If ever a time in history showed us who we are, the importance of what we contribute, the value placed on our community, this is it. In every way imaginable, the role of the contemporary research university has been brought into sharp relief on a nationwide basis.
The research solutions, the outreach and engagement, the education and training, the social skills and leadership development, the lively mix of people, the value of friendly competition, and the fun that occurs when campus is humming -- is what many of us live for! Suddenly, though, much of it went silent last March.
However, NDSU did not stop or close down or otherwise capitulate to the crisis. Instead, from all corners of our university and literally on the fly -- our people changed gears, reconfigured, adapted and somehow found ways to keep the wheels turning. Classes carried on, credits were earned, and diplomas issued. Offices and programs kept functioning, research continued, and campus work was carried out--either in person or through work-from-home mechanisms. Illustratively, there was never a day that you could not get a cup of coffee and something to eat at the Memorial Union. Nobody would argue it was normal. Nobody would argue it even came close. However, we had to make it work, and we did just that!
We next turned to the questions of how to operate in the fall given that the vast majority of us prefer to be together. We enjoy fall traditions like posing at the Bison statue on Albrecht Avenue, new and returning faculty orientations, and the excitement of being on a bustling residential campus as it comes alive. That is why students come to NDSU, it is why our faculty come to NDSU, and it is why our community and our state rallies around NDSU.
We were the first college or university in North Dakota, and one of the first in the nation, to publicly commit to in-person operation in the fall of 2020. It was questioned by some at the time but was soon after supported and extended by the State Board of Higher Education to all of North Dakota’s eleven colleges and universities.
Making that commitment early on allowed us far more time than our peers to work on the problem over the summer-- even with most faculty gone. Thankfully administrative, public health experts and many faculty and academic leaders (particularly those with public health expertise), were able to be here over the entire summer. With that additional time, they were able to collectively developed the responsive planning and action so many institutions around the country are still struggling with if not failing at even today.
Not unrelated and worth noting is that for our state, NDSU is rather unique in its size, scope and complexity. In fact, no other North Dakota public entity or agency has a broader footprint or more diverse activities -- spread not just throughout our state but our region.
- We are by a wide margin the largest residential campus in North Dakota, generating the most full-time students and more credit hours, and where state-leading research productivity takes place.
- The NDSU campus also hosts the state’s largest Research & Technology Park, which operates at virtually full occupancy with both private sector and P3 commercialization partners, and a Business Incubator so successful that both the Bank of North Dakota and Midco Communications have expanded their offices there so as to better connect with the emerging start-up firms.
- Adding to the main campus is the distributed nature of our statewide presence through seven major out-state research centers, a local presence via extension offices in every county of North Dakota, and strong agricultural research collaborations in neighboring states of Montana, South Dakota, and Minnesota, and countries around the world.
- Separately funded state agencies overseen, coordinated or hosted by NDSU include the North Dakota Agricultural Experiment Station, NDSU Extension, the North Dakota Forest Service and its associated fire services with reciprocity agreements spanning the western United States; Upper Great Plains Transportation Institute with collaborative research relationships in several western states and; the three-state Northern Crops Institute.
- We also operate a nursing college in Bismarck, and a statewide tele-pharmacy program.
NDSU is a leading partner in the “Tri-College” course interchange program. 35,000 students at the FM area’s five campuses are included in the collaboration, the nation’s oldest such arrangement.
In total, NDSU manages landholdings of over 20,000 acres and employs more than 6,000 faculty, staff and students within its combined annual budgets of roughly a half billion dollars.
In other words, our pivot to a “new normal,” by August, was no small undertaking. Our success was only made possible by our early start and the collective efforts of NDSU’s administrative, faculty, staff and public health experts who were collaboratively involved in the complicated decision-making process starting in March and running throughout the summer.
Even with that head start, the fall’s circumstances were a test of almost everything we know and hold dear, but we are putting in action the very mission of a land grant research university. When we say we are committed to finding solutions to every day challenges for our citizens, this is what we mean.
Key to our ability to move forward has been the implementation of “HyFlex,” an instructional adjunct to our face-to-face teaching. That implementation, made possible by our federal delegation’s support of CARES Act funding and the prioritization of higher education by North Dakota’s Governor, leadership of the State Board of Higher Education and the legislature, has been a herculean task to ramp up, but was the only model that would allow us to keep education ongoing for our students in the form they have come to expect and in fact demand from NDSU. We would be tone-deaf to not hear and understand that.
HyFlex is short for hybrid-flexible. At NDSU, it means each course is built to give students and instructors a choice to attend either in person or remotely … but either way, interactively-- in real time. Courses still have a physical classroom and the opportunity for traditional face-to-face instruction, and the learning outcomes are the same regardless of the mode of attendance.
Through substantial new technology enhancements made possible by CARES Act funding, students and faculty can maintain “in person” teaching and learning. In short, HyFlex means learning together, at the same time, in a normal manner … or a virtual version of that normal.
Just as importantly, a significant portion of the CARES resources were used to provide instructional assistance, and faculty in particular, with extensive training opportunities. We believe that relatively unique investment in training and support on a nationwide basis, was a difference maker in comparison with our peers nationally.
In the meantime, we are as close to normal as possible and drawing an increasing level of national attention with our success in doing so. I was recently “called out” on a video conference for the presidents of all the public research universities in the nation to highlight how we have been so successful. An enormous message of respect goes out to the staff, faculty and students who adapted and endured and made that success possible. Setting the stage for that, were the extraordinary efforts of those who not only secured an unprecedented state-leading level of federal funding for NDSU, but our IT staff who found a way to get new alternatives in place -- in virtually every classroom on campus -- on a ridiculously short timeline prior to the start of fall classes.
In addition, remember we were already facing major uphill challenges given the state’s financial dependence on just two major economic drivers -- both of which were struggling-- and the nation-wide declining demographic for college bound students, worsened by the pandemic and a historic level of competition for enrollments.
If ever a time showed us how important it is for every single one of us to understand that our roles start and end with recruiting students and providing them a phenomenal higher education experience, this is it. While there may be a tendency to relax during normal times, today’s realities serve up crystal clarity. At the core of NDSU, students are why we are here, and faculty supported by our staff are how we serve those students. The rest of what we do, from research to outreach, is built on that foundation.
If we don’t have students, we don’t have faculty and staff, and without faculty and staff we would not be a home to teaching, research and outreach that serves our citizens in every county of North Dakota and beyond in such dramatic state-leading ways. Hear me loud and clear – uniquely, NDSU has a presence and touches every county in in our state. The scope and complexity of doing so, and our reputation for doing so successfully, is unmatched. We need to take advantage of that!
That is why, even more than before, we must continually evaluate our decisions and prioritize our efforts toward attracting an ever-broader cohort of students. Success in doing so allows us to catalyze and grow our faculty -- who literally make the magic in the classrooms and research labs, and produce the application and commercialization of their discoveries. Doing so creates the economic stimulation that results in a better quality of life for everyone we serve.
In reviewing the work of the past year in terms of student recruitment, we are thrilled with results of some significant changes made to our admission process. One highly successful adjustment was the simple act, at the time controversial, of waiving the $35 application fee that is common to most colleges and universities across the nation. That small step led to a huge increase in the number of applications, particularly from diverse student groups with whom we need to increase enrollments. Kudos to the admission staff for their leadership and implementation of such changes.
Kudos to them for also getting a new and much more user-friendly, high-tech mobile application up and running. As a result, application times for NDSU dropped from hours to minutes and can take place through a cell phone anywhere and anytime a prospective student chooses to!
Reducing many of the barriers to easy and efficient application at NDSU clearly resulted in more prospective students in our hands -- where we began working with them to chart their higher education experience, when possible find scholarships and support, and ultimately commit them to NDSU. Given that a third of our students are first generation college students, who likely have no family members to lean on during the admission process, it is incumbent upon us to reduce as many barriers as possible and our Admission staff did it with incredible success!
Not unrelated to the access issues I just highlighted, I want to share a bolstered focus on diversity and inclusion at NDSU. Our country has never fully grappled with, let alone resolved, the racial disparities and discrimination that permeate our society.
However, the greatness of our country is based on the idea that, although imperfect, we have the tools and willingness to continuously improve. To that end, twelve university-wide initiatives are underway to improve not just our campus but also our surrounding community. I would like to highlight those initiatives:
One of the five pillars of NDSU’s strategic plan is on diversity, inclusion and respect. Making diversity, inclusion and respect a foundational aspect of our strategic plan will help ensure these core values are more overtly factored into institutional decision making.
Strategic goals are only as good as their implementation. To that end, I have created a new President’s Council for Diversity, Inclusion and Respect. I want this council to provide NDSU administration with guidance on how to make NDSU a better community for historically underserved populations and to operationalize the diversity and inclusion goal of the strategic plan.
We are finalizing the draft of an Indigenous Lands Acknowledgment to be adopted by NDSU. An initial draft was developed by a group of indigenous students, staff and faculty along with their allies. I have appointed a broader committee combining the original participants with additional internal and external representatives to review and finalize a penultimate draft. As their work nears completion it is clear to me that they have respectfully and accurately recognized the Indigenous American and Canadian First Nations from this region as well as NDSU’s land grant founding. They know, and were pleased to hear, I would like their work to be completed as swiftly as possible.
NDSU has also finalized a new location of the Grandmother Earths Gift of Life Garden, which honors and connects the campus to Indigenous cultures and lifeways. The previous location had to be relocated due to the construction of Sugihara Hall. I would like to thank chairs Jaclynn Davis Wallette and Bob Pieri, and committee members Gretchen Dobervich, Ryan Eagle, Racheal Holiday, and Vanessa Tibbits for their work and guidance in this area. I am pleased to share that by overwhelming consensus, the Garden will be moved to open space adjacent to the existing NDSU Horticultural Research and Demonstration Garden. Locating the garden there will offer a permanent and protected location, with high visibility and visitorship, ample parking, and already existing infrastructure and staffing. The educational potentials for the public will in themselves be an important feature of the new location. On October 12th, the opening event of Fargo’s Indigenous Peoples Day will be held at the new location and serve as the groundbreaking ceremony. Similarly to other related initiatives, I have asked that initial phases of the Garden’s installation be expedited.
Speaking of Indigenous Peoples Day, to the extent that Columbus Day is still identified on NDSU calendars, I have asked university administrators to change our institutional recognition from Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day in recognition of their too-often overlooked history and culture. I would also like to mention that the Office of Multicultural Programs maintains an online calendar that highlights interfaith holidays. I have asked them to expand their recognition beyond religiously significant days to include days that are culturally significant -- such as Juneteenth.
Two other important actions will in the very near future take place in the Memorial Union. The first is installation of flags from all of North Dakota’s indigenous tribes. The flags will be displayed at the west entrance of the Union next to those of the countries our students come from. The other will be naming of spaces in the Union for North Dakota Tribes not currently represented there.
As I mentioned earlier, NDSU waived its application fee for students applying for the fall 2020 semester. That was made possible through a gracious investment by Gate City bank in sponsoring the waiver, and our prospective students certainly recognized the bank’s community leadership with that experiment. We hope other community leaders will in the future step up in the same way.
One of the most positive results of the application fee waiver was a substantial increase in applications for two under-represented groups. Applications from African American prospective students went up 51% and admits went up 57%. Applications from Indigenous American prospective students went up by 41% and admits went up by 49%. We had hoped that the application fee waiver would improve numbers, but we never anticipated that we would get this kind of tremendous response.
To move those admissions to enrollments, we also increased the number of cultural diversity waivers from 54 last year to 70 this year. For next year, we are exploring sponsors to further increase the number of diversity waivers.
Earlier this year, Jaclynn Davis Wallette and Canan Bilen-Green worked with a team of faculty, staff and administrators and submitted a proposal under the New Beginning for Tribal Students program created by a consortium of higher education leaders, of which NDSU was a part, attached to the 2018 U.S. federal farm bill. We were successful in that competitive grant opportunity and will receive funding for important new support of native students.
On June 4th, in light of protests nation-wide, I wrote to campus indicating that our police force would undergo additional training on race and policing. Enhancing that type of training, which was already part of their preparation, every one of our police officers has enthusiastically welcomed the additional training. NDSU Police Chief William Vandal will also be working throughout the year with underrepresented student groups to listen to and learn from their concerns and experiences.
As I have mentioned in prior updates, international students make our campus a more vibrant and diverse educational community, and we have been making concerted efforts to increase the number of international students on our campus. Those efforts were showing significant results until COVID-19 hit. Various travel restrictions collapsed our success on that front but we will recover from those setbacks.
Throughout the upcoming academic year, NDSU’s Northern Plains Ethics Institute will in conjunction with the YWCA be holding an extensive series of conversations about racism, diversity and inclusion on campus and throughout the state. The first of those occurred two days ago, when former Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Alan Page, also of Minnesota Vikings fame, was the series’ first speaker. He elegantly shared his perspective, especially those related to students of color and post-secondary education.
Last but certainly not least, we celebrate the second NDSU building I have asked to be named after faculty from under-represented backgrounds. The first was Cater Hall, enthusiastically named after Dr. Catherine Cater. With similar enthusiasm, I am pleased to honor Dr. James Sugihara with naming of Dunbar Hall’s replacement.
Dr. Sugihara, a nationally-known chemist, held a number of faculty and administrative positions during his 25 years at NDSU up to and including vice president. Sadly -- while rarely referenced by him, he was also detained during World War II in a Japanese internment camp. He was presented the NDSU Blue Key Doctor of Service Award in 1972, awarded professor emeritus status in 1989, and received an honorary doctorate in 1998. Most recently, he was recognized at a celebration of his 100th birthday in 2018, before his unfortunate passing in 2019, at the age of 101. If I am as witty and spry at 70 as he was at 100, I will be doing really well!
These 12 initiatives are only the beginning of making NDSU a better and more welcoming place for all of our students, staff and faculty. With these initiatives, we are setting up both a process and a commitment to continuously improve -- so that we can help NDSU, and our country, better live up to our shared ideals.
I am also pleased that, at our next event immediately following this address, we celebrate the opening of Aldevron Tower. If ever there was a full-circle story of the impact we have on our students, community and the world, this is it.
The Aldevron story seems a fairy tale too good to be true. From a small student apartment at NDSU, a kid from Carrington with an idea meets another student from New Zealand, gets a little help from a professor and a small lab space on campus, and the rest is history. Aldevron, a worldwide powerhouse biomedical company, located in Fargo, has become the largest producer of DNA in the world. Yes, you heard that right. Not just North Dakota. Not just the United States. I said the world! Aldevron is still growing, and already giving back to NDSU in enormous ways. I invite you to join the next online event, immediately following this at 10:30, to learn more about Aldevron and the huge impact this company is already having, and is going to have, on future generations.
Mission focus is a powerful thing, and I want to credit our alumni and friends for their willingness to support NDSU, especially in the past months. Along those lines, know that the state’s history-making campaign “In Our Hands” has continued its successful forward movement and we expect to reach and surpass its goal.
The size, scope and impact of the In Our Hands campaign, and the attention drawn by Bob and Sheila Challey’s extraordinary $75 million-dollar lead gift last year, has been palpable. One of their investments was the Challey Institute, which is creating more named faculty positions than collectively existed previously at NDSU, and the number of students impacted by its programs, is almost unheard of on a national level—elevated by the short 1-year timeline under which that has been accomplished. What we are doing campus-wide, and the stunning early success of that Institute in particular, captured the attention of other major philanthropists, including a $5.5 million dollar investment in NDSU by the Menard Family -- of the nationwide home improvement chain by the same name. Please note the Menard family had no previous tie to NDSU!
In Our Hands will transform the lives of students every day.
- By working together, we can empower students by expanding our scholarship opportunities.
- Through endowed professorships, we can recruit and retain faculty who enrich our learning and research environments.
- Through your support, we can reimagine our facilities and enhance the places where our students learn and live.
- The future of NDSU is in all our hands.
On a different front, and one less visible but equally important, are the multimillion-dollar infrastructure improvements we have completed and continue to pursue through both state support and internally generated resources. For many they are understandably not as exciting as new facilities and programs. In fact, many if not most are underground or otherwise out of view, but they are critically important as the infrastructure for both the current and future success of our University. We are fixing decades of inherited deferred and long overlooked maintenance. We probably won’t get any credit for it now, but somebody down the road will thank us for having done so.
Perhaps the most visible example of facilities improvement, which will position not just NDSU but our state for future success, is the Agricultural Products Utilization Center. That new facility, to be located on 18th Avenue south of the Greenhouse Research Complex, will unlock extraordinary new cereal science, food science and meat science commercialization being throttled back by the unacceptable facilities in which they are currently housed. Harris Hall (circa 1957), and the Shepperd Arena Meats Lab (circa 1952), were never designed or intended as research facilities and have been pushed well beyond their half century age and capacities. Trust me, anyone visiting either Harris Hall or the Meats Lab literally lets out a gasp at the conditions.
The new Center was approved during the last legislative session but only partially funded. Our hope is to complete that funding in the upcoming session. This request is not an expense to the state, it is an asset. New wealth creation in both areas, and ROI to the state through enhanced tax generation, will be the substantial benefits to be realized by this exciting new state asset.
We are serious about making entrepreneurship training possible for our students. This past year the Research & Technology Park led by its new executive director, Dr. Brian Kalk, joined with the NICE Center led by its inaugural director Scott Meyer, to jointly host our annual Innovation Challenge Competition, which has now been opened up to not just NDSU but all 35,000 students of the five Fargo-Moorhead colleges and universities.
The Research & Technology Park has also recently opened a new Innovation Studio made possible by a substantially competitively awarded federal Economic Development Corporation grant.
Earlier I mentioned our land grant mission and our commitment to solving problems for our citizens. In spite of losing more than160 faculty and staff positions over the past few years due to state budget tensions, NDSU researchers have largely maintained the incredible, state-leading level of research and commercialization that has made us North Dakota’s only university in the National Science Foundation’s overall “top 100” ranking. Let me highlight two great examples of why that is important to our state.
An NDSU researcher recently developed a new product to help reduce dust caused by traffic and equipment on gravel roads. I highlighted that critical state need as an NDSU priority to solve in my State of the University address back in 2015. Excessive road dust obviously contributes to poor air quality while presenting additional hazards to people, livestock and crops. It is a widespread issue in and well beyond our state, because there are more than 1.4 million miles of gravel roads in the United States, along with unpaved oil field, industrial and agricultural roadways.
James Bahr, a senior research engineer at NDSU, has developed a patented eco-friendly soy-based dust suppressant to address the problem. The product is formulated to be an easy replacement to chloride brines, allowing it to be used in existing application equipment. With increased use of soy-based materials, demand for Midwestern agricultural products will also increase. Soybean checkoff dollars and the North Dakota Department of Commerce Venture Grant program funded the research.
Another stellar example comes from our coatings and polymeric materials department’s Dr. Dean Webster, and Dr. Andrew Croll in the department of physics. They have been awarded a $5.8 million dollar grant from the Office of Naval Research, and will lead a team of national and international collaborators from the University of Michigan, Florida Institute of Technology and Newcastle University in the United Kingdom to explore properties of surfaces that can resist marine biological adhesions and ice accumulation. They intend to create new coatings to reduce such adhesions, resulting in hundreds of millions of dollars annually, on a worldwide basis, saved in fuel use and maintenance costs.
In closing, let me note that it has become rather trite to say this past year has been one to remember. However, in spite of COVID-19 and the broad range of challenges we experienced locally and nationally at the same time, I can honestly say that this has been another impressively successful year for NDSU. It certainly fell short of our potentials, but what we accomplished in spite of all odds, merit national attention. That came home to me in a recent bond-rating agency review meeting, when at the end of the review the agent collected herself and somewhat emotionally shared-- that she couldn’t believe how well we’ve continued moving forward. She made it clear -- she is not seeing our level of success elsewhere.
If we can do that under the challenges we are currently facing, I cannot help but be optimistic about the future ahead of us.
Thank you for being why we are successful!