Welcome to a new year and a new semester

Friday, Jan. 20, 2023
Greetings Colleagues,

Welcome to a new year and a new semester! I hope the holiday time was both restful and restorative for you. The new semester is here, and it surely will be replete with both wonderful opportunities and vexing challenges. It is an exciting time at UNT and in higher education generally. It may be helpful if I share with you some of the discussions that we’ll be continuing in the coming months. I invite you to share with me and with your local leadership any thoughts you might have on any of these topics.

Enrollment: Growth and Retention
Enrollment continues to be strong in general, which is good news as this is a base year that will determine key parts of our state funding. However, there are items of concern that we must address. First, much of our growth is due to rapid expansion in a limited number of master’s degree programs, and our growth in Frisco. Overall, our doctoral programs are shrinking, which is a matter of serious concern given our status as a Carnegie R1 university. Undergraduate enrollments are growing but much more slowly, though even that growth masks some areas of considerable worry. The number of transfer students, traditionally a key source of enrollments for UNT, has been decreasing for some time; given the dramatic drop in community college enrollments, we don’t expect that trend to change anytime soon. Demographers also tell us that very soon the number of traditional college-aged students in our region will decline; this “cliff” is already confronting higher education institutions across the country.

These patterns suggest several broad themes. First, what should be our strategy for future growth? As many of you will attest, some areas have experienced rapid growth that has put considerable strain on faculty and staff who are educating and caring for our students. Conversations are underway to help us reach a sustainable situation, and we are taking steps to serve better the students who are already here. We also need to consider thoughtfully where we do – and do not – have capacity for future growth, and how we can appropriately resource that growth. 

This brings me to our second broad theme: retention. Our record-breaking class of incoming freshmen was vital to our unprecedented fall enrollment, but something is amiss when so many students are leaving us without a credential. This problem is not unique to UNT as many universities are facing similar issues due to broader societal trends such as financial constraints, personal or familial situations, and changing views of the value of a degree. As a community, we strongly influence the student experience while they are with us. I am routinely awed by the work faculty and staff do day after day to help our students learn and thrive. As a caring community, I know many of us have the sense that as individuals, we must somehow be all things to all students: advisor, coach, counselor, mentor, teacher, and more. I also know that many units are still struggling to fill vacant positions from pandemic-related hiring freezes. While our priority is to get all units back to appropriate staffing levels, we also can familiarize ourselves with the many resources and services available to our students and help them get connected to the ones they need. A concise list of student resources can be found on the Student Affairs website. 

Student disengagement is an increasing concern nationwide, and I have spoken to a number of faculty on our campus who are experiencing these same trends: student attendance seems lower than ever, more students are failing to complete assignments or read course materials, and there is a sense that more students than ever are struggling to demonstrate basic understanding of course material. I am certain that much of this disengagement is related to the trauma of a pandemic. But I see signs of encouragement in every conversation — strategies faculty are successfully implementing to foster engagement in their classrooms. I’ll be working with the Faculty Senate’s Teaching Effectiveness Committee to share these strategies with our community through a series of workshops. I’ve also attached a recent article collection from the Chronicle of Higher Education, “Engaging the Disengaged Student: How Colleges Connect with Students in the Classroom and Beyond,” which offers some creative and practical ideas.

A final broad item of discussion for our community needs to be around graduate student compensation. Many of you have pointed out that stipends are too low in certain disciplines, and that we need to expand the Tuition Benefit Program. Many universities also completely cover health insurance for graduate students. Solving the grad compensation puzzle in its entirety will involve a large investment of resources and time, but it is essential for attracting high-quality graduate students. I have assembled a group to explore the options and provide recommendations.

Values Journey
As you are aware, Chancellor Williams is leading the UNT System in a journey to build a values-based culture. Many of you have participated in this work, and I am grateful to you. I encourage you to read the summary of the consensus statement on our values if you have not yet done so — they are largely values we have held dear on our campus for many years. The conversation this spring will explore how these values can become part of hiring strategies and employee recognition. I encourage you to be on the lookout for workshop dates and participate as you are able. And please attend President Smatresk’s 3:30 p.m. Jan. 26 event in the Union, where we will learn more about the values and give input on how we can best embrace them.

Our dean searches in CLASS, COS, and CENG, as well as the search for our next Vice Provost for Student Success, are proceeding on schedule, with finalists visiting campus during the first half of this semester. There will be opportunities to interact with candidates; I welcome your involvement.

You might be interested to know about new buildings and building projects coming soon:

Frisco Landing. The first building on our UNT at Frisco branch campus, the beautiful 135,000-square-foot Frisco Landing, hosted its grand opening Jan. 12. Next time you’re out that way, be sure to drop by and check it out.

Science and Technology Building. Architectural and design work on our new science and technology building is ongoing, with a grand opening expected in 2026.

Multicultural Center. Our exciting new Multicultural Center will be located across from the Union, just north of the Baptist Student Center. Groundbreaking should happen in spring 2023, with completion expected during fall 2024.

As we get this spring underway, I thank you again for the extraordinary ways you show up every day for our students, your colleagues, and the UNT community. Please reach out if there is anything I can do to support you.

Michael McPherson, Ph.D.
Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs