Garimella: UVM well placed to handle the 'next normal'

-A A +A

Garimella: UVM well placed to handle the 'next normal'

Tue, 09/07/2021 - 2:47pm -- tim

President Suresh Garimella's letter to the University of Vermont's community about last year's accomplishments.

Dear UVM community,

As we begin the new academic year, I feel enormous pride in the students, faculty, staff, alumni, friends, families, community members and leaders in our state government and Congressional delegation who supported one another so well through the toughest year many of us have ever known. Yes, we were fortunate to be able to maintain in-person classes and many other activities for which I am thankful, but our usual routines and enjoyable rituals of campus life were disrupted or significantly modified. Such times can be unfamiliar, even disorienting. But I remain confident that we are better poised than most in higher education to handle the “next normal,” and indeed, to thrive through it.

In recent days, I’ve watched the campus coming back to life, picking up a more familiar tempo as students return and staff and faculty resume on-site work. I know we are grateful to be together once again with those we care about and with those who will become new friends and trusted colleagues.

In true Catamount fashion, the accomplishments of our community this past year far outnumber the challenges. After all, how could Vermont be #1 in vaccination rates in the entire U.S. without all of us stepping up to do our part? UVM saw an incredibly low 0.2% positivity rate of COVID-19 with no clusters of infection and no serious medical concerns among our students—this even as we tested all students weekly at first and then twice per week, accounting for about a third of all the tests conducted in our state for the year! And notwithstanding the pandemic, we kept moving forward in reaching our individual and collective goals and amplifying our impact.

Our students excelled

Catamounts didn’t just survive the dark days of the pandemic, they continued to thrive in academic pursuits, research projects, performances, internships, and the hundreds of every-day activities that define this great university. Three UVM students won Fulbright Fellowships this past year, out of a UVM record of 14 finalists. We also set a record with two national finalists for Truman Scholarships.

Among the dozens of students recognized with prestigious scholarships are three Vermonters. Mark Sizen received a Boren and a Gilman International Scholarship. As a first-generation Catamount and junior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, these scholarships will enable Mark to study Japanese in Japan. Our two other recipients of the Gilman Scholarships to study abroad are juniors in the College of Arts and Sciences—James Tedesco is studying political science and French and Paige Roussell is pursuing linguistics. These global experiences benefit our students and our campus as they bring back new and different perspectives. Our students had the highest ever number of internships to choose from, up 75% from the previous year. Perhaps it was no surprise then to find 92% of last year’s graduating class being employed or enrolled in graduate school even as the economy was only beginning its recovery from the pandemic.

We remain committed to ensuring unmatched student success and experience as the core among our strategic imperatives as a university, as we make significant progress in implementing our campuswide general education requirements, reimagining our residential learning communities, increasing online course offerings (by 25% this year), and doubling down on making enriching internship opportunities available. Of course, as part of our commitment to student affordability and access, we are continuing to keep tuition frozen for a third consecutive year and also maintaining room and board costs unchanged.

Our faculty made enormous strides

UVM made tremendous strides as a hub of advanced research over the past year. Our faculty attracted $227 million in total extramural support, not only an all-time high for UVM but also surpassing for the first time the $200 million mark in external awards. While part of this success came from a welcome increase in federal funding, UVM saw remarkable increases in support from foundations and industry—up 50% year over year—and from donors who committed almost $25 million in gifts supporting research. I am proud that external awards at UVM are up 44% over the past two years.

Faculty members won 26 grants of $1 million or more ranging in purpose from studying global infectious diseases to sustainable farming in New England; from improving brain health to building resilience in the face of extreme environmental events; and from improving children’s health to better supporting our military veterans. Support from the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service helped our College of Agriculture and Life Sciences establish the Food Systems Research Center that harnesses UVM’s distinctive strengths and our emphasis on sustainability, health and environment.

Two of our faculty colleagues—Andrea Villanti of Psychology and William Copeland of Psychiatry—were recognized among the “World’s Most Influential Researchers” when they reached the top 1% of scholars as measured by citations of their work. Six UVM professors in the sciences and engineering won NSF CAREER Awards exceeding $500,000 each. And among the dozens of other faculty awards and distinctions, English professor Emily Bernard received the prestigious Andrew Carnegie Fellowship for her work on “Unfinished Women,” essays about Black women artists and public figures, and Computer Science professor Josh Bongard won the PNAS Cozzarelli Prize from the National Academy of Sciences for his team’s ground-breaking work on first-of-their-kind living robots named “xenobots.”

Our faculty created a new undergraduate general education curriculum, the 42-credit Catamount Core. And they launched several academic programs including a new PhD in Sustainable Development Policy, Economics and Governance; a new professional doctorate in Occupational Therapy; and online programs in subjects as diverse as geospatial technologies and community food resource management.

The Sustainable Innovation MBA program continued its reign atop multiple rankings (#1 Green MBA per Princeton Review among others), alongside strong recognition for graduate programs in nursing, speech-language pathology, physical therapy, clinical psychology, secondary education, and accounting.

Our newest faculty are joining UVM at a remarkable time. I am happy to report that we hired 111 faculty over the last year, exceeding the previous year’s hiring despite the pandemic. And I am particularly optimistic about the reimagined approaches to foster diversity, equity and inclusion through the newly constituted University Diversity Council led by our new Vice Provost for DEI Amer Ahmed and with participation from all academic and administrative units. It is encouraging to see that 40% of our new full-time faculty identify as persons of color.

We reengaged with our state in keeping with our land-grant mission

From the heights of Mount Mansfield to the depths of Lake Champlain, UVM faculty, staff and students are innovative stewards of our state’s precious natural resources. This past year, we renewed UVM’s efforts to be stewards of the people and businesses of Vermont. With the successful launch of UVM’s Office of Engagement, we reassured the state that UVM is here to help find solutions that drive the regional economy through our work in four inter-related functional areas: serving as a one-stop, front-door for engagement; catalyzing economic development for the 21st century; creating a workforce pipeline with in-demand skills; and serving Vermont businesses.

The Office of Engagement convened nine economic development roundtables that collectively included leaders from 75 Vermont businesses. Outreach to more than 400 CEOs and business leaders netted 325 new, paid student internships in less than a year. And other initiatives helped establish new partnerships with 51 businesses. In collaboration with UVM Cooperative Extension, where we welcomed Roy Beckford as the new Director, the university assisted 22 public libraries, 31 farms and food businesses and 80 maple syrup producers. Collectively, these efforts touched all 14 counties and every sector of the state’s economy.

As we emerge from the pandemic-induced economic downturn, UVM stands ready to strengthen its successful partnership with the state of Vermont, building on more than 150 years as the state’s Land Grant institution and 230 years as Vermont’s flagship university.

We are grateful for help from our friends

In my installation remarks, I quoted Jefferson’s notion of an aristocracy of achievement arising from a democracy of opportunity. That democracy of opportunity must be available to everyone, regardless of color, gender, identity, or economic means. The thousands of generous donors to UVM are helping to extend opportunity to more students, building new endowments for scholarships and financial aid that make the pursuit of higher education at UVM a possibility for more families each year.

Prioritizing scholarships, combined with our decision to maintain tuition at the same level for a third year running, is certain to help many current and future Catamounts at a time when families are still finding their way out of the economic stress of the pandemic. Our SOAR campaign for student success, launched last fall, has already raised more than $28 million. Included in this campaign are Our Common Ground scholarship funds to recruit and support underserved student populations. The Firestone Medical Research Building is rapidly nearing completion with partial support from generous philanthropy and will lead to life-saving and life-enhancing medical research. More alumni are also making annual gifts each year, including 4,646 first-time donors this past year. The fundraising success we have seen over this pandemic year leaves me very optimistic about the year ahead.

We are setting our sights higher than ever and will launch a second campaign, SOLVE, to support faculty and graduate student research in key areas of strength that will add significantly to the region’s intellectual and economic capital. Because hands-on research is part of many undergraduates’ experience on campus, the SOLVE campaign will ensure that the opportunity to attend UVM made possible by scholarships delivers experiential learning, mentorship by faculty members, and the excitement of discovery.

I am grateful to our many donors and the staff at the UVM Foundation for all they have achieved in support of our students, faculty and staff.

Our athletes scaled peaks

There is a great deal to celebrate when our teams win league championships as Men’s Lacrosse did in 2021 for the first time in program history. But there is an even greater point of pride among our student athletes: their academic performance. Last year, Catamount athletes had the highest-ever GPA of 3.46. Not only did our student athletes outperform the rest of the student body, but 55 of them had grade point averages of 4.0! Twenty of them were recognized as America East Presidential Scholar-Athletes, more than any other school in the conference. Our men and women truly represent UVM honorably as scholar-athletes.

Men’s Lacrosse was not alone in its success, with Women’s Lacrosse advancing to the America East semifinals for the first time since 2015. Sophie McLaughlin ‘22 was named America East Goalkeeper of the Year, a first for our program. Women’s hockey had its strongest season since 2017 with Jessie McPherson becoming UVM’s first Hockey East Rookie of the Year. And among the many other athletes and sports recognized, sophomore Mathias Tefre won an individual NCAA championship in the men’s slalom, the Catamounts’ 69th NCAA title.

Excitement is building on campus as we watch the transformation of our athletics and recreation facilities to support the health and wellness of our students and student athletes. The modernized facilities will provide a state-of-the-art group fitness and wellness hub for all UVM students as well as new team space for Catamount Men’s and Women’s Ice Hockey. I couldn’t be more pleased that with the improvements to be completed in the next few months, we will have quadrupled the recreation and wellness space available to our general student body! And we look forward to the future completion of the Tarrant Center that will be home to Men’s and Women’s Basketball.

Further amplifying our impact into the coming year

And in wonderful news for the years ahead, an extraordinary new class of Catamounts have joined us this fall—with more than 25,000 applications for admission, the incoming class is on track to being the best academically prepared and the largest we’ve ever welcomed! More of these talented new Catamounts come from other regions of the country beyond New England than any previous class.

Together with the new faculty and staff members we have welcomed in the past year, and new administrative leaders in the research (Kirk Dombrowski), enrollment management (Jay Jacobs), student affairs (Erica Caloiero), communications (Joel Seligman) areas and new deans of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (Leslie Parise), College of Nursing and Health Sciences (Noma Anderson), and College of Education and Social Services (Katharine Shepherd), I see UVM poised for accelerated success as we emerge from the pandemic year—more accolades for our students, faculty, and staff, greater scholarship and research contributions, and an even richer campus experience.

I am honored to lead this institution and devoted to seeing it rise to even greater heights in the years ahead.

Stay well and stay proud, Catamounts!

Suresh Garimella


University of Vermont

September 7, 2019