State of the University Address by Chancellor Jeffrey S. Vitter
UM 2nd Annual Town Hall
October 11, 2017, 3 p.m.
The Inn at Ole Miss, Gertrude C. Ford Ballroom
Thank you, David, for the introduction. And thank you so much for helping us facilitate our event today. You have such strong ties to Ole Miss, and we really appreciate all you do for the university. I especially want to thank you and your wife Kent for your passionate leadership in establishing the William Magee Center for Wellness Education.
Welcome everyone! And thanks for coming! I would like to extend a warm welcome to a few guests we have with us today from the Oxford community: the Honorable Robyn Tannehill, Mayor of Oxford, Gregory Alston (former ASB president and Law School president) from Sen. Cochran’s office, and Mark Huelse, Alderman Ward II. We are truly lucky to have such a great town-n-gown relationship. And we are fortunate to have advocates of the caliber of Senators Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker, Rep. Trent Kelly, and other members of our federal, state, and local delegations.
Today’s event provides an excellent opportunity for us to gather as a university community. It allows us to share all the great things happening on our campuses. It also gives us a great venue to exchange ideas about how we continue developing plans for our future so that we can fully harness the transformative power of higher education.
It is especially rewarding to me that we are building upon the success of last year’s first-ever, university wide Town Hall. As Abraham Lincoln said, “the best way to predict the future is to create it.” I know you will be as excited as I am when Provost Wilkin unveils the university’s new Strategic Plan later today — a plan that is a direct result of all the amazing ideas and feedback you shared during last year’s Town Hall. And for that reason, there couldn’t be a better venue to launch our Strategic Plan than today’s 2nd annual Town Hall!
As chancellor, it is my honor today to give the State of the University. Over and over, since Sharon and I arrived in January 2016, we are reminded daily that this university is a special place, with extraordinary people, and tremendous offerings and opportunities. From our deep tradition of academic excellence to our supportive family atmosphere, from our dedicated staff to our award-winning faculty, from our beautiful campuses to our exciting athletic venues, and from our passionate alumni to our dynamic, active student body, we truly are a flagship university.
In my investiture speech last November, I urged the Ole Miss family to imagine what we can do and how far we can go. I shared how we are standing atop a peak in our history, and, from where we now stand, we can see higher peaks. To reach those peaks, we must continue having the important conversations about, “How do we go from great to greater?” and “How will we get there?”
No doubt you are now familiar with the four pillars that emerged from the Flagship Forum last year, which was a 100-day listening and learning tour. The four resonating themes became our four pillars:
- Academic excellence,
- Healthy and vibrant communities,
- People, places, and resources, and
- Athletics excellence.
As you see around the room on the boards and as you will hear during Dr. Wilkin’s presentation of the Strategic Plan, our roadmap into the future focuses upon these four pillars. Today, I want to share with you some of the achievements and successes in each of the pillar areas.
As an institution of higher learning, academic excellence is always first and foremost. Every day, we see evidence of our academic excellence across all our campuses.
- We are Mississippi’s only Carnegie R1 highest research activity university, putting us in the top 2.5% of colleges and universities in the U.S.
- This year’s freshman class has the highest ever entering GPA of 3.59.
- And not only do we lead the state in enrollment with 23,780 students, we are listed as the 10th fastest growing public doctoral institution in the country in the Chronicle of Higher Ed’s 2017 Almanac.
- All three degree programs in the Patterson School of Accountancy are ranked number 8 in the nation by the Public Accounting Report, with the master’s program being the top-ranked program in the SEC.
- Our Sally McDonnel Barksdale Honors College — a crown jewel of our university and what I truly believe is the best honors college in the nation — is celebrating 20 years old.
- And we are continuing to grow our academic excellence, including our brand new Biomedical Engineering degree being offered in the School of Engineering with an inaugural class of 54 students with an average ACT of 30.9!
If you recently heard about the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Physics, you know that faculty and researchers in our physics department have been an integral part of the international LIGO collaboration that contributed to that work. What an honor it is for the University of Mississippi to have played a part in such astounding breakthroughs and now the Nobel Prize in Physics!
Let me quickly share a major initiative we have undertaken to enhance our research excellence. This year, we established the Flagship Constellations research initiative to find new, meaningful solutions to the grand challenges affecting not only Mississippi communities, but the world. The inaugural four Constellations consist of cross-disciplinary teams of thought leaders from the Oxford and Medical Center campuses to address the grand challenges of:
- Community Wellbeing,
- Disaster Resilience,
- Brain Wellness, and
- Big Data.
Be on the lookout for information about an upcoming event on November 17th to highlight our Flagship Constellations.
We have quite a list of achievements! And we just recently made an exceptional appointment to help ensure that we continue to enhance and expand our academic excellence. So let me take a moment to say congratulations to Dr. Noel Wilkin, who was named Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs last month.
As a university, an important part of our mission is to improve our communities, and we accomplish this through our next pillar — building healthy and vibrant communities. At Ole Miss, we impact lives and communities from across the street to around the globe. With the state’s only academic medical center, we are committed to keeping our communities healthier. Take for example, our new Bower School of Population Health. Only the third of its kind in the country, the Bower School will transform healthcare practice and delivery in Mississippi and beyond.
In keeping with our Med Center campus accomplishments, we recently opened our new 151,000 square-foot School of Medicine, which will have a tremendous impact on addressing the need for more doctors in Mississippi. And just last week, UMMC was recognized as a model for national telehealth expansion by being designated one of only two Telehealth Centers of Excellence in the nation by the Federal Health Resources and Services Administration.
We also recognize that building healthy and vibrant communities means having a deep commitment to serving others with our unique talents and innovations that have the ability to transform the quality of life of all Mississippians. One of the ways the university has committed to expanding our impact is the hiring a Vice Chancellor for Diversity and Community Engagement — Dr. Katrina Caldwell — whom we welcomed to the university in January. Let’s recognize Dr. Caldwell.
Under this community umbrella, we are preparing in January to launch another major initiative called MPartner, in which the university will partner with towns and cities around the state — one at a time — to enhance every aspect of community life. Through MPartner, we will help find solutions to community challenges and exploit opportunities by matching the creativity and talent from across our entire university with that of the community, ranging from medicine and population health, science and engineering, the humanities, business and entrepreneurship, and education, arts and culture, journalism and media, and law and public policy. Be on the lookout in the coming year for more about M Partner.
The third pillar is people, places, and resources, which enables success in the prior two pillars. How do we judge success in this category? How about the fact that we have been named a “Great University to Work For” by the Chronicle of Higher Ed for 9 years in a row or our Purple Heart University designation as a military friendly university? How about the fact that our passionate alumni and friends have given more than $100 million each year for the last six years and we have recently hired Dr. Charlotte Parks, our first ever Vice Chancellor of Development, to lead us to even greater heights in this area?
What about the more than $1 billion in construction, going back two years and including what we’re about to start, including our recent purchase of the Baptist Hospital here in Oxford to support the growth and space needs of the main campus, a new 1,500-space residential garage, the renovated Gillom Women’s Sports Center, and the expanded Student Union. We are also working on a $32 million project on the south end of campus that includes a new recreation center and transportation hub. And we have a $23.5 million renovation and expansion of GHM (Garland, Hedleston, and Mayes halls), which will provide a new home for the School of Applied Sciences and new classrooms. Major new construction at UMMC include the Medical School, Translational Research, and Children’s Hospital. And our largest Oxford project ever — $140M STEM Building — will be a game changer for our students.
All these accolades and enhancements promote our academic goals, help us extend our reach and impact, and enhance our ability to attract the best and brightest into MS and to keep the best and brightest in MS.
Our fourth pillar is athletics excellence. Athletics serves as the ‘front porch’ of the university, playing a very important role in bringing people to our beautiful campus, where they can experience the full richness of our extraordinary comprehensive university. This past year was a banner year with our Rebel athletes achieving their highest cumulative semester GPA in recorded history with a 3.01. More than 50 percent of our student-athletes earned a spot on the Athletic Director’s Honor Roll for a 3.00 GPA or better. And 25 student-athletes recorded a perfect 4.0. Also, Ole Miss recorded its highest Graduation Success Rate in school history at 81% — well above the university average.
Athletics is a central part of the university’s overall mission of educating the next generation of leaders. We pride ourselves in providing exceptional opportunities for our student-athletes to benefit from the discipline, leadership, teamwork, and camaraderie gained by competing in the SEC.
And along the way, they deliver thrilling performances. How about the Ole Miss softball team bringing home the SEC championship? Or Braden Thornberry winning our first-ever NCAA individual golf national championship and winning the Haskins Award, the Heisman trophy for golf! And how about our women’s cross country team being ranked #12 in the country!
Most recently, we have seen the unifying role that athletics can have on our university, with our student government leading an effort to have a more widely-embraced mascot. As you learned last Friday, we are moving forward with the Landshark as a mascot that unifies, inspires, and depicts the positive spirit and strength of our athletic teams and our student athletes. I want to give a big Fins Up! to the ASB and all our students for their passionate leadership, and to our students, alumni, faculty, and staff for their enthusiastic support!
Let me quickly update you on two other items of great interest to our university community. The first is our on-going commitment to becoming a national leader in STEM education. This commitment is reflected in the new STEM building — our largest building project to date on the Oxford campus — and our Gates Foundation-funded PLATO project. It is also reflected in our recent hosting of the 2nd Annual Tech Summit on the Oxford campus with industry and government leaders. These efforts are imperative as we continue our focus upon stimulating world-class research that drives innovation as well as preparing the next generation of students as lifelong learners who will make an impact in a technology-driven world.
And this past summer, the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on History and Context concluded their thorough and scholarly 15-month long process. In fact, their work was part of a larger study lasting more than four years that included the 2014 Action Plan, which urged the university to “offer more history, putting the past into context” and to do so “without attempts to erase history, even some difficult history.” The result of this process is that we are adding contextualization plaques and markers to nine additional sites on campus. Since one building’s namesake (namely, Vardaman Hall) was judged to be exceptionally at odds with the values of the time, we will seek to rename it.
As an educational institution, we were guided in this effort by our overriding responsibility to teach and foster learning, especially from parts of our history that are painful. Contextualization was determined by the community to be the most effective approach to achieve this goal. I greatly appreciate the efforts of the committee for their scholarly and fact-focused work. I also appreciate all the members of our university, including the broad network of alumni and friends, who took time to provide us their input, whether it was through our online portal or in person at our listening sessions. The process represents a committed effort to recognize our university’s troubled history and to learn from it so that we can be a bright beacon of opportunity — to transform lives, communities, and the world.
Before I close, I want to share what I’ve learned it means to be an Ole Miss Rebel. We — and only we — control the meaning of Ole Miss Rebel. An Ole Miss Rebel is a Rebel with a cause, to make a difference in our work as an innovator, a mentor, a teacher, a teammate, a caregiver, a champion for others, a fiercely loyal family member, an entrepreneur, a trend setter, a leader. That’s our meaning of Ole Miss Rebel.
When we look at the world around us and the many challenges we face, we recognize the responsibilities we have as Ole Miss Rebels and as members of the state’s flagship university.
Being an Ole Miss Rebel means we stand up for one another, it means we do not shy away from difficult discussions, we neither hide from nor hide our past, it means every voice matters, and it means we move forward together with a shared vision for our future.
I want to conclude my remarks today by sharing a short 30-second video narrated by Morgan Freeman that illustrates our commitment to excellence in all we do and what it means to be an Ole Miss Rebel.