State of the University Address Speech

Mission First, People Always
Michigan’s Practice-Based University

Good afternoon. Welcome to our guests here with me in the beautiful Engineering Lab Building and to those listening via the live stream.     

This state-of-the-art building symbolizes our commitment to the future of education and prosperity in Southeast Michigan.

Over the past couple years our world, country, and university have been rocked by a pandemic that has impacted and altered so many lives in dramatic and countless ways. Even beyond this, the times that we live in have been unsettling. We have watched events unfold that were once only read about in history books — or barely considered imaginable. It sometimes appears as if we are entering a world of the absurd: threats to our democracy and our planet, struggles once again for personal and voting rights, living in a technologically-advanced world where AI/VR are becoming commonplace but simultaneously seeing our infrastructure crumble around us. It often feels as if we are both more connected and more isolated than ever. Closer to home, the University of Michigan has seen an unexpected presidential transition. 

But let us remember that this great university has been around for over 200 years and has endured great wars, both foreign and domestic, financial and public health crises, and social unrest. With people as its greatest asset, I fully trust that The University of Michigan, writ large, will transcend the challenges of our time and continue to flourish and be leaders and best. I have complete confidence in President Mary Sue Coleman. She is a seasoned leader and knows our university well, making her the ideal person to lead us at this time.

UM-Dearborn’s planning and responses to the swirling spectacles happening around us have been guided by the motto: "Mission First, People Always." That belief has propelled our university to help find practical and appropriate solutions while standing for kindness and hope in the face of adversity and tragedy. Our plans and our futures will adapt and evolve, but we look toward tomorrow with a sense of optimism and pride, knowing that one thing remains the same: the Dearborn branch of the Michigan family tree is as strong as it has ever been. We will always offer students an outstanding education that leads to personal transformation and growth and empowers them to be a force for good in the world.

Today, I want to share an update and give you a status report on the state of our university.

Guided by our strategic plan, I will talk about:

  • How we responded to the pandemic.
  • Our accomplishments as a practice-based university.
  • Ongoing efforts to enhance student experience and success.
  • Our steadfast support for diversity, equity and inclusion.
  • How we've focused on advancing faculty and staff in their pursuit of excellence.
  • UM-Dearborn's finances and the future of our budgeting process.

Responding to the Pandemic
As stressful as the pandemic has been, it has put a spotlight on our institutional legacy and strengths. Since 1959, people have been the core of our mission as we strive every day to create a truly inclusive, caring and welcoming environment.

This is why UM-Dearborn has been a leader in responding to the pandemic. No one has done it better. We tracked the spread of the coronavirus early, which allowed us to work together and make the appropriate changes. We went remote when we had to and returned when it was safe. And we have taken great care to address equity and access concerns from our faculty, staff, and students. Our answers to obstacles caused by COVID-19 have exemplified the determined resilience, personal industry, and courage of our university community. To be sure, we appreciate and celebrate sweat equity.

What comes next is often referred to as "the new normal," but this a nonsensical term. Progress always leads to “a new normal.” We should recall the ancient proverb: “necessity is the mother of invention.” In this case, our necessity was driven by a pandemic that required us to adopt technological innovations at breakneck speeds. The extraordinary effort of Carrie Shumaker and her IT team and the HUB in supporting faculty has been nothing short of remarkable. They have allowed us to remain productive and safe without undermining the quality of our work.

Indeed human connections and relationships matter more now than ever. As we continue innovating, we must not compromise quality for convenience. This will require all of us, faculty, staff, and students to be thoughtful, flexible, and committed to excellence in all the decisions we make.

Dean of Students Amy Finley and her team have taken this personal touch to heart and have been critical to our institution's successful response. Their sensitivity and attention to student needs and challenges have been second to none. Whether it has been a question of equity and access or mental health, our Student Affairs Team was there to explain, guide, help and solve.

A Practice-Based University
UM-Dearborn has always been a practice-based university where students are trained to collaborate across disciplines developing  practical, efficacious, and holistic solutions. In addition to our outstanding practice-based undergraduate curriculum, we are also expanding our professional, practice-based graduate degree programs, adding the new D.Eng. degree to our MBA, and EdD degrees that will help students advance their careers and futures. I am hoping we add similar programs in the coming years. Interim Provost Gabriella Scarlatta has done an excellent job spearheading and enhancing our commitment to practice-based learning and the results can be seen all over campus.

Three of our colleges lend themselves naturally to this paradigm. For example, in the COB, Kevin Kobelsky’s graduate course has helped 25 nonprofits and several other local organizations enhance their cybersecurity — a critical and necessary need in today’s society. This fall we will launch affinity programs, including the CECS grand challenges scholars program, where our students will work on world problems as part of their undergraduate degree — making their practice-based learning even more valuable. And of course our education students have spent many hours in practicums at local schools.

However, colleges of arts and sciences have traditionally not been active in this space. But under the leadership of Dean Marty Hershock and Associate Dean Marie Waung, CASL faculty and staff have been exploring this approach, creating exciting opportunities as well.

As a metropolitan university, our efforts are naturally aligned with thinking about the cities of tomorrow, forecasting the troubles that lie ahead and conducting applied research to address them. Our practice-based approach applied to Urban Futures builds on our strong culture of collaborative solution seeking — both within our university and as part of the public we serve. It has already helped create novel perspectives and technologies to make metropolitan Detroit healthier, safer, and equitable. For example, Professors Carmel Price and Natalie Sampson are working with Healthy Dearborn to ensure health equity in southeast Michigan, while Professor Fred Feng studies how bicycles can fit into the hyper-connected smart cities of the future. In Detroit, Professor Paul Draus is studying ways to unleash and activate the potential of unused alleyways and Professor Josh Akers has provided valuable insights to fight predatory landlords and evictions.

Applying the methods of practice-based learning to Urban Futures helps UM-Dearborn be on the leading edge of studying and influencing urban change. This drives our purpose and reaffirms our obligation to southeast Michigan. And, we're just getting started. That's why we moved the Office of Metropolitan Impact to the Office of the Provost and are refocusing it on better integrating Urban Futures with our academic mission.

Now let me turn to the importance of our number one priority: student success.

Student Success
When I began as chancellor, I expressed my fierce dedication to the success of our students. I was clear that there could be no compromise on this important issue. Improving our retention and graduation rates was and remains our highest and most worthy priority. Talent is everywhere, but opportunity is not. Our university is a gateway to better lives. That is what drives us. This is why UM-Dearborn exists, and why we are inspired to focus on student achievement.

During my inaugural address, I proposed three core principles that I believe define more holistically the basis for our students' success: currency, luxury, and legacy.

By currency, I believe higher education must provide students with the ability to make a living in their chosen profession. We cannot be a springboard to a better life if our graduates cannot find employment after college. Our degrees must equip them with the right skills to be valuable in the marketplace. So last year, under the leadership of Associate Provost Maureen Linker, we launched Experience+ to coordinate and enhance professional prospects for students, expand research experience, raise intercultural awareness and grow digital literacy. Combined with our commitment to practice-based education, our curriculum delivers affordable, intellectual and economic value.

But higher education cannot be merely about economic utility. It must not only guide the way to a prosperous future but a satisfying one, as well. Devoting your life to doing what you love is a real luxury It is tied to personal well-being and fulfillment, and should not be ignored or taken for granted. At UM-Dearborn, we inspire a hunger for continuous knowledge and a growth mindset. We tell our students that insatiable curiosity — in combination with persistent effort — can help them excel at their jobs and enjoy lifelong passions and learning. We do this in and out of the classroom, at campus social events, with student research projects, and through our co-ops and internship programs. That's why we established the state’s first artificial intelligence master’s program and offer flexible study-abroad experiences and financial support for students who cannot afford either the extended periods of being away, or the finances associated with traditional programs. 

We hope every graduate finds their passions and utilizes their talents to make a difference and contribute to the common good. Our students are motivated to leave a positive legacy — to apply their skills or good fortune toward leaving the world a better place for having been in it. Our job is to make sure that can happen. I see the results whenever I attend an alumni event. If you need further proof, all you need to do is listen to one of our Alumni Engagement Speaker talks available on our website.

A wonderful personification of this combination of currency, luxury, and legacy is last spring's commencement speaker Huda Kattan, UM-Dearborn class of 2007. After graduation, with a degree in business, she followed her lifelong passion for beauty and enrolled in a prestigious makeup school in Los Angeles, cultivating a roster of clientele that included celebrities and several royal families. Huda credits her time at UM-Dearborn, and specifically her personal interactions with Professor Michael Callahan and a student organization called S.I.F.E., Students In Free Enterprise, which she helped found, as igniting the entrepreneurial spark that has led to her good fortune. Today, her Instagram account is the most followed beauty brand on the platform, with nearly 50 million followers.

Guided by her expertise and passion, she founded her eponymous cosmetics brand Huda Beauty. She told last spring’s graduating class, "Success is not about who has the fattest bank account or who has achieved the most. It’s about who, at the end of this pursuit, feels fulfilled."

Her company is currently one of the fastest-growing beauty brands in the world because she combined what she learned at UM-Dearborn with her passion. Along with her company, Huda is building a legacy of care for others through her philanthropy. She has donated millions to various organizations, providing meals to those in need and fighting for human rights. 

More recently, I met Sara Dokter, an undergraduate from Holland, Michigan. When Sara was transferring to a university after attending community college, she narrowed her choice to accepting the Go Blue Guarantee at Ann Arbor or actually paying to come to UM-Dearborn. She drove from her home in the western part of the state to visit Ann Arbor and Dearborn. About her experience at UM-Dearborn, she said that what most impressed her was that “The staff took their time to show they care." We clearly won her over.

After Sara's first semester, however, she changed her initial major when several professors aided her in discovering a new passion: cybersecurity. She enthusiastically noted, “They helped me find what I want to do with my life.” Her dream is to one day land a job with the FBI, where her work and legacy will protect our nation and citizens.

Sara’s experience and trajectory, along with Huda Kattan’s entrepreneurial talent, epitomize our commitment to holistic student success. This is what makes our university so special.

Stories like these most certainly define who we are and how we are perceived. A recent external poll of 900 southeastern Michiganders shows that they see a UM-Dearborn degree as equivalent to or better than the degree from our sibling Ann Arbor campus, and I know why. [points to crowd] All of you.

It should surprise no one that while UM-Dearborn continues to be rated by US News as one of the best universities in the Midwest, it was also recently ranked among the top 50 universities in the country for economic mobility, first among only two in the State of Michigan to be included. 

To be sure, every student faces challenges as they navigate their college experience. This is why we are focusing many aspects of the strategic plan on improving the student experience and achievement. We launched a service called the “One Stop” last summer to streamline support for our students. Located just inside the entrance of the University Center, in a single location, our team stands ready to help students resolve issues about a variety of topics like student accounts, course registration and financial aid. Coupled with our new online student portal, called “My UM-Dearborn,” students now have better, personalized tools and resources to assist them on their path to graduation.

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion
Of course, cost remains the top concern of college students nationally, and no university concerned with inclusive excellence can ignore it. When students worry excessively about how they'll pay for college, they spend less time learning and gaining from the experience of college. That's why we worked diligently to keep our tuition as low as possible, with only a 1.9 percent increase last year, well below the cap for tuition increases set by the State of Michigan.

We have also revamped our financial aid model, moving to a “need-first” philosophy so students with the greatest financial need pay less. Working with Vice Provost for Enrollment Management Melissa Stone, we piloted a sub-rosa precursor to the Go Blue Guarantee for a full year prior to the official public announcement last June.

The Go Blue Guarantee program will dramatically impact the lives of generations of students. To date, nearly 1200 students have been awarded this life-altering assistance. This will be a game-changer for many families in our state. 

But we didn't just stop with the Go Blue Guarantee. We also started the "Dearborn Comeback." A program aimed at students who left school with at least 90 credits, but did not graduate. This program grants $5,000 to students after federal financial aid is exhausted and delivers support services to help students earn their degree. 

These financial aid and student success initiatives stand at the heart of our institutional purpose and will allow the university to proceed as a steward of transformative education for decades to come.

In order to help us better share our stories and amplify the new programs and experiences available to prospective students, we recently concluded a branding and marketing study led by Vice Chancellor for External Relations Ken Kettenbeil and his team. Findings from this research will help inform the strategic enrollment management plan to be rolled out to the campus later this year. Ken’s team will soon share these findings with you and outline ways we will be communicating our exciting story moving forward. 

The full impact of our efforts goes beyond what happens in our classrooms. UM-Dearborn embodies much of the diversity of metropolitan Detroit. The campus has long been devoted to creating a welcoming environment where innovation, belonging and creativity flourish and differences are celebrated and engaged with respect. This only works if everyone — students, faculty, and staff — feel comfortable, safe, and heard.

Led by Pam Heatlie, the new Office of Equity, Civil Rights and Title IX has enhanced its program offerings and launched a campus-wide climate survey. I hope that everyone listening today will provide input because the survey results will shape our future thinking and decision-making.

Our new Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer Keisha Blevins, along with Dean Ann Lampkin-Williams, my strategic planning co-chair Professor Deborah Smith Pollard, and their working group have developed over 60 recommendations to promote DEI on campus, many of which are already being implemented, including notable changes to human resources practices and policy. 

Further, I have committed $1 million to continue our efforts to improve the culture of inclusive excellence on this campus.

I am determined to sustain a more open-minded, peaceful, and just university. But neither Keisha, Ann, Deborah nor I can do this on our own; I ask all of you to join me in supporting this most important cause. All of us share both a personal stake and a personal responsibility. Together, we can ensure that the arc of the moral universe truly does bend toward justice.

Faculty and Staff Excellence
The success of our students also depends on the accomplishments of our faculty — not only in the classroom but in their scholarly pursuits. Over the years, we have implemented our strategy to best support faculty and staff at the forefront of their fields.

Dr. Yunus Zeytuncu warrants special mention here. Named a 2021 Michigan Distinguished Professor of the Year by the Michigan Association of State Universities, he has combined outstanding teaching in the classroom, distinguished research, mentorship of undergraduates, and a continued commitment to educating the broader public through a tutoring program for middle and high schoolers. He is a great example of how we combine teaching, community service, and research at UM-Dearborn. MASU made a wise decision in awarding him this recognition, and the university could not be more proud.

Continuing on this theme, our effort to attract more external support has paid off. I could spend the entire day highlighting winning projects, especially in engineering and computer science, where the lion’s share of our externally-funded research resides. But today I would like to share a major project in CASL that is expanding our support for Pell-eligible students. Professors Joan Remski, Marilee Benore and Daniel Lawson saw a problem: talented students who struggled in introductory science and math courses were less likely to finish college.

In observing this dilemma, they also saw an opportunity and proposed building a cross-campus collaboration to adapt practices proven to increase retention and graduation rates for high-achieving, first-generation, and commuter students. The National Science Foundation was also impressed with their approach and granted them $1.44 million dollars to help make the STEM Scholars program a reality.

Circling back to CECS, in a very similar vein, Professor DeLean Tolbert Smith received a prestigious National Science Foundation CAREER award to explore the role that families and non-classroom experiences play in tackling STEM’s equity problems and helping underrepresented groups succeed in engineering programs.

I am delighted to report that our annual research support has continued on a steep trajectory. Since 2018 external awards for research have increased by roughly 75 percent, with the federal component rising from 30 percent to 70 percent.

This is a remarkable achievement by our staff and faculty — one that helps grow UM-Dearborn's reputation and impact. I applaud all of our faculty, but especially Armen Zakarian, vice provost for research. Under his leadership, the team at the Office of Research has increased its support to faculty by enhancing services, providing writing and copy editing assistance and aiding with grant administration.

Make no mistake, we have expanded research without compromising our hallmark excellence in the classroom. A committee led by Associate Provost Mitch Sollenberger is focusing on new general principles for university-level P & T guidelines by reorienting how we think about both teaching and scholarship based on the work of Ernest Boyer in his seminal monograph “Scholarship Reconsidered.”

Ensuring Financial Sustainability
For a university to succeed, it must also have a fair, reasonable and predictable budget.

UM-Dearborn is in a strong financial condition. The Higher Learning Commission utilizes a composite financial indicator consisting of debt, reserves, operating margin, and return on assets to measure the overall financial health of institutions. A score of 3 indicates a university is relatively healthy. In the FY 2018, the university scored a 3.46. Through prudent financial decisions that reduced costs and strategically-utilized financial resources in the face of the pandemic, the university has risen to a score of  5.91 for FY 2021. When combined with our endowment, which has grown by over 50 percent to over $86 million since 2018, we can feel secure in our financial future.

To maintain our solid financial footing, we are in the process of adopting a new budget model that will lead to economic consistency and transparency. Under the leadership of Vice Chancellor for Business Affairs Bryan Dadey, starting in the FY 2023, the university will implement a responsibility-centered management, or RCM, budget model. This model will decentralize budgets so each college will control their own destinies to best realize their strategic priorities.

The new model will emphasize a balance between revenues and expenses at the unit level, encourage entrepreneurial thinking, and incentivize revenue growth and expense management. This will lead to better predictability and keep us on the path to fiscal sustainability for years to come.

As optimistic as this sounds, we are continuing to focus more attention on other sources of external funding. For example, we are lobbying heavily in Lansing to underscore the importance of higher education, in general, and UM-Dearborn’s value in particular. We also continue to make a compelling case for philanthropic support from our alumni and friends. With pride, I can report that last year we received a planned gift of $8 million, the second-highest in the history of the university.  

UM-Dearborn has a very successful alumni community. Recently, under the leadership of Vice Chancellor for Institutional Advancement Casandra Ulbrich, we created a National Advisory Council, a group of accomplished and notable friends and alumni leaders who are providing strategic advice to university leadership. During IA’s work to establish the NAC, we uncovered and reconnected with many notable alumni, including Henry Maier, class of 1986, who just a few month ago retired as President of FedEx Ground; Judy Toland, a 2001 graduate and vice president at Meta, formerly Facebook; and Grace Bochenek, a 1992 graduate and former Interim US Secretary of Energy, just to list a few. These alums are certain to make a difference in the lives of our students and faculty by opening new doors and opportunities and through their own generosity. 

After some persistent and effective conversations, and the submission of an elegantly detailed and compelling plan from Executive Director for Facilities Operations Carol Glick, UM-Ann Arbor will be providing us with an additional $3.2 million to resolve the flooding problems that have especially plagued CASL and the Fieldhouse over the years. Once these projects are complete, our basketball and volleyball teams will no longer need to play off campus while we remediate flooding damage.

Speaking of athletics, the past few years have given our community something to cheer about. 2021 saw men’s baseball make the WHAC tournament while men's cross country went to nationals for the first time in program history.

In 2020 women's hockey hit the ice for the first time and did something that you don't hear too often: they beat Ohio State, Michigan State and UM-Ann Arbor. I congratulate our Interim Athletic Director Bryan Earl on fielding such competitive teams across all of our sports without compromising the high academic standards of a Michigan degree. Bryan is also working to build competitive rivalries with other Big Ten regional campuses. All of our athletes are students first and serve as great ambassadors of our university. They truly know what it means to be a Michigan Wolverine and make us proud.

Going Forward
Looking beyond the pandemic and its ramifications, what the future of our society will look like depends on an educated and informed public, and its capacity to preserve and protect our democratic institutions while driving national prosperity and innovation. A thriving democracy must capitalize on the diverse wisdom and talents of all its people. This is where UM-Dearborn can play a major role.

Our campus creates a means of entry to what has long been considered the American Dream, a belief that anyone, regardless of initial circumstances, can attain their own version of success. To be clear, there are factors beyond our control that have turned this dream into a nightmare for some Americans, such as structural racism, fear of deportation for some raised and educated on our soil, inequitable health care and education, and drive-by philanthropy — well-intentioned, but misguided use of directed resources.

Nonetheless, we pledge to help as many as we can achieve this ideal, empowering students to change the trajectory of their lives, build better prospects for their families, and make the communities we call home healthier, prosperous, and just. Although today may seem fraught, we should take pride in knowing that our university is a starting point for a better tomorrow.

Our strategic plan will aid us in fulfilling our mission. Although we have made significant progress on its priorities despite COVID-19, it's still going to command a sustained effort from the entire campus to be successful. 

Even when the world around us seems precarious and threatening, UM-Dearborn is a beacon of hope because we have the right people doing the right things the right way: Mission First, People Always. What we have accomplished so far is only the beginning.

I am sanguine because I call all of you my colleagues and clearly see the purpose and value of our university. I hope you join me holding a sense of optimism, pride, and enthusiasm.

Higher education needs to be attainable, affordable, and civically engaged, touching the lives of as many people as possible where they live and work. It functions best when knowledge can be applied not only in the classroom but outside of it. No one does that better than UM-Dearborn. We are curious. We investigate. We innovate. From our first-year students to our faculty, we attract lifelong learners and people with vision and passion.

It is my honor to work side by side with you and lead this great university. The state of our university is strong because of you.

I hope all of you can join me at the winter carnival immediately following this address to enjoy some live entertainment, bonfires, coco, smores, and ice skating.

Go Blue, Go Dearborn! Let’s go celebrate!

2022 UM-Dearborn State of the University Address

Office of the Chancellor

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