Charting the North Star of Eminence, Remarks to the University Senate

Last spring, I stood here before you as Provost and said that I had never been so proud to be at The Ohio State University.  Since then, we have seen much time and change because, as we all know, the life of this great university goes on, without pause but with growing evidence of its impact at every turn.

For example, since then we have welcomed another remarkable class of students for autumn semester, and we have sent two classes of graduates out into the world. We have broken ground for new student housing on two campuses – at Mansfield and on the corner of Lane and High for our developing second-year program.  We have had a ribbon-cutting and grand opening at the new Hale Hall, formerly Enarson Hall, and now the home of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion and the Hale Black Cultural Center.  And we have new leadership at many levels.

As we look a bit further back, the evidence of accomplishment is clear.  Consider the conversion to semesters and the consolidation of the Art and Sciences—both, undertakings of massive proportion, yet seamlessly wrought, thanks to the collaboration of so many.  Such changes have positioned us well for the future.  And that is my focus as Interim President: to push forward the bold and ambitious vision already in place for Ohio State – that of achieving true eminence.

For some time we have talked about the goal of moving from excellence to eminence.  Some have wondered what that means, and how we will know when we get there.

To me, the answer is relatively simple.  We will have achieved eminence when those who need to address an important issue look first to Ohio State for solutions.

Let me share some recent examples that demonstrate that level of eminence.

Last fall, Ohio State was the only university in the country to receive a $9.6 million award from the U.S. Department of State to implement a Critical Language Scholarship Program in East Asia.  This is testimony to the reputation of our East Asian Languages and Literatures faculty.

At the end of August, Dr. Christopher Kaeding, a surgeon at Ohio State’s Wexner Medical Center, became the first in the country to consult with a colleague from the operating room using Google Glass, a head-mounted computer and camera device.  This is a unique step in preparing future surgeons and is garnering considerable national attention.

Last month, Ohio State soil scientist Rattan Lal was recognized by the United Nations as a global “champion” for his land management contributions.  This really is extraordinary recognition at an international level.  It speaks directly to our mission of solving the grand challenges of our global society, such as poverty and food production.

And we have opened the doors to our new Center for Electron Microscopy and Analysis, which may hold the highest concentration of high-end microscopes in North America.  This new hub for business and materials research is becoming recognized as the best electron microscopy center in the world.  Not in the city or in the Midwest – in the world.  That is what we mean by eminence.

But how, as a university, do we measure eminence?  While there is no single metric for eminence, we have said that we will have moved from excellence to eminence when we are consistently recognized among the top 10 public comprehensive research universities.

And how do we reach top 10 status?  How do we move toward what I have called the north star of eminence?  I believe it is based on three straightforward principles.

Number one: We must attract the very best students to Ohio State and provide them with an outstanding educational experience.

Number two: We must recruit and retain world-class faculty and bring them together – our students, faculty and staff – through the very finest academic programs.

And number three: We must make all of this possible by securing the necessary non-tuition-driven funding.  This is essential if we are to fulfill our mission of providing access to excellence.  Achieving either access or excellence alone is relatively easy.  Achieving both simultaneously is complex.  But that is what we must do—and, by integrating our academic and financial planning, that is what we are doing.

What this shows is that Ohio State is not daunted by complex challenges.  For instance, our goal of becoming a top 10 public university in the next 10 years is formidable, since the ranking system is characterized more by stasis than movement.  Nonetheless, our rankings in the September U.S. News & World Report reflect uncharacteristic progress. Among all public and private national universities we moved from 56th to 52nd, and among the best 50 national public research universities, we are tied for 16th with Texas and Washington, up two spots from last year.

This progress is noteworthy because it is based on our increased graduation rates as well as efforts to improve the student experience, particularly during the first years on campus.

A moment ago I mentioned the three principles that I believe will enable us to chart a course toward eminence – attracting the best students and enhancing the student educational experience; recruiting and re-recruiting outstanding faculty; and identifying financing to support our academic mission.

Let me briefly discuss our progress within each principle, beginning with the importance of attracting the very best students and supporting them as they accomplish more than they ever thought possible.

First, I would cite our First Year Experience program for incoming students, which was launched in 2000.  This program has become a national model for helping students transition to college and be successful, and it has been consistently recognized as such, most recently by U.S. News.

In August, we welcomed the inaugural class of our STEP, or Second-year Transformational Experience Program, which includes about 1,000 students and 50 faculty.  As I mentioned earlier, we broke ground on the North Residential District, bordered by Lane Avenue and High Street, where second-year students at Ohio State eventually will live, study and convene for years to come.

What all this means is that we are paying attention to the student experience in ways that truly are unique and different.  STEP really is about programs that bring students and faculty together.  It is not about buildings.  It is about extending the solid foundation that is already in place for our students.  It is about elevating the student experience to the next level through academic programming, study abroad and greater interaction with outstanding faculty.

I certainly want to thank the many faculty members, staff members and students who continue to work so hard on both our first- and second-year programs.  These initiatives enhance the student experience in meaningful ways and augment our ability to attract the best and brightest students to our university.

And we are certainly succeeding in doing so.  This year’s incoming students are another extraordinary class – again, the finest in university history.  This autumn, we welcomed 7,100 first-year students to Ohio State.  We greeted them with our traditional Convocation and singing of “Carmen Ohio” – and then, for the second year, we ushered them downtown to introduce them to the opportunities that a great city like Columbus has to offer.

This year’s Welcome Week was a great example of the “One University” spirit – from move-in to our downtown event to dozens of activities across our campus.  I want to thank all the faculty, staff, students and community partners who took part.  I particularly want to recognize our vice president for Student Life, Dr. Javaune Adams-Gaston, for her remarkable efforts and those of her team, as well as Dolan Evanovich, our vice president of Enrollment Services.  Dolan and his staff are pivotal in attracting outstanding students to our campus.

Indeed, if we look at where we have come over the last decade in terms of incoming freshman classes, our momentum is clear.

Since 2003:

- The number of annual applications received by Ohio State has increased by 77 percent – from around 20,000 to more than 35,000.

- ACT scores have increased better than 3 points, from 25.4 to 28.5 for this class.

- Our six-year graduation rates have increased 21 percentage points – from 62 percent to 84 percent – far above the national average of 56 percent.

Just as important, even before arriving, our incoming students have shown initiative and leadership skills through participation in service activities and advanced studies that bode well for their ability to take full advantage of the opportunities found at Ohio State.

The second principle I consider foundational to our march toward eminence is a commitment to faculty.

In addition to the best freshman class in history, this year we also welcomed 258 new faculty – more faculty members than in any previous year.  The efforts of these new scholars will complement and leverage the research, teaching and outreach of our existing faculty.  They have been welcomed into the Ohio State family with warmth and support.  Our faculty are central to the university’s strategic mission and we expect to continue to invest in their future.

I want to take this opportunity to also welcome some of our new deans and others who have new academic roles.  First of all, I am delighted to be working shoulder to shoulder with Executive Vice President and Provost Joe Steinmetz.  We are truly fortunate to have someone of Joe’s caliber and intellect guiding the academic trajectory of this university.

I am also delighted to welcome a number of new and outstanding deans: David Manderscheid, vice provost for the arts and sciences and executive dean of the College of Arts & Sciences; Henry Mann, dean of our College of Pharmacy; and physician-scientist Dr. William Martin II, dean of the College of Public Health.

I also want to acknowledge that Lynne Olson, a newly retired emeritus professor of Veterinary Biosciences, will be serving as our new faculty ombudsman.

As evidence of our intent to invest in the work of our faculty, last year we launched the Discovery Themes Initiative, a ten-year, multi-million dollar investment that will help us attract new tenured and tenure-track faculty particularly in the areas of Energy and Environment, Food Production and Security, and Health and Wellness.

During last spring and summer, the Discovery Themes Faculty Advisory Boards identified the worldwide grand challenges within each of these areas. Through that faculty-driven effort, data analytics was identified as a platform that can enhance disciplinary activities across all three Discovery themes.  So, last month, Provost Steinmetz released a Request for Proposals for adding new faculty colleagues in that high impact area.

Data analytics has the potential to accelerate the pace of change—from disease prognosis to smart materials; from environmental mapping to sustainable energy systems; from bioinformatics to precision agriculture.  We expect that our investments in this foundational area will stimulate transformational work throughout the themes and hasten us toward eminence.

Commitments will be announced in early January.  With this initial investment, we anticipate having our first new Discovery Themes faculty at Ohio State for the fall semester of 2014.

A second RFP process also will be implemented in early 2014.  That timeframe will allow for continued dialogue across campus.  It will also follow more traditional search timelines, so that the second round of Discovery Themes faculty will be on board by fall 2015.

I have said before that the Discovery Themes Initiative is arguably the most ambitious academic effort ever undertaken at The Ohio State University.  As we move forward, Provost Steinmetz and I will continue to update you on progress and outcomes.  It is important that every member of our community be aware of—and be part of—this initiative to tackle the globe’s grand challenges.

The new Discovery Themes faculty will be attracted to Ohio State in no small measure by the stellar colleagues who are in fact the core of this university today.  An astonishing array of great work is taking place at our institution – from cancer treatment and clean coal technology to teacher preparation and the student-engineered Buckeye Bullet.  Let me offer just a few examples of current faculty efforts with national and international impact:

- Later this month, led by Professor Anil Makhija, Ohio State’s National Center for the Middle Market will host its third annual conference on the Middle Market economy.  The first of its kind in the country, the center is a collaboration with GE Capital dedicated to building capabilities of middle market firms through research, corporate outreach and student activities.  This work is an excellent example of applied research at the national level.

- Ohio State is also partnering with Ethiopia on a major health initiative that involves all seven of our health sciences colleges – the first time our health sciences colleges have teamed up for an international project of this scope.  The most immediate needs are improved screening and treatment opportunities to tackle cervical cancer, rabies prevention, and improvements in food security and safety.

- Recently, Eric Healy, a speech and hearing science professor, teamed with DeLiang Wang, a computer science and engineering researcher, to produce the first-ever demonstration of a processing algorithm that may have dramatic benefits for hearing-impaired listeners.  This approach, called "a hearing aid on steroids," has the potential to become part of hearing aids and cochlear implants, improving the quality of life for millions of people around the world.

- In September, the university received an $18.7 million federal grant to establish a research center devoted to the study of tobacco use.  This significant federal funding highlights the faculty talent we have in place and the outstanding research that is being conducted at Ohio State.

I want to mention, too, that our university was recognized twice for its positive work culture.  It was ranked fifth among large universities in The Huffington Post and among the top 20 “Best Places to Work in Academia” in a recent survey in The Scientist.  These third-party validations cited strengths in processes such as tenure and promotion, teaching and mentoring, and collaboration.

Now the third principle that will lead us to eminence is identifying and channeling the funding that will support our aspirations.

The leasing of our parking operations is a good example of how innovative financial strategies are helping to promote the student experience and the work of faculty and staff.  In the first year alone, the infusion of $483 million into our endowment earned a bit more than $50 million in interest.  After re-investing a portion of this back into our endowment, these funds will be distributed to advance core university priorities including teaching, learning and research.

For example, in addition to our Discovery Themes initiative investments, these resources are being used to fund the Eminence Fellowship program.  This new program in the University Honors and Scholars Center provides financial support, as well as academic and leadership opportunities for a select cohort of Ohio State’s best and brightest students.  The university expects to fund 25 of these scholarships each year.

Parking revenues are also allowing us to do more to enhance opportunities for staff.  The university has increased the funding available for Staff Career Development Grants by 10-fold.  What was a $10,000 to $15,000 pool has been increased to $150,000 a year for staff development.

Innovation can be seen in other efforts as well.  At the end of September, Ohio State received the EPA’s Green Power Partner of the Year Award.  This is a national recognition for the university’s wind power purchase that we estimate will meet about one-third of the heating and cooling costs of the South District Residence halls.

In addition, a competitive review process has enabled us to trim $26 million from our construction costs for our sophomore residential district before we have even started construction.  This is the outcome of outstanding cooperation across Academic Affairs, Student Life, Facilities, and Communications and involved faculty, staff and students.  Here, we have evidence of the commitment to focusing on eminence rather than on issues of parochial interest.  That is the signature of a great university.

I hope you agree that we all have ongoing reason to take tremendous pride in being at The Ohio State University as it continues to move forward and extends its land-grant mission to the world.  Soon, we will attract an outstanding 15th president to lead this extraordinary institution in charting its course for the future.

Wherever else that journey may take us, it is clear that we are well on our way to reaching the north star of eminence.

It would not have been possible without all of you. I thank you for making this possible.