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Meredith Cites Progress, Challenges for University System

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Atlanta — January 14, 2004

Despite a tough economic and budget climate, the people that run and fund the University System of Georgia must remain focused on creating the best higher education system in the country and raising the educational attainment rate of Georgia’s citizens. That’s the message Chancellor Thomas C. Meredith delivered to the Board of Regents in his annual “State of the System” address today.

“The University System of Georgia must play a leadership role in the push to create a more educated Georgia,” Meredith said. “It is what is expected of this Board. …We must rise to continue to meet that challenge and those high expectations.”

In terms of System accomplishments, Meredith noted record student enrollment in fall 2003 of 247,020 students, a record high SAT score of 1036 for first time, full time freshmen, a record, System-wide student retention rate of 81 percent and a record $861 million in external funding in Fiscal Year 2003.

Meredith cited the quality of the Board of Regents, the 34 institutional presidents, and the System’s faculty, staff and students as the University System’s primary strengths in terms of continued progress toward national caliber academic quality and excellence.

But increased numbers during tight budgets have created the biggest single challenge for the System, Meredith said. “The timing of this surge in demand couldn’t be worse in terms of the state’s ability to provide the necessary resources,” Meredith said. “This is truly the essence of our management dilemma as we move forward - the steadily widening gap between the increasing numbers of students on our campuses and the declining state dollars to serve them with continued high and expected levels of academic quality.”

From Nov. 2001 through August 2003, the University System’s budget has been cut a total of $253 million. “Over the same time period that we have added two-and-one-half Georgia Techs, cumulative budget cuts are the equivalent of closing 21 of our institutions,” Meredith said. “Only through the sheer genius and resolve of many people have we been able to move forward under these circumstances.”

Key to managing in tight times have been a number of management decisions focused on making the University System more efficient and effective, Meredith said. These include:

  • establishing a set of budget principles headed by protecting the classroom first;
  • maintaining a close partnership with the Governor and General Assembly;
  • developing programs to regionalize some services and to “scrape the barnacles” from operations;
  • implementing a program to identify and recognize “best practices” in the System;
  • leaving many faculty positions unfilled and using administrators to teach; and
  • undertaking a statewide assessment of the System to coordinate state needs, student demands and existing resources.

Meredith said his biggest concern was a trend of declining public investment in public higher education. “The University System’s share of the state budget is the lowest it’s been since 1967 and it’s time to begin to reverse that trend,” Meredith said.

Despite the budget situation, the University System has a number of programs currently underway to address the state’s educational and economic needs, Meredith noted, including:

  • educating 600 new health care professionals through the Regent’s Intellectual Capital Partnership Program (ICAPP) Health Care Professionals Initiative;
  • implementing six pilot projects on System campuses related to the Board’s efforts to recruit and retain more African-American males in college;
  • securing a $34.6 million National Science Foundation grant to improve math and science education in K-12 schools; and
  • training more than 400 potential K-12 school leaders through Georgia’s Leadership Institute for School Improvement.

Looking to the future, Meredith said the Board of Regents has a responsibility to help Georgians see the “big picture” in terms of public higher education. “Education is the fault line separating winners and losers,” Meredith said, noting that the University System must make the case that more resources are needed to put “more Georgians on the right side of that fault line.”

The Chancellor outlined a number of steps that will be taken that will address the state’s long-term higher education and economic development needs. These include:

  • a statewide assessment project to coordinate state needs, student enrollment and existing resources;
  • a focused effort to plan for enrollment growth over the next decade;
  • the continuation of a review of the System’s needs for facilities;
  • the appointment of a task force to study the System’s graduation rates and bring forward recommendations to improve these the percentage of USG students who earn degrees; and
  • the development of a statewide effort to improve Georgia’s educational participation rates.

“We are participating in one of the strongest partnerships Georgia has ever seen on behalf of this state and its students,” Meredith said in discussing this new statewide program. Meredith noted that Georgia’s educational attainment rate was at an unacceptable level compared to other states and the national average and that this new effort would positively change Georgia’s position.

Meredith concluded his remarks with praise for the Board’s commitment to and focus on its goal of “Creating a More Educated Georgia.” He said that the Board and the University System would continue to be good partners in helping state officials manage during tough economic times. But, Meredith said, it is critical to continue to make the case that the state’s ability to move forward is tied to Georgia’s long-term investment in the quality of the University System. “We are a reputation driven industry, and that reputation depends upon an investment in academic quality,” Meredith said.

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