A year after announcing major changes in the structure and thinking at the university and nearly seven months to the day of President Barack Obama’s visit to campus to highlight the innovation occurring in classrooms and research labs, what’s left to say?
If you’re Boise State President Bob Kustra, and you’re giving your 13th State of the University address to faculty and staff, plenty.
Kustra spoke Wednesday to a nearly full Morrison Center crowd of faculty and staff and he included about two dozen explicit thank-yous to groups and individuals, a top 10 list of notable events -- and even did jumping jacks.
Instead of citing the composition of the incoming freshman class, its collective cumulative grade point average and other gold-plated stats that university presidents like to cite in such moments, Kustra talked about eight individual freshmen, who they were, where they were from and what they had accomplished in high school.
One is Boise High School product Henry Shafer-Coffey. Captain of the swim team, editor of the school newspaper, National Honor Society member, debater, volunteer at the YMCA and The Cabin, and more. In addition, Shafer-Coffey helped start a classic book seminar that has run regularly at Boise High School and various coffeehouses for the past three years.
Kustra listed him last of the eight, all of whom have similarly impressive attainment, and then closed with an appeal to faculty:
“News of such student talent in our midst challenges all of us to bring our best game [to the classroom]. For those of us who call higher education our chosen profession, we’ve been given a heady responsibility – to reach into an unknown future by touching the lives of those we meet in the classroom and across campus. We help shape their destinies and the fate of our nation and planet in a way few on this earth have a chance to do.”
Shafer-Coffey said Wednesday that he had no idea he was going to be singled out . He found out when a professor who knows his mother texted her with the news. He was preparing for an Honors College orientation trip to McCall.
“Funnily enough,” Shafer-Coffey said, “I was on my student center this morning and then saw a Periscope link to the speech and clicked on it and watched the first few minutes. But I had to leave before they got to me, I guess.”
He said he was honored and surprised, and humble about why he might merit mention.
In the spirit of Kustra’s challenge to the faculty, Shafer-Coffey talked about what he likes most about learning and what he looks for from his teachers.
“I guess the best part of learning, to me, is that it’s ultimately just entertainment. It’s just stories and puzzles, and sometimes we throw in some weird ideas about why we’re alive. It’s fun to know more than you did before, and to connect the dots between seemingly disparate facts, whether it’s a history lesson allowing you to figure out politics or an engineering class that unexpectedly helps you while you’re cooking.”
From his teachers, he seeks provocation.
“In a teacher I kind of hope for a guide to lead me through a discipline or class or set of ideas. I think that the student/teacher relationship is at its best when both parties are bouncing ideas off of each other. I think debate and discussion is often just as, if not more, illuminating than the simple presentation of facts. Life is a pretty crazy experience, and at its core I think education is just the act of gathering together to figure it out. So if I can talk about things that interest me with people who interest me – I think I’ve gotten exactly what I hope for from the university and education in general.”
Kustra went on to cite these statistics:
-- Enrollment is up 18 percent
-- The number of degrees granted is up 52 percent
-- Research grants and contracts are up 39 percent
-- The number of donors is up 131 percent
-- University foundation assets are up 59 percent
Those numbers, the president said, are just since Boise State won its first Fiesta Bowl eight years ago.
He also said the school awarded 3,800 degrees in the past 12 months, an increase of 31 percent over five years ago, and muscled its way into the top 5 percent among 587 universities in the overall growth of graduate school enrollment.
Another accomplishment Kustra cited was the university’s effort in science, technology, engineering and math education.
“Not long after President Obama was elected, he kicked off a national campaign to increase the number of students graduating college or university in STEM fields. By 2011, when we checked to see how Boise State fared when compared to the national percentage of STEM graduates, we found only 11 percent of our students were STEM graduates.”
The national average was about 15-16 percent.
“Our provost [Martin Schimpf] set a goal of reaching 15 percent in five years, and I am delighted to report today we have reached our goal two years ahead of Marty’s plan. We now have the programming in place to play our role in this national effort to increase STEM production.”
The university also has $40 million in grants in place to help it play its role, the first time it has reached that number in a single year.
He added that the university’s efforts toward boosting STEM education have not come at the expense of other programs, taking pains to point out that a university is not merely a STEM factory.
“In looking at our overall distribution of majors and graduates, you can see we have considerable balance among disciplines. We must remain a university that embraces the critical, historical and contextual thinking the liberal arts provide our future citizens – but one that also recognizes the challenges graduates are facing in the workforce.”
Another challenge he encouraged the university community to be aware of was the debt load that students take on to obtain their education.
“There is a new normal operating in the lives of our graduates and it is increased student debt thanks to the need to compensate for the loss of state funding over recent years,” he said.
He said majors that historically have had low placement rates need to do better in finding students jobs if the programs are to be preserved.
“If we are to survive and thrive,” Kustra said, “we must adapt to trends in educational needs and we must provide value to students.”
He also talked about involving the faculty senate in an assessment of the university’s foundational studies program, a program designed to create a uniform experience for all students in skills such as working collaboratively and project management.
The skills, so-called soft skills, are things that employers have said they want from graduates but are things that don’t universally occur across all disciplines.
Kustra said he has heard complaints and concerns from students and parents about the program.
“They’ve suggested that in trying to deal with the ‘soft’ issues, we went too soft, if you will, providing more style than substance.”
The senate, he said, “will explore the criticisms and outcomes of this vital program, and if it needs refocusing or fixing, to fix it.”
He also welcomed 55 new full-time faculty.
Among those Kustra singled out were:
-- the university’s second on-faculty astronaut, Steve Swanson, a veteran of the International Space Station who joins Barbara Morgan as a distinguished educator in residence
-- University of San Francisco’s Corey Cook, hired in the spring as the inaugural dean of the new School of Public Service
-- National Book Award winner Denis Johnson, who will be a distinguished writer in residence in the university’s MFA program
-- Gordon Jones, formerly of Harvard, who will lead the university’s College of Innovation and Design, which was announced a year ago
-- The creator of New York University’s Stern School of Business in Shanghai, Jack Marr, who, Kustra said, will have multiple roles on campus that draw on his international expertise
Kustra also encouraged faculty to join in a university effort to focus on big ideas that may already be occurring on campus. One he cited, which prompted the jumping jacks, was an effort to work with shaping bodies as well as minds across campus through a new fitness program called Bronco Fit, in which he encouraged faculty, staff and students to participate.