Chancellor's Keynote Address

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Good afternoon and congratulations to our honorees! I thank each of you—and all of our faculty—for your considerable contributions and commitment to excellence on behalf of the university. Your research, scholarship, and creative endeavors have garnered national and international recognition, advanced our reputation, and fueled our current momentum. As I begin my sixth academic year, I know how fortunate I am to lead a campus with a faculty of your caliber. 

An exceptional faculty deserves an exceptional student body, and this fall, as we welcome both our returning students and the Class of 2021, I am pleased to report we are continuing our current trend of excellence and inclusivity. Once again, our newest students surpass previous records: the Class of 2021 arrived on campus as the most academically accomplished class in our history.

The incoming class is also more diverse. Our ALANA student population—which refers to our African American, Latino/a, Asian/ Pacific Islander, and Native American students—increased to 30 percent, and the underrepresented minority population—which refers to our African American, Latino/a, and Native American students—increased from 13 percent to 16 percent. Twenty-five percent of our entering students belong to the first generation in their families to go to college.

And along with the first-year class, we welcomed more than 1,100 transfer students, including 370 community college graduates who are now pursuing their bachelor’s degrees on their flagship campus.

This afternoon, as we celebrate the significant contributions you make nationally and internationally through discovery and the creation of new knowledge, I would like to also thank you for the opportunities you provide to our students and the critical role you play in the well-being of the commonwealth.

As I consider the accomplishments of our faculty and the transformative experience we provide to so many deserving students, I know we have much to feel positive about as we begin the academic year. Though, like all institutions of higher education, we must also acknowledge our current challenges—challenges that would have seemed unimaginable just a few years ago.

As this past summer in Charlottesville, Virginia, and ongoing events make clear, we are living in a time when bigotry, intolerance, and hatred have found their way into our mainstream social discourse. During these challenging times, it is truly reassuring to know that we can count on each other to stand united against this hatred, as we recommit ourselves to ensuring a safe and welcoming campus community.

The banners you have seen around campus with the message, “Hate has no home at UMass” are part of a broader campaign to foster that supportive environment and make every member of our diverse community feel welcome.

Of course, our challenges are complicated. For while we are committed to ensuring a campus community welcoming of all, we must also maintain our commitment to academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas. In these times when the very existence of objective facts is being questioned, the exploration of ideas grounded in evidence and reason is critical to preserving our core mission of teaching, research, and service.  Without these freedoms, we would not be here this afternoon celebrating the discoveries of our colleagues and the pursuit of new knowledge that improves the human condition across the commonwealth and beyond. Without these freedoms, we cannot truly educate our students.

As we witness the divisiveness in our country, we cannot assume immunity from this  environment just because we are part of a university community. Rather, as faculty, we have a significant role to play.

The Brookings Institution recently released survey results showing that many college students lack a basic understanding of the principles of the First Amendment. Fifty-one percent believe it is “acceptable” for students to repeatedly shout at a controversial speaker to prevent that person from being heard in a campus talk.  Nineteen percent of students said it would be acceptable for a student group to use violence to prevent a controversial speaker from speaking.

Though these results should give us pause, it is the results from our own Campus Climate Survey that I find equally concerning: the Campus Climate Survey completed last year revealed that 38 percent of our undergraduate students described themselves as politically moderate or conservative, and fully one-half of those felt that they experienced unfair treatment in their classes on the basis of their political beliefs—with nearly one-third saying it happened “often.”

It is up to us as a faculty to intentionally create a learning environment which is not only free of intimidation, but genuinely welcomes minority viewpoints. For only by bringing all perspectives into the discussion and using the rigor of evidence-based scholarship and reason will we teach all our students how to seek the truth. Our ability to guide this process is a profound tool, allowing us to make a significant contribution to our students and to civil society.

We cannot call ourselves a university if we are not teaching our students that fostering a diversity of thought through civil discourse is critical to their education and the lives they will lead. We need to model for our students how to conduct inclusive civil discourse.  To do less is to fail them.

I realize embracing our responsibility for productive civil discourse carries complications. When does free speech cross the line and become threatening—even harmful or incite violence, as witnessed in Charlottesville?

I don’t have an answer for you. Academic freedom and freedom of speech are, by definition, inherently messy and—as we have seen throughout the history of humanity –worthy of great sacrifice to protect.

I remind you of John Stuart Mill's advice that we must allow for the expression of bad ideas -- whether opinions or alleged statements of fact -- because they may contain some grain of truth that corrects the conventional wisdom or, lacking that, provide a challenge to accepted beliefs, without which those beliefs in the long run become mere prejudices. As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis advised in his famous Whitney v. California opinion in 1927, “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.” I ask that we all work together to teach our students this guiding principle. 

Let me turn now to what is on the horizon for our campus as we look to the future. In recent years, we have moved up in the U.S. News & World Report national ranking and are now among the top 30 public universities in the nation. Though, as we learned last month, we cannot take our positive trajectory for granted: in the latest rankings released in September, we slipped from 27th to 29th.

Despite this momentary setback, I firmly believe, that by combining our current momentum with the right support, we can continue moving this campus forward and become a top 20, or even a top 10 national public university the people of Massachusetts need and deserve.

Now keep in mind, I do not intend for us to chase a ranking, merely for bragging rights. And I am fully aware of the shortcomings of the U.S. News & World Report methodology. I use the top 20 or top 10 frame as a shorthand for our quest for excellence, as a way to make the case that our campus should aspire to the qualities of the best public universities in the nation when it comes to metrics such as academic rigor, student success, and faculty resources.

To be clear, achieving this level of excellence won’t be easy.

Over the past few years, we have done so much work on our campus, making use of every resource at our disposal. And I am truly proud of our success.

But the reality is, we have come just about as far as we can on our own.

And now, we find ourselves at a fork in the road.

In one direction, mediocrity—where we bow to the political forces exhibited by groups like the Pioneer Institute with their claims that private colleges and universities can adequately serve the citizens of the commonwealth—and we cease our ambitions. For these groups believe public higher education shouldn’t aspire to being anything but mediocre.

In the other direction, excellence—where we forcefully advocate for more resources to propel this university to the pinnacle of public higher education and provide access to a world-class education to every qualified Massachusetts student, regardless of their socio-economic status, their race, their religion, or their ethnicity.

Faced with these two choices, I can unequivocally state that I choose excellence and access!

Despite fiscal headwinds, we remain committed to the path of excellence. Our vision to become a top 20 public university is not diminished. But, achieving our goal will require significant resources.

As we have witnessed this afternoon in honoring our colleagues, the caliber of our faculty is the most important key to our success. We have been fortunate to have entire generations of faculty on this campus who have brought us this far. But if we are to continue this legacy of excellence, not only must we replenish our faculty ranks by recruiting the best young minds across the academy, but we must expand the faculty to cope with the growth in enrollment. But the competition to recruit and retain is fierce.

Secondly, like so many other public universities across the country, UMass Amherst expanded quickly in the post—World War II and baby—boom eras. Many of the buildings the state erected to accommodate that rapid growth have not been adequately maintained and are either long past their useful lives or in desperate need of repair. The state has helped with some essential new buildings in recent years—and we are truly grateful for that support—but we are shouldering most of the responsibility for maintaining our aging infrastructure. And this responsibility represents a crushing financial burden for the campus, one that siphons off resources targeted for faculty and student services. We have undertaken an aggressive program to reverse this neglect, but again, we can no longer do it alone.

We need to address these two challenges if we are to continue our momentum. Generating the necessary financial support to choose the path of excellence will require shared responsibility among the commonwealth, the university, and our students and families.        

At the state level, the campus must receive a commitment from the commonwealth for a significant infusion of capital to address the backlog of maintenance related to our aging facilities, as well as a commitment for an ongoing flagship-designated appropriation for operating expenses, with an emphasis on hiring new faculty.

As a campus community, we must also be invested in the top 20 vision and demonstrate our commitment to significantly increasing revenue. We are currently exploring ways to grow our Continuing and Professional Education and online offerings. This effort requires our schools and colleges to develop new courses and degree programs to meet the growing demand for innovative offerings and course delivery methods.

We must also build on the success of the UMass Rising campaign, and expand our growing culture of philanthropy. A significant step in this process will be enlisting our expanded university community in a campaign dedicated to our top 20 vision.

In addition to our campus efforts, and a commitment from the state, we must also consider engaging our students and families who have the financial wherewithal in shared responsibility as we provide the top 20 flagship university they need and deserve. 

As we choose the path of excellence over mediocrity, we will demonstrate to our elected officials, the expanded UMass community, the business sector, and the families of Massachusetts that a top 20 flagship university is a necessary investment for the continued success of the commonwealth.

It is not a difficult case to make.

Each year, UMass Amherst educates more of these Massachusetts students than Boston College, Boston University, Brandeis, Harvard, MIT, Northeastern, Tufts, and WPI combined.

Given the commonwealth’s emphasis on an innovative economy, it’s important to note that we not only educate more Massachusetts students, but we also award more undergraduate STEM degrees than any other college or university in the commonwealth, public or private. 

And, while we are currently attracting the most academically accomplished students from throughout the commonwealth, we are also remaining committed to our mission of accessibility and our values for diversity, equity, and inclusion.

We are, without parallel, providing a critical mass of the most talented, deserving students of the commonwealth access to a university education.

And five years after graduating, approximately 64 percent of these UMass alumni are still living in Massachusetts as members of our highly educated workforce.

No doubt you are aware of the Fair Share Amendment, or “Millionaire’s Tax” as it’s often referred to, which will likely be on the state ballot in 2018. Given the current fiscal realities of the commonwealth, this amendment probably presents the next opportunity for reinvestment in public higher education.

So, regardless of what happens, we must continue to advocate for a purposeful investment by the state—one that will enable us to hire more faculty and improve our facilities.

For I believe a state funding stream that is devoted solely to accessibility, but neglects quality, will shortchange the citizens of this commonwealth. We cannot sacrifice one for the other. We need both; that’s our vision.

This afternoon, as we celebrate the research and creative endeavors of our colleagues, and our role as faculty with the freedom to explore and express, I thank all of you for the significant role you play in the success of this great university.

In the months ahead, I ask for your continued support as we remain both vigilant during these challenging times—and committed to our path of excellence.

Thank you. And GO, UMASS!