Abbott: USD on track to meet goals

The University of South Dakota will face many of the same challenges in the coming year that it has in its recent past.

The declining total enrollment of South Dakota high school students adds a continuing level of difficulty to building enrollment figures on USD's Vermillion campus.

The condition of South Dakota's budget is showing many of the same signs of weakness that it was a year ago, meaning funding for necessary university programs will continue to be difficult.

University President James Abbott is confident, however, that these and other problems can be dealt as the university administration strives to meet its ambitious long-range plans for the future.

In his annual State of the University speech to faculty and students Wednesday, Abbott discussed the strategic goals of academic excellence, research and creative activity, and enrollment.

"It is difficult, I'll admit, to quantify excellence," he said. "There are, however, indicators – some that are universally acceptable, and some that are not. While one can argue the validity of national rankings, they do reflect peer opinion."

Abbott said he is pleased that USD has advanced to a higher tier among higher education institutions ranked by U.S. World and New Report. He also cited the many prestigious awards received by university faculty in the last year that demonstrates the level of outstanding teaching currently taking place on the campus.

"Our students continue, as well, to garnish significant graduate and undergraduate scholarships and awards," Abbott said.

He added that there is still room for academic improvement at the university. "Program review is not, at this institution, where it should be. We've not been as active as we should be," Abbott said, adding that such a review will be launched in 2009-10.

"Diversity, in both the faculty and the student body, while we continue to make gains, is always an area in which we struggle," he said. Steps to improve that situation include the hiring of a chief diversity officer and an assistant diversity officer.

"We're also continuing our efforts to support our students academically," Abbott said. An academic advising center, a career development center, a center for academic engagement and other support facilities will be located in the university library. "Clearly, this is a step forward in our services to our students. Any student who cannot or says he or she cannot and does not receive help from this campus clearly is not seeking. This is a great addition and I'm very appreciative of all of those who have worked on this."

Research and creative activity

Abbott said USD's goals in the area of research and creative activity include:

• To conduct research comparable to that at the smaller universities that currently have high research activity, and;

• To create an infrastructure to foster research aligned with South Dakota's 2010 initiative for economic development.

There are signs that the university is already taking strides to meet those goals. USD's funded research has increased from $10 million in 1997 to $29 million in fiscal year 2008.

"This despite a significant decrease in what used to be our main funding agency – the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services… How have made up for that difference? Fortunately, our schools and colleges stepped up their efforts to expand their research. Arts and Sciences has been particularly successful, not through anything but an enormous amount of hard work and cooperation," he said.

The School of Education is also making significant gains in its research activity, thanks, in part, to the securing of Bush Grant and other funding for programs. "It is a clear indication of not only success, but of seeking research success and continuing toward achieving our goal of $60 million," he said. "It is an ambitious goal," he added, stating that he is confident the university will reach that milestone within five years. "We need to retain our traditional funding base, which in fiscal year 09 is approximately $30 million, and we need to add a minimum of $30 million over the next five years."

There are exciting areas of potential new or additional research to be addressed by USD. Abbott hopes to see the level of funded studies in the areas of energy, environment and climate increase from present levels of $2 million to $10 million. "This is an area of particular interest nationally," he said.

Another research area of particular importance involves neuro science and behavioral science. "Currently, we are doing about $3 million in research, and we'd like to increase that to $15 million. This an area of particular interest to the Department of Defense because of stress and brain injury in returning soldiers."

USD also has plans to create a significant Native American research center housed in the old continuing education building. The university's Physics Department is also taking the lead, Abbott said, in the research planned for the underground laboratory planned in the former Homestake Mine in the Black Hills.

"To be successful in the research arena, we need to connect our research efforts with state economic development efforts,"  Abbott said. "For that we need a twofold approach. First we need to encourage active inventions on campus, and connect with off-campus partners to evaluate, protect and market inventions.

"Secondly, we need to foster USD-applied research efforts at the GEAR Center on the University Center campus in Sioux Falls," he said. "We have had success in both areas."

Student enrollment

"I agree that there is no magic number that we must meet," Abbott said, as he focused his attention on the university's enrollment. "But I believe that with our current facility, our current faculty, and the space that we have available, that we should be able to support an additional 1,000 to 1,500 students."

He added that is important, particularly in the undergraduate level, to reach a level of student population "to make the campus as vibrant as it possibly can be."

USD has not met its goal of 1,200 first-time, full-time freshmen, Abbott said.

"The news is not all that bad, and it's not all that surprising," he said, as a chart showing recent trends in the number of high school graduates in South Dakota appeared on the screen behind him.

The chart demonstrates substantial erosion in graduate numbers that likely won't show improvement for several years.

"This tells you, I think, what each and every one of the schools in our state has to deal with in order to maintain our viability," Abbott said.

The number of South Dakota high school graduates has declined from 9,577 in 2003-04, to 8,677 this year. That figure will bottom out at 8,213 in 2015, and will increase modestly.

"Just for comparison's sake, when I graduated from high school in 1966, there were 15,500 high school graduates in the state of South Dakota," he said. "That kind of indicates what has been happening over the past 40 years."

Abbott said increasing the number of new freshmen that enroll at USD each year, combined with improving the retention rates of older students, "would not only increase that additional vibrancy on campus that I mentioned earlier, but would also provide new dollars in the form of tuition reimbursements and fees that would allow us to make the investments that we need."

The university, he said, is in the process of implementing a plan to maximize its enrollment. "I feel positive about that," Abbott said. "We're also in the process of implementing a plan to maximize retention. Most important of all, we are in the process of creating an institution-wide integrated marketing program."

The budget

Abbott said USD must review its budgeting process to meet its goals of increased enrollment and retention. An advisory committee has been named to develop a budget model that aligns university resources with its strategic plan, and encourages investment in university initiatives and focuses on all university resources rather than select major funds.

"In short, I think one must provide incentives where one wants to succeed," he said. "I'm not positive that we have done that; I know we have not done that in some areas. I know we have been very traditional. I think we had, at best, review this very carefully and move forward.

"The point is, we will review the budget, a recommendation will be made, and the process will be changed to suit our goals and to facilitate them," he said.

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