The Office of the President Emeritus: University of Oregon

Speeches and Writings

"Facing the Future"

January 7, 1998
University Assembly

Dave Frohnmayer, President
University of Oregon

Thank you.

Some of the best news of last year might have been masked in the white noise of the Holiday frenzy, but I want to make certain you hear it now:

The Governor of our state, in response to the report of a task force on higher education, issued a stern but gratifying challenge to all of us in the state system of higher education.

He told us to change the way we operate. He told us to create universities that are more student-centered, more independent and better able to respond to the state's changing needs for higher education.

He also told the state system to change the way tuition dollars and state-appropriated funds are distributed. He argued that tuition dollars should stay invested in the campuses that generate them and that state and general fund support should follow the student. He asked us to make the process simpler and clearer, and the hidden cross subsidies more public and explicit. As a matter of accountability, we must examine which programs are being subsidized and why.

In response, the state board of higher education promised to deliver a new budget plan by later this spring.

As you know, we have argued for years, perhaps decades for just this sort of change toward a model of openness and accountability. Now the cresting tide has turned in a positive direction.

This is very good news, and enormously important for our university in the long run. But, as the economist John Maynard Keynes so poignantly reminded us--"In the long run, we're all dead." So today I resist the temptation to revel in an orgy of self-congratulation.

The Governor's support and the state system's actions are welcome. I also believe we will see substantive change as a result. But we must cover a long distance before we can see benefits that sustain us.

Today, we have more immediate, pressing and important problems to deal with.

Let me ask you one question:

Would you send your child to the University of Oregon?

If your answer is not unequivocally and enthusiastically "Yes!" then we must do better.

If your answer shows that we have not achieved the level of quality that you ask for one of your own family, but you are satisfied for the sons and daughters of your fellow citizens, then something must change.

If your answer--for some reason, and please find it-- is tentative and hesitant, then we, starting with you, must rise to the challenge. Not the challenge issued by the Governor or the Chancellor, or even the challenge issued by me, but the challenge we must give ourselves: We must create a university that we would all be proud to have our children attend.

That is the task we have ahead of us, and we must work on it quickly. No one is going to do it for us.

The challenge is ours.

And so is the solution. I should rephrase that in the plural, because there is not one solution, there is a composite of many solutions.

How pressing is the need to recreate the University of Oregon?

A report just issued by your colleagues outlines the continuing precariousness of our situation, and summarizes weeks of work by 100 of your fellow UO faculty, staff and students.

These were the "Issue Definition Groups" of our Process for Change. I know that many of you in this room participated, and I extend my thanks to you.

I am making this report, "Critical Issues Require Rapid Change at the University of Oregon," required reading for every one of us. It is summarized in the most recent faculty-staff newsletter, and is available in full--as are the seven individual group reports--on the Web. The Web address is also in the newsletter.

The groups studied everything from our economic situation to public perceptions, from the roles of faculty, staff and students in institutional change to our relationship with the state system.

Some overarching themes emerged.


You know, when I think of change, I think of the story of the wealthy man who brought his family to his mansion and sat them down by the edge of his swimming pool--which was filled with alligators. "I value courage," he told them, "More than anything else. In fact, I value courage so much that I will give my house and my entire fortune to the person who swims the length of this pool." No one spoke. No one moved. But as the group was walking back to the house they heard a splash. And there was one of the cousins, a young woman, swimming for her life through the alligators. She managed to make it to the other end safely, and as she sat on the side panting, the host said, "That is the courage I was looking for! Ask anything of me and I'll give it to you. "I only want to know one thing," she panted. "Who pushed me into the pool?"

We are in the pool, folks, with some major alligators.

We're not alone, of course. Every public university is dealing with the problems of shrinking state support, rising tuition and a rapidly changing student population. Across the U.S., do you know what proportion of college students are "traditional" if you define that as a full-time student between the ages of 18 and 24? Just one in five. Traditional students have been our major population here, and that population is shrinking, while the population of adult learners, part-time learners, and lifelong learners is skyrocketing.

Students are changing, and the ways in which we teach them--all students, not just adults learners and part-time learners-- are changing. The speed with which technology is transforming our relationship to our work and our students is dazzling, breathtaking--and sometimes baffling. And it is getting faster.

I am speaking here not only of what technological change does to our work, but what it does to the experience of our students and, indeed, the continuity of our own lives. It breaks down barriers of time and geography, opens new ways and new places to learn, increases choices, raises expectations and, not surprisingly, accelerates the onset of new anxieties.

In the past 18 months, state boundaries relating to higher education, have been rendered largely insignificant and irrelevant --and in some ways have become impediments to our thinking. Oregon students can now sit at home and take classes from Berkeley, or NYU, even the University of Oregon.

The speed of development in computer and communication technology has increased to a rate thought impossible just a few years ago. And so are effects on education.

The final alligator chasing us across the pool, not surprisingly, snaps with ugly financial teeth. Shrinking state funding affects almost every public university in the U.S. Ours is simply an extreme case. At the same time, we work in an increasingly competitive environment for federal research funding.

We are very good and terrifically successful at tightening our belts here, and I wish I could tell you that we're on the last notch.

But we're not.

As you know--because we've all been talking about it--and because it's one of the primary reasons for beginning the Process for Change--we face a potential budget shortfall of as much as $5 million next year. It is of little solace to note that this problem is the direct and cumulative result of state underfunding, indeed disinvestment in higher education. We are responsibly managing a problem we should not have. It is important to remember that this is less than 2 percent of our total operating budget; it is a projection; it is one we can manage; and, with your help, one we can work through in ways that protect our core of quality. But I do not doubt that this shortfall will be very difficult to absorb after years already spent trimming.

Our long-term response will be to work with the Governor and legislature to ensure that the state funding is increased substantially, and to work with the Chancellor to make certain that we receive our fair share of the available funds. We are in better shape in this regard than we have been in years.

Ensuring adequate funding at this level is the job of the state system, university presidents and administrative staff. This is a big part of my job. And I pledge to you that I will continue to devote my full attention to ensuring adequate funding from the state, the system, and private donors--and we will see significant growth in the coming biennium.

But the problem is not mine alone, or the Chancellor's, or the Provost's, or the Deans'. Some might think otherwise: "protect us," some might say. Indeed, a distinguished member of our faculty recently urged that this was my role. As much as I or any President might enjoy the image of a warm-hearted and paternalistic "Father," for the campus, this university will not succeed through paternalism. Protectionism is on the wane everywhere!

We will succeed, as we always have, only because of the good work and creative contributions of our faculty, staff and students.

The problems we face, in other words, belong to all of us. And if we don't own the problems, we won't embrace the solutions.

The time is long past when support for higher education from grateful taxpayers could be counted on as a given. (In this state, I'm not sure that time ever existed). All of us, faculty and staff alike, must show the state that new reinvestment is warranted. We have to show that we deserve what the state gives us by being innovative, efficient, and fully focused on providing the best possible education for our students. We already run a high quality program on a leaner budget than any other AAU university in the nation.

Our need to succeed at this process would be true, as one of our deans put it, even if we had a multi-million-dollar surplus.

It would be true for the simple reason that if we do not lead change, we will be victimized by it. If we do not determine our future, others will determine it for us.

That cannot be allowed. We should reject that brand of fatalism. We should reject the other likely but counterproductive reactions as well: panic, cynicism disguised as moral superiority or the temporarily comforting but fatal syndrome of victimization.

Which brings me to the next great issue identified by our recent introspective study: WHAT SHOULD A UO EDUCATION BE IN THE 21ST CENTURY? The millennium, after all, dawns in just 723 days. (988 if you are a 2001 purist).

As educators, we know the answer in our hearts as well as our minds. Our internal mission remains clear. I formulated my view of it in just four words when I delivered my investiture address last year: We are here to Transform lives through knowledge.

This is what we offer, what the academy always has offered society. This is the heart of an honored tradition that extends from the medieval academies--even the Hellenistic ones--to today's research universities. This is what we offer our students today, and will continue to offer in the future.

We transform lives through unfettered inquiry, the synthesis of new knowledge, and its generous transmission to our students and the world.

This core purpose will not change. But it is imperative, in the light of the external changes we face, that we constantly revisit and improve how we accomplish this purpose.

We must open ourselves to innovation, and not just accept it, but actively seek new ways of more effectively transforming lives through knowledge. And we must do it with a clear-eyed recognition of the way the world is changing around us.

I seek nothing less than a renaissance of learning on this campus.

This is a huge issue, daunting in size and potentially paralyzing in complexity. If I can be allowed one war story, I remember arguing a case before the Oregon Supreme Court. After I had constructed intricate cathedrals of theory, one Justice took off his glasses, leaned forward and asked: "Counsel, aren't you asking us to swallow a lot?" Quickly realizing the danger of my strategy, I responded: "Then let me break it into bite-sized morsels instead."

My point is that we need to break down the problem into bite-sized pieces, to look for individual answers rather than institutional dicta. This is grass-roots solution-making.

Let me give you just a few examples.

In our math department, seed money from private donors has been used to integrate computers into the teaching of calculus and other math courses. Students can now make rapid calculations that result in three-dimensional pictures that demonstrate clearly the principles they are trying to learn. The same seed money is available for other innovative approaches to teaching. We've got a world-class computer network here. And that is how we'll solve the problem of integrating new technology: By giving faculty members the tools they need to create answers that work in the classroom.

Another example: Recently one of our history professors, in my presence, showed a group of visitors to our campus an impressive array of web-based interactive maps that helped to clarify for his students the geographic spread of ideas and peoples over time. The only problem, he said, as an aside, was that so few classrooms had appropriate hookups and equipment that permitted an entire class to see the maps. The direct result of his comment is a project, supported by a combination of private and university funds, to renovate and upgrade computer equipment in three major classrooms. We can be pretty good at finding funding, if we identify a real need and a creative response.

One other example: Our chemistry professors, for example, have been very good at bringing gifted undergraduate students into their laboratories, offering the chance to do cutting-edge research for credit. In one case this past year, it resulted in unusual success: Three undergraduates from one laboratory were among the authors of a paper published in one of the most prestigious journals in the field of chemistry. They have had an unusually exciting and productive experience at the UO, as have some of our architecture students.

One member of our architecture faculty directs a research group with twenty-five students and faculty members. The group has developed software programs that will provide powerful new tools to create energy efficient housing. The students in this research group have had experiences few architects-in-training can match--developing with their professors cutting edge software programs. By the time they move into their own careers, they will have direct experience with the most advanced thinking in this rapidly developing area--and will be able to make major contributions to economical and energy efficient housing--and, thereby, to the quality of life for thousands of Oregonians.

These are small examples of a transformation in education and outreach that is already taking place in all corners of our campus, changes that are benefiting our students today and making it possible to reach more students tomorrow.

We have one of the greatest brain trusts in the nation right here among our faculty and staff. We have the creativity we need to come up with answers. We have the speed to out-swim the alligators.

All we have to do is use what we've got.

Would you send your child to the University of Oregon?

Let us create the kind of university where the answer is an automatic yes.

We cannot do that if we become encrusted in familiar ways of doing business. We cannot in good faith turn inward and away, expecting the walls of our academy to protect us. We cannot afford cynically to dismiss all talk of change as "business-driven," or "nothing but marketing," and therefore unworthy of attention. We cannot pretend that the world stands still.

We cannot, and I know that the best of us will not. Not when our long-term health is at stake.

We now must recognize the need for change, and we must determine its form ourselves--a form that honors and energizes the core values that have been the life-breath of academia for centuries. We must maintain what is best, and make it available to as many students as possible.

I repeat the challenge I made to you ten weeks ago in my State of the University Address: Participate in change. Participate by being innovative, by thinking up a way to make your classes come alive, or by offering your knowledge more effectively through new configurations or the use of new technology.

Participate by thinking of new ways to reach prospective students or retain current ones.

Participate now by joining in the wonderful array of imaginative classes we already offer: Our Freshman Interest Groups, Freshman Seminars, the new Discover Oregon program--all of these programs enrich the experience of our students while also offering the chance for creative exploration to our professors.

Nothing is off limits, nothing is off the table. Do you think we could teach more effectively by having semester-long classes instead of quarters? Perhaps we can do it by creating term-and-a-half classes that work together in sequence with those of colleagues for a year, building semesters out of quarters without having to seek legislative approval.

Do you think we should be creating more cross-disciplinary classes and degree options? Raise the question in your departmental meetings. Perhaps the whole governing system of "departments" needs to be reviewed in the light of the increasingly interdisciplinary nature of our world. Academic departments are a creature of this century. Is one century enough for them? Oxford has never used them, but no one questions the lasting greatness of that institution.

Should we reassess our system of grading?

Now is the time to bring every good idea forward. The issues have been thoroughly explored and defined in the first phase of our "Process for Change."

Now comes the time for solutions.

Over the next few weeks we will be appointing "Solution Groups" to come up with the best possible responses to the pressing issues outlined in the Definition Groups' report. We hope that most of those who gave their time and imagination in Phase One will continue to participate, but we also want to significantly expand the circle.

So we're asking everyone who is interested in participating to step forward and volunteer--faculty, staff and students--all members of our university community are welcome.

To volunteer, just send your name and e-mail address to the Provost's Office: The e-mail address there is provost@oregon.

If the press of classes and research prevents you from joining directly in the Solution Groups, we still want to hear your ideas. Forward them, all of them, to the Provost, or directly to me at pres@oregon.

Everyone should participate. Everyone will be heard in response to this call for action.

We stand on the brink of great opportunity. We cannot step back and we will not step back. We have the chance to ensure the survival and health of our deepest values in a changing world. Now is the moment to find the best solutions to the issues we face, to ensure the University of Oregon's continued leadership in preparing students for the challenges of the next century.

It is a task that will require courage, imagination, and great energy.

And it is up to us.

We can and will succeed. I look forward to working with you.