President's Remarks to the Faculty
September 9, 2004
I am delighted to have this opportunity to address the faculty of this distinguished university. Although I prefer to speak extemporaneously whenever appropriate, I have prepared a written text for these remarks out of my respect for you and for WPI, to signal the importance that I place on effective communication within our community, and to be clear about what I see as some of our significant challenges and important opportunities.
I begin by assuring you that the experience this past summer, during which I moved from the status of a frequent visitor before July 1 to that of the official campus leader thereafter, has only heightened my appreciation and enthusiasm for this marvelous university community. Cathy and I made the right decision to come here, difficult as that decision was due to our roles in Boston. The experiences of these first few months, trying as some of them have been, have served to deepen our sense of commitment to this university and appreciation for it. We are happy to be here.
I wish, as I know all of you do as well, that what should have been a glorious opening of the new academic year, could have escaped being marred by the tragic death of our student, Gregory Reeves, on August 30. This event hit me particularly hard, as only days before I had warned our entering freshmen, in my remarks to them and their parents, of the hazards of life in Worcester, including the need to be extremely careful when crossing city streets. I cited Park Avenue as a particularly dangerous area based on my personal knowledge living now at the corner of Park Ave. and Drury Lane.
In the days following the accident those of us who did not know Greg learned what an outstanding young man he was: a model student, ROTC cadet, son, and home town hero. Cathy and I spent time with Greg's extended family both at the candlelight vigil on campus and at the calling hours in Townsend, MA. Both his parents and his grandparents told us repeatedly how much Greg loved being at WPI. As difficult as these duties were, the experience left me deeply impressed and proud by the reaction of our campus Community. I was particularly impressed by the work and evident care of Janet Richardson and her staff in the Division of Student Life, Steve Hebert, and Linda Looft. I extend my gratitude to all of them, and my sympathies to all who knew Greg Reeves.
The WPI Community is of course also burdened by the loss of Bernie Brown, whose memorial service was celebrated only yesterday and who served this University with dedication and distinction for decades. We have as well lost colleagues in the faculty and on the staff in recent months. Although these losses are but part of our common mortality, they remind us of the temporary nature of our service here, and diminish us nonetheless. I hope that our sadness will soon be replaced by renewed vigor and optimism about this place of the kind these individuals carried on a daily basis.
I have been asked time and again since accepting this job, "What is your vision for WPI?" It is tempting on these occasions to quote Lou Gerstner who, when asked the same question on taking the helm at IBM, replied with the assurance, "The last thing IBM needs is a vision!" The situation is not quite the same for WPI, for the vision that has served the University so well for the past 30 years does seem ripe for some degree of reconsideration as we contemplate WPI's future. It is risky, after only a few short weeks on the job, to propose too much in the way of future direction, but I do have some impressions and tentative plans which I wish to share with you in the spirit of stimulating discussion and proposing a means for proceeding in our work together on these matters.
Among the best qualities of WPI, and thus the assets that we must be most careful to preserve, are: the commitment to excellence in undergraduate education; the strengths of the accredited professional programs in engineering and of the basic science departments; the heritage of a dual emphasis on theory and practice together with the more recent emphasis on outcomes and project-based learning as formulated by the WPI Plan; the enrichment provided by excellent programs in the arts, humanities, social sciences and management; and prominent specialty areas in research and graduate education, such as Fire Protection Engineering and Metals Processing. In planning for the future development of the University we must both preserve and build on these strengths as we look to areas with potential for growth and broadening of our programs: the life sciences, environmentally important technologies such as fuel cells, and interdisciplinary continua that extend from engineering and science along such axes as design, graphic design, art and architecture, or, more specifically, the current project to design a new program in Interactive Media and Game Development.
Our constraints and challenges certainly include financial resources, and I will address these later in my comments. Before doing so, however, let us at least note some of the larger relevant questions.
First, does WPI wish to continue to think of itself only as a "technological university?" This term strikes me as too limiting to suggest the full scope of our current programs and qualities, much less the range of what our ambitions ought to be. Even now, work in the area of life sciences, philosophy, and the performing arts reaches far beyond the conventional meaning of technological education. Even the tag line, "The University of Science and Technology. And Life." doesn't quite point to where I think we ought to be. I would hope that we could find a way of thinking of, and describing, WPI as a fully formed university, centered on engineering and science of course, but aspiring to achievement and leadership in fields extending beyond the technological and scientific.
Second, is the phrase "project-based learning" accurate in describing all, or even most of, the teaching and learning modes that ought to characterize the WPI experience? Project-based learning accomplishes a number of important educational objectives: learning to work cooperatively in teams; the experience of identifying and formulating problems, as well as solving them, often in a real-world setting; and working toward measurable outcomes.
Experience with project-based learning has demonstrated its undeniable success in preparing students for the world of work. Project-based learning should remain an important component of the WPI experience. But there is and ought to be more to the story, much more. Preparation for achievement, for leadership, and for personal fulfillment also involves development of the intellect in ways that require solitude, reflection, research, and exercise of individual creativity. Let us not, as we proceed to think about the future, allow the qualities of project-based learning to limit the scope of what we can become or limit the perception of what we are.
Third, is the ambition to continue developing our research programs and profile a threat to the quality of our undergraduate program? This may be the most important question before us. I think the answer is a resounding "no." WPI is not an exclusively liberal arts college, in the sense of Williams or Carleton. Nor should it aspire to be, although our claim to excellence in undergraduate education is fully as legitimate those of colleges of this type. And we are not a large-scale, fully comprehensive university, nor should we try to become one, although our research programs in selected areas ("thrust areas" in the language of the strategic plan) should be on par with the best in the field. The continuing development of a vibrant research program is essential to attracting outstanding teacher/scholars, to holding and increasing our national reputation and ranking, and to attracting the best and brightest among college applicants. Accomplished scholars and artists bring excitement to the classroom and opportunities for engagement in the magical work of creation and discovery to their students. The best faculty with whom I have worked, in the sense of both teaching and scholarship, are among the most distinguished researchers and writers-including Nobel laureates and members of the national academies-and at the same time passionate, dedicated, and highly effective teachers. We cannot be complacent about this, or even too respectful of the status quo. We must push hard, both in advancing research and scholarship by current faculty and in the recruitment of new colleagues, to realize fully the standard of the distinguished teacher/scholar and the absolute commitment to excellence in all that we do.
I look forward to discussing these questions, as well as many others, in the weeks and months ahead. Let me now proceed to identify several specific and pressing issues, and then suggest a manner in which to proceed.
Together with the observation that WPI is a distinguished university of high quality and great potential we must, unfortunately, add the characteristic of insufficient financial resources. I say "insufficient" not with respect to our endowment, which although it does not make us a wealthy institution, is certainly respectable for universities of our size. The problem, rather, is that the revenues generated on an annual basis are not sufficient to meet our annual costs of operation. In particular, I am sorry to have to report to you, as I have only recently learned myself, that in the fiscal year ending on June 30, 2004, WPI's operating budget closed with a deficit of approximately $2.4 million. That is, expenditures for fiscal year 2004 exceeded revenues by nearly two and one half million dollars.
We are not in immediate financial jeopardy. Indeed, due to the peculiarities of fund accounting, the University was able to transfer funds from restricted sources, including plant funds and funds previously set aside for other purposes, to bring the operating fund formally into balance. This is akin to transferring money from the family savings account to bring the checking account into balance at the end of the month. It satisfies the bank's needs to have both accounts solvent (provided there is enough capacity in the savings account) but it is not consistent with financial stability, or even survival, in the long run.
The apparent causes of this deficit are several, but boil down to three main problems. One is the high cost of student financial assistance: returning students presented needs, and were awarded grants, for larger amounts than were budgeted; and the discount rate on tuition continues to rise. A second problem is unrealistically high revenue projections: Summer Term was projected to generate significantly increased revenues, which did not happen; Extended Education also fell short of budgeted net revenues. (While both of these programs generated positive returns for the University, they did not meet the overly optimistic assumptions on which the FY 2004 budget was based, and against which continuing expenditures were committed.) A third cause, and the most problematical, is that the size of the faculty and staff appears simply to exceed what the revenue base is capable of supporting. In particular, the addition of tenure-track faculty positions has already fully met the goal for the year 2010 as specified in the Strategic Plan, although five of these positions were to have been supported by newly endowed professorships, the funds for which have not yet been raised. In short, expansion of the personnel base has run ahead of growth in revenues. I am confident that the normal processes of retirement and attrition can be harnessed as part of the solution; but we face a severe challenge in the short run.
Unfortunately, these factors largely carry forward into the FY 2005 budget which began on July 1. Revenue projections built into that budget for Summer Term and Extended Education are again ambitious, probably too much so. The discount factor on student financial aid for the entering class has again increased. On the positive side, the entering class is significantly larger than expected, numbering some 740 versus an originally anticipated 675. In light of the larger freshman class fewer transfer students were admitted than originally planned, so the net enrollment increase is less than the gain in freshmen. We do not yet have solid numbers on graduate enrollment, so the budget situation for the current year is yet to be brought into focus, but I expect that the additional revenues from the larger freshman class, net of the additional instructional expense, will be required to deal with the problems I have described. In addition we have taken the following steps to control expenses and maximize revenues insofar as possible: financial aid for returning students was held to budgeted amounts; a partial hiring freeze is in effect, with the president reviewing all requests for filling vacant positions; and the Division of Extended Education is now reporting directly to the president with weekly reporting and monitoring of financial performance.
Going forward it will be important to limit our hiring to what the budget can afford. This includes faculty as well as staff hiring. I currently have on my desk recommendations for a large number of searches for new faculty, and I know that the department heads are anxious to have approvals to proceed. In order to evaluate these requests I have asked for certain basic data about departmental and faculty workloads, and I have been surprised that it is not more readily available. If we do not have an accurate picture of how many students are being taught in each of our departments and programs, and by each of our faculty, and how our data compare to benchmarks, it is difficult to make determinations of where additional faculty need to be hired, even when open positions are formally available to support the appointments. We will move on these recommendations as soon as complete information has been developed and analyzed, but in light of the current budget problems it is important to get our house in order before hiring additional faculty and staff. It is far preferable to handle these problems by attrition, retirements, the reallocation of available resources, and simple restraint on spending than by reductions in force, further salary freezes, or further draining of restricted funds.
In the longer run it seems inevitable to me that WPI must increase enrollment to a point where the size of the faculty and staff is in better proportion to the number of undergraduate and graduate students. We have an excellent infrastructure in such areas as information technology and student services, to name only two, but it is expensive, and it is capable of supporting a larger student population without much marginal cost. Given the limited demand for seats in engineering programs nationally, increasing our enrollment will depend on the development of new programs of interest to a wider range of students. And we must increase the volume of external sponsorship for faculty research, especially from the federal agencies. Finally, the administration will work to control expense and increase revenues, including a commitment to vigorous fundraising. But we will operate under a clear and unequivocal commitment to a balanced operating budget as a primary principle of fiscal responsibility.
I had not anticipated that the early part of my administration would be a time of such financial introspection and correction, but this should not deter us from the important work of stock-taking and planning for WPI's future development. In this regard I plan to host a number of "town meetings," at a rate of about one per month, to address and discuss a number of important issues. Out of these discussions I suggest that we plan to assemble a Task Force, charged with overseeing work on a number of fronts. In particular, I suggest and envision the following enterprises.
First, a Commission (A) on the Role of the Fine and Liberal Arts, by which title I mean both the arts and humanities and the social sciences, with a special focus on the revision of the Sufficiency component of the Plan. This is the area of the curriculum that seems to me least appropriate to project-based learning and least central to the philosophy of the Plan (Indeed, the Sufficiency is explained no earlier than on page 56 of the Undergraduate Student Catalogue!) Thirty years ago it may have been the case that students entered WPI well enough prepared in the high schools to make informed choices of six courses that would provide "a meaningful grasp of a single thematic topic or a single discipline." I doubt that is the case today, even for some of our strongest applicants. In my view the Sufficiency assumes too much on the part of the student, and requires too much on the part of the faculty. It is hard for me to imagine how our humanities and arts faculty have the time and energy to direct the variety of possible project topics.
My own experience in developing core curricula, by comparison, has been that both faculty and students find great excitement and satisfaction from interdisciplinary core courses that are developed for the purpose of introducing students to, and engaging them seriously in, the great ideas, themes, and achievements that cut across the humanities and arts, and the social sciences. A challenging common course of this type can provide first-year students with a shared intellectual experience that can enrich their academic and social interactions by giving them a common experience to discuss and debate. Second year work can accommodate elective choices and lead to group, rather than individual, capstone projects.
I ask the faculty to consider developing a core, interdisciplinary curriculum to satisfy the general education goals of our undergraduate program. I hope also that such a program would vigorously address the writing and rhetorical skills that ought to be developed in our first year students. When centered on good and interesting literature, writing programs can effectively address the larger goals of general education as well as the more practical aspects of good writing and effective speaking. My own experience in co-directing an IQP project this term only confirms what I observed in Boston University students with similar academic credentials: they need all the help in writing and rhetorical skill development that we can give them, and the sooner the better.
More generally, we should elevate the fine and liberal arts to a stature in this University equivalent to that of the disciplines in engineering, science, and management. Our co-founders were a blacksmith turned industrialist and a classical scholar who were concerned for a kind of education that would "give the greatest possible advantage in the affairs of life." In the world in which we are preparing these students to achieve and to lead, success and fulfillment will result in large part from the insights, habits of mind, and self-understanding that result from serious engagement with the fine and liberal arts, not just as they reflect on technology and science, but for their own intellectual merits. As Whitehead put it so succinctly, we should aspire that students learn something about the culture as well as a specialization.
Second, I propose a Commission (B) to Review the IQP, the Global Programs, and the Relationship between the two. The IQP is arguably WPI's most distinctive degree requirement, applying the merits of project work at the intersection of technology and society. Recent increased emphasis on doing IQP's abroad seems to have created some confusion between the goals of the IQP (which need not necessarily be accomplished overseas or even off-campus) and those of international study and experience. Several members of the faculty have suggested that some IQP projects may not be sufficiently substantial or properly motivated. Others have questioned the wisdom of Sufficiency work being done at project sites lacking proper library facilities, and so on. I am not yet well enough informed on the particulars to be properly critical, but from the frequency with which these concerns are being brought to my attention I suspect a thorough review would clarify important matters and ensure the stability of, and general support for, these important components of our program.
Third, a Commission (C) on Research and Graduate Education ought to address a number of important matters, including the need to increase sponsorship for faculty research efforts-that is, to increase our grant funding. In fiscal year 2004 the University received 122 such awards, only 21 more than were received in 1995. Total expenditures from research grants and contracts in fiscal year 2004 were $11.2 million, an increase of 15.8% from 1995. For a University with 220 tenure-track faculty that has been adding excellent research-oriented faculty at a regular pace, these are not particularly strong numbers. We must lift our sights in research, with PI's moving from single-grant funding to multiple-grant, multiple-agency funding to ensure lab and program stability, and then on to multi-disciplinary collaborations that can generate extramural funding sufficient to support the necessary investments in infrastructure and facilities.
This commission should identify the investments and incentives required of the University as well as appropriate goals for research-active faculty. One aspect of these considerations is the question of tuition scholarships for graduate research assistants sponsored on external grants. Several individuals have noted that the current practice of charging grants for these tuitions on top of stipend and overhead charges creates too heavy a tax. Another policy matter is the rate at which faculty with research grants can "buy out" from their teaching obligations. The current rate is, in my opinion, too low, with the result that departments are left short of necessary teaching resources.
The largest task for this commission, however, is to identify those areas in which the University will concentrate its resources to achieve increased visibility and excellence in important areas well suited to our strengths and interests. A related, and also very important, question concerns the alignment of our research strategies with the opportunities on applied fronts, for technology transfer, and for more directs types of participation in company and product development, such as is currently envisioned by the Bioengineering Institute (BEI).
I delicately suggest a fourth Commission (D) on Faculty Workloads. I realize full well that this is treacherous ground for a new president, or for any college or university president, to step upon. But it goes to the heart of our financial challenges, just as the general problem of productivity has been ubiquitous in institutions of all kinds in recent years. My general sense of this is that WPI may be trying to do too many things at once: cling to the Plan, with its intense commitment to teaching, advising, and project work; expand graduate education, offered in an entirely different mode (and via a different academic calendar altogether) from undergraduate education; increase research activity and funding; and play a leadership role in the applications of science and technology, through such institutions as the Metals Processing Institute, the BEI, the Venture Forum, etc.
Every piece of this is admirable and important. Yet it leaves us with what mathematicians call an over-determined problem: no solution can satisfy all of the constraints. The variables in the problem include: the number of courses into which the curriculum is organized; the number of courses faculty are expected to teach; the amount and recognition of time spend in directing projects, advising students, and working with students outside formal responsibilities for courses; the amount of time a faculty member ought to be able to allocate to research and scholarship; the amounts of time spent on faculty governance and other duties of good citizenship; etc. Some thoughtful reconsideration and clarification on each of these factors would perhaps suggest possible revisions to current practices that might enable us to be more efficient in at least some of these areas, or at least more equitable, thus better aligning our efforts with our priorities. (For example, a common phenomenon among colleges and universities is the adding of new courses, as new faculty join the institution and wish to contribute new topics or fresh approaches to current ones. Less effort is spent culling dated courses from the curriculum, or synthesizing many courses into fewer, than is typically given to reviewing and approving new courses, the result being an ever-increasing number of courses and the corresponding pressure for more faculty to cover the increased offerings.)
A fifth Commission (E) on Size and Shape would address the strategically important questions of (a.) what new programs can be added to enable an increased enrollment, (b.) what would the optimal enrollment be, and (c.) what related factors (such as student housing) would need to be considered?
Finally, a Commission (F) on Rankings might well focus on practical means by which WPI can maximize its performance in the various national rankings while the more fundamental work of continuing to increase quality on all fronts proceeds despite the time required for its full appreciation.
These are six areas in which focused attention and effort could lead to significant, positive gains for WPI. Some will disagree with several or more of these, and many will have others to propose. In bringing these matters directly to your attention I am mindful of the existing committee structure for faculty governance and that some of these topics fall within current charges to existing committees. I trust, however, that the occasion of a new administration will allow us to focus together, outside the usual, to address unusual challenges and opportunities. That is my hope and my intention.
As I commented at the outset, I intend to hold a series of "town meetings" to discuss these and other matters with the faculty and professional staff. And I have proposed to the Secretary of the Faculty and to the Chair of the Committee on Governance that the President's Cabinet, which previously included only members of the administrative staff, be reconstituted to include an equal number of faculty and administrators. I hope that these two mechanisms, the town meetings and the revised bipartisan cabinet, will facilitate a high degree of communication between the administration and the faculty as we engage in the important work of planning WPI's future.
In the near term, the search for the next Provost is the key step in shaping my administration. I hope to have this search completed before the holidays, although I am prepared to persist in the effort until the right person is found. I intend to be directly and actively engaged in the academic affairs of the University, and as president to be WPI's "chief academic officer." Our provost will be my principal deputy, working hand-in-glove with me on academic and policy matters as the senior member of my management team.
I believe that the faculty will have elected its representatives to the Provost's Search Committee within a few days, and I have scheduled the first meeting of the Search Committee for September 23. I again invite you to nominate worthy candidates for this important position.
I know that facilities development has been a topic of much discussion, hope and anxiety in recent years. Construction on the new Admissions Building is scheduled to begin as soon as the weather breaks in the spring. We are in the process of selecting consultants to assist in the further planning of the next academic building and a sports and recreation center. I am pleased to be having the chance to play a role in both of these latter two processes, although I know that many of you had hoped for a definitive decision on an academic building plan before now. My sense so far is that the hesitation has not been without merit, and that remaining options warrant further consideration before a final decision is reached.
Despite the long agenda that awaits our work together, we have much to celebrate. Excellent students, wonderful colleagues, a strong reputation for excellent work in important fields, and a wonderful and important sense of community.
Among our greatest assets are some very talented administrators. One of them, Janet Richardson, has had a long and distinguished tenure here as a truly outstanding student affairs professional. Her qualities were evident to the site visiting team which I led in 2001 for WPI's general accreditation, and they have been doubly evident to me given the challenges Janet has been facing in the period since my arrival. I am pleased therefore to share with you today the news that at tomorrow's meeting of the Board of Trustees' Executive Committee I will recommend Janet's appointment as (a full) Vice President for Student Affairs, a promotion that I am advancing as much for Janet's general management abilities as for her particular expertise in the areas within the Student Affairs portfolio. I know that Bernie Brown would have been very pleased to have Janet as his successor and I hope you will join me in congratulating her on this well deserved promotion.
I wish to end these remarks by sharing with you a quotation from Judge Oliver Wendell Holmes which I shared also with our entering freshmen on their arrival several weeks ago. Speaking on Memorial Day, 1884, referring to the generation of Americans that had engaged in our great Civil War, he said:
"Through our great good fortune, in our youth our hearts were touched with fire. It was given to us to learn at the outset that life is a profound and passionate thing. While we are permitted to scorn nothing but indifference, and do not pretend to undervalue the worldly rewards of ambition, we have seen with our own eyes, beyond and above the gold fields, the snowy heights of honor, and it is for us to bear the report to those who come after us."
"But, above all, we have learned that whether a man accepts from Fortune her spade, and will look downward and dig, or from Aspiration her axe and cord, and will scale the ice[y peaks], the one and only success which it is his to command is to bring to his work a mighty heart."
Now it is risky for a university president to muck around with metaphors involving fire, the most notable perhaps being Clark Kerr's quip, on being canned as President of the University of California by then-Governor Ronald Reagan, "I leave this job as I began it-fired with enthusiasm!"
Nevertheless, I wish to express my hope that all of us, men and women alike, will continue to bring to our work here a mighty heart, that we will scorn only indifference, and that in our work with our students, in scholarship, and with each other, our hearts will be touched with fire.
I look forward to working with all of you.
September 9, 2004