President Waldrop's Prepared Remarks

 

Dr.  Furr, thank you for that wonderful introduction.  I hope I can live up to such generous comments and high expectations. 

I am delighted to see so many colleagues from the University and from the community at this event.  In particular, I am honored to have both family and friends from outside the Mobile area.  I especially want to call attention to my wife, Julee, who has for more than 35 years been my best advisor and the love of my life.   Any successes I have had in higher education administration have been possible because of her.  I have said, with great affection, that she is my strongest supporter and my harshest critic.

Julee and I have been very pleased by the extremely warm welcome we have received in Mobile and at the University.  We know that the future is bright for South since faculty, staff, students and the community are proud of the University and want to make it even better.  I am delighted to be part of the enthusiasm and the commitment that exists.   Not only have people been welcoming, but they have also been sincere in their support of and dedication to the University of South Alabama. 

The University developed an excellent strategic plan last year , one that will surely guide us into future successes.  With input from campus and community leaders, the leadership team and I have picked five priorities to focus on for the next several years.  All of us believe that these priorities are critically important for the University, our students and the wider community. 

Our first priority is to provide access to all qualified students and to promote success for all our students. 

I and many others are concerned about the affordability of higher education.  Often it is not the academic abilities but the cost of a college degree that deters individuals from pursuing a baccalaureate degree.  A recent report noted “low-and middle-income students routinely eliminate colleges from consideration based on cost, before applying or even researching possible aid packages.”

We must strive to hold down the cost to students of a college degree.  Let me quote our current president, Barack Obama, who stated, “We have an obligation and a responsibility to be investing in our students and our schools.  We must make sure that people who have the grades, the desire and the will, but not the money, can still get the best education possible.” 

It should also be noted that minorities lag behind in obtaining a college degree. A recent study by the Lumina Foundation found that 39 percent of working-age Americans now have a post-secondary degree. But among blacks and Hispanics, the rates of educational attainment are much lower. Only 27 percent of blacks and 19 percent of Hispanics have a post-secondary degree as compared to 59 percent of Asians and 43 percent of whites.

As Americans, we should not ignore the crisis we have before us and we must ensure that all those who have the academic capability are able to earn an undergraduate degree.

Once students come to the University, it is our responsibility to provide a pathway for success along with support to facilitate graduating in a timely manner.  We have several strategies for enhancing the success of our students.  A few of these include: 

  • Improvements in advising and career planning services; 
  • Creative use of scholarships to facilitate degree completion.  One means for doing this will be to provide tuition discounts for those students finishing in four years;
  • Creation of financial support for academically successful students who otherwise may have to drop out as a result of lack of financial means, i.e., retention grants;
  • Improved mentoring of at-risk students;
  • Strengthening of campus life to improve integration and engagement of students with one another and with the institution.  

Demonstration of advancing this priority will include improvements in the first year retention rate of students and the four and six year graduation rates.  Let me note that graduating one semester early can reduce the cost of an undergraduate degree to the student by $10,000 or more.

A second priority is to enhance graduate education as well as research and scholarly activity.  Research seeks to gain new knowledge, serving as a change agent for the benefit of our society.  In addition, graduate education trains graduate students to be future scholars and researchers.  It also benefits undergraduates who will have access to professors who are involved in the latest advances.  As a result, our students will be more knowledgeable and prepared for the latest advances in the professions they enter. 

Some of our research and graduate education can also focus on areas of need for the local community and businesses.  Faculty are already engaged in areas serving these types of needs. Examples include training increased numbers of nurse practitioners and creating a doctoral  program in systems engineering. We can do even more by enhancing research in programs such as marine sciences, cyber security, cancer and many other areas critical to local community needs.   In addition, it is important to provide support for faculty research in the social sciences and the humanities, thereby, enhancing the quality of education of our students and enhancement of life in the community.

Strategies for this priority include:

  • Recruiting highly productive faculty;
  • Providing faculty with protected time for research; 
  • Reducing administrative barriers that hinder productivity; 
  • Enhancing the infrastructure necessary for quality research; 
  • Increasing research and training of graduate students in areas beneficial to community and business needs.

Measures indicating success will include an increase in the number of high-quality publications and presentations, increased contract and grant funding from sponsors including federal, state and corporate partnerships, increased interdisciplinary research and education involving multiple disciplines and colleges, and increased numbers of undergraduate and graduate students actively involved in research projects. 

The third priority is to enhance students’ understanding of other cultures and foster increased exposure to individuals from other countries.  We live in an increasingly global community.  International air travel, television, social media and the Internet have made it easier to experience cultures different from that in the United States.   There is a free flow of trade, travel, and news that enhances our ability to understand the world as a whole.  

To succeed in today’s world, it is increasingly important that our students have a first hand knowledge and appreciation of environments other than that in Mobile, Alabama and the United States.  We will focus on various ways of meeting this priority by:   

  • Increasing educational programs abroad such as student and faculty exchanges, internships, health care related options, and partnerships with additional foreign universities; 
  • Providing some financial scholarships for students for study aboard;
  • Increasing recruitment of  students from a diversity of countries;
  • Strengthening existing and establishing new relationships with local international businesses including partnerships for education, research, internships and health care.

Success in this priority will be demonstrated by increased numbers of international students attending the University of South Alabama, more of our students studying and/or interning abroad, high-quality partnerships established with foreign universities and active collaborative agreements signed with international businesses, especially those with a local presence.  

The fourth priority is to provide excellence in health care.  Our hospitals and clinics play a major role in serving the health needs of our region, including significant amounts of indigent care.  It is imperative that we have a financially stable means of providing exemplary care. 

Significant shifts are occurring in health care and in the funding models which support this major portion of the United States federal budget.  It is estimated that 27 percent of the federal budget is spent on health care, with escalating costs being passed on to patients and to health care programs.  Without very significant changes, the current system will suffer and lead to reduced access to health care.  Major state and federal efforts are focused on a shift in funding away from the volume of care to the quality of care.  This new positive orientation requires that health care centers and practices become more accountable for decision making in payment plans.   The future of our health care system absolutely requires that we successfully navigate this major shift.

Our strategies for this priority include:

  • Pursue a leadership role in analyzing this shift in funding models;
  • Develop new regional care organizations that are responsive to the new funding models while continuing our outstanding service to the citizens of our region;
  • Be a leader in creating whole care teams utilizing physicians, nurse practitioners, physician assistants and other health care providers;
  • Enhance collaborations and partnerships with other health care organizations.

Our success in this arena will be evaluated by improved quality of care, patient outcomes and satisfaction, increases in access to care and reduced costs.

The final priority is to enhance community engagement for faculty, staff and students.  This is defined as involvement by the University and its employees in public and private, local, state, and national organizations, partnerships, programs and activities, and the engagement by public and private local, state and national organizations and individuals in the life of the University.

As I have mentioned repeatedly during my time at USA, I hope to see all of our faculty, staff and students engaged in community activities.  It is my strong belief that a university cannot succeed without being endorsed by community and business leaders as an essential member of the city and surrounding areas.  I hope those outside the University will also see South as their university and will provide support for our advancement.  This support comes in many ways including financial gifts, but also a commitment to aiding the education of our students for current and future job opportunities.  For example, we seek employer input on the curriculum that will best prepare our graduates for future occupations.  I hope this community relationship will lead to community and business leaders asking the University to be engaged in any major plans for the community.  It is extremely important that these relationships are beneficial to the university and the community. 

My goal is for all of our students to have the chance to participate in a clerkship, internship, coop or rotation in the type of job environment in which they hope to work after graduation.  These may be in businesses, non-profit organizations, governmental offices and other experiences.  Internships will allow students to determine if their future job aspirations are what they really wish to do as a career.  It may also lead them to choose another field of study, giving them the opportunity to change their program of study before finding, too late, that there is a more desirable career they wish to pursue. There is a Native American saying “Tell me and I’ll forget. Show me, and I may not remember.  Involve me, and I’ll understand.”  I believe this is an accurate statement about the lasting value of internships. 

Our external partners also gain value from providing internships to our students. It provides the chance to evaluate individual students as candidates for jobs upon graduation, hopefully resulting in these employers hiring the best employees.

Indicators of success for this priority will include: 

  • Development of an active, central office helping students to gain internships at appropriate external organizations or businesses. 
  • Development of a single point of contact for external entities to identify appropriate students for their internships; 
  • Active encouragement of faculty, staff and University leadership to participate in community activities; 
  • Strong faculty encouragement of students to participate in internships.

Success for this priority will include increased numbers of administrators, faculty and staff engaged in community roles, increased numbers of students doing productive internships, and increases in requests from corporate and community leaders to have the University as part of their efforts. 

Success in these five priorities will provide the pathway for meeting our vision which is:

The University of South Alabama will be a leading comprehensive public university internationally recognized for educational, research, and health care excellence as well as for its positive intellectual, cultural, and economic impact on those it serves. 

The University of South Alabama is a great university that “Has Made a Difference” for our students and the community. Nelson Mandela proclaimed, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”  We should strive to have our graduates change the world.  Providing an environment, in which our students learn job skills but also develop character and an understanding of the humanities, social sciences and science, resulting in an appreciation of other cultures and viewpoints, will make this possible.  The original goal of higher education was to create an educated society.  This must still be our aspiration.  The priorities the leadership team and I have developed will aid us in this quest.   I am very proud and excited to serve as the president of this University that is highly committed to success and is optimistic about the future.  Together, we will succeed as a university and as a community making an even bigger difference than either can do alone.  I envision the day when our students obtain the perfect jobs and they contribute to the future of our society, i.e. they change the world.