Big Problems, Bold Solutions: The Transformative Excellence Program


I view universities as the context where the most visionary, path-breaking approaches to urgent challenges should be explored. If not within the academy, where creative thinkers from a wide range of fields work in close proximity in an environment where risky work is allowed if not encouraged, then where would we hope to address societal concerns such as prevention of disease and disability, climate change, air quality, and the analysis, synthesis and application of large quantities of data?

This reasoning is what compelled us to create the Transformative Excellence Program (TEP), a faculty cluster hiring effort built around ideas that emerged from the faculty. The TEP is designed to amplify existing strengths of the university, address urgent problems, and raise the capacity, visibility and impact of Utah scholars through the highly strategic addition of a small cluster of new hires across disciplines. More than 20 clusters were proposed; submissions were reviewed by a team representing many fields. Strategic hiring within four promising clusters will be supported in this initial cycle:

• Lifespan Health and Wellness (Dean Cindy Berg, cluster leader)
• Digital Humanities (Department Chair Barry Weller, cluster leader)
• Large-Scale Data Analysis/Utah Statistical Center (Department Chair Peter Trapa, cluster leader)
• Society, Water and Climate (Department Chair Andrea Brunelle, cluster leader)

These clusters bridge departments and cross colleges, bringing together teams with varied expertise and research traditions, with the idea that these combinations have potential to advance knowledge, facilitate understanding, and promote viable solutions to pressing issues of the 21st century. The model is not unlike that of celebrated research institutes, such as Bell Labs (see The Idea Factory), and recognizes that the boundaries of university departmental structures are highly permeable.

Many, many promising ideas were submitted, and I regret that available resources did not allow us to support a greater number of good ideas in this pilot phase. I hope that this initial effort is a success and that we learn from it in order to support a “Phase 2” of the TEP where additional proposals can be solicited and selected.

Each of the thematic clusters received a small amount of funding to assemble scholars from across the campus with shared interests and expertise, though a conference, event, or high profile visitor, for example. I hope that you will take the opportunity to participate and see what is possible. If this initial round is not relevant for your work, give some thought to a future cluster proposal. Please contribute what you can to foster the success of this program. We share in each other’s success. As the University of Utah advances in achievement and visibility, opportunities increase for all. As U faculty members generate solutions to urgent challenges, we progress as a society as well as a community of scholars.

Rising Stars at the U

Andrea Bild Lincoln Davies Dave Huebner
Jake Jensen Beth Krensky Matt Might

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. The statement that a university is only as good as its people could not be more accurate, and I can say with certainty and from experience elsewhere, our people are tremendous.

It is a special privilege, then, to tell you about six rising star faculty members. These scholars come from many different segments of the university, with varied roles, responsibilities, and profiles. They share the special distinction of excellence in scholarship, education and/or outreach at their career stage. Because of the generous support of a donor who wishes to remain anonymous, we are able to recognize these six rising stars as Presidential Scholars, a newly created distinction for early- to mid-career faculty members. Nominated by department chairs and deans, and selected by a small review committee, each individual will carry the Presidential Scholar recognition for three years. In addition to this special designation, they receive discretionary support to advance their scholarship. The inaugural cohort includes:

• Andrea Bild, College of Pharmacy
• Lincoln Davies, College of Law
• Dave Huebner, College of Social and Behavioral Sciences
• Jake Jensen, College of Humanities
• Beth Krensky, College of Fine Arts
• Matt Might, College of Engineering

Please join me in congratulating these stellar faculty members and in celebrating the excellence of the institution that attracted and retained these talented mid-career scholars. I am particularly grateful for the support of the alum whose steadfast dedication to the success of the University of Utah facilitated this gift. This support will positively influence our faculty, supporting their productivity and our ability to attract and retain talented scholars, for decades to come.

As we look to the future, turning toward the next fundraising campaign even as we celebrate the success of Together We Reach, a focus on attracting and retaining faculty talent is essential. We have scores of remarkable faculty, and too few tools to recognize and reward scholarly excellence. I look forward to partnering with you and our donors to build capacity to recognize and reward excellence.

Student Success

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.”

As a campus, we strive to ensure the success, through graduation, of all of our students. We all have a role in promoting retention and graduation of Utah undergraduates, from those of us who recruit talented students to the U, to those who advise and teach students, to those who engage students in high-impact experiences like study abroad, service learning, or leadership, to those who provide support services throughout the university, to those whose jobs give them the opportunity to be a welcoming presence on campus. With an “all hands on deck” approach, we have formed a Comprehensive Task Force on Enhancing Retention and Graduation Rate, bringing together faculty, staff and student representatives from units across the campus to study our data and develop a set of critical recommendations to increase retention and graduation rate. Associate Vice Presidents Martha Bradley Evans and Mary Parker are leading the Task Force; the charge to the group and members are provided here.

As we focus together on enhancing the success of our students, I hope that you will remember the role that you play in this effort. You may be the one, recalled some years in the future, as a person who contributed positively to the success of our undergraduates, as that person who showed a special commitment to student success. Thank you for all that you do to support positive outcomes for Utah undergraduates. Your efforts make a difference.