Fall 2020 State of the University

As President of South Dakota State University, I welcome you to our first-ever virtual State of the University address. I want to begin by thanking you for taking the time to listen, as well as express my sincere appreciation for your commitment to SDSU and to all South Dakotans.

As COVID-19 has presented tremendous challenges and forced changes to higher education, South Dakota State University has responded with resilience, transforming the way we conduct our business of education, and implementing plans to support and ensure students thrive in a rapidly changing world.

This fall has been very different than any of us have ever experienced. But what has not changed is our commitment to each other and our mission. We have worked together for the success of our university in the face of enormous uncertainty associated with the current pandemic. And while we are laser focused on making sure that each and every action we take is appropriate for the safety and success of each other, and the success of our students, let’s take a few minutes to celebrate last year and the real progress we’ve made toward the goals we outlined in our strategic plan, Imagine 2023. 

We remain diligent and committed to the mission of our university which is rooted in providing the benefits of higher education to the citizens of South Dakota … and beyond. And in spite of challenging times, our vision endures—to be a premier land-grant university.

This is evident in the first goal of Imagine 2023 – to Achieve Excellence Through Transformative Education.

One of the main strategies to accomplish goal No. 1 is to attain academic excellence. Accreditation is a benchmark of academic excellence, signifying to both students and parents—but also eventual employers and policymakers—about one’s preparedness to enter the workforce and succeed.

South Dakota State University is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission, one of six regional accrediting bodies responsible for the accreditation of colleges and universities. Accreditation helps ensure institutional quality and improvement. The Higher Learning Commission works to ensure that universities meet certain standards in terms of mission, operations, teaching and learning, facilities, student success, research and discovery as well as outreach and service.

I was incredibly proud of our university when last February we received word of our very successful Higher Learning Commission re-accreditation. Collectively, we received the strongest comprehensive institutional accreditation report in decades. Given the efforts of many, we met all of the core components of the accreditation standards. The result of this is a 10-year reaffirmation of our accreditation without the need for monitoring. 

SDSU’s strong performance is a result of current, and past, leadership and our commitment to excellence across the university’s mission and vision as individuals, departments, colleges and support units.

Individual program accreditations clearly contributed to the strength of the university’s overall report. We have seen continuous growth in accredited and certified programs since 2005. We currently have 49 accredited programs, an increase of 18 over the past seven years and up two programs from a year ago with landscape architecture and respiratory care achieving accreditation. The goal for Imagine 2023 is to reach 61 accredited programs, something that is attainable with our continued commitment and efforts.

We also continue to explore new academic offerings to better prepare our graduates to meet dynamic workforce needs. Recently, we launched the following new academic programs:

  • A Ph.D. in mechanical engineering;
  • A specialization in psychiatric mental health through our College of Nursing;
  • Associate and bachelor’s degrees in respiratory care;
  • And, beginning in 2021, a program in veterinary medicine. 

During the past four years, SDSU has also successfully launched dozens of programs, minors, certifications and specializations. 

Another key performance indicator within goal No. 1 is our enrollment. We have many targets when it comes to enrollment, retention and graduation rates. We have talked several times about the continuing challenge of our overall headcount, and this will continue to be our challenge for many years. But we are succeeding in important areas.

It is important for me to relay that prior to the pandemic, we were optimistic that we would see an increase in our enrollment. SDSU employed several successful enrollment strategies which allowed us to maintain our domestic enrollment. We worked very hard to recruit and retain the students of our great state. And as a result, the number of first-time, full-time South Dakota freshmen residents increased by more than 80 students.

South Dakota State University’s enrollment for fall 2020 is 11,405 students, a decline of approximately 1% from last year.

On a positive note, SDSU set an all-time high of 81% in our retention rate of students from their freshman to sophomore year. This enormous accomplishment was the result of enhanced programming, scholarship optimization, and increased student engagement. Retention is a measure of our university’s performance, and a critical metric for many stakeholders—including parents and policymakers. Student retention is the first key step in ensuring student success and graduation. Our increase of 2.7 percentage points over last year is the result of planning and hard work and one we are very proud of.

SDSU has also continued to see an upward trend in four-year and six-year graduation rates, as well as a reduction in the time it takes to attain a degree. All of these factors are critical in reducing student debt and successfully launching students into their chosen careers.

As we have discussed over the past three years, our Imagine 2023 enrollment goal remains our challenge. Trust that we will continue to explore and implement new and creative strategies to increase enrollment. We are striving to carefully shape our public image to reflect the fact that we are the strongest, best, highest quality university in the region. The “Dear Tomorrow” ads that ran on regional television stations last spring and summer are good examples of that strategy in action. Look for additional creative activity to attract students from our region to SDSU.

Cultivate and Strengthen Community Engagement is the second goal of Imagine 2023. Enhancing our academic and work environments as well as growing the university’s outreach and external engagements that enhance the quality of life for our students, faculty, staff and those in our great state, are key to our future success. 

During the spring of 2020, the university conducted another campus climate survey. The Skyfactor Campus Climate, Safety and Sexual Assault Assessment measured 15 dimensions of faculty, staff and student perceptions and satisfaction with the institution. 

The survey was conducted initially in 2017 and repeated in 2019 and 2020 and the results were compared. There was strong participation each year. For example, over 48% of all SDSU employees participated in the 2020 survey.

Compared to our 2019 survey results, employees indicated an overall increase in satisfaction in campus accessibility, perceptions of the administration and institution, campus safety and environment, perceptions of students, and administrative policies.

Students positive perception of peers, faculty, staff, and administration improved, and they also agreed the university implemented policies to prevent discrimination and ensure campus safety. Students reported that faculty and staff create an inclusive environment and treat students with respect.

The survey also showed that we must continue efforts to identify and build on proven strategies to not only maintain, but continue to enhance, diversity, inclusion and equity across all aspects of our campus. As a premier land-grant university, we will aim for excellence. And so, we will continue to build a framework of inclusion by promoting and advancing diversity initiatives and focusing efforts on accessibility. 

The second part of our second goal is the ability to grow the university’s external engagement through extension, collaborative service, community outreach, alumni relations and public-private partnerships.

The SDSU Alumni Association continues to engage with our 80,000 plus alumni through programs like “Jacks Give Back.” Events and programs sponsored by the Alumni Association strengthen community engagement and impact people throughout South Dakota, and wherever our alums call home today.

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic dramatically impacted our camps and conferences. Through creativity, several events were still offered virtually. For example, South Dakota high school students participated in a virtual health camp providing them with hands-on demonstration and career advice for future health care majors and careers. Undergraduate and graduate students remotely mentored high school students in the Lower Brule community. And master’s of chemical education students, who are often high school teachers in the region, had laboratory tours and research mentoring sessions with faculty via ZOOM.

Each year, tours are conducted throughout the state at our Agricultural Experiment Station Research Farms. This year, they were converted to virtual farm tours which included short videos highlighting current research projects.

Through extension and outreach programs, South Dakota State University continues to positively impact thousands of individuals. SDSU Extension provides a powerful combination of university research, expertise, innovative delivery and unwavering personal commitment during this unique time. Virtual trainings and workshops include a comprehensive range of programs, including virtual agronomy outreach, monthly Ag Economic Dialogues, gardener and home horticulture trainings, virtual community networking sessions, South Dakota Local Foods Networking sessions, webinars on stress management and mental health, chronic care workshops, operational strategies for businesses during COVID-19, and numerous 4-H programs in journaling, home cooking and creative learning projects for South Dakota’s youth.

In these ways and more, the use of technology in advancing interaction and enrichment has allowed our institution to become more integrated and engaged than ever before.

At the beginning of my presidency, I identified a need to double the research and creative activity done at our university in the next 10 years. Goal 3 of Imagine 2023 – Foster Innovation and Increase Research, Scholarship and Creative Activity addresses that need.

In order to assist in reaching this goal, we aggressively made the decision to provide university funding needed to finish PAC 2 and rebuild Harding Hall. We also secured the funding for the new ADRDL and Raven Precision Ag Center. The expanded ADRDL opened last fall and the remodeled research facilities just this last summer. The Raven Precision Ag project is ahead of schedule and under budget and will open next summer. The second part of that project, remodeling the first and second story of Berg Ag Hall, is planned to start next summer.

It is the investment in these beautiful new spaces, plus the work we discussed earlier on academic accreditation, and the new academic programs we’ve brought on board, which will help us reach our goal of doubling research and creative activity.

It is no accident that we have done so well, in spite of the challenges and uncertainties of the COVID-19 pandemic, in accomplishing our goals and meeting the expectations we have for our great university. We are moving ahead as an institution because of our fourth goal is to “Be a Growing, High-Performing and Healthy University.” This goal centers around our core value of integrity and being financially stable and accomplishing our strategic priorities.

Given our enrollment challenges, we started planning and preparing for a base budget reduction in the fall of 2019. As a part of this, we implemented travel guidelines, held vacant positions, continued efforts to reduce discretionary spending, worked aggressively on spring and summer enrollment, and moved to a centralized budget model. Given our planning, we are well positioned financially for fiscal year 2021.

And during the last four years, the work of the SDSU Foundation has been nothing short of remarkable. The SDSU Foundation team has continued to provide us with outstanding financial support for scholarships, endowed faculty positions and facility projects. Through their creative hard work, they are providing us the financial margin of excellence we need to achieve our goals.

During my inaugural address in 2016, I challenged the university to prepare ourselves to serve a much more racially, and ethnically, diverse population emerging across our state and region. And four years later, we find ourselves in a society with a reemerged national discussion on the challenges of race in our communities. During Congressman John Lewis’ funeral this past summer, President George W. Bush, made a statement that resonated with me.

"… In the America John Lewis fought for, and the America I believe in, differences of opinion are inevitable elements and evidence of democracy in action.”

Through these past few months, our faculty and staff have acted. I observed this during the peaceful march this last summer, as well as through the initiative and work of our athletics and multicultural affairs staff. Kas Williams, our Chief Diversity Officer, has done outstanding educational work on our campus, as well as in the Brookings and surrounding communities. To state your core values is one thing; to live them is something different. When we commit to SDSU’s core values of people-centered, diversity, creativity, excellence and integrity, we equip ourselves to have pivotal, yet cordial conversations that help all of us grow and thrive in a challenging world. 

Also, in my inaugural address I remarked: “The efforts to find solutions for complex challenges will shape our agenda on this campus, in Brookings, in South Dakota, our nation and the world. The solutions will require approaches and ideas that aren’t in place today. They will require the energy, excitement and creativity of our imaginations.”

Thank you for your energy, your excitement, your creativity and imagination!

I continue to be honored to have the opportunity to serve as the 20th president of South Dakota State University. I am humbled by your service and commitment to SDSU. Thank you.