Provost Alutto’s Address to the University Senate 2013

Transformative Change and
The Ohio State University 

Joseph A. Alutto

Executive Vice President and Provost 

Address to the University Senate

March 7, 2013

Good afternoon. I am delighted to be here today for my sixth address to the University Senate. It is always a privilege to meet with you for this annual discussion of our academic landscape.

 After over two decades at this university, I can say unequivocally that I have never been more proud to be at The Ohio State University. Given where we are today, it is easy to forget that in 1991, Ohio State was not seen as part of the national college and university academic elite. Public rankings were focused on a very small group of primarily private universities. When the national rankings were expanded in 1995 to include institutions beyond the top dozen in each Carnegie classification, U.S. News & World Report simply listed Ohio State as “Second Tier” along with some 50 other institutions. Public universities were finally accorded their own separate rankings starting in 1999, and we were not in the top 20. Today, we have advanced to 18th in the nation, very significant movement in a system that is characterized by stasis rather than change.           

This progress has been driven by the increased quality of our faculty and our students, both having made great strides over the last 22 years. Clearly, we have been—and are—on an upward trajectory, and it has been energizing to be part of that success.
Despite an increasingly frequent assertion that universities are resistant to change, today I would like to give you a sense of the scale and scope of change we at Ohio State have embraced over the past few years. I believe that pattern is characteristic of this university’s dynamism and is here to stay.

I want to stress that these have not been small, ad hoc, or simply idiosyncratic incremental changes. Instead, these innovations have been based on a changing institutional culture that is reflected in the way we think and act. In demonstrating that, let me focus primarily on the six-year period that will encompass my time as provost.           

To begin with, remember that the university committed to and completed the consolidation of what had been five separate arts and sciences colleges into one unified college of arts and sciences. With over 1,000 faculty members providing almost 60 percent of all student credit hours offered, the arts and sciences are central to education throughout the university.

The teaching and scholarship of this college provide the foundation for all students, including all the professional colleges, through its role in general education and foundational disciplinary research. And, remember that creation of an educated citizenry, to which we are committed, is not possible without the critical thinking that flows from an understanding of the arts and sciences. We dared to create a unified college of arts and sciences despite the inertia of tradition as well as the complexity and magnitude of such a change. In the process we accelerated the integration of curriculum and the levels of cross-disciplinary interaction so essential to our educational enterprise. This fundamental restructuring affected the entire university and was accomplished rapidly, effectively, and with good will.

As another example of large-scale academic restructuring one has only to look at our conversion to the semester calendar. This effort required three concentrated years of faculty activity and systems upgrading. It also meant staff training and retraining as well as adjustments in local cultures and planning. At that point we ended 90 years on the quarter system and opened a new chapter in Ohio State’s history. In a stunning display of commitment, thousands of faculty, staff, students, and administrators contributed to this massive change.

Such great good will focused on a common cause is truly exceptional. In the face of great complexity and redirections of time and talent, the outcome has been more than simply realigning credits. It has been a rethinking of our programs in terms of content as well as delivery structure.

Of course, the semester conversion was only one of many embodiments of a One University perspective that at its core anticipates a consistent need to adjust, modify, and improve. Another fine example can be seen in the more integrated working relationship of our smaller campuses with each other and with the Columbus campus. The last three years have witnessed the development and implementation of a true shared vision that is reflected in areas as diverse as academic programming and coordinated facilities planning.

Still another instance of the effectiveness of our commitment to fostering large-scale change is seen the greater integration and coordination in the life and environmental sciences. Since their creation in 2011, the Life Sciences and the Environmental Sciences Networks have helped draw together faculty, graduate students, and others university-wide to advance research and teaching across the breadth of our graduate programs in these areas.

This newly coordinated approach to the life and environmental sciences was an outcome of yet another self-initiated change, the doctoral program review. This assessment was completed in 2008 and has had ongoing effects. To my knowledge, that review is the most sweeping—and public—assessment of doctoral programs by any major university in recent history. The doctoral program review catalyzed a number of college and departmental reorganizations and program re-evaluations, resulted in reallocated resources, and significantly enhanced our recruitment of high-quality graduate students.

We have evidenced a similar openness to innovation in the expansion of Ohio State’s international profile, which is helping us attract superb graduate and undergraduate students as well as outstanding faculty. We established two international Gateway offices in a two-year period — the China Gateway in Shanghai and, just last March, the India Gateway in Mumbai — and that effort is certainly noteworthy. These Gateways allow us to capitalize on Ohio State's connections across the globe and provide support for faculty research and teaching. They also serve as portals for study abroad, international student recruitment, and alumni gathering. At the same time they facilitate international partnerships and, in support of our outreach mission, open new doors for Ohio-based companies operating in global markets.

The successes of virtually all the initiatives I am discussing, and the speed with which they have been and are being implemented, are particularly notable. These changes are the outcome of faculty and staff creativity and commitment to go beyond normal expectations of involvement in teaching and research. They are driven by colleagues who understand the need to creatively advance scholarship as well as our institutional impact.

That is one reason why over the past few years we have focused so heavily on recognizing and rewarding faculty for the full array of contributions they make to the professions, to institutions, and to society. This broadened perspective is now being reflected in annual performance evaluations and reward policies as well as promotion decisions for faculty.

Of course, large-scale commitments to change have also been focused on our undergraduates, particularly our commitment to redefine the student experience through a reimagined second-year residential program. By extending Ohio State’s residency requirement from one to two years, we will ensure that students take full advantage of an organized second-year experience. This will provide greater access to faculty mentors, more extensive academic advising, and a comprehensive integration of learning strategies. The second-year experience will also emphasize the development of leadership skills as well as foster participation in service learning opportunities, study abroad, and ongoing community service.

At its core this effort highlights the importance of consistently enhancing the value added by a university residential experience. The value added by residential experiences should not be assumed nor will it occur simply by happenstance. It is part of our core identity. It must drive planning, be adequately supported, and have demonstrable effect. We must continue to invest, adapt and assess as we improve the quality and difference-making potential of such a commitment.

Of course, we do not change simply for the sake of change. We must always assess new commitments against clear goals and objectives. Certainly, there have been significant enhancements in the way we recruit and retain our students. For evidence of this we need simply look at the greatly improved quality and success of our student body.

The new freshmen we welcomed into our classes last fall were the best-prepared in Ohio State history. That is reflected over a ten-year period by a better than 3 point increase in average ACT scores and more than a 20% improvement in the portion of students graduating in the top 10% of their class. It is also important to recognize that during that period we have seen better than a 5% increase in first-year retention rates and an increase of greater than 20% in four- and six-year graduation rates. There is more to do, but we are well along in the journey.           

This did not happen magically. Instead, it is the result of often difficult shifts in resources and processes to increase the responsiveness of our programs and the quality of student experiences while at Ohio State. For example, thanks to significant investments in student financial aid, we have been able to respond to need as well as ability in recruiting students. Beyond the Student First campaign designed to raise $100 million in new financial aid, just this past April we committed an additional $50 million in financial aid. This was made possible by the leasing of our parking operations, which provided significant resources to reinvest immediately in students. We have used some of those funds to establish the Eminence Fellows program, which provides four-year, full-ride scholarships and a $3,000 one-time stipend to the very best students from across Ohio and throughout the country. Simultaneously, we also increased our Scarlet and Gray grants, which are available to financially qualified students. Helped by these strategic investments, we are attracting the nation’s most able students to Ohio State and, at the same time, we are providing access to high-achieving students for whom college might otherwise be a financial impossibility.

When I announced this financial aid initiative to the Board of Trustees last spring, I did so as part of our plan to guide Ohio State toward being recognized as a Top 10 public comprehensive research university within the next 10 years. Essentially this is a commitment to accelerate the pace of change we have experienced over the past five or six years through a more focused, integrated, and aggressive pathway toward One University.           

Thanks to the integration and alignment of planning efforts, we have a holistic vision for Ohio State a decade hence. This vision involves changes affecting all levels of the university – from physical facilities, to academic programs, to faculty and staff resources, to instructional delivery systems, to administrative structures. Now, for the first time all our planning processes are fully aligned in support of our overarching goal. I am confident that a future provost of The Ohio State University will stand before the Senate and announce that top ten recognition has been achieved – and, that it will provide the foundation for even greater success!           

I do believe that one critical factor in achieving our current levels of success as well as future promise has been our ability to recruit some of the very best academic administrators to Ohio State leadership positions. Their function, at its heart, is both simple and nuanced. It is to create an environment that allows faculty, staff, and students to achieve more than they ever thought possible. With President Gee leading the effort, we have been able to attract to Ohio State 11 new college deans over the past six years. Each has brought new ideas and aggressively engaged with his or her colleges, while also enthusiastically initiating multiple cross-college initiatives to drive change. Certainly, creativity in the leadership teams under President Gee and those in the Office of Academic Affairs have set an example for all of us. Participating in the teamwork of these outstanding colleagues has been a personal joy.

With all this in mind, I hope I have demonstrated persuasively that Ohio State University has an appetite for and ability to implement significant change. Nevertheless, I do believe we will be facing a number of forces that will stimulate further changes in how we operate and are structured.

To begin with, for at least the next few years we will be engaging with a resource constrained environment. This will require that we continue operating more efficiently and remain focused on strategic goals while avoiding the danger of diverting resources to non-essential initiatives. That discipline will also have to embrace flexibility in how resources are deployed.

Certainly, the creative initiatives we have seen in monetizing assets and securing affinity agreements are the beginning of a unique Ohio State approach to funding academic programs and scholarship – one that is being emulated by many of our university peers. That commitment to innovative financial change must be an integral part of any future university positioning. 

But we will also need to deal in new and innovative ways with transitions in a generation of talented faculty and staff members. I mention this issue because it has direct bearing on our goal to seek increases in reputational rankings. Given the commitments being made by other great universities, we cannot reasonably expect to meet that goal without generating the resources to increase the number of faculty members who are actively engaged in the full range of scholarship and informed teaching.

Accordingly, in last year’s address to the Senate, I announced plans to increase the number of the tenure-track faculty by eight to ten percent. At that time, however, I also conceded that it would be difficult to achieve such a recruiting goal. Greater competition from universities around the world compounds the challenges of our normal recruiting of 200 or more new colleagues each year, especially given constrained tuition revenues. The problem becomes even more acute if one takes into account the worldwide conferring of fewer doctorates in areas we consider critical. Adding complexity is the reality that nearly 40 percent of our faculty—and more than 20 percent of our staff—will have opportunities to retire within the next five years. Clearly, if we are to make good on our pledge to increase our faculty numbers and maintain the cadre of talented staff who support them, Ohio State will need to offer opportunities simply not available elsewhere. And we will have to do so in different ways than in the past. 

Fortunately our Discovery Theme initiative provides just such an opportunity. The Discovery Theme areas of Health and Wellness, Energy and Environment, and Food Production and Security will bring faculty together to focus on the sweeping technological, social, and environmental issues of today and tomorrow. The $400 million we have committed to the Discovery Themes is expected to facilitate the hiring of some 500 tenure-track faculty. I anticipate about half of that funding being earmarked for hiring faculty who will concentrate in areas of relevance to two or more of the Discovery Themes. The balance will support the recruitment of tenure-track faculty whose expertise falls within one of the Theme areas. The efforts of these new scholars will complement and leverage the research, teaching, and outreach of our existing faculty. Together, they will be asked to tackle today’s Grand Challenges leading to transformational breakthroughs in areas of importance that touch everyone everywhere.  

But the organizational structures necessary to fully actualize the potential presented by The Discovery Themes may well require new and different organizational forms as well as facilities. For example, we may have to find more flexible methods of massing and focusing research and teaching than through traditional colleges and departments. We will no doubt have to develop flexible facilities where colleagues can interact in new ways depending on research focus. Given demographic trends, we will certainly have to find better ways of adjusting to the needs of multi-career families by taking coordinated advantage of our size and urban location. These will all be challenges to existing processes and we will need to experiment and seek innovative solutions to these complex and nuanced issues.

In terms of students, it will be essential for Ohio State to find new and different ways of providing access to the excellence of an Ohio State education. Over the next ten years, our strategic plan anticipates increasing financial aid by some $200 million. This is designed to attract those students most capable of benefitting from what Ohio State has to offer, and that will be a challenge. It will be essential to find ways to generate the necessary resources while also continuing to balance both access and ability issues as our environment changes.


Another stimulus for change will be the need to provide access beyond our Ohio campuses as we both respond to and anticipate global opportunities. An effective response may well lie in further expansion of Ohio State Gateways to countries such as Brazil and Turkey. If feasible, such new offices would allow us to expand an Ohio State presence beyond China and India into South America and Eurasia. Through such offices we would be able to provide new points of access and bring further opportunities to learn from others.

In a related sense, we can certainly expect to see many changes in academic life that that will be associated with Ohio State’s electronic portals. Forms of eLearning and distance education will clearly be part of the educational environment in which we will compete and, I believe, prosper. One scarcely needs to be reminded that, in today’s digital age, higher education is undergoing an explosive period of transformation. Mobile devices, digital textbooks, online environments, and other eLearning tools have now permeated every corner of college and university life. Evidence of that is clearly apparent at Ohio State. We are well on the way to expanding distance education capabilities to provide all forms of distance learning and eLearning, including degrees, credit courses, non-credit certificates, our MOOC and iTunes U offerings, and hybrid as well as pure distance programming. We are developing a robust strategy in which we will focus on niches in which the Ohio State brand has particular value and where long-distance efforts build off our existing strengths. Such initiatives will more effectively integrate our outreach and teaching missions. It will also be necessary to seek innovative ways to use distance education to enrich our existing programs – and perhaps develop new areas of inquiry through a commitment to more sophisticated learning analytics.


Much of our current success has resulted from colleagues truly “thinking differently.” One issue we have not addressed completely, although it is implicit in our Facilities Master Plan, is the nature of our approach to land use and building planning. We are currently configured in ways very similar to initial “rural” models of land grant universities. That is, we are physically spread out among large numbers of relatively low rise buildings recreating a rural landscape. But Ohio State is really an “urban” land grant university with all the benefits that such positioning entails. We need to capitalize on this reality and are only beginning to fully realize the benefits of urban planning in campus design by thinking vertically rather than horizontally. Given resource constraints and concerns about sustainability I believe Ohio State will have to think creatively about the benefits of greater massing of activities, including services. This will require cultural changes currently just in a nascent stage of development, such as the sharing of space, relying on central rather than distributed services, and understanding the value of performance standard enforcement rather than decentralized “owning of processes.” It will not be easy, but to be successful the transformation in philosophy and culture will have to be pervasive.

Though I could cite a number of other catalysts for change, let me conclude by focusing on a necessary constant as we experience change. As we move the university forward, through all the vicissitudes one can expect, we must make certain that The Ohio State University continues to be recognized for its outstanding faculty and student “experiences” --  and I do mean “experiences” and not just research funding or credit hours generated. As I hope these remarks have shown, we have taken and are pursuing some remarkable strategic steps to enhance Ohio State’s reputation for academic quality, innovation, research, and leadership in higher education. Through any changes we must continue to work with purpose, discipline, and imagination to provide our students and the nation with unparalleled and life-long educational experiences.

In planning we have identified the resources to support that mission. I am convinced that this focus will be the foundation for the consistent recognition of our eminence. As that happens, The Ohio State University will be an acknowledged symbol of the best there is in higher education.

All of us can and should take pride in where we are—in the good and growing reputation of our university; in the superb faculty we are able to recruit and retain; in the well-prepared students who in increasing numbers are choosing Ohio State; in the high regard in which we are held by our community and government officials; and in a culture that is open to change while remaining focused on the north star of eminence. In short, this is a great time to be at Ohio State, and it will be even better in the future. The days and years ahead will bring visible contributions to addressing issues of global significance, accelerating student success and satisfaction, and, yes, recognition among the nation’s Top Ten public research universities.

We are being propelled toward those accomplishments by a bold and unwavering vision of the future; the unfailing advocacy of our Board of Trustees; faculty, staff and students committed to preeminence; the guidance of academic leaders who promote the best in all of us; and the enthusiasm and encouragement of alumni and friends as they invest in our dreams.

Since I am stepping down as provost at the end of June, this is most likely my last formal address to you. I would like to thank President Gee for granting me the extraordinary privilege of serving as this institution’s chief academic officer. It has been a joy to lead and to serve our academic community as provost – and to the surprise of some, yes, at times it has been pure fun! I want to wholeheartedly thank each of you for your collaboration, for your good will, and for your friendship. 

We have much yet to do, and I am delighted that in July a leader as talented and accomplished as Joe Steinmetz will be stepping up to guide the academic future of this wonderful university.        

Most importantly, let me thank each of you for your service to this great university. It makes a difference and is very much appreciated. Thank you.