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State of the University

dr saunders speaking on stage

Join President Saunders for the State of the University Address on September 30, 2021 at 2 p.m. The State of the University will be held in the Mainstage Theater at the Center for Fine and Performing Arts. The address will be viewable virtually via WUWF webcast.


State of the University Address, Sept. 30, 2021

I am so glad to see you all today in person and see your faces, at least the parts of the faces I can see over your masks, and the thousands joining us online. It’s good to see you all here and I have so much to tell you.

First of all, I am so grateful for so many things today; we had a smooth start to the semester, we have record enrollment and we have so many people on campus! I never thought I would be happy to say that the parking lot on campus is crowded, but this is a good thing for that to happen!

Around this time last year, in early September, we were cautiously looking forward to a more normal semester than the one before. We had deployed our BOG-approved plan for reopening the campus. Our students were back in the residence halls. A much-needed Covid vaccine was on the horizon and for the first time in months, we were starting to feel a little hopeful…
…And then…
Well, maybe it wasn’t that bad, but for sure the combined impacts of Hurricane Sally, the broken bridge, a challenging legislative session, and the Delta variant blew us off course a time or two. But true to form, the Argonauts adapted and showed the resilient spirit for which we are known.

The faculty and deans worked out the best and safest ways to conduct in-person classes. Our staff found good paths for working remotely or on flex schedules, without loss of productivity. We increased online services for our students, including high demand mental health counseling. Student Government leadership stepped up with funding to support students in need.

And once again, the Argos brought home the gold with national recognitions such as Top Honors in US News & World Report, with five awards for excellence as a top regional, a top public university, social mobility, best for veterans, and best undergraduate nursing program. We won the 2021 Higher Education Excellence in Diversity Award (HEED) – for the 6th year. We won Another Gold level military-friendly rating in the large university category. We won distinction as a Great College to Work For with honor roll recognition in ten categories.

Despite a greatly reduced athletic competition season, the Argo cheerleaders captured a national championship at the NCA College Nationals. And UWF ranked #1 in the state performance based metrics for Metric 1 and that is the percentage of our graduates employed at professional salaries or continuing their education one year after graduation.

Every college and division gave us things to brag about. From the College of Arts, Social Sciences, and Humanities, the Makerspace project led to UWF’s listing as one of the “Best Makers Schools” by Newsweek. The College of Education and Professional Studies successfully launched an online Ed.D in Instructional Design and Technology. When the Top 15 list of Online Applied Behavior Analysis Degrees and Programs was released, the Usha Kundu, MD, College of Health’s program was ranked #2. Students from the Hal Marcus College of Science of Engineering showcased their Artificial Intelligence skills on a national stage.

UWF teams each placed in the top 5 of the prestigious AI Tracks at Sea Challenge. Students in the AI and Data Analytics (AIDA) Research Group placed third winning $35K for the Department of Computer Science while the second UWF team, ArgoTracks finished fifth and secured $20K for the Department of Intelligent Systems and Robotics. I will add that these wards brought money back to their departments. And talk about resilience, ArgoTracks formed its team a month after the challenge started yet was able to submit the entry just hours before the deadline and still won. Our researchers won grants and contracts valued at $42 million.

Even while working remotely, the College of Business’ Department of Accounting and Finance guided the master of Accountancy program through unprecedented growth as enrollment grew 68%. Under the leadership of Dr. Kuiyuan Li, graduate enrollment grew 16%. The folks in facilities earned us another designation as a Tree Campus Higher Education for the second year, and fully installed the new switchgear that provides power for most of the campus! That is huge. University Advancement hit a record number for Alumni Engagement, surging well ahead of our peer institutions and near the top of the SUS. And, WUWF celebrated its 40th birthday!

Just as in Jason’s original Argo voyage, heroes emerged among us who went above and beyond for the cause. I want to recognize a few: Ross Pristera for his leadership in working with multiple
contractors to protect and restore our historic trust properties after $2.5M in damages by Hurricane Sally. Ross, you were there for us and if you ever need help, hang that on your door and we will be there. Tori Bennett - For her leadership in optimizing the awarding of foundation scholarships across the university including the historic gift of $8.5 million for the School of Music. James Adams Director Business & Auxiliary Services, and his team, in cooperation with Aramark, rebranded the food truck (Argo2Go) and held surprise and delight pop up food tastings across campus when we needed a little cheering up, installed PharmaBox in the Commons, and is presently implementing Amazon Locker on campus.

Jeffrey Djerlek led the university through a difficult financial year, rightsized our budget, and set us on stabilized financial footing for future years. Becky Luntsford deserves a shout out for dealing so well and efficiently with the many challenges of transitioning to remote UWF Board of Trustee meetings – not an easy accomplishment for meetings that must be held publicly. Garron Lucius from Intercollegiate Athletics worked nights and weekends to make sure our first-ever football game on campus was a success.
Michele Manassah and the entire Counseling and Psychological Services and Health Services teams- managed Covid testing, supporting student athletes, more visits, while being short- handed at times. I don’t think anyone realizes the level of activity in that office. They work non-stop! Dawn Rocky and Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities - Dawn does case management with a level of care and compassion that is unmatched. She conducted her regular duties as well as increased activity during the pandemic. Thank you, Dawn. Katie Condon and the Admissions team - navigated new challenges with recruiting and online orientation.

UWF ITS was expertly run during a massive change that tested but did not break UWF’s IT capabilities. The team proved its mettle during a time of unprecedented demand while Geissler
Golding kept us safe from cyber threats. Jerre Brisky compressed, contorted, and adapted our
commencement celebrations to make those days special for our graduates – whether here with us in person or participating remotely. For everyone I have named, there are dozens more who stepped
up when they were most needed. I thank you all. And before the day is over, please take the time to thank each other.
Now repeat after me:
“We made it through!”
“We made it through!”
“We made it through!”

The good ship Argo is still afloat, and while we may not be lost at sea, there are still rough waters ahead. Covid is still with us. We have a responsibility to maintain a safe learning environment. We are seeking and accepting the best advice to do so. As guidance changes, we will adapt because we know how. A few of our buildings are just plain wearing out. We are going to be addressing those challenges this year.

Looking forward to many other challenges that we will solve together, we will be spending much of our time redrawing some of the charts. Presently, we are coordinating master planning, strategic planning, enrollment planning, and diversity planning.Having experienced a major disruption last year, we have a great opportunity to reconsider the ways in which we conduct our business. You know storms have a way of clearing new paths. Do we need more buildings? Fewer buildings? Different buildings? Can employees work remotely effectively, or should we gather everyone on our campuses? Can we expand our presence downtown or in Fort Walton? Should we build a stadium on campus? The answers to these questions will shape us for years to come. This is important work and I urge you all to participate fully.

Library Dean Emeritus, Bob Dugan is a serving point for the effort with the assistance of consultants from the DLR group. A website is up now for you to review and participate in this planning. The field house fire mitigation project will enable us to expand much needed capacity for campus events. It will take about a year to complete but will bring logistical challenges as we move people and events to other locales. We will remain laser-focused on student retention and graduation. Despite tremendous progress on these metrics, too many of our students are still falling off before completing their degrees.

We will continue to build recognition for UWF as a top performing university in the state of Florida. In conclusion, the state of The University of West Florida is sound, with incredible potential for growth. Keeping in mind our mission as a University is to provide high quality graduate and undergraduate education, serve the body of knowledge through our teaching and research, and contribute to the needs of the professionals and society. My leadership team and I get up every day with that in mind. We will do our best to serve you. We will NOT be outworked.
It’s an honor to be your president. Go Argos! Now let’s go to work.