Chancellor’s Musings – “From Metaphors to Action”

Posted on September 10, 2019

As you know from my previous musings I am fond of using metaphors. The basic purpose of metaphors is to transfer understanding from one idea or object to another. They aid comprehension of complex concepts or queries, such as “how do you transform a large public university?” That’s a big question that requires a complicated answer.

To help with the concept of transformation, therefore, I have used the metaphor of “Giant Steps” to encapsulate my vision for UNC Greensboro’s future. What images and ideas does this metaphor activate? Bold steps, big strides, and significant movement.

More recently I’ve added the metaphor of an “inflection point” to signify the critical juncture at which UNCG finds itself today. A time when we can either propel ourselves forward as a national model of how to expertly blend opportunity, excellence, and impact that transforms the lives of students and contributes to the future prosperity of our state and region or succumb to the pressures that plague many institutions and stymie growth and productivity.

Highflying words, right? And skeptics and critics are right to ask, “Where’s the beef?”

Here’s the Beef:
As I explained to our new faculty last week, I am committed to being as transparent as possible. Decisions are made with a great deal of input from a vast array of constituencies, thoughtful deliberation by senior administrators, and a clear strategy to align resources with the broad goals set out in the strategic plan. I will communicate the decisions we’ve made and why. While some of you might not agree with all of them, you will not be able to say they are unreasonable.

Telling our Story:
One of the greatest challenges I faced when I arrived at UNCG was addressing the relative lack of visibility. Our University has great strengths in academic offerings and the student experience; a beautiful campus; a rich cultural palette; competitive athletics; and one of the most diverse student bodies in the UNC System. The problem? Not enough people were aware of these strengths. Heck, people in Greensboro didn’t really know about our good work, let alone people from across the state. More significantly, research showed that when people did know about us, they loved us! So our first step was to rebuild University Communications and task it with telling our story. With support from across campus, this team has done a masterful job of finding unique and productive ways to showcase the contributions of our University community. The changes to our look and feel, for example, have been favorably received, and our “Find your way here” campaign resonates across many different audiences. We garner more and better media coverage. And our new gear is “lit” as the students say.

Student Success Comes First:
It does little good to have people pay more attention to you if you can’t deliver the goods. In our case, primarily, this means retaining and graduating more and better-prepared students. If we accomplish this we will transform the University, our students, and the communities we serve. To this end we have invested the largest share of our resources in operationalizing the idea of “student success.” We have vigorously attacked this from several angles.

For example, we recruited a new Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Success and Dean of Undergraduate Studies; obtained over $5M in grant support; launched an Academic Success Coaching Program; targeted a campus-wide focus on Math Pathways; expanded the TRiO staff; developed the Spartan StartUp Summer Bridge Program; increased enrollment in the CHANCE program designed to encourage college attendance among the Latinx population; and the Succeed at the G program enrolled about 400 students more over the previous year. This is just a sampling of the programs and initiatives we have invested in, developed, and put into action at UNCG to increase student retention and graduation rates. The good news is that initial assessments indicate things are moving in the right direction.

New Programs, New Leaders:
We have also invested in a series of transformative activities designed to enrich the academic enterprise of the University. First, given significant enrollment growth over the last five years, we have hired a net of 91 new faculty (above and beyond the 338 “replacement” slots we filled during the same five-year period) in fields in which there is significant student demand and/or in disciplines that align with emerging initiatives. And oh, by the way, we recruited five new deans (College of Visual and Performing Arts, Health and Human Sciences, UNCG Online, Joint School of Nanoscience and Nanoengineering, and Undergraduate Studies).

Second, in response to student and labor market demand, we have launched or will launch five new degree programs in 2018-20: an MS in Analytics and Informatics; a BS in Information Studies; an online PhD in Business Administration; a joint PhD in Social Work with NC A&T; and an online BS in Integrated Professional Studies.

Third, we hired an AVC for Research and Engagement and invested significantly in the research infrastructure to drive faculty scholarship. For example, we invested in Academic Analytics and InfoReady Review; we supported the Strategic Seed Grants Initiative, which funded seven research and three community-engaged research grants; the Giant Steps Grant Initiative funded 11 interdisciplinary proposals; and we invested over $2M in major research instrumentation purchases. In all, we have made significant investments to create a robust scholarly environment.

The goal is for more and better educational offerings, greater scholarly activity by our faculty, and greater community impact.

Technology as a Game Changer:
At the same time, we are transforming our approach to Information Technology. It is incontrovertible that technology plays a major role not just in the lives of the citizenry, but also in the delivery and execution of higher education’s core mission. Service is our motto, and there is a great opportunity for us to play a pivotal role in engaging the community in the digital space. Not only are we pushing forward with two new academic degree programs in this area, we also play a central role in the broader region. Thus, we are focused on developing collaborative relationships by building shared technology infrastructure and data that connects the institutions, education providers, community organizations, municipalities, business partners, and people in our region.

Some of our initiatives include: a two-year National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to build a high-speed research data network that will connect UNCG and NC A&T to enable faster, easier sharing of research; the Gate City Blvd. Smart City Corridor that uses technology assets and partnerships within a four-mile stretch of Gate City Blvd. to address community challenges like energy and water use, waste, and air quality; the Forward Guilford Community Indicators Project, which is building an interactive, community-wide platform that can ultimately provide data on crucial community issues and drive informed decision-making and policy development; and the Piedmont Regional Data Collaborative, a project jointly managed by UNCG and NC A&T to leverage data to advance research, scholarship, and workforce development and facilitate direct, practical use of data by civic leaders in community building and local policymaking.

A Growing, Evolving Campus:
We see evidence of our “Giant Steps” on our campus too – with more to come. With regard to the physical campus there are several things of note. As you can all see, the new Nursing and Instructional Building is well on its way and we expect it to open in January 2021. Beyond that, we have a line item of $84M in the current state budget for much needed renovations to and expansion of Jackson Library. Assuming the legislature puts forward a budget the governor will sign, we plan to update the tower and expand the building to include classroom, meeting/collaboration, and office space. Once started the project should take about three years to complete.

Now for some breaking news: Expect announcements for two new facilities related to the Millennial Campus. As you recall, this is the designation that enables us to activate new partnerships largely along Gate City Blvd. and Tate St. to create new academic, cultural, and economic opportunities for UNCG and the surrounding community. One location is the empty lot near the corner of Tate and Gate City (to wit, “Tate and Gate”) and the other is near the corner of Gate City and Josephine Boyd. Plans for these two buildings are in the preliminary stages but barring any unforeseen circumstances, I am hopeful they will come online in a timely manner. Stay tuned!

Celebrating – and Supporting – our Student-Athletes:
Finally, athletics. First off, let me say how proud I am of our student-athletes. Cumulatively, they rank in the top 10% for academic achievement among other NCAA Division I schools, and I have to give a shout out to women’s golf – they are crushing it with a team GPA of 3.8! Further, several of our teams have been nationally competitive on the court, the course, and the field. We should strive for nothing less. That said, the facilities for studying and training are not commensurate with running a modern Division I program. As a result, we are developing ways to support the renovation of our academic center and training and nutrition facilities through our Campaign for Champions 5 for 5 fundraising effort. This is already off to a solid start, and we hope to continue to build on our momentum.

Giant Steps, Inflection, and the Future:
We are moving quickly from metaphors to action all across UNCG. As you can see, we have put some pretty significant “stakes in the ground” (another metaphor!) to mark our progress and clearly show how we are taking “Giant Steps.” It is up to each of us – right now – to seize this opportunity, embrace this unique moment of transformation, and make an impact at UNCG that will be felt for decades to come.