Letter from Provost John Aber

August 29, 2012

 

Colleagues—

We have been through three tumultuous years since you and President Huddleston asked me to become Provost.  At the beginning of each of those three years, I have sent to you a simple message of thanks and good wishes for the coming semester.  This message brings those same good wishes for 2012-13. 

However, given the incredible series of events over the last year, especially the impact of the state cuts and all the effort that went into the Academic Review reports, as well as the accelerating rate of change in higher education in general, I would like to share with you some thoughts and plans for the year now beginning.  I know this is a very busy time, with a new semester starting and all the demands that entails, but I hope you will have the time to read what follows.  Included are a quick review of the major issues we have addressed over the last three years, as well as suggestions, at the end of this message, for steps I think we need to take together to complete our response to the cuts and the Review. 

In February of 2010, President Huddleston presented to the campus the outcome of the Strategic Planning Process (UNH/2020).  The result of an 18 month-long campus dialog, the Plan included several academic initiatives that combine the drive for academic excellence with the goal of enhancing revenues.  We have made substantial progress on several of these including increased internationalization through our partnership with Navitas, competitions for targeted support of research and curricular innovation, the continuing discussion around three interdisciplinary schools, and the establishment and growth of eUNH.  At about the same time, we also completed a revision of the RCM budget model that greatly simplifies how we distribute our resources, and increases the transparency of the process. 

The budget crisis precipitated by the historically unprecedented (even in New Hampshire) 48% cut in state funding, has shaped much of our work together over the last two years.  The Strategic Plan anticipated future budget and demographic changes, but such drastic cuts from the state accelerated our need to respond.  In anticipation and then in response to this cut, we worked collectively through a Budget Task Force to develop a response.  Out of the Task Force process came the Academic Review; a structured, data- and narrative-driven process through which every department defined its role at UNH and responded to quantitative information on its performance.  That review was completed last Spring, and each Dean responded to the findings.  I want to thank you all for the time and attention that is apparent in the reports you produced.

The most far-reaching impact of the budget cuts was felt through the successful completion of the SIP.  Staffing was reduced such that budget targets could be met with relatively few RIFs, but the process also resulted in the departure of many valuable, experienced, long-term faculty and staff colleagues.  Those departures were unevenly distributed, and while internal mobility among vacated positions has enabled staff to seek new opportunities, there are still many areas on campus where the stress of doing the job well with fewer people is strongly felt.

Finally, there is the larger context of rapid change in higher education itself.  At the university-wide forum on eUNH held last spring, I tried to present two contrasting yet valid views of the impact of the growing role of technology and alternate modes of delivery on the UNH of the future.  On the one hand, the concepts of asynchronous, distance, computer-aided and competency-based learning can be traced back to such old-fashioned approaches as correspondence schools and the one-room schoolhouse.  On the other hand, rapid changes in technologies and platforms offer real potential for enriching and enhancing the classroom experience, and push all of us to ask how we maximize the value of faculty time spent with students.  Our students now also expect more complex and diversified sources of information, and they want high-touch experiences such as discussion-based seminars, real research projects, internships and work experience, and international exposure to the diverse cultures of the world.  To remain vital, we need to use technology to free-up faculty time in order to provide those experiences.

So we find ourselves at a very challenging crossroads.  Continuing financial uncertainty results both from a downturn in high school graduations in the region and increasing inequality in the distribution of incomes, which translate into the potential for higher financial aid costs, reduced enrollments, or both.  Increased competition arises from other institutions facing the same set of circumstances, and also hoping to remain vital, as well as from the host of new educational venues from edX and Coursera to the raft of well-funded startup companies hoping to repackage education for new audiences at lower cost.

What tools do we have to face these challenges?

Without question, our greatest resource is you.  The quality and dedication of faculty and staff to the academic mission here is what has brought UNH to an amazing level of quality and performance, as well as efficiency, in a financially-challenged but still very student-focused institution.  I have on my desk at all times a list called "UNH: Excellent and Unique" that I share readily with visitors.  I won't put that full list here, but one example captures much of the tenor of a UNH education. 

Every year we host the largest Undergraduate Research Conference in the nation.  Last year more than 1100 students worked with more than 300 faculty mentors to produce dozens of sessions and events spread over more than a full week.  It takes time, attention, concern for individual students, and an unusual level of dedication, from both those faculty mentors and from staff campus-wide, to bring this event to life.  Also required is a faculty actively engaged in research and scholarship that can bring real-world problems and methods to student research.  The URC is only one of many indicators of who we are, but it is emblematic.

There is little a Provost can do to instill the kind of dedication that is reflected in the quality of the UNH experience that you provide.  Administrators can try to provide financial rewards, and hopefully recent salary moves and the new Faculty contract are evidence of efforts to keep UNH an employer of choice in the face of shrinking state support. 

Awards and recognition can help as well, and we try to support faculty and staff development, and recognize achievement every chance we get.  Those who have participated in FITSI, the Research and Engagement Academies, faculty learning communities and faculty and staff recognition events hopefully feel recognized and supported for their efforts.  Perhaps we would all agree that the sincere appreciation expressed by our students and families at events like the Honors Convocation and Commencement, or maybe just following a good class, performance or field trip, may be the best reward for all of us.

More directly, we also have our budget system, RCM, and the results of the Academic Review to help us face the on-going financial and competitive challenges.  In particular, the Review balanced mission, efficiency and excellence in assessing a department's status, and can help identify ways in which we can maintain or improve quality while also reducing costs. 

Applying these tools in an institution as decentralized as UNH, and one with such a strong history and culture of shared governance, is a challenge.  It requires the framing of serious questions with major implications, and establishing a framework for an inclusive discussion.  At some point, it also means taking action based on the received wisdom expressed in the discussion, but usually without complete consensus.  Assuring that all faculty, staff and student perspectives are reflected in the discussion is the key to success.

In framing the questions and reaching answers, the overarching concern and goal is to provide the highest possible quality of academic experience for our students by valuing faculty and staff, and providing professional development opportunities for all who touch the lives of our students.  Understanding the rapidly changing nature of higher education, and of our students, we also need to stress creativity, flexibility and the incorporation of new technologies.

What steps do we need to take to assure our continuing success?

First, and perhaps most importantly, our collective response to the budget crisis, including the SIP, the hiring freeze, and temporary salary freeze, have brought us through the initial financial crisis to the extent that we do not at this time need to contemplate closing entire departments or large areas of activity.  This is the good news.  We can all take some credit for a crisis well-managed. 

However, the incremental and localized impacts of major losses in faculty and staff, as well as the larger and continuing challenges to higher education and to UNH in particular, require that we continue to identify areas where we can be more effective and use resources more efficiently.  Whenever possible, reducing administrative costs needs to be a top priority so as to maximize faculty and staff contact time with students, and the pursuit of scholarship and engagement.  This applies to administration at the department level, as well as the college and university level.  We must also recognize that it is the faculty that have primary control over the design of curricula and the content of courses.  The administration can incentivize and support innovation and provide infrastructure, but excellent courses are the result of excellent faculty choosing the right content and method of delivery.

Based on the last three years of self-study and response to significant external challenges, and with a collective understanding of our strengths and concerns made apparent through the Academic Review, and through many discussions with faculty and staff, Deans and Directors, we can identify a small but important set of challenges and initiatives which, if addressed effectively, can have the greatest positive influence on the University.  Each of these will involve different sets of departments, programs, centers, institutes and colleges.  None of these topics will be easy or without conflict.  I have no pre-determined set of outcomes for any of these, but would like to help facilitate open and substantive discussions on each.  The goal for each is some combination of more efficient use of basic resources, the reduction in administrative demands on faculty and staff, and generation of additional revenues.

There are 7 initiatives I would like us to undertake together this year (Remembering that the support and service parts of the University are also undergoing similarly intense reviews).

The first four, some of which are already ongoing, will be undertaken in concert with the Deans of the Colleges, through college Executive Committees and Chairs:

1. Develop college-specific processes for assessing intensity of use, and policies for allocation of research laboratory space and facilities.

Rationale: a data-based study of research laboratory space required as part of the process of setting our indirect cost rate has shown a very wide range of intensity of use, expressed either in terms of people occupying a lab, or dollars generated.

Approach: Establish faculty committees in colleges with major commitments to laboratory research space to propose flexible space allocation policies and processes by which research laboratory space can be reassigned as individual projects grow and contract.  Bring that process to bear to allocate research space according to demand.

2. Consider combining some very small departments into larger, more diverse and integrated departments

Rationale: Small departments create extraordinary demands on faculty, especially junior faculty, who need to carry many of the same responsibilities that can be distributed more widely in larger departments (e.g. senate membership, P&T committees, commitment to obligations of department chair, any and all other representational committees)

Approach: Identify small departments that would be most likely candidates for consolidation.  Engage faculty in those departments in structured discussions on the pros and cons of merging.  Act on recommendations.

3. Identify departments with exceptional impacts on college and university finances and explore measures to reduce negative impacts.

Rationale: A small number of departments have a disproportionately large negative influence on overall college and university budgets.  Helping these departments identify creative ways to reduce this negative impact would allow greater investment by colleges in new initiatives and faculty support in general.  Examining also those departments with large positive impacts may reveal strategies of value across all units.

Approach:  Structured, focused discussions with a few departments that have the largest positive and negative impact on college budgets as to the nature of that impact and how negative impacts might be ameliorated.

4. Develop and compare college workload guidelines that balance the three-part mission of tenure-track faculty (some colleges already have these).

Rationale: Tenure track faculty embody the full three-part mission of the university: teaching, research and scholarship, and engagement.  Recognition of this balanced mission is not applied evenly across all departments or colleges.  Not all faculty should carry the same ratio of responsibilities, but the colleges as a whole need to fulfill the full mission.  Recognizing and valuing faculty contributions in all three areas and setting clear expectations for individual faculty is important.

Approach: For those colleges without workload policies, establish representative groups to develop and implement such a policy.  Experience in this regard in COLSA, WSBE and other colleges can be accessed and could prove helpful.

The next two of the Seven Initiatives will involve cross-unit reviews and proposals for realignment at the University level

5. An external review of the graduate school and status of graduate programs.

Rationale: The Academic Review presented some challenging statistics on the academic standing of some of our graduate programs.  There has not been an external review of the Graduate School in many years, and we still lack a set process and schedule for reviewing our graduate programs.  In addition, changes at the USNH system level have devolved approval for academic programs, including graduate programs, to the campuses, making this a good time to review how we propose, review and approve graduate programs.  Finally, a schedule for reviewing graduate programs has not been developed, with graduate reviews often being included in undergraduate reviews or accreditation processes.

Approach: Establish an external review team that will review the structure and operation of the Graduate School and provide input to a process of continual review of graduate programs.

6. Continuation and conclusion of our campus-wide, multi-year discussion on the organization of interdisciplinary areas of research excellence in marine, earth and space sciences. 

Rationale: Last year's discussions and retreats on the possible reorganization of COLSA, CEPS and EOS, and on graduate programs in general, along with the developing proposals for Marine and Earth Schools, provided for some valuable thought and discussion on how we structure and present programs in these broad areas of University excellence.  We now have an essentially complete general policy on Schools, informed by a year of study by the Faculty Senate and a motion passed by that body last Spring, and a maturing proposal for a Marine School.  Faculty are beginning to work actively again on a proposal for an Earth School.  Still, the location of schools in the University administrative structure remains unsettled, and the potential existence of a Marine School and an Earth School, in addition to an Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans and Space, suggests redundancy.  Is there a better way to structure and integrate graduate education and research on these topics?

Approach: This will involve a two-step process.  First, the Director and Faculty in and associated with EOS will be charged to undertake an internal study, informed by external experts and agency personnel, on the potential to restructure EOS for optimal alignment with UNH and national goals for research and graduate education.  The study will address the emergence of proposals for new interdisciplinary schools, and how UNH can grow as an internationally recognized center of excellence in Earth, Ocean and Space Science.  A proposal and implementation plan from EOS will be due by the end of December.  Second, a panel of respected senior faculty will be created that will include recent winners of Distinguished and University Professorships  as well as Faculty nominated by the leadership of the Faculty Senate, CEPS, COLSA and EOS, to review and make recommendations on the structure of the University in the areas of Earth, Ocean and Space Science.  This panel will examine the EOS report and development of the Earth and Marine Schools, and make recommendations to the Provost and President on the future organization of EOS and the Schools.

While this endeavor will be focused on research and graduate education, it should be clear that it is intended to:

  1. Support and enhance, and not draw resources from, undergraduate education
  2. Enhance the ability of all Faculty across campus with interests in Earth, Ocean or Space Science to achieve their goals for graduate education and research
  3. Make the University more attractive to prospective graduate and undergraduate students as well as donors and funding agencies.

This initiative involves only the Earth and Marine Schools.  Work on the interdisciplinary School of Public Service and Policy is continuing in a separate process.

The Final Initiative involves exploration of alternative methods of bringing students to UNH and awarding credit as a way of enhancing recruitment and retention of undergraduates, increasing program flexibility, increasing use of the campus in summer, and reducing the cost of a bachelor’s degree.

7. Connecting and enhancing pre-college programs, and competency-based credits

Rationale: Many of our students repeat courses taken in high school, and are better-prepared to move to advanced courses than our placement exams may suggest.  Student frustration around this is high in some areas.  Offering the opportunity to demonstrate competency in other ways (Khan Academy, intense pre-Freshman experience, others) may be a good recruiting tool and offer students a more flexible approach to their first-year experience.  In addition, increasing offerings to in-coming freshmen during the summer before matriculation may be a valuable recruiting tool, while also reducing bottlenecks in pre-requisite courses, especially in STEM.

Approach: Form a study group to determine best options to increase flexibility in meeting pre-requisites and increasing the flexibility of offerings.  Provost’s Office to work with Deans and Associate Deans on feasibility of proposed programs.  Connect effort to undergraduate recruiting process in the Admissions Office through the Office of Student and Academic Services.

 

John Aber
Provost
University of New Hampshire