Finding Certainty in Uncertain Times
University Convocation and Annual General Faculty Meeting
Remarks by President Denise M. Trauth
August 21, 2020
Good morning! When we begin a new academic year, we gather to reflect on the past year and look forward to what’s ahead. But before we do that, I’d like to honor our truly exceptional faculty and staff. You have inspired our students, served as compassionate mentors, and conducted groundbreaking research.
Each year, The Texas State University System Board of Regents honors professors who have achieved excellence in teaching and research, while demonstrating an unwavering dedication to their students, university, and community. This year, Texas State is proud to have another of our faculty members named a Regents’ Professor: Dr. William Brittain, professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.
The Board of Regents also recognizes exceptional teachers with the Regents' Teacher Award. Regents' Teachers are selected based on their outstanding performance as educators, their contributions to the development of courses, and their use of innovative teaching methods. Texas State is proud to have two Regents’ Teachers honorees this year: Dr. Cynthia Gonzales, associate professor in the School of Music; and Dr. Mayumi Moriuchi, senior lecturer in the Department of World Languages and Literatures.
In 2013, the Board of Regents began honoring staff members for their commitment to the university and its mission. One exceptional staff member is chosen annually for this honor from across the seven institutions in The Texas State University System. I’m pleased to say that this year’s recipient of the Regents’ Staff Excellence Award is Dr. Carol Dochen, director of the Student Learning Assistance Center.
The Minnie Stevens Piper Foundation honors faculty members in Texas colleges and universities who have made a special impact on their students and the community. I am proud to announce that among this year’s recipients of the Piper Professor Award is Dr. Ann Burnette, associate professor in the Department of Communication Studies.
This morning, we are also recognizing two University Distinguished Professors whose careers in teaching, research, and service have been exemplary and recognized at the state, national, and international levels. Please help me congratulate our new University Distinguished Professors: Dr. Duane Knudson, professor in the Department of Health and Human Performance; and Dr. Patricia Shields, professor in the Department of Political Science.
For their years of outstanding teaching, research, and service at Texas State, five retired faculty members have been named Distinguished Professors Emeriti, and we recognize them today. Our honorees are: Ms. Michel Conroy, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Art and Design; Dr. Stephen Gordon, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Counseling, Leadership, Adult Education, and School Psychology; Dr. Shirley Ogletree, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Psychology; Dr. Marilynn Olson, Distinguished Professor Emerita of English; and Dr. Jovita Ross-Gordon, Distinguished Professor Emerita of Counseling, Leadership, Adult Education, and School Psychology.
Each year, we recognize one faculty member with the Presidential Seminar Award. Recipients then share their research or creative activity with their peers. The 2020 honoree is being recognized for her superlative scholarship and contributions to her discipline. The next Presidential Seminar will be presented by Dr. Kathleen Melhuish, assistant professor in the Department of Mathematics.
We are honoring two faculty members with Presidential Awards for Excellence in Scholarly and Creative Activities. Both have made significant contributions to their disciplines and to the intellectual life of the university. They are examples of Texas State’s commitment to research, scholarship, and creative activity as part of the teaching and learning experience. Join me in congratulating: Dr. Arzu professor in the Department of Respiratory Care; and Dr. Kathleen Melhuish, assistant professor in the Department of Mathematics.
This year’s Presidential Awards for Excellence in Teaching go to three individuals who are passionate about their fields and convey that excitement to their students. Please join me in honoring: Dr. Regina Jillapalli, clinical associate professor in the St. David’s School of Nursing; Dr. Kristen Farris, assistant professor in the Department of Communication Studies; and Dr. Laura Duhon, senior lecturer in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction.
We also ask our faculty to serve, as well as to teach and conduct research. The Presidential Award for Excellence in Service is given to faculty who exemplify our commitment to public service as a responsibility to our university, our professional fields, and our community. Please join me as we honor: Dr. Cindy Royal, professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication; and Dr. Michael Burns, senior lecturer in the Department of Communication Studies.
Our Faculty Senate chooses from among its colleagues recipients of the Everette Swinney Faculty Senate Excellence in Teaching Award. Today I’ll give this award on behalf of Dr. Janet Bezner, chair of the Faculty Senate and associate professor in the Department of Physical Therapy. Everette Swinney Award recipients are chosen on the basis of their dedication to the teaching profession, their influence on the lives of students, and their contributions to the university as a whole. This award is named for a beloved deceased faculty member and longtime chair of the Faculty Senate. With great pleasure, we present the Everette Swinney Faculty Senate Excellence in Teaching Award to: Dr. Ann Burnette, associate professor in the Department of Communication Studies; Dr. Ting Liu, associate professor in the Department of Health and Human Performance; Dr. Roque Mendez, professor in the Department of Psychology.
We make our final teaching award on behalf of Cindy Williams, President of our Alumni Association Board of Directors. Each year the Alumni Association recognizes an outstanding teacher who demonstrates passion and innovation in the classroom with its Teaching Award of Honor. When faced with a global public health crisis, our classroom instructors showed poise and flexibility in quickly transitioning their courses to remote delivery so that our students could continue learning safely. This year, the Alumni Association has chosen to recognize the exemplary actions that Texas State faculty took to support our students in a time of uncertainty by awarding the 2020 Teaching Award of Honor to all spring 2020 instructors of record. Without all of you, our students’ success this spring would not have been possible.
Today we also honor faculty and staff members for dedication to the pursuit of inclusion and diversity. Recipients of the Excellence in Diversity and Inclusion Award are: Dr. Russell Hodges, associate professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction; And Ms. Arlene Salazar, a Librarian in the University Libraries’ Research, Instruction and Outreach Department.
We now want to introduce this year’s winners of the Mariel Muir Excellence in Mentoring Award. Each year we honor a faculty member and a staff member for mentoring our students and employees. We are proud to recognize: Dr. Caitlin Gabor, professor in the Department of Biology; and Ms. Michelle Sotolongo, student development specialist II in the Honors College.
And now, let us honor the 2020 Employee of the Year. She was chosen from among the twelve Employees of the Month. Join me in congratulating Dr. Andrea Hilkovitz, research coordinator in the Graduate College.
Congratulations, again, to all the faculty and staff we have honored today. In my Convocation remarks, I always share a sampling of the university’s major successes of the past year. Although these past few months have been dominated by the challenges we have endured, we still have many achievements to celebrate in teaching and learning, research, facilities enhancement, and student success. One of the things the pandemic has taught us is to take advantage of virtual and remote formats. So today, we use this remote format to share a video featuring some of last year’s major achievements. There are, of course, many more. Our university’s successes are a direct result of YOUR dedication, compassion, and expertise. I am incredibly proud of what we have accomplished, together. There are simply too many stellar achievements to fit into one video, so we’ve shared more highlights of faculty and student honors on the Convocation page of my website. Please enjoy this video as we celebrate achievements YOU have brought to fruition for the Bobcat family.
I am so very proud of all the achievements of our past year – the ones we showcased in the video and all the others throughout the year. The challenges we have faced have been truly historic – but these challenges did not dampen our excellence in research, teaching, or student achievements.
We are experiencing three crises simultaneously: a global pandemic, an economic downturn, and a national reckoning of racial inequality. We have grappled with these issues as faculty, as parents, as spouses or partners, as university staff, and as administrators. But for a moment, let’s view this situation through the eyes of our incoming freshmen.
We have almost 5,900 freshmen joining us this month. The majority of them are 18 year-olds who graduated from high school earlier this year. For them, most of the coming-of-age traditions that mark this time in their lives – like high school graduation, and university campus tours – have been completely different or cancelled altogether due to the pandemic. Millions of Americans have lost their jobs or suffered economic losses in recent months. Perhaps our new students’ parents or family members were laid off or had their income reduced, threatening their ability to pay for college. They had dreamed of an unfettered path to the future. 2020 hasn’t been at all the year they envisioned.
So, what does this mean for us at Texas State? It means our work has never been more important. Our students come to us determined, resilient, and optimistic. Texas State must be a place of comfort, growth, and fertile ground for new relationships and experiences. Our returning students, who adapted quickly, if not happily, in March to online classes and remotely delivered services, need even more support, connection, and compassion from us. We must be creative in our strategies to engage with them, and to provide them with their own unique Texas State experience. We must be prepared to help them take the turmoil and use it to become stronger, more informed, and more engaged.
The culture of Texas State is clear. When our students need us, we deliver -- from classroom instruction to fundraising for scholarships, from real-world experiences to quiet places to study, from mentoring and advising to just listening. YOU, our faculty and staff, are on the front lines of delivering these life-changing experiences to students. I know that as you work tirelessly on behalf of them, you also face your own personal and family struggles caused by these challenges.
Let’s dig deeper into the main issues we are facing, and Texas State’s response.
For several months, the pandemic has touched every aspect of our daily lives and university operations. The pandemic has forever changed us, taken from us, and challenged us in ways we never imagined. But I take heart in knowing that here at Texas State, our response has been defined by our spirit, our tenacity, and our strength as a community. In responding to the pandemic, we made difficult decisions, but we charted our course with student success in mind.
I’d like to thank the more than 120 faculty, staff, and students who served on the COVID-19 work groups that guided our preparations for summer and fall. Our planning process involved gathering feedback through listening sessions, focus groups, a survey, and interactive webinars. Out of this collaboration, and with guidance from public health experts and epidemiologists, we have a plan – our Roadmap – which is designed to adapt as the situation changes.
As we engaged in this planning process, our thinking about the delivery of instruction for this fall semester evolved. So did the pandemic. As I shared with you in my email of July 24, we arrived at four instructional modalities -- along a spectrum from completely online to in-person modified for social distancing. But what we always kept in mind is that students choose Texas State in large part because we are known for excellent teaching, and the personal connections our students make with our faculty and staff. We know that education is more than sharing course material. It’s about inspiring students to care about that information, and to dig deeper into that knowledge to make it their own. We want to have as much personal interaction as we can with students -- safely.
Life in the age of COVID has been drastically different for each of us. Many of our staff and faculty worked without childcare. Many of you have gone long stretches of time without seeing your family and loved ones, and like many of you, I’ve missed our family, especially in July when, Cecilia, the newest member, was born. But amid all this, I’ve enjoyed hearing some of the ways our staff and faculty adapted. Some of you tried your hand at new skills, like gardening, baking, or home remodeling. I took advantage of the on-demand exercise classes the Department of Campus Recreation placed online and discovered some new muscles.
Beyond Texas State, our students, faculty, and staff rallied in full force to serve our region in hard times. We loaned ventilators and personal protective equipment to nearby hospitals. We used our 3D printers to produce medical grade swabs for testing, and devices that enhance the fit of face masks for law enforcement and healthcare workers. Our engineering students and staff created a hand sanitizer. Our Small Business Development Center is helping business owners access programs to help kickstart economic recovery. Bobcat Bounty, the university’s food pantry, has continued serving students in need of food through curbside delivery. Our University Police Department served a meal to Hays County first responders to express our gratitude for their service. National news outlets have tapped our faculty members dozens of times for their expertise about the impact of the pandemic.
COVID-19 has taken an economic toll on families across Texas, and on our students. So, we acted quickly to: expand the tuition-free Bobcat Promise program for incoming freshmen; launch a new scholarship fund for students this fall, Bobcats to Bobcats; and distributed $15.8 million in Emergency Financial Aid to almost 18,000 students with COVID related expenses. We will continue to deal with the impact of the coronavirus for quite some time. However, I am certain of one thing: at Texas State, we will address the challenges before us with fortitude, creativity, and flexibility.
The pandemic has shaken our university’s financial landscape, as well. It led to $39 million in budget reductions for the coming year, due to a five percent cut in state appropriations and a possible eight percent enrollment decline in student credit hours this fall. As of Monday, this decline in student credit hours was at 3.7 percent. So that’s good news, but until the twelfth day of classes, we won’t know for certain what that number is.
As we take prudent steps to deal with the budget reductions, I know this creates challenges. Many of you are making incredibly difficult decisions about priorities, and staffing in offices and classrooms. We are, once again, being asked to do more with less and some of you are assuming additional responsibilities due to a budget reduction or a retirement. I ask all of you to support one another more than ever, to practice patience, and to be mindful of this extra workload and stress that many of you will bear. Although it will be difficult, our priority must remain laser-focused on student success.
One of the things we know makes the greatest impact on student outcomes, is you, our faculty and staff, and the personal connections you make with our students. Your mentorship, your encouragement, and your tenacity advocating on their behalf not only improves outcomes for each individual student. It bolsters our university’s reputation as a place where our students are cared for… where they find a “home away from home.” These relationships are not line-items that can be added or removed from a budget.
They are choices and priorities made by departments and individuals, buoyed by great leaders, buoyed by our faculty and staff. My promise to you is that we will continue to take steps that lay the groundwork for future enrollment growth, including launching in-demand degree programs, which I’ll share more about in a few moments. As we collectively and individually grapple with the financial environment, let’s remember, this too shall pass. Financial downturns tend to come in cycles. Texas State, and the state of Texas, will emerge from this tumultuous season.
The third crisis we are facing is the national reckoning of social and racial inequality. Last month, the New York Times reported that Black Lives Matter may be the largest movement in U.S. history. Black Lives Matter is a fight against racism, but it is also a fight for equality and social justice. Once again, we find ourselves at the crossroads of words and action regarding equality and justice for Black people. At Texas State, we have chosen bold action. I am more resolved than ever before to stand with, and act on behalf of, our faculty, staff, and students of color. Many talented and passionate leaders across the university have been instrumental in building a strong foundation of diversity, equity, and inclusion. With their guidance, we have taken a number of steps to support diversity and build inclusion. Several of those major initiatives are shown on your screen now. This has not been easy work, and we are indebted to all who serve on these teams with great passion and expertise.
We held a historic Day of Reflection and Solidarity on Juneteenth to set the tone, and pace for growth, this year. We also held a series of listening sessions with students, with faculty, and with staff of color and we held two town halls on restorative justice. These two town halls were part of a plan created this summer by university leadership, in collaboration with the University Police Department and Institutional Inclusive Excellence. Our goal is to continue to promote the safety, security, and wellbeing of our students; and promote positive relationships with UPD – a team of dedicated, officers who serve our Bobcat family.
We’ve taken a number of steps, but there is more to do, and there is an urgency in this mission. This fall, we should expect to see an acceleration of the disagreement and conflict that typically accompanies Presidential elections. To prepare, we formed an Elections Task Force with two big tasks: First, to proactively prepare the community for constructive interactions throughout the election season. We will have community conversations that invite uncomfortable and courageous dialogue. Examining our own positions, our prejudices, biases, and privilege is key to awakening, to raising consciousness, to doing things differently. The second big task of this Elections Task Force is to promote registering for and then voting. We will have both early voting and Election Day voting in the Performing Arts Center on our San Marcos Campus. We moved voting to this location so that we can have social distancing as we exercise our right to vote.
Planning for our engagement in the Presidential Election is just one thing that will define the months ahead of us. This fall, we are launching several new degree programs, which are shown on your screen right now. We know competitive, innovative degree programs tailored to meet workforce demand, make Texas State a popular destination for new students.
I already mentioned we took a five percent reduction in state appropriations for this and the upcoming fiscal years. The reality is we may face additional budget cuts when the Legislative Session begins in January.
Last year, we completed the mid-cycle review of the 2017 to 2023 University Plan and the updated version becomes effective starting this fall. We have made great progress toward supporting our mission and we expect to expand on these efforts during the remaining three years of the plan. The upcoming year marks the culmination of Texas State’s ten-year SACS COC reaffirmation process. The Compliance Certification report, addressing SACS COC standards, will be submitted by September 8. Following an off-site review, a SACS COC on-site reaffirmation committee will be on our campuses at the end of March. Our Quality Enhancement Plan, or QEP, which has been in the making for three and a half years, will be submitted in early 2021. This QEP focuses on enhancing undergraduate research, an activity we know powerfully connects students to Texas State and promotes retention and graduation.
We will undertake a number of construction projects this year -- all designed to increase instructional space: the Infrastructure Research Lab at STAR Park, which will be a hub of innovation, research, and hands-on learning opportunities for civil engineering students; a University Police Department Building, which will free up Nueces Hall on our San Marcos Campus to become the new home of the Testing, Evaluation, and Measurement Center; and a Campus Services Building on our Round Rock Campus, to house support departments to free up space in the Avery and Nursing buildings for academic programs. We also plan to complete major renovations in the coming year. In San Marcos, we’ll transform the Aqua Sports Center into a cutting-edge space for new course offerings in film, video, sound, and associated technologies.
In closing, I offer you this certainty in this time of uncertainty: Texas State WILL emerge stronger from these three challenges. I am confident of this because of the excellence of our faculty and staff; and the tenacity of our students. Even when it feels like the whole world is changing around us, our reason for existing and striving each day remains the same – student success. It lies at the heart of everything we do. We will emerge from this even better prepared to help our students face the future and thrive in the unknown. Thank you for everything you do.