2012 State of the University Address

Thursday, January 26, 2012
Eric R. Gilbertson, President
Saginaw Valley State University


I appreciate your interest in important matters affecting our University, and I hope you find this discussion interesting and useful – and I hope worth coming out for on a January day. As in years past, I’ll begin with updates and various items of information.  Then, there are a few larger topics I’d like to discuss with you.

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Total winter semester enrollments are once again strong, though a few internal trends do warrant special mention.  Our total “headcount” enrollment stands at 10,360, a slight increase of .16% over last year.  Credit hours taught, however, increased by some 2.35%, totaling some 118,800.


Included in these totals, though, are some significant changes in specific categories.  Previously observed trends in student selection of undergraduate majors continue, with particular growth in the health professions versus some accelerated shrinkage in Teacher Education.  This, of course, also creates stress in those disciplines that provide support and prerequisite courses – particularly, of late in the sciences.

We were pleased by an increase in the numbers of international students attending SVSU - up from 425 a year ago to 548 this semester.  By far, the largest share of these students continues to be from the People’s Republic of China and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Our ongoing challenge, then, is to broaden the base of nations from which we draw students.  Efforts to recruit from several other nations, including India, South Korea and Ghana, have not yet been successful.  This initiative will require more and better strategic approaches in the future.

We were also pleased by continued improvement, slow but positive, in student retention – particularly in second semester return rates for entering freshmen.

We are also joined this semester by some 44 guest students from the Great Lakes Bay Region’s new Early College Program.  These advanced high school students will be completing their secondary education while they also take select college-credit courses here.  We hope, of course, that many of them will choose to stay at SVSU for their baccalaureate degree studies.

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A rapid decrease in graduate level enrollments - particularly in the College of Education – is problematic.  Overall, graduate headcount this semester is down by nearly 13% from last winter.

The weak job market for new K-12 teachers is one culprit, of course, but changes in State teacher certification and in re-certification requirements also have had a significant impact.  What had been a legally-mandated requirement that teachers earn graduate credits in order to maintain their professional licensure has now been all but eliminated.

Clearly, this requires this University and other universities to re-think their roles in graduate professional education.  It will also require our College of Education to re-focus on its undergraduate teacher preparation mission and reconsider the appropriate criteria for and size of its entering classes - as well as, of course, the staffing levels needed at this reduced size.

Our colleagues in the College of Education are at work on these important matters, as this University’s role in the preparation of professionals for K-12 schools remains a vital part of our overall institutional mission.

Enrollments in several of our other graduate programs are also less than robust, and this will also require re-examination of the mission and market for these programs.  As with all matters, there must be a clear focus on what students and employers need and not just on what seems to be congenial work for ourselves.  And honest answers to these questions will likely result in changes to what has been “business as usual” in our graduate- level programs.

As with undergraduate programs, however, graduate programs in the health sciences remain in high demand.  We have approved for implementation the new Doctor of Nursing Practice program‌ in order to permit prospective nurse practitioners to achieve professional certification once those requirements are raised in 2015.

An extra word of explanation is also warranted by this curricular initiative.  SVSU has resisted the temptation to move several of its programs to the doctoral level.  We are concerned that too many universities in Michigan are already attempting to offer doctorates, and that doing so would necessitate an unwise move away from our primary mission of providing outstanding teaching at the baccalaureate and masters levels.

In the instance of graduate nursing education, however, we have a mission-driven goal of providing primary care practitioners for the health needs of our service region.  That certainly includes the preparation of licensed nurse practitioners – a profession that is and will be, if anything, even more important to the health care industry in the future.

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We are acutely aware that the number of high school graduates in Michigan has begun to decline.  With this trend continuing for the next decade, there is already an intensifying competition for new students.

This “market” is increasingly complex.  Student choice of institution is determined by several factors, with price only one of them.  But price (i.e. tuition and fees) does matter, and this will require great care as we try to balance what students seem to want – whether classes or recreation or facilities – against what they and their families are willing to pay.

‌ Our “customers” – a term I don’t like to use but which clearly includes both students and the public generally – send hopelessly mixed messages about what they want from public universities.  On the one hand, we are sternly admonished to be “lean” and ruthlessly efficient – like businesses imagine themselves to be.  I might note that earlier this week the Leader of the Free World himself even took time out of a State occasion to admonish colleges and universities across the fruited plain to control their financial appetites.  To that, I would only add that some of us have been doing precisely that – receiving scant appreciation for maintaining relatively low tuition.

One the other hand, students and their families seem drawn to institutions that offer . . . shall we say . . . at least some “amenities” – single bedrooms, well-lit places for wholesome physical exercise, an agreeable menu of dining options.  Moreover, the “market” seems still to value highly those institutions that are, by most standards, the least efficient – including some that have been driven more by institutional vanity than a clear and reasonable sense of mission.

The challenge for our institution in this complicated environment is, again, to work very hard to be very good at what we do as a teaching institution.  We must be efficient and appealing – but without succumbing to the temptation for extravagance.  This is a tough balance to achieve, and tougher still to maintain.

‌ We continue to work hard at improving student retention and success rates – a matter that is increasingly critical to our enrollment health.  And, parenthetically, one area in which we must improve is in relieving student anxiety about course scheduling and registration.  We must find better ways of balancing our twin goals of maintaining a lean and efficient course schedule while reducing the frustration students experience when enrolling in the sections they want or need.

In light of these factors, as well as to prepare for a larger institutional planning effort beginning next summer, I have charged a special Task Force to review these and other related issues and make recommendations as to appropriate enrollment goals for SVSU’s near-term future. Stay tuned for more developments in the weeks and months ahead.

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In years past, I’ve also used this occasion to announce major construction initiatives.  But as enrollment growth slows, and given the recently completed spurt of construction activity, there is little of a dramatic nature to announce. But this does not mean that there are not physical plant issues or capital needs to be addressed.

Our physical campus is, by most standards, fairly new - some 59% of all facilities having been built in just the past 15 years.  The challenge now is how to maintain and improve them [list of buildings built pre-2003 ]. Things that go largely unseen by most of us - until something goes wrong - do need attention.  We can call this “deferred maintenance,” but we are really trying not to defer this - or at least not for too long.

We are soon replacing an aging and ailing boiler in Science East this year - $600,000, thank you.  And the Ryder Center roof is now more than 20 years old - there’s another cool million or so.  And our oldest student housing units - what we primly call the “Freshmen Suites,” but what students affectionately call “the Zoo” – are over-crowded and in need of upgrading.

Wickes Hall, our oldest major facility, is also badly in need of repair - not for cosmetic purposes, but to replace air-handling and plumbing infrastructure and to make energy-saving improvements.
And so you can expect to hear less about “cool” new buildings and more about these kinds of needs for at least a few years.  Our highest priority for capital support from the State Legislature is a major renovation of Wickes Hall.  Keep your fingers crossed on that one.

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‌ It is also time to review and update our Campus Master Plan, which was last revised some 15 years ago.  Most of what has been done since that time has generally conformed to the concepts, if not the specifics, of that plan.

But though we plan no major expansion projects in the near term, there are nonetheless a host of issues that require planning and a host of opportunities for the improvement of our physical campus – matters like traffic flow and safety, utility systems, as well as aesthetic improvements.  This will require fresh thinking and professional assistance.

‌ You will also hear more about this Master Planning exercise in the weeks ahead, and our planning consultants will be holding public sessions to solicit the ideas and perspectives of anyone who wishes to be heard.  Stay tuned on that one too.

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You almost cannot have missed hearing about the upcoming 50th Anniversary celebration for our University as well as a fund-raising campaign to support its future and celebrate its history.  Plans are underway for that celebration in the fall of 2013.  And the fund-raising campaign is also underway as initial – or “cornerstone” – gifts are being received from some of SVSU’s oldest and best friends.

‌ The theme of this campaign‌ is the support of talent for the University and those it serves - talented faculty and staff and talented students.   And so it is hoped those who care about and believe in our work - and all of us too - will contribute to scholarships, special academic and research programs, facilities and other opportunity-creating funds that will attract and advance the human talent the University needs to continue its upward trajectory.

Several key commitments have already been made‌ to this cause.  The Gerstacker Foundation of Midland has committed another $1 million dollars to expand the Gerstacker Fellowship Program endowment for educational leaders, as well as more than $180,000 for improvements to the Gerstacker Regional Aquatic Center.  The Wickes Foundation of Saginaw has committed $1.5 million dollars to endow an academic chair in Nursing.  Our former Board of Control Chair Bob Vitito and his wife Bobbi have committed to an endowment that will provide unique study and travel opportunities for our most promising students in the College of Business; and a current Board member and his wife, Scott and Nancy Carmona, have committed to increasing a scholarship program in engineering that already supports several students.

The Stevens family, along with several other families owning businesses, have pledged support for an endowment in our College of Business for the “Stevens Family Business Institute.”  And we are hopeful too that a major new endowment to provide permanent support for the Student Research and Creativity Institute will also be pledged as part of this campaign.

The campaign is well on its way to a highly successful result – with more than $7 million committed to date – with wonderfully promising opportunities created by our generous friends.

Always remember that there are many, many people and organizations around us who believe in what we do and are willing to contribute from their own means to help us do it better.  That is a source of inspiration for me, and it should be for you too.

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‌ By now, you have probably picked up on my general theme that we are in a time of intensive planning and preparation at SVSU, in and for the College of Education, with the Master Plan for the physical campus, the “right-sizing” of enrollment goals for the near-term future, and a fund-raising campaign among other efforts.

But there is still more in that regard.  We are also beginning to prepare in earnest for the 2013-14 decennial comprehensive review by the Higher Learning Commission.

The University’s programs are accredited by some nine different external agencies‌ .  And, by the way, congratulations to our colleagues in engineering for a successful review by the Accrediting Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET), and to Social Work for a fine job preparing for a visit by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), which will take place next week.

The University as a whole is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission, our regional accrediting agency.  This accreditation is essential to eligibility for participation in the federal financial aid programs that are so critically important to students.  It also serves as validation of our credits and degrees for alumni seeking employment or admission to graduate and professional programs.

This comprehensive review must be preceded by a comprehensive self-study.  Appointments have been made to several study and support committees, and some 65 of our colleagues from across the academic departments and administrative units have already agreed to serve in this effort.

‌ There are committees that correspond to the six basic criteria for accreditation‌: Mission; Institutional Integrity; Academic Programs (Quality, Resources, Support); Academic Programs (Evaluation and Improvement); Resources and Planning; and Federal Compliance.  In addition, there are support committees to work on communications, technical support, and logistics.

But this is not merely a “spectator sport” for the rest of you.  Widespread participation in this process is not just desirable; it is required.  You will be hearing more - much more, perhaps tediously more - about this in future months; and we really do need your perspectives, your ideas, and your critical thinking about what we do and how we are doing it.

We are, of course, a mature University; accreditation is not really in jeopardy.  And so we need to approach this process with pride - not defensiveness - but also with candor and a self-critical eye.  The goal is to learn how we can become better.  So please, be part of this process.

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Our higher education “industry” has been much in the news over the past few months – and not necessarily portrayed in a flattering light.  Among other issues, there has been an intensification of the debate over whether what we do is really worth – in purely economic terms – the prices we charge.

In my view – and this shouldn’t shock you – the answer to the question as to the worth of higher education is “yes,” even if measured only in the narrow and myopic perspective of measurable financial return.

Most of the economic analyses that have been publicized seem to come to the conclusion – albeit reluctantly – that the “value” of an academic degree does exceed its cost to the recipient.  One recent study, for example, concluded that on average college graduates earn about 84% more income over their working lives than do high school graduates.  And another study reached a finding that college graduates also enjoy better rates of overall personal health and lower rates of unemployment.

‌ Of course, it’s difficult to control for a number of very human factors:  we generally start with a more talented and ambitious slice of the youthful population; we are also fortunate to be positioned as gatekeepers to the more remunerative professions; and so on and so forth.

Some recent analysis has also focused on the relative value of degrees in different disciplines and degrees from institutions with varying levels of selectivity in admissions.  And the results are also predictable:  Ivy League grads tend to get rich quicker than others; and the job market does generally reward engineers and financiers more lavishly than it does poets and philosophers.  There’s a revelation for you!

But the larger point seems to me to be this: what we do – higher education – has excessively relied on, and possibly squandered, the blind faith of an increasingly skeptical public in its true value.

We tend to fall back too quickly and easily on lofty and over-used quotations from sage statesmen and on agreeable oratory about education’s indispensability to liberty and prosperity.  Jefferson’s quote over the entrance to our Library, for example, still gives me a warm glow; but I can also tell you that when push comes to shove in a tough, tense, partisan budget battle in Lansing or Washington, no one gets especially misty-eyed about such high-minded rhapsodies.

‌ Instead, we hear about “dashboards” ‌ to measure what we are actually “producing” and other evidences of our contributions to the gross domestic product and to the economic health of our struggling commonwealth.

And when tuition-payment day comes around – as it does, every semester – students and their families are not so brightly cheerful when we solemnly counsel them that the debt they are about to incur is a wise and prudent investment in a future they see as highly uncertain.

And do understand that more and more of our students are going deeper and deeper in debt.  This year alone, our Financial Aid Office processed some $55 million in student loans – an amount equal to about 65% of the total tuition that was collected!

One can hardly blame their skepticism. And, as academics who believe in open inquiry and the power of reason, perhaps we should welcome this.  Perhaps, too, we are not just utterly predictable but also excessively defensive about these questions.  Perhaps we have gotten lazy in explaining in “evidence-based” terms what we do and why, relying instead, too heavily and for too long, on what may now be a lost sense of faith in higher education as an unquestionable social and economic good.

‌ You have seen these data before: the share of this University’s general fund supported by the State of Michigan has diminished dramatically over time, as the annual appropriation and the appropriation per student‌ has been cut again and again.  And we have whined about this ad nauseam.

But now, this year for the first time in many years, it could well be that incremental public funding will be made available for higher education in Michigan.  But the skeptics aren’t going away, and the competition for funding during tight economic times – and that defines our foreseeable future – is not going to yield any easy prizes.

We will be asked about improving graduation rates, about proof that our graduates think and write and reason better because of what we do, about whether the employment market really does value the results of our labor, about how many science and engineering graduates we’ve produced (as though they are the only ones who might be productive), and about whether the University really does contribute to the well-being of the State and the community from which we ask for support.

‌ We need answers – and not the old answers that simply regurgitate the now-tired rhetoric of ancient wisdom.  I believe we have good answers - not on every issue or by any and all standards of comparison – but good answers and solid evidence of steady improvement.  But all of us need to understand that we are under a new level of unsentimental scrutiny; and our performance is, however clumsily and imperfectly, going to be measured.

I am confident in the value of this University to the lives of people and the life of our State and Region.  But all the answers to all the questions won’t all be easy; and in many ways we will need to work harder and do better.

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As is customary, I can report to you that the “state” of our University is healthy, but fragile.  And so it is in 2012.  And so it will be, always.  These precious institutions, universities, are forever fragile.

One can’t help but notice that so many of the injuries to people and to their fragile institutions are self-inflicted.  And that is why our continued care is so important.

We owe our public clear answers to their challenging questions.  And we need to assure our students that what we give them is worth the sacrifice they and their families must make.  And we need to conduct ourselves and the business of the University with the honesty – and, when necessary, with the courage – that others expect of us and that we should expect of one another and ourselves.

So on we go.  Thank you.