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Transcript: State of the System Address

For more than five years, I’ve had the privilege of being a member of the Board of Governors. During that time, this Board has led sweeping changes to Florida’s 12 public universities – implementing performance funding, setting ambitious plans for online education, insisting on college affordability, and above all, prioritizing student outcomes.

When I became chair last year and delivered my first State of the System, I made a commitment to build on the gains made under my predecessors. I said we would continue the System’s focus on quality, while not losing sight of the fact that a university education should also be accessible and affordable. I also vowed to enhance our focus on Academic and Research Excellence as well as Student Mental Health and Safety.

I’m pleased to say that we’re not only continuing the State University System’s forward momentum, we are accelerating it. By so many measures, the State University System is stronger than at any time in recent history. Our retention and graduation rates are reaching new
heights. We are using new technologies to provide enhanced flexibility through online education. We are boosting our performance in research. And we are doing it all while driving down costs and ensuring that every student has the opportunity to graduate in a timely manner and with minimal debt. That combination is why U.S. News & World Report has named Florida the No. 1 state in the country for higher education two years in a row. It’s why the University of Florida and Florida State University are climbing even closer to their goals of achieving Top 5 and Top 25 status, respectively. It’s why five of our State University System institutions recently ranked in the Top 100 public universities nationally. And it’s why seven of our institutions saw big jumps in U.S. News & World Report’s recent graduate school rankings.

I’m pleased today to give you an update on the lessons we’ve learned, the gains we’ve made, and where we will go from here.

At the Board of Governors, accountability is a core tenet of how we govern the State University System. For years, we have insisted on better student outcomes: higher retention and graduation rates, better workforce preparation, and – although we are still pushing to raise the bar – we’ve made great strides.

But I would be remiss if I didn’t start by also addressing another type of accountability, which is making sure our universities are fiscally responsible, and funds are being appropriately spent. We have a challenge in front of us, which is to rebuild the trust lost in the past seven months – after the auditor general informed our Board about the improper use of funds to build Trevor Colbourn Hall. The Board of Governors is continuing its investigation into UCF’s planned use of education and general funds for additional construction projects, and we’re conducting a controls review at all of our universities to make sure the proper checks and balances are in place going forward. We are also taking into consideration the recommendations in the report by the House Public Integrity and Ethics Committee and putting in place an action plan to strengthen Board of Governors’ oversight and ensure future accountability. That plan includes specific actions in our audit, budget and facilities committees.

While we are all disappointed with what took place, it should not in any way detract from the great work our universities are doing to help our students be successful, advance world-class research, and cultivate the talent, discoveries and inventions that will ensure Florida’s future prosperity. It’s time for the State University System to re-group, to recommit ourselves to fiscal accountability, and to ensure that best practices are in place as we look to a future that is bright and full of promise. The strongest people are those who learn from adversity and then use that knowledge to improve. The same can be said for institutions. I look forward to all of us working together to build a stronger, better system.

Next I’d like to talk about Academic and Research Excellence. With support from elected leaders as well as our partners in the private sector, I’m pleased to announce that our System’s research expenditures totaled $2.32 billion in 2018, surpassing our 2025 Strategic Plan Goal. As fourth in the nation for research, this represents a 30 percent increase in the past five years. At the institutional level, the University of Florida this year smashed its previous records for research funding by an impressive 16 percent, pulling in $837.6 million during the 2018 fiscal year. The University of South Florida also recently announced that it rose four spots to a top 25 public university for research spending, according to the National Science Foundation. In raw numbers, we’re turning $2.32 billion in research activity into a nearly $7 billion economic impact. Only recently, University of South Florida and Florida State University were recognized as the No. 1 and No. 2 top producers of Fulbright Scholars in the United States, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

But research is about so much more than raw numbers and national accolades. It’s about advancing the discoveries, inventions and scientific knowledge that enhance our lives. As an example, six State University System institutions were recently awarded $4.8 million in grants by the Florida Department of Health, which will be used toward Alzheimer’s disease research. Money will be disbursed between the University of South Florida, Florida Atlantic University, Florida International University, University of Central Florida, University of Florida and University of West Florida, as well as three private institutions, and will help fund a wide range of projects relating to Alzheimer’s disease. Additionally, Florida State University has been awarded $8 million as part of a major 10-year initiative to restore Apalachicola Bay and revive the region’s imperiled oyster industry.

The research conducted at Florida’s universities is not only important, it is strategic. Through the Board of Governors’ Programs of Excellence framework, we are working to boost nationally recognized research and academic programs that are on the cusp of greatness and have the potential and the ambition to help solve our biggest problems. Further, we are working with our elected leaders to drive investments in strategic areas important to Florida’s future and provide the State University System an opportunity to use its strengths to address these areas. The Board’s recommended framework for Programs of Excellence is one that builds on nationally recognized research and academic programs within the State University System and provides for system collaboration to address strategic areas.

That brings me to the topic of business partnerships, which is a critical element of the State University System’s success. Our universities are partnering with businesses to advance research as well as elevate student education and create a more seamless pipeline from the classroom to the workforce.

Major partnerships announced last year include the launch of the Florida Atlantic University Max Planck Academy, which is located on the university’s Jupiter campus and aims to redefine the way STEM education is delivered to high school students. This unprecedented program opened the laboratories of Max Planck to extraordinary high school students, allowing them to participate in world-class research and scientific discoveries as part of their curriculum. University of North Florida recently launched a Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation in downtown Jacksonville’s historic Barnett National Bank building, dedicating a part of the space to classrooms and another part to business development. Including space where entrepreneurs can pitch their ideas to a panel of business experts in hopes of being selected to receive office space and implement their plans. The Center will also partner with the Northeast Florida Small Business Development Center and Small Business Administration.

In addition, we are working to acknowledge and celebrate our partnerships at the System level. We have expanded our Think Florida: A Higher Degree for Business initiative to include the State University System Business Champion Award, which recognizes outstanding companies that work with our universities to provide internships and other experiential opportunities for our students. These companies include Lockheed Martin, LexisNexis, ShipMonk, and Northrop Grumman. In this era of rapid change, it’s more critical than ever that we listen to the needs of our business community and respond in real time.

We’ve made great progress in recent years increasing the number of students with degrees in STEM and other high-demand workforce areas, reaching our 2025 goals far in advance. But there are still shortfalls in certain areas, including nursing and teaching, and I look forward to working with this Board and our boards of trustees and presidents on how to address those.

Finally, I want to discuss an area that is of personal significance to me as well as to our Board: Student Mental Health and Safety. When I became chair, I appointed Dr. Valverde to lead a special task force I created to focus on mental health and the ongoing challenges of drugs and alcohol on our campuses. The Task Force was charged with using existing evidence to 1) document the most critical drug, alcohol, and mental health issues facing our students, 2) identify best practices, 3) develop system-wide recommendations for effectively addressing the most critical issues, and 4) identify the resources needed to implement those recommendations. Last June, our Board approved a work plan to pursue those goals, and we heard a review of the Task Force’s progress yesterday. Universities are augmenting their mental health offerings, including adding therapists and psychiatrists as well as enhancements to the equipment, training and systems in place to address mental health needs.

I cannot overstress the need for us to stay focused on this area. As we learned during our November Board meeting, the number of student suicide attempts nationally and in the State University System have increased every year for the past seven. While it may not ever be possible to prevent all suicides, it is absolutely critical that we leave no stone unturned in our quest to do so.

We are also focused on tackling and minimizing drugs and alcohol use on our campus. We ramped up our focus on student wellness, with all universities implementing a comprehensive needs assessment for incoming freshmen students and launching Healthy Campus 2020 initiatives, which is a framework to support campuses in improving the health of their students, staff, and faculty. Additionally, all institutions, through their health promotion offices, are implementing lifestyle programs focused on nutritious eating, physical activity and restful sleep and have started initiatives to support students who don’t drink or use drugs. In fact, only recently, Florida Atlantic University’s FAU Owl Peer Leader Program was recognized by NASPA, the country’s leading student affairs association, as the No. 1 program in the nation focused on educating students about mental health, drugs and alcohol.

We’re making progress on student wellness, but we must intensify our focus. The national and system-wide statistics show that we must make some big changes to reverse alarming trends with regard to mental health and substance abuse, and it is our collective responsibility — our imperative — to make sure our campuses are providing the culture and resources that will set students up for success.

When the Board of Governors approved its Strategic Plan for Online Education in 2015, it was the first system-wide framework for online higher education in the country. The online education Steering Committee, made up of several university provosts and one of the chancellor’s staff, assists the Board’s Innovation and Online Committee by actively guiding the implementation of the strategies and tactics in the Plan to strengthen the focus on quality, access, and affordability. The State University System now has over 400 programs primarily or fully online, with 28 percent of undergraduate student credit hours being taken in distance learning courses.

Florida is a leader across the country in online education in terms of the number of students, courses offered, degrees offered, as well as innovation. Our students live online, and we need to meet them where they are, which is why we are working to achieve our goal of delivering 40 percent of undergraduate credit hours online by the year 2025.

Increasing graduation rates has been an intense focus of the Board of Governors for many years, and for good reason. When students graduate quickly, it’s a slam dunk for all involved: the student, the institution and the taxpayer. Students can move faster into the workforce. It costs them less to get a degree. They typically have less debt. They make room for the next person to get an education. It costs less for the university. And it maximizes the impact that graduates can have on Florida’s economic prosperity. All of these factors are why the Board of Governors puts so much emphasis on graduation rates. When our graduation rates are on the upward trend, it’s a key indicator that our State University System is on the right track.

Which brings me to an exciting announcement: Due to performance funding and other initiatives, as well as hard work by our universities, graduation rates are up by 9.5 percent since the 2014 graduating class.

This is a remarkable accomplishment. Graduation rates are notoriously difficult to move, or so they say. So how are our universities continuing to raise the bar? Institutions are expanding their course offerings to help students move faster through their programs. They are hiring advisors and counselors. They are investing in software that allows students to better map out their paths to a degree. To top it off, our graduates are transitioning more smoothly into the workforce due to increased investments in our university career centers and a continued focus on mentorships and internships that help students build skills and connections.

Florida State University, which boasts the highest graduation rate in the state, provides every student with a “success team” made up of academic advisors, career advisors, college life coaches, peer mentors, faculty mentors, alumni and others. The teams work proactively instead of waiting for students to come to them. FSU also reduced class sizes to facilitate a more engaging learning environment, with more than half of classes on FSU’s campus now under 20 students.

My hope is that all universities, particularly those that find themselves struggling to raise student retention and graduation rates, will make sure the service we are providing is consistent across the System and allows all students the same opportunity to succeed.

As you know, graduation rates are closely tied with affordability. And our rising graduation rates make a four-year degree at one of Florida’s public university an excellent deal. National media is filled with news about the soaring cost of higher education, but Florida is an outlier to those statistics. Which brings me to my second announcement: In Florida, due to the emphasis on affordability, the average cost-to-the-student for a four-year degree is $9,450 once financial aid is included, representing a 31 percent year-over-year decrease.

That’s half the cost of a compact car, according to Kelley Blue Book. Of course, if we’re comparing cars and degrees, there’s a primary difference: A car will depreciate in value. In contrast, according to a recent study by Temple University, a college graduate on average will earn $900,000 more in his or her lifetime than a high school graduate. The direct financial rewards of a degree are enormous, and don’t even begin to capture the many other dimensions in which attaining an education can impact someone’s life.

Florida also outperforms other states when it comes to student debt. The State University System’s student loan default rate is 5.6 percent, 1.9 percent lower than the national average for public universities and 8.9 percent lower than the default rate if you include all of Florida’s higher education sectors together. How do we manage to keep costs so low? Much of the credit goes to our elected leaders, who have added $1 billion to the State University System in the past six years and expanded the state’s need and merit-based aid, including Bright Futures. The State University System is also focused on decreasing the cost of textbooks, using online resources when possible, and incentivizing increased financial aid through the cost-to-the-student metric in the Board’s performance funding model. It’s this increased efficiency and discipline that puts so many of our institutions at the top of almost every national ranking on efficiency.

The State University System of Florida is one of our state’s finest assets, and having high-quality, accessible institutions is something all Floridians should be proud of. As you all know, there’s a vibrant debate happening nationally about the cost of higher education and whether college is really worth it. In Florida, I believe that answer is a resounding, ‘yes!’

I want to recognize this Board for its hard work, including a special thanks to Vice Chair Kitson, who is a key partner in implementing the initiatives discussed today. I’d like to thank Chancellor Criser and his staff for their commitment to the priorities of this Board as well as to our students. And I’d like to thank the university trustees, presidents, administrations, faculty and students who work so hard every day to strive for something better.

By virtually every measure, our System is making great progress. But we still have a lot of hard work in front of us. I’m thankful to all of you for your commitment to providing our students with a high-quality, affordable education that prepares them for healthy, productive lives. And I look forward to building on our success to create a better Florida for future generations.