Chancellor's Recent Speeches

Convocation Address to Mississippi University for Women
Columbus, Mississippi
9/8/00

The Important Role of Public Universities

Thank you very much for that warm welcome. It is a real honor to be here at "The W."

The more I learn about your university, the more impressed I am with the "firsts" you have achieved and everything you have done to serve the state of Mississippi. I especially want to congratulate you on the great strides that you have made in teaching and in technology. You all deserve to be very proud of this institution's "long blue line" of success stories.

Earlier this summer, I spoke to a group of public university presidents about the important role of public institutions. I talked about the importance of remembering the word "public" in our everyday work - from our need to be accountable to the public, to our need to keep a public profile. After President Rent heard me speak that day, she asked me to come and speak to you.

I agreed because I have great respect and admiration for her, and because we share many of the same beliefs about higher education. I also said yes because she is a graduate of Florida State University. As the former chancellor of the Florida system, I'm always ready to support our alumni.

I also follow Southern educational policy closely. In the 1980s, I worked with former Gov. William Winter pm education. As you know, that was when Mississippi launched some of its landmark education reforms, such as mandating public kindergarten.

Now if you compare my current institution, the California State University, with the Mississippi University for Women, they might appear to be very different places - different locations, different demographics, different sizes.

But I feel right at home here because I know that we have a lot in common.

  • We share a common goal of excellence in education.

  • We share a common goal of offering outstanding teaching at the undergraduate and graduate level.

  • We share a common goal of preparing high-quality teachers.

  • And we share a common responsibility to the public and to our respective states.

Today I want to talk about the important public role that we have in common.

Washington Post Polling Results

In a poll released in June, the Washington Post found that education continues to be the number one concern of American voters. These results are consistent with the polls done by the Bush and Gore campaigns.

When David Broder did some informal or so-called "shoe-leather" polling and focus groups about the presidential election, he found that the top three results that parents want out of education are:

  • Safe, non-violent places for children to go to school -- This grew out of the tragic Columbine incident;

  • Good teachers -- Parents know that a high-performing teacher is one of the strongest indicators of student success;

  • High-quality, low-cost access to higher education -- Parents believe that their children's future success is linked to a college degree. They are extremely concerned about issues of cost and financial aid.

Our public universities have direct responsibility for two out of these three issues -- good teachers and access to college. In other words, the work that we do meets the needs of the public. So we cannot underestimate the importance of these issues when we set our priorities.

Balancing public demands with internal demands requires a strong sense of mission.

Our colleges and universities must have:

  • A vision
  • A strategic plan
  • A willingness to take risks in order to carry out the university's mission.

Every single person at the university plays an important role in carrying out its mission. Each individual must understand the university mission and be willing to accept challenges to the status quo that will help us better serve the public. Given that mandate, I want to identify a few priority areas for the future.

Accountability

We must embrace accountability.

We are all experiencing pressure for greater accountability from our legislatures and the public. But accountability can help us -- it can serve as leverage for quality improvement. We need to publicly declare our goals and our willingness to be accountable. We need to establish intervals throughout the year when we report on our progress.

Public accountability must become deeply ingrained in our university culture.

Defining Outcomes

We must define expectations, outcomes, and measurements.

We need to define what we do in order to provide measurements of our work and our progress. For example: What should students be able to do after spending 120 credit hours with us?

We know that our institutions add value. We need to show where students start out versus where they end up, according to the determinations established by our faculty. Once we have these definitions in place, we can establish accurate accountability measurements.

Selective Involvement in Social Issues

We must be selective about getting involved in social issues.

We can't be all things to all people. In fact, we can only pursue two or three big projects at a time. Some problems we can't solve, such as affordable housing, or childhood nutrition, or health insurance for children. We can't feed the kids that come to kindergarten hungry. But we can help ensure that they can read by the 3rd grade, by providing them with high-quality teachers.

Try to imagine what it would be like if you had a child or grandchild who went through the school system and couldn't read by age nine. You would be mad as hell, and you would want to do something about it. I know I would. I have a grandson named Mattox who hasn't started school yet. But you can be sure I'm going to watch his educational experience very carefully. I want to make sure that he gets the best possible teachers, and I know his classmates deserve the same.

Public Education

We must devote more resources to improving public education.

Roughly 90 percent of our students come from the public schools. This means that we need to get our entire university focused on improving the public schools. I am not simply talking about our teacher educators. I'm talking about faculty in art, science, humanities, business, nursing, and all of the other departments as well.

Look at the statistics: Recent figures show that 30 percent of Mississippi children live in poverty. Improving the schools is a critical way to improve their chances for the future.

We know we have a responsibility to prepare more and better teachers. But we also need to build more partnerships and outreach efforts. This may require a real change in focus and priorities for some people. Still, if we can provide outreach to help the public schools succeed, we will succeed as well.

Your university has done impressive work in this area. For example, the Demonstration school is a model for effective schooling practices. When students come to the university well prepared, we can help them get the most of out their college education, and we can help eliminate the need for remedial education.

Staying Connected With the Economy

We must be more closely connected to the economy and workforce.

We need to educate our students to become functioning, contributing members of our society and our economy. For instance, the "W" will prepare many of the educators and nurses that Mississippi badly needs. So these offerings must remain relevant and closely aligned with industry and technology advances.

Once again, your university has done outstanding work in this area. I was impressed to learn that all of your residence hall rooms, offices, and classrooms are connected to the Internet through a fiber optic network.

Public universities also need to stay in touch with what industry leaders want from students. They want students to be able to think, read, write, work in teams, and solve problems. All faculty members must ensure that students develop these valuable skills.

Looking Like Our Communities

We must look like our communities in terms of diversity.

Our universities need to look like the populations we serve. Does your university look like Mississippi?

For all public universities, it is not enough simply to hold the door open. We have to get outside and help people find the way in. This requires reaching out to our communities, and understanding students' changing needs, and - perhaps most importantly - assisting students with financial aid.

We need to let potential students know about us, and help them learn how to prepare for admission to our universities. Every single person here can help in this effort - by talking to neighbors, talking to friends, or even mentoring a student. We also need to focus on faculty recruitment and expansion of financial aid opportunities.

Challenge: Staying Focused on Our Mission

Last, we must stay focused on the larger mission of the university.

We need to make sure that faculty, staff, and administrators are adequately rewarded for helping to fulfill the university mission of serving the public. For instance, we need some way to reward faculty who spend time working with the public schools. In fact, we may have to change our reward system in ways that allow us to better serve the public.

This might represent one of the biggest changes for our universities, but if we are serious about serving the public, it is something we must explore.

Ultimately, fulfilling the mission of a public university requires the full support and participation of all faculty and staff members. It requires dedication to the university mission both inside and outside the classroom.

Inside the classroom: By offering high quality instruction and by preparing students for the demands of the workforce.

Outside the classroom: By helping prospective students learn about the university, and by helping the public recognize the important contributions that this university makes to the state of Mississippi.

I know that all of you have a strong commitment to serving the students of this state. And so I encourage you to continue to reach out to students and provide them with the high-quality education that the "W" is known for.

I wish you a successful and rewarding academic year.

Thank you very much.


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