August 11, 2015
15-195

Jessica Pope
Communications and Media Relations Coordinator

VSU Kicks Off New Academic Year With Annual Convocation

VALDOSTA — It was standing room only in Valdosta State University’s Whitehead Auditorium as Dr. Cecil P. Staton, interim president, and the campus community came together Monday, Aug. 10, to officially kick off the 2015-2016 academic year.  

Staton discussed “the wonderful assets of VSU, the challenges we face, and our efforts directed at increasing retention, such as student satisfaction.” He also gave an update on the latest marketing and branding efforts.

A transcript of Staton's address appears below.

Good morning and welcome to a new academic year here at Valdosta State University. For those of us committed to the world of higher education, there is no more hopeful time than the beginning of fall term each year. It is a little different come May when we are tired and ready for a much-needed break, but August and September are usually filled with the hope and inspiration that returning to campus and seeing a new class of students provides. New students bring new dreams, new questions, new teaching challenges and new opportunities to impact a new generation, some who are first generation college students. With all of the successful alumni we produce, you never know who you are ultimately helping to educate.

For me it brings back so many memories of a warm September day in 1976, when I stepped onto a college campus as a student for the first time. I was a first generation college student. My father fixed shoes for a living as his father did before him, never finishing high school. My mother really wanted to go to college but had no tradition, support, or resources within her family. Raised in a South Carolina mill village, she was unable to fulfill her dream of a college education.

But my parents wanted more for me. I was “expected” to go to college, and they sacrificed so that I could attend Furman University in my hometown. My life is a testament to the power and value of higher education. It is still the American dream for parents who hope for a better future for their children, and for students who dream dreams and seek to change their lives, as well as the future of their families, their communities, and even the world.

Now I was what my professors at Furman referred to as a late bloomer. Don’t ever count such a student out. I may have been a late bloomer, but bloom I did. With the blessing and guidance of my professors and mentors, I went on to pursue further education. Four degrees later I was witness to the fact that you can go from a South Carolina mill village and a shoe repair shop to the hallowed halls of Oxford, and today I stand in front of you to bear witness that you can go from that humble beginning to become a university president. I am honored to serve as interim president of Valdosta State University.

I tell you my story this morning not to brag on myself but to boast about you. You see, I believe in what you do. I believe in this institution and in the mission of public higher education.

Higher education has never been more important to America’s future, and Valdosta State University has never been more important to our region’s future. Yet these are challenging times for all of higher education. The knowledge-based global economy, demographic shifts that are bringing fewer traditional aged college students to us, constrained public finances, and the disruptive nature of digital and online technologies are converging to confront and challenge higher education and public policy. As people of good will, loyal to this university, we must continuously seek ways to transform these challenges into opportunities for VSU.

It is an understatement to say that there have been a lot of changes since the last time this university community gathered for convocation, some of them positive, and perhaps a few disappointing.

Of course, all of us are saddened by the announced reduction of 31 faculty and staff that will take effect a year from now as we grapple with the financial implications of several years of enrollment declines and corresponding reductions in credit hour production. These two things form the basis of the state appropriation we receive as a public university. We still await final numbers for this fall. It appears that we will see very healthy growth in our graduate programs.

Our freshman enrollment, however, may be down as much as 10 percent when compared to last year. That is the troubling number in the equation because it impacts revenues so significantly. If that number is down, it negatively influences future years as that class moves through their time at VSU. 

The budget we are preparing for the Board of Regents, which will be presented in October, is actually based on credit hour production from the past two years ago. When numbers turn positive again, and they will, it will take some time before we see our state appropriation improve.

The steps we have taken, painful as they may be, are part of our positioning VSU for health, vitality, and for growth. Such decisions are not taken lightly. That is why we announced this as far in advance as possible. For those affected we will provide transition support, including funds for appropriate job search-related activities. We will support them in every way we can and do regret having to take this action. I appreciate the thoughtful and professional manner in which your division heads, department chairs, or deans conducted the strategic reviews and procedures that led to the decisions that were made.

On the positive side, we welcome Dr. Brian Gerber to the role of interim provost and vice president of Academic Affairs for this academic year. A challenging position, I am grateful for Dr. Gerber’s leadership as we charge ahead through the difficult waters facing higher education today. Many believe the only choices facing higher education are innovation or extinction. His leadership will make sure we are an innovative institution.

I also welcome Traycee Martin to the role of vice president for Business and Administration. Traycee’s long tenure and commitment to this university are well known. As we deal with budget issues and work to keep our financial house in order, Traycee brings the experience we need to this important role and I am grateful for her commitment to this university.

And I am grateful that Dr. James Archibald agreed to leave the role of faculty senate president to serve as interim vice president for Student Affairs. This is a critical role, and his leadership will be of enormous value as we engage in a search this semester for the right person to fill this important position.

And finally, I welcome today to VSU Tony Thomas, to the office of university attorney. Tony comes to us as our interim on loan from a sister USG institution. This is an important office, and we are grateful that he is coming to Valdosta as our interim while a search is conducted to fill this important office on campus.

The Year of Student Success

Now I want to speak with you about what I hope will be one of the most important things we focus upon this academic year. This year must be for us the year we recommit ourselves to improve student retention and success. Why is that important? As most of you know, I come from the USG system office where we often have more data than there is time to analyze. But one of the things that stood out when I reviewed the data on VSU that they gave me before coming down was a number. It was the number 733. Now in itself, that number is not necessarily a shocking number. But context is everything. That number, 733, is the number of VSU students who in one year transferred from Valdosta State to another USG institution. We even know which institutions they transferred to.

Why is that important? Well, it reveals something we must really give our consideration — retention. I know it is an educational buzz word, but behind the word is an important part of the answer to the central issue that faces this institution and so many others around the country — resources — resources to grow and develop new programs, resources to deal with deferred maintenance, resources to help mitigate shrinking public funds for higher education, resources to take the pressure off of increasing tuition and fees for our students, resources to program and increase student satisfaction on our campus, and yes, resources to hire and retain faculty. More students translates to more faculty and staff, and fewer students translates into fewer faculty and staff. Let’s put the number 733 into perspective. Do you realize that if those 733 students had stayed at VSU, together with the ones lost the previous year, none of the budget cuts of the last three years would have been necessary? It turns out 733 is an incredibly shocking number.

Now we are not naïve. We’ll never attain 100 percent retention. There will always be legitimate reasons why some students will transfer, drop out, or not return, but what if we just worked to lower that number from 733 to let’s say 500? The cumulative effect of that over four years would be enormously significant.

But it is not all about money for the university. We should focus upon this for our students’ sake. It is simply the right thing to do. It costs a lot of money for our students and for their families to come to VSU. They have a lot riding on it — their futures! Let’s make sure their investment pays off. Let’s make sure we do everything we legitimately can to help them succeed. It is the right thing to do.

Now that begins in the classroom, which is the focus of why they are here. Today, students and their parents are looking for indicators that their investment in a college education will pay off. They are looking for indicators and markers of quality, and we must seek to be innovative and the best we can be in every academic area of this university.

But it also involves each and every one of us and every interaction with students outside the classroom. For all of us, student success must be job number one! From those who make this such a beautiful place to work and learn, to those who answer phones across this campus and are the face of the campus to students and their families, to those who directly serve students and interact with them on a daily basis in dorms, the Student Union, the Student Recreation Center, the Bursary, we are all here, and we all have jobs only because they are here, and they have to be our focus and our first priority. How can we make VSU the best place for our students, and how can we serve them and help them to succeed? Answering those questions as they relate to every job on this campus must be job number one for each and every one of us. We must refocus ourselves this year on student success, and I am asking each and every one of us individually to think about how you fit into that picture? How does your work impact student success at VSU? How can we improve retention and make sure that 733 at the end of this year is 500, 400, 300, or how about 200? We can grow our enrollment through better retention and through student success initiatives. You will be hearing more about this throughout the year.

One of the initiatives for this year is the creation of an Innovation Fund that can be used for initiatives that will lead to increased enrollment and credit hour production, stronger retention, and higher graduation rates. I believe great ideas can come from anyone, anywhere on this campus. Through this initiative, we hope to mobilize this campus and the surrounding community to help us develop transformational ideas that will have a positive impact on the future of this institution, our students, and community.

I know we have one of the most beautiful campuses in the country. But how can we make sure our beauty is more than skin deep? That the real beauty is the success of our students? I know that we can improve retention, because those of you I have met thus far absolutely impress me as being enormously loyal to VSU and our students, loving this place and loving our students. We can do this, and we can be successful if we all commit ourselves to the idea that student success is job number one at VSU.

The Blazer Creed

Last spring, as the academic year was coming to a close, this campus experienced something that brought national attention upon the university and unfortunately not in a particularly positive way.

My purpose this morning is not to rehash that, what was done, or to Monday morning quarterback the situation. But we must recognize that these difficult challenges, which come to all campuses in one form or another over time, are opportunities for showcasing what a university community is really all about.

A university at its best is a place where ideas can be discussed, differences debated, new knowledge and paths are discovered. When I was a college student, I arrived on campus barely a year after the fall of Saigon and the end of that long Cold War era proxy war. As a rather sheltered Southern kid, I was sometimes shocked by the debates on campus and some of the things some fellow students said about our country. But I learned and grew from those experiences on campus because it was a place for the free exchange of ideas. For the most part, it was done in a civil manner on our campus that was disarming and engaging without fear.

Now we live in a day when it seems people would rather scream at each other than debate ideas. Many would rather use shock and awe than civil discourse. But I see no reason why a university should embrace that attitude. It seems to me that these occasions offer teachable moments for us all. During such times this university can rise to the occasion and showcase what is best and noble about higher education and being a university. I am grateful that we have on this campus something we call the Blazer Creed. It reminds us that we are “a learning environment based on trust and mutual respect in which open dialogue, vigorous debate, and the free exchange of ideas are welcome.” It calls us to commit to the ideas of civility, integrity, and citizenship.

As classes begin this fall, you will see on this campus a renewed emphasis upon the Blazer Creed. I want to ask you to keep a copy of it on your desks and talk about it on the first day of all of your classes and at other appropriate moments throughout the year when tensions rise. Let’s remind our students and each other that this is at the heart of what a university is, that VSU embraces these core values, and that we can discuss any idea, issue, challenge, problem, passion with civility. To do otherwise runs the risk of taking the spotlight off of the issue we care so deeply about and turning the spotlight on methods, or poor decisions, which allow the issue we care about to be lost from view.

Marketing and Branding

There is one additional thing I have heard over and over again since the chancellor asked me to come to VSU. It is that this institution is a hidden gem. My immediate response is, Why hidden? One answer is that up until last year this institution has spent very little on marketing and branding. When enrollments are increasing and budgets are good, that is possible — but no longer.

As I mentioned earlier, our freshmen enrollment may be down as much as 10 percent this fall from a year ago. Given increasing competition for fewer traditional students, including the pressures from new options such as dual enrollment, online options such as e-core, and lower cost options such as our technical college system partners, the pressures will continue.

While we use to count on the Atlanta region for as many as half of our students, competition from other universities, which have risen in stature, together with economic pressures related to the recession, and sometimes other circumstances beyond our control, have led to a significant decline in this number.

While we are certainly not giving up on increasing our enrollment from metro Atlanta, fortunately the Board of Regents has given us a significant gift in the ability to charge in-state tuition to students from Florida, Alabama, and South Carolina. For VSU this means a previous competitive disadvantage — costs — for students from these areas is now removed. Florida promises to be a fertile recruiting field, and though we haven’t had a full recruiting cycle since being implemented, we have already seen a significant increase. We project that it will be even more meaningful a year from now. This is a potentially significant tool for reversing our declining freshmen enrollment picture.

So what are we going to do about bringing this hidden gem into the light of prospective students and parents? We have cobbled together from year-end, one-time funds resources to invest in the marketing and branding of our institution throughout this year. We have brought in higher education marketing and imaging professionals to assist us in developing a plan and creative resources for the university. You will begin to see these efforts rolled out today. One of the first things they did was to facilitate focus groups with students, faculty, and staff to understand better what is most distinctive about VSU. The common message they heard over and over again is this is a place that focuses on the individual, a place where success thrives because you are surrounded by the very best people and resources. What you are about to see is just the beginning of what they heard from our community and what others will soon learn about VSU. Take a look. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FhL_qdHC0oA)

We are going to be more aggressive in our outreach to traditional students through contact via mail, social media, and other ways these prospects gain information today. We will be present in traditional media, including billboards, radio, and television, or video in ways that will lead to a new and fresh awareness of VSU with a branding campaign that will reach stakeholders, parents, and prospective students. Not only will we be increasing our outreach to traditional aged students, but we’ll also be focusing on promoting the quality of our graduate programs, which, as I mentioned earlier, are showing significant growth year over year.

Our campaign will focus upon the wonderful history of this institution, its beauty both physically and in the people who come here, and how the fabric of our life together on this campus allows students to discover who they are and who they are meant to be as agents of positive change for their families, their communities, and the world.

Invest. Ignite. Inspire:  The Campaign for Valdosta State University

Now let me turn to something that is very positive for this university. A year ago, July 1, 2014, Valdosta State University launched its first-ever comprehensive capital campaign, Invest. Ignite. Inspire.  Leading up to that launch, the Division of University Advancement, working closely with the leadership of the Valdosta State University Foundation Board of Trustees and the J.F. Smith Group, conducted a thorough feasibility study process. The result of the feasibility study was a five-year working goal of $43,250,000 with five primary project areas for support: 1). Scholarship Support; 2). Faculty Enhancement; 3). Programmatic Opportunities; 4). Athletics Excellence; and 5). Facility Enhancements.

Thanks in part to the largest gift commitment in VSU history, $17 million from retired VSU professor of physics Dr. Brantley Jenkins and his wife Barbara, the VSU Foundation Board of Trustees voted to raise the five-year campaign goal to $53,250,000.  To date Invest. Ignite. Inspire. has received $37,109,413 in gifts and pledges. Think about that. We have raised nearly 70 percent of the five-year campaign goal in just over one year.  Of that total, $10,800,824 has already been received and is being used at the direction of our donors to move our university forward.  A particular point of pride is that VSU faculty and staff have committed $455,643 to the campaign. The campaign has received gifts from a total of 9,109 donors, of which 4,205 are new donors.  The average gift to the campaign is $2,377. These numbers are very impressive, and we thank you for the role you are playing in helping us reach our overall goal.

Our success is a testament to the faith that our friends and alumni have in the mission of Valdosta State. Of particular note, since last July VSU has received leadership gifts from friends and alumni supporting an array of campus initiatives. During the coming academic year we will celebrate many of these gifts by naming the Bruce Williams Football Locker Room in the Athletic Field House, the Dedo Maranville Art Gallery in the Fine Arts Building, and the Robert W. Hagan Court in the P.E. Complex.

VSU recently received gifts totaling more than $1 million dedicated to the Valdosta Symphony Orchestra and the History Department from the estates of former History Department Chairman Dr. William Gabbard and his wife Lougenia. Also, the estate of Dr. Lawrence Etling has provided a gift in excess of $100,000 to the Mass Media Area. In mid-July we received a $1 million gift commitment along with an installment gift payment of $500,000 from a corporate donor, who has asked for anonymity, to support the recruitment and retention of VSU students. Also in July, Mr. David Morley and his wife Lynn from Warner Robbins donated a portion of their private art collection totaling eight Rembrandt etchings and six works by Dali. These works will become part of the university’s permanent art collection. We anticipate more major gift announcements and naming celebrations as the academic year unfolds.

We continue to identify and cultivate major gift donors. While our success has been heartening, there is much work to be done. We will continue solicitations for the campaign through July of 2019, but the results of Invest. Ignite. Inspire. will be felt long after that date.

Conclusion

As I have told various groups since arriving on campus, I have come to understand in just a short period of time why so many people love Valdosta State University. What a wonderful place. From those who work in physical plant, whether taking care of the grounds and keeping this place so beautiful, to those who serve and support our students in many important ways, to those who teach and mentor our students guiding them to discover their talents and fulfill their dreams, to those who serve in important leadership roles on this campus, I want to thank you all for your service to this great university. We are a team, people of good will who are loyal and devoted to VSU. Together, we join in that most noble enterprise that is higher education. We believe that higher education carries with it the best hopes and prospects for our often-confused society that cries out for focus, vision, and leadership.

Challenging times are ahead, but I am confident that VSU can build upon her strengths. Our strengths are a committed faculty and staff and a diverse and hopeful community of student scholars who seek to change their lives, together with that of their families and communities, through learning. With the continued support of faculty, staff, students, alumni, and friends who share our vision of transformative change, VSU is well positioned for what promises to be an exciting future. My vision is that Valdosta State University will be the intellectual, cultural, and economic center of our region and we will be the best comprehensive university within the University System of Georgia.

This is a great university, and I am proud to be here. Valdosta State is what it is because you are here. Valdosta State plus you — your talents, skills, passions, your good will, loyalty, and commitments — is what makes us VSU. Please join me today in recommitting yourself to this great university, but more importantly to the success of our students. They are why we are here! In them we help shape the future of our region and even the world. In them we continue the promise of higher education and its ability to change lives. Let’s have a great year.

Before I sit down, let me share the latest awareness campaign ad, designed to attract and showcase why Valdosta State University will no longer be the state’s or region’s best kept gem in higher education! This is how we want the world to see us and who we are as an institution. You can be sure more will be coming soon. Enjoy! (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qOcP_D9mr5I)

Upcoming Events:

• Freshmen will move in between 8 a.m. and noon on Tuesday, Aug. 11, and Wednesday, Aug. 12.

• First Year Convocation for new students will be held at 8:30 a.m. on Thursday, Aug. 13, in the P.E. Complex.

• Upperclassmen will move in between 8:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 14.

• Honors Colloquium for honors students will be held at 2 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 14, in Powell Hall Auditorium.

• Classes begin Aug. 17.

 

 

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