Reno and Sparks as well as Washoe County. We will continue this incredible effort of collaboration between all of these key stakeholders.

We have also established a long-desired partnership with Renown Health. UNR Med, thanks to this agreement, will be able to grow its teaching and research capacity to even greater levels. Renown, thanks to this agreement, will be able to better meet the healthcare needs of a growing region.

And, there is no better time than right now to continue our excellent partnerships with the institutions of NSHE. I cannot begin to express how much of a competitive advantage our State has in that we have two Carnegie R1 “Very High” Research Institutions in our University and our friends and colleagues at UNLV. Working with my friend President Keith Whitfield, I look forward to finding more opportunities to partner with our sister institution. From partnering with the Great Basin College for the Mining Center of Excellence, to the Cooperation that exists with Nevada State College in producing educators for Nevada’s schools, to our reciprocal relationship with Truckee Meadows Community College, Western Nevada College and the Desert Research Institute as well as the College of Southern Nevada, we want the University of Nevada, Reno to create partnerships that serve our students in the most transformational ways possible.

Of course, none of these accomplishments and goals could have happened without the leadership and tenacity of our deans, Provost Thompson and Senior Leadership. I called this group yesterday the best in the nation and I meant it. Please join me in thanking them for their dedication to their schools and colleges.

In early August, we broke ground for the parking complex in the Mathewson University Gateway District. Who would have ever thought that when you break ground for a parking garage a business building and a life sciences building will follow? But that’s exactly what that groundbreaking represented. The parking garage, in addition to helping us meet the parking crunch that our campus has traditionally always faced, will be ADA compliant and accessible in every way.

But it is only the beginning. The Business Building and the Life Sciences Building that are to follow will expand our institutional footprint and bring us even closer to the region and State we serve.

Our University has a reputation for finding funding and developing creative ways to make sure our capital construction needs are met. This includes fund-raising and philanthropy. I am thankful for the support of our alumni and friends whose generous donations have made the impossible possible, and transformed UNR into one of America’s Tier 1 Universities. We are nearing the final stretch of our capital campaign, “Building What Comes Next: The Campaign for the New Nevada.” Over the past several years, the campaign has provided needed funding for scholarships, endowed professorships, capital improvements and a lot more.

Earlier this month, we welcomed our new Vice President of Advancement, Bill Johnson, to our campus. Bill has a very distinguished record in higher education. I believe his presence will help lift us to even greater heights in fund-raising and philanthropy. Bill is joining us online today. Would you all join me in welcoming Bill to the Wolf Pack Family?

Thank you.

As I mentioned at the start of my remarks, our University’s legacy has always been to represent the ideals that reflect Nevada at its very best. Through the years, we’ve proven that we are up to the challenges of the time. The pandemic has tested us unlike any other time in our history. We’ve asked a lot of our students, faculty and staff. All of you… the entire University … has delivered during a time of uncertainty, of disruption, of loss; a time when Reno, northern Nevada and the State of Nevada needed the work of every single person on our campus to continue to make the promise of a better, more hopeful future, real and whole again.

This time, this uncertain, challenging time, in many ways, has been our University’s finest hour. This is a moment — and I think we are seeing this on our campus every day — where we approach uncertain times with undaunted courage. We have always endeavored to be a place of hope and opportunity. Where we do our very best to be the very best. This is the Wolf Pack Way. We are a place where we have phenomenal students .. where the knowledge and quality of our faculty and staff are second to none. Where there is no better place — nor one that is nearly as beautiful — to deliver an incredible University experience. We are the Silver Gate to even greater opportunities in the future. Thank you all for believing in our University. And for making it the shining University on the hill that makes us all so proud to play a role in its future. Thank you for reminding us that when we believe in something bigger than ourselves, we can become Nevada’s Greatest Ideal.

Our Alma Mater says it best:

We will ever live to serve her,

Live to give our best,

Live to make our Alma Mater

Pride of all the West.

Let her praises wake the echoes,

While we pledge anew,

Hearts and minds and hands and voices,

To Nevada U.

Go Pack!