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Office of the Chancellor

Investiture Ceremony Remarks

Print friendly Modified January 15, 2014

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Governor Deal, Speaker Ralston, Sen. President Pro Tempore Williams, Chairman Tarbutton: thank you for your presence and participation in this ceremony today. It is with a great deal of humility that I stand before you today and accept the responsibility for steering the great ship of the University System of Georgia.

To the Board of Regents – I am honored to have been chosen for this assignment and grateful for the trust you have placed in me. To my wife Amy and my family – thank you for your unfailing support through all of the endeavors that brought me to this day.

To the members of the General Assembly and all those who serve in state government, and to the students, faculty, and staff of the University System: I have been one of you and stood in your shoes along the way in my career, and I look forward to renewing and continuing these relationships as we work together toward a more highly educated Georgia.

In his papers of 1782 and 83, which are now in the Library of Congress, Ben Franklin described attending a meeting in 1744 at which the leaders of the colony of Virginia offered the six Indian tribes an opportunity to send six of their young men to study at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg. They respectfully declined the offer.

Franklin reports their response as follows: “Several of our young People were formerly brought up at the Colleges of the Northern Provinces. They were instructed in all your Sciences. But when they came back to us, they were bad Runners, ignorant of every means of living in the woods, unable to bear either Cold or Hunger, knew neither how to build a Cabin, take a Deer or kill an Enemy, spoke our Language imperfectly, were therefore neither fit for Hunters, Warriors or Counsellors (sic); they were totally good for nothing.”

Of course, in colonial days the few American colleges in existence were focused primarily on educating ministers. It was not until the mid-1800s, when the United States had entered the mainstream of the Industrial Revolution, that higher education began to develop a more practical economic aspect. Nevertheless, Ben Franklin’s story raises an important question for us today: what are our students learning?

One of the first things I did as chancellor was to ask our System institutional leadership to read a book, which was published early this year, entitled Academically Adrift. The authors used the Collegiate Learning Assessment to track the academic performance of 2,300 students. The results are not encouraging.

Students and education have been a highlight and a focus of my trips around the state as I visit the colleges and universities in the system. And I am pleased to report that I have completed 34 visits. I can attest from this experience and observation that there is much to be proud of in the University System of Georgia. But the findings in this book have been much on my mind as I have visited our campuses.

Along with the valid question about what our students are learning, as one of the authors of the book Academically Adrift pointed out, the world has become an unforgiving place for those who do not have critical thinking skills. And higher education today faces the challenge of becoming more than it has been in the past.

Most of you are no doubt familiar with Thomas Friedman’s best-selling book The World is Flat. He describes how advanced technology has interconnected the world and leveled the global economic playing field. Nations such as China, India, Russia, and South Korea are now seizing the opportunity to compete with the United States on this new level playing field.

But Richard Florida, who is director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto, says it is not quite accurate to say that the world is now flat. He argues that the world of the 21st century is actually going to be spiky. Economic strength and growth will not be spread evenly across the landscape, but rather will be concentrated at specific locations, or spikes.

The places that are hotbeds of discovery and innovation and have the educated workforce that can do something with those advanced ideas and technologies will be the economic spikes that will flourish. And the driving force behind these hot spots of economic growth is higher education, which provides both the research and the educated workforce required to run out on the leading edge.

Economic data is increasingly proving Richard Florida right. On September 23rd, the Wall Street Journal reported the release of the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. According to the Journal, the survey shows that “regions with the most skilled and highly paid workers continue to widen their advantage over less well-endowed locales.”

The survey indicates that areas with the highest educated workforce also tend to have the highest wage earners. The article concluded, “Overall education level and supply of higher skilled labor are the big drivers of economic success.”

Unemployment data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics also tell us about the economic importance of a college education. For September, the unemployment rate for those with only a high school diploma was more than two times higher than the unemployment rate for those with a bachelor’s degree.

The economic hot spots of the last century were determined by physical capital, natural resources, and cheap labor. Today it is intellectual capital that drives the economy. Even manufacturing, which is now characterized by advanced technologies and automation, is increasingly seeking an educated workforce.

Roads and rail sidings still have a role to play, but if Georgia is to become one of those 21st century spikes where the economy flourishes and the people prosper, it is the University System of Georgia and our colleagues in Georgia’s private colleges and universities that will be the state’s most powerful economic asset.

To create a more educated Georgia, I intend to focus on three long-term strategies: performance, partnerships and value. Let me say just a few words about each one.

First, performance. As a public entity we are accountable for our use of state funding. If we are to do more in a time of austerity such as this, we must become more strategic about deploying our resources. We need to ensure that we are good stewards in the utilization of our physical spaces. We need to ensure that we deploy our academic programs and our employees in the most efficient and effective way.

Partnerships are also essential. A partnership with K-through-12 education is crucial to ensure that students come into the University System better prepared for college-level work. A partnership with the Technical College System will enable us to align our efforts so that we serve the citizens and industries of Georgia more effectively. Partnerships with the businesses and industries of this state will help us focus our education, research, and service endeavors on what Georgia needs to grow and prosper.

And, finally, increasing the value of higher education. After World War II, the GI Bill began flooding colleges and universities with veterans, and our focus was on expanding our capacity to accommodate them. More recently, we have focused on retention – encouraging our students to stay the course and finish their degrees in a timely manner. Both of these are important, but they are no longer enough. We need to improve what we do, rather than simply growing the enterprise.

Which takes us full circle, back to Ben Franklin’s story and the need for our students to learn the substance, critical thinking skills, and problem-solving abilities they will need to succeed and thrive in the world of the 21st century. I have already emphasized the economic value of higher education both to the individual and to the state of Georgia.

But, as my teacher, mentor, boss, and dear friend, Zell Miller, proclaimed in 1998 in a speech at the American International University in London, higher education is more than the accumulation of mere information. Senator Miller said: “The business of higher education is knowledge. And unlike information, knowledge cannot be poured into your mind like Earl Grey into an English teacup. Knowledge is not a destination; it is a process. What your future employers will value most in you is not the facts and data you have memorized, but a questing and inquisitive mind that is skilled in decision-making and problem-solving; a mind that looks at the same things everybody else sees, but finds something more; a mind that is not only comfortable with change, but anticipates it and even seeks it out; a mind that forms the foundation for lifelong intellectual inquiry that will serve you well, not only as a job skill, but also in giving meaning, direction, and richness to your life.”

But the goal is not merely to “have more.” It is also to “be more.” Back in August, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke at the Jim Blanchard Leadership Forum in Columbus. And she pointed out: “Without education, we lose who we are. We lose what holds this nation together, because education is the transformational act that takes us from where we were to where we can go.”

Her words and sentiment are strikingly reflective of an observation voiced by Thomas Jefferson more than 200 years ago. In these words, Mr. Jefferson said: “I know no safe depository of the ultimate power of society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them but to inform their discretion by education.”

The students of our colleges and universities are the future workforce of Georgia. They are also our future citizens, parents, community volunteers, and leaders. And if we prepare them well for all of these roles, then higher education will transform our citizens and our state, and take us where we want to be. There is no question that we are about critically important work.

The University System of Georgia is strong and vibrant, but never before has Georgia’s well being been so dependent on our ability to offer world-class college graduates, equipped with the knowledge, skills, and values to thrive in a very competitive global economy. To meet this challenge, we must take the University System to the next level. We must foster and promote a culture of high expectations.

Governor Deal, Lieutenant Gov. Cagle, Speaker Ralston Senate President Pro Tempore Williams, Chairman Tarbutton, and members of the Board of Regents and my friends and former colleagues in the General Assembly: we in the University System of Georgia – our presidents, our faculty and our staff – pledge our unrelenting fidelity to this noble and enduring enterprise. We urge you to join and support us as together, we build a more highly educated Georgia.