University of Vermont

Board of Trustees

Board of Trustees, Chair's Report

Robert F. Cioffi
Board of Trustees, Chair’s Report
February 7, 2014

12 years is a long time, even in the life of a University that we all know is the type of institution that doesn't move quickly, a lot of change can take place in that time period. I am thrilled to have been able to watch the change that has taken place from this table.

If you think back 12 years ago, we had just completed a Presidential search after a difficult decade marked by a revolving door in the Presidency, this building nor the building to the East (Jeffords Hall) didn't exist, our applications were at about 8300, our endowment was at $180MM, we had an uninspiring development effort, no Honors College, and the mood on campus was pessimistic. There was not even Facebook. Our undergrad enrollment had dropped under 7500, and the resulting budgetary problems were large. It was a disheartening time.

A dozen years later, I am proud that we now have a renewed optimism on this campus, we have enjoyed three successful Presidencies including our one year interim stint. Our Presidential search was considered a model and actually praised by the local newspaper, the campus has been revitalized by new construction and an upgrading of some of our older buildings, our applications are at an all-time high and will exceed 24,000 this spring (nearly triple of our number 12 years ago), we have established a fundraising foundation which has hit the ground running, our endowment has crossed the $400MM mark (a 220% increase), a thriving Honors College is now well established - a real crown jewel. Enrollment is at a healthy level of just shy of 10,000, and there is a renewed feeling of optimism about the University around the state and indeed around the country.

I truly believe that the University of Vermont is in a far better place today and we should all be very proud of what we have accomplished together. As we all know, it has not always been smooth sailing, but our collective belief in and commitment to this institution have allowed us to overcome the obstacles in our path. We have had a very good run and I thank you for allowing me to be a part of that success.

With that said, I believe there are some storm clouds out there -- some of them of our own making and others casting shadows over all of higher education in this country.

Despite our successes, there are many areas where I wish we could have done better over the past decade. My biggest personal regret is an inability to eliminate the persistent myth that UVM is expensive especially for in state students. Tom has made it his personal mission to keep UVM affordable for all students and in particular Vermonters and I applaud this mission. However, I believe that this is a goal that has already been achieved and should be maintained. 44% of Vermonters do not pay any tuition to attend UVM. Let me repeat that number, 44% of Vermont students attend UVM tuition-free and in addition, the average Vermonter's total cost of attendance is discounted by nearly 40% off the sticker price which is already pegged at only 40% of out of state tuition. Additionally, the numbers that I have just quoted do not take into account any self help sources like work study or loans which the university also facilitates.

But apparently these impressive numbers don't sell newspapers. As recently as two weeks ago the Burlington Free Press editorial stated, "How does that reputation (of a public ivy) jive with the realities Vermont students face at UVM, a school that manages to make the top 5 lists of the most expensive public universities on a regular basis?" I'm sorry, but that is not the reality that most Vermont students face at UVM and as many times as we have said it, the myth continues to be perpetuated in the press and around the state. I regret that this stubborn perception persists.

To be sure, our published tuition price is higher than many public universities. But as we all know, that is the direct result of having one of the lowest levels of public financial support in the nation over many decades. It will be a happy day when I read an editorial entitled "Vermont Must Invest More in Its State University." But to be good stewards of that investment, we must do our part.

Going forward, we need to be very careful to not fall into the trap of being all things to all people and therefore doing none of them well. I have always taken a page from Dan Fogel and Tom Sullivan's book of thanking the state for the support that they give us, and an annual check for $40+ million is instrumental to the continuing viability of our University. As has often been stated, it is the equivalent of a $1BN endowment. However I get very frustrated when I see individuals in Montpelier take pot shots at UVM or raise the expectations that UVM must do more for Vermont and expect us to accommodate every demand in return for this modest investment, which as we know is very specifically assigned to just three areas: Agriculture, Medicine, and student financial aid for Vermonters. This inadequate investment is further limited by the 40% rule restriction - which the State Colleges do not have to deal with. In light of this, we must depend on our legislative Trustees to continue to be our champions. I realize this puts an additional burden on those 9 individuals but I can think of no other way that it can be accomplished so I encourage you to continue to carry this torch for us in the legislature.

Many don't want to hear this but we are in direct competition with countless other options for higher education across the northeast and indeed around the country and the world. I know we like to think at times that higher education is somehow different from other enterprises and is not affected by outside influences. This is unfortunately not the case. Some may wish that an idyllic view of life in the ivory tower will serve us well. It won't. On the contrary, I believe if we follow this thinking it will sow the seeds of our own demise.

I was thrilled to learn that our applications are at an all time high (again!) and we should give Chris Lucier and his team a great deal of credit for these numbers. However, attracting applicants is not enough. We need to continue to strive to improve our selectivity and the yield of those applicants. The competition is not resting on its laurels and nor can we. In order to do this, we must continue to strive for excellence in our programs and focus on a finite number of them that promise us a competitive advantage.

Before I wrap up, I wanted to extend a few public thank you's though I will reserve most of them for tonight's dinner.

I would like to first thank the hard working faculty who by and large want what is best for UVM and the vast majority of them are spending their time constructively working with students and doing important and groundbreaking research. Without you, I would not have been fortunate enough to get my degree from here and we would not have the incredible educational product that we are able to offer to Vermonters and our out of state students.

I'd also like to thank those individuals who work on the administrative team and those that serve as our Deans. Unfortunately, in higher education, it is viewed as good sport to view administrators and Deans as punching bags and to blame them for all that is wrong in the academy. From my 12 years on this Board and certainly during my 4 years as Chair, my view is that this could not be farther from the truth. These folks are hard working, dedicated individuals who have chosen this field in order to further the education of our students. Their priorities are in line with this Board's and mine and they should be celebrated for all that they do to help UVM succeed.

With that said, I would like to thank my fellow Trustees who I have served with. It is often forgotten that these individuals do this for no pay and it is a significant time commitment. They are thankless public servants who give of their time and wisdom to help lead this University. I am thrilled to count many of them as just not colleagues but friends. Thank you.

Two years ago this weekend, I had the pleasure of placing a phone call to a 612 area code which I knew was a cellphone in the land of Gophers (sorry, Golden Gophers), after the party on the other end of the phone, abruptly hung up on me and I had to call them back, I was able to offer the Presidency of the University of Vermont to Tom Sullivan. I am thrilled that Tom and Leslie's arrival here and Tom's Presidency will be considered part of my legacy as Chair of this Board and I couldn't be happier to have him as our President. Thanks for finally taking my call Tom!

I would also like to publicly recognize our other outgoing Trustees, Sam Bain, Dennis Mahoney and Bill Ruprecht. We will have time this evening to thank each of you for your individual accomplishments but I also wanted to extend my thanks to each of you for what you have done for our University.

I am jealous of those that have time left on the Board as I believe that there are exciting times ahead for UVM but challenging times for higher education. I look forward to watching from a slight distance away as UVM continues to strive to achieve excellence in its areas of academic focus.

As a parting gift to the Board, the University and those that will sit in this chair in the future, I would like to present a new gavel to the next Chair of the Board. This gavel was made by hand by two of our own people, Associate Provost Brian Reed and Director of Physical Plant Sal Chiarelli, who undertook this task with great enthusiasm and care. I was privy to a video that Sal made in his workshop showing the progress on the project a couple of weeks ago. At one point, as he was carefully turning the handle on his basement lathe he quipped, "Not bad for an administrator, eh?" The gavels and strike plates are made of native Black Cherry from the Enosburg farm of Professor Emeritus James Welch, which Brian was waiting to use for an appropriate project. This was the right opportunity to use the wood for a special symbolic purpose, especially given the connections to Vermont and UVM. The strike plates are inlaid with a brass medallion of the UVM Seal, and the gavel handle is adorned with a hand-tooled brass finial. I understand the wood is hand finished with seven layers of Tung oil, a substance with which I am totally unfamiliar.

I trust that it will be used over the ensuing years to make great decisions for the continuing success of this University. Thank you, Brian and Sal, for creating such a beautiful and meaningful product. I am so happy that I didn't just buy a gavel online!

In closing, let me say that I like the place we are in, and we are in a position to control our own destiny and really that is all you can ask for. We can imagine our future and make it so....for good or ill. Let's not blow it. We can soar if we believe in and nurture this place, or we can ride the handbasket of self interest and negativity. It is up to us....and now it is up to all of you. We can embrace a future of cooperation, respect, and progress, or one of divisiveness, small minded thinking, and stagnation....or worse. As our President often says, 'By working together, and supporting each other, we can accomplish great things.' I hope you will follow that wise advice.

I am ending my long stint on this Board at this exceptional University to do other things, and will be watching carefully and hoping that the best instincts of the University community will prevail. Thank you for all you have done to help put us in a position of strength. Continuing our success will demand our best thinking, our best commitment, and our best work.

Thanks for letting me be a part of it, and Go Cats!

Last modified February 07 2014 10:15 AM