State of the University 2016: A Successful Year

State of the University Address

By Dr. Christopher Blake

Middle Georgia State University

January 21, 2016

Last week, President Obama shared his priorities for the nation during his final State of the Union address. One day later, Governor Deal announced his priorities for Georgia in the 2016 State of the State address. This morning, as we look to what lies ahead in 2016, here in Middle Georgia, I am pleased to have the opportunity to engage each of you on the State of the University.

2015-16 So Far—A Successful Year

Like a country or state, a university is a community made up of members from many walks of life, each with a distinct role in the development of the institution. For our students, the role is to advance toward an educational credential that will open up new opportunities, while gaining life experience. For our faculty, the role is that of both educator and scholar—guiding our students in their academic efforts, while adding to society’s understanding of our various fields of expertise and knowledge. For our staff, our role is that of servant leader, providing excellent service to the people of Middle Georgia, and support for the work of our students in their learning.

For each and every one of us, success hinges on living our values of stewardship, engagement, adaptability, and learning. You have heard a lot about these values since we articulated them some 18 months ago. And, as we enter our first semester enrolling both undergraduate and graduate students, I am pleased to report that it has indeed been a highly successful year.

A Vision Realized

Together we have realized the vision of becoming Georgia’s newest public university. The path that led us here has at times been daunting, yet together we have reached a moment when we are articulating who we are as never before. One might say that we are fatigued, but we are also thriving.

My hope is that, as we come back into the full swing of a Spring semester following the holiday break, we have released some of that fatigue and returned ready to focus on thriving. The fact is we have every reason to be hopeful.

Our enrollment for Spring 2016 is flat with last year—that is consistent with national trends. For Middle Georgia State, it is encouraging news, as our enrollment had been in annual decline for several years.

We have weathered the resulting budget cuts by running an extremely lean organization. I understand that means many of you wear more than one hat, and I cannot thank you enough for your continued dedication to our students’ success during these lean years.

From 2011 to 2015, our credit hours decreased by 25%. This semester compared to last Spring of 2015, we are on track to see an increase from 78,554 credit hours to 80,165.

While a 2% increase may seem insignificant, it is very significant indeed—it is our first increase in five years! Moreover, we have fared well among both new and returning students.

This semester we welcome 600 new students, compared to 550 in Spring of 2015.  At least as importantly, more of our students from Fall semester returned for Spring—92% of them this year, compared to 90.75% in 2014-15.

Green Shoots—Moving Ahead Strategically

What does this mean for our future and for our bottom line? While we will not have the full picture of our enrollment-driven state appropriations for several months, having halted the enrollment decline bodes well for our next budget. As Georgia’s only four year school of aviation, we could say we are no longer losing altitude on enrollment.

However, please let me be clear: our long-term financial recovery will still take time, will continue to require bold and difficult decisions, and will require an aggressive commitment to recruitment, retention, and graduation of students.  Our “Complete College Georgia” aspirations remain absolutely intact.

For the moment, we can breathe a sigh of relief—and should celebrate the hard work you have accomplished in getting us here. Yet, in short, continued success will depend on selective strategic investment in the institution.

Strategic Plan—In Progress

The principles that will guide our investment are in the Strategic Plan we unveiled in the fall. As you’ll recall, the plan calls for us to focus on five strategic directions:

  1. Quality and Distinctiveness of Student Success;
  2. Academic Reputation, Flagship Programs, and Community Outreach;
  3. Technology for a 21st Century University;
  4. Fiscal Sustainability; and
  5. The University Community of Faculty and Staff.

Six months into the first year of that plan, we are making progress on each of those directions. For instance, we have convened a working group that will deliver recommendations on Investment in Faculty & Staff to Drive Long Term Excellence.

We welcomed the recent news that state resources will be made available for 3% merit-based salary increases. As the USG develops the details for the first raises awarded in years, we will stand ready to follow system guidelines in a way that rewards performance and prepares Middle Georgia State for the future.

In the meantime, we will make every effort to steward existing resources in a way that allows us to work smarter, not simply harder.

For example, we will streamline the way we offer professional development resources to faculty and staff.

Rather than putting the onus on each of us to recall the subject and deadlines and links to various mandatory trainings, we will create an employee course in D2L—set to launch March 1st—that will be a one-stop shop for each of us to come into full compliance and find useful resources for decision-making.

This effort, a collaboration between Human Resources, Risk Management, Academic Affairs, and my office of President, is one of the ways we are making headway on initiatives that use technology to invest in our people.

Of the 47 initiatives included in our Strategic Plan for this Academic Year 2015-16, there are 25 that are either completed or well underway. I am pleased to report that we have now drafted a template for scoring progress on the Strategic Plan. That template was reviewed by my Cabinet this week and will now allow us to report to the University community quarterly progress beginning this March.

Exceeding Expectations—Demand-Driven Programs

As I announced earlier this month, our Provost Marti Venn, who has ably led our strategic planning process will depart Middle Georgia State in March to assume a new role in Academic Affairs at the University System of Georgia. While planning the search for a new Provost has already begun and further announcements will be coming out next week, we cannot afford to wait for a new permanent Chief Academic Officer to advance our remaining initiatives and continue the strides taken academically under Marti’s able leadership.

We have indeed come a long way. We are realizing the vision of university in ways that exceed our own expectations.

For example, we expected to enroll one dozen graduate students in our first semester of offering masters degrees. We have in fact outpaced that expectation by more than 300%—enrolling 49 students so far in our MSIT and MSN programs this semester.

Perhaps most encouraging about that figure are the faces behind it. Of our new graduate students, some 80% are alumni of Middle Georgia State—having earned either their associate or baccalaureate degrees at MGA or one of our predecessor institutions.

Their choice to return to Middle Georgia State indicates that our strategy of offering demand-driven programs is effective. We have pledged to be responsive to the needs of this community. To help remove the barriers to economic growth and to provide education that meets economic development needs. And we are succeeding in those efforts.

This is the beginning. We will soon submit two more Master’s degrees for Board of Regents approval this year—one in Management and another in Education—and we have begun moving forward on a comprehensive, multi-year Aviation Strategic Plan. That plan calls for statewide expansion of our aviation programs over the next three years, the first phase of which has already begun with flight programs now offered in East Macon at the “downtown” airport.

Call to Action—A Coordinated Strategy for a Diverse Population

Continued success will require a coordinated strategy for distinction and integration. To that end, I cannot overstate the importance and the urgency of academic master planning, which begins with the leadership and creativity of each of our academic departments and schools, to ensure academic diversification and integration across our campus communities.

As a university, we are ethically and professionally obliged to provide viable four-year offerings on all campuses, not in a one-size-fits-all fashion but in a way that selectively offers programs that play to our local and regional strengths.

Our academic offerings are the deliverable that every unit and function must help support. How? For starters, we recognize and honor diversity—in every sense of the word.

Each of our campuses is uniquely different. We must play to each of their strengths, finding and articulating our niche in every community we call home.

Each of our students is different. We must open doors and provide tools to aid in their advancement—which means creating an environment that both expands their horizons and respects their beginnings.

You will recall our Vice President for Student Affairs Jennifer Brannon issued a notice that this semester we will conduct university wide conversations about how to build diversity. Further details will be forthcoming very shortly, and this is a timely moment for our university community to engage in a truly educational and collaborative way about enhancing the valuing of diversity of all who make MGA their working home—whether as students, faculty, staff, or visitors.

This week, I tasked Executive Director of Human Resources Dr. Lisa Burroughs and University Counsel Frances Davis to work with Vice President Brannon in organizing our campus conversations on diversity, equity, and inclusion. These senior leaders will use the outcomes of those conversations, as well as data gathered through student and employee campus climate surveys, as well as research on best practices and guidance from the USG, to outline and present to me a series of recommendations.

Meeting Needs—Evolving Students

Our student population, like that at every college and university across this country, is evolving. More students are earning degrees online. More are starting college while still in high school.

We need to evolve with them. For instance, we are the first institution in the University System of Georgia to offer a competency-based Associate of Science in Information Technology through our e-campus.

I am also happy to report that the number of talented high school students getting their college careers started at Middle Georgia State is on the rise. Nearly 400 dual-enrollment students are taking courses here this semester—up 13.5% over last year.

Not only are more students starting college at Middle Georgia State, more are earning their baccalaureate degrees here.  In 2015-16, the number of graduates receiving bachelor’s degrees so far has increased by 20% over last year!

As we continue to develop academic programs, the questions driving our efforts must extend beyond, “What do our current students need?” We must ask, “What will they need as they progress in their careers? What will tomorrow’s students need?”

Double-Edged Sword—Value for Cost

In an era of staggering student debt, more students and families are looking critically at costs and value for money. Here again, we have an advantage on which to build.

We are currently the most affordable state university in Georgia. In fact, tuition and fees at the next least expensive institution is a whopping 39% higher than the cost of attending Middle Georgia State.

As we well know, affordability is a double edged sword. It means we are having to do more with less.

It also means that we are a tremendous value. An analysis of our 2014-15 graduates shows that 45% of them earned their credential with zero student debt. And, among those who did borrow, average debt is less than $25,000—nearly 17% less than among their peers nationally. At a time of national student indebtedness at over $1 trillion, we must continue to sustain our brand as an extraordinary value for money institution.

The USG has announced its intention to avoid raising tuition. I am pleased to report that in our conversations the System has also expressed its willingness to consider helping us find sources of funding that don’t ride on the backs of students.

Those sources, paired with an improved enrollment picture mean that our financial horizon is looking brighter. In the budget for this academic year, we withstood a $3.6 million cut in state appropriations. In the budget for 2016-17, we will withstand a $1.9 million cut.

By comparison our budget for the 2017-18 academic year—the one that will be determined by this semester’s enrollment—would only require us to cut approximately $250,000.  Moreover, given the funding formula for graduate credits, innovative partnerships with employers such as the Georgia Department of Corrections, and other initiatives we may yet still avoid cuts for 2017-18 altogether. Every student counts.

In addition, this has been a record fundraising year for the Middle Georgia State University Foundation, including an increase in faculty and staff giving—a 10-point jump from 50% to 60% participation in our employee campaign. We have recently completed a feasibility study and have plans to launch a multi-million dollar initiative to match our strategic goals. The Foundation Board is set to vote on those plans next week.  Thank you to all of you who helped us achieve that record this year.

Conclusion—We March Ahead

What does all of this add up to? It adds up to a university in a state of positive transition—one where our focus is simultaneously on doing the important work before us this semester, as we plan for the year to come.

While we do not have time this morning for a Q&A session, I welcome your feedback on all I have shared with you today. And those of you in this room are welcome to talk with me after this speech. I encourage those not here in person to attend Open Office Hours, which we continue to schedule regularly—the next two coming up next week in Cochran and Macon—or send your ideas to (our Greatness Dropbox).

As a university, we have been born, we have crawled, and this year begun to walk. Now, the decision is ours: will we stumble or stride into the next phase of our development?

I have every confidence that the dedicated faculty, staff, and students of Middle Georgia State will continue to march ahead.

In the unforgettable words of Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday we celebrate this week: “We cannot walk alone. And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back.”

Thank you.