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State of the University Address 2020: Reflections on FSU’s Past and Promise

Good afternoon! Thank you, Dr. Chicken for that introduction, and thank you for your leadership and service on the FSU Board of Trustees and as president of the Faculty Senate.

I’d like to thank several people today who have contributed to this university’s success — first of all, and most importantly, my wife, Jean. She has been by my side throughout my entire career, and for the past six years has been an amazing First Lady of Florida State University.

I’d like to recognize the previous presidents of the Faculty Senate whom I have had the privilege to work with and who are here today: Professors Gary Tyson and Todd Adams and Dean Susan Fiorito. I appreciate your counsel and friendship.

I’d also like to thank FSU Board of Trustees Chair Ed Burr and the entire board for their leadership and support, particularly Student Body President Jonathan Levin for the excellent work he does representing our students.

And I want to thank everyone on my senior leadership team for the extraordinary work they do every day:

  • Provost Sally McRorie;
  • Vice President for Finance and Administration Kyle Clark;
  • Vice President for Student Affairs Amy Hecht;
  • Interim Vice President for Advancement Andy Jhanji;
  • Vice President for Faculty Development Janet Kistner;
  • Vice President for Research Gary Ostrander;
  • General Counsel Carolyn Egan;
  • Chief of Staff and Associate Vice President for University Relations Liz Hirst;
  • Former Associate Vice President for University Relations Kathleen Daly;
  • Assistant Vice President for University Communications Browning Brooks
  • Athletic Director David Coburn.

I’m so glad that some of them could be here today.

I’d also like to thank Billy Francis for the excellent work he does with our student veterans as well as FSU alumnus and Seminole Tribe member Kyle Doney for being such a good friend to the university and serving as a liaison to the Tribe.

And, of course, everyone knows that if you really want to get something done around here, you need to call Ms. Cheryl Bakker. Cheryl has served as special assistant to three presidents, including me, and I literally could not do this job without her.

I’d also like to acknowledge speechwriter Jill Elish who has helped me prepare for more than 800 speaking engagements over the past six years, as well as everyone at University Communications for their excellent work.

Finally, I’d like to thank the Faculty Senate for inviting me to your meeting. It’s an honor and a privilege to deliver what will be my last State of the University address. So, if you’ll indulge me today, I’d like to look back at not only this past year, but all we have accomplished together over the past six years.

Let’s start by looking at a short video.

It’s pretty amazing what we have achieved, and it’s hard not to get a little emotional when I think about how far this university has come — and envision where we will go. As I reflect on the past, I’m even more excited about the promise of the future.

When I became president in 2014, we had some pretty audacious goals — to be recognized as a Top 25 public university, raise a billion dollars, expand our research enterprise, and invest in faculty and student success, to name just a few. I never had any doubt we would achieve them, but I never could have anticipated all of the ups and downs along the way.

And I certainly would never have imagined that I would be finishing my term amid a global pandemic.

But this pandemic has reinforced many of the things I already knew about the people of this university — that we are strong, we are tenacious, and we are resilient. When history looks back on this moment in time, it will see us at our finest.

In many ways, the challenges we have faced over the years — the shooting at Strozier library, three hurricanes, the suspension of Greek Life, and the tragic loss of students to hazing, gun violence and traffic crashes — all have prepared us to respond to the pandemic.

I say this a lot because I believe it is true: We are a family at Florida State. And when push comes to shove, we all pull in the same direction.

Our students, our faculty, our staff — every single one of us has had to make sacrifices in one way or another to safeguard the health of others. And every single one of us has had to find new ways of doing things in order to ensure the success of the university.

Our faculty, in particular, are some of the most creative, hard-working and dedicated people I have known. You displayed your creativity, flexibility, and ingenuity in March when we quickly transitioned to remote learning. For the faculty to convert 10,000 classes to remote delivery in just two weeks’ time is an extraordinary accomplishment.
After a summer of online learning, we moved to a hybrid model this fall. And once again, the faculty rose to the challenge.

Whether it was putting on a mask and stepping into a classroom or logging onto Zoom and converting all your course materials online, you remained dedicated to giving your best to our students.
In short, it’s because of you that we have been able to continue to deliver a world-class education to our 43,000 students.

Of course, we could not have done it without our amazing staff who revised course schedules, cleaned classrooms, provided technical support, launched a public health campaign, offered student services, and so much more.

The COVID testing and contact tracing programs we have implemented in partnership with Tallahassee Memorial Hospital, Capital Regional Medical Center and the Florida Department of Health have been key to our plan.

I want to acknowledge Dr. Daniel Van Durme, chief medical officer of our Medical Advisory Group; Dr. Jim Zedekar, director of university special projects for health and emergency operations; Dr. Emily Pritchard who leads our contact tracing efforts; Associate Vice President for Human Resources Renisha Gibbs; and everyone at University Health Services, especially our nurses on the front lines.

I am convinced that without their leadership, as well as the support and participation of the campus community, we would have had many more cases of COVID-19.

I’d also like to acknowledge the College of Medicine, the College of Nursing and the Department of Public Health for the work they have done for our campus and the state.
Our faculty have made extraordinary contributions to our response and understanding of the coronavirus. Let me give you a couple examples.

Last summer, we began considering the idea of opening our own laboratory on campus in order to process a large number of COVID tests and have the results in 24 hours. There was just one problem — across the nation, there was a widespread shortage of testing supplies.

That’s when Jonathan Dennis, an associate professor in the Department of Biological Science, came forward with a solution. He developed a new testing procedure to get around the supply shortage, and the lab has since processed nearly 50,000 tests. Dr. Dennis is here and I’d like him to stand and be recognized.

The faculty and staff at the Innovation Hub — along with colleagues at the Master Craftsman Studio, The Art Department, FSU Libraries and the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering — also stepped up in the early days of the pandemic.
When health care workers faced a shortage of PPE, they developed a prototype and put their 3D printers to work to make 2,400 face shields that were delivered to local hospitals, physicians and frontline workers.

Innovation Hub Director Ken Baldauf is here representing this incredible team, and I’d like him to stand and be recognized.

At the same time we are dealing with the coronavirus, America is reckoning with a different kind of epidemic. The murder of George Floyd in May brought systemic racism to the forefront of our collective consciousness.

We know we have a long way to go to achieve true racial equality and justice — as a nation, as a community, as a campus. We must continue to listen, learn and evolve — and take action.

As an institution of higher education, we can be leaders. I am committed to making long-term changes to ensure that the FSU community is a place where every single person feels safe and is treated with respect and dignity.

Last summer, I established the President’s Task Force on Anti-racism, Equity and Inclusion to identify racial and ethnic disparities on campus and to implement a range of initiatives, such as diversity and inclusivity training and enhanced recruitment and retention of students, faculty and staff from under-represented groups.
English Professor Maxine Montgomery is chairing the task force, and she and the subcommittees — led by Associate Vice President for Student Affairs Brandon Bowden; Chief Diversity Officer and Director of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Michelle Douglas, and History Professor Maxine Jones — will submit recommendations to my office. I know the work they are doing will lead to a stronger and more just, equitable and inclusive future for all of us.

Our new nonpartisan Institute of Politics — established by the Florida Legislature and housed in FSU’s outstanding College of Social Sciences and Public Policy — aims to showcase the role of politics in improving the lives of Americans and encourage civic engagement.

This is especially important as we see both growing partisan politics across the nation and rising student activism on college campuses.

This is a unique period in the history of our nation and university. In times of change, we are fortunate to have the steady influence of professors who have spent their entire careers here, including seven faculty members who have been here for more than 50 years.

I’d like congratulate one of the latest to mark her 50th anniversary of teaching at FSU — Nursing Professor Sally Karioth. Over five decades, Professor Karioth has taught more than 26,000 students, including my own daughters. I’m glad Sally could be here today.

Her longevity says a lot about her loyalty and dedication, but it also says something about what a special place we have here at FSU.

The world is beginning to realize that, too.

As you all know, in September, FSU was ranked one of the nation’s Top 20 public universities for the second consecutive year.

I am so proud of how far we have come. In 2014, FSU was ranked 43rd in the nation; we now have surpassed some of the finest universities in the country.

Our meteoric rise in the rankings is due to a lot of hard work and forward thinking by many people across the university who developed a strategic plan that reflects our values and has guided our way.

It focuses on what we do best at FSU — helping students succeed and preparing them for 21st century careers. The plan also concentrates on expanding our research enterprise, strengthening entrepreneurship and innovation, deepening our commitment to diversity and inclusion and investing in excellence and reputation.

When it comes to student success, we continue to have some of the best graduation and retention rates in the country. In fact, a record 95 percent of our freshmen return for their sophomore year — a rate that places us among the Top 15 public universities in the nation! And 74 percent of our students graduate in four years.

Our Panama City Campus also is doing its part to provide opportunities for student success. Launched in October, the new PC Promise Scholarship program provides free tuition to students in Northwest Florida who have a combined family income of less than $50,000.

Graduate student enrollment — a hallmark of any great research university — is at an all-time high, and we are advancing our goal to strengthen FSU’s academic and research excellence through groundbreaking studies, original scholarship and creative endeavors.

This past year, FSU faculty researchers received more than 250 million dollars from federal, state and private sources — a new university record.

The funding is supporting research in a wide range of disciplines, from health sciences to engineering to answering some of the many questions about the coronavirus.

Our strategic plan also recognizes the value FSU places on diversity, equity and inclusion. We have again been named a national “Diversity Champion” and have received the top “diversity in higher education award” for seven years in a row.

We are a leader in intercultural activities as well.

This past year, nine faculty members and nine students received Fulbright awards. And nine must be the magic number because FSU is also ranked 9th in the country for the number of students who study abroad. I know we are all looking forward to a time when our students and faculty can once again safely travel abroad to study or conduct research.

We also have made incredible progress in our goal to strengthen our commitment to entrepreneurship, thanks to the $100 million gift that we received in 2015 from Jan Moran and The Jim Moran Foundation — the largest gift in university history.

Under the leadership of Dean Susan Fiorito, the Jim Moran College of Entrepreneurship continues to grow and now offers three graduate programs — including two that are in partnership with FSU’s newest college — the Dedman College of Hospitality.

Finally, our strategic goal to invest in our institution and our reputation is paying off. We are doing a better job of communicating our successes and singing our praises.
We also have had tremendous alumni engagement and fundraising success. In 2018 we concluded the Raise the Torch campaign after raising 1.16 billion dollars! Those funds supported 1,300 scholarships and 100 professorships.

The face of the campus has also changed since I began my term. We’ve constructed new buildings in order to support our students, faculty and staff as we pursue our strategic goals.

The new Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Science Building opened in 2019 to accommodate our internationally recognized programs in meteorology, geology and oceanography.

We’ve added Magnolia and Azalea Halls to provide more modern accommodations for students who want to live on campus. We opened the Black Student Union in 2018, providing much needed meeting space for one of our largest and most active student organizations.

And construction is currently under way on renovations to the Oglesby Student Union and on the first residential housing complex on our Panama City Campus.

All of the successes of the past six years point to a bright future. With the proper support and funding from the Florida Legislature, a Top 15 ranking is in our sights, and the Top 10 is a long-range goal.

Of course, it won’t be easy. COVID-19 has had an impact on state revenues, and I know some of you are concerned about the effect this may have on our operating budget, and on our faculty and staff in particular.

I want to assure you we will do everything possible to avoid any job loss. That’s why we are currently under a hiring freeze — our goal at FSU will always be to protect the employees we currently have.

And we are ready to make our case in the 2021 Legislative Session, which begins in March. Our legislators understand the importance of higher education for the state, and they know FSU, in particular, provides a good return on investment.

We are asking the Legislature for funding that will allow us to continue to improve our faculty-student ratio and enrich Florida’s talent pipeline.

In addition, we are requesting support for our continued efforts to advance the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering. We have made tremendous strides in raising the national profile and ranking of the college under the leadership of Dean Murray Gibson.

And we’re requesting funding for the new College of Business Building and the Interdisciplinary Research and Commercialization Building.

I also want to make my annual pledge to you that I will continue to fight against any kind of “campus carry” bill. We’ve all experienced enough heartache to know that more guns on campus do not make us safer.

There are many challenges ahead. But as we look back on our past, we can see that every success we have had is a result of obstacles we have overcome.

I just want to thank you for the support you’ve shown me and this university. It’s because of all of you that I can stand before you today and say that I truly believe the state of the university is stronger than it has ever been.

I can’t tell you exactly what this university will look like in the next five to 10 years — our next president and his or her leadership team will guide the way forward. But, I know — I know — the work we have done together over the past six years has established a strong foundation on which to build.

We are fulfilling our promise as one of the very best public universities in America.

And I can’t wait to see where we will go next.

A few months after my first day on the job, we held an investiture ceremony where I quoted President Robert Strozier in his 1958 inaugural address.

He said, “This is not my university or your university; rather our university. It belongs to the generations who have already given it their allegiance, just as it belongs to those who have yet to come.”

I have given Florida State University my allegiance since I first stepped foot on this campus as a freshman in 1961, and I know all those who have yet to come will love this university just as I have.

This is our university, and it has been my distinct honor and greatest joy to serve as its 15th president.

Thank you all from the bottom of my heart.