MURFREESBORO — After acknowledging the many accomplishments the university has made during the past year, MTSU President Sidney A. McPhee had a straightforward message to faculty and leaders during Friday’s Fall Faculty Meeting inside Tucker Theatre: “We must ensure that we recruit, retain and graduate students.”
Now in his 14th year of leading the Blue Raider campus, McPhee gave his traditional State of the University address before the hundreds of faculty and staff who have returned to campus to start the fall semester next week.
McPhee touted the ongoing improvements to campus infrastructure and facilities, including the opening of the new Science Building this fall ahead of schedule. A ribbon cutting is set for Oct. 15. Renovations of the Davis Science and Wiser-Patten buildings begin in early spring 2015.
The president also pointed to academic improvements such as the launch of the mechatronics engineering program and increases in research funding in graduate studies. And he praised the athletics department for its successful transition to Conference USA and the continued success of student athletes in the classroom.
But the key portion of his address dealt with the changes within higher education. McPhee reminded faculty of the State of Tennessee’s emphasis on degree completion as a primary metric for institution funding rather than student enrollment. That’s why the university launched its Quest for Student Success initiative last fall, with a goal of raising the graduation rate from 52 percent to at least 62 percent by 2020.
“We have accepted and embraced this new state emphasis on student success and institutional performance,” McPhee said. “Our future success and survival as an institution depends on our ability to graduate students and prepare them for gainful employment. These are the metrics that matter.”
To help improve such measurements, the university has hired 50 more advisers and employed new software to better monitor student progress and assist at-risk students earlier in their academic careers. The university has also hired a new vice provost for student success to manage this effort.
In conjunction with the initiative, the Mathematical Sciences Department received the 2014 President’s Student Success Award for Innovation in Academics for revamping its courses to improve student outcomes in courses that had high failure rates. The recognition brings with it $25,000 in additional funding for the department to continue its effort.
Such innovation must continue, McPhee said, pointing out that of the 21,000-plus undergraduates enrolled last fall at MTSU, only 37 percent were 20 years old or younger. The average age of MTSU students is 26 and the median family income is approximately $70,000, compared to $120,000 at the University of Tennessee.
“These statistics speak to the fact that we have reached far beyond the typical, so-called ‘traditional’ freshmen — newly graduated high school seniors — and serve a much broader and diverse audience.”
Student must do their part, McPhee noted, and those that don’t will be “shown the door.” But faculty engagement is just as critical.
“If you don't start thinking about student success … you're not going to have a job,” McPhee said. “You're not going to be able to feed your family.”
The university has to find a way to retain its current students while recruiting high ability students that come to campus ready to succeed, he said.
“Any of the ideas advanced through our Quest for Student Success do not include watering down academic programs or reducing rigor. We have a moral imperative to not only enhance the present academic experience but also to continue to add value to the degrees already obtained by our alumni,” McPhee said.
“Thus, we are not lowering the bar; we are — in many instances — raising the standard for all of us, including the students.”