President Nelsen calls UT Pan Am an "agent of transformation" at Convocation
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Posted: 09/06/2011
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Everyone at The University of Texas Pan-American must work together to make UTPA an "agent of transformation" for the entire Rio Grande Valley, President Robert S. Nelsen said Friday in his upbeat Fall Convocation address to faculty and staff.

UTPA President Robert S. Nelsen delivered his 2011 convocation speech Friday, Sept. 2 at the Fine Arts Auditorium where he told students, faculty and staff about the triumphs and challenges the University has experienced in the last year and laid out the plans he has for moving the institution forward.
"We must harness the brain power of our faculty and the energy of our students and engage with the Valley so that we can change not only our students' lives, but also the lives of everyone -- and I mean everyone -- in the Valley," Nelsen said, calling on faculty and staff to work together with him to carry the University into its future.

Despite the budget crisis facing UTPA and every other state-supported institution of higher learning in Texas, Nelsen said that the future of UTPA remains strong and challenging.

"We must and we will improve the social, economic and personal well-being of those who live here," Nelsen said. "Everyone knows that the best way to do that is through education -- but it is also through reaching out to the community with literacy efforts, with entrepreneurial education, with health programs, with civil engineering projects and with civic training."

To accomplish its mission for the future, and to "truly be an agent of transformation, we will have to transform the University itself" and to do that, UTPA will have to set for itself "some very powerful and maybe even frightening goals," Nelsen said.

He added that over the next 10 years, the University will, among other things, have to:

• Increase annual giving to $25 million per year, with goals of reaching $7.5 million dollars in three years, to $12 million in six years, and to $20 million in eight years;

• Increase college-going rates in the Valley from 32 percent to 60 percent;

• Grow University enrollment to 30,000 students;

• More than double the annual graduation rate from the current 3,500 a year to 7,500 students a year;

• Build at least four new buildings - Science, Business, University College and an Engineering Building;

• Add eight new doctoral programs;

• Increase research expenditures to $30 million;

• Increase the faculty from 665 to 1,350;

• Add 20 endowed chairs;

• Remake the undergraduate experience by adding the University College and 15 signature, uniquely Pan Am programs;

• Change the four-year graduation rate to 26 percent;

• Change the six-year graduate rate to 65 percent;

• Offer 750 courses on-line;

• Build housing for 4,000 students on campus; and

• Establish an Academy of Distinguished Scholars.

UTPA President Robert S. Nelsen commended members of his cabinet and college deans,all sitting behind him, for their work in helping ensure student success during the 2011 convocation Friday, Sept. 2.

To achieve its ultimate goals, the University must have a strategic plan, which, although it is being worked on by the Strategic Planning Committee, is not yet complete, Nelsen said, explaining that "a budget, the legislature and a Productivity Task Force up at System got in the way."

Nonetheless, he said, the President's Cabinet, at a recent retreat, took what the Strategic Planning Committee has done and "began to put meat on the bones."

As part of the plan, entitled "The Engaged University," six major initiatives, each with at least three action items, have been crafted. They are building prosperity, educating global citizens, living healthy, creating transformative leaders, investing in people and maximizing cost efficiencies.

Although the University took a significant budget hit from this year's legislature, cost cutting efforts, an increase in tuition and a recent infusion of construction funding have helped to reduce the impact, Nelsen pointed out.

Although the general appropriation from the state was cut back by nearly 18 percent, the impact will be partially offset by a $10.7 million increase in tuition, meaning that UTPA's budget will for the new fiscal year drop to an adjusted $250 million from last fiscal year's budget of $260 million, an effective reduction of about 3.7 percent, the president said.

Despite the drop, UTPA was still able to establish a balanced budget through a hiring freeze, staff reductions and a variety of other cost efficiency measure and reorganizations that included the closure of "numerous functions and departments," Nelsen said.

"There were some huge sacrifices in many divisions so that we could have enough classes for our students," he said.

Meeting the needs of students was a point he emphasized throughout the address, referring back numerous times to the mantra he established in his Fall 2010 Convocation speech.

"We have only one purpose at Pan Am -- to graduate as many students as we can, as quickly as we can and with the best education that we can give them," Nelsen said.

While the University's budgetary funding from the state has decreased, UTPA was given an infusion of construction money by the University of Texas System Board of Regents at its last meeting. The board approved $42 million for a new fine arts complex that will involve construction of a new auditorium and rehearsal halls and the remodeling of two fine arts buildings.

UTPA student Peter Ehimika leads the University community in singing the UTPA alma mater during the 2011 convocation Friday, Sept. 2.
In addition, the University will share in another $30 million the regents will be providing through the Rio Grande Valley Initiative which includes $4 million for UTeach, an innovative teacher preparation program; $9.5 million for a Valley STARS Program, which will enable UTPA, The University of Texas at Brownsville (UTB) and the Regional Academic Health Center (RAHC) to jointly recruit faculty; and $10 million for a simulated hospital that will be used to help train those participating in UTPA, UTB and RAHC health and medical related programs. Also included in the $30 million is money for biomedical research and to help strengthen the University's fundraising effort and the development and advancement offices.

"I am hopeful and optimistic even in these tough budget times," Nelsen said.

Nelsen closed his address calling on all of UTPA's administrators, faculty and staff to work together on behalf of the students and the Valley.

"You are the future of the Valley and of the University. The future of the University is in your hands," he said. "We will together change the world one life, one student at a time."

Stephanie Corte, president of the Student Government Association, said she and fellow students appreciate Nelsen's candor and his willingness to include them in his plans in moving the University forward.

"It's very clear that his agenda is what's best for this University," Corte said. "It makes you feel comfortable as a student that the president is always taking care of things that we need, that we never have to feel uneasy about what's going to happen with our graduation, what's going to happen the next few years, for the next generations coming after us."

Staff Senate Past Chair Patty Espinoza said she was pleased to hear positive things going on at the University, especially after UTPA suffered through a workforce reduction and steep budget cuts.

"I think it was very uplifting," Espinoza said.

With fewer employees and more students, the University needs to find creative ways to continue serving students and complete assignments without burning out its workforce, Espinoza said.

She encouraged managers to develop incentives or other means of showing appreciation to boost employees' morale.

"It's not the same as before when we had more staff to do the job," she said. "That could really help staff morale. It's not about money all the time, it's about a 'thank you.' They would appreciate more stuff like that, more recognition."

Dr. George Amorim, assistant professor of music, said he felt Nelsen showed a lot of optimism in addressing the challenges the University faces.

"It's going to take a lot of work especially because we have a lot less people and a lot more students we are being asked to work with. I feel it is something doable without taking away from our attention to research and outreach ... we don't want to do something that would eventually lower the quality of what we offer," he said.

View a video of the president's convocation speech or read a transcript of his presentation here.