Our focus over the past few years has been the change to a semester calendar as of this fall. I'm pleased to report that the transition has gone as smoothly as a major transformation of this sort could go. A lot of credit goes to all of you for the hard work that you have done in transforming our curriculum and to all of the administrators for the many changes that have been made in our operations. A particular thanks is extended to Dr. Christine Curtis who chaired the Semester Transition Committee.
In the curricular transformation, one of our objectives was to shorten the time to graduation, enabling more students to graduate in four years. All undergraduate programs were given a target of 120-128 semester hours in length. I'm pleased to report that all programs except two met that goal. This will allow students who pass 15-17 hours each semester the opportunity to complete their degree in four years. B.S. programs in Civil Engineering and Chemical Engineering were permitted to require additional science courses deemed essential to those degree programs.
One of the results of the conversion to semesters that we anticipated was an increase in the number of students graduating during 1999-2000. In spite of our assurances that they would not be adversely affected by the change, many students accelerated their class schedules in order to complete their programs on the quarter system. A total of 5,472 students received degrees during the past four quarters, compared to 5,036 for the same period in 1998-99. This is an increase of 436 graduates.
By "cleaning out the pipeline" (so to speak) in this manner, we actually ended up with fewer total students this fall, even though we admitted the largest freshman class in our history. Our new freshman class totaled 3,876, about 175 more freshmen than last fall, but fewer than the 4,000 we had feared were coming. Our estimates for total fall enrollment are 21,893, a decrease of 227 students.
As we enter this new academic year, it is appropriate to note some of our positive achievements as an institution.
U.S. News & World Report has again ranked Auburn among the Top 50 public universities in the nation in its listings for 2000 2001. This ranking is based on 16 indicators of academic excellence and is a reflection of the strong undergraduate programs that we offer and the excellent instruction that we provide.
In addition to our strong commitment to quality instruction, Auburn University boasts a more than $70 million annual organized research portfolio which, during fiscal year 1998-99, supported more than 800 sponsored research projects spanning all academic disciplines. Research expenditures during fiscal '98-'99 totaled $100 million. AU's research program saw a visionary change in its competitive strategy with the establishment of the "Peaks of Excellence" program. By focusing on interdisciplinary approaches, our research strengths and a team concept, and through diversifying research support, AU is positioning itself to rise to a top-tier research university.
Auburn's faculty engaged in research also achieved notice within their fields, including -- for the second year -- AU faculty researchers being awarded the Creative Research Award by the Office of the Vice President for Research in recognition of career and scholarly accomplishments. Winners to date include Doctors Greg Pettit of the Department of Human Development and Family Studies; Malcolm Crocker of the Department of Mechanical Engineering; Krystyna Kuperburg, Department of Mathematics; Claude Boyd, Fisheries and Allied Aquacultures; and James Hansen, Department of History. Auburn's involvement of undergraduate students in active research also experienced growth, as the Undergraduate Research Fellowship program awarded 10 scholars -- double the number sponsored in the programıs first year of existence in fiscal 1997-98. The OVPR also launched a major customer service enhancement effort by evaluating its support services to remove barriers, improve funding for obtaining and upgrading research equipment, and enhancing the university's research infrastructure.
It is clear, also, that Auburn is taking its outreach mission seriously. This is illustrated by these observations:
(a) During the past year, 729 Continuing Education programs were offered, enrolling 33,088 participants.
(b) Distance Education courses generated 7,647 credit hours, a 37 percent increase over the previous year. (c) Eight (8) new Distance Education degree programs were launched this past year, bringing to 14 the number of degree and certificate programs being provided.
I am also pleased with the progress that has been made by the West Alabama Initiative under the leadership of Vice President David Wilson. You, of course, know about the Rural Studio, operated by our School of Architecture, and of the McArthur Fellowship awarded to Professor Sambo Mockbee. But you may not know that the School of Architecture is also involved in restoration projects at the Snow Hill Institute. Additionally, several faculty from throughout the University are participating in a major community-wide planning initiative at Uniontown, and five "Do Something" grants have been given to faculty for various projects throughout the Black Belt area.
We will be presenting to the Board of Trustees at the Sept. 29 Board meeting a recommended budget for 2000-2001 that will enable us to meet all of the goals we established in our financial plan two years ago. As you know, there has been provided in the budget an average increase of 5 percent in compensation for faculty, staff, and administrators. The budget also provides for an annual expenditure of $7.5 million on the maintenance of our physical plant, an increase of a million dollars over last year which brings us closer to the goal of $10 million per year. We are also providing for a 3 percent increase in the O&M budgets and are setting aside additional monies for several special initiatives.
Included among those special initiatives is a new scholarship fund established by the Board of Trustees to help good students who have a demonstrated financial need. For this year, approximately 1,040 students have received a $750 scholarship to neutralize the increased cost of tuition and to reduce the cost of obtaining an education here at Auburn. In addition to the demonstrated need, each student had to have a 3.0 grade point average here at Auburn if they are a continuing student, or at their high school, if they are an entering freshman. We will need to continue to increase our tuition in order to bring it up to the Southeastern average as is our goal, and this scholarship fund will help to reduce the impact of those increases on needy students.
The budget also calls for $2 million to be allocated for the "Peaks of Excellence" program, including funds that would be available to support additional programs that might be included. I am pleased with the way that this program has begun and with the positive reaction we have gotten from external sources concerning this initiative. However, some discussion of the concept may be warranted in order to insure that the rationale for the program is better understood.
The academic reputation of a university is largely a product of the strength of its academic programs. To be regarded as a university of national stature, an institution has to have a few of its departments or degree programs regarded among the best in the nation. Obviously, the larger the number of academic departments or programs that are nationally ranked, the stronger is the institution's academic reputation. And, as you would understand, the strength of a department is largely the product of the strength of its faculty and their research and publication record, as well as the quality of graduates that it produces, their placement rate, and perhaps other relevant variables.
Auburn has an excellent undergraduate program. It is the strength of the institution reflected in the quality of the students that we attract, the high graduation rate that we have, and the strong demand for our graduates that exists in virtually all of our majors. We should expect every academic department with an undergraduate degree or a first professional degree to do an outstanding job of teaching, to produce graduates who are highly competitive in the marketplace, and to work effectively with their respective constituencies in order to assist our state in its development. But, in addition to these strengths that we must maintain, Auburn needs to develop a few programs that are nationally ranked at the graduate level. Anyone who compares our resources with those of the major public universities in the nation would quickly conclude that we are not capable of competing with Wisconsin, Michigan, Cal-Berkley, or even Florida or Georgia across the board, but we very well may be able to compete with the very best public universities in a few selected areas.
The 21st Century Commission Report that was adopted by the Board of Trustees in 1997 included a recommendation that we identify up to 10 "Centers of Excellence," at the graduate level. It was from this recommendation that the "Peaks of Excellence" program was formulated.
The initial proposals that we received from which the first seven were selected included traditional departments like poultry science, fisheries, and forestry; some multi-departmental programs like transportation and information technology in the College of Engineering; and some highly interdisciplinary thrusts like detection and food safety. It had been my expectation that the proposals would have been predominately departmentally centered. In other words, a proposal would have said that "here is how strong our department currently is, here's what we could do with some additional support, and here is where we could be five years from now with that support." The net result would have been a careful analysis of the areas in which Auburn is capable of developing a nationally ranked department. It was never intended that the number of departments so designated would be very large; in fact, as cited earlier from the 21st Century Commission Report, the original conception was there would be no more than 10 "peaks" that would be selected.
In addition to the seven that were originally chosen, we now have four proposals that have been presented for possible inclusion in the "Peaks of Excellence" program. Each is clearly worthy of consideration and has had an opportunity to make a presentation to a committee that was appointed by the President Pro Tem of the Board of Trustees. In listening to those proposals, however, it was interesting to me how the thrust or emphasis of the presentations had been shifted to a programmatic activity rather than the strength of the department.
Let me use one example to illustrate. The School of Architecture has developed an outstanding program in West Alabama called the Rural Studio. It has gained national and international attention for its activities. It has clearly brought acclaim to the School of Architecture and to the University and, in that context, would warrant consideration as a "Peak of Excellence." But, it seems to me that our focus ought to be on establishing a nationally ranked School of Architecture with the Rural Studio being the vehicle by which it establishes its national visibility and reputation. The Rural Studio is transforming how architecture is taught in those professional schools and could rightly be a central thrust of the school. But it is the School of Architecture that we are attempting to strengthen and build to a position of national prominence.
To be the kind of university we want Auburn to be, we must attract quality students, educate them with the knowledge and skills they need to be successful in the profession they choose or prepare them for advanced study at the graduate level; be viewed as a positive and significant force in the economic and cultural development of the state and region; and be respected in academic circles as a university with strong academic programs. To attain those goals, Auburn must continue to maintain an extremely strong undergraduate program and develop a few programs at the graduate level that will bring Auburn the national stature it deserves academically. With limited financial resources now and into the foreseeable future, the "Peaks of Excellence" strategy, in my opinion, is the most viable approach to take. I believe that we are moving in the right direction, and with a little fine tuning, the "Peaks of Excellence" program will reap dividends for Auburn.
But it is important that we measure objectively the impact that this program has. It is, obviously, too early to begin to see what return we have had on our investments, but it is fully the intention that at the end of a five-year funding program, each program or department will be evaluated carefully to determine the progress that has been made and a decision made as to whether designation as a "Peak of Excellence" is still warranted.
It has been my contention for the time that I have been here that Auburn has to do a better job of planning than do most of the institutions with whom we compete. We have fewer dollars to spend per student than does almost any university in the top 50 schools with whom we are grouped. I believe Auburn belongs in that category based on the quality of our programs and operations, but we have to insure that we are more effective and efficient than our competition in order to play in that league.
Our thrust over the last several years has been to put us in a position where we can do that. We have eliminated virtually all of our academic programs that are non-viable. This means that the academic programs on which we are spending money and time are those that attract sufficient students to warrant that investment. We have also attempted to reduce our administrative overhead, wherever possible, by combining both academic and non-academic units. I applaud all of you for your work in that regard. It has not been easy, but I believe it has been worthwhile. We still need to look for areas where we can combine operations to reduce our costs and serve a larger number of students or customers.
We are beginning to look at our financial resources over a multi-year period in order to insure that we can meet the goals that we have set. We have been treated well over the past two years in terms of our state appropriation. But the prospects for the years immediately ahead appear more pessimistic because of the decision of the Alabama Legislature to lock in 62 percent of the growth in the Educational Trust Fund for K-12 teacher salaries. This will heighten the competition between K-12 and higher education for the remaining resources. But if we do a good job of financial planning and maintain or strengthen our out-of-state enrollment, we should be able to meet the goals in our five-year financial plan.
Let me now turn your attention to another matter that is extremely important to us and that is the continuing accreditation of Auburn University. As you know, we are accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools and are visited at 10-year intervals for the reaffirmation of that status. We will be receiving a visit from SACS in 2003-2004 for that purpose. I am sure you understand how important accreditation is for your professional programs and, likewise, how important is for the institution. We must, therefore, be prepared for the next visit and position ourselves so that any delay of our reaffirmation or placement of the institution on probationary status is clearly unwarranted.
During the years I have been here at Auburn I have the opportunity to serve on a number of reaffirmation teams and more recently to chair these groups. It has become obvious to me that the focus of accreditation over the past decade or so has shifted significantly. There is now less focus on input variables such as the percentage of faculty who have Ph.D's, the number of books in the library, etc., and more on a measurement of output that is largely termed as "institutional effectiveness." An institution is deemed to be effective when it can demonstrate that it is achieving its mission or purpose. The methodology for determining that includes careful review of each academic degree program to judge whether the institution has clearly determined what students are expected to know or be able to do when they complete that program, whether the institution is assessing the learning outcomes that are produced, and whether they are using the results of their evaluation to improve the performance of the program. We must be able to answer those questions clearly for each academic degree program we offer.
For all non-academic units, the question is whether we are able to clearly describe the purpose of that unit, whether we are measuring if that purpose is achieved, and whether we are using the results of that evaluation to improve that unit's performance.
We have hired Dr. Jim Nichols, from the University of Mississippi, to serve as a consultant with us in developing the methodology that will be required by SACS. Dr. Nichols is a nationally-known expert in the field of institutional effectiveness. I have seen first-hand the work that he did at Ole Miss and others have participated in national conferences he has conducted. I hope that all of you who are department heads and deans attended the workshop that Dr. Nichols conducted at Auburn a couple of weeks ago. It is imperative that we put in place this system for evaluating our institutional effectiveness this fall in order to have adequate time to collect data on our assessment of our performance and to use those data to improve future outcomes.
Let me emphasize, however, that what we are proposing to put in place is not simply a "gimmick" to satisfy SACS. It ought to be the central focus of all that we do. Certainly, the faculty who are teaching in an academic program ought to have a clear understanding of the learning outcomes that students are expected to achieve and we clearly should want to know whether or not our students are meeting those standards. Likewise, every operating unit ought to have a clear understanding of what it is supposed to be doing and ought to want feedback regularly as to whether or not is doing so. Only by focusing our energies in such a context can we continue to improve the quality of all our operations.
Let me close by saying that, while the last few years have not been totally pleasant ones for all of us and I cannot guarantee that the years ahead will be any less stressful, I think Auburn has positioned itself to effectively serve the needs of our students and other constituencies and developed a plan to bring the institution to greater national stature academically. We are in the best financial shape we have been in some time, largely because of some wise strategic decisions we have made and because of the sometimes painful measures that we have taken. But, if we continue to plan carefully, use our resources efficiently and wisely, and work together towards the goal of fulfilling our mission and purpose, I believe that all of us can take a great deal of pride in the progress that Auburn makes and the stature that it attains.