Dear UVM community,
A year ago, I wrote you on my first day on the job. I still feel the same sense of honor and gratitude at being entrusted with leading this great University of the Green Mountains. Perhaps a little less mystique, and a little more of a sense of comfort and belonging, because my family and I did immerse ourselves in the community as I had hoped we would.
And while I acknowledged even then the challenges facing higher education, I can’t help noting the hope I expressed in that first-day letter. Hope that we could weather these challenges and thrive if we focused on our educational offerings, impactful research and scholarship, and meaningful engagement with our community. Through our work together and your feedback, these priorities are now reflected in our strategic imperatives plan, “Amplifying Our Impact,” approved by the Trustees on May 15. It is a strong framework that positions us for future success, and we can all take pride in its creation and offerings.
Learning and appreciating
This for me was a year of learning and appreciating. So many special memories flood in as I recall the time I have spent with you on campus: Move-in, Convocation, breakfast at the Mosaic Center for Students of Color, dinner prepared by members of the Catholic Center, the Prism Center welcome-back picnic, taking up our Black Student Union’s invitation to attend their dazzling fashion show, reveling in the colorful and energetic Diwali program, participating in our first ever Indigenous People’s Day, sitting in on earnest Lawrence Debate Union discussions, roundtable with students in our new Burack Hillel, Andrew Harris Commons legacy celebration, ROTC, inauguration of Rally Cat’s Cupboard, and meeting the UVM Rescue team. Getting to know our dedicated colleagues in an all-hands meeting of our custodial staff, in addition to the staff appreciation picnic and staff recognition dinner. Touring our physical facilities, the Melosira research vessel, Morgan Horse Farm, Fleming Museum, and Libraries Special Collections. The opportunities to host at Englesby House leaders of our Student Government Association and Graduate Student Senate and our Staff Council. All of the partnership and counsel offered by the Faculty Senate leadership in our many meetings, and the opportunity to meet the leaders of United Academics and United Electrical. Being introduced to the wonderful work of our faculty across disciplinary silos at the faculty colloquia and breakfasts at Englesby. The list goes on.
Then the pandemic hit. Rich, in-person exchanges, turned into Teams meetings. Certainly not the same, but just as vital to my efforts to learn about issues that are top of mind for our community, and to offer thanks for the extraordinary efforts that are part of so many people’s “ordinary” days.
What a year this has been; truly one that none of us will forget, but few will want to remember. Decisions needed in hours, not weeks or months, and often with limited, and ever-changing, information. The consultations across campus, with our city and state officials, and with presidents of institutions across the region. I appreciate too your patience with the flood of communications in the face of urgent call for actions. To a person, you all stepped up to the challenge.
The events of the fall and early spring brought us together as a community. This sense of community was strained and sorely tested not only by the separation and uncertainty brought on by Covid-19, but also by the senseless and brutal killing of George Floyd and our effort to come to terms with, and remedy, pervasive racial injustice and inequity. I am proud of Wanda Heading-Grant, our identity center leaders, and the President’s Commission on Inclusive Excellence for finding ways to bring us together in this most unsettling time through our teach-ins and the Amazing Grace event. Our commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion has never been more important, and more necessary. In spite of these most daunting challenges, we are rallying together as Catamounts.
We accomplished much this year
I write this letter to remind us to pause and celebrate what we have accomplished together this past year. Last fall, we took the bold step of freezing tuition for this coming year. With our outsized dependence on out-of-state student tuition, the changing demographics in New England, and our very low level of state support, this was a difficult decision. But it was a necessary one for us as the fourth most expensive public higher educational institution in the nation. And the decision proved to be especially timely in view of the significant financial challenges imposed by the pandemic on our students and their families. As I wrote last November, enhancing UVM’s value will remain our top priority.
Our university community has always been committed to—and defined by—academic programs, research, engagement, and our advocacy of sustainability and environmental stewardship. From establishing the first cross-college environmental studies program in the nation to ensuring that our campus consumes only carbon-neutral renewable electricity, we have a 50-plus-year history of leadership in this area. You might say, sustainability is in our nature. And true to this commitment, our Board of Trustees thoughtfully voted to divest our investments of fossil fuels, setting the most aggressive and comprehensive targets of any announcement of this kind among peer institutions.
You see, there is a reason we believe “Amplifying Our Impact” is a set of actions to be implemented, and not just a static plan listing aspirational intentions. We have already moved rapidly forward with delivering on these imperatives.
Ensuring student success and celebrating faculty recognition
Thanks to the work of many and those who came before me, we received a full ten-year accreditation from NECHE, our regional accrediting body. The new Catamount Core Curriculum approved by the faculty in May 2020 creates a unified general education experience for our undergraduates. The College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) debuted a new undergraduate certificate in Religious Literacy for the Professions, designed to better prepare students pursuing careers in fields like education, healthcare, and journalism for encounters with diverse religions and belief frameworks. The Grossman School of Business continues to scale greater heights with the #1 Green MBA designation from Princeton Review for our Sustainable Innovation MBA (SI-MBA), and top 10 world ranking for social impact. We received Gold-level recognition as an “Exercise is Medicine” Campus for the third year in a row. Our college of Agriculture and Life Sciences moved forward with new programs that highlight UVM expertise and prepare our students to give back to Vermont, including a new Ph.D. in Sustainable Policy Development, Economics and Governance, and two new minors in Bioinformatics and Biosecurity.
We are committed to offering all of our students meaningful research and industrial internships, and our recent partnership with GlobalFoundries to fund a set of student interns each year across all our colleges is a great example.Our career center had a marked increase in posted internships this year, including over 500 in Vermont; they also provided coaching to employers to help them transition to virtual internships. The number of our students enrolled in internship credit went up by 44% over the prior year. CAS’s new Communities of Practice internship model embedded 87 students in high-impact cohort-style internships this year in topics including strategic communications, community health, reporting and community news, legislative work, and sustainable transportation.
Continuing and Distance Education (CDE) expanded its online portfolio of certificate programs to meet the education and training needs of non-traditional and professional students. CDE saw unprecedented enrollment growth in programs. Summer University, for example, experienced record undergraduate, graduate, and non-degree enrollment.
In 2020, we boasted the highest number of Fulbright award winners in university history, with nine recipients and two alternates. One of our graduate students won the Boren Fellowship. More than 150 UVM seniors, comprising the largest ever class of Honors College Scholars, successfully completed their Honors thesis. Our students presented papers at professional conferences around the world and brought home top prizes. And they placed first in their division at the Inter-Collegiate Business Competition, the oldest and most prestigious international undergraduate case competition in the world. When our students succeed, we succeed.
Our faculty remain best in class. Susan Wallace from Microbiology and Molecular Genetics was elected to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences (making her the fourth member of our faculty to be elected to the nation’s prestigious Academies); William Copeland (Psychiatry), Mary Cushman (Medicine), and Taylor Ricketts (Gund Institute) were named among the world’s most influential researchers. Emily Bernard (English) was named a 2020 Andrew Carnegie Fellow, one of the highest honors for faculty in the humanities and social sciences, and also won the 2020 Christopher Isherwood Prize for autobiographical prose for “Black Is the Body,” while Major Jackson (English) was selected as co-editor of the 2019 “The Best American Poetry” by Simon & Schuster. As further demonstration of our leadership in sustainability, Lesley-Ann Dupigny-Giroux was elected a fellow of the American Meteorological Society, and Aimée Classen, Nicholas Gotelli, and Taylor Ricketts joined Nathan Sanders as Fellows of the Ecological Society of America, giving UVM more new ESA Fellows than any other institution.
I am grateful to our school and college deans for their leadership and steadfast support of our amazing students and faculty. We are proud to welcome to their ranks Leslie Parise, a world-class researcher and administrator, who brings great energy as our new dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences—we are so pleased our great potential in agriculture and life sciences helped to lure Leslie away from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill!
It is also a distinct pleasure for me to note my appreciation for my partner-in-crime and dear friend, Patty Prelock. She was effectively my first hire for my leadership team, and my most brilliant move yet. I could not imagine a more seasoned, cheerful and competent partner in the role of Provost.
Investing in our distinctive research strengths
We are making good progress in further enhancing our scholarship, collective ambition, and research impact. Our external awards increased year-on-year by $35 million (a 24% increase over the prior year), and our faculty-led discoveries reverberated around the world. Joshua Bongard’s remarkable work repurposing living cells and assembling them into entirely new life-forms named xenobots appeared in countless international media outlets. DeepGreen, our NSF-supported supercomputing cluster with 80 graphics processing units (GPUs) providing over 1 petaflop for artificial intelligence applications, is enabling new areas of research and undergraduate education. Other successes included Ryan McGinnis’s app to help panic-attack sufferers; a single-step Covid-19 test from Jason Botten’s team; Paul Bierman’s work with fertilizer pollution in Cuban rivers as a model for sustainable global agriculture; Heather Darby’s nation-leading work in regenerative agriculture; Frederic Sansoz’s discovery of the world’s strongest silver for creating a new class of super-strong conducting materials; and Julie Dumas’s clinical neuroscience research on cognitive aging. These and many other successes have made all of UVM proud.
And we continued to translate our research into life-saving practice. One important example is the Vermontilator, a simple, inexpensive, emergency ventilator. In fact, UVM researchers submitted 56 funding proposals to understand and combat the Covid-19 pandemic in fields ranging from perinatal impacts of the disease, to pulmonary medicine for emergency response, to advanced simulation of disease aerosols. Our Complex Systems Center was chosen by Google for a partnership on open-source research to deepen understanding of how people, teams and organizations thrive in technology-rich settings. Our national reputation in sustainable farming and food systems attracted the first food systems research station from the Agricultural Research Service of the USDA. There is much more we can do in enhancing our federal and corporate partnerships and our new Vice President for Research Kirk Dombrowski is committed to paving the way.
I have also had the honor through my service on the National Science Board and other national platforms to enhance UVM’s representation and brand externally. The National Science Board’s seminal reports on Vision 2030, The Skilled Technical Workforce, The State of U.S. Science & Engineering are influential nationally and followed eagerly across the world. And I expressed my belief in mentorship as a means to draw many more underrepresented students into STEM fields in an op-ed on the “missing millions”. On a lighter side, I “planted” the UVM flag at the South Pole!
Fulfilling our Land Grant mission
The Vermont Legislature approved our funding request for a new Office of Engagement that will help us fulfill our land-grant mission by improving lives and livelihoods in our communities in keeping with the commitment expressed in “Amplifying our Impact.” I had written that our land-grant mission is paramount and I couldn’t be more pleased that the state has been so receptive to these ideas. I hope that one day we will look back on the creation of this office as the trigger that helped Vermonters fully embrace UVM as not just the University of, but for, Vermont.
As part of our commitment to enhancing the public higher education pathways in the state, we built a robust suite of partnerships with the Vermont State College System that ensures more user-friendly and seamless access for Vermonters to the spectrum of educational offerings in the state.
Through my early travels across the state to meet legislative and community leaders in every county, and as I testified at the legislature on behalf of UVM, I have sensed widespread appreciation of our role in the economic well-being of the state and pride at being the home of a public research institution that punches well above its weight on the national and international stage. Our state executive and legislative leadership continue to recognize UVM’s great contributions to the intellectual, economic and social capital of the state, and have been great partners as we look to the future.
At the federal level, Senators Leahy and Sanders and Congressman Welch remain as supportive as ever and have ably helped represent the university’s priorities, including targeted funding for opioids research, restorative justice education, and the Northern Forest Research Initiative.
Help from our alumni and friends
I couldn’t be prouder of our alumni from across the decades, many of whom I have had the great pleasure of getting to know. Their accomplishments reflect upon the strength of our great university, and their significant support assists us with critical priorities that otherwise would not be funded. Alumni and donors provided over $52 million this past year, including supporting key priorities like financial aid, faculty endowments, sustainability and the environment, The Patrick and Marcelle Leahy Scholars Initiative, and the Firestone Medical Research Building. With the conclusion last summer of our Move Mountains capital campaign, we are focusing our philanthropic efforts on scholarships to enhance student affordability and accessibility, and on support for our distinctive research strengths, which align so strongly with the world’s most pressing issues. We also continue to encourage our benefactors to support the Pandemic Response Fund to help us continue our important work during these unprecedented times.
Our Athletics success
This was also a banner year for Athletics. Our student-athletes had the highest collective GPA ever, and our Graduation Success Rate of 95.5% was among the top 15% in Division 1. Men’s basketball won its eighth America East Championship—thank you John Becker, and congratulations on being named Coach of the Year in our conference. How I would have enjoyed watching Josh Speidel and his teammates advance through the Sweet Sixteen! Our successes with our other men’s and women’s programs continue a proud tradition of Catamount Athletics, even with a cruelly foreshortened season. We are in good hands with our coaches, as we welcome Todd Woodcroft to Men’s Hockey from his coaching position with the Winnipeg Jets of the National Hockey League. Betty and Paul Mayer set their own record by funding the first-ever endowed women’s head coach position in the America East Conference.
We hosted the first-ever America East Spread Respect Forum this past October as a further commitment to advancing diversity and inclusion efforts in Athletics and throughout the America East Conference. And respecting the vote of our students to provide financial support for upgrading our athletics facilities, construction continues, with an emphasis on upgrades to recreation and student fitness.
Addressing the pandemic-induced challenges
I must start by again thanking our faculty, staff, and students for pivoting without complaint and with little advance notice to remote instruction this past spring. This all-hands-on-deck effort paid off with a successful conclusion of this most unusual semester, followed by an on-time, albeit virtual, celebration of our 2020 graduates. It was not the occasion any of us envisioned, but it underscored the tenacity and depth of character of this class, which will take them far. It also encapsulated the spirit and camaraderie of our special university community.
That collaborative approach enables me to share another point of pride; we accomplished what we did this past year with an administrative group that is among the leanest in our peer group (we rank 70th out of 90 peers in the ratio of administrators per 1000 students). We ended the year leaner than we started it, having eliminated two Vice President positions even as Covid-related challenges and demands have stretched bandwidths to the limit. With that in mind, I ask for patience and understanding as our leadership team and dedicated staff across the university work on overdrive to navigate a constantly changing landscape to prepare for the fall semester.
So many of you—faculty, staff and students—have helped through your service on our UVMStrong Fall 2020 Advisory Committee and Working Groups and other committees in our planning for fall. We have enhanced IT support and invested heavily in providing the technology necessary to make the fall learning experience richer. We will continue to be prudent, fair and equitable with our financial choices. We will do all we can and communicate often and with as much clarity as is available. And while we commit fully to following appropriate safety and health directives to help protect our community, we must not only provide a UVM-quality education, but also avoid surrendering to Covid-19 and instead maintain our focus on our strategic vision and direction.
Looking to this next year
No one questions any more that the future of higher education is itself in question—it will certainly not be business as usual in our profession. So, how do we prepare? We do so by focusing on our strategic imperatives and working to position UVM as the university of choice for sustainability and the environment; enhancing our research portfolio and recognition; continuing our efforts to achieve financial stability; and targeting our fund-raising priorities to those in “Amplifying Our Impact.” And doing all this while honoring Our Common Ground, working together and interacting with each other with kindness and courtesy. From the poem I shared in my installation remarks, I still believe we can pave the way to a place “Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls.”
Our university has been around for over two centuries. With all of us working together as a community, supporting each other, communicating with respect even as we question and challenge, and striving to be an even more outstanding university, we will ensure that we will survive and thrive into the next two.
Be well, and thank you, Suresh
University of Vermont