By DAVID DUPONT
BG Independent News
Since Rodney Rogers became Bowling Green State University’s 12th president early this year, he has stressed that public universities have a special mission to serve their communities.
So it was no surprise when he delivered his first State of the University address Wednesday that he took that as his theme.
Rogers punctuated his address with the exhortation: “That is what a public university does.”
Much of the emphasis of the speech was on what BGSU is doing to accomplish that mission in a difficult period. “There is no question that, today, we live in the most challenging time that higher education has ever seen.”
Not only do universities face a demographic shift that will see “a significant decline in the number high school graduates across the state and in the Midwest” starting in 2024, but they also face a loss of public support.
“Along the way, and though it was never our intention, I fear, higher education has lost the trust of a large percentage of the public,” Rogers said.
Some people question whether the cost, and the resulting student debt, is worth it. Others question the purpose of a college degree.
Should students pursue higher education to prepare for a career and drive the economy? Or is the aim of higher education “to produce a broadly educated person” who can participate in democracy and help create “a more just society?”
Rogers argued BGSU must do both. “Bowling Green State University needs to act to support a productive society, a good society and a just society,” he said. “If we do that we will regain the public trust,” he said. “We must prepare graduates to live meaningful and productive lives.”
Rogers touted the university’s drive to have more students involved in internships, co-ops, study abroad, undergraduate research, learning communities and service learning. He called for an expansion of these efforts. “It is essential that we require every student to complete an interdisciplinary signature project that addresses an important issue.”
Rogers also called for greater outreach to post-traditional students. “We need to reach these new student populations if we want to thrive in the future.”
He said the university will create, expand or maintain up to 30 online and hybrid programs to meet the needs of those students including professionals seeking graduate degrees.
The university will bring in a large number of post-traditional students when it merges with Mercy College. The formal merger is expected to be approved next summer, though the logistics will take several years.
Regardless whether students are coming from community colleges, from a recent high school graduation, or from a corporate office, Rogers said: “Our message to our prospective students is that we have a pathway for you, and we are committed to their social mobility.”
Value, he said, “is where quality and affordability meet.”
Rogers said the university “must do everything possible to address the rising debt. It is our goal to ensure that the issue of affordability never deters a student from learning.”
Being more effective and efficient will “require us to reimagine and eliminate some academic and non-academic programs.”
A public research university must also use its scholarly and creative resources for the public good.
“It is the research that demonstrates our relevance to the public and rebuilds the trust,” Rogers said.
In October, the university announced it had received a $5.2 million grant to create the Lake Erie Center for Fresh Waters and Human Health. The center will study algal blooms and other water quality issues in the Great Lakes. The research will have an impact not just in “our own backyard, but throughout the world.”
Rogers, who was a music major as an undergraduate, also spoke to the importance of creative activities that enrich the region and the world.
All this takes money. To date the The Changing Lives for the World comprehensive fundraising campaign has raised $141 million of its $200 million goal from 37,422 donors, 10,915 of whom are giving to BGSU for the first time.
That money will fund 158 new scholarships and the Maurer Center , the new home for the College of Business, as well as other university initiatives. The campaign, launched in 2014, is scheduled to wrap up in 2020.
In introducing Rogers, Daniel Keller, chair of the university’s board of trustees, noted that Wednesday was a national day of mourning for former President George H.W. Bush.
Keller suggested that the aviator’s phrase CAVU — clear air visibility unlimited — that Bush, a former Navy combat pilot, used and had emblazoned on a plaque in his Maine home, could apply to the university.
“Maybe BGSU,” Keller said, “can follow that into our future.”