University of Vermont

Office of the President

President's Report to Board of Trustees A. John Bramley
Board of Trustees, President’s Report
October 21, 2011

Fellow Trustees, colleagues, faculty, staff, students, alumni and friends – good morning. As once again I find myself sitting at this table I reflect on past achievements and progress and conclude they are both substantial and impressive. This is a much stronger institution than the one I joined in 1990. A decade ago we set out on a plan of action in recognition that the institution needed greater resources to fulfill and sustain its responsibilities as Vermont’s only research university. Bluntly, we were too small and in a state with very limited capacity to help us. Now we are larger in terms of the student body and our student quality and outcomes are better as our reputation has gained strength. Our research has grown both in the volume of sponsored awards and in our national recognition. We acquired a new campus at Trinity, critical to the expansion, and we have addressed many issues around facilities and physical plant. In 2001-2002 our annual base, or general fund, budget was $150,000,000. Today it is double that at $292,000,000. So our growth strategy was highly successful and has placed us in a strong position to face a challenging environment.

Virtually all sectors of the US economy and business, including higher education face difficult and stormy times. The federal deficit looms large and, despite congressional gridlock and partisanship, we know that federal spending will fall. While the details are uncertain it will impact the research budgets of the federal agencies and in turn the research grants that drive our research enterprise. Federal student aid programs that support access for many of our students may also be threatened and the flow of funds from the federal government to states will decline. Even before the havoc of tropical storm Irene, Vermont faced significant budget challenges and now it has monumental infrastructure challenges to address. There will be no growth in state resources to higher education. Our current and prospective students and their families are facing high unemployment, housing and mortgage challenges and a stagnant economy. They are in no position to accept or manage high tuition increases. With that in mind I have instructed my budget colleagues that the UVM tuition increase for 2013 must not exceed 3.5%. Figures like that or lower will be the norm.

Not only is there no significant growth likely in our revenue streams, but we are at our physical and infrastructure capacity for undergraduate enrollment. Fewer students are graduating over the next decade in our primary recruitment areas. As other states reduce spending on public higher education the UVM strategy of funding the organization via out of state enrollment will become the strategy of other public institutions also. There will be increased competition for a declining student pool. So not only can we no longer fuel ourselves by growth but we will face significant challenges in maintaining our current size and quality.

I am confident that we are better placed to address these challenges because of our work and progress in the last decade but we cannot be complacent. How, with very constrained revenue, are we going to make the necessary investments, attract and compensate faculty and staff competitively, increase quality and deliver our mission? What options do we have? We must grow private support to the institution through our development and fund raising activities and that is what is intended through the launch of the University of Vermont Foundation. We can seek additional revenue sources such as expanded summer programs and activities when our physical plant is seriously underutilized. We can be more competitive and grow revenue from industry and foundation partnerships. We should explore profitable new academic ventures around professional and graduate programs and expand distance learning which is not constrained by physical infrastructure or by the demographics of our region. We might enter partnerships with other institutions to share courses or faculty. Several possibilities exist. However, it is also essential to ensure that we are spending our $300 million of general fund revenue wisely, and on mission critical elements. Like most institutions we are excellent at starting new programs but poor at identifying and eliminating those that should no longer continue. There has been a steady drum beat of publications and reports by many distinguished and experienced academics and teachers warning higher education against complacency. We need to focus on assessing what our students are learning and the skills they are acquiring to help them be successful and competitive. I am pleased that we have processes underway with the faculty senate to revise our general education requirements, measure outcomes and seek to ensure our programs are both high quality and still relevant or needed. Organizations that do not do that will decline. The process to investigate the revenue and expenditure and priority setting that will lead to a strategic and sustainable budget is enshrined in our strategic initiatives project led by Provost Knodell. She is seeking to create a broadly based and inclusive campus effort through which we will look at ourselves carefully and critically, assess priorities and strategic value and ensure we are expending our resources wisely and well. It will be difficult but there really is no acceptable alternative. You will be hearing more about this today and in the weeks to come. I am also struck by the fact that recent events reflect confusion or misconceptions about our role as the University of Vermont. We have contributed to that by our own lack of clarity. We are Vermont’s only research and Land Grant University now and will be for the future. For over 150 years UVM was an independent institution, becoming an instrumentality of the state in 1955, largely at the urging of then President Carl Borgmann. At that time there was no state college system and no Vermont Student Assistance Corporation. Now, 55 years later the landscape has changed and there are new challenges. There is a substantial state college system with 4-year colleges, a 2-year college expanding to offer 4-year degrees, growing graduate programs and a community college system. The state provides $20 million annually to VSAC to facilitate access for Vermonters in addition to the subsidized tuition model that UVM provides. Overall the state college system has 10,000 enrollments, mainly Vermonters. However, UVM is the only research university and we must have complementary and distinct roles to those of the state colleges. Our distinctiveness is around the creation and dissemination of new knowledge, advanced educational offerings, particularly but not exclusively, in engineering and the sciences, in a range of professional and graduate degrees, Extension and agriculture programs and as the state’s only academic health center. We need to be focused on serving the state through our unique capacities, a different emphasis to the role promoted in 1955 which was about increasing access to higher education for Vermonters. Today the state has excess public higher education capacity, particularly as 50% of college bound Vermonters leave the state to study. The state spends about $80 million annually on higher education and $1.8 billion on K-12 education. It is very unlikely that these resources will grow or and be significantly adjusted in the near future. Vermont has to ask whether the resources for public higher education are allocated strategically and effectively to support the growth of a competitive economy, encourage entrepreneurship and new business development, provide affordable and accessible opportunities for Vermonters, have strong work-force training in the right areas, attract the best and brightest to our state, protect our health, working landscape and environment. That means ensuring we have financially sound and sustainable institutions, with complementary and distinctive roles, which effectively collaborate, allow for seamless movement between parts of the system and avoid unnecessary duplication. That is a crucial debate that I believe should occur and in which Vermont can show national leadership.

As an important step towards UVM leadership on critical issues, I am challenging UVM to establish an annual discussion series aimed at transforming the quality of life and economy in Vermont and the nation through sustainable, systemic approaches to our food system, our health, and science and technology. I am envisaging a UVM or Vermont brand of the Aspen Institute which is respected internationally for its leadership around critical issues and the human condition for over 50 years. The first event will focus on the Vermont Food System in the summer of 2012. It will explore food and its relationship to health and health care, the appropriate scale and reach of the food system, the potential of renewable farm based energy, transportation, environmental impact and sustainability, affordability, tourism and economic development. We will partner with other organizations and while this event will utilize the campus and Burlington it must also engage throughout Vermont. It must illustrate that we are the University of Vermont, not the University of Burlington. It should explore how UVM, its community, farms and land and the city itself can model rural urban interfaces and be an integrated sustainable food system. Other initiatives will follow in health and the sciences, areas where UVM also has great expertise. I am confident that this can grow into a signature UVM activity, that will attract significant sponsorship and support and demonstrate what being a 21st century land grant institution actually means.

Let me finish on more local items. Our state has been ravaged by Tropical Storm Irene and while UVM survived relatively unscathed, friends and neighbors were less fortunate. It has been our responsibility to apply our unique resources to help benefit Vermont and its people and we have done so. Our Extension faculty and staff have worked tirelessly throughout the state supporting and advising Vermont’s farmers. Since many state offices and laboratories had to be closed, our agricultural scientists have been providing critical diagnostic tests and analyses. The state colleges lost their computer systems so we were able to provide support to keep them running. We offered office and laboratory space to the state, and now have state scientists working alongside UVM faculty and staff. Our police services worked in beleaguered Windham County. Our staff and students have volunteered in numerous ways and in many communities and that continues this weekend. Our alums have raised money in distant places and our whole community has been generous. An incomplete summary, prepared at the request of the Governor’s office, has been placed before you of the numerous ways in which Vermont’s university has contributed. However the effects of Irene will be long lasting and the needs great. With that in mind I have informed the Secretary of Administration and the Chairs of the relevant legislative committees that we will forego our 2013 request for a capital appropriation as we acknowledge the huge infrastructure challenges and more urgent priorities the state must address.

As I have said our University is strong and you will see evidence of that throughout this meeting. But let me highlight a couple of notable items. At the end of September we learned that that we had been successful with a new award of $20 million for our EPSCOR program focused on Lake Champlain. Our spire strategy is designed to build excellence in focused areas and retain strong faculty and help us be more competitive in increasingly competitive research world where collaboration and cross disciplinary approaches are essential. One of those outstanding faculty colleagues, Josh Bongard, has been honored by President Obama as one of 94 recipients of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers. This award is the highest honor bestowed by the United States government on science and engineering professionals in the early stages of their independent research careers.

I came back to serve this University at this time because I care about it, its people, its mission and its critical contribution to Vermont. The institution has suffered blows to its morale and its esprit de corps. I will do my best to help repair some of the confidence and trust but I cannot do so alone nor can this happen overnight. That will also have to be a priority for my successor and for all members of the community. We all must bear responsibility for openness, transparency and civility. The Strategic Initiatives project is seeking to engage the community in a dialog that requires that openness and honesty and an institutional perspective transcending constituency interest. Easy to say perhaps, but it is difficult to achieve. We will have to decide on priorities and make tough choices as we move forward. We have often failed at that in the past but now we must succeed or put all our progress at risk. Thank you.

Last modified October 21 2011 02:20 PM