Dr. Joseph Layon: The making of a great university
Published: Wednesday, January 16, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 15, 2013 at 2:06 p.m.
The University of Florida has, for decades, been preparing to enter the top ranks of premier academic institutions in our country. Having served in multiple capacities at UF, there is no question in my mind that it is a superb institution with talented faculty and staff. This moment, both as leadership prepares to change and as resources diminish, is an opportunity for the re-evaluation of direction and focus, as we work to achieve UF's national and international goals.
Much of what one sees at UF is remarkable – superb faculty and staff excited to be part of the institution, bright students anxious to engage in the learning process, an engaged and energized faculty leadership organization. There are also areas of opportunity: lower division undergraduate teaching handed off to graduate students; town–gown mismatches; a focus on the theoretical with limited emphasis on integration of the academy with the community, business, and government; a requirement for better mentoring of students and new faculty; and the necessity to build community within the university.
How do we get from “here” today to our next “there,” especially in an era of decreased resources?
First, the UF mission statement describes the central focus of the university as encompassing: Teaching – both undergraduate and graduate. The next generation of scholars must be prepared; Research and Scholarship – integral to the educational process and to the expansion of our understanding of the natural world, the intellect, and the senses; and Service – reflecting our obligation to share the university's contributions in research and knowledge with the public. In addition to these missions, UF serves the nation's and the state's critical needs by contributing to a well-qualified and broadly diverse citizenry, leadership and workforce; in short, the University is a “crucible of democracy.”
Second, magazine rankings do not define greatness. Rather, greatness is a process, the journey to which is made via the definition and implementation of the mission through policies and procedures, as well as the support needed to move forward in a direction outlined by the mission statement. While tangible figures such as student numbers – graduate and undergraduate, extramural grants, research space, papers and books published, concerts written and given, and faculty members on national and international boards all are supporting evidence for the success of the mission, they do not, of themselves, define greatness. As Oklahoma State University Provost R.J. Sternberg has noted, “ … greatness means in American society -- equal opportunity for all and, through it, the chance to make our society and the world a better place in which to live.” Again, the university is a crucible in which democracy is forged.
Thirdly, a discussion related to the future of UF must be initiated with the university community. I would start with the following areas.
Keep the focus on our strengths: Our lower division undergraduates, optimally, should be exposed to senior professors in small classes/sections; Students are drawn to areas of study – even difficult ones – where there is excellent teaching and serious student–professor interaction. We should encourage this via departmental resource flow.
Research/discovery/scholarship is a complex and, often, non-linear process; the university must provide the scaffolding for this endeavor. Use of internal start-up funds and administrative support for extramural funding is essential. Opportunities must be increased for our undergraduate students to develop their interest in science, scholarship, and the arts both by encouraging faculty-sponsored independent study, and by taking the academy to the community.
Service is a way of both paying-back our community, state and nation for their investment in us and, in turn, paying-forward: creating relationships with those outside of the university that would help develop a sense of community and stimulate, in our students, discussion and debate about the University and role of scholarship, critical thinking, and scholarship.
We should make UF visible and available to bright middle and high school students by, for example, leveraging the concept of service to involve our language/history upper-level and graduate students in elementary, middle, and high schools throughout the area and atate. Students – ours and those of the schools in which we interact – would grow and mature by working together and with elementary, middle and high school teachers. Likewise, we would stimulate interest in science, technology, mathematics and physics by “interning” our upper level undergraduate and graduate students into classrooms throughout the area and state.
“Internships” would become a part of our curriculum in all fields of study. UF students would, for example, play an active role within local, regional and national engineering firms, as well as in state and national governmental agencies. This would not only give these entities the advantages of our university but also better prepare our students for their future world.
We should define our prerequisites for matriculation to ensure they are in line with our mission. We should encourage diversity by setting admission standards and utilizing these, as well as written essays, to select our incoming students. Where entry criteria are made malleable, it would be for reasons of broadening the student body. Once students are enrolled, they would be held to a single standard of conduct and scholarship. Again, the university is the crucible of democracy.
On campus, sustainability in all we do would be defined and outcome measures developed to ensure we are leaving the smallest and narrowest footprint possible while continuing to develop.
Given the present financial climate and the need for resources, fund-raising should remain a high priority; the focus would be to raise funds that are not specifically earmarked and may thus be used to make up for core funding and new program deficiencies.
Where appropriate – and this is decided by the faculty, students, and leadership – academic units should be considered for integration, based upon an academic center model.
A great faculty and staff is a prerequisite, irrespective of leadership, for greatness. To take advantage of the skills and diversity of the university, a transparent leadership combined with shared governance must be realized. Further, notwithstanding the financial crisis of the past several years, we must work on correcting salary compression, and use financial incentives – as appropriate – to achieve the goals of our mission.
Administrators are pure overhead. From the President down, faculty-administrators should teach as well as lead. “Leading from the front” would be our watchword. Our university leadership should not ask faculty and staff to do anything that we would not and do not do.
All senior leadership compensation should be re-evaluated; in a time of tight budgets, our administration must prove its' value.
While there are many ways to enhance our national and international profile, we would focus on our areas of strength. For example, in health systems, it is recognized that addition of resources – without implementation and measurement of quality components to prove the worth of the expenditures – is fraught with problems. We should leverage the improvements in quality and delivery made in our health system on both the national and international stage. The future is in integrated health systems – the battle for survival in health will not be won in volume alone, but by improving quality and controlling costs. Expensive care is most often – although not always – poor quality care.
Sport is an integral part of UF and a source of great pride. Sport unites students, alumni, donors, and faculty, and we should continue to strengthen these ties. Finally, fraternity – Sorority life has a strong and respected presence on our campus. This should be strengthened and supported.
UF is a very impressive institution. The people of the state of Florida, the students,and the faculty deserve a leadership that can take them forward into the 21st century. I wish President Machen and his colleagues well in this quest.
Dr. Joseph Layon is director of critical care medicine for the Geisinger Health System, a five-hospital system based in central Pennsylvania. A former UF College of Medicine faculty member, he was an applicant for the UF presidency before the search was called off.
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