University Day 2003

Challenges in Advancing our Land Grant Mission

Edward. J. Ray, President
Oregon State University
University Day
September 16, 2003

 

The best way I have found to explain to friends outside the academy what it means to build a great University is to point to ceremonies like this, noting that those whose achievements we celebrate exemplify the very quality we seek to build throughout the institution. With that in mind, it is a great honor to speak to you on University Day, when we recognize distinguished faculty and staff for their research, teaching, and service accomplishments and contemplate how to become even better than we are. Those of you we honor today have my highest regard and warmest good wishes for continued success.

Thanks to my personal early orientation program, I have more information about the University and its aspirations than many of my freshmen colleagues who will join us next week. Like many other freshmen, however, I surely know a lot less than I think I know. I have been trying to listen carefully and to take a lot of notes. That said, this moment is at hand, and you reasonably expect me to offer some sense of my values and perspectives as well as of my expectations for the future. I particularly want to discuss actions we must take, in the context of our land grant tradition, even as public funding for higher education is in retreat.

I have said on other occasions that the land grant culture is one that I understand and that the land grant mission is one for which I have great passion. Established by the Morrill Act of 1862, that mission is to serve the educational needs of the people and contribute to their economic and social well-being. Abraham Lincoln, who signed the Morrill Act into law, purportedly referred to land grant universities as "the people's" universities.

For the last 33 years, I have had the great privilege to work at another great land grant university. From that experience, and from talking with colleagues, community leaders, and other friends of Oregon State University, I have come to believe that our fundamental mission remains unchanged. Consistent with that mission as a land, sea, and space-grant institution, we must provide the people of Oregon with exceptional graduates, scholarship and research, as well as constructive outreach and engagement. We must also enable Oregonians to live, work, and compete in an increasingly diverse and global community.

But while the mission is unchanged, the challenges increase. I believe that our success in realizing our important land, sea, and space-grant mission will depend on our ability to demonstrate commitment to and clear evidence that we provide opportunity, value added, relevance, and partnership in everything we do. Let me address each in turn and then suggest an action plan for the year ahead.

Opportunity

Thomas Jefferson once spoke of creating "an aristocracy of achievement rising out of a democracy of opportunity." Foremost among our responsibilities is to provide such "a democracy of opportunity," assuring that students receive an affordable, quality education built upon highly regarded academic programs, talented and caring faculty and staff, and a challenging and diverse learning environment.

OSU graduates are our most important contribution to the state's future economic and social well-being. We must provide Oregon's students with every practical opportunity to complete their studies here, whether on one of our campuses or utilizing the long-distance access provided by new technologies. With today's competitive economic environment more dynamic and challenging than at any time in our history, life-long learning is a necessity for all citizens. I am proud to say that while all of us have university I.D. cards, I have two of them. The first indicates that I am a student, and I carry it proudly, preferring to believe that staff members at the Memorial Union spotted me as the life-long learner and non-traditional student that I consider myself to be.

Simple logic suggests that the way to maximize the impact of our students is to insure that our retention and graduation rates are as high as possible, that students graduate with excellent skills and that they are not as much the children of privilege as the most talented and best prepared.

To provide our students with extraordinary academic programs that maximize the value of their undergraduate, graduate, and professional degrees, we must recruit and retain exceptional faculty and staff and provide them with the very best teaching and research equipment and facilities as well as competitive compensation. Outstanding academic programs are not pursued simply for the sake of academic rankings and bragging rights. They are essential to prepare our graduates to compete against anyone, anywhere.

We have many extraordinary programs - for example, in agriculture, forestry, engineering and management, public policy, creative writing, oceanography and atmospheric sciences, environmental studies, natural resource management, marine biology, and nutrition and health sciences. These and other areas of excellence are built upon a foundation of traditional core disciplines in the liberal arts and sciences, which are essential for the multiple careers that students today will pursue in their work lives. Outstanding core curriculum programs are also mandatory if we want to be a great University. All great Universities have them. We must build on existing strength in our liberal arts and sciences disciplines and provide the strongest possible core curriculum to all of our students.

In addition, students must be prepared for citizenship in an increasingly diverse state, nation, and world. A diverse community will enhance learning opportunities for all students inside and outside the classroom. Excellence through diversity is a realistic goal for this University and state, and we should pursue it with vigor. Building a diverse community not only is the right thing to do; it prepares our graduates to work effectively in a diverse world. Even more fundamentally, as teachers we should help our graduates build better lives for themselves and others. And those learning opportunities must include study abroad, with particular attention to opportunities throughout the Pacific Rim.

Value Added

In addition to this "democracy of opportunity", we must be certain to add value to all our endeavors. That means we must maximize the use of outstanding scholarship and research to advance fundamental knowledge and contribute to human progress throughout the world.

One of my first conversations with Oregon stakeholders turned to questions about the integrity of our research, which is of course one major way we add value. I soon realized that the issue was whether we would be on the "right side" of scientific inquiry as defined by some of our supporters and opposed by others. Let me be very clear about this. It is a fundamental obligation of scholarly work in the academy to pursue the truth regardless of where it takes us. Because of our expertise in agriculture, natural resources, forestry, ocean and marine sciences, engineering and technology and the life sciences, we will inevitably find ourselves at the center of public policy debates regarding the appropriate balance between environmental safeguards and the need to enhance economic growth. We should not overstate the certainty of our findings, but neither should we shrink from contributing to those discussions. In the short time I have been here, I have noted several occasions on which our faculty have put their research forward for public discussion, and I applaud their courage and integrity in doing so.

One recent example stands out for me. One of the largest forest fires in Oregon history took place last summer - the 400,000-acre Biscuit Fire in the southwestern part of the state. An OSU report released earlier this year analyzed the region and found that weeds, shrubs, and hardwoods will soon overwhelm the land, if nothing is done. Many of the trees still standing are in weakened condition and are susceptible to insect infestations. With every passing month, the value of the salvage logging diminishes. This work has attracted considerable public attention, and whatever the policy outcome proves to be, I am proud of my colleagues for providing their best scientific input to inform the policy debate.

Much of our value comes from providing the children of ordinary people with the opportunity to become anything that their wits and hard work allow. We provide extraordinary value added to their education, and in the process we transform their lives. Very few institutions can make that claim and, therefore, command the same degree of loyalty and affection from their graduates and friends. Our Honors College, for example, is a great source of pride because it offers the best and brightest students from all segments of society exceptional learning and research experiences. Honors certainly represents an important element of value added, and we need to maintain our commitment to it.

It is, in part, to preserve that special role that we must thoughtfully approach the use of tuition and fees to meet our financial needs. Our Governor and our legislators in Salem understand that funding higher education, as well as K-12, is an investment in the future of our state. No one was pleased with the hard choices that had to be made to balance the biennial budget and the resulting further cuts in state funding for higher education. Nevertheless, we have an obligation to make certain that raising tuition and fees is the last and not the first instrument of choice in dealing with declining state funding. Likewise, we have an obligation to increase our support for need-based aid and to make certain that economically disadvantaged but capable students are not denied access to an affordable education at Oregon State University.

We cannot afford to be naïve about the difficulty associated with growing these other forms of revenue and the time and effort that it will take to achieve substantial progress. Nor can we simply substitute tuition and fee increases for lost state funding while we wait for other revenue sources to grow. We need to review all of our administrative structures and costs and find smarter and more cost effective ways to conduct the business of running a large and complex University. We must not avoid the hard choices that are being thrust upon us. Nor can we ignore the need for sacrifice.

It was evident to me early on that the affection that alumni and friends express for this institution runs strong and deep. We must inform alumni and friends that we need their help to sustain and build preeminent programs and to continue to provide financial aid to students who are economically disadvantaged. We must increase our efforts to secure federal, state, and industry support for our research. We must partner more effectively with our friends in business, the government sector, and the rest of higher education to create new products, methods of management and production, and means for distributing information, goods, and services. Those efforts will increase our resource base, even as they enhance the value that we provide to our relationships with all of our stakeholders.

Relevance

In addition to expanding opportunity and adding value, we must remain relevant to the needs of our state. Oregon State University must advance Oregon's economic development and social progress while helping to sustain its natural resources and preserve its natural beauty.

Apart from producing well-prepared graduates, we are connected to people's lives in many ways - a point we need to make more often and more effectively. Frankly, I do not know if it will be possible to reverse the trend of declining state support for public higher education, as meritorious as our case may be. I do know that if the people of Oregon feel that we are an important and positive force in their lives, we will fare far better in future budget decisions than if they believe we have little relevance to their lives.

It is estimated that as many as 9 out of 10 Oregon businesses are owned or managed by families and that those businesses contribute as much as $24 billion in payroll expenditures to the Oregon economy. The future vitality of Oregon's economy will depend in large part on our ability to grow new businesses. Fortunately, as I have learned, we have a long history of relevance whose vitality is reflected in contemporary programs. For example, the Austin Family Business Program was founded in 1985, offering courses, workshops, and consultations to help family businesses grow and prosper. And this year the University will begin the first class of students to enroll in the Austin Entrepreneurship Program. We are one of the first universities in the United States to provide students with a residential learning experience focused on starting, incubating and growing new businesses created by students.

During my brief tenure, I have heard a great deal of discussion about the need to invest in engineering and technology for the future well-being of the state economy. While I support that thesis enthusiastically, I counsel caution when it comes to buzzwords like "new economy" and "knowledge economy." As some of you know, I am an economist, a group accused of stating their projections to the nearest tenth of a percentage point to prove they have a sense of humor. As an economist, I suggest that if the dot.com collapse taught us nothing else, it should have taught us that there is no silver bullet for achieving continuing economic prosperity. To the contrary, we need a strategy of diversified growth.

Fortunately, Oregon has the same opportunities to invest in new technologies and industries that are available to other states, and the legislature has provided support through the Signature Research Initiative and other programs. However, we are even more fortunate than most states in our wealth of natural resources, including a wonderful climate, soils, forests, mountains, ocean and waterways. While we must absolutely preserve these exceptional natural treasures for future generations, we should also recognize that they represent a source of great competitive advantage in developing an extraordinarily diverse and vibrant economy and quality of life.

And if we are smart enough to apply best business practices and state-of-the-art technology to everything we do, we can retain the life style and natural resource advantages Oregon offers today while at the same time leveraging those advantages to accelerate the state's economic growth. For whether or not Oregon is among the economic winners in the future will turn not on whether there is a relative preponderance of traditional versus new economy activity in the state but whether we are among the best-in-class in everything we do.

Happily, we are already demonstrating a capacity to apply best business practices and cutting-edge technology in traditional and new product lines. I have visited the Food Innovation Center, which has become an agricultural incubator where new products, technology, and trade agreements are hatched. In partnership with the Oregon Department of Agriculture, the Center helps Oregon farmers transition to profitable, consumer-driven agriculture and create new businesses and jobs for the state. In collaboration with Pacific Northwest fruit growers, the Center provides taste-testing data used to calibrate automated sorting sensors that growers use to select and sort apples. Machines can now automatically detect precise degrees of sweetness and crispness. Other researchers at the center are experimenting with new techniques in food processing, including the use of radio wave technology to heat food. Once perfected, this technology could flash cook foods to preserve freshness, flavor, and nutrition.

Oregon State University is also the lead institution in a revolutionary study of the near-shore region of the West coast called the Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans. With funding of nearly $30 million, the research should have a significant impact on coastal management and fisheries. One area of study focuses on a proposal to establish marine reserves to re-energize depleted ground fish and other species. The plan could also re-energize coastal communities that depend on these recreational and commercial fisheries.

At the same time, the University is providing leadership in the application of new technologies for new industries. In the area of multi-scale materials and devices, for example, OSU is teaming with the Pacific Northwest National Labs, industry, the University of Oregon, and Portland State University to put nanotechnology to work in real Microsystems. The result could be cleaner and more efficient energy systems, sensors that help assure homeland security, and life-saving medical devices. The outcome could be an entire new industry for Oregon.

In short, through patents, licenses, technology transfers, and partnerships with associates in the business, education, and government sectors in the state, Oregon State University can play a vital role in revitalizing our state. We can do this by reviving traditional industries, contributing to recognized knowledge economy activities, creating the industries and services of the future and informing important policy debates. A strategy of more aggressively bringing our inventions and ideas to all sectors of the marketplace is not only important for diversifying our revenue base but also for demonstrating our relevance in the lives of the people the university was created to serve.

Partnership

Finally, in addition to opportunity, value added and relevance, we must become an increasingly valuable, reliable, and effective partner with our many constituencies. These include Oregon's community, business, political/governmental and education leaders, in concert with whom we can bring the University's many strengths to bear upon contemporary needs.

I have already discussed the importance of partnerships for economic development purposes. There are many other ways that we can and should connect with those we serve and partner with those with whom we have common cause to address societal needs.

As educators, we have a stake in every aspect and level of learning. I know that our School of Education and our distance-learning programs connect Oregon State with students before they come to the University and with life-long learners. But the responsibility for promoting continuous learning opportunities is a shared one for the entire University. If students are to be prepared to take the fullest possible advantage of the education we provide, the K-12 schools must be as effective as possible. That means we have to partner effectively with the primary and secondary school systems to improve their performance and make that transition to college seamless and successful. We also need to connect with the community colleges and other private and public institutions of higher education to make certain that transferring to and from Oregon State is easy for qualified students. We need to expand our distance learning programs to maximize the menu of educational opportunities that we provide to the people of Oregon, regardless of their location and circumstances. In all of these efforts, we must engage our partners in a continuous process to shape what we do and to assess outcomes.

We also need to reach out and to engage in a meaningful dialogue with community leaders, businesspeople, and government representatives throughout the state to help them address local, state, and national problems. There is such a great wealth of talent, creativity and know-how here. We could do so much to benefit the people we serve if we will talk to them and learn where we can make the most effective contributions.

In addition, we are part of a higher education system that includes institutions with programs and missions that are not identical with our own. We owe it to ourselves and to the people of Oregon to find every worthwhile opportunity to partner with colleagues at other institutions, maximizing the effectiveness of our programs and those of all of higher education in the state. In some areas of common programming, it is appropriate that we compete because, for example, competing for excellence in foundation program areas will benefit all of our students. Competition aside, I believe there is a lot more that we can accomplish through academic collaboration than we have realized to date.

I offer these observations about opportunity, value added, relevancy and partnership to give you a sense of my values and perspectives in thinking about land grant universities - especially one with the foundation and potential of Oregon State. With these observations as a context, let me suggest an agenda for advancing our mission during the coming academic year.

Advancing Our Mission

I know from experience that advancing our mission will require focused and continuous planning, which we will do together. I am already well aware of your strong commitment to this university and its advancement. One of the first things I noticed when I visited this campus was the effort many of you had made to utilize a very open and consultative process in bringing the strategic plan forward. I was likewise impressed that you were doing so despite pending financial difficulties and the transition of University leadership. That alone convinced me of your passion for the work you do, your dedication to the students and professions that you serve, and your courage in fighting for your beliefs. What you have accomplished already provides us with a solid base on which to build. Know that I too am committed to the advancement of this University and am eager now to work with you.

As I read the plan that was shared with the campus community last May, and discussed it with others, I came to believe that despite all the excellent work that it represented, the task was not finished. Many of you, I also found, had questions and concerns about the draft strategic plan. This plan is very important to our future. It is essential not only that we get it as right as we possibly can but also that we launch it with the largest and broadest-based support we can muster.

In trying to understand the genesis of the draft plan, I read other material - including the Vision 2007 document. I have engaged in the difficult process of creating and implementing a strategic plan before and appreciate how hard your journey has been to date. The values and perspectives I have shared with you are my own, but I believe we are of one mind regarding the special role of Oregon State University in the lives of the people of Oregon and in the service of the nation and the world. We are all privileged to be here in this place at this time. The aspirations that we seek to advance are not our own but those of the people who created this great institution. Failure is not an option.

Now that the budget process has been completed and the transition in leadership has been resolved, advancing our mission will require progress on three important fronts during the current academic year.

First, Vision 2007 contains many sound recommendations that clearly should be implemented. In a separate summary document that is being distributed today, I have listed all the actions proposed in Vision 2007, grouping them into three categories: Actions that have already been undertaken, actions that seem warranted but which we should discuss during the coming academic year and make decisions about, and initiatives that require an honest dialogue to determine whether any action is appropriate.

Second, that activity should proceed in parallel with efforts to finalize the strategic plan. That plan will define a common agenda and help us work purposefully over time regardless of the changing circumstances that confront us. But let us not allow a continuing strategic planning exercise to become an excuse for inaction. Will Rogers once said that it isn't good enough to be headed in the right direction; if you aren't moving fast enough, you can still get run over. There are changes that we need to make, and others that we need to consider, but we need to make decisions and move on.

In an effort to bring the plan to completion, a number of us have worked on the May document - taking into account feedback that we received from a number of you. A revised draft of the strategic plan is being distributed with this speech. I propose that we take time during the autumn quarter to dissect, debate, and improve upon the current draft plan with the expectation that we will have done our best by the end of the quarter. With that goal in mind, I hope we can begin during winter quarter to establish the foundation for a comprehensive University fundraising campaign. That foundation would include college and support unit strategic plans that are aligned with the University plan as well as an appropriate level and distribution of development resources to insure the success of a University campaign.

The third item we must address as we finalize the strategic plan is how to manage the reductions that result from the recently concluded state budget process. We must also develop contingency plans in case efforts to rescind the tax increases used to balance the biennial budget are successful. While a strategic plan is always important, it is particularly so during tough financial times. That is because it brings focus to our decision-making and helps us prioritize. It also provides guidance to build something positive even as we determine where and how much to cut costs. The strategic plan will help us chart that course while a development campaign will allow us to grow our financial base, continuing to realize our aspirations for this wonderful University.

So there is a lot to do over the coming months.

Last June, I was privileged to attend a commencement ceremony at which the speaker was Christopher Reeve, the Hollywood Superman who became paralyzed when thrown from a horse. He is one of the most inspirational people I have ever seen. Speaking from his wheelchair at an earlier event, Reeve once told a national audience that, "So many of our dreams at first seem impossible. Then," he went on, "they seem improbable. And then, when we summon the will, they soon become inevitable."

That is the key: Summoning the will. Conversations here have reminded me of earlier experiences in which colleagues asked who would make the hard decisions and who would be held accountable for our success. The truth is that success will depend on all of us. The planning process must be consultative and inclusive so that our statement of aspirations belongs to all of us. We cannot succeed if we are not bound to a common cause and if we are not bound to that cause for the long term. In the last analysis, however, responsibility for making the right hard decisions resides with the president, provost, vice presidents, vice provosts, deans, directors and department chairs. They have the authority to lead and they should be held accountable for doing so.

As I said earlier, the fundamental mission of this University has not changed from the day of its founding, but the challenges we face are as great as at any time in our history. The spirit, courage, and commitment reflected in your continuing planning efforts is impressive. I have seen that same affection and commitment for this institution among alumni and friends of the University. I have discovered a "can do" spirit in the state that is absolutely infectious and that can make our dreams inevitable. As a non-traditional freshman, I cannot imagine a more worthwhile cause to join or a finer group of colleagues to face that challenge with than all of you and our alumni and friends.