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State of the University Address 2006

FSU President T. K. Wetherell delivers his fourth State of the University Address
FSU President T. K. Wetherell delivers his fourth State of the University Address

Good afternoon.

It was a little over three years ago, with the change in administration, that Florida State University’s Board of Trustees committed itself and made it a prerequisite of the new administration to develop a plan of action to raise the academic stature of this institution.

The Board of Trustees acknowledged that Florida State was already an excellent university but believed we could be even better. They wanted a plan that was bold and creative. Most at the time seemed to rally around the goal of AAU membership.

To the Florida State family the goal was broader. It was an effort to make FSU one of the nation’s top public graduate research universities. It was a commitment to build an imaginative plan from the ground up, with faculty, staff and student involvement.

If FSU were to be admitted to the AAU, so be it. If not, FSU will be a stronger university because of the joint effort—Pathways of Excellence.

Last year, when we formally announced Pathways of Excellence, we committed ourselves to the specific plan of becoming one of the top research and graduate education institutions in the United States.

We said we would achieve this ambitious goal:

First, by dramatically increasing our federal research grant expenditures and tripling our grant awards from the National Institutes of Health.

Second, by increasing our number of Ph.D. graduates toward a target of 400-450 per year.

And third, by building our scholarly reputation and productivity.

So, how have we done in a year? We’ve made some good progress.

  • We have recorded our best research grant year yet, with $190 million. That’s nearly 18 per cent more than last year.
  • We have graduated 15% more Ph.D.s.
  • We have enhanced our scholarly reputation.
  • Our Nobel Laureate Sir Harry Kroto had the rare honor of being elected as a Foreign Associate to the National Academy of Science
  • Our Professor of Dance Suzanne Farrell won Kennedy Center Honors
  • We added a new Eppes Professor to our faculty. Barbara Foorman is one of the top literacy researchers in the nation.
  • Simon Ostrach, a member of the National Academy of Engineering, is another internationally renowned scholar who has joined our faculty.
  • We lured the Applied Superconductivity Center, led by David Larbalestier from the University of Wisconsin; we invested over $4M to renovate the Shaw Building to accommodate this world-class center. Dr. Larbalestier is also a member of the National Academy of Engineering.
  • Lt. Col. Ronald P. Elrod, Commander of our Army ROTC, was named the nation’s top professor of military science.
  • Our nuclear physics group is recognized as #7 in the country in producing Ph.D.s over the past five years.
  • The College of Information’s program in Information Studies/Technology is one of the most respected and consistently top-ranked programs, and its Services for Children and Youth Library Specialty is #1 in the nation.
  • Our undergraduate accounting program in the College of Business is among the top 20 at public universities.
  • Our arts programs taken together put us at the very top of anyone’s rankings. The latest U.S. News & World Report puts the College of Music fifth among public universities, with the opera program number three.
  • Among our students, Garrett Johnson became our first Rhodes Scholar in more than 20 years, and our new Office of National Fellowships provided support so that a record number of our students have won top awards.
  • We’ve also just welcomed our strongest freshman class ever. Not only is the class the strongest we’ve seen, it’s one of the strongest in the nation—and that’s with 30 per cent who are the first in their family to attend college.
  • More and more of our students are choosing to accept the demands of Honors courses, and our Spring 2006 commencement ceremonies not only saw the largest group of graduates in the university’s history, but also the largest number of Honors in the Major graduates.

We also saw construction of world-class facilities across this campus.

  • We broke ground on new Chemistry and Life Science Buildings, and we completed the final phase of Medicine, the first phase of Psychology and a new classroom building. Two new residence halls and parking garages are also under construction.  Construction will start this fall on the Materials Research Building. That’s just a small part of the half-billion dollars in construction that’s reshaping this campus.

All of that is wonderful news. And while I could report many other significant accomplishments, I want to take the rest of my time with you to tell you about ways we are working to make our Pathways vision a reality.

This year, we are proud to report that Florida State University is taking unparalleled steps to build our faculty. This hiring effort is striking for its ambition, for its innovation, for its process and for the way it’s funded.

In the next five years we will authorize the hiring of 200 senior faculty members in interdisciplinary clusters of five to eight people based on an academic theme or research area.

Many of those new faculty members will be national and international leaders in their field. That’s going to build our faculty ranks by nearly 20 per cent over today.

Who we hire and how we hire them will be a far cry from what we’ve done in the past and from what other universities are doing.

No other university is saying to current faculty, “We’re going to hire hundreds of top-notch faculty members in the next five years—and who they are and what they teach is up to you. You come up with the ideas for broad, interdisciplinary approaches. You decide what the clusters and academic themes should be. You nominate the new hires. You evaluate them. And central administration will provide $100 million to pay for it—with no cost sharing by your college.”

It’s an approach that is creating a buzz around the country.

A recent report from Harvard recommends a Pathways-type approach. That great university has examined its academic and hiring practices and realized they were coming up short. They’re trying to get more nimble. They’re promoting collaborations. They want to cut through barriers.

They need to take a look at Florida State. We’re already at work doing what they’re just now proposing. And the academic world is taking notice.

It really provides some exciting opportunities. Although we already have many world-class programs, many others need just a little push to reach top level. Now we can provide that push. Since many of our new hires will be senior faculty, they will arrive with fully established programs, grants, and graduate students and postdoctoral fellows.  Just look at the Applied Superconductivity Center as a sample of what’s ahead for this institution.

Pathways of Excellence is an initiative with deep roots at this institution. The progress we can report today is a direct outgrowth of the vision expressed by the initial Board of Trustees and many faculty, administrators and friends of this institution. The path foreseen and recommended in 1998 by the Commission on the Future has become today’s “Pathways of Excellence.”

Let me remind you of what that Commission said: “We aspire to move Florida State into the top tier of national research universities. Emphasis on our graduate programs and the research programs of the faculty are central to achieving excellence.”

The Commission told us we had the potential to move a number of our programs to top rank nationally. To make that happen, we would need to focus our limited resources and invest strategically in those areas where we have the greatest opportunity to succeed. For that reason, we would have to focus on interdisciplinary research and teaching.

Since the Commission report, we’ve put some very important interdisciplinary research and resources in place.

Our renowned Mag Lab is the ultimate in interdisciplinary units, with research under way in physics, chemistry, astrophysics, geological sciences, biochemistry and biophysics, materials science and engineering.  Last February the National Science Board recognized the Mag Lab’s record of success in scientific research by deciding to accept a renewal proposal rather than open a national competition to operate the facility. This decision means the magnet lab will remain in Tallahassee for at least the next five years.

The Mag Lab is far from our only interdisciplinary facility. Faculty in the School of Computational Science partner with scientists in other units to study subjects as varied as evolutionary biology, structural biology, chemistry, physics and materials science.

The Florida Center for Reading Research brings together psychologists, reading specialists and clinicians to ensure that all of our children have the reading skills they need to succeed in school and throughout their lives.

The College of Medicine is a giant interdisciplinary cluster, with faculty studying everything from the basic biomedical sciences to medical humanities. Jayne Standley is a pioneer in this kind of collaboration. Her work in music therapy has led to new techniques that help premature babies thrive.

These are just a few examples of the path we’ve been on for nearly a decade. Through Pathways of Excellence, we’ll find an even firmer footing.

We would not be able to take the Pathways approach if we did not already have an excellent, hard-working, committed faculty. Your acceptance of and enthusiasm for the Pathways approach to hiring has been nothing short of spectacular.

You have clearly understood the synergy that can result from this approach. You have seen that the whole—in terms of research, grants and doctoral student training—will be greater than the sum of the individual contributions of the hires.

You have also supported the vision that creating interdisciplinary faculty clusters will lead to development of many new interdisciplinary doctoral programs that will tap into new and stronger pools of graduate applicants. You have recognized that top scholars help attract young scholars who are on track to be top scholars. You understand that we need great undergraduate programs to underpin great graduate programs.

Let me give you some numbers: Our first round of competition drew proposals from 44 faculty groups, each with an average of five contributors. These proposals were designed by our senior faculty—already top producers—who are poised to become even more productive.

The first-stage proposals covered a staggering spectrum of disciplines and areas.

Those proposals came from well over 220 faculty members who saw the great value of this approach and said, “I want to be a part of it. And I’m willing to be held to strict performance standards as part of the accountability contract.”

Based on the first round of competition, six initial clusters have already been approved and 38 faculty hires—including 12 full professors—already have been authorized.

That’s just the start. Additional searches are under way. We are looking for those who can teach and also have the talent and drive to help develop top-notch programs.

Today I’m pleased to tell you about two of our first six clusters.

English is the lead department for our “Text Technologies” cluster. Gary Taylor of our English Department has taken the lead on this program. It’s going to focus on how we communicate ideas—from handwritten manuscripts to print documents to text messaging—and how those changes affect our society.

Our students already think that that e-mail is for old folks, and who knows what’s coming next and how it will change our lives.  Someone recently heard a description of Gary’s program and said, “I get it. You should call it “Gutenberg to Gates to Google.” Gary says his cluster is going to work with the DNA of culture.

Our first two Text Technologies faculty members will arrive in January.

The second cluster is formally called “Integration of Genotype and Phenotype” and will be led by David Houle and the biological science department. It’s based on advances in reading our genetic code and trying to figure out how it works. Advancing our knowledge in this area has direct implications for understanding disease, interaction with the environment and aging. Eight faculty members from areas ranging from molecular genetics to evolution will be part of this totally new effort, which will have few, if any, counterparts nationwide.

One our newest cluster efforts is led by faculty from Mechanical and Industrial Engineering. This initiative will hire engineers and basic scientists who study the growth, processing and characterization of advanced materials such as ultra-strong but thin structures made of carbon nanotubes.

The research that all of these groups will do has the potential to open new doors to knowledge that will make our lives and our world better.

Three colleges are involved in the first approved clusters—Arts & Sciences, Engineering and Social Sciences. We want to see more involvement. As the Pathways effort unfolds, virtually all of the university will be directly affected.

Round 2 of what will be a total of five rounds of Pathways cluster hiring competitions will begin late this fall. We expect to approve six, or possibly more, clusters in this round.

Within the span of the Pathways initiative, between 30 and 40 cluster hiring proposals will be approved. Keep in mind that we will continue to hire faculty to compensate for turnover due to retirement and departures.

This truly is an ambitious approach. Thanks to the commitment of this faculty, we’ve made great progress, but there’s a long way to go. We recognize there are those who are asking, How will we pay for it? Where will the resources come from? How will current faculty be affected?

We’ve been fortunate to have had some success in terms of legislative commitment to higher education and the state’s flagship universities. Last year’s salary increase was the largest in more than a decade. The Legislature allocated nearly $36 million of a $100 million three-year commitment, to be shared by FSU and the University of Florida to build major research and economic development facilities.

We are requesting $6 million in enhancement funds for the 07-08 academic year to support our faculty development efforts. We aim to ensure that the Legislature is committed to making those funds recurring.

Next week FSU will be submitting four proposals to the statewide Centers of Excellence competition. This program awards a minimum of $5 million to state-of-the-art research programs that have the potential for dramatic economic and workforce impacts.

Also next week we will be submitting the names of four senior faculty members for the 21st Century World Class Scholar competition. This program leverages university funds with State of Florida funds to create very compelling packages for recruiting senior faculty stars to the state university system.

We’re going to need to continue to focus our efforts. Competition for recognition in research is a highly competitive business. We will need to continue to work smart. We may need to redeploy and concentrate our resources. Clearly, financial discipline will be required, but we are committed to working to address salary issues and improve conditions for our entire faculty and staff.

Moving toward these goals, based on the strength of current and new faculty, will have a dramatic impact on this institution. This is a transforming effort for this university, both at the graduate and undergraduate levels.

It’s a transformation we want the world to know about. For that reason, we are going to be getting the word out this fall. I, along with our vice presidents and deans, will be speaking to local and alumni groups to spread the word about Pathways and the future of this university. Our message will be available in print, video and on the web. We have prepared several videos and a brochure, and they’ll be available for you to use when you are talking about Florida State to general audiences or your peers. The video will also air on our own FSU stations and during our programs.

Now I’d like to show you the brief video we will be using to summarize the Pathways of Excellence initiative.

Ultimately, how successful Pathways is depends on the faculty and on administration support. We can and will make Pathways work, and Florida State University will achieve even greater things.

So, what can you do to make Pathways a success? With apologies to Robert Frost, who preferred the road less traveled: We are indeed taking the road—the pathway—less traveled—and, as Frost said, it can make all the difference. You can help us make that difference by selecting from my top ten suggestions:

  1. Get together with a group of colleagues at F-S-U and submit an interdisciplinary cluster proposal.
  2. Submit at least one more proposal than last year for a new research grant or contract.
  3. Publish one more paper this year in your discipline’s top journals.
  4. Attend a professional meeting. Make a presentation—and explain FSU’s Pathways initiative while you’re at it.
  5. Even if you aren’t part of a cluster, serve on a selection/recruitment committee.
  6. Teach an extra class or lab or seminar. National ranking indexes consider the mix of full-time and part-time faculty in their evaluation systems.
  7. Help recruit and retain 10 academically talented students. National ranking services award up to 15 per cent of their total points for student admission standards.
  8. Support your dean’s efforts to attract new donors to your department/college. State funds alone will not provide the necessary funding for successful programs. And consider your own contribution to the F-S-U Foundation. Many faculty members have provided generous gifts, and this is a very important way to support this institution. In fact, the final gift to our CONNECT Campaign, which took us well past our goal of $600 million, was from Oceanography Professor Emeritus John Winchester.
  9. Vote—Both of the major candidates for governor have endorsed the concept of the University of Florida and Florida State University as flagship institutions. R or D doesn’t matter. A governor who supports higher education is important to the success of this university and this state.
  10. Finally, be positive. A university committed to hiring 200 new senior faculty members and to filling all vacancies—while retaining departmental budgets—a university committed to a faculty-driven plan is not common place in today’s world of higher education.

Let’s take the less traveled Pathways of Excellence and make all the difference—TOGETHER.