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The State of the University, Fall 2009, as delivered before Faculty Institute

Welcome back to the campus for the 2009-2010 academic year. It is always exciting to see the university come alive each fall. But let’s be honest with each other, the past 9 months have been progressively challenging and painful for the Nicholls family.

Mid-year, and most recently, FY 2009-2010 budget reductions have resulted in an almost 14½ percent cut in state support when compared against a year ago at this time. Clearly, the program and personnel cuts we put into place well before the close of the legislative session were difficult to make.

I have promised my faculty colleagues that I will share rather candid observations about the budget reduction experience of this past spring, but that will be at another time and through a different format. For now, it is time to get back to the business of the university…even though campus life this year and two years out will be anything but “as usual!” However, now is not a time to be timid or to shrink from the opportunities that lie in front of us as we continue to grow this fine young university!

During the fall of 2010, we will undertake the strategic planning process for the next five-year cycle (2011-2015) in the life of this maturing, comprehensive university. It may seem strange to think about planning for the future when the present is so tenuous, but the financial challenges facing Louisiana and the nation as a whole also offer significant opportunity.

Clearly reaching for opportunities during a time of crisis or challenge has set the stage for considerable success for many universities in the aftermath of previous recessions. Finding or embracing opportunity, whether with bold and ambitious changes or with carefully considered cuts and targeted investments, is crucial in times like these.

While across the board budget cuts and freezes may be politically palatable (and that is exactly how Baton Rouge handled itself), difficult decision-making will benefit the university more in the long term. Simply stated, hard choices to cut programs and services along with focused investment in new program initiatives not only can soften the blow of financial difficulties, they can lead to a competitive advantage.

Over the past winter and spring months, this university undertook a comprehensive review of programs and services. We established planning parameters, which focused in great part around protecting the academic core of the university: the disciplines that deliver the general education and the major program concentrations that produce the greatest number of graduates, and for which Nicholls has become so well known. In reaching decisions, we took steps to eliminate low-completer undergraduate programs and two-year associate degree programming that reflect the past of the university.

No decision came easily, whether it was to affect the lives of approximately 600 students or that of a number of our faculty and administrative colleagues. Every area of the university was affected by the budget cuts in one form or another. And while a number of faculty and staff colleagues are no longer with us, for those of us who remain here, there has to be the question of what’s next.

None of us can predict the future, but what we can and will do is to go about the business of making Nicholls an even better university. Remember there is absolutely nothing wrong with Nicholls State University. It is the State of Louisiana that faces enormous financial and operating challenges. It is Louisiana that has not chosen to fund education adequately at all levels for all of these years. It is Louisiana that now faces the reality of whether or not it has the will to find means to support education to the full extent necessary.

Nicholls has achieved everything that was expected of it under the Board of Regents’ master plan for higher education. Together we have transitioned the institution to selective admissions, significantly increased the ACT (21.5) and class standing of entering students, attained an impressive record of accreditation at all levels and substantially increased the role of faculty in scholarship, research and service. Sixty percent of our students are now TOPS qualified. We have raised the first-time freshman retention rate to 66 percent from 54 percent. Our goals are for still higher rates, but the success to date is still impressive for a university that through 2005 was “open admissions.”

All of this is affecting our graduation rates. The press is currently reporting our graduation rate as 25.9%, but this is for the fall 2000 cohort, graduating by summer 2006. Our current reports to Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), however, indicate improved rates of 29.8% for 2007 (2001 cohort) and 33.4% for 2008 (2002 cohort). Nicholls Office of Assessment and Institutional Research has also indicated that the graduation rate for 2009 (2003 cohort) will be reported as 34.9%. Although our rates have increased by 9 percentage points over the past three years, they are still below the national average of our peer institutions. It will not be until the summer of 2012 that we will know the full effects of the new selective admission standards and the many programs and initiatives that have been implemented and will be implemented. The fact is that we must continue to increase graduation rates to serve our students better and to protect the future of the university. To date, the university has done much to serve students through advising, tutorial, service and related initiatives. The several dozen faculty members who have gained advising certification reflect individual contributions to this effort. It is now critical that all of us focus on individual efforts to assist students to progress to degree. This involves attitude changes, faculty development, and engagement of students in the classroom or through in-service learning. Any and all individual efforts will lead to greater retention rates and higher graduation rates. The question I put to each of you is what are you doing individually? What are your departmental colleagues doing individually and together?

Finally, as I close these remarks, I must speak briefly about the Louisiana Post Secondary Education Review Commission, sometimes referred to as the Tucker Commission. The work of this group is to be completed by February 2010. During the intervening months, we will hear many rumors, challenges and questions about two- and four-year higher education. The media will cover and report the most negative of discussions before the commission. Each of us knows just how successful Nicholls State University is in support of this broad South Central Louisiana region. Speak up giving your personal examples. Share the outcomes of the recent economic impact study and improved graduation rates… do not remain quiet!

So, let our primary goals for this academic year be two-fold: first, focus on the positive and communicate that message across the university and broader communities, and second, bring that positive energy into action in support of student success and progress to degree. That is, focus on what you can do to enhance graduation rates!!!

Thank you and let’s have another successful year at this fine university!

Stephen T. Hulbert

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