State of the University Address

University of South Carolina President Bob Caslen delivers the State of the University address on September 30, 2020 at the UofSC Pastides Alumni Center.

September 30, 2020 

 

Transcript 

Thank you, Issy, and good morning everyone! 

This is my first State of the University address as your president, and I am honored to share a bold and ambitious vision for South Carolina’s flagship university. It is a vision of excellence.  We are the university of the state whose best days lie ahead and whose students, faculty and staff keep raising the bar and elevating our path to excellence. 

I am grateful for this university community; for your support throughout my first year as president, and particularly over the last six months.

We’ve been through a lot since last March  -- not just the University of South Carolina, but the state of South Carolina, the United States and the world.  With that in mind, I can honestly say that it’s good to be here with all of you who are in the room, and with all of you who are watching online.

Six months ago, our students and faculty were settling into spring break and would soon learn that instead of returning to campus after their travels, they would have to remain off campus for what we hoped would be a brief time.  A brief time lasted for the remainder of the semester, as we took all classes online and sent much of our staff home to work remotely.

I cannot say enough about our faculty and their swift response to the very challenging reality of having no more than two weeks to adapt their in-person classes to online experiences.  It was not easy.  There were technology issues.  There was uncertainty.  Frustration.  But the faculty – with the support of our Division of IT – made it happen.  

I must brag on our students, who also had very little time to adapt to online education last spring. And those who lived on campus had the added challenge of having to stay out of their residence halls until we knew it was safe to go back in.

I must also brag on our staff; where would we be without them?  Often our staff are the unsung heroes during normal times, and they certainly shine during times of crisis. Working remotely is challenging when we’re used to being in the office with colleagues, or face to face with the students who benefit from the many services and opportunities overseen by our talented staff. 

But Gamecocks, we did it.  We continued to deliver education and services to our students through the end of the spring semester. 

But this story is far from over – we are still writing the narrative of our response to COVID-19.  I believe we are writing a narrative of resilience, of determination and compassion.  The very fact that our campus is open and has remained open; the fact that we are delivering education to more than 35,000 students using flexible modalities; and the fact that we are navigating the COVID-19 pandemic and taking care of each other; it’s clear to me that the University of South Carolina is demonstrating what it means to be the state’s flagship institution of higher education. 

I’ve said many times over the last six months that out of every crisis comes opportunity.  That’s not to say we would ever choose crisis over calm, but COVID-19 created an urgency for us to act on many important changes that had been discussed long before the pandemic. The last six months have shown us that with strategic thinking and teamwork, we can look at difficult situations with new eyes.  We can see innovation and make it happen.

Our talented scientists in the Arnold School of Public Health and the College of Pharmacy are using their expertise to help us navigate this public health crisis. They built early models of the virus’s impact on our campus and continued to update them as the public health environment evolved. They were among the first university scientists to develop a saliva test, which might never have happened if not for the efforts of a spontaneous coalition of scientists in South Carolina and across the country who worked nearly nonstop and shared results and materials with one another in the weeks before and after the initial lockdown in March. Our ability to provide saliva testing and to process the results has been a game-changer.

Let me express my heartfelt thanks to Dean Steve Cutler, Dean Tommy Chandler, Dr. Melissa Nolan, Dr. Lee Pearson, Dr. Sean Norman, and Dr. Carolyn Bannister.

I want to also thank Nephron Pharmaceuticals and CEO Lou Kennedy – an extraordinary Gamecock alum who just keeps giving and giving to her alma mater.  Nephron’s tremendous donation of hand sanitizer to our campus, and its steady testing support have contributed significantly to our COVID-19 response. Thank you, Lou.

Throughout the pandemic, we have used science to inform science. In addition to walk-up testing sites on campus, we have used our capacity to perform focused testing, based on the science of wastewater monitoring in various parts of our campus. 

Our incredible team at Student Health Services, led by Dr. Debbie Beck, has risen to this occasion with confidence and with the determination to use our amazing healthcare facility and our excellent healthcare team to care for our students’ physical and mental health during this time.  Special thanks to Student Health Services staff members, Dr. Rebecca Caldwell, Steven Jaindl, Dr. Warren Scott and Tajuane Dockery.

I remember during the worst spike of student positives, when the pressure was the highest, I walked down to the Student Health Clinic one morning to see how Debbie was doing. In the midst of these most challenging times, Debbie was committed, resilient and determined. She knew her work was making a difference.

In her office, I noticed a sheet on the couch and asked her why that was there, only to confirm what I had suspected, that she was working night and day and taking a cat nap every once in a while. 

Where do we get such commitment and dedication? In the midst of the crucible within this crisis, are the Dr. Debbie Becks who will walk side by side with you, never wanting to let you down, and always focused on the health and well-being of our students and faculty and staff.  Many Debbie Becks have surfaced during this crisis, and it has truly been an honor to serve with them in the midst of this crucible. 

I also want to recognize the great partnership with Governor Henry McMaster, and our mayor, Mayor Steve Benjamin. So much of our campus resides in local neighborhoods, and if we were going to be successful in mitigating the risk of community-wide spread, we were going to have to work together by placing ordinances that set the conditions for safe public areas.  We are so fortunate to have the Governor and the Mayor as partners as we collectively tackle and defeat this pandemic. Thank you Governor McMaster; thank you Mayor Benjamin!

And thank you to the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control and Acting Director Marshall Taylor for your partnership and support in testing, quarantine and contact tracing.

As so many have done, caring for the wellbeing of this institution has also been a guiding principle throughout the pandemic. The tireless work of our budget team, academic deans, and all who contributed cost-savings ideas to streamline the operating budget of the university; all of you helped us weather the early financial storm of COVID-19. And the work of our amazing admissions team resulted in one of the largest freshman classes in our recent history. Special thanks to Senior Vice President Ed Walton and Vice President for Student Affairs Dennis Pruitt and your talented staffs for your wisdom and guidance.

 

It is with our new students in mind, and with all of our current and future students and their families, that I pledge to freeze tuition for the 2021-2022 academic year. 

 

Of the nearly 8,000 freshmen, transfers and participants in the residential bridge program, more than 4,700 are from South Carolina. Our African American enrollment grew by 28 percent over last year and has grown by 84 percent since 2016. Underrepresented minorities make up 25 percent of our new students, and Hispanic freshman enrollment is up 55 percent since 2016. Nearly 18 percent of the new freshman class are first-generation college students.

These numbers are remarkable, especially when compared to the concerns we had during the spring about our enrollment projections. There was a point when it looked like the pandemic would diminish our freshman class by as many as 3,500 students.

It is with our new students in mind, and with all of our current and future students and their families, that I pledge to freeze tuition for the 2021-2022 academic year. 

We simply must protect the value proposition of higher education – for our current and future students, faculty and staff. I’ve been talking about this value proposition since I arrived at South Carolina; it didn’t take COVID-19 to start this conversation, but the pandemic certainly has made it more urgent than ever. The value proposition is why we reopened in August. We would never have reopened if our public health experts had advised against it.  But we must deliver on our mission. We must make higher education accessible and affordable, or current students won’t stay, and prospective students will not give us a chance. 

Within the very name of our university rests its most solemn obligation:  to serve the people of South Carolina. How we fulfill this obligation is what will make us preeminent, and our new strategic plan lays out the pathway to get there.

In fall 2019, I gathered the university’s top academic and administrative leaders and launched a process to craft a new strategic plan, making sure the entire university community had input. If this plan was to be successful, it would have to be built on a culture that is based on shared values supported by effective shared governance, honest and open conversation, respect for differing opinions, collection and analysis of facts, and collaborative approaches to problem-solving. 

Our new strategic plan is the product of hours of hard work and thoughtful deliberation by great leaders, committed students, talented faculty, innovative researchers, committed staff and corporate and community partners. We immersed ourselves in focused conversation, listening carefully to one another and exploring the strategic horizon of this university. This hard work is necessary in order to cultivate a shared vision of our future and to initiate sustainable change.

Our culture must embrace the ideals of respect, empathy, humility and integrity spoken in the Carolinian Creed.  These values embrace an ethic that forms the moral foundation for our campus culture as we work to ensure that the university remains an innovative, welcoming destination for tomorrow’s students, researchers, entrepreneurs, game-changers and leaders. By serving the people of the great state of South Carolina, we will become the nation’s preeminent flagship university – that is our vision, and that is our Path to Excellence.

Excellence is the opposite of mediocrity.  Excellence drives us to stretch and grow, moving into areas we are unfamiliar and uncomfortable with, while making mistakes and learning from them, in order to become stronger as a result. Excellence cannot be limited to just a few areas; it must be abundant, and it must permeate every aspect of this institution:  classroom, board room, laboratory, office, field, court, stage, and every space in between. 

 

Our culture must embrace the ideals of respect, empathy, humility and integrity spoken in the Carolinian Creed.  These values embrace an ethic that forms the moral foundation for our campus culture as we work to ensure that the university remains an innovative, welcoming destination for tomorrow’s students, researchers, entrepreneurs, game-changers and leaders.

 

Excellence is definitely at work at the University of South Carolina. 

  • According to U.S. News and World Report, we are, once again, the number one public for first-year experience;
  • And the Moore School is, once again, ranked number one in undergraduate international business and number one in graduate international business;
  • Our Ph.D. program in Exercise Science is ranked number one;
  • We were also named the number one sport science university in the nation and number 11 in the world by the Academic Rankings of World Universities;
  • Our honors college once again has the top ranking, scoring 5 out of 5, in the just-published 2020 edition of Inside Honors, the only data-based assessment source for honors colleges. Because the Honors College depends on every other college for course faculty, research direction, and mentoring students, this remarkable accomplishment is really, in truth, an accomplishment of the entire campus.
  • Last year our women’s basketball and our women’s soccer teams, under the excellent leadership of Coach Dawn Staley and Coach Shelley Smith, won regular season and tournament SEC championships;
  • The women’s basketball team finished the season ranked number one in both national polls for the first time in program history. The women spent 10 weeks on top of the AP poll – the most of any team during the season. 
  • And frankly I think we Gamecocks are bold enough to believe that our women’s basketball team was indeed the national champion last year.
  • Finally, the Spring 2020 semester brought a 3.7 cumulative GPA for student-athletes, the highest in school history and the 27th straight semester of a cumulative 3.0 GPA or higher. We have led the SEC Academic Honor Roll for the last five years.

The strategic plan calls all of us – students, faculty and staff systemwide; every college and school; every chair, division and department; all of us, to rise to new levels of excellence. 

The first priority of the strategic plan reminds us that in order to truly meet our obligation as South Carolina’s flagship, the path into our institution must be a wide one. This path must ensure access and affordability, and it must attract a student body that is reflective of the state we serve. This path has multiple access points both geographically and technologically, and it must lead our students to broader thinking, improved analytical skills, and increased research opportunities. Essentially, our students’ academic experiences must reflect a real-world approach that effectively combines the classroom and the workplace.

The second priority focuses on recruiting and retaining a diverse, world-class faculty who are excellent instructors and recognized scholars.  

Under the leadership of our new Executive Vice President and Provost Bill Tate, we are committed to recruiting and retaining faculty who can transform the lives of our students and transform the world with their research and scholarship.

We must pair that faculty with a diverse, dedicated staff, who together with our faculty, produce and instill a shared culture of excellence for the university. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced the importance of the third priority in our strategic plan. We must pursue research excellence that allows our university to serve the needs of our state while raising our visibility on the world stage. We must drive further down the path of bringing science and technology into alignment, supporting the health and economy of our state.  And while we’re at it, there is no reason why the University of South Carolina should not pursue joining  the best research institutions within our nation. 

Ladies and gentlemen, quite frankly, we are well on our way. 

  • In Fiscal Year 2020, our faculty garnered $279.5 million in research and sponsored awards funding. This is a new record total, the sixth record in six years.
  • Through a rapid funding initiative, the Office of the Vice President for Research invested more than $877,000 in COVID-19 research by our faculty. These projects span a wide variety of disciplines and study various impacts of the virus.
  • Carolina Distinguished Professor Ron Prinz received $11.1 million dollars from the National General Medical Sciences to establish the new NIH Center of Biomedical Research Excellence for Child Well-Being in the College of Arts and Sciences. This interdisciplinary center will involve nearly 20 faculty researchers from five departments across four university colleges and schools.
  • Professor Ana Lòpez-De Fede of the Institute for Families in Society received $29 million dollars from the federal and state departments of Health and Human Services to provide expert technical support for the South Carolina Medicaid program.
  • We have initiated a special internal funding program, the Racial Equity and Justice Fund, to support research that centers on race, racial justice and racial equity. This program was launched in collaboration with Julian Williams, our Vice President for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. 

Our path to excellence must not contain walls or barriers to our students, our faculty, our staff, or the state we serve. Priority four along our path to excellence will help us cultivate a more diverse, equitable and inclusive campus culture where every individual, regardless of background, has the full opportunity to flourish and thrive. Our university must better reflect the state we represent and ensure that every member of our community feels valued and affirmed.

That’s why I elevated the position of chief diversity officer to the level of vice president.  And I am thrilled that we hired Mr. Julian Williams to serve as Vice President for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.  Because of the nation’s troubled social justice climate that was further agitated by the killing of George Floyd in May, Julian hit the ground running even before he officially began in June. 

As Americans, as South Carolinians, and as members of the Gamecock community, we must re-commit ourselves each day to the Carolinian Creed and to creating a campus culture that respects the dignity of all people. 

This university, like the state and the nation, must deal with the parts of its history that cause pain for many of its citizens.

The very first action I took as president was to create the Presidential Commission on University History.  Under the leadership of Professor Valinda Littlefield, University Archivist Elizabeth West, and President Emeritus Harris Pastides, the commission is charged with researching every building on our campus whose name has a controversial history; and delivering a comprehensive report to me by the end of the year that includes recommendations for renaming.  Soon, the commission will hold open public forums to hear from all members of our campus and greater communities as we discern recommendations to our Board and the General Assembly, in accordance with our state’s Heritage Act.

Importantly, the establishment of this Commission is not only about how we address building names; it is also about our collective effort to create a more inclusive and welcoming campus community by presenting a more inclusive and historical narrative of our university’s past.  

Priority five addresses the University of South Carolina System, because our path to excellence must also connect us with the power, attributes and institutional diversity of this remarkable university system. 

There’s a lot to brag about in our system:

  • U.S. News and Report ranked UofSC Aiken and UofSC Upstate – yes, a tie – as number one public regional colleges in the South.
  • They also were tied for number one for best public regional colleges in the South for veterans.
  • And UofSC Aiken is the number one public university for online bachelor’s degrees in South Carolina.
  • In the 2021 edition of the Niche Rankings, all four Palmetto College campuses – Lancaster, Salkehatchie, Sumter and Union – are ranked in the top five community colleges in South Carolina.
  • UofSC Lancaster remains number one in South Carolina and number two in the nation.

Focusing on affordability and success for every student, Priority five says we must harness the power of our university system to ensure the availability of lower-cost multi-degree options for students, no matter where in South Carolina – or around the globe – they may live.

In July we launched South Carolina Online, offering more than 60 undergraduate and graduate degrees, 100 percent online, from across the University of South Carolina System. Through South Carolina Online, we are providing accessible, affordable, and flexible degrees.

This is one of my top priorities coming out of this strategic plan. As higher education changes, and as a flagship university that serves the people of our great state, we recognize the more than 50,000 former college students in our state that did not get their degrees, and who are now engrained in some other career path that will not allow them to return to residence education, but who still would like to pursue a higher education degree. Many will welcome the opportunity to get their degree online, and this is an incredibly important part of our state population we want to serve. 

Coupled with these future students are the numerous military colleagues, who are transient by nature, and who also seek a higher education degree. These individuals will need an academic program that will follow them as they transition from one installation to another.    

Our bricks-and-mortar comprehensive universities and Palmetto College campuses across the state, coupled with high-quality online degrees, have a transformative impact on the lives of South Carolina students and communities.

The university’s path will parallel the economies of our state and our world. Priority six says we will work as partners with industry to spur innovation and economic development. Our university has a $5.5 billion-dollar impact on South Carolina and is one of the largest economic development forces in our state. We will fuel innovation by creating research and business alignment while helping to create a thriving marketplace for the workforce we educate and train.

  • We continue to expand our corporate partnerships with Nephron Pharmaceuticals, IBM, Siemens and Yaskawa in our Digital Transformation lab;
  • We are creating exciting new partnerships with the United States Special Operations Command, DefenseWerx, and the Fort Gordon Cyber Command.
  • And 52inc, a local mobile app development company, is partnering with the U.S. Army Cyber Institute at West Point to help develop a new Jack Voltaic cyber planning mobile application. 52inc is a Columbia-built company that began at our Technology Incubator in partnership with the College of Engineering and Computing.
  • UofSC is listed among the top one percent of patent-producing universities in the world by the National Academy of Inventors, a distinction it has held for eight years in a row.

We must also fuel innovation on our campuses by investing in our infrastructure. Priority seven says we will provide a sustainable campus infrastructure – physical, virtual, fundraising and administrative – that supports academic excellence and preeminent student life. 

Under the leadership of Vice President Doug Foster, we made a historic investment this past year in IT that dramatically improves the student digital experience, doubles our research computing capacity and brings state-of- the-art technology into the classroom. I would like to express my sincere thanks to the Division of IT for its outstanding work over the last six months and yet to come. 

Quite frankly, the pandemic has catapulted our university to develop the infrastructure that our future students will demand of us.  As higher education evolves to meet the needs of students across many lifestyles, we must deliver education anytime, anywhere; in-residence and online; synchronous and asynchronous.  We must have the technology to synchronize instruction into any one of our more than 650 classrooms on campus. 

Our commitment to excellence in facilities and infrastructure is also evident in our plan to relocate the School of Medicine Columbia to the Bull Street development in downtown Columbia, and we are grateful for the General Assembly’s continued support of this hugely important project that we believe will literally transform this university and the City of Columba. COVID-19 slowed down our planned approval processes last spring, and we will restart that process in the spring of 2021.

Finally, as Americans and South Carolinians, we all love a winner. To truly be excellent, we must compete and win – both individually and as an institution, both in academics and in athletics. But we do not win at all costs; no, the eighth and final priority of the strategic plan is all about building – building teams, building mindsets and building a culture of winning – with excellence and character. 

That also includes winning against our rival – Clemson.  I can see the day where the entire student body rushes the field and takes down the goal posts when our Gamecocks kick the “you know what” out of our in-state rival. Frankly, almost all of our NCAA and club and academic teams already do that on a regular basis. 

There are challenges ahead for higher education all over the country. But the University of South Carolina has perhaps never been so well-prepared to tackle the future and succeed. We have never been so highly regarded, highly accomplished or highly sought-after as a destination for those seeking a top-notch degree.

To continue to be a leading public research university, South Carolina must constantly improve its technology, facilities and programs. We must assess the current social, political and economic landscapes, deal with funding issues, and find new resources. 

 

There can be no doubt that the indomitable spirit here at South Carolina comes from our greatest asset: our people. Students, faculty, staff, alumni; we Gamecocks are made of bright conviction, genuine warmth, earnest optimism and unrelenting inquiry. We are made of 200-year-old tradition, and we are forward-looking.  

 

South Carolina is known for having an indomitable spirit. With proper foresight, planning and execution, that spirit will lead us through today’s — and tomorrow’s — challenges.

I see this spirit in so many of our students who overcome obstacles every day with resilience and determination.  I am especially inspired by Jessica Teresi, a senior Biological Sciences major who plans to become a physician assistant.

Jessica suffered two severe concussions during her junior year of high school and her sophomore year of college. Concussions are known to produce abrupt changes in a person’s cognitive, physical and emotional states, and Jessica has dealt with mental health challenges since her concussions occurred.

Not only did she take the necessary steps to manage her stress and take care of herself; she also became a Changing Carolina Peer Leader here at South Carolina to promote student wellbeing. Later she was elected Co-Chair of the Mental Health Special Interest Group and worked with students on incorporating mental health practices such as mindfulness, body positivity and resilience into daily routines. Jessica also jumpstarted a project called “I Feel UofSC,” a mental health campaign and prevention platform. Jessica, thank you for turning a very difficult personal situation into a passion for inspiring and helping others. 

There can be no doubt that the indomitable spirit here at South Carolina comes from our greatest asset: our people. Students, faculty, staff, alumni; we Gamecocks are made of bright conviction, genuine warmth, earnest optimism and unrelenting inquiry. We are made of 200-year-old tradition, and we are forward-looking.  

If we have learned anything from this pandemic, it is that Gamecocks are resilient and determined. We don’t hide and we don’t quit. We are South Carolina, and we are on a path to excellence. There’s room on this path for all of us – campus community, local, state and federal leaders, community partners, working together, building the future of South Carolina’s flagship university.

Here’s a Health, Carolina.  Forever to Thee.

Thank you very much.