By Ricardo Azziz | July 29, 2013
A frequent question posed during my recent listening tour across campus was, “As a university, what are we going to look like?” or “What are we going to be?” A question also asked by our Board of Regents, our state executive leadership, our legislative and federal partners, our research collaborators, other universities, prospective students, alumni, parents and faculty, and many others around the nation.
This is an important question, as it addresses what our core vision should be and what direction we should take for our future. It also indirectly addresses the question that many staff and faculty have on their minds, whether spoken or not: “… and do I want to be part of this future?”
But how do we succinctly capture the vision of our future?
For starters, we need to understand that the future is a continuum—and it starts now. As Tom Peters, management guru, reminds us “Excellence is the next 5 minutes.” And it’s a future that we are all crafting together.
So as we try to answer the question “As a university, what are we going to look like?” what time points do we mean by “the future”: 3 years, 10 years, 30 years? I suggest it might be helpful to consider what we will look like both in the “near future” (in 10-15 years) and in the “far future” (25-30 years out). Note that I do not mention the “very near future” (3-7 years), as the efforts and focus of these years will be informed by our vision of the near future.
Secondly, our desired future state should clearly recognize and leverage our current strengths and programs … our starting point.
Thirdly, there are a variety of approaches we can take to articulate the future state of this university: through our mission or vision statements; by creating a distinct and succinct definition of our GRU enterprise; through comparisons to other universities; with the use of captivating visuals; or perhaps through a compelling “elevator speech.”
Finally, our answer should prompt a clear and immediate mental image of the GRU of the future.
Let’s now try and answer this critical question.
Mission and Vision Statements
The entirety of our university community had a voice in crafting these declarations, which articulate our collective ideas for our university’s present and future:
Our mission is to provide leadership and excellence in teaching, discovery, clinical care, and service as a student-centered comprehensive research university and academic health center with a wide range of programs from learning assistance through postdoctoral studies.
Our vision is to be a top-tier university that is a destination of choice for education, health care, discovery, creativity, and innovation.
However, the first may answer the question, “What should we be doing as a university?” better than “As a university, what are we going to look like?” The second is succinct, but it was intentionally left open-ended to freely foster innovation going forward, so it is perhaps a bit vague for our purpose here. Together they are helpful, but provide an incomplete answer to the question.
Maybe crafting a definition would be helpful. Something like, “We will be a medium-sized comprehensive university with recognized excellence in the fields of health sciences, liberal arts, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), business, and education.” Or maybe, “We will be a broad university which serves as the academic health center and health sciences university of Georgia and offers excellence in STEM, business, and liberal arts education.”
In truth these alternative definitions often end up reciting what we already are, run the risk of making some feel excluded, and do not provide more explanation than our mission or vision statements.
In our own career development it is often easier to decide on a path if we can observe the successes of others who started with similar goals. That is where mentors, role models, and senior staff and faculty are helpful. It is no different with our university.
So, for example, we might want to state that in the near future we aim to be like the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB).
UAB was formed in 1969 by merging the University of Alabama (UA) Medical School and the UA Birmingham Extension Center. Today UAB offers 137 degrees in 11 colleges and schools: in the social and behavioral sciences, the liberal arts, business, education, engineering; and health-related fields such as medicine, dentistry, optometry, nursing, and public health. UAB is nationally recognized for its excellence in the health sciences, among other programs. The university also includes an aligned Health System, one of the largest academic health centers in the U.S. UAB enrolls about 18,000 students, and between the university and the health system employs more than 18,000 faculty and staff, and has an economic impact of over $5 billion. UAB is ranked 21st nationally in funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
In comparison, GRU today offers about 110 programs in nine colleges/schools, also has an aligned Health System, employs more than 12,000 faculty and staff, enrolls over 9,500 students, has a direct economic impact across the enterprise that exceeds $2.2 billion, and is ranked in the top 100 in NIH research funding. UAB could represent the growth we can emulate in the near future.
Another example is Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), the product of the 1968 merger between the Medical College of Virginia and a more comprehensive university, the Richmond Professional Institute. Today VCU includes the VCU Health System, and enrolls over 31,000 students in over 220 degree and certificate programs through the university’s 13 schools and colleges. The VCU model might represent growth to which we can aspire in the far future.
Or how about another university with recognized strengths in the health sciences and in the liberal arts? Johns Hopkins University was founded as the first research-oriented university in the U.S. in 1876, with its hospital established in 1889 and medical school in 1893. It is certainly a model that we could emulate and aspire to, perhaps in an even more distant future. Of course, there are many others.
The visual representation
Remembering that “a picture is worth a thousand words,” we crafted a short visual of what we might look like by the year 2030, the far future:
Granted it isn’t a single picture conveyed in an instant. And it isn’t yet as inclusive and broad-based as we would like. But do watch it. I believe you will find it compelling.
The elevator speech
All of the above statements have disadvantages, either because they take too long to communicate or they are not visually compelling, or both. A typical elevator speech can last up to two minutes, but few folks who ask, “As a university, what are we (you) going to look like?” are seeking a two-minute answer. So perhaps a good elevator pitch, which has the power of leveraging a comparison and of being brief, broadly recognized, and visually evocative, is to say:
“We will be the Georgia Tech of health sciences.”
Georgia Tech, a great school with excellence in a wide variety of disciplines, including business and the liberal arts, but with immediately recognizable distinction world-wide in engineering and computing.
It is my belief that GRU will be a great school with excellence across a broad variety of programs of relevance to the future of our students, our state, and our world, and with an immediately recognizable distinction in the biomedical sciences and health professions. And it is a future that all of us—faculty, staff, students and community together—will have a hand in crafting.