Coleman: “Advancing Our Academic Excellence”

UM president delivers annual state-of-the-university address

Editor’s note: The following is the annual state-of-the-university speech given by University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman to the 2008 Senate Assembly, a faculty governance group. She delivered the speech today at Palmer Commons.

Good afternoon!

It’s always a pleasure to be with you. I want to share some thoughts with you, and then I look forward to your feedback. As always, there is a lot happening at the University and I’m sure you have ideas and questions to share.

I want to begin today with three recent rankings that paint a strong picture of our university. We certainly have our reservations about the various rankings that appear with some regularity, but these three are very telling.

The first comes from the Chronicle of Higher Education, which over the summer placed the University high among its “Best Colleges to Work For.” We received strong marks in a number of categories, including: healthy relations between faculty and the administration; compensation and benefits; facilities and security; and job satisfaction.

I am particularly pleased with this ranking because it is based on a survey of faculty and staff. We should all be proud of this accomplishment, because a strong workplace occurs only because of the contributions and engagement of dedicated people like you.

The second list comes from London, where the Times Higher Education recently published its World University Rankings. The Times’ list is important because it is based, in part, on how employers feel about the preparation of our graduates.

So it was particularly gratifying when our university was ranked the best public university in the country – let me repeat that: the best – and the 18th best institution in the world. It is satisfying to know employers feel our students are so well prepared for today’s challenges.

The third set of rankings came out last week, when the U.S. State Department told us UM once again leads the nation in the number of students receiving Fulbright scholarships. Thirty-one of our students have designed programs for themselves, and with the support of the Fulbright program will study in such diverse settings as Ecuador, Oman, Finland and Nepal.

This is a tremendous accomplishment on the part of our students.

More importantly, all of these rankings – best college to work for, best public university in the country, Fulbright leaders – all of these achievements are a reflection on you, our faculty, and your contributions to this astonishing environment we call the University of Michigan.

Working together, we must continue to accelerate these strengths – strengths that reflect our passion for great students, our support of extraordinary faculty, and our nurturing of a culture we know as the Michigan Difference.

Earlier this year, I heard from Thomas Zurbuchen, a professor of space science and aerospace engineering and the director of the College of Engineering’s Center for Entrepreneurship.

He had just finished a year of working with 24 graduate students in space system designs. Their mission was to bring the power of the Internet to rural Africa, where only 5 percent of the population has access. To put that in context, more people in New York City have Internet access than the whole of Africa. Our students wanted to change that.

They devised a satellite system using existing technologies, and developed power systems that run on solar energy to operate the user stations. They met with African experts throughout the University to learn about the needs and challenges of the region. They also created a business model and developed industry collaborations, and proposed ways to set up this system in six different countries whose climates range from barren desert to deep rainforests. And they did this all at extremely low cost, which is essential when bringing technology to the world’s poorest continent.

Google is paying close attention to this work. They’ve already flown several of our students to California to hear firsthand about such an exciting and entrepreneurial enterprise.

Professor Zurbuchen reports that just last week, three satellite stations were shipped to Africa, and three of our Engineering students are headed in the same direction to set them up and train others how to use them.

Our students’ ideas and theories are becoming reality.

You might think this venture is a transformative experience for our students, and it is. They are learning the value of crossing disciplinary borders, and of taking risks to test one’s ideas. They are also making lifelong friendships with their classmates.

But the person who seems to be enjoying this most is Professor Zurbuchen himself. He told me how incredibly moving this work has been for him, and how proud he is to be associated with these students. “It’s these students,” he said, “that make it so much fun to teach at the University of Michigan!”

That’s what makes my job so rewarding, because my job as president is to ensure an invigorating climate for the level of teaching, research and service demonstrated by Professor Zurbuchen and his students.

Academic excellence embodies our university. It is what attracts and inspires students and faculty, and is what gives our graduates power and prestige as they move into business, government, the academy, and countless other institutions.

Central to that excellence is our financial strength. The past several weeks have been tumultuous for any institution, be it your family, your employer or your favorite charity. We have felt the uncertainty of the financial markets as much as any organization, but because of prudent, conservative management, we are weathering this crisis. Our cash flow is sound, our bond rating continues to be the highest possible, and our capital projects are moving forward. Our endowment continues to support student aid, faculty salaries, and countless programs across the University.

It’s not uncommon for people to tell me we should run the University more like a business. Well, when I look at what’s happening on Wall Street, I am very happy we run our university like a university, and I am grateful for the leadership shown by our regents and by our financial team. The strength of our finances is the backbone of our excellence in teaching and research, and because of that, we will be here forever.

Of course, we continue to be challenged. Our state appropriations remain flat, but we are committed to providing attractive salaries, excellent facilities, and strong financial aid packages for our students. We also continually look to reduce our expenses. Working together, we have cut costs of nearly $96 million in the last four years alone, and I thank you for those sacrifices.

We also continue to look to our donors, because philanthropy is integral to our excellence. The Michigan Difference campaign has been a remarkable success, and we still have two months to go.

I confess that when the leadership in our Development office told me in 2004 that the campaign goal would be $2.5 billion, I had my reservations. But we have raised it, and more. We will learn the final amount in a few weeks, but I know we have passed the $3 billion mark, and will be the first public university in the country to realize such an accomplishment.

In addition to being happily overwhelmed by this level of support, I am incredibly grateful to the many faculty and staff who not only give their time and talent to Michigan, but also contribute financially. More than 16,000 faculty, staff and retirees have made campaign gifts totaling nearly $155 million, and I thank you for believing so strongly in the University. Making a financial gift, in addition to your many other contributions, is an extraordinary gesture.

On the afternoon of Friday, Nov. 14, we will gather at Hill Auditorium for a campus-wide convocation to showcase the many successes of the campaign, and I hope you will be there.

We are also advancing our academic excellence by attracting the best students and recruiting and retaining the best faculty.

One facet of our fundraising campaign has been to increase the number of endowed fellowships for graduate and professional students. One lesson we have learned from the Michigan Difference campaign is that our donors love matching gift programs. We put forward a challenge to our donors and said if you support graduate fellowships, we will provide a matching gift.

It has been wildly successful. In the past year, we have created 350 new fellowships. The deans are in love with this program, as you might imagine, because it allows them to build strong financial packages for attracting the best graduate students. And the best graduate students create a rewarding and stimulating environment for you as faculty.

We are also moving forward with our $30 million plan to hire 100 new tenure-track faculty who have interdisciplinary interests. It was a year ago that I announced this program, and since then we have received nearly 40 proposals for new positions. The Provost’s Office has awarded funding for the first 25 positions, and we expect to see these new faculty join our community beginning next fall.

The hiring program continues for another four years, and the Provost’s Office currently is accepting proposals for the next round of funding.

I strongly encourage you to explore the possibilities of this new venture, and all other opportunities for interdisciplinary work. We have such fertile ground here for crossing academic boundaries, and I can’t think of another university that provides such a breadth and depth of opportunity for faculty to work at the fringes of their disciplines.

Interdisciplinary work is what sets us apart, and I urge you to seek out fellow faculty members and take your work in unfamiliar directions. When we face the great challenges of our time – complex issues such as climate change, global HIV/AIDS, poverty, and threats to national security – there is no stronger tool at hand than our collective intellectual creativity.

This means taking risks, and I know the rewards of risk-taking can be long in the waiting. David Potter likes to tell the story of one of his predecessors in the classics, Professor Francis Kelsey, whose name is on our archaeology museum. In the 1920s, Professor Kelsey unearthed hundreds of pieces of papyrus during a dig in Egypt, because he felt it was important that such artifacts be held by scholarly institutions such as Michigan. Many of those pieces then sat untouched in boxes for decades. But today, our papyrus collection is preserved, digitized, and recognized as one of the most extraordinary in the world.

So risk has its rewards.

As we look for the best ways to support your work and the work of our students, we continue to have a strong partner in the federal government. This past year, our research expenditures reached a record-level of nearly $876 million, much of it in federal support. And while that federal funding grew slightly, the real growth in research dollars came in industry sponsorships, which climbed 11 percent from the previous year.

I want us to look more to industry to support our work. We should always proceed cautiously and work in the best interests of our institution. But just as we have built synergies with interdisciplinary work, we have opportunities to find strong partners in industry for addressing profound challenges in our world.

When we talk about advancing our academic excellence, we should also work to promote our colleagues’ achievements. We are a competitive institution, but also a collegial one. I want us to re-dedicate ourselves to identifying our best and brightest faculty, and seeing that they are recognized at the national level. Michigan faculty are among the finest in higher education, and working with you and our deans and department chairs, I want to see that we receive greater recognition from the various academies.

I also want us to blow our horn a little louder about our hometown, which is a tremendous asset when recruiting and retaining faculty. I spoke earlier about rankings, and if there is any community that places high in rankings, it is Ann Arbor. This community is among the best in the nation: the best for healthy living, the best for families, the best for retirement, the best for walking, and on and on.

The energy that infuses our downtowns, our schools, and our neighborhoods fuels the excellence of the University. I always impress upon prospective faculty and students just how vibrant our community is, and I hope you do the same.

At the start of my talk I shared the story of Thomas Zurbuchen and his entrepreneurial engineering students. I want to close with the graduates of the Class of 2008.

Before leaving us last spring, these students answered a survey to tell us about their time at Michigan. It was the first time in a dozen years that we’d engaged our seniors this way, and the results were fascinating and encouraging. Graduates told us about their accomplishments, their frustrations, their suggestions, and their plans for the future.

When asked about their professors and the skills they learned, students gave high marks to being prepared to think analytically, apply they knowledge they gained, and acquire knowledge on their own.

Two descriptors of our faculty appeared repeatedly: “amazing” and “changed my life.”

I want to highlight one student’s assessment in particular. This student wrote that several faculty “allowed me to evaluate myself, better myself as a person, and greatly assisted me in making choices in my life which were vital to my progress and path in life.”

That is the work of good professors – faculty who believe in the promise of our students, and who contribute to one of the world’s great academic enterprises. Your work makes the University a success.

Pushing forward, together, with deeper collaborations, new sources of support, and greater appreciation for all that we offer will magnify the impact of our university and strengthen our ability to serve the state, the nation, and the world.

Thank you.