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President Schill on UO, excellence

From his “Open Mike” emails:

Dear Colleagues,

As I look at my calendar, I am excited about the start of the new academic year and eager to welcome our students back to campus. While every fall brings a fresh opportunity for us to build upon our high aspirations for the university, this year is especially thrilling. We have a year of strong momentum at our backs—fueled by the arrival of new academic leadership and brisk faculty hiring; the launch of the Oregon Commitment for student success and on-time graduation; strong research collaborations reported almost daily in Around the O; the creation of new diversity and inclusion initiatives; the opening of the renovated EMU; the achievements of our athletes on campus and in Rio; and our passage of the halfway mark in our $2 billion campaign. The enthusiasm on campus is palpable.

In my “sophomore year” as president, I will not slow the pace of progress. In fact, we must accelerate our work to ensure that the new initiatives we have begun are successful and fully realized. As many of you may remember, in my investiture speech last June I talked about how important it was for our university to constantly strive for excellence in everything we do—particularly in our work to create new knowledge and to pass this knowledge on to our students.

But what do I mean by excellence? Some members of our community hear the word “excellence” and yawn—treating the word as a noun with no content. However, I strongly believe that while it may be difficult to define in a few sentences, excellence does indeed mean something and must guide us as we move our university forward. I was once told by a very wise mentor to be careful of people who believe that there is only one type of excellence and that they know what that is. Excellence in an educational institution can take many forms and be found in virtually all of our disciplines.

Indeed, at the UO I see excellence around me every day. With respect to research, I see faculty members in the humanities and social sciences filling my bookshelves with extraordinary books that examine the history of religion and gender, the determinants of social movements and language, or the economics of trade and the politics in the United States. From our professional schools, I read books that probe environmental legal issues, analyze global markets, illuminate media trends, display wonderful art and design, and I listen to CDs of beautiful music—all created by members of the UO faculty. I read (or try to read) articles authored by our faculty on genetics and molecular biology, green chemistry and high energy physics, algebraic geometry, and exercise physiology. I host dinners with faculty members who have earned early career research grants, been inducted into the national academies, and earned recognition and honors for their books and publications. Their accomplishments take my breath away.

I also get to celebrate excellence in teaching. I sometimes have the opportunity to sit in on a lecture where I can hear firsthand a faculty member’s mastery of a subject. I have also had the privilege of surprising faculty members in their classrooms with distinguished teaching awards to the applause of students. And perhaps most significantly, I have talked one-on-one with so many students about faculty members who have changed their lives by opening them up to new worlds and insights.

Does the fact that there are different types of excellence mean that all scholarship is equally important or that excellence can only be found in the eye of the beholder? Of course not. Our profession guards excellence with peer review. While we at the University of Oregon certainly get to weigh in on what is excellent, we also look externally to our disciplines and our peers to ensure that we have sufficiently high aspirations that are undistorted by personalities, politics, or self-interest. The surest way to mediocrity is to tell ourselves that the metrics widely adopted in peer review don’t apply to us. While objective indicators such as those provided by the AAU, Academic Analytics, or the National Research Council may not always put us in a flattering light, the appropriate response isn’t to ignore or disparage them. Instead, where the indicators are appropriate we should redouble our efforts to get better. And where the indicators are inapt, we should strive to understand where they fall short and supplement them with other indicia.

As for me, as many of you have come to understand, I hold traditional academic values. Academic excellence is built on research faculty members who are ambitious and productive scholars like so many I have met over the past year. Excellence is reflected by peers who read what we write and find it valuable. Excellence is reflected in productivity, in the striving to create knowledge, and in the desire to transmit knowledge to the next generation. Excellence is reflected by success in getting peer-awarded research grants, recognition, exhibits, and lectures. As we build our faculty, it is this excellence that I will seek to encourage and promote.

One way that we will build academic excellence is to retain our outstanding scholars and recruit more extraordinary professors, researchers, and graduate students to the university. In the sciences we need to provide the facilities that will make possible discovery and invention. In the nonscientific fields, we need to find ways to expand seed support for research, summer support, and, where possible, teaching relief. We need to make sure that merit-based compensation truly rewards merit. And we must break down any barriers that exist to doing what we have always done best—interdisciplinary research.

In short, we need to incentivize excellence throughout our university. Last year we made a number of decisions that reflect this commitment. The Graduate School allocated new graduate fellowships to departments that had strong records in on-time degrees, placement, and student satisfaction. New faculty hiring was focused in departments with high productivity and clusters with strong academic leadership. In the coming year, the new financial model will reward departments that both attract students and reflect excellence in research productivity.

Our state deserves a world-class flagship university devoted to the principles of academic excellence. I will do everything in my power to make that happen. I invite all of you to join me in that endeavor. If you have further ideas about what we can do to support this mission, please send an e-mail to [email protected]. I look forward to the coming academic year and wish you a wonderful start to the fall term.



  1. Anas clypeata 09/20/2016

    21! That has to be a new record for “excellence”s! Way to go, Mike!

    • Dog 09/21/2016

      Indeed, perhaps even worse is that
      we have to incentivize excellence!

      wow …

      sorry, I plan to be mediocre at best, unless
      properly incentivized, then, by god, I will be
      excellent, simply because I say so.

    • Old Grey Mare 09/21/2016

      Don’t hold back. It’s excellent!

  2. Dog 09/21/2016

    Excellence = addicted to integrity:

    “My strongest impression, though, was experiencing something you see too little of these days on land: “Excellence.” You’re riding in a pressurized steel tube undersea. If anyone turns one knob the wrong way on the reactor or leaves a vent open, it can be death for everyone. This produces a unique culture among these mostly 20-something submariners. As one officer put it: “You become addicted to integrity.” There is zero tolerance for hiding any mistake. The sense of ownership and mutual accountability is palpable”

    Thomas Friedman

  3. honest Uncle Bernie 09/21/2016

    Nothing on curbing unsustainable tuition increases?

  4. Moonman 09/21/2016

    To which audience is this overwrought and wordy message aimed? Donors? Faculty? Students?

    To roughly paraphrase Anthony Grafton: universities believe too much of their own bullshit.

    • honest Uncle Bernie 09/21/2016

      He does seem like a a bit of a windbag, no? Like an overeager law student trying hard to impress everybody. A lot of lead in that metalwork!

      • uomatters Post author | 09/21/2016

        A windbag? No, he’s made plenty of substantive improvements in the JH leadership, and obviously more are coming.

        • Dog 09/21/2016


          Windbags blow it out of all sides at once and never deliver any substantial (therefore Coltrane qualifies as a windbag). Gottfredson of course, had no wind …

          Its way too early in the process to condemn Schill as more of the same. The litmus test for me is to see if actual numbers of TTF will go up in the next few years.

          • Awesome0 09/21/2016

            And if we stay in the AAU and in the long run if we can double or triple the endowment.

        • honest Uncle Bernie 09/23/2016

          I guess I have a different notion of a windbag. Even Churchill was kind of a windbag sometimes. Though he was far more eloquent and entertaining than most of us.

          I agree that Schill has been doing some substantial stuff. Whether it will succeed or not remains to be seen.

          As I keep saying, he needs to bring home the bacon.

          I also think he is not on a good track with tuition.

  5. IT flunky 22 09/21/2016

    I don’t even have enough morale to complain.

    So I’m sitting in my cubicle today and I realized that ever since I
    started working, every single day of my life has been worse than the
    day before it. So it means that every single day you see me, that’s on
    the worse day of my life.

    What about today? Is today the worse day of your life?


    Oh, that’s bad stuff.

    I’m sorry.


    But is there any way that you, you could just sock me out so there’s no
    way that I’ll know I’m at work? Right here? (points to his head) Can I
    just come home and think I’ve been fishing all day or something?

  6. thedude 09/22/2016

    I think Schill is great. But using excellent too many times starts to sound like the little train saying “I think I can I think I can.”

    Academically, that’s probably really the place we’re in, so it’s just a reminder where UO fits in the academic pecking order.

  7. eugenenative 09/22/2016

    Again with the “flagship” nonsense. How is the UO a “flagship” of anything. Flagship of the one campus University of Oregon system?

    • honest Uncle Bernie 09/23/2016

      In my experience, it’s as close to a “flagship” as Oregon has ever had or perhaps is ever likely to get. Perhaps it’s impossible, having lost the medical school and with most of the engineering and applied science in Corvallis — forlorn as OSU has always seemed to me.

      Perhaps OSU is already passing UO by. It certainly seems to be in the regard with which it is held by the state.

      • Eugenenative 09/24/2016

        Well OSU at least has satellite campuses in Bend (OSU Cascades) and Newport (Hatfield Marine Science Center) that would justify a “flagship” designation.

        • Thom Aquinas 09/25/2016

          The UO has OIMB in Coos Bay, and the UO Portland? Doesn’t that qualify

          • prufrock 09/25/2016

            Literally, the flagship of a fleet carries the fleet’s commanding admiral.
            Analogously, while the chief officer of Oregon University System, the chancellor, resided at the UO, the UO could be considered the system’s “flagship.”
            Frohnmeyer sought, and obtained, official flagship designation for the UO in the mission statement that was submitted to, and approved by, OSBHE in 1995–in part by using this analogy.

            After the termination of the office of chancellor in 2015, this analogy no longer holds. Also, the current mission statement that has been approved by both the UO Trustees and HECC does not mention flagship status for the UO.

            But neither the UO, nor the state, have formally disavowed flagship status previously conferred.
            So…unless someone sues in court, the issue is still likely to be a good way to start a bar fight in Corvallis.

  8. Inquiring Mind 09/23/2016

    I just find “excellence” as a brand rather vague and uninspired. Doesn’t provide context for UO’s uniquene contributions. I am also quite tired of the self-congratulatory statements that UO is Oregon’s “flagship” “premiere research” or otherwise “most excellent” university. I’d much rather we be more descriptive than what sounds so vacuous.

  9. honest Uncle Bernie 09/23/2016

    Here’s an example just out of “bringing home the bacon”:

    “UC Berkeley, UC San Francisco and Stanford University will join forces in a new medical science research center funded by a $600 million commitment from Facebook CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg and pediatrician Priscilla Chan.”

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