September 25, 2007
2007 State of the University Address to Faculty

President Barbara R. Snyder gives first State of the University address to faculty

 

Thank you Professor Matthiesen. And thank you to all of the faculty senators who have welcomed me so warmly in recent months. In my short time here at the university, I have found it a pleasure to work with your elected representatives. Their insights have proved immensely valuable already, and I look forward to continued collaboration in the years to come.

Let me also thank David and his colleagues for this opportunity to speak with you about the state of Case Western Reserve University. I have met with every school since my arrival on July 1st, so some of what I am about to say may be familiar. But I want to emphasize that those gatherings provided far more than a chance for you in the individual schools to take my measure – I also learned much from the concerns and comments you shared. I hope you will be comparably direct and candid in the questions and observations that follow my remarks today.

Some of you may have seen the news articles last week about “Last Lectures,” a series a few U.S. universities have launched that encourages faculty to consider what they might say  – and then allows them to say it well in advance of that ultimate final class.

Of all the knowledge and wisdom acquired through years of study and research and just plain living, what would they choose to share with students?

Now to some this very idea might seem a bit morbid, but consider the titles of some of these addresses:

  1. From an engineering professor:
    “Lies, Damn Lies and Undergraduate Courses”
  2. An economics instructor:
    “Bald Eagles, Body Parts and Haunted Houses: The Many Margins of Economics”
  3. From a school of community development:
    “Joie de Vivre: This is Not a Dress Rehearsal”
  4. And, from mathematics: “Is 42 really the answer?”

The occasion for last week’s reports was a true “last lecture” at Carnegie Mellon University. Randy Pausch, a computer science professor there in Pittsburgh, has been diagnosed with an aggressive form of liver cancer, and has been given just months to live.

Professor Pausch, known as one of the nation’s most accomplished designers of videogame and virtual reality software, is a 46-year-old father of three children, ages 5, 2 and 1. But for the purposes of this lecture, Pausch focused not on loss or despair, but of dreams made, and realized.

One of the more charming examples: The man who loved Star Trek as a kid earned a visit from Captain Kirk, actor William Shatner.

“It’s cool to meet your boyhood idol,” he told the audience. “It’s even cooler when he comes to see what you’re doing in your lab.”

I encourage you to watch the video of Pausch’s lecture yourself – the website will be listed in the online version of this speech. But for now I want to focus on two specific elements.

First, this line, which Pausch offered as he flashed images of early rejection letters on the screen: “Brick walls are there for a reason. They let us prove how badly we want things.”

Second, this fact: Four hundred people attended Pausch’s lecture. Four hundred people. And they offered a standing ovation before he uttered a word.

Now I want you to consider these two points as we talk about the state of Case Western Reserve University. First, brick walls.

As many of you know, I’ve been meeting with deans and donors and friends and faculty since well before I arrived on campus – and then picked up the pace this summer. And if I’ve learned anything in these conversations, it is this: In recent years, you’ve done more than hit a brick wall. You’ve felt pummeled by falling stone and mortar and occasionally feared whole sections of the structure would topple.

And yet… and yet… again and again, you’ve proved just how much you want it.

Amid staff layoffs and reduced resources and all manner of uncertainty, somehow, day after day, you continued your work. The medical and dental schools launched new curricula. The College of Arts and Sciences continued to build SAGES with faculty from throughout the university. And the Mandel School used its NEO-CANDO database to help local community organizations identify “early warning signs” of neighborhood troubles – for example, a water shut-off notice as indicator of a pending foreclosure.

Just how badly did you want it?

Consider the School of Medicine’s $64 million NIH grant to partner with institutions across greater Cleveland to develop better treatments – and then get those treatments out to all patients.

Or look at Radhika [Rahdika] Atit, an assistant professor in biology who recently won a major grant to study development of skin cells around the head and face, or anthropology professor Janet McGrath’s new federal support to establish a Center for Social Science Research on AIDS or physics professor Daniel Akerib’s major award to continue his work on a multi-university search for dark matter.

In the school of law, look at Michael Scharf. Three years ago he helped train the judges and prosecutors of the Iraqi special tribunal, then in 2006 led the first session to help prepare the prosecutors and judges of the U.N Cambodia Genocide Tribunal. This Friday Michael and the law school host a conference that is as important as his list of speakers is impressive. It’s called, “To Prevent and to Punish: A Conference Commemorating the 60th Anniversary of the Genocide Convention.”

Meanwhile, a  whole collection of faculty members from the School of Engineering have crossed disciplinary lines to build the Great Lakes Institute for Energy Innovation, an initiative focused on alternative energy, fuel cells and increasing energy efficiency. A piece of the project – a proposed The Great Lakes Wind Energy Research Center – already has won funding from the Cuyahoga County Commissioners.

I could go on and on about your many accomplishments – indeed, I cited many others in my investiture speech – but I hope you grasp my point. This university has asked so many of you, faculty and staff alike, to do so much more in recent years.  At a time when it would have been understandable, even easy, for you to throw up your hands in disgust or, at the very least, coast, so many of you instead proved that you wanted it.

You wanted to expand knowledge. You wanted to serve our students. You wanted this university to move toward realizing the amazing potential we all know it has.

And for that, I say, quite simply, Thank You.

Many of these achievements I’ve cited may be familiar to you, but I want to mention a few more:

  1. First, our renewed relationship with alumni last summer, thanks to Interim President Greg Eastwood, has been matched this summer by renewed activities in alumni chapters across the country. These chapters hosted 17 summer send-offs in 2007, allowing incoming freshmen to meet current students and alumni from their own hometowns. This academic year I am meeting with alumni groups all across the country – I spent four days on the West Coast this month, and head to Minnesota and then New York in October. Also next month we host our annual Homecoming Weekend, marked this year by the Grand Opening and Dedication of the Alumni House. I want to take this opportunity to recognize and honor our alumni relations and events staff – their work is often behind-the-scenes, but their impact on our progress is incalculable.
  2. Second, we have seen early signs of progress in development. Some of you may have seen Friday’s Plain Dealer article about the gift our College of Arts and Sciences received from L. David Baldwin, 1.6 million dollars which will help pay for a new program in cell-based therapy, faculty recruitment and renovation of existing biology labs. This generous donation is only the latest example of the strong ties alumni feel to our university, as well as their willingness to support it.
  3. Third, in undergraduate admissions this year, we actually exceeded our enrollment goal by 80 students, despite losing our director in 2006. Over the past four years we have witnessed 60 percent-growth in applications, and over the past two years applications from African-American students climbed 30 percent. Each of these figures is a tribute to our admissions staff. We now have a new vice president for enrollment, Randy Deike, and I look forward to even more impressive figures in years to come.
  4. Fourth, a recent inventory led by Latisha James, director of community partnerships, found that members of our university committed more than 160,000 hours of service with some 500 hundred organizations across greater Cleveland. Just last week we celebrated our fifth-annual Case for Community Day, and I thank the many staff, faculty and administrators who pitched in on projects ranging from landscaping homes to providing medical screenings for senior citizens. Your efforts not only demonstrate the university’s commitment to its community, but the strength of your individual character as well. I encourage you to continue your participation in these events as well as with the Charity Choice campaign now seeking your support. This fund drive allows you to direct donations to any of dozens of organizations in our community, among them Community Shares and the United Way agencies.

Every single one of these achievements deserves celebration, as do so many more that often go unnoticed: the hours a staff member spends helping a troubled student, or the solitary late nights a researcher put in to ensure that an experiment stays on track. You all, collectively, have accomplished so much, amid such trying circumstances – that proverbial brick wall – that I can only imagine what pinnacles we can reach as we work together to regain momentum and build anew.

How do we begin that process? As many of you have heard me say already, we begin with a detailed strategic academic plan. Each school is assessing its own priorities and paths toward them, even as Interim Provost Jerry Goldberg leads a university-wide task force developing overarching themes. This effort will include repeated opportunities for all of you to participate – we expect to include a website devoted to the project, public forums, focus groups surveys and regular updates on the work.

This plan will do more than articulate where we’re going. It will be so specific as to delineate how and when we’re going to get there.  It will guide how we invest limited resources and, as we prepare to launch our first capital campaign in more than a decade, help focus fundraising efforts as well.

I’ve said it before and will say it many times more before we conclude in June: This will not be my plan. Or Jerry Goldberg’s plan. Or the deans’ plan. It will be – it must be – our plan. You must believe in it. You must own it. And Jerry, and I, and everyone else involved in steering this project are committed to two broad goals: First, that the planning effort encourages your involvement, and second that the result deserves your embrace.

And what of now? Beyond the grand plans for after 2007-2008, what, you may ask, is the State of the University today? More specifically, quite a few people have pointedly asked, what is the state of the university’s finances?

In truth, better than you might think. Our endowment management is excellent – returns regularly rank in the top quartile. All but one of our schools is on solid fiscal footing, or on track to be there within the next year or two. The exception is medicine, the school that, more than any other, depends financially on collaboration with outside partners.

Let me start with University Hospitals. As most of you know, we signed a 50-year affiliation agreement in 2006. As part of that arrangement, our clinical faculty this year began the transition from operating within separate practice plans to a unitary plan. It is fair to say that all has not been smooth, but it is just as important to note that the process is at its very beginning. I know that this move has posed challenges for many of you, but I urge you to keep faith as we go forward. The Model T sputtered and popped a bit back in 1908, yet Ford ultimately sold more than 15 million of these cars.. We cannot say today whether this affiliation agreement is as promising as the Model T proved to be, but know that Dean Pam Davis and I will do everything in our power to make the agreement work as well as possible for our faculty, for the university, and for UH.

Another important partner is the Cleveland Clinic: You no doubt have heard by now that the hospital is considering changing the affiliation of the Lerner College of Medicine from Case Western Reserve University to Columbia University. First, as I wrote the campus community when the news first broke, the Lerner College is important to us and we hope to maintain its ties to the School of Medicine. I am doing all I can to persuade Clinic leaders to continue the existing arrangement and even strengthen it, but I also want to remind you that we have many other strong partnerships, including the CTSA grant announced last week, and the comprehensive cancer center. Our goal is to maintain all of these collaborative programs – including the Lerner College.

Despite the largely promising signs about our long-term financial future, the fact remains that we do forecast a deficit in the coming year. Across-the-board cuts would close this hole quickly, but I strongly oppose that approach. For the sake of speed, it risks harming the very strengths needed for future gains. It’s far better to invest strategically, to focus new dollars directly where they can best help the university.

But, given the state of our current finances, achieving that end will require that we reduce spending in other areas.

I’m not going to spin or sugarcoat that essential truth. Those cuts will not be easy, nor painless.

That said, we must resolve our financial issues– not only must we balance the budget, but we also have to establish reserves and a more coherent process for deciding spending priorities. These steps are required for this university to move toward the kind of future that I know – and many of you know even better – is truly possible for this great institution.

And now, let me return to the second point I mentioned involving Carnegie Mellon Professor Pausch’s lecture last week. Four hundred people attended. Four hundred. They stood and applauded at the beginning and end of his remarks and, in the middle, sang “Happy Birthday” to his wife. The account reminded me of stories I heard about the response of this campus to the sudden passing of the faculty icon known here as “Doc Oc” in 2005. You never had the chance give Doc the tribute that Professor Pausch enjoyed last week, but no one could doubt the affection the entire community felt for this fine man. One shared moment in particular stands out – at the 2006 Commencement, Doc posthumously received the J. Bruce Jackson, M.D., Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Mentoring. As his sister clasped the award, the senior class rose as one to offer an ovation that lasted … and lasted … and lasted.

Keep in mind this was a full year after Doc’s death, and still those he touched remembered, and wanted to show his family how much he meant to their lives here at Case Western Reserve University.

It is in such moments that we in higher education are reminded of what a privilege it is to come to work at a university campus every single day. Yes, this institution is a complicated, multi-million dollar organization – but it is no corporation. Yes, it is committed to examining all manner of life’s greatest questions – but it is not a research center. And yes, we teach – and learn – every day, but this place is not simply a school.

There is something magic here, in all that we are and do.  Consider this one definition from the introduction to the book, Creating Campus Community:

“It is the home of our hope, where scholars labor to solve those problems that rob men and women of their dignity, their promise, and their joy. It is conservator of the record of our nobility and our barbarism. It is the theater of our artistic impulses. . .   It is a place where all in the community – students, faculty, staff – are called to ask what brings meaning to their lives and makes them glad to be alive. It is, above all, a community in which we celebrate the humanizing force of our curiosity and wonder, a place for dreamers of day.”

Again, I thank you for this opportunity to speak. More, I thank you for this opportunity to serve as your president. May we go on to bring full life to those words in this community.

And now, I welcome your questions and comments.