Winter President’s Perspective

Many of us who are leaders in higher education, both in this country and around the world, share a growing sense of urgency about the need for change. Together, we have studied the social, economic, and political environment around us and have reflected on what the trends might mean as our relatively “mature” institutions face the demands of a dynamic world.

For the past several months, we have been building the case for change at The University of Vermont. We have listened carefully to the ideas and concerns of hundreds of members of our campus community, as well as many alumni and friends, examined our own experience and condition, and thought deeply about our university’s strengths, weaknesses, and the real challenges and opportunities that lie ahead. We have looked carefully at our values and mission and tested our basic assumptions about what our role should be in the future.

Although UVM has, by all measures, a healthy financial picture at the moment and a good reputation for scholarly excellence, we cannot assume that we will continue to be intellectually and financially healthy in the future. If our perceived quality or value declines, we won’t be able to attract faculty, staff, and students who are looking for a stimulating and challenging intellectual experience and a chance to use their knowledge and education to make a difference in the world around them. These are the kind of people we have now and these are the kind of people we want as UVMers in the future. So the reason for change is not that we have a crisis today. It’s that, by studying the trends at this institution over the past decade, we have learned that we must act now in order to make sure that our perceived quality remains high tomorrow.

We have set ourselves lofty goals: to be a virtuous university, a place that prepares our students to lead responsible, creative and productive lives, a place where the knowledge we generate makes a positive difference in people’s lives. We often view this challenge through the lens of our community. What will our work mean for Vermont and for its citizens? We have five goals:

•To create a well-educated and skilled workforce.

•To generate the foundation of knowledge and innovation that supports a high quality of life and economic development.

•To support good schools and healthy, sustainable communities.

•To generate the knowledge that will support effective natural resource management and sustain the working landscape in Vermont.

•To partner with organizations and communities to ensure that every Vermonter has an opportunity to succeed.

These goals do not stop at the boundaries of Vermont, of course. As a national university, we also have a commitment to society at large, and are working to create a distinctive intellectual identity that will allow us to contribute to the betterment of life wherever our influence extends. The strategic change process at UVM is built on the basic assumption that we wish nothing less than excellence based on our long-standing tradition of leadership and service to society.

Change is seldom easy — for an individual or an organization. But there traditionally seems to be something about a university that makes change especially difficult. We are a society of experts, each familiar in depth with a body of theory and knowledge to which we contribute and from which we draw to illuminate the thinking and lives of others. Few of us, however, are experts at how organizations work and know-ledgeable about what promotes a shared commitment to excellence across all disciplines and fields of study. Of all organizations in our society, higher education is the least likely to examine itself or to question its motives, its methods or its accomplishments.

Our current efforts at UVM challenge the status quo and call us to become more mindful of our shared responsibilities and to examine the results of our collaborative as well as individual efforts. A great university is a product of many creative and responsible people working together to provide knowledge that can support a democratic way of life, inform and enrich our understanding of human nature and the world around us, and open up the gates of opportunity for all of us. UVM wishes to be that kind of university now and far into the future.

I am very proud of the Strategic Change Process we have undertaken at UVM. It would not have been possible without broad participation from all segments of our community. We started in September with the “UVM Advance,” a meeting that drew hundreds of faculty, staff, and students to consider the themes and issues that emerged during our recent reaccreditation self-study. From those discussions we gained a sharpened focus upon our most important issues. Using the results of these first sessions, we designed a series of exchanges of ideas and deeper discussion of the issues identified as most vital to our future. These are: Attracting Quality Students, Affording Academic Quality, Graduate Education, Research and Scholarship, Student Retention, Support Services, Compensation and Performance, Utilization of Facilities, and Information Technology. The ideas and directions that have come out of our process are the products of many minds and many voices.

Drawing upon this semester of intense dialogue and discussion and numerous other planning documents developed in recent years, the senior leadership of the university will now propose to our Board of Trustees a set of over-arching goals that will guide our development and then chart the tactical steps for UVM over the next five years. At the annual State of the University Address on January 25, I will begin to outline what those steps will be as we move forward.

I thank the many of you who have helped us reach this point in a complex, difficult, but ultimately rewarding process of change. Through this critical year, we will reaffirm the mission and purpose of UVM, study carefully the changing needs and expectations of our students and of society-at-large, prepare ourselves to address the changes that are moving rapidly through society, and create a new financial paradigm for financing our institution in the future. We will emerge better focused, clear about our identity and purpose, financially sound, and ready for a new millennium.