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January 2009 Issue

State of the System Address

In his annual “State of the University System” address at the January meeting of the Board of Regents, Chancellor Erroll B. Davis Jr. noted that in tough economic times, it is important to send the message that the University System of Georgia (USG) is not a cost to, but an investment in, the state of Georgia and its future.

“We are an answer, not a question; a solution, not a problem; a part of state government where the decisions made today have the capacity to demonstrably improve the future we, our children, and our children’s children, will all live,” Davis said in his remarks to the Board of Regents. “We must not sacrifice the important for the urgent. We must preserve the historic legacy in this state of public higher education as a clear public good that adds value to the lives of all residents across Georgia.”

Reviewing the University System, Davis noted a number of strengths, including strong leadership at the board and presidential level, outstanding faculty and staff and a growing student enrollment, which hit a record high of 283,000 in fall 2008.

Davis cited both Georgia Tech and the University of Georgia’s continuing presence on U.S. News and World Report’s annual list of the top 20 public universities in the nation and growing recognition of the USG’s other institutions as independent measures of the excellence of leadership, faculty and students in the System. “The core mission of our institutions – teaching, research, and public service – not only endures, but thrives, thanks to our faculty and staff,” he said.

But the System’s strengths are being tested and challenged, Davis noted, “perhaps as never before.” He cited five key challenges:

  • the academic preparation of entering students;
  • faculty salaries;
  • institutional missions;
  • access versus quality; and *public support.

While enrollment is at a record high, Davis said, too many students still enroll who are academically unprepared for college. He cited USG figures showing that the percentage of first-time, full-time freshmen requiring learning support – while dropping from 30.5 percent in 1995 to a low of 20.9 percent in 2001 – has steadily increased since then to the current rate of 25 percent. “This trend line is headed in the wrong direction,” Davis said.

The challenge is to continue to align guidelines and requirements between the University System and the State Department of Education to better prepare K-12 students for college. “This is a long-term process, and while all of us recognize that the current situation is very tough, hard times do not absolve us from our responsibility to plan for the future,” he said.

Another challenge Davis cited is to remain competitive regionally and nationally in terms of recruiting and retaining needed faculty. While, on a pure percentage basis, USG faculty salaries have increased since 2000, when held constant in 2000 dollars, the average faculty salary in the University System’s four-year institutions has decreased 3.7 percent since 2000, compared to a 4.4 percent increase in the 16-member Southern Regional Education Board states (SREB). At Georgia’s two-year colleges, the decrease in constant 2000 dollars for faculty salaries since 2000 is even more marked, Davis said, falling 16 percent, compared to a 6.1 percent increase in the other SREB states.

Today, Georgia ranks 8th among the 16 SREB states in average faculty salaries for four-year institutions, falling from 6th place in Fiscal Year 2007, and the state ranks 10th in faculty salaries at two-year colleges, the lowest level since data started being collected in 1989. “We cannot maintain our competitiveness and our core academic quality indefinitely unless we can address some of these salary challenges,” Davis said.

Another challenge to the System, Davis noted, relates to calls for mergers of some USG institutions. “We are not a cookie-cutter system; all our institutions do not look alike,” Davis said. Davis cited the System’s response to the call for greater efficiencies through its Shared Services project, which is combining back-office operations throughout the System. “This (shared services) is preferable to blurring the missions of distinct institutions,” Davis said. “Students do not choose to attend a generic college or university; rather, they choose a USG brand name, which offers the program they need and the environment in which they can excel.”

One of the biggest challenges to the System is maintaining the balance between access and quality, Davis said. To date, enrollment caps have not been needed in order to preserve academic quality, thanks in large part to the strong stewardship of college and university presidents. But Davis warned that a continuing trend of rising enrollment and falling resources would challenge the System’s ability to continue to maintain both access and quality. “We will not allow this to happen – if necessary, we will restrict access first before we degrade quality,” Davis said.

Turning from specific challenges to more general attitudes concerning the overall benefit and value of public higher education, Davis noted the increase in “national voices questioning whether higher education is a public good, worthy of public support.” Davis said that the University System and its supporters must be vocal in countering fears, given credence by tight budgets, that public higher education is a private gain and thus public support should be reduced. “This is a classic – and potentially dangerous – example of sacrificing the important for the urgent,” Davis said.

Posted by john.vanchella@usg.edu on January 08, 2009
Published in: Board of Regents

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