Leadership & Governance

The State-of-the-University Address: the Risk and the Reward

AJ Mast for The Chronicle

President Jo Ann M. Gora consults with faculty and staff members at Ball State U. before the recent fall faculty meeting.
September 05, 2010

Jo Ann M. Gora gave 92 speeches last year as president of Ball State University. But she says one public address stands out as by far the most important: her annual state-of-the-university remarks at the fall faculty convocation.

In the past, that speech at most colleges was a snooze: The president reads a list of the university's accomplishments to a roomful of professors. But now, thanks to increasing interest in what colleges do, and the long reach of the Internet, the speeches find audiences well beyond the campus, including alumni, parents, lawmakers, donors, and the news media. That attention raises the stakes, with a university's reputation and even financial support from donors and lawmakers potentially riding on what leaders say.

"It sets the tone for the whole year," says Ms. Gora, who has been Ball State's president since 2004.

Many presidents now use their time at the podium to weigh in on national issues. In Ms. Gora's 45-minute speech here last month, she talked about federal scrutiny of higher education, the debate over health-care reform, and how the Internet and for-profit colleges will affect traditional colleges.

The annual address at West Virginia University—all three takes—looked beyond the confines of the campus. James P. Clements, the president, gives different versions of the speech on the campus, in Washington, and in Charleston, the state capital. The university created an accompanying video and a Web site for the speech, which it distributes widely.

The university says lawmakers, alumni, and donors all tune in, and that it receives a large amount of feedback on the speech—a sentiment echoed by a presidents at a wide range of colleges.

In his state-of-the-university address this year, Mr. Clements explored three questions: Is higher education still part of the American dream? Is university research relevant? Is college worth the cost?

Christine M. Martin, West Virginia's vice president for university relations, whose staff worked with Mr. Clements on the speech, says the addresses must be meaty and draw from national challenges much more so than they did years ago, mostly because of the growing influence of universities over the economy and quality of life in their states.

"It's really to help us articulate the framing of what we do," she says. "Our work without its meaning has no real momentum."

Colleges are increasingly expected to be economic engines and work-force developers. And that pressure has elevated and politicized the role of university presidents, many of whom say they can't afford to pass up the chance to go on the offense with a strong state-of-the-university speech.

The state of the university is perhaps the best chance for presidents to "remind people why these places exist in the first place," says Ann J. Duffield, a founder of the Presidential Practice, a consulting firm in Philadelphia that grooms college presidents.

John M. McCardell Jr. agrees. He made national waves two years ago with a group of college presidents who questioned the drinking age. Now president of Sewanee: the University of the South, Mr. McCardell, who led Middlebury College for 12 years, says college presidents must put their institutions in context. The big speech is a chance to start a conversation about the identity of a college, both on campus and beyond. On his campus, he says, that means asking what "South" means at the university.

"A president misses an opportunity if he or she doesn't try for something more" than a list of accomplishments, Mr. McCardell says.

'Master of Ceremonies'

Ms. Gora was ready when she strode to the podium of the 3,600-seat Emens Auditorium on an August morning. She had started work on her faculty convocation speech in April. The 6,000-word final version had been revised 14 times over four months by Ms. Gora and her communications team, which includes a speechwriter.

But she didn't get to relax the previous night. Instead she spoke to the university's 3,600 freshmen, who gathered in the basketball arena during their first day on campus. Ms. Gora, a youthful 65, grabbed the microphone at center court and helped warm up the energetic crowd, which recited the university's fight song.

The president, in a beige suite, her blond hair styled short, says the loud but compliant freshmen from the previous night were a "scarier audience" than the 1,000 or so professors and staff members who gathered 12 hours later to hear her talk, because she fretted that students would think the president is "too old and represents authority and all that."

Her schedule during Ball State's opening week this semester also included two days of helping students move into residence halls. But the speeches and glad-handing didn't wear out Ms. Gora, who says she's a true extrovert and gets energized by talking with people. A New York City native who grew up in a family of performers, she jokes that her lack of talent for the stage left her no choice but to be a "master of ceremonies."

But she displays more than ample panache under the bright lights of a basketball court or an auditorium. Ball State provides good fodder for the speech, despite recent state budget cuts. The campus has had a flurry of recent construction, including the just-finished $40-million Student Recreation and Wellness Facility and the state-of-the art David Letterman Communication and Media Building. And it has become more selective, with freshman SAT scores increasing by an average of 30 points this year.

Part of the reason for the university's recent success is that it has taken advantage of its niche in Indiana. With about 21,000 students, Ball State is big, but nowhere near the scale of Purdue University or Indiana University at Bloomington. Which also means it doesn't face the political pressures and arms-race mentality that exist at most flagships.

So instead of trying to compete with its Big Ten neighbors, Ball State has focused on core strengths like emerging media and immersive learning projects, in which students work in interdisciplinary teams to solve problems in the community. That approach was evident in Ms. Gora's address.

For example, the university is spending $20-million to expand its work on emerging media, which, loosely defined, is the evolving use of digital content. It's an emphasis across the curriculum and in faculty research.

Ms. Gora used standard state-of-the-university fare, citing Ball State's recent accomplishments in those areas of emphasis. But she linked the accolades to national challenges, some of which sounded gloomy. Early on she mentioned a recent hearing by the U.S. Senate on student debt and for-profit colleges, calls by state leaders for more online-education options, and the arrival of an Indiana branch of Western Governors University, an online institution.

"Society expects a return on the investment in education in the forms of time to degree, degree completion, and learning outcomes," she said. "Failure to meet these expectations is likely to result in further budget reductions."

The key for Ball State, she said, was to explain to people the value of the university's academic model and why it's worth the cost, and for faculty members to continue expanding their role in that effort. She also said the university's emerging-media concentration responds to that societal push on accountability in higher education, by stressing the importance of outcomes, not just output.

"We have entered a new era in higher education, where the 'public' in public education will increasingly examine our actions, from kindergarten all the way to college," Ms. Gora said. "This scrutiny will not go away even when the economy improves or the political party changes."

When to Opine?

College presidents are generally reluctant to weigh in on national controversies. Gone are the days of bold leaders like Clark Kerr and the Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, some say.

Today's presidents should be cautious, says Kenneth A. (Buzz) Shaw, because they can lose credibility when they talk about controversial issues that don't affect their campuses or higher education.

Mr. Shaw, chancellor emeritus at Syracuse University, who is an expert on university leadership, says state-of-the-university speeches are valuable but are not the right venue to challenge America's foreign wars, for example.

"I do not believe that people listen to presidential leaders who want to opine," he says. "We weaken our position as leaders when we do."

But presidents are tackling deep societal questions. Some say they don't have a choice, because the external world is rapidly pushing change on campus, from immigration to global warming and security threats. And for professors at Ball State, the "real world" is already key to their scholarship.

"It's just something we're talking about more," says Jonathan C. Spodek, an associate professor of architecture.

During her speech, Ms. Gora ventured into an emotionally charged national issue when she talked about health-care reform. But she was careful to stress its relevance to the university, saying faculty research could help inform the continuing debate. She also cited an interdisciplinary group that was investigating how the university addresses health-care issues.

After the speech, several Ball State professors said they approved of Ms. Gora's approach and weren't upset to hear her emphasize the need to demonstrate "return on investment"—an argument that can rankle in higher education.

For her part, Ms. Gora was pleased with the final version of the speech, which she sent to the university's nine-member Board of Trustees the night before the faculty address. Her delivery was confident and clear, for the most part. But she was clearly reading from a script. The crowd applauded politely when she finished.

Afterward she critiqued her performance, something she does after most major addresses, often with input from her husband. "I thought I stumbled too much, and my throat was too dry," Ms. Gora says. "There's always the chance to do it better."

But not on the night after her speech—a rare free evening. When asked what she'll do with the time, she says she and her husband will have dinner with a donor. That's just a relaxed night out for her, not a university event.