Executive Dean Arash Mafi's Presentations

Watch the State of the College 2024 speech

Transcript of the State of the College speech

My fellow colleagues, good afternoon and welcome to this, my inaugural State of the College speech. Let me begin by saying the state of our college is very strong as we move forward with outstanding faculty and staff, rigorous curriculum, and groundbreaking research and scholarship.

More than a year ago, I stood in front of you in my interview speech, right here in this conference room, and talked about ongoing challenges in higher education. I quoted Benjamin Franklin who wrote, "An investment in knowledge pays the best interest." This is an undisputable fact. However, the rapid pace of change in this country—and around the world—has made many wonder: “Is an investment in higher education the best form of investment in knowledge?" I am here to tell you emphatically that it still is!

Higher education fuels the economic engine of our modern society, provides social mobility, and reduces the income gap. Our educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people, and as a democracy. The University of Kansas, as a flagship public R1 research university, offers the premier platform for investing in knowledge through world-class education and scholarship.

As many of you know, I spent the first three months on the job conducting a listening tour among our more than 50 departments and programs. I spent the next three months reflecting on all I heard—both the incredible accomplishments as well as the challenges we face. I knew coming into the job that this university has a glorious past. What I learned from you are all the amazing things happening now—and the potential we have for an even brighter future.

The greatest takeaway from my listening tour is that the College is truly the heart of KU. We generate more research, scholarship, creative work, and research funding than any other entity on campus; we educate the most students; and we have the widest breadth of research, with the greatest impact not only on a local level, but nationally and even globally as well.

We have a lot to be proud of, there is no doubt about that. We also have plenty of room to grow and be even better. I will outline how in this speech, and I would like to start by sharing with you the vision I have for our college.

For our amazing students:

Imagine a college where no student is left behind, irrespective of their academic background or financial means; where every student is afforded a genuine opportunity to succeed, free from judgment or bias; where every student feels safe, secure, welcomed, valued, and embraced, with access to a wealth of resources designed to help them succeed, from personalized academic advising and career services to mental health and wellness programs.

Imagine a college with an innovative curriculum that lays the foundation of a solid liberal arts education, developing critical thinking and communication skills and preparing students to land well-paying jobs right after graduation.

For our world-class faculty:

Imagine a college where every new assistant professor is welcomed with open arms and nurtured from day one, guided by mentors committed to their success; where associate professors are infused with even greater energy, propelling them swiftly toward the rank of full professor.

Imagine a college where full professors are acknowledged, embraced, valued, and given the tools to excel in their scholarly pursuits so they can inspire and lead others.

Imagine a college where all faculty members are equally valued and respected, whether they dedicate themselves to research or teaching, and whether they are tenure-line or career/specialty faculty; where the service load is distributed equitably, and each contribution is acknowledged and appreciated.

Imagine a college where faculty, staff, and graduate employees are adequately compensated.

For our dedicated staff:

Imagine a college where staff members are respected and valued, their expertise is acknowledged and celebrated as integral to the institution's success.

Imagine a college where staff members can take ownership of their direct and indirect contributions to research and scholarship, where they are not just considered support staff but essential collaborators in the pursuit of academic excellence.

And for the beautiful state of Kansas, and our community:

Imagine a college deeply engaged with our local communities through partnerships, outreach programs, and collaborative initiatives, actively contributing to the economic development of Kansas and beyond by fostering innovation, entrepreneurship, job creation, and enriching the cultural fabric of our communities.

This, my colleagues, is more than just a vision—it's a promise for our college. In some areas, we're closer to our ideals, while in others, we have further to go. Let's unite and make this vision a reality. Together, let's build a college where excellence thrives, and every member can succeed.

The elements of this vision are deeply interconnected. Well-respected and adequately compensated faculty and staff go hand-in-hand with an excellent educational platform and well-cared-for student body. All these elements need to be addressed simultaneously and in parallel, and we will do that together.

When I started here, I set out to engage in full-fledged strategic planning. However, as I became more familiar with the university’s Jayhawks Rising platform, I understood this multi-year planning process that incorporated input from many groups and individuals had the right framework for us to achieve what we want. Therefore, what I initially conceived to be a strategic planning for the college became more of a strategic alignment with Jayhawks Rising.

A common theme I heard from my listening tour was the units were looking for a long-term sense of direction, leadership, and consistency from the dean’s office. The college central office is key to providing service to the constituents and ensuring stability and consistency. Remember, we are talking associate deans, communications and marketing, finance and planning, recruitment and outreach, undergraduate academic services, the office of graduate affairs, the data team, and more. As you can see, the dean’s office is a large service organization with sizable impact on the well-being of the college and KU.

The structure of the dean’s office had changed multiple times during the past decade, and it was clear we could benefit from improved cohesiveness, especially because the pandemic had sent everyone into isolation, literally and metaphorically. We decided some realignments were needed: the communication team needed help, and the scale of curricular changes alone necessitated a dedicated associate dean for academic affairs.

While we engaged in these structural changes, we also decided to start the strategic alignment with Jayhawks Rising directly in the college office.

We asked every member of the dean’s office to identify areas where they could make the most impact, and what they are most passionate about, within the framework of Student Success, Healthy & Vibrant Communities, and Research & Discovery. As a result, the dean’s office strategic alignment was developed over the fall 2023 semester and beginning of the spring 2024 semester. It is a forward-looking, meaningful, detailed, and action-oriented plan with clear owners, metrics, and timelines. As we speak, it is being implemented. More details about this plan will be communicated to you all soon.

A year from now, my goal is to stand in front of you and report on the positive changes this plan has made in the college. Next year, after we are through with the HLC accreditation and Core34 implementation, together, we can decide which elements of the strategic alignment need to be directly implemented in the units. For now, our focus is on the dean’s office, to make sure we provide the necessary servant leadership to the college community at large. Still, many of these initiatives involve ongoing collaborations with departments and programs.

With all of this in mind, I’d like to share some brief highlights of this strategic alignment with you:

First, I would like to start with Student Success:

We have ramped up our marketing efforts, enhanced outreach to western and central Kansas—and among minority and first-Gen and Pell-eligible students, branding the College as THE pathway to healthcare at KU.

At the same time, we are working actively to improve student retention by enhancing engagement and academic experiences. For example, the College Undergraduate Academic Services has extended its operating hours to 8pm, 3 days a week. Moreover, 10 of our departments have volunteered to participate in “Welcome to your Major,” a pilot program for when students declare their college major.

Additionally, we started a comprehensive plan to lower fail and withdraw rates, especially in first-year courses. We are collaborating with several department chairs to provide detailed data and support to help tackle the issues. This is not, and will not, be a one-size-fits-all initiative, because we know the nature of the problems varies across disciplines and courses.

Another initiative is to improve proper course placement, whether it is in current math courses, the upcoming KBOR’s Math Pathways, in English writing courses, or in language courses.

Let us now turn our attention to Healthy & Vibrant Communities.

In developing this plan, we studied the COACHE report and received additional feedback from faculty, staff, and students. The College has plans to lead initiatives in engaging the public, including the university community, in scholarly and intellectual dialogue. Soon, you will be hearing about the specifics of this initiative, as well as other initiatives in the works that will make our college more inclusive and diverse.

As for workplace satisfaction and building a stronger community, you have seen visible changes already. We have introduced engagement and networking events for faculty, like last week’s pizza luncheon, similar events with postdocs, and opportunities and events for staff, including college staff appreciation days, a 5-day event that just concluded yesterday, professional development events, and more.   

Also, we will expand ways to better educate students on a range of available mental health services, and work to normalize the use of those services.  

In terms of Research and Discovery, we have enacted initiatives in the College to grow research.

Some of you may know about the ongoing FRESSH Program (Fostering Research Expansion in Social Sciences and Humanities), which is a year-long grant-writing school that currently has 21 enrolled faculty members from 17 disciplines. The cohort meets once every other week and is developing research concepts and proposals suitable for funding opportunities from federal agencies or major foundations.

Another promising initiative is CARES, which stands for Career Advancement/Research Enhancement Semester, and is designed to provide associate professors in the College with more focused time to advance their record of scholarship and research for promotion to the rank of Full Professor. This year, we provided support for 3 associate professors, with plans to do more in the future.

Additionally, I have formed a College Research Advisory Board, with 10 faculty members of broad and diverse representation from the College, Arts, Humanities, Languages, Social & Behavioral Sciences, and Mathematical, Physical, and Life Sciences. The committee will help orient the College to support research. For example, we will establish a fund that will be used for the purpose of providing support for faculty doing interdisciplinary, large-scale grant proposals. We will also convene meetings around key research themes, such as AI, ethics, quantum technologies, or cancer research to enhance collaborations across disciplines.

We’ve also created a biweekly research newsletter from the college, celebrating the scholarly achievements of our colleagues.

Finally, I am in talks with Lewis-Burke, a leading government relations firm that KU contracts with, to help enhance federal funding opportunities for our faculty members.

Now I’d like to say a few words about the challenges ahead.

Fortunately, we don’t have any college-wide issues with enrollment currently, but there are local issues within some units, and we are collaborating with them to address those. It is not easy to predict how hard or soft the enrollment cliff in the coming years will be for KU. To quote Niels Bohr, the father of quantum mechanics, “it is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future.”

The only reliable information is that the overall enrollment will be lower across the U.S. However, how the enrollment will be distributed, and whether R1 flagships fare better or not, remains to be seen. We shall remain optimistic but prepared.

The known issue we continue to face is retention. The college 4-year graduation rate is 52% and 6-year graduation rate is 64%. While these numbers show improvement compared to prior years, they can be better. It is a moral imperative and our obligation to our students and their families. Our retention rate to second year is 82%. If we increase that to 90%, it will significantly raise our 6-year graduation rate from 64% to 71%. We need to work together and focus on retaining our students in their critical first year. There is plenty of room for improvement, especially when it comes to success rates in first-year courses.

The pandemic has undeniably left a lasting impact on education in our country, and its effects are projected to linger for at least another decade. We owe it to our students, to our next generation, to help them navigate through the challenges they are facing. Once a student enrolls, their academic journey becomes our responsibility. We'll leverage existing tools and resources to uphold the highest standards and ensure their success.        

Meanwhile, we are facing a significant gap between Pell-Eligible and First-Gen retention rates compared to other students, with a staggering difference of over 18 percentage points in the six-year graduation rate. It's a glaring disparity. While our high admit rate plays a role, KU still falls short when benchmarked against peer institutions. This calls for collective action. We must address this issue head-on and we will do it together.

Now let’s talk about the budget. Since I’m not one to sugar-coat things, let me give it to you straight: the college budget has a deficit. This is not at all a reflection of bad management by my predecessors, who I highly respect, or our truly exemplary financial team. But rather, it is a reflection of the existing realities of academia.

Of course, it would have been much easier for me if I had a budgetary surplus and could jump on enacting initiatives by pouring money into the college or hiring many faculty members, launching multiple research initiatives, and I am sure I would have been labelled as a visionary leader.

However, I have a responsibility to you all, to this institution, to be a good and equitable steward of our shared resources. That means sometimes we have to say no or not now to some initiatives. I must think about now and the future.

Let me tell you what you can expect from me. You can expect me to work hard on your behalf to bring resources to the college, from the central administration and outside. I am proud to report this is already happening! You can expect me to be equitable to all our departments in the college, and to actively invest in our future, so that we are much stronger both academically, and financially in a couple of years. Does the budget deficit worry me? Not at all, if we work together to address it. Will it require massive cuts or realignments? I do not believe so. Will it require principled and careful expenditure? Of course.

I want us to work together because we are in this together. But I do not want you to worry, because I am not worried. We will get there. It just requires a bit of patience. I ask you to trust me and support me in this path.  

The road ahead is clear and promising. We have a truly exemplary financial team, and we have a visionary and responsive central leadership team in the Provost’s and Chancellor’s offices. And we have great synergy among us. We will continue to work together to ensure the budgetary challenges are quickly resolved.     

Part of the equation for maintaining financial health in the college involves endowment activities. We are fortunate to have an exceptional development team. Over the past few months alone, we have achieved multiple successes with endowed professorships, resulting in several millions of dollars in funding. These endowed professorships, along with student scholarships, are instrumental in preserving our status as a major R1 university.

I'd like to take a moment now to remind us all of the incredible achievements of our college. According to U.S. News & World Report, 37 of KU's graduate programs rank in the top 50 among public institutions, and an impressive 20 of these programs belong to our college. On the Lawrence campus, 12 out of 20 faculty members with over 20,000 citations are from our college. Our Humanities programs, as per Academic Analytics, are ranked in the 85th percentile, a testament to their world-class scholarship. KU stands as a true leader in this field.

Moreover, we are a national leader in the study of languages, offering instruction in 33 different languages. Our total research expenditure nears $50 million, and when combined with the number of PhDs we graduate annually, our college alone qualifies for the Very High Research Activity Carnegie R1 designation. That bears repeating: our college alone —without the rest of the university included—qualifies for the Very High Research Activity Carnegie R1 designation.

Notably, some of our units in Natural Sciences and Social & Behavioral Sciences boast exceptional levels of funded research activity. In two of our larger departments, the externally funded research expenditure per faculty member reaches nearly $450,000 a year. These figures speak volumes about the caliber of research and scholarship within our college. And there is more. Our clinical child psychology program offers specialized services at affordable rates to Kansas families seeking help for children with behavioral issues, learning disorders, autism, ADHD, and depression. Additionally, our speech-language-hearing clinic serves more than a hundred children and adults annually, offering world-class services that are unique in Kansas, community-facing, and affordable—all within our college, at the heart of KU.

Likewise, our arts departments consistently produce exceptional creative works, exhibitions, films, and plays that tackle critical societal and cultural issues, while actively engaging with our communities.

As a public university in the heartland, and a flagship R1 AAU institution, we serve as our state's gateway to the world. Our glorious history and bright future empower us to lead with our own values and standards, rather than merely following established norms dictated by others.

Our path forward is one of collaboration and unity, as we operate as a cohesive college brimming with opportunities. We will foster collaboration within our own ranks and extend open arms to KU's professional schools, while aligning closely with the central administration.

In closing, I’d like to say what an honor it has been to serve as your dean in this first year. I am grateful to have landed here at KU—the campus community has welcomed me and my family with open arms. I can confidently say that our college is in great shape moving forward. The University of Kansas continues to be a top-tier research institution, and that the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences remains the heart of KU.

Thank you and Rock Chalk Jayhawk!