MURRAY — Two things were expected to be the keynote items of Friday’s Fall Faculty Kickoff at Murray State University.
One was the annual presentation of the President’s Cup that goes to a university entity that demonstrates giving at the highest level. That went to University Libraries, which participated at a 48 percent clip in the past year.
The other is the customary speech of the university president, who usually welcomes his charges with enthusiasm and encourages them for the year ahead. From time to time, though, there are surprises that can be tossed into the mix, and President Bob Jackson had one that he said is as much the doing of the faculty as any.
“Last night, I learned late that, for the 12th consecutive year, Forbes magazine recognized Murray State University as one of the finest institutions of higher education in this nation, and that’s absolutely wonderful,” Jackson said, his remark met with strong applause inside the Curris Center Ballroom. “It’s a great tribute to you. Our mission here is very simple: teaching and learning.
“You are at the core of that, so these and other rankings and recognitions are from the hard work and focus of our faculty and we appreciate each and every one of you. I’ve known many of you a long time and I appreciate your efforts each and every day.”
The specific honor Forbes bestowed upon Murray State Thursday night and for the previous 11 years is for being the highest ranked regional public university in Kentucky.
That news provided a strong beginning for Jackson’s presentation — “The Road Ahead” — Friday, where he detailed the path the university has taken the past year and what comes next.
To emphasize this, and with help from Tina Bernot, university executive director of development for the Office of Development, a large display screen showed a line from the classic Lewis Carroll story “Alice in Wonderland.”
It read, “One day Alice came to a fork in the road and saw a Cheshire cat in a tree. ‘Which road do I take?’ she asked. ‘Where do you want to go?’ was his response. ‘I don’t know,’ Alice answered. ‘Then,’ said the cat, ‘it doesn’t matter.’
“I love the Alice quote,” Jackson said. “And it does matter. I want everyone in here to know where we are as an institution. These are important days facing higher education, so the road we choose at Murray State University does matter.”
Jackson talked of how, in the past year, a re-designed commitment to student recruitment appears to have paid dividends. He said that for the first time in the past three years, numbers for first-time freshmen, first-time transfers and first-time graduate students are all up as the 2019-20 academic year approaches next week.
This came during a year in which $6.8 million had to be removed from the university’s budget, but new investments for online programs were still made, and while undergraduate tuition was increased by 1 percent, it was not raised for graduate students. Online class graduate fees also were reduced.
Challenges do lie ahead, particularly with the state pension system, state funding and state performance funding, which are all issues that continue to be thorns in the university’s side. While it has had success in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics at – in many cases – a higher clip than larger universities like the University of Kentucky and University of Louisville, Murray State and others are being left out of the equation because the funding is based on quantity, not quality.
“Murray State got zero. Morehead State got zero. Kentucky State got zero,” Jackson said of last year’s performance funding distribution. He did say that some progress appears to be on the horizon toward making this a more even situation for the smaller universities.
He uplifted the efforts that are resulting in higher percentages of students meeting the goals.
“This place is full of outstanding teachers and outstanding researchers. You see who’s been recognized and why,” Jackson said, giving specific attention to Dr. Laura Sullivan-Beckers, whose discovery of a new insect species over the summer earned the university nationwide attention. “I don’t know her. I have talked on the phone with her and I know she has brought us great pride regionally.
“Her appearance on (the ABC show) ‘Good Morning America’ this week is a great example for her department and college.”