MURFREESBORO, TN — MTSU President Sidney A. McPhee kicked off the new academic year Thursday, Aug. 23, by applauding the university’s faculty and staff for continued progress in student retention and graduation while emphasizing the need to develop new strategies in an ever-evolving higher education landscape.
Now in his 18th year leading the Blue Raider campus, McPhee addressed a capacity crowd of faculty and staff inside Tucker Theatre during his annual State of the University remarks as part of the traditional Fall Faculty Meeting in advance of classes beginning Monday for fall semester.
“The calling to make a difference in the lives of others — the passion that drew each member of our academic community to fulfill careers in teaching, research, service, and providing mentorship — is the ultimate goal of our institution,” he said.
Another highlight of the gathering was the presentation of the MTSU Foundation’s Career Achievement Award, this year going to Judith Iriarte-Gross, a professor of chemistry at MTSU since 1996 who is nationally known for her advocacy for girls and women in the sciences.
Iriarte-Gross is director of the Women In STEM (WISTEM) Center at MTSU and the founder and director of Tennessee’s first Expanding Your Horizons girls’ STEM education workshop. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math.
In assessing the university’s overall progress during his hourlong remarks, McPhee noted that MTSU continues making progress through its Quest for Student Success initiative to improve retention and graduation rates, accountability and affordability while “striving to become the public university that more students and parents look to for a top-rate education.”
He cited the increase in full-time freshman retention rate from 69 percent in Fall 2013, when the university first began its student success initiatives, to 76.8 percent in Fall 2017. MTSU’s efforts have become a national model, he said, with media outlets such as The New York Times, the Washington Post and the Chronicle of Higher Education taking note.
He commended University Provost Mark Byrnes and Vice Provost Rick Sluder for leading the retention efforts and touted a list of other achievements from across the university — from funded research to accelerated graduate programs and from athletic successes to ongoing support for student veterans.
“Our proven ability to educate graduates with the least amount of taxpayer dollars per-student is something in which we can, and should, take great pride,” he said.
McPhee also announced Thursday that the MTSU Board of Trustees earlier this summer approved his recommendation for a 1.5 percent across-the-board salary increase for employees while also approving the use of $3.7 million in state and university funds for partially implementing a compensation plan to make MTSU salaries more competitive over time.
Other address highlights:
MTSU’s new 91,000-square-foot Academic Classroom Building will provide a state-of-the-art facility for the College of Behavioral and Health Sciences, including much-needed classroom, office and lab spaces for the Criminal Justice, Psychology, and Social Work departments. The $36 million project is expected to be completed in Summer 2020.
Renovations at Peck Hall are nearing completion and include new ceiling and lighting for the breezeways, new lighting for the corridors, refinishing of the flooring on the second and third levels, and new furnishings for the courtyard areas.
The long-running Middle Tennessee Boulevard widening project is expected to be finished in December.
Parking Services will have new facility located on City View Drive on the southeastern edge of campus, with completion expected by the end of 2019.
Alumni and supporters donated more than $12.7 million in gifts in the last fiscal year, which exceeded the previous year.
Discussions continue regarding the potential transfer of the Valparaiso University’s law school to MTSU. Such a transfer would result in an estimated gift value of $35 million to $40 million.
McPhee concluded his remarks by noting that he would be meeting with senior administrators and deans in the coming months to develop strategies for the next five years “that will differentiate MTSU from our peers and competitors.” (Read the full text of his remarks at http://ow.ly/XbcX30lwRHc)
Career Achievement Award winner
MTSU chemistry professor and nationally recognized STEM education advocate Judith Iriarte-Gross, center, proudly accepts the 2018 MTSU Foundation Career Achievement Award Thursday, Aug. 23, from MTSU President Sidney A. McPhee, left, and MTSU Foundation President Ron Nichols, right, at the university’s Fall Faculty Meeting inside Tucker Theatre. Iriarte-Gross, who’s taught at MTSU since 1996 and is director of the Women In STEM (WISTEM) Center at MTSU and the founder and director of Tennessee’s first Expanding Your Horizons girls’ science, technology, engineering and math education workshop. The Career Achievement Award is presented annually to a professor at MTSU and is considered the pinnacle of recognition for the university’s faculty. Iriarte-Gross also is a fellow of both the American Chemical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, two of the country’s premier scientific professional societies, among her many honors. (MTSU photo by J. Intintoli)
In accepting the Career Achievement Award, Iriarte-Gross noted the importance that federal programs such as TRiO and Upward Bound played in helping a young, first-generation college student from a single-parent home enter higher education and pursue the sciences with the encouragement of teachers and mentors.
Iriarte-Gross also is a fellow of both the American Chemical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, two of the country’s premier scientific professional societies, among her many honors.
“I tell my students today, listen to your teachers because they see something in you that you might not see,” she said.
When she and husband Charles moved to Murfreesboro in 1996, Iriarte-Gross recalled that she noticed the absence of an EYH program for young girls anywhere in Tennessee. She went to work launching one on the Blue Raider campus that will host its 22nd edition in October and has since been joined by five other EYH programs across the state.
“We are changing the future STEM workforce for Tennessee by showing girls that they can do anything,” she said.
The Career Achievement Award is presented annually to a professor at MTSU and is considered the pinnacle of recognition for the university’s faculty. It is given at the Fall Faculty Meeting as part of the MTSU Foundation Awards, which include a variety of awards recognizing outstanding faculty members. Find the full list of winners at www.mtsunews.com.
Tyese Hunter, Metropolitan Nashville Board of Education Budget and Finance Committee chair
NASHVILLE, TN — Many school districts across the nation are feeling the squeeze that smaller budgets and higher expectations for achievement are placing on their already challenged learning environments. While there is a constant push to do more with less, committed board members, administrators and teachers continue to fight through those challenges to remain focused on the goal of elevating student achievement.
This scenario is a strikingly familiar one for Metro Nashville Public Schools, a chronically underfunded district tasked with the expectations of meeting rigorous state and national achievement standards despite scarcity in resources. Out of thousands of school districts across the nation, MNPS stands as the 41st largest educating 86,000 students from diverse communities. Like other large districts, the directive to meet growing educational demands has become a stark reality, even when the funding does not compliment this top priority.
Tyese Hunter, who represents District 6 and serves as the Metropolitan Nashville Board of Education Budget and Finance Committee chair, said although it was a difficult budget process this year, the misperception of all doom-and-gloom is inaccurate. She said while the decrease in funding is significant, the board was diligent in laser-focusing on priorities to have the greatest impact for all students.
“Despite what some have communicated, a lot of progress was made in this budget, even with all its challenges,” Hunter said. “We engaged in some very tough conversations and worked really hard to determine which priorities would be most impactful to students and families.”
She added, “Leadership is about meeting the tough challenges and not allowing a few vocal voices to get in the way of progress. There were some very brave conversations this year around equity across our district, and I commend my board colleagues for being courageous enough to address this critical issue by voting for a budget that prioritized students who have been underserved for decades.”
In a tight budget year, the district looked at how it could provide its poorest and neediest schools with a boost through how it allocated its Title I funds.Title I funds are dollars given to school districts by the Federal government to help poor students perform better in schools.The Board voted 7-2 for a budget that provided equity and access to some of the district’s most vulnerable students, which led to a total of $7.2 million additional dollars being allocated to schools with $5.2 million being given to special education and $2 million for English Language Learners.Thanks to the Metro Council, an additional $2 million was provided to increase paraeducator pay and to ensure all students can take and earn credit for advanced coursework at the high school level like Advanced Placement courses, International Baccalaureate courses, and dual credit courses through Nashville State Community College, as well as industry certifications – for free.Over the past two years, the district has allocated an additional $14 million directly to schools.
These bold moves coupled with the work the Board of Education approved last year providing resources to ensure each elementary and middle school had Encore, which is offered through Gifted and Talented programs, and teachers and qualified literacy experts in every building. New literacy curriculum in all schools will ensure that Metro Nashville Public Schools is serving the needs of all students without taking anything away from all students.
“We want to make sure all students, regardless of their academic status and background, are not left behind,” said Dr. Shawn Joseph, director of schools. “Our most accelerated learners are not getting short-changed because we are addressing the needs of special education and ELL learners. We believe we can, and we will, provide equitable services across this district that ensures every single child’s educational needs are met.”
Hunter, who represents one of the city’s most diverse school populations, said Metro Schools has made strides over the past two years. Reading and math scores are up, ACT scores are moving in the right direction with more students taking the test, more are taking and passing AP and IB tests, and additional funds toward special education, gifted and talented services, and English Language services are areas that are being addressed.
“As budget chair this year, we had a hard conversation about equity in this district. We sent more money to our neediest schools and held 10 community budget meetings to ensure we received input and concern from parents and the community,” Hunter said. “This is unprecedented and resulted in nearly every cluster receiving an increase in funding over the previous year.”
Reports from organizations such as the Nashville Public Education Foundation and the Nashville Chamber of Commerce link Nashville’s future to its success with education. How the city invests in this key economic driver which is tied directly to job creation and global competitiveness will determine its ability to hold on to the “it-city” persona that has caught fire across the country. According to the U.S. Department of Education, increasing educational attainment by a single grade level boosts lifetime income, is a potent weapon against poverty and illiteracy, shapes active citizens, and builds safer, stronger and healthier communities, among other benefits.
“Education is an investment, and while MNPS did not receive the level of funding we wanted from the city, we expect this district’s administration to ensure the funds we have been provided are put to good use,” Hunter said. “Further, as we move ahead, it is important that we continue to exhibit this type of courage and decision making on the board, and to keep at the forefront what is best for children over politics.”