Tuesday, May 31, 2005

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Armed with a list of successes and positive trends in student achievement, private giving and national rankings, and carrying an enthusiastic endorsement from its own governing board in Chickasha, the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma on Friday presented its ambitious Mission Enhancement Plan to the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education in Oklahoma City.

USAO President John Feaver unveiled the plan in a 12-minute multimedia presentation, along with Dr. Sanders Huguenin, vice president for academic affairs at USAO. Their presentation was introduced by Dr. Paul Risser, chancellor of the Oklahoma State System, to the nine-member policy board for Oklahoma colleges and universities.

The heart of this plan, says Feaver, is to capture greater statewide support for strengthening USAO’s nearly 100-year-old mission as Oklahoma’s public liberal arts college.

“Across America, other states are now joining a national trend toward the creation of public liberal arts colleges – as if it were a new idea,” Feaver said. “Yet in Oklahoma, one college has served this unique role for almost a century. In fact, USAO not only holds the longest uninterrupted mission in the state -- besides the University of Oklahoma -- it serves as one of the oldest public liberal arts colleges in America.”

Understanding that trend, Huguenin said, is critical in Oklahoma higher education. “Public liberal arts colleges are not some sort of obsolescent holdover from the past; they are in fact a burgeoning trend in higher education and a sensible response to the rising tuition of small, private colleges,” Huguenin said. “In the last two decades, Missouri has seen the need for a public liberal arts college; Georgia has seen this need; Massachusetts has seen this need. Now 25 states have one. If Oklahoma didn’t have an institution positioned to fill this need, it would probably have to create one.”

USAO’s potential is being fueled by “the visionary, innovative and entrepreneurial thinking of its Board of Regents, faculty and staff,” Huguenin said. As evidence, he cites USAO’s aggressive investment during the last seven years of $24.8 million, using no state-appropriated funds, in new student life facilities. He boasts on faculty achievement, as 90 percent of USAO’s faculty hold the highest degree available in their fields. And, he quotes the latest data on promising trends in student recruitment, fundraising and national rankings.

Tough times in a difficult economy in recent years have only strengthened USAO’s resolve to achieve excellence, Feaver said. Despite bruising budget cuts since 2001, USAO has continued to build on past successes.

“Over the last five years,” Huguenin explained, “graduation rates are up; freshman retention rates are up; the percentage of USAO freshmen in the top quarter of their high school class has risen significantly; and the average ACT has risen by almost a point. Even more, in the last ten years, the student body has changed dramatically towards a profile that better fits USAO’s mission as a residential liberal arts college. We are attracting more residential students and more traditionally aged students.”

But students are not the only believers in USAO’s growing reputation for quality, says Huguenin. “Private giving has increased significantly and the USAO Foundation has grown. In the past seven years, the endowment has increased from less than $2 million to more than $7 million. Over the past four years, we’ve averaged more than $900,000 annually in gifts of all kinds.”

All this progress brings USAO closer than ever to more fully realizing its mission as the state’s public liberal arts college.

“USAO's mission,” Feaver said, “making liberal arts and science education accessible and affordable to all citizens -- is being reinforced in unprecedented ways through innovative and entrepreneurial partnerships with business and private investment, generous alumni and public support, aggressive development strategies, a mission attractive to corporate and foundation giving, and proven leadership in the Oklahoma State System of Higher Education. USAO's many recent successes provide a powerful foundation for our vision to establish a national reputation as a center for excellence in Oklahoma.”

Oklahoma’s best and brightest students deserve an in-state alternative, Feaver told the State Regents. “My purpose today is not simply to ask you to favorably acknowledge the concept of a particular type of college or to reaffirm the existing liberal arts mission of USAO. As leaders of the Oklahoma State System, I’m asking you to go a step beyond to enhance USAO’s public profile, to help place the college in the public mind as a distinctive educational option for Oklahoma citizens; to assist the college’s potential to be a specially delineated and accessible alternative for those students who seek this kind of undergraduate experience and who too often leave the state to attend private liberal arts colleges elsewhere at two or three times the cost.”

Feaver praised Oklahoma’s community colleges, regional colleges and research flagships for serving their niches in Oklahoma. But USAO is different from all of them, he argued.

“Just as you distinguish and reinforce public centers of specialized excellence otherwise – the college of veterinary medicine, the college of medicine, the college of law – I am asking you to identify, endorse and reinforce a public center for specialized excellence devoted wholly to undergraduate study in the liberal arts and sciences,” Feaver said.

With no graduate programs, USAO has, for a century, focused its energies exclusively on the undergraduate classroom experience.

One of the first big payoffs came in 1995 when U.S. News & World Report begin its annual college rankings and included USAO for academic quality.

“Since 2001,” Feaver said, “USAO has been ranked as the No. 1 public, comprehensive baccalaureate college in the Western United States in U.S. News’s America’s Best Colleges. For three of those years, it was ranked in the second tier for its Carnegie classification and was placed on U.S. News’s list “Great Deals at Great schools,” one of only 200 schools in the nation recognized for offering a combination of academic quality and reasonable price.”

USAO’s Mission Enhancement Plan is a four-stage, 10-year strategy designed to strengthen academics, student life, recruiting and fundraising.

Central to the plan is an elevation of USAO’s admission requirements to a level comparable with that of Oklahoma’s research universities, Huguenin explained. This change would be phased in incrementally over five years and accompanied by a more aggressive focus on attracting students who meet the higher admission standards and whose goals and expectations fit USAO’s unique mission, curriculum and culture.

To enhance instruction, USAO aims to reduce student-faculty ratios. The current ratio is 21:1. Before the recent budget cuts reduced the number of faculty, it was 19:1. The target is 16:1, which can be found at public liberal arts colleges and good private schools all over America.

Campus life is a critical part of the plan, Huguenin said. “USAO remains devoted to the concept that a quality liberal arts and sciences education … is designed to promote the development of the total person. To foster such an environment, USAO will … offer an array of intellectual, social, cultural, and recreational opportunities…”

The plan outlines specific goals for 2010 and 2015.

“USAO’s goal is to more fully realize its mission as a public liberal arts college and make itself into a quality peer of similar schools in other states,” Huguenin said. “Under the plan, by 2010, USAO will regain its second tier ranking in U.S. News and World Report and seek admission to the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges, a prestigious national group. USAO will achieve a student-faculty ratio of 16:1, and reach an average freshman ACT of 24. USAO also will increase freshman retention to 70 percent and build the marketing and development resources to ensure greater self-sufficiency in the future.”

By 2015, USAO hopes to achieve greater national ranking and a graduation rate of 50%. In addition, USAO has several other long-term aims. One is the vision of a more efficient campus with a larger enrollment. A second is a firm commitment to keeping a liberal arts and sciences education accessible and affordable for all citizens.

On May 10, the USAO Board of Regents met in Chickasha and offered its unqualified support for the plan to “enhance significantly USAO’s national reputation by further raising admission standards, graduation and retention rates, financial self-reliance, faculty compensation and statewide recruiting and marketing strategies.” The seven members of the USAO Board voted unanimously to approve the plan, signed a resolution stating their support, and then asked Feaver to carry it forward.