Meeting the Challenge of Abundant Opportunity

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Steadman Upham, President

Remarks delivered at the Presidential Installation Ceremony, Opening of School Convocation, Donald W. Reynolds Center, The University of Tulsa, September 15, 2004

Thank you Chairman Collins. It is my distinct honor and privilege to be installed at this convocation as the seventeenth president of The University of Tulsa. Along with the honor and privilege of beginning this job, there is also the humbling responsibility I feel to carry-on the tradition of leadership and achievement established over the past 110 years by the trustees, faculty, staff, administrators and, of course, the students and alumni of this wonderful institution.

Just a few short months ago, I would have questioned the sanity of anyone who told me that I would begin the 2004-05 academic year at a new university. Such is the marvelously disquieting unpredictability of life. My wife Peggy and I would like to personally thank all of you for the gracious welcome you have extended to us. We are newcomers, to be sure, but from the very beginning we have never felt like outsiders. We are grateful for your warm hospitality.

I would like to thank Fulton and Susie Collins and members of the presidential search committee for their professionalism, thoughtfulness, and friendship during the search process. You should know that this is a very dedicated and persuasive group of people! In addition, Peggy and I extend our appreciation to Robert and Marcy Lawless for their help and graciousness in the presidential transition. It is an honor to follow these two distinguished leaders at TU.

Let me also offer my thanks and gratitude to Roger Blais for serving so effectively as interim president during the last two months. Roger, TU is fortunate, indeed, to have such an experienced, knowledgeable, and faithful agent of student, faculty, and staff interests. Finally, I extend my appreciation to my colleagues in the Department of Anthropology — some of whom I have yet to meet — and the College of Arts and Sciences dean’s office for recommending that the privileges of professorial rank and tenure be extended to me.

Change is an inevitable part of life, an inexorable force that draws each of us and all of our beliefs, values, practices, and relationships into a complex matrix of variable circumstances and patchy uncertainty. My transition to TU — the process of accepting a new job, saying goodbye to friends, marking accomplishments, physically moving, then embracing new opportunities and challenges — has reminded me of how change and uncertainty figure into our ability to know the world.

These recent changes in my living and working circumstances have disrupted the secure conditions I had come to expect during the past six years. Significant parts of the world I know and have been anchored to in Claremont are now irretrievably and permanently altered. I am coping well, to be sure, thanks to your graciousness, friendship, and patience. I find, however, that in order to cope I am digging deep into the reservoir of knowledge I have acquired over my adult life. But more than the specific knowledge I have acquired, I find that I am depending upon a foundation of principles, concepts, and values that I learned through the course of my education. It is this foundation that affords me both flexibility and resilience in the face of consequential change; it is this foundation that allows me to know the world even though many familiar and secure elements have disappeared.

I begin my remarks to you this way because I believe that in addition to one’s family and practice of worship, the university is the principal institution that prepares individuals and society to manage and understand change. Each of the academic disciplines in the university approaches the subject of change in different ways, using different lenses to magnify, reduce, and clarify the material world as it is filtered through human perception, analysis, and experience.

The University of Tulsa exemplifies this ideal. Its academic accomplishments over the last 110 years have been punctuated by one significant accomplishment after another. TU’s graduates are leaders in many different fields, and they are in positions in which they are managing change for themselves and others. This marvelous outcome is directly linked to the fact that TU’s faculty provide students with the principles, concepts, and values necessary for making a living and for living a life. We should never forget that preparing our students for a changing world is one of our cardinal responsibilities.

Because of such work and dedication, TU is able to position itself today to become more selective in its admissions, more student-centered in its teaching, more competitive it its research, and more national in its reach and orientation. TU has a strong and growing base of support, and a governing board of trustees second to none in its commitment, loyalty, and generosity. These are just some of the reasons that Peggy and I came to The University of Tulsa.

The accomplishments of the last year overwhelmingly support my assertion that TU is at an exceptional point in its history:
  • We are financially stable with a balanced budget and a strategy to retire TU’s long-term structural debt once and for all by the end of this fiscal year.
  • We have recruited one of the most able freshman classes ever to enroll at the university.
  • Our fundraising and grant-getting continue apace, reflecting the dynamic and innovative research of TU’s faculty, and the excitement and support of donors and alumni for capital projects that expand and enhance TU’s campus and grounds.
  • TU’s faculty and staff have enjoyed above average salary increases, and we expect to continue to address TU’s salary gap in the years ahead.
  • TU’s athletic teams are a model of how such programs should be run with student-athletes. And most importantly,
  • TU enjoys a deep reservoir of support in the community, state, and region.

Many people have said to me that they were anxious to hear my remarks this afternoon because they wanted to know what my vision is for TU. Let me deflect this interest by saying that a vision for the university does not come from the outside. Rather, it arises from the university’s people and programs, and is faithful to and consistent with the institution’s history and traditions. Over the next many months, I will seek to familiarize myself with your hopes and aspirations, and learn about what programs and initiatives have worked so well here in the past. My principal job during this period, apart from my daily administrative and fundraising duties, will be to listen carefully to you and others involved in TU. From these conversations, we will shape our vision for TU together to continue the university’s rise in national prominence and recognition.

To begin this process, let me share with you some of my observations, biases, concerns, and questions.

Selective Admissions and Enrollment

TU is successfully pursuing a strategy of becoming more highly selective in its admissions and more residential. The 681 freshman enrolled this year are among the most qualified and able in the university’s history. The size of this class, however, raises in my mind significant questions about what I call the “equilibrium size” of the university:

Historically, TU has ridden a roller coaster of enrollment change, and for the last 30 years the general trend in enrollments has been down. Between 1975 and 2002, TU enrollments declined by nearly 30%, from 5,180 FTE to 3,805 FTE. As those of you who know this history realize, each major enrollment decrease was a period of budget stringency and instability for the institution. Figuring the net tuition loss in current dollars, the enrollment drop between 1975 and 2002 equates to a decline in operating revenue of about $16 million! That’s an average loss of about $500,000 per year.

Fortunately, for the last two years we have enjoyed modest enrollment gains — 3,843 FTE last year and 3,909 FTE this fall — and over the last 10 years, TU has had an average enrollment of 3,900 FTE students. I recount this history because every indicator suggests that demand is growing for a TU education. We have professionalized TU’s recruiting efforts, and applications are on the rise. We now need to ask ourselves what the steady-state enrollment at TU should be? What is the optimal number of students who can be given a TU education—and by that I mean an education characterized by close student-faculty interaction and supported by the outstanding resources of the university?

I admit to a bias here: I firmly believe that in higher education, small is beautiful. Preserving a student-faculty ratio of 11 to 1 or better is vital to TU’s interests over the long term. Many of the parents I spoke to at freshman orientation a few weeks ago commented to me that it was TU’s small size and promise of close faculty-student interaction that brought their children here. These were families from all over Oklahoma, as well as from St. Louis, Houston, Little Rock, Kansas City, Denver, San Francisco, Phoenix, and Los Angeles.

I believe we must guard against rapidly increasing enrollments and use the opportunity of our growing national reach to become better and more selective, not just larger. Rapidly growing enrollments will threaten our academic quality and will produce a very difficult to treat “budget hangover” when enrollments plateau or drop, which they inevitably will.

If we seek enrollment stability, then we must decide what the optimal size of each entering class should be. The number of “700 new freshman each year” appears in TU’s strategic plan, but I do not yet know how that number comports with the facilities and teaching force we have available. And if we are seeking to have 2,800 undergraduates on campus in a steady-state enrollment, what is the appropriate number of graduate and professional students? Some of the finest institutions of our size and character balance undergraduate and graduate/professional enrollment. Is such a strategy feasible for TU? Since recruitment of the Class of 2009 is already underway, answering this question is of more than passing importance. I shall look forward to discussions with trustees, deans, department chairs, faculty, staff, and students about this crucial and strategic issue.

Building the Academic Enrichment Programs of the University

Over the past decade, TU has done a good job of attracting National Merit Scholars and students who have completed International Baccalaureate programs. We must continue to build on these efforts. TU’s rise in the national rankings is tied to this strategy, but equally important in TU’s ascendancy in the national rankings is what students say about us after they get to the university.

The most recent Princeton Review captures TU’s changing national status in the most profound way: a 10 point gain in TU’s academic rating (to 91), a 14 point gain in TU’s selectivity index (to 96), and an 18 point gain in the quality of TU’s campus life (to 94). Significantly, TU’s four star rating in each of these categories places it alongside the finest universities in the country. I want to congratulate each of you on these truly stunning achievements.

As we recruit more able and better prepared students, we shall need to augment the academic enrichment programs we offer. High ability students are ravenous consumers of academic opportunities. If we aim to ascend the national trajectory of academic excellence we must give careful consideration to how we serve this growing population of students on campus.

The Tulsa Undergraduate Research Challenge and TU’s Honors Program are two exemplary models of academic enrichment. We need to expand both of these programs in the years ahead so that many more students can take advantage of these marvelous learning opportunities. We also need to think creatively about new enrichment opportunities. One such opportunity might be the establishment of 4:1 baccalaureate-master’s programs in every academic area where we have sufficient faculty expertise. With such programs, we could be offering all of our students the opportunity to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees in five years if they so choose.

We also have opportunities to expand externally sponsored research significantly at TU. Having said this, however, let me emphasize that I do not want TU to become a research factory like some of our peers among the top 100 doctoral universities. That is, I do not want to expand research by relying too heavily on graduate teaching assistants and post-docs; I do not want to expand research if it means that TAs are doing the work of regular faculty in the classroom. Instead, TU has a chance to expand research in a different manner, one that is consistent with TU’s historical commitment to undergraduate teaching and scholarship.

The opportunities we provide to undergraduates to conduct original research set us apart, and provide an incredibly deep and lasting learning experience for students. TU’s faculty has done a superb job over the years connecting students with research opportunities that advance practice and understanding in the academic disciplines. I look forward to learning more about your ideas to expand externally sponsored research in this manner.

As we seek better and better students, we must also broaden our recruiting efforts. Oklahoma is one of the few states in the Union that will see a decline in the number of high school graduates in the years ahead. Thus, TU can no longer depend just on Oklahoma students to come to the university. Instead, we must recruit more students from farther afield. And as we bring prospective students and their families to campus for tours, we must put our best foot forward.

Study after study has shown that the physical appearance of a campus figures prominently in a student’s decision to attend a college. Although the “curb appeal” of a university seems a trivial consideration in the larger scheme of things, it profoundly shapes students’ first impressions and final decisions about where to attend. TU has done an outstanding job of extending and beautifying its campus, but more remains to be done.

Many years ago, I was invited to speak in the Rotunda at the University of Virginia. As I was being shown around the university before my talk, I commented to my tour guide on the beauty of the UVA campus. While my remark must have been secretly appreciated by the guide, it was met by a sharp rebuke. “Sir,” I was told, “this is not a campus, these are the grounds.”

This incident has stayed with me over the years, because the “grounds” that Mr. Jefferson designed at the University of Virginia have an architectural coherency and beauty that is difficult to match on other university campuses. In the manner of UVA, however, TU is well on its way to having more than just a campus. The building projects of the last 10 years match the character and integrity of the original Tennessee ledge stone buildings, and have added significantly to the beauty, architectural coherence, and functionality of the university. We must continue to implement the campus master plan as a part of our efforts to improve the quality and selectivity of the student body.

Needed capital projects include a new welcome center and south entrance to campus, a much needed engineering and science building, a performing arts facility, additional residence halls, and improvements to Skelly Stadium. All of these projects will contribute to TU’s curb appeal and functionality, and each must be seen in relation to the university’s strategy to improve student quality and selectivity.

Finding TU’s Self-conscious Intellectual Style

Because I have spoken about undergraduate teaching and research in my remarks, I would not want to send a message to our graduate and professional programs that they are peripheral to TU’s mission. On the contrary, TU’s professional programs, especially in the fields of law, business, and engineering, are crucial to the learning environment we aim to create. I consider the study of law to fall squarely within the humanities. Law faculty and students have deep and important perspectives about the workings of society, ethical conduct, moral values, and the structure of human interaction. The study of law is also fundamentally a study of history. In the years ahead, I would hope we can find ways to infuse such important and vital understandings into the general curriculum for all of our students.

Similarly, I side with Peter Drucker in claiming that the study of business and management is a social science. Business and management are entwined with the study of economics, political science, anthropology, and history because they are predicated on understanding organizational behavior. And the engineering disciplines are vital for “investigating, examining, experimenting, and reporting upon any subject of science or art” (per the National Academy of Engineering). New knowledge from engineering research is also essential to the technological advancement of the nation. Consequently, law, business, and engineering as fields of study are integral to TU’s core teaching and research mission as a liberal arts university.

The role of TU’s graduate and professional programs in the university’s development raises the question of what kind of university we will make together. What will be the intellectual style of the university we build, and what are the core ideas that will unite us as a community of scholars? By intellectual style I mean the way in which we collectively teach our students to know and understand the world, to position the facts and knowledge they acquire on a broader intellectual map. To do this effectively, we must find ways to meld knowledge from across the disciplines to create larger and more meaningful understandings for our students and ourselves.

Our intellectual style also influences the problems and questions we choose to study, the way we organize and present the curriculum, and whether we are open or hegemonic about collaborating across disciplinary boundaries. Every university has an intellectual style. Sometimes it is a poorly defined, even an unconscious patchwork of ideas and outcomes. In other cases, an intellectual style arises from an institution’s history and traditions, and acquisition of it becomes an expectation for everyone who passes through the university’s halls. More rarely, an intellectual style is a carefully and self-consciously crafted approach to teaching and learning that is artfully communicated to students and the public. My sense is that TU has chosen this latter track. I believe it is this kind of thinking that will lead us into the future. I believe it is this kind of thinking that will allow us to become a university of even greater national consequence and distinction.

The comments and ideas I’ve shared with you this afternoon reflect a few of the things I’ve been thinking about. Over the next weeks and months I look forward to broadening our conversation about these and other issues.

Thank you for welcoming Peggy and me into the TU family, for having the faith and confidence in our abilities, and for providing us with the extraordinary opportunity to serve this great university. I look forward to working with all of you in the years ahead.