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President Nellis delivers virtual State of the University address

Ohio University President Dr. M. Duane Nellis highlighted the University’s flexible and creative response amid the pandemic, recognized notable accomplishments, and provided strategic framework updates during his third State of the University address held on Aug. 20.

Due to the pandemic, this year’s address took place virtually with all faculty and staff invited to tune in. Nancy Stevens, professor of evolutionary ecology in the Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine and OHIO’s 2020 distinguished professor, made the introduction.

“For over two centuries, OHIO faculty have entered classrooms full of students, but this year we are propelled to develop new models of education and research that are inspired, creative and capable of engaging at a distance,” Stevens said in her introduction. “Nonetheless, this academic year we will continue to enable students to tackle new challenges with courage, determination and grit.”

President Nellis began his address by acknowledging how the academic year was not what anybody expected a year ago due to the pandemic. 

“Everything has changed – the way we teach, work, and learn; the way we go about simple daily tasks; the way we interact with our community, our friends and even our families,” Nellis said. “But in the midst of the most unthinkable and unpredictable crisis of our lives, it’s important to pause, to look up, to recognize our incredible resilience and ingenuity.” 

To aid in the pandemic response, Nellis recalled that OHIO deployed third-year medical school students to help with contact tracing; graduated nurses and medical students early to assist in the battle against COVID-19; consulted small businesses across the region as they navigated the pandemic; as well as various other student projects in music, film and education.  

Although it was a challenging year, Nellis also highlighted that there were still plenty of recent OHIO accomplishments to celebrate, especially with faculty achievement. This includes professor Sarah Wyatt recently being named a fellow of two national organizations; professor Daniel Phillips leading a $3.7 million project to advance nuclear physics experiments; and professor Nerissa Young being awarded a national journalism research award

He also highlighted students who continue to receive national acclaim, with one Udall scholar, one Gates scholar, and three Goldwater scholars in the last year. 

Dr. Nellis also shared the stage with Executive Vice President and Provost Dr. Elizabeth Sayrs, both wearing masks with a protective barrier between them. Dr. Sayrs talked about the phased reopening plan for all of OHIO’s campuses. 

“I want to assure our University community that protecting health and safety while continuing to deliver on our educational mission is, and continues to be, my first priority,” Nellis said. He also thanked Faculty Senate Chair Robin Muhammad for her leadership bringing all University senates together to sign the OHIO Pledge

Muhammad, College of Fine Arts Dean Matthew Shaftel and various student leaders also spoke about what the OHIO Pledge means for the community. 

“All members of the OHIO community must sign a pledge, a pledge that shows we belong to one family, one community and that we will work together to keep each other safe,” Shaftel said. 

Nellis also acknowledged the University’s budget challenges, and that in May and June while facing challenges due to the pandemic, the University also had to make changes to faculty and staff in order to face new enrollment realities. 

Nellis noted that some have wondered if the results were due to the pandemic or due to factors that came before COVID-19. “The answer is simply both,” he said. 

Prior to the pandemic, University leaders were already at work on plans to realign budget expenses with revenue realities following the enrollment declines that started after a record-setting Fall 2016 incoming class.

To showcase understanding of recent enrollment standards, College of Business Dean Hugh Sherman, Associate Provost for Academic Budget Planning John Day, Budget Director Katie Hensel and College of Health Sciences and Professions Dean Randy Leite talked about the changes that have occurred and the innovative steps that brought forth the previous enrollment increase. 

Nellis then introduced the next segment of speakers and discussed how they have been hard at work to change the University’s enrollment trajectory. 

Interim Vice Provost for Strategic Enrollment Management Candance Boeninger, Dean Sherman, and University Communications and Marketing Vice President Robin Oliver spoke on different elements, focusing on the Ohio University experience in branding and strategies in order to gain students, as well as looking at scholarship programs to make sure students’ needs are being met. 

One of these strategies is the OHIO Guarantee+, which was announced in January 2020 to expand on the University’s fixed tuition guarantee and to ensure a level of transparency. 

“Our commitment to students who opt into the OHIO Guarantee+ graduation plan is that we will work with them to establish a plan to reach their graduation goals, that we will ensure course availability and advising, and that if the student meets their obligation and stays on track, we will meet our obligations as we work together toward an on-time, on-plan graduation, or we will make it right,” Sayrs said. 

Nellis also gave a strategic framework update, highlighting achievements that have been made since he previously announced the framework at the 2019 State of the University Address. 

A main update was the strategic initiative, One OHIO. Over the past year, OHIO worked to realign administrative functions across campuses to help create an integrated University.  

Staff and faculty from across OHIO’s campuses spoke about the realignment, including Laurie Lach, director of development and external affairs at Lancaster Campus; Bob Klein, mathematics professor; Nicole Pennington, executive dean for Regional Higher Education and Southern Campus dean; Larry Tumblin, director of information systems at Zanesville Campus; Purba Das, associate professor and campus program liaison at Southern Campus; Jay Morris, College Credit Plus coordinator and director of media at Eastern Campus; Jerry L. Miller, professor and associate director of undergraduate studies in the School of Communication Studies; and Jim McKean, RHE Program coordinator and associate professor at Chillicothe Campus.

Nellis noted, however, that although the University is coming together, it also is happening at a time of painful divisiveness across Ohio and the nation. “I want the Ohio University community to be a model of civility and inclusivity not just for other universities but for the global society in which we send our students, and I believe the most effective way to achieve that is for proactive, relentless, ongoing work to influence minds and reframe relationships through education,” he said.

Nellis said he is continually impressed with students and the work they do to make the OHIO community better. Several student leaders then talked about their experiences with diversity at OHIO.

In the coming year, Nellis said Ohio University will increase its investment in outreach and recruitment of students representing populations that are currently underrepresented at OHIO; form a truth and reconciliation committee to review building names and campus history; conduct a diversity, equity and inclusion audit of University policies and procedures; review the student code of conduct with diverse students at the table to inform the review; and finalize a new diversity and inclusion strategic plan.

Nellis also announced that the Division of Diversity and Inclusion will host a series of virtual events this fall to encourage difficult dialogues on race, equity and justice. In addition, in partnership with student leaders, OHIO will work to uplift a new theme for diversity at the University, simply called “Visible.”

“This theme is about seeing and acknowledging differences, it’s about shining light on the good work happening in our University community, but also revealing areas where change is still needed,” Nellis said. “It’s about providing a platform for voices typically overlooked and providing a space for all of us to be challenged and to grow.”

Nellis ended his address by reaffirming his commitment to open dialogue opportunities with faculty and staff in the upcoming academic year. 

“Even while monumental shifts take place all around us and impact our world, each of you are impacting individual lives. You’re shaping the teachers, scientists, writers, musicians, doctors, nurses, business graduates and leaders of tomorrow in nearly every field,” Nellis said. “This crisis will pass, but the work we do – it lasts forever. I’m pledging to work with you this next year and I hope you will continue to work with me to make this year one to remember at Ohio University.”

August 21, 2020
Staff reports