2003 Convocation: Chancellor's Address

UC Davis Chancellor Larry N. Vanderhoef

"A Century Ago Anything Was Possible.  It Still Is.  An Optimist's View of Troubling Times"

Wednesday, September 24, 2003
11:00 a.m. – 12:00 noon

Robert and Margrit Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts
Jackson Hall

Thank you very much, Bob, and thank you for being our M.C. today.  I am delighted that you could remind us once again about a part of this campus that is so very important, not only in support of UC Davis’ academic mission, but in service to those who live in the vast northern third of the State of California — and actually far beyond when one considers the worldwide impacts of much of the work of our Medical Center.  It is good to have you here today, representing a vital part of our campus community.

And thank you, Phyllis.  The entire area of the biological sciences, broadly defined, has assumed such an important role in today’s world.  I think your talk illustrated that very clearly and precisely, and I thank you very much for doing that for us.

Kern, as always you and our symphony orchestra have my great admiration and appreciation — not only for today’s stirring performance, but for the role you played in helping this wonderful new hall become a reality just one short year ago.

Please now let me welcome all of you who have come today.  You are busy people with demanding schedules.  It means lots to me that you’re here.  In particular, I would like to acknowledge Terri Brewster, representing Congressmember Doug Ose; Stacey Lybeck, representing Senator Barbara Boxer; Susie Boyd, Mayor, City of Davis; Ruth Asmundson, Vice Mayor, City of Davis; Sue Greenwald, Davis City Council; Ted Puntillo, Davis City Council; Steve Cohn, Sacramento City Council; John Vasquez, Solano County Supervisor; Lynn Pollock, Yolo County Supervisor; Frank Sieferman, Yolo County Supervisor; Helen Thomson, Yolo County Supervisor.

Picture, if you will, our first convocation of nearly 100 years ago — the gathering of our first class of students in October 1908 at what was known then as the University Farm. 

At that time, folks in our hometown of Davisville numbered barely 800 and were still getting used to the novelty of lighting their homes with electricity.  Travel to Sacramento was via the “Tule Jake Road,” passable only in summer and rerouted each spring by the first wagon to make it through the tule swamp that is now the Yolo Bypass. 

The new campus — approved in 1905 by the state Legislature and Governor George Pardee on the third try to pass an authorizing bill — welcomed 16 faculty members and 21 agricultural students that first year.  Its 778 acres consisted then of agricultural fields and such shingled buildings as a dairy barn, livestock judging pavilion, seed house, shop and water tower.  Under construction that fall were a dining hall, horticulture building and veterinary clinic.  In those early days, students arranged for their own room and board in town, at a cost of about $20 to $25 per month.

Shortly after the start-up of classes that inaugural year, the public was invited to a meeting at the Farm.  That was a meeting that inspired what is today our annual Picnic Day gatherings.  As remembered by Peter J. Shields, who’s known as the “father” of the Davis campus, it was at this initial meeting that the “small company mingled and talked (and) its members sought encouragement from one another….The great elms now adorning the south side of the College ‘Quad’…had but recently been planted.  Mere switches, they gave no more promise of a future development than did the boy Lincoln in the early years of his life at Hodgensville.  The people looked out at the almost empty stubble field, seeking something which would suggest a prophecy of greatness.”

Imagine for a moment if our forbearers were here today to judge whether their prophecy came true.  They would see a university built on nearly 100 years of shared and cherished values of community, collaboration and commitment to excellence.  The evidence of that strength abounds:  our election to the prestigious Association of American Universities, our ranking as one of the nation’s top research universities, a marked jump in student applications, and significant increases in research dollars and gifts to the campus.

They would see a campus of 5,300 acres today providing the natural resources and physical infrastructure necessary to support our academic mission.  They would be impressed, I’m sure, to see that this year’s crop of new faculty members numbers more than 100, with total ladder-faculty ranks of more than 1,400.  And they would marvel to see that their initial class of 21 students has grown to more than 30,000 enrolled today, and that one in every 300 Californians is a UC Davis graduate.

There’s no doubt that that prophecy of greatness — both a gift and a responsibility — presented both challenge and opportunity in 1908, and at many points along the way in our evolution from farm school to comprehensive campus -- and again today. 

And there’s no doubt in my mind that the UC Davis family, from its earliest days, has risen to every challenge, has in fact turned challenge into opportunity.  After all, it took three tries in the state capitol to win approval for our founding at the turn of the 20th Century.  But win it we did.

It’s that same perseverance, that faith and long-term vision, that give me heart today — that make me an optimist — even while the University of California grapples with what may develop into a more challenging financial circumstance than we faced during the recession of the 1990s.

We have spent much time during the course of the last year deliberating how the campus can continue to grow and thrive despite these budgetary challenges. 

There are two very real differences between our fiscal circumstance today and a decade ago. 

First, our student enrollments were not growing in the early 1990s as fast as they are today.  That growth is mandated by the California Master Plan for Higher Education — a plan that guarantees a spot within UC for the top 12-1/2 percent of California’s graduating seniors. 

Second, you will understand when I say that our confidence about the future has been compromised a bit by California’s recall election and our multibillion-dollar state budget deficit — a circumstance that seems to amuse as well as bemuse the rest of the country.  And unlike a decade ago, we cannot expect a record-breaking economic growth period like that inspired by the “dot.com” phenomenon of the second half of the 1990s.  Those capital gains and stock option revenues are long gone and our Legislature has very limited ability, compared to years past, to correct the structural budget deficit left in the “dot.com” wake.  We certainly do have dedicated legislators, but their effectiveness clearly has been compromised by term limits, by the threat of recall, and by an increasingly shrinking discretionary slice of the budgetary pie.

You may have read that recently state agencies were advised to plan for up to 20 percent cuts in their budgets for 2004-05.  I remain optimistic that cuts of that magnitude will not be necessary, but it is prudent for us to recognize this broader budget context as we plan for our future.

But no matter the magnitude of the challenge, I continue to have confidence that the university will, as it always has, emerge resilient, with new knowledge and stronger character.  To be candid, this is not necessarily the way I feel every minute of every day.  But, in the final analysis, I am truly convinced in my head and in my heart that we can work our way through whatever challenges await us.

I remember from the early 1990s what we did as the stewards of this public university — what we did together — as we faced almost identical problems.  We learned a few things then that we must remember during the next two years.

We must think again about efficiencies in the way we run this University — about additional ways to improve or streamline our activities.  As we learned a decade ago, some of the best ideas will come from those of you who do the day‑to‑day work, who keep this University running.  I am asking today for you to give thought to ways in which the campus can accomplish its activities in a better and different way because, as you know, we cannot keep adding more.  We must be more efficient.  Please e-mail your suggestions, no matter how small or how radical, to budget@ucdavis.edu

Unfortunately, we must also contend again with the prospect of layoffs.  As was true a decade ago and again this past year as we dealt with targeted state reductions, we must have as our highest priority — our highest priority — buffering the personal impact of layoffs.

We want our employees whose positions are at risk to land on their feet.  That means we will provide needed training to assist them in obtaining another position here on campus.  It means that we will limit searches to internal candidates to help someone who has lost a position find another.  And it means that we will even go so far as to help find a job outside of the University of California if nothing seems to work out within the University.

We must also be thinking about the bigger picture.  We certainly will have to stop or curtail certain administrative activities.  Academic programs must be considered as well, as we are forced to prioritize, to pare and to reallocate.  But we will not – and this is very important – we will not allow our curriculum to erode.  We owe this to our students.

Unfortunately, as much as we would hate to do it, we may be forced to temporarily cut some of those extra- or co-curricular activities that add so much value to our students.  Still, I’m absolutely convinced that, in the long run, we serve our students best if we make these choices rather than ones that limit the courses our students must take in order to graduate.

These decisions will be all the harder because student fees will be going up at the same time.  In the early ‘90s, fees actually doubled before we pulled out of our difficulties.

Even here, though, there is reason for optimism.  One-third of the fee increase monies will be returned to financial aid.  What does this mean?  This means that for those students from families with annual incomes of $60,000 or less, all of the fee increase will be covered by an increase to those students in grants.  Not loans -- grants.  And those with family incomes of $60,000 to $90,000 will have one-half of the increase covered by new financial-aid packages.  The fee increase picture is not as dismal as it first appears.

I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge one other area of challenge.  I believe, however, that it also is an opportunity.  That is our relationship with our community — a community that surely extends throughout the region and the state and beyond, but which, of course, has special significance as the hometown community that welcomed our birth nearly a century ago.  Our predecessors and their Davisville neighbors surely encountered bumps along the way as both campus and town grew and changed.  So too are we experiencing those same kinds of difficulties, as we respectively try to plan for the best of futures, both as a university and as a community.  Our paths are inextricably intertwined, and our commitment to one another I know, at its base, is sincere and enduring.  It is just this circumstance that gives me optimism, that convinces me that strong and healthy campus-community relations is our mutual goal — and a goal that, together, we can achieve.

Listening to the several challenges I’ve outlined, you may be tempted to view that proverbial partial glass of water as half empty.  But is there reason to view it optimistically as at least half full?

Yes!  Yes, there absolutely is.  And this is why? 

Because that sense of optimism is in our genes.  It’s related directly to our “prophecy of greatness”  — a prophecy made nearly 100 years ago that we’ve helped to fulfill and a prophecy that we now make of those who will come long after us.

And because we have exceptional faculty, staff and students, by any measure.

And because two initiatives will each have a substantive role to play.

First, our collective articulation of the campus’s strategic vision, which you now have in hand, is ready for sharing and for action.  This document had its origins under Provost Hinshaw in the fall of 2002, about one year ago.  It is an effort to bring together a vision for the campus with key goals that build upon the foundation of our Academic Plan, our Principles of Community and our Statement of Educational Objectives.  It was shaped significantly by input from the campus community through two cycles of revision.

The strategic plan articulates our mission, our vision and our distinctions.  It identifies strategies for achieving our three primary goals:  learning, discovery and engagement.  Community is the foundation upon which our aspirations depend.  The strategic vision recognizes that the campus must build on its distinguished history if it is to achieve its desired future.

The Provost and I pledge to provide the leadership and especially the support that are necessary to achieve the campus’s aspirations.

Second, we will take appropriate actions to help secure financial resources — for example, capitalizing on the campus’s multidisciplinary research strengths to boost federal funding.  We will secure construction dollars from the state and other sources for needed facility improvements, and we will aggressively pursue increased private giving.

Our record of research funding accomplishment — a near doubling of funds awarded over the past five years — is surpassed only by our potential.  State and federal research dollars grew from $240 million in 1998-99 to $420 million this past year.  And our percentage growth in federal research support these past four years exceeded 50 percent — a greater increase than that of any of the other UC campuses.   But there is so much more that we can and that we must do — especially as funding agencies issue greater numbers of larger grants for multidisciplinary work.  This funding trend offers us a special opportunity because we are a campus that distinctly values and nurtures collaborative, multidisciplinary work.

So, too, must we continue to creatively and aggressively seek funds to build much-needed facilities.  New classrooms and laboratories are springing up on the campus.  They are the result of the much-appreciated support of the state Legislature and voters who deeply care about educational needs.  Our students, too, have generously voted in past years to support such construction projects as the soon-to-be-finished Activities and Recreational Center and the Ted and Rand Schaal Aquatics Center.  And such new projects as the Genome and Biological Sciences Building are made possible through newly generated research that those buildings allow.   We must continue to make progress in this area to ensure that we have the facilities required for our teaching, research and service mission.

And, lastly, we must rely as never before on increased private giving.  There was a time in the University’s history when gifts and private grants were a welcome but optional augmentation to campus resources.  This is no longer the case.  The confluence of needs, aspirations and increasingly scarce public dollars has caused us to lay the foundation for the campus’s first unified comprehensive campaign.  UC Davis will begin to act as one university that is pursuing one campaign.  At this early planning stage, the comprehensive campaign has a working goal of $900 million that will be pursued over an appropriate period of time, probably seven years, and grounded in “The UC Davis Vision” document that you have in hand.  It will be characterized by, and built upon, initiatives derived from UC Davis’ colleges, schools and divisions.

Embarking upon this ambitious campaign has generated enthusiasm within the colleges, schools and other campus units, with more than $1.2 billion in fund-raising proposals submitted this summer for consideration in the campaign.  These proposals will be vetted and refined; opportunities for collaboration will be explored; transformational ideas will be developed; campaign themes will emerge; the communications plan for the campaign will be developed; campaign priorities will be selected; and the proposed campaign objectives will be tested for their resonance with prospective donors.

We cannot achieve success here by doing business as usual.  Campaign success will mean that the campus must transform how its campus-wide advancement and external relations effort is organized, staffed, funded and implemented.  Best practices must be adopted and become our new modus operandi if we are to meet our goal.   But meet it we will.  Of that, I’m convinced.

So how do I feel about our current challenges?   I’m not keen on them.  But this is not a new situation for us.  We have brilliant people who will be part of our solutions.  Faculty from the top ranks.  Students from the top ranks.  A magnificent staff.

And we have friends — alumni, parents, people who have dedicated their lives to service in politics, many who see the importance of maintaining the excellence of the University of California, men and women who serve on our Alumni Board, our Foundation Board, and our Board of Regents — all people who work very hard, I might add, for zero pay.  In short, we literally have thousands, in fact, hundreds of thousands of people worrying about us, working for us, caring about us.  

With that support — and with our legacy and our promise — how, I ask you, can one be anything other than optimistic about the future of UC Davis?

Thank you.