UOG President Dr. Robert Underwood’s Fall Convocation Address

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Guam – The University of Guam hosted its Fall Convocation Tuesday. The Convocation marks the beginning of the academic year. Weekday classes begin today [Wednesday].  Below is the Convocation address delivered by UOG President Dr. Robert Underwood.
                                                            UNIVERSITY OF GUAM FACULTY CONVOCATION

Address by President Robert A. Underwood  August 17, 2010

Buenas dihas yan hafa adai todos hamyo.

Welcome back to the University of Guam for those of you fortunate enough to be already associated with this university and welcome to all of the newer members of our university community.

Unless you are a member of a university faculty, you are generally unfamiliar with the term convocation. I would guess that even if you are, you are probably unsure what other context would allow us to come together to convoke and to be in convocation. Formally, a convocation is defined as members of a college or university community assembled for a ceremony.

The ceremony for today includes formal introductions and an address by the president. This leads us to the distinction between an address, a speech and remarks. Is it an allocution, a sermon, a homily a colloquium. Well, it is all those things plus a little cheerleading for this part of our educational system in Guam and for this part of Guam called Mangilao. In previous addresses, I have reminded the faculty that Mangilao is from the root word ilao- to observe and that Mangilao refers to the act of observation in its plural form- a very appropriate place to build a university and for group observation.

We formally gather in order to hear the president, but even more importantly to remind ourselves about our mission as an institution (ina, deskubre, setbe- to enlighten, to discover and to serve), as the nexus for learning and inquiry and informed conversation that we must be in light of the challenges that we face over the course of this decade.

In previous gatherings, I have labeled this the decade of decision. The course of the decade will decide what kind of economy we will have in the future; what kind of society we will live in; the physical nature of the island space that we will inhabit. How we dispose of our garbage, what will we eat, the source of energy that runs through the wiring of our homes, who our neighbors may be, the emotional highs and lows that we will have as we encounter news stories about scholastic achievement, the latest diseases or the incarceration of someone we know, the demise of historic places, the revival of endangered languages like my beloved fino’ Chamorro- all of this will be determined by the upcoming decade.

As I look around the room and I see the experienced faces of previous university struggles and island battles of various kinds, the tentative faces of newer faculty members who are trying to lift their hopes and aspirations amidst the presence of doubts and anxieties, I know that we are poised to be a force for positive change, a force to say yes when we others say it is impossible and to say let’s look at the evidence when  the popular and political course of action pushes us in the wrong direction. This is the appropriate role of our university and we should eagerly embrace it.

In my line of work, people don’t ask the question how will the university engage the challenges of the decade as part of a normal conversation. They are more likely to ask, “how is the university doing?” Or “how are things at UOG?”

The university basically moves along and manages its own affairs through its governance structure which requires consultation and collaboration. It does get things done through administrative acts that are generated and implemented out of administrative offices – the deans, the directors and the vice presidents.

But if they are really interested in an answer, I tell them plainly, factually and with a little gusto, “The University is on a roll.” Whatever the indicator we choose, most of them indicate some progress and sometimes in very dramatic ways. We are on a roll.

We have been reaccredited for the longest time period in our history: eight years. We attained or retained special accreditation for individual programs like education, business education, social work and nursing also for eight years. We are on a roll.

We have increased our external federal funding in grants and contracts by $3 million in one year. We have stabilized our financial condition through deft financial management in spite of irregular allotments and a flat line appropriation from the Guam Legislature. We ended last year with a net gain of $1.3 million increase in net assets.  We are on a roll. Our enrollment continues to increase and last year we exceeded 3,500 students for the first time in this century after a period of decline caused largely by accreditation concerns and a series of negative headlines that led to a decline of confidence in the university. We are on a roll.

In the past year, we built four new classrooms. In the upcoming year, we will expend $13 million in capital improvement projects courtesy of “stimulus funding” from the federal government and we anticipate the ground breaking of a new Student Services Center and a School of Engineering Annex. We are on a roll.

I think by almost any measure, we are one of the most vibrant institutions in Guam and the region. We are on a roll, but the questions remains for some – where are we rolling? Who is doing the rolling? Lastly, is someone getting rolled in the process? This is how we roll.

I like to think that we are all rolling in the same direction, but we are after all a university faculty, so there is some rolling going on in different directions. Some programs may be growing, while others changing or having to change. Some want to roll faster and others want to slow it down. Some fear that we may be the rollee’ and not the roller or that it is really hard to tell.

I know that feeling. In any institutional undertaking, we generally only see our part of the workings of the collection of individual and team efforts that combines to make the University of Guam possible. In today’s environment, in the middle of the discussion of the military buildup, with elections on their way, experiencing the global economic downturn, monitoring the effects of climate change and environmental degradation, the nature of how our institution fits into this becomes even more complex.

I have tried to provide some guidance to this through three initiatives that allow us to engage the critical issues of our times, and build our academic infrastructure and enable the people of Guam to lead change and not just react to it. The initiatives that I have outline include UOG green – meant to operationalize on campus and through community projects a greener approach to life; to develop island-centric ways to conserve, recycle, reuse and reduce our reliance on oil as an energy source through renewable energy projects.

Our pitch for indigenous energy- meaning building local capacity to develop island centric technology- caught enough attention so that we could initiate the Center for Island Sustainability and our first sustainability conference. My staff has distributed some UOG green bags. You will find in the bags a little information on our conference slated for September 2-3 at the Marriott Hotel. We have many exciting presentations and I urge all of you to attend one or both days. We will be focusing on how to energize a green curriculum in our institution.

The second initiative is the natural choice and that is meant to increase our enrollment by highlighting our quality programs, recruiting as early as the fifth grade and by inviting the better prepared students to attend UOG. Instead of hearing that the university is the bargain choice, the convenient choice, we want people to know that it is the natural choice. Our program has yielded some results. Our average age is declining which means more students are coming directly from high school. We are also securing high numbers of students from private schools. While most of these trends are positive, we still have serious issues with developmental math and English programs and a gender imbalance that is a little more exaggerated in Guam than in the US mainland. Last year, our entering freshmen class was 61% female. For the past five years, BA and BS degrees were awarded to 949 women and 553 men. If it weren’t so painful, we should start calling it the freshwomen class or start handing out bachelorette degrees.

Our last initiative incorporates these two initiatives and our degree programs into leading change. We don’t want to engage change, we don’t want to react to change. We want to lead change. This is not an arrogant assertion for our university, instead, it encapsulates appropriately our role as the empowerers of the next generation so that the island societies we serve can deal with change from a position of strength and not of weakness. It is so that island people face the future confidently and not feel vulnerable to external forces. It is a bold assertion that we can change the paradigm of dominance that has pervaded this part of the pacific for centuries. This requires not just a foundation and respect for traditional Micronesian knowledge that only the university can provide, but also a commitment to science and math, an understanding of the global economy and a vehicle through which all these can be integrated so that island lives are strong, proud, meaningful and autonomous.

This means that we simultaneously work on a School of Engineering while we strengthen Micronesian studies and identify the corpus of Chamorro studies. This means that we collaborate with the department of education as they build a stem high school next door and encourage the creative arts in another high school on the other side of the island. This means that commitment to individual development is as important as social adjustment and that we are always committed to evidence-based inquiry. The search for truth isn’t always smooth and there are always good reasons offered to compromise along the way, but the search for truth is the fundamental underpinning of who we are.

I come from a line of educators. My mother was a teacher, my father was a teacher, and my wife is the superintendent. I always reflect about my mother’s description of teaching and students. She started teaching in 1928 at the age of 15 and taught thousands of fellow islanders and even Californians when we lived there for a time. Teachers would refer to their students in Chamorro as “taotao-hu” or “estudiante-ku”- my people or my students. My mother preferred to use “disipilu”- the word for disciple. It was an older, more traditional reference, but it always struck me as invigorating to refer to students as disciples as if we were in some kind of religion of learning. In a way we are, we all come from different faiths or maybe some from none at all, but we all believe in the perfectibility of humans and the human condition. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be in education- we probably would be in politics.

So my colleagues and as your president, i taotao-hu, i estudiante-ku, i discipilu-hu siha welcome to academic year 2010-2011.

And let’s keep it rolling- this is how we roll.