I recently had lunch with a USA freshman in pre-medicine who made headlines last year for scoring a rare perfect 36 on the ACT test. I pressed Sonia Savani for her most candid observations regarding the University's academic quality upon completing her first year.
"All of my expectations were exceeded," she said. "All of them."
As the 2006 academic year comes to a close, it is appropriate to take stock of our own expectations regarding the University's progress toward its missions of teaching, research and service. Certainly, the year saw positive momentum in every standard by which the University is measured.
USA's growing academic reputation was reflected when we began the year with one of the most academically talented freshman classes in our history. Our faculty strengthened its commitment to these and all of our students by enthusiastically participating in an institutional effort to support and retain them successfully through graduation.
Faculty initiative was evident beyond the classroom as our research and outreach programs generated more than $50 million in external contracts and grants, including more than $20 million in federal appropriations. These projects touch a wide range of faculty endeavors - health and medicine, our coastal environment and animal life, energy and resources, music, archaeology, education, and many others.
Other gratifying developments of the year include the numerous strong endorsements the University received from its stakeholders, signaling that USA's contributions are being appreciated, respected and supported by those we serve.
The first example was a substantial increase in state funding for this year - breaking a five-year funding drought. This funding success was the direct result of years of concerted effort by our faculty, staff, students and alumni to encourage the state to invest more in the future of its young people. The Legislature has approved a similar increase for 2006-07. This is welcome relief as we all work to maintain excellent academic programs, while insuring that our tuition is kept affordable for the families we serve. These additional funds will be put to work primarily in support of the University's most valuable asset - our faculty and staff.
Enthusiastic public support of USA was illustrated again with the historic launching of the University's first-ever comprehensive fund-raising campaign. The results have been immediate and positive, and include one of the largest gifts in the history of higher education in the state. Thanks to the generosity of our faculty, staff, alumni, and supporters, USA has surpassed the halfway point of "Campaign USA." The $75 million to be generated by the effort will touch faculty and students in all programs of the University.
Certainly USA's success hinges most completely on the progress in our classrooms and laboratories, as well as the contributions being made daily by our graduates. The University saw many accomplishments this year:
- We successfully recruited 81 new full-time faculty and filled several key academic leadership positions. Over the past three years, we've also expanded our faculty by adding 55 new positions. This 12 percent increase is higher than our enrollment growth during the same period.
- We enhanced our academic program offerings in Baldwin County, addressing its unmet need and vibrant growth.
- The University continued to meet the community's health care needs by serving more than a quarter million patients, as well as providing the vast majority of care for uninsured people within our community.
- We entered into a health care alliance with Infirmary Health System to strengthen our medical education programs, enhance our contributions to the health care of the region, and support accelerated development of the Mitchell Cancer Institute.
- We completed the Student Services and Archaeology buildings, and plans moved forward for the Nursing/Allied Health Professions and Engineering building projects. The second USA Technology and Research Park building was completed and is now housing industry partnerships involving our faculty, staff and students.
- The diversity of our student life was reflected by the success of our athletic programs, including a conference championship and a visit to the NCAA tournament by our basketball team.
- In addition to a salary increase, the University was able to enhance employee benefits by adding dental coverage to the health insurance plan and eliminating co-pays for checkups.
- USA awarded 2,437 degrees, bringing our historic total to 57,634.
The University of South Alabama has certainly seen a noteworthy year. Still, we must continue to address our perennial challenges: securing adequate public funding to maintain the American dream of an affordable college education; assisting all students to be successful through completion of their degrees; continuing to better diversify our faculty and staff; and bearing the financial strain due to inadequate public policy related to health care for the uninsured. These issues will continue to require our greatest efforts and creativity.
Your efforts this year have helped USA achieve an unprecedented level of service to humanity. As we prepare to celebrate commencement, I congratulate you on a successful year, and wish you a safe and productive summer.