The new day BGSU faces as it begins the academic year is significantly different from any in the past, President Sidney Ribeau told the capacity crowd at his Opening Day address Aug. 17.
“This different day is one in which we find many changes have taken place from the day before, large and small, which have consequences for us all,” he said.
BGSU, and higher education in general, is in the midst of external forces that have the potential to change it considerably. It will be crucial for the campus to understand the seriousness of the situation and “take on the challenges that will allow us to define our future,” Ribeau said.
Challenges exist on both the national and state levels, he said, and range from severe budgetary constraints to fundamental questions about the way higher education is conducted.
The 2006 Spellings Report, commissioned by the U.S. secretary of education, looked at higher education in America and found serious issues with its value and effectiveness, Ribeau said. “While I agree with all the data and issues identified in the report, I don’t agree with all its recommendations,” he commented. Nevertheless, the results “will impact higher education policy for the entire nation for years to come,” he predicted.
The report “pulls no punches” in finding that U.S. higher education has become stagnant and has slipped to 12th in educational attainment among peers worldwide, Ribeau said. It also “makes much of the fact that throughout our nation, our graduates are less literate, and employers note that they lack fundamental skills for success in the workplace.”
The president addressed the issue of accountability raised by the report, saying that he agrees with its contention that “higher education must change from a system based primarily on reputation to one based on performance.”
Meaningful student learning outcomes must be identified and measured, Ribeau said, noting that BGSU has already made preliminary progress in that area. But if the University is to truly help students achieve their potential, it must ask “We have 3,200 new students this year. What do we expect them to gain? What should we expect our students to know and do?
“We must create and standardize elegant new methods of evaluation” to ascertain what students can accomplish as the result of a Bowling Green State University education, he argued.
State makes changes
Mirroring the changes in Washington, the state has also taken up the issue of higher education. Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland has not only ordered the creation of a unified state system of higher education, but also has elevated the role of the chancellor to the Cabinet level. “Chancellor Eric Fingerhut reports directly to the governor. This is a very important move,” Ribeau said.
Fingerhut has been directed to work with the state’s higher education institutions to create a 10-year master plan that will, among other things, create “centers of excellence” among the institutions and guide allocation of resources. “Our part is to help the chancellor develop a plan that is clearly responsive to the brand of education that we value at Bowling Green State University,” Ribeau said.
‘A very different budget environment’
While helping shape the direction of the plan, BGSU must also deal with further reductions in funding that threaten its very foundation, the president said. Although the state legislature in its biennial budget has provided a 5 percent overall increase in state share of instruction this year and 10 percent next year, in order to get the additional funds the University is required to forgo any increase in tuition or general fees for both years, the president said. The increase amounts to roughly $5.1 million for BGSU, but with the rise in operating expenses, including salaries and benefits, combined with an anticipated decrease in enrollment (as part of planned management of BGSU’s enrollment program, he added later), “our next budget will be minus about $3 million,” Ribeau said. “Plus, the state has mandated that we have to come up with 1 percent in efficiency savings this year and 3 percent next year.
“This promises to be a very austere budget year requiring a great deal of discipline from all areas of campus,” he said. Area vice presidents will begin discussions shortly to develop a plan for each unit.
Calling this a “very different budget environment,” the president noted that BGSU has been challenged before with decreased funding and increased costs, but the latest cuts “come on top of millions of dollars we’ve lost over the last 15 years. It’s like you’re chipping away at a rock and it’s still a rock, but if you keep chipping away it will eventually disintegrate. We’re dangerously close to the edge where the structure gives way,” Ribeau warned.
Progress despite adversity
In spite of the difficulties it faces, the University continues to find success and positive developments, Ribeau said. He noted the construction of the Sebo Athletic Center, a privately sponsored project spearheaded by Trustee Bob Sebo, and the current demolition of Saddlemire Student Services Building to make way for the Wolfe Center for the Arts. The University also has a new provost and new CFO. “There’s a lot of good going on to assist us in accomplishing our academic and research mission,” he affirmed, noting concurrent improvements in the community that help strengthen the University as well.
BGSU’s distinctive mission
As BGSU’s marketing campaign makes clear, the University is about “changing the world by degrees,” Ribeau said. While it can’t change what happens on the state or national level, it can make a difference in the lives of its students and ultimately the world by taking a holistic approach that fosters both intellectual and spiritual growth. “Spiritual growth helps them grapple with the larger issues of their lives, and it can add meaning to a life that often seems empty and vacuous,” Ribeau said.
With materialism running rampant and others demonstrating values that seem to be contrary to the principles of the nation’s founders, giving students the basis to understand themselves and their place in the world is as important as creating students who are proficient in their knowledge and application of facts, he said.
As the state process moves forward, “one of the fundamental questions we at BGSU must ask ourselves is ‘What is the distinct mission of our institution?’” the president said. In keeping with the plan to build centers of excellence, BGSU must ask what it does that differentiates it from its sister institutions and contributes to its national identity and reputation.
Plotting the future
As the University approaches its centennial in 2010, it does have innovative programs and is producing world-class research that distinguishes it from others, Ribeau said. “We do have a distinct niche, but that is not enough.” Calling all that has been done a “platform,” he said the next step is to map out the future. “We must engage in an intentional and deliberative planning process this year,” he said, to ensure that the University is in line with the state’s mission and goals if it is to maintain its self-direction.
“We come out of a place where we make a difference,” he concluded. “We know that creating competent professionals is not enough. We must also graduate students who are going to make a qualitative difference in the world they inhabit so the next 100 years will be the brightest day for Bowling Green State University.”