It is with great pleasure that I welcome the new faculty and staff to Nicholls State University. As I enter my fifth year at Nicholls State University, I hold a deep sense of satisfaction with the work of the faculty and staff and with the remarkable transformation that is taking place at this university. I am particularly proud with the faculty effort that has built strong academic programs, and we all share in the pride that goes with that accomplishment.
Next fall, Nicholls will celebrate its 60th birthday, and we will mark the occasion with the appropriate festivities. It will also be a good time to reflect on the highlights of this university’s brief history. Nicholls began with an open admissions policy to serve the region, and for years it was the only post secondary institution in this area. During those years we served the area well. With the maturity of both the region and the university and with the academic programs developed and strengthened by the faculty, we have become a different university.
Later this year, the Southern Region Education Board will designate Nicholls a 4-Year IV university. A 4-Year IV university is a comprehensive institution with a wide range of baccalaureate and masters programs and a real presence in scholarship and service. This constitutes a different type of university from that of our roots, and it reflects the changes occurring in our service region. For example, we now have a community college presence that allows us to move away from our earlier open admissions status. We will continue to strengthen our masters programs and hopefully, in the future, offer a doctoral degree. This university is maturing well beyond the boarders of its service region. We are reaching out to a national and international audience. We are well on our way to becoming a very seasoned university.
Helping us as we achieve our new institutional identity are our loyal friends and supporters. At this time I want to thank the Lorio Foundation and Rita Dickie for their history of strong support. This year they have been especially generous by endowing four new professorships, one in Nursing, one in Fine Arts, one in Languages and Literature, and one in Physical Sciences. Louisiana’s Commissioner of Higher Education, Dr. T. Joseph Savoie, will present the state’s match, a check for $160,000, later this morning. The university is deeply grateful for the generous investment that the Lorio Foundation has made in our future. We now have a total of 35 endowed professorships. We also currently have six endowed chairs, and are in the process of conducting national searches for the endowed chairs in Languages and Literature, Computer Science, Accounting, and Information Systems.
Turning to our students and the academic preparedness of our entering freshmen, our students’ ACT scores have been increasing over the past several years. This is a result of a strategic approach to recruitment by our admissions staff. In 2000, our entering freshmen had an ACT composite score of just over 19. This past year the entering freshmen achieved an ACT of 20, and this fall we hope to be reporting that we have reached an ACT composite of 21.
To dwell on this positive trend, twenty-eight percent of our entering students in 2000 had an ACT over 20. In 2006 this had increased to sixty-six percent, and will continue to rise this year. Thirty-three percent of entering freshmen were on TOPS in 2000, and fifty percent in 2006. That indicator will also continue to rise. With respect to retention rates, in fall of 2001, fifty-five percent of our first time freshmen returned to campus. In fall 2006, sixty-four percent returned, and we are striving to go beyond seventy-five percent in the near future.
Our graduation rates, however, clearly reflect our history of open admissions. In 1998-1999, we had a very poor graduation rate of twenty-one percent. In 2005-2006, that rate had increased to almost twenty-seven percent. Let me point out that was the national trend for a public open admissions university. While we will continue to improve our graduation rates, we have been clearly challenged by the University of Louisiana Board of Supervisors and the Board of Regents to exceed national standards by 2012. Realistically, that is not possible, especially in the wake of the devastation of this region by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. We must act as quickly as possible to reach the national average of our peer institutions.
We do believe that with the fall class of 2006 through the fall class of 2012 that the university will see a significant change in retention. To help meet our goals, we will kick off the Quality Enhancement Plan this year. The Plan contains a component that is a two year process of assessment to improve critical thinking through writing. Many of the faculty will be actively engaged to ensure that this component is successful. This represents still another part of the transition from open to selective admissions to strengthen Nicholls as a comprehensive university. We will also be undertaking a Math 101 pilot program this year. We are challenged in this area as are other institutions in this country. The national average shows that fifty percent of this nation’s entering freshmen fail or drop math the first time. It is a statistic that should embarrass this country, but for us it is also a barrier to transitioning the university. We have to ensure that these students are successful. The Mathematics Department has designed an extraordinary initiative and Scott Beslin has sent out an email with an informative video on the plan. As a 4-Year IV university, we cannot simply say that students coming to this institution lack preparation. Yes, we do have problems with students coming from the K-12 schools. But high school redesign will take years to accomplish any real change. The reality is that every coin has two sides. Preparation is one side, but the other side is the teaching and learning environment within a university. I believe that the initiative the Mathematics Department has developed is a major step forward in addressing our own weaknesses and in ensuring greater success of our students. The students will have to step up and commit to some hard work. That, too, will be challenging.
Let me make a few observations about an improved budget for this university. We are grateful to Governor Kathleen Blanco and her administration and to the Louisiana Legislature for increasing funding for higher education in this year’s budget. We also deeply appreciate the work of Commissioner T. Joseph Savoie and President Sally Clausen for the aggressive budget that they developed last year. Normally, increased money for education does not go to higher education; it goes to pre-K-12. However, thanks to those I have mentioned, we have received additional monies that will allow salary increases that average five percent raises for faculty. Of that, one half of the funding will be across the board, as mandated, for a fixed amount. The other half follows the recommendation of the Faculty Compensation Committee: two percent for merit and a half percent for equity, to be distributed by department heads. The legislature also funded a $1500 across-the-board increase for professional staff.
With one hundred percent funding of the formula by the Legislature, we were able to do many things to help this university move forward. We have spent a decade of "robbing Peter to pay Paul" as we addressed personnel, facility, program and equipment needs. This year we will go beyond the five percent faculty pay raise to a total average of 7.85%. This was accomplished several ways. The minimum pay increase was brought to six percent, five percent, or four percent, depending on the faculty member’s merit rating. Faculty were also brought to a minimum 88%, 84%, or 80% of the SREB target, depending on their rank and discipline, again based on merit. As requested by our system office, we made adjustments to associate professors and instructors, again based on merit, in an attempt to bring the overall salaries by rank as close as possible to 100%. The ranks of professor and assistant professors are already over 100% by rank target.
With formula funding at one hundred percent, we have also increased student scholarship support by $583,000; the university added need based scholarships in that amount, even though the state has its own need-based scholarship program. We have made major contributions to scholarships to recruit and retain the best students. Additionally, we have funded seven previously non-funded faculty positions and nine new faculty positions. We have also funded positions for our endowed chairs. We increased adjunct/overload pay to a range of $1500 to $2,250, a modest increase, but one which we regard as a first step. We are also working to increase the graduate assistant stipend. These actions must occur if this university is to mature fully as a comprehensive institution; we must recruit the best prepared graduate students and graduate assistants.
One of the major accomplishments of this new fiscal year involves the distribution of indirect costs. In the past, the university took indirect costs from grants and used these dollars to cover basic institutional costs. As we all recognized that was not an effective way to encourage faculty to pursue contracts and grants in their research fields. This is a first step for us, and I am delighted that we were able to accomplish it through the involvement of the faculty, the administration and the faculty senate. It has been a major undertaking, one that will change the face of research at this university.
Now I will turn to the initiatives that we have undertaken to improve the campus:
- Newly-resurfaced streets and parking lots, new street signs and other upgrades, at a cost of over 3.2 million dollars
- A 5.5 million dollar renovation of the Vernon F. Galliano Cafeteria, transforming the original building into a state-of-the-art dining facility that is second to none in the entire South.
- The near completion of a 4.5 million dollar land acquisition, accomplished between the State of Louisiana and Acadia Agricultural Holdings, L.L.C. I truly appreciate the patience and support of Division of Administration Commissioner, Jerry Luke LeBlanc, and his staff for staying the course with Nicholls throughout that purchase. The project represents the first-ever state mediation of land acquisition by the State of Louisiana in an expropriation case. Nicholls will gain ownership of 59 acres of land, and the landholders will donate another 17 acres for a total of 76 additional campus acres.
- We are now on track to have a recreation center and to build the culinary arts building. In the future, we plan to have an events center on the remaining land.
- Beauregard Hall finally will be renovated at a cost of 14.7 million dollars. This project has been on the state’s capital outlay request list since 1983.
- We are scheduled to build three new residence halls, remodel two buildings, and demolish 4 through a $50 million dollar bond transaction. The project also includes the acquisition of La Maison du Bayou.
- Finally, we have received 3.7 million dollars for a campus-wide electrical upgrade. Through this project and in the event of a future electrical interruption, the university will be brought back online at the same time as Thibodaux Regional Hospital.
All of these improvements are intended to enhance the quality of student life and learning on this campus. As a result, if we continue to work together, we are certain to become more successful in recruiting and educating greater and greater numbers of qualified students.
Finally, let me conclude my comments with an announcement regarding the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and the re-certification of the intercollegiate athletics program. On September 24, the peer review team will arrive on campus to assess our athletic programs. Our university-prepared self-study indicates that Nicholls athletics has come a long distance in the past ten years. After reviewing that document, the NCAA had only one observation, and we have already addressed the matter. This is a major accomplishment, and I thank Dr. Laynie Barrilleaux, Dr. Glenn Antizzo, Mr. Rob Bernardi, Ms. "Do" Bonin and the faculty and staff on the recertification team for the excellent report they compiled.
Thank you, and have a great year educating our students!