President Schill outlines plan to boost research, academics

President Michael Schill
President Michael Schill

UO President Michael Schill sent the following message to the campus community Wednesday, discussing his plan to boost research and raise the university's academic profile:

Dear Campus Community,

Since I assumed the presidency of the university last July, I have met with countless members of our community. Whether those meetings were with faculty, students, staff, or alumni, there was virtual unanimity with respect to one proposition: our top priority needs to be academic and research excellence. With this message, I invite you to join me in what I hope will be a transformational process of aligning our resources and our efforts to achieve our aspirations as a preeminent public research institution.

The University of Oregon, as the flagship research university in the state, is committed to furthering knowledge through teaching and research. We are the school with international reputations in molecular biology, neuroscience, green chemistry, special education and other programs. We are the school whose faculty achieves path-breaking research in such varied fields as prevention science, comparative literature, geography, environmentalism and ecology, and evolution. 

Today, our university’s research profile is not as strong as it should be. While there are many programs and pockets of excellence throughout the university, the overall landscape is very uneven. As the last National Research Council ranking shows, we have relatively few departments that are listed among the best. The productivity of some of our faculties lag their peers and our program of graduate education is impoverished in its numbers of students. We must to do better, and we will do better.

The root causes of our current situation are many. Certainly, part of the problem lies with resource constraints. From 2001 to 2015, the percentage of the UO’s budget funded by the state of Oregon dropped by more than 50 percent. As the institution became more tuition dependent, we increased our undergraduate enrollment and increasingly relied upon non-research faculty to do more of the teaching.  Today, our faculty is out of balance; only 47 percent are on the tenure track, 11 percentage points less than our AAU and public research institution peers. Additionally a lack of tight budget controls and monitoring systems created a situation where course loads for tenure-track faculty in some departments fell significantly below the stated institutional standards. We need to rebalance our faculty.

We are experiencing a number of other significant cost drivers, many of which are critical to improving our university. Labor costs, which account for more than 80 percent of our expenditures, have increased significantly in recent years in our effort to bring salaries in line with our peers and through collective bargaining. The serious problem of campus sexual violence has required significant investments in our Title IX staff and programing. To improve student success and completion we are hiring additional advisors. Federal mandates have required us to hire more compliance administrators. And the state’s lack of appropriately mandated pension contributions in the past will require us to substantially increase the proportion of our budget that goes to PERS beginning in FY18.

In the face of these budget constraints and pressures, our current academic budget model—which depends primarily upon student credit hours—does not provide departments with stable sources of revenue to plan year to year, much less for the long run.  Some schools and colleges have gone from surplus to deficit in a matter of a few years as students’ curricular preferences have shifted and workforce demands have changed. Furthermore, our culture of decentralization has further weakened our ability to achieve administrative coordination and economies of scale. 

The financial stresses on the university have undermined our mission. It is now time to change the status quo. I have already announced my intention to invest in our academic future by increasing our number of research-active, tenure-track faculty by 80 to 100 over the next five years. We will also need to build the research infrastructure necessary to allow us to produce more knowledge, make more of an impact, and rise in national preeminence. This, in turn, will allow us to attract and retain world-class faculty throughout the university. This cycle of excellence is key to our success.

How will we pay for the investments necessary to reach these goals? While we will continue to work hard to persuade our legislators to increase our state support, I do not expect that the taxpayers of Oregon will ever be able or willing to provide us with enough resources to allow us to accomplish our mission. We will work hard with our alumni and supporters, as part of our $2 billion campaign, to raise funds for our faculty and our research infrastructure. Already many have heard the message and we expect to cross the halfway mark by mid-2016. But we owe it to our donors, our students, and the taxpayers to steward our resources responsibly. We must also change how we internally do business.

I have asked Provost Coltrane to lead an effort over the next 18 months to re-engineer our academic budget model with an eye to achieving stable and predictable sources of revenue for our academic units. He will work with our academic leadership (e.g. our deans, University Senate, vice presidents) in this endeavor. In addition to examining revenues, I have also asked him to look at the expense side of the equation. Resources are too scarce and our mission too important for us to waste money in redundant administration, poorly performing programs, and lax accountability. 

This work will be in tandem with our strategic planning process. As you may know, before I arrived, the campus engaged in a year-long process of drafting a strategic framework for the university. The goal of this process was to identify how to operationalize our goals for competitive excellence. The provost has been working with deans, department heads, and faculty to refine the work of campus. I have also asked him to ensure the strategic framework is aligned with our academic goals and focused on how to achieve the greatest impact. Next week Provost Coltrane will share a draft of the strategic framework document with campus to receive input. The document, which will eventually go to the Board of Trustees for review and approval, will help guide us as we seek to achieve our goals and stay strategic in our focus and investments.

We will also be looking very carefully at expenditures in central administration.  As part of this year’s budget review for FY17, I will ask each of our central units to suggest ways in which they can streamline services and achieve significant cost savings. For the longer run, I will appoint a task force of administrators and academic leaders to examine the efficiency of our central administration as well as to propose cost-saving steps. I expect that this group will provide me with some interim recommendations by the end of the current academic year. University Communications will be the first unit to begin integrations to better tell our story, look for operational efficiencies, and create more collaborations.

In the spirit of transparency, I will not sugar coat this message. This is not business as usual. Not all departments or schools will be net winners. Some members of our campus community may encounter hardship as we become better stewards of our resources. As we move forward, we will do everything within our power to make the transition as humane and smooth as possible. But we must move forward.  To do anything less would consign our great university to mediocrity. That is unacceptable to me. I am sure it is equally unacceptable to you.

We have an historic opportunity to elevate this university in ways that serve students, the state, our nation, and that will further the production of knowledge. We must change, adapt, and align our operations and resources with our goals if we are to achieve our lofty aspiration and continue to meet our mission as a preeminent public research university.

Sincerely,

Michael H. Schill
President and Professor of Law