Getting to know all of you – as many of you as possible – has been one of the great pleasures of this first year at the University of Utah. I’ve met the amazing people in all corners of the university, faculty and staff from the main campus and in health sciences, as well as graduate and undergraduate students.
I loved my first commencement season at the U. What I experienced was a campus-wide ceremony that was both grand and entertaining, including an articulate, astute Alex Smith as the featured speaker, and an astonishingly sage student speaker whose insights left us all feeling optimistic about what our graduates will achieve.
Clearly, the dialogue about disruption in higher education – the perspective that traditional, residential institutions of higher education are vulnerable to displacement by lower cost online courses and degrees – is underway both within and beyond the academy.
I speak often of the close connection between diversity and excellence, the belief that we will be a stronger, more effective university – in education, scholarship, outreach and economic development – when we more fully represent the society we serve.
As a new leader in University of Utah’s academic community, I am often asked what has surprised me about the U, or how the U differs from other higher education institutions that I know. The question was on my mind this past week when I heard that one of our honors undergraduates, Annika Pecchia-Bekkum, was chosen as a Gates Cambridge Scholar, a highly prestigious recognition that will support her medical science graduate work at Cambridge.
A quick scan of this morning’s Salt Lake Tribune highlights some of the most pressing issues we struggle with as a society – our environment and air quality, conflict across cultures throughout the world and the quest for peace, health in a sedentary society, access to the arts and creative experiences across socioeconomic strata, the effectiveness of public education, clean energy, ethics in political and business leadership.
I often have the opportunity to talk with alumni groups and faculty members about their experiences as undergraduate students. When asked about factors that influenced their success, many people highlight particular individuals who demonstrated a special interest in them – a faculty member who involved them in scholarship, an advisor who reached out to help at a time of need, a donor whose scholarship made it possible to attend college, a staff member who genuinely cared about their well being, or members of a network from a residence hall or sorority who became “friends for life.”
The U is joining with other institutions in the state in the shared agenda to increase four- and six-year baccalaureate graduation rates. The U’s Plan to Finish campaign is tailored to the unique talents and needs of our students.
Within the past few weeks, I had the privilege of attending Governor Herbert’s annual celebration of achievement in science, recognizing Distinguished Professor of Chemistry Henry White as a recipient of the Governor’s Medal of Science and Technology.
The University of Utah is committed to excellence and access, excellence in the students we bring to our campus, the learning experiences we offer, and the success of our students, and access to higher education for talented students independent of their financial backgrounds. These are core values, as vital today as they have been over many preceding decades at the U.