University of Vermont

Office of the President

President's Report to Board of Trustees November 10 2006 President’s Report to Board of Trustees
November 10, 2006

Chairman Lisman, Vice-Chair Heath, trustees of the University, faculty, staff, students, alumni, and friends, welcome. Last month, a brutal and appalling crime shocked our community: the murder of UVM student Michelle Gardner-Quinn. We found some small measure of consolation in the moving testimonials to Michelle at the campus memorial service at Ira Allen Chapel; no one listening to the faculty who taught her and to the friends she made in her less than two months at this University could have any doubt that she had every good quality we would hope to find in a UVM student. Her obvious vitality and warmth, combined with passionate commitment to the struggle to restore ecological balance to the earth, led us all to recognize that she would have applied her considerable talents to the mission she had assigned herself to very good effect. The criminal act that ended her days foreclosed so much that would have come from this promising young life; it will not, and cannot, obliterate her memory and the inspiration of her example. I ask, please, that we observe a moment of silence for Michelle.

This tragedy has prompted us to examine the social fabric of our community with renewed intensity. While we continue to feel that Burlington and the UVM campus are comparatively safe places, we feel with new poignancy that we are not immune from atrocities like the one that took Michelle. We are committed to examining all the ways in which we might make this center of learning, discovery, and service an increasingly safe and secure environment. To achieve this end, we have been in close dialogue with the City of Burlington, both with its political leadership and its public safety officials—to whom our gratitude for exemplary service in this crisis cannot be overstated. During this dark hour, we experienced an extraordinary expression of community engagement and commitment to common goals. We will continue in that spirit. Also in response to the tragedy, we have received a resolution from the Student Government Association calling for creation of a task force to address the security of the campus community. We intend to appoint such a task force. I have directed Vice President Gustafson to work with Gary Derr to identify sources of expertise for an assessment of campus and community issues that will inform the work of the task force. Gus will shortly convene key campus constituents to discuss the process for creating and charging the body, on which we hope to engage not only students, faculty, and staff but also community participants, including representation from the City of Burlington and Champlain College. We will report to this Board on the recommendations of the task force, and on whatever actions we will take in response to its findings and recommendations.

A major emphasis of the “Signature of Excellence” essay we distributed last week was on personal responsibility and accountability. All of us, and especially those of us who are male, must accept responsibility for working to combat the epidemic of violence by men against women, of which Michelle’s murder was a horrifying manifestation. I cannot put this issue better than Burlington’s Chief of Police Thomas Tremblay in one of his press conferences, when he said,

We must . . . renew our commitment to ending violence against women, violence perpetrated by men in the form of domestic and sexual violence. As a community we must move beyond ‘victim blaming’ and direct more efforts at those who are responsible for the violence. As a society we must do more to educate boys and men to stop acts of violence against women. We should talk with our friends, our families, our children, certainly our daughters, but most importantly our sons about the fact that violence against women must end, and that violence against women will not be tolerated in our community.

This past June, I signed two documents developed in the course of the last academic year in dialogue with the President’s Commission on the Status of Women and the UVM Women’s Center. The first was a policy statement, dated June 23, 2006, titled “Domestic Abuse and Violence Prevention and Response.” The second was a proclamation titled “President’s Anti-Violence Initiative,” a broad statement of our commitment “to provide and maintain a safe campus for all members of its community, free from violence and threats of violence,” with cross-references to all pertinent campus policies, procedures, and resources. Although the new policy on domestic abuse and violence quickly took its place on the UVM Policy Web Site with policies on, among other related topics, sexual assault, personal safety and security, hazing, bias incidents, and firearms, it had been my intention to hold the President’s Anti-Violence Statement for a well-publicized release at the beginning of the fall semester. My medical leave interrupted that planning process, but today, with the intensified urgency brought about by Michelle’s death, I am releasing the President’s Anti-Violence Initiative Statement. With it, you have my pledge that my colleagues and I will work diligently to achieve to the greatest extent possible a campus and a community that is a safe place for all.

When I returned to campus, I shared with you and with the campus my conviction that the great work at UVM—the most exciting, the most rewarding, and, yes, the most difficult—lies ahead. Last week, you received “Signatures of Excellence: UVM in the 21st Century”—an essay designed to sharpen and deepen the vision for UVM. It is the product of intensive dialogue involving members of the Board as well as students, staff, deans and, above all, the faculty of the University. We have set aside time for discussion of “Signatures” during our noon session, so I simply want to make two quick points at this time. First, the challenges posed in the document are far greater, and more mission-critical, than the challenges posed by the Strategic Financial Plan to which we will turn shortly. Second, as we clearly stated when we distributed “Signatures of Excellence,” it aims to stimulate dialogue, primarily among the faculty who must be the central decision-makers on curricular matters. The outcome of that dialogue may or may not bear resemblance to the examples offered in the narrative. It is nonetheless my expectation that UVM will advance along the lines of aspiration and value that we have articulated together in the University Strategic Plan and in our new effort to draw out further definition and distinction in the vision for UVM. In this regard, it is not enough to know, as we do, that we lead the nation in federal R&D expenditures among Carnegie research institutions with 14,000 or fewer students. To advance and realize our vision of being the nation’s premier small public research university, we must find ways to promote collaborative interdisciplinary research and graduate programs to a degree that is rarely if ever achieved in our siloed institutions of higher education. We must also find ways to provide keenly rewarding and challenging academic experiences for our students, designed to produce the accountable leaders envisioned in our proposed new mission statement—graduates with dedication to the global community, an authentic grasp of complexity, and a commitment to lifelong learning and ethical conduct.

My report this morning is also a bridge to our next agenda item: the Strategic Financial Plan. Before I take that up, please join me in noting some key dashboard indicators and challenges that provide some of the context for this meeting of the Board:

  • As of last week, we have booked $243.7 million to our $250 million Campaign for the University of Vermont. With that success comes a challenge: We must maintain a sense of urgency over the course of the last seven and a half months of the Campaign to meet and exceed the goal.
  • Applications for undergraduate admission as of this Wednesday are running 33% ahead of last year’s record pace. Here our challenge is that, with the prospect of a pool of well over 20,000 applicants for the first time in UVM’s history, we must exert extraordinary effort to bring in an entering class that optimizes access and affordability, enhances diversity, and meets our carefully calibrated enrollment targets with an appropriate mix of in-state and out-of-state students.
  • Grant and contract awards through the Office of Sponsored Programs for the first quarter of FY 2007 were some $10 million below those for the first quarter of FY 2006. If this comparative shortfall does not decrease significantly or if it grows as the fiscal year unfolds, we have a new set of challenges: first, to reassess proposed major investments in the expansion of research capacity; second, to take the stagnation of growth in NIH funding that seems to be the decisive factor in current research funding trends nationwide as a call to increase our emphasis on building a diversified research portfolio; and third, to school ourselves as faculty, department chairs, and deans to think and act with disciplined, strategic focus as we develop hiring plans in pursuit of the goal.
  • The last dashboard indicator is more subjective. Our unscientific but exquisitely sensitive pain tachometer screams over the redline that the conversion to PeopleSoft has been, and remains, a difficult adjustment for faculty and staff across the campus, far more so than we had anticipated, even though we knew that the conversion to new management information systems would inevitably have bugs, bumps, and frustrations. It is our challenge to be cognizant of, and responsive to, the disruption that rapid adjustments to software bring about in the short term, yet to remain mindful of the business process efficiency and cost-savings that have been leading goals of this essential migration to new systems.

It is my judgment that the fiscal strength of our University is strong. The Strategic Financial Plan, as you know, is a modeling tool that supports our work on the University Strategic Plan. It is full of dashboard indicators. We must keep in mind, however, that those indicators are actual only for fiscal years that are behind us. All of the other values in the model are potentials, subject to scenario modeling according to variable assumptions. And, as I said in the cover memo that came to you with the latest version of the model, SFP 5.0, for every one of the three complete fiscal years projected to date the actual results turned out to be far more positive than what the model had said they would be. The better-than-projected results have been the product of very good performance measured against the yardstick of very conservatively hedged projections.

Now, in SFP 5.0, we have developed what we have called a worst-case scenario by putting into the model all of the capital projects that we believe are critical for the continuing advance of the University. To heighten the challenge, the 5.0 scenario has a very aggressive timetable under which every one of those projects is assumed to be initiated within the next sixty months. Consequently, in the scenario modeled in SFP 5.0, our debt burden and viability ratios move outside our policy limits very quickly, and that of course is unacceptable. Why, then, have we given the Board a worst-case scenario if our gauge of the fiscal strength of the University is so rosy? The answer is that we would be laying the snares of future surprises if we did not show in the model all of the projects that must be tackled in due course. But that does not mean that we can or should so aggressively challenge the truth of Woody Allen’s adage that time is nature’s way of keeping everything from happening all at once. We cannot begin all of the capital projects virtually all at once, within the next few years. We all know that the next step in the development of the model will include, among other possible measures, setting priorities for phasing of the projects over a longer period of time. And we need time for further modeling and for important consultation with the faculty and deans and with this Board as we carefully weigh the timing factors and all of the other complexly interactive variables that will produce the scenario to which the University will ultimately be committed.

In order to sustain our momentum, however, I believe it is a strategic imperative for us to move forward with some sense of urgency that we have to continue the invest-and-grow strategy that has paid such high dividends for UVM. The good news our model brings us is that, if we do nothing else except stretch out the timeframe of the Strategic Capital Plan, we have very significant capacity for ongoing investment. You can see that capacity when you look at an alternative scenario that Mike Gower and Ted Winfield will shortly discuss in more detail—a baseline scenario in which no capital projects are undertaken except those already under way or authorized by the Board. As you can see, under the SFP 5.0 worst-case scenario the blue line of the debt ratio will violate the 5% limit in 2009, whereas under the green baseline scenario, debt ratios stay increasingly far below the limit, a graphic representation of significant debt capacity. The same thing is true of the viability ratio: under SFP 5.0 the blue line of the ratio quickly falls below the required level of one dollar in net expendable assets for every dollar of debt, whereas under the baseline scenario the green line rises to a ratio of net expandable assets to debt of nearly 2 to 1. The rock-solid fiscal foundation of the status quo baseline position tells us that, far from being over-extended with our current commitments, we have significant capacity for continuing investment in thoughtfully defined strategic priorities. We can also be confident that the course we will want to chart will lie someplace in the middle, between the comparatively risky bookends of status quo stagnation at one extreme and of the most aggressive investment scenario at the other. As we find the right scale and pace for steering that middle course, I am confident that we will stay on track in pursuit of our vision of becoming the nation’s premier small public research university.

Finally, I feel incredibly lucky and blessed to be with you today, and I know that Rachel joins me in gratitude to the Board and to the broad community for the heart-warming support and encouragement we have received this year. The road ahead now for UVM beckons with the promise of truly exceptional achievement. As we look forward to Thanksgiving, I ask you to join me in giving thanks for the extraordinary successes that have resulted from the efforts of our dedicated faculty, students, staff, administration, and this Board. We face an increasingly bright future through the combined efforts of the members of this distinctive, distinguished, and wonderful community. Thank you.

Last modified November 21 2006 08:19 AM