State of the University: Now is the time to raise stature, reputation of all colleges and departments

University of Florida
August 26, 2021

Thank you, Professor Bloom.  Thank you to the Faculty Senate for hosting this annual State of the University address as we begin the new academic year.  Earlier today I met with the new members of the faculty senate and I expressed my deep appreciation for UF’s tradition of effective shared governance and a collaborative spirit across the university that encompasses not only faculty, but also students, staff, administration and alumni.  

This afternoon I will speak to the coming year and also reflect on the past year, but I will begin with what is most pressing on my mind, and I expect on yours: Covid and the delta variant.  To provide some perspective, let me take us back to the end of last academic year, when we celebrated our graduating students with in-person commencement ceremonies.  

Over three weeks in April and May we had 31 ceremonies for not only the students graduating in May, but also a week of ceremonies for thousands of students who graduated in 2020 and wanted to return for an in-person ceremony.  To the dismay of the faculty marshals who had to hear it 27 times, I sang solo Tom Petty’s “I won’t back down” as part of my commencement address.  

By the time of those ceremonies in April and May, most of our faculty had been fully vaccinated, tens of thousands of students had been vaccinated and the number of positive cases of Covid had dropped to 5 new cases per day.  The number of new Covid cases in our community continued to drop and by the middle of June on average there was less than one new case per day.  Due to the vaccine, herd immunity had been achieved, or rather that was what I thought.

 We decided to celebrate all the remarkable work of our health care workers, our faculty, students, and incredible staff who had kept our campus safe and fully operational in the midst of the pandemic, and so we planned an all-campus day of gratitude for Friday, September 17, three weeks from tomorrow, the day before the Gators are scheduled to beat Alabama in football.  

But then, just six weeks ago, the Covid Delta variant exploded across our state and our local community.  Delta is more than twice as contagious as all previous variants and we have reached an all-time high in new cases per day, as well as an all-time high in hospitalizations and deaths, locally and across the state. 

Now, with all hands on deck, we are again fighting the virus.  There are several tools available to stop the spread of this virus, and all of us must use them.  First, everyone MUST get vaccinated. Second, everyone MUST wear a mask while indoors in a public space. 

We have also learned in the past six months that a significant portion of our nation will not choose to be vaccinated, even though the vaccine is fully approved by the FDA, free, and easily accessible.  The percentage of our nation’s population choosing to not be vaccinated is sufficient for the delta variant to thrive and to create new variants that are even more contagious.   

What about UF?  A year and a half ago, as soon as we saw the first community spread of Covid, UF was the first university in the State of Florida to move classes online to “flatten the curve”.  At that point, I hadn’t heard of contact tracing and it wasn’t clear to me there would ever be a vaccine.  Now, we have multiple incredibly effective vaccines and at UF we have an effective Screen, Test, and Protect program that kept us safe this past year.  However, we do not have some other tools.   We do not have the authority to mandate the vaccine for our students and employees, we do not have the authority to require everyone to wear a mask indoors, and we no longer have the authority to move our classes online.  

Given our constraints, I am optimistic that our university community, UF’s students, faculty and staff will understand the importance of voluntarily doing what we cannot require and that is to get the shot and wear the mask.  

Finally, our epidemiologists are projecting that the current record surge of Covid will soon decline rapidly across the state of Florida.  Here at UF, we can expect a growing number of new cases for several weeks, followed also by a rapid decline.   However, even with the expected future rapid decline in new cases, again, please, everyone must get the shot and must wear the mask. 

Although we have postponed our campus-wide day of gratitude, I have to express how grateful I am for everyone’s role in keeping our campus safe the past 18 months, and for continuing to do so in this new academic year.   I am also so grateful for how our faculty, staff and students have excelled in the past 18 months in our university’s mission of education, scholarship, and making a difference in society through clinical work, extension, and service.  Let me share a few of those collective accomplishments. 

We announced earlier this year that research expenditures reached a new record high of $942M in FY 2020. We are a whisker away from our goal of $1B in annual research spending. 

Despite the economic challenges faced by the State of Florida due to Covid, our elected officials invested even more in the University of Florida this past year, for which we are incredibly grateful.  In the past five years we are the only university in the nation to have increased the size of our faculty by 500, and this past year the Governor and the State Legislature invested additional funding in UF to further increase the size of the faculty, particularly in the area of artificial intelligence.  Although no new funds were provided for salary increases, the provost, vice presidents, and deans reallocated funds from existing budgets to provide compensation increases for both faculty and staff this year.  

As we hire additional AI faculty, UF continues to advance our artificial intelligence initiative and partnership with Nvidia announced last year. In July, UF’s HiPerGator AI supercomputer was ranked second most powerful computer among universities nationwide and third across higher education worldwide. 

I am so grateful that although we are one of the nation’s leading research universities, we are also a university that celebrates its commitment to students, undergraduate, professional, and graduate students. 

For example, two days ago, Dean Nicole Stedman, Provost Joe Glover, the college deans, and I, hosted an event with nearly a hundred faculty, staff, and guests in celebration of university and college awards for teaching, advising, and mentoring. 

One specific example of our faculty’s commitment to education is Quest, which engages all undergraduate students in a shared curriculum that draws from the humanities, natural sciences and social sciences. As of this academic year, Quest 1 and Quest 2 courses are required for all entering students. 

Faculty and academic leaders are currently at work on Quest 3, which will focus on providing students new opportunities for experiential learning. Thank you to the Heavener School of Business for piloting Quest 3 and many thanks to everyone who has worked for years in developing and implementing Quest and to every faculty and staff member committed every day to excellence in undergraduate, graduate and professional education. 

Although our people and our programs are most important, we also need a physical environment that enables our success.   

Our physical infrastructure must be maintained, renewed, and at times grown to support our community and programs.  As you can tell from the closed streets and cranes on campus, there is a lot of current activity associated with our infrastructure.  On our 2,000 acre main campus here in Gainesville, we have more than 1 million square feet currently in construction or authorized for construction this academic year. An additional 300,000 square feet is in renovation or authorized for renovation this year.  

Apart from our campus in Gainesville, UF has a presence in every county across our state, and we are currently considering additional new focused opportunities, particularly in South Florida.  In July, we announced that UF Health and the College of Medicine are in discussions with the Scripps Research Institute to integrate Palm Beach County-based Scripps Research Florida with the University of Florida. This partnership will marry both institutions’ research strengths while giving UF a strategic research presence in a rapidly growing region of our state. 

In addition, the Mayors of West Palm Beach and Palm Beach County announced this week that UF is in discussions with them about creating a focused graduate education campus in the city of West Palm Beach. 

Philanthropy is an important and growing revenue stream for strategic initiatives in departments, colleges, and for initiatives such as those just mentioned in South Florida.  Despite the economic challenges caused by Covid, philanthropy to the University of Florida set a new record this past fiscal year. 

As of this week, we have raised $3.3B in our Go Greater fundraising campaign. We’ve already surpassed our original goal of $3B by $300M and the campaign is scheduled to continue for more than another year, until late next fall.  I predict we’ll be close to $4B by the end of calendar year 2022, a billion over our original goal. 

This past fiscal year’s record in new gifts and commitments was $562M. It was the third year in a row that fundraising topped $500M. This is really remarkable, considering that 2014 was the first year that we raised over $300M annually. 

In this first week of classes, I want to welcome all our new students, including new undergraduates, graduate, and professional students.   The new first year in college undergraduates were selected from a record 52,513 applications. For context, for the fall entering class of 2017, four years ago, we had 34,500 applications. 

Our entering students also set a record academically.   The average GPA and SAT for admitted students was 4.51 and 1392 respectively, both of which are all-time highs. 

In addition to new students, I also want to welcome all new faculty and staff and welcome new university leaders.  I’m going to acknowledge just a few of our new university leaders.  If I call your name, please stand and remain standing.  I ask the audience to hold your applause until all are standing. 

  • Hub Brown, dean of the College of Journalism and Communications.
  • Colleen Koch, dean of the College of Medicine.
  • Mary Parker, vice president for enrollment management.
  • Nicole Stedman, dean of the Graduate School.
  • Dana Zimmel, dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine.

Our ongoing searches include the UF chief diversity officer and the UF dean for extension and director, Florida Cooperative Extension Service.  We expect to complete those two searches this semester. 

I’m old enough to have had a variety of leadership roles and positions in my career and so I know that the most important leadership position is not the president, but the leadership that occurs in departments and units across the university.  I would like to recognize everyone in this room and those watching online who has assumed a new leadership role since last fall. Would everyone, faculty and staff, who has a new leadership position in a department, unit, or college or elsewhere at the university, please stand? 

Finally, we remain deeply saddened by the loss of one of our university’s important and beloved leaders, Dr. Leon Haley to a tragic accident in July.  Dr. Haley was the exceptional CEO of UF Health Jacksonville, Dean of the UF College of Medicine – Jacksonville and Vice President for Health Affairs at UF Health Jacksonville. 

On Monday, Dec. 13, 2021, Dr. Haley became the first person in the State of Florida to get a COVID vaccine after UF Health – Jacksonville became the first hospital to receive vaccines in the state. 

As I described at his funeral in his hometown of Pittsburgh, PA, the day before his death, with the Delta variant raging through the unvaccinated in Jacksonville, he went to the hospital wards to personally administer shots.  He was concerned that not all of his healthcare workers were vaccinated. He personally vaccinated 15 people in his hospital the day before he died. 

After his death, more than 150 UF Health staff and faculty chose to be vaccinated in Dr. Haley’s honor. 

Although the loss of Dr. Haley left a huge void, two excellent individuals have been selected to fill his position: Russ Armistead, who will serve as CEO of UF Health Jacksonville, and Dr. Linda Edwards, who will serve as dean of the UF College of Medicine – Jacksonville. 

I conclude with a comment about university rankings. 

This past year UF, again, moved up in the U.S. News rankings from tied for 7th to tied for 6th among public universities and we are now in the top 30 of all universities, public or private.  Almost every year we have moved up by at least one position in those rankings. We are committed to being ranked among the nation’s top-5 public research universities, and so we will continue to work at the university level on the metrics that will drive these rankings higher, including graduation rates, faculty resources and alumni giving rates. 

However, in addition to those efforts, it’s important that every UF department and all of our 16 colleges also raise their statures and reputations among their aspirational peers.  Out of 11 UF colleges with graduate programs that are currently ranked by U.S. News, five are currently in the top-ten and two in the top-5. 

UF ranks third in total publications by its faculty behind only Harvard and Michigan among 400 top national public and private universities, according to Academic Analytics. We rank 21st in total citations, 28th in total awards and honors and 20th in total grant dollars among those 400 universities. 

However, per capita measures reflect significant gaps. UF faculty rank 78th in citations per faculty member, 79th in awards per faculty member and 92nd in grant dollars per faculty member. 

While we have steadily increased research expenditures -- reaching the record $942M I mentioned earlier -- we need to significantly increase our share of the most competitive federal research spending. 

Raising the stature and reputation of all UF colleges and departments will require commitment and significant financial support, just as has been the case for UF’s efforts to rise in the U.S. News university rankings.  But with UF today solidly ensconced among the top-10 publics, I believe there is no better time than now to double down on our plan to enhance the stature of every department and college at UF. 

A year ago, as we faced incredible uncertainty regarding the pandemic and the university’s finances and programs,  I challenged myself and the entire university to make last year one of the best ever.  In retrospect, this past year was one of the most difficult ever, but it was also one of the best ever in what was accomplished, due to everyone at this university.  

With what I observed this past year and what I know of our UF community, I am incredibly optimistic about our current new academic year and the years beyond. As I say often, I am immensely grateful for the privilege I have to be your colleague. 

Thank you.