University of Montana President George Dennison delivered his State of the University address this morning in the Montana Theater. After a lengthy series of introductions to new faculty and staff, Dennison introduced general plans for his "reform and re-invention" agenda for the coming academic year.
The gist of Dennison's address went something like this: with the United States slipping from its position of global leadership, higher education must step up efforts to improve the quality of the country's citizenry.
"I believe everyone knows that the United States had slipped to the second tier of ranked countries and appears poised to fall into the third tier unless we take action," Dennison said. "Any hope of success will require the involvement of all Americans, as urged by President Barack Obama and virtually every national, State, and higher education leader."
Points of "reform and re-invention" (clearly Dennison's catchphrase for 2009-10) include reconceptualizing undergraduate curricula, building stronger partnerships with the community, and establishing a better transition between K-12 education and college for students. Dennison referred to each of these as immediate priorities for the next five years.
The State of the University isn't all catchphrase, however. Dennison mentioned a number of regrettable institutional setbacks during his speech, and elaborated on them during a brief press conference afterwards. Perhaps the most striking was the University's inability "to make any progress on salary levels, given the lack of funds and rising unemployment rates." Six of the last ten academic years have passed with no salary increases for faculty and staff.
"The reaction by the faculty, by the staff has been one of disappointment," Dennison told reporters. "We've been able to hire several more qualified faculty, but we can't continue this [salary freeze]."
Dennison added UM intends to do all it can to remedy frozen salary levels over the coming years. When asked the now-annual question about retirement, Dennison said, "My days are numbered, I just don't know the number."
During the press conference, a stage-light blew up close to Dennison, raining glass down mere feet from his left shoulder. Reporters were visibly shaken. The 74-year-old administrator, now entering his 20th year as UM president, didn't even flinch.