Convocation 2022

Remarks by President Kelly Damphousse
Convocation Address to Faculty and Staff
Friday, August 19, 2022

Since I started as president in July, I’ve experienced many firsts. My first meetings with students, faculty, staff, and alumni. My first visits to our impressive facilities all over our campuses in San Marcos and in Round Rock. My first time trekking up those Alkek stairs in the summer heat – followed quickly and wisely by my first golf cart rides across the San Marcos Campus. I also had my first commencement ceremonies. And today, my first Convocation.

On my first day on the job, I met with incoming freshmen and their families who were attending New Student Orientation. I told them I had the first day jitters. I shared that for two reasons: first, because it was true.

The evening before, I couldn’t sleep, so I left my house around 11 o’clock and thought I’d drive around campus and contemplate the moment before me. I decided I would try to drive over to Old Main and park in front of it to contemplate. I discovered what you already know –that you can’t just drive up to Old Main. It took me almost an hour to discover that. I eventually found myself standing in front of The Vaquero statue as the clock struck midnight. Standing in the glow of the lights shining up on Old Main, I contemplated the monumental task before me. Like many leaders, if they are being honest with you, I wondered to myself: “Can I do this?” Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a shoe-polished note in a window left by an unknown person earlier that year that simply read, “You belong here.” I will never forget that moment and that note – which was written for any number of reasons besides me – as long as I live. In that moment I was reminded that I belong here.

The second reason that I shared my first day jitters with them was because I wanted them to know it is okay to feel a bit nervous when you’re starting something new. Like our new students, you may be feeling some jitters as well today. You and I are also starting a new chapter in our lives. In addition to beginning a new academic year – beginning anew that familiar, annual cycle of a fresh start and the promise of cooler weather, which I’m told will arrive eventually – you also have a new president. I know that any change, even good change, can be unsettling.

This university has been blessed by tremendous leadership over its history. For the past 20 years, President Denise Trauth nobly led this university as it grew in ways that her predecessors could scarcely have imagined. That is why it is so humbling for me to stand before you today.

Before reminding us of our many accomplishments of the past year and sharing my vision for the future of Texas State University, I thought I’d share with you three values that shape who I am and how I lead. I hope that hearing them will help alleviate a few of your jitters, and perhaps some of my own as well.

First, I believe that you belong here too. No matter where you serve or how long you have been here, you matter. Texas State believed in you when we brought you into our fold. And we believe in you now as we chart our future course together. We chose you to help build the future Texas State University. For the past several months, I have watched the way you serve our students and how you serve each other, so I know you believe that they belong here too.

Second, your voice matters to me. I have never forgotten my experience as a dean at a former institution when a group of students walked across campus with red duct tape across their mouths with the word “Unheard” written on it. They were crying out for campus leadership to listen and to act. Engaging with those students as a dean in one-on-one small group sessions and listening to their concerns was an experience I’ll never forget, and it shaped me as a leader. It inspires me to this day to ensure all voices are heard.

I cannot promise to solve every problem or concern you are facing. But I pledge to do everything I can to ensure that you are heard, and then, when possible, to turn that hearing into action. Indeed, I have already started working with my leadership team to respond to issues that have come to my attention this summer. I am anxious to continue our efforts to make Texas State the best possible place to serve, to live, to discover, and to learn.

Third, I cannot do what needs to be done alone. A couple weeks ago, I was in the LBJ Library and I stumbled across two quotes that seem appropriate for this moment. The first was a little sign on Lady Bird Johnson’s desk that simply read, “Can Do.” The second was a quote from LBJ himself – one of our alumni – that read, “There are no problems that we cannot solve together, and there are very few which any of us can solve by ourselves.”

We have accomplished great things here at Texas State, but we have great aspirations for what’s NEXT for us. The only way that we get from here to there is by, first, believing we can do it and, second, by working on these goals together. As I look around this arena, I am convinced that we have the right people at the right time in the right place to do just that.

This is only my 50th day at Texas State, but Beth and I have already made so many amazing memories. I have met with many alumni and students, for example, and have loved hearing their Texas State stories. You will not be surprised that many of our alumni’s favorite stories include the relationships they created with our faculty and staff who enriched their lives by challenging them in the classroom and by engaging them outside of it. At Move-In Day, I was talking with a young man who just graduated. He told me about the sales department which has a 100% job placement rate. He couldn’t stop bragging about the faculty and staff who helped him get from here to there. It won’t surprise you that many of our younger alumni have mentioned their time at Sewell Park – it gets mentioned a lot.

I loved hearing a faculty colleague eloquently share how her research is an essential part of her teaching mission. While another told freshmen, “the secret to life is learning, and the secret to learning is asking questions.” While yet another explained that the theatre is also a type of laboratory where discoveries are made every semester.

I’ve loved running into staff members who always seem to be at every event that I attend – and hearing a staff member tell a group of first-generation students that her own goal at their age was to own a home with central heat and air. You could have heard a pin drop in that room when she shared that story about how her college education made a difference in her life. These experiences remind me of what drew me to Texas State.

If I were to ask you to tell your neighbor what you think Texas State does – what is the business of Texas State University – I am convinced your answer would not be, we’re here to generate credit hours, to have a career, to serve and retire, or about economic development. That is part of what we do. But I think you would say something similar to what one of our colleagues texted me this week. He said, we are in the business of transforming lives one person at a time – the lives of the people who come here to learn and to serve. That, my friends, is the noble purpose of Texas State University. To make people’s lives different. I’m proud to serve alongside you.

We are starting this academic year in a very strong place. We’re so fortunate. While schools across the country are experiencing significant enrollment declines, our team has recruited the largest freshman class in Texas State University history. We have nearly 7,600 freshmen this year, which is remarkable. As of today, we have set another record. Eighty-one percent of last year’s freshman class have returned for their sophomore year. And, we are forecasting a record $100 million in total research and development spending for fiscal year 2022.

Last October, you launched the public phase of the capital campaign, NEXT IS NOW, and I just informed the Regents last week that we have raised more than $200 million toward the goal of $250 million. I anticipate raising our goal once we get there because we have so much momentum going that I don’t want to stop at $250 million. Texas State also won the Bubas Cup this past year, signifying the best overall record by athletics programs in the Sun Belt Conference. In addition to all that, you faced the challenges of the COVID pandemic head on, keeping our community healthy and safe, while still delivering the academic instruction and support our students needed. Your hard work allowed the university to not just survive, but to thrive.

I hope you take great pride in all you have helped Texas State achieve. Thanks to your hard work, we are poised to move from good to great. Now is the time to look at what we can do to take Texas State to the NEXT level. Today I’ll share what I believe are our top priorities, but I want to stress that I will be leaning on your voice and expertise to help us shape strategies as we move forward. As you may know, we are currently developing our 2023-2029 Strategic Plan. I encourage you to participate in the numerous opportunities there will be to provide feedback and input.

To begin shaping the top priorities of my presidency, I met many administrators, faculty, staff, alumni, and students over the past couple months – even before I started serving here. This week, my Cabinet spent two long days doing a deep dive into the university master plan, our budget, student success efforts, and our research enterprise. Most importantly, we spent some time dreaming big – what could we do if money was no object?

Out of all those discussions, two key opportunities emerged to focus on for the future: Accelerating our progress toward the Carnegie R1 classification; and doubling down on our commitment to student success. Allow me to say a few words about both.

Finishing the “Run to R1” is a top priority for Texas State University. It will be a two-step process that starts with earning access to the state’s National Research University Fund, also known as NRUF. It’s a fund set aside by the Texas Legislature to encourage universities to become engines of innovation and economic development by investing in research. There are clear metrics that must be met to achieve NRUF designation, and I want us to create an aggressive timeline to achieve NRUF status. Our ultimate goal, though, is achieving the R1 designation. Your accomplishments over the past several years have positioned us well for this transition. Now, the eligibility metrics for R1 classification are not as clearly stated as NRUF, and they may evolve over the years.

But now is the time to remove the “if” qualifier that I’ve heard so many times in my first couple months in discussions about R1, and replace that with “when.” WHEN we become an R1 institution! It will not be easy, but we have never been about doing only what is easy. To achieve these two objectives, we must take bold action. So, I’m charging a Presidential Commission on the Run to R1 to accelerate our progress and to get us there as quickly as possible. The commission will conduct benchmarking and data analysis, inform our strategic plan, make policy recommendations, and map out an aggressive timeline for our goal of becoming an R1 university.

I do want to be clear about something and clarify a couple misconceptions. First, R1 institutions are not better than R2 institutions. The Carnegie classification system was developed to group together similar institutions based on their research productivity. But becoming an R1 university has many advantages. It won’t make us better, it will make us different.

It will transform our students’ experience because it will allow us to expand their participation in cutting edge research sponsored by agencies like NASA, the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Defense, and some of the top companies across the United States. Becoming an R1 will allow our students to have even more of these enriched learning experiences, and allow them to develop skills to successfully compete for careers with graduates from the most well-known institutions in the country. It will also allow us to retain and recruit outstanding faculty members and doctoral students – folks who place Texas State at the cutting edge of the creation of solutions to real-world problems. R1 universities are also economic engines. As an R1, the private sector along the Texas Innovation Corridor will want to engage in even more meaningful partnerships with us, and we will attract private investment from top companies to support our faculty, staff, and students. Already, our research park, STAR Park, is the largest lab-based technology incubator in Texas.

Now, there are two things that our Run to R1 cannot be. First, Texas State has achieved remarkable research and enrollment growth over the years without losing our unique identity – without forgetting Texas State’s roots and values. And, without sacrificing the emphasis we have on quality teaching. Our goal cannot be to trade our teaching mission for our research mission. We must dedicate ourselves to the ideal that both are important, and create reward systems that acknowledge the value we place in both enterprises. Second, we cannot allow ourselves to fall into the trap of focusing on STEM disciplines at the expense of the arts and humanities. A great university must have a real appreciation for a broad range of disciplines.

So be prepared to hear more about our concentrated effort to become an R1 university. For example, the first episode of my new monthly video series called The Current will be released this afternoon. It will showcase what our Run to R1 means for Texas State. We also launched a Run to R1 page on my website, where you can learn more about our research trajectory.

Now we’ll switch to student success – which has been Texas State’s primary obligation since its inception. No matter what initiative we undertake in the future, we dare not stray from our focus on ensuring that the students who place their trust in us are given every opportunity to graduate in a timely manner, and to be prepared for life after Texas State. It has always been at the heart of what we do.

But meeting that obligation will be more challenging these next few years. The members of our freshman class haven’t had the traditional high school experience because of the pandemic. Our own returning students experienced similar academic challenges and the learning loss that many of us worry about. While students have always needed our support and guidance to start their college careers off on the right foot, they need more from us than ever before. They may need additional mental health services – plus a boost in confidence and compassion to feel equipped to take on the work ahead. Student success is not only the work of the faculty. Many thanks to those of you who operate life-changing programs like the CARE Center, the PACE Center, the Counseling Center, TRIO, Housing and Residential Life, and dozens of other initiatives that touch our students’ lives.

I am definitely not recommending that we lower the bar for them, but my sense is that we may need to do more to help them rise up to the bar that we’ve set. How do we do that? Well, let’s examine just one important metric of student success – first-year retention. Because if we don’t retain students from their first year to their second year, we don’t graduate them a few years down the road.

We should celebrate our increase to an 81% retention rate, after we have hovered around 77% for several years. That’s a tremendous achievement and it’s not by accident that it happened. We invested a huge amount of money, $50 million over five years in scholarships and financial aid. It’s also a result of the coordinated efforts of faculty and staff across the university, including the Student Success Executive Committee.

But I think we can do more. We shouldn’t settle for allowing 19% of our freshman to not return for their sophomore year. We could do more with a coordinated university-wide approach to student success including, but not limited to, retention. To that end, I will be establishing a second commission – the Presidential Commission on Student Success – which will include the goal of increasing first-year retention to 85% by the mid-point of our strategic plan period, while also facilitating improved enrollment, student engagement, and graduation rates. I will ask the commission to make bold recommendations to the Cabinet, and to provide a realistic set of steps to reach or even surpass “85 in 2025.”

While research and student success are our two highest priorities, we have other challenges in front of us, as well. For example, while we have the largest freshman class in Texas State history – and we continue to rank third in the number of applications for Texas universities – our overall enrollment has been flat or declining over the last five years. We must help more people join in the college experience, because we know how life-changing it is – not just for each graduate, but for generations to come. Texas State ranks first in the state for helping at-risk students graduate, including non-traditional students and those whose families fall below the federal poverty threshold. So, when we grow enrollment at Texas State – when we increase the number of students we retain and graduate – we’re making an impact no other university in the state of Texas can claim.

So, I will be charging a Recruitment Task Force to propose changes we can make to increase enrollment on our campuses, including categories for international students, students taking classes online, and students that come to us through a transfer process.

Moving on to Round Rock. We have a tremendous opportunity with our Round Rock Campus, which is home to degree programs that are desperately needed in the state workforce. Our research initiatives, healthcare labs and clinics in Round Rock are outstanding, as well. But I believe we need to better understand how we can advance our mission at that location, so I am convening a Round Rock Task Force to help chart a vision for the future of the campus.

This morning I have shared two top priorities and commissions and task forces that will result, but I want to close today with three personal commitments I make to you. Those commitments center on the ideals of inclusion, employee morale, and creating a culture of collaborative communication.

It’s a privilege to serve a university that reflects the diverse state we live in, and it’s our duty to do all we can to foster a community that feels welcoming to all. I am deeply, personally committed to advancing Texas State’s work to create diversity, equity, inclusion, and access programming on our campuses. Inclusion is linked to student success, but it’s also linked to faculty and staff success as well. Our students and employees must feel safe, welcomed, and accepted in order to reach their full potential. We are adding a university-wide strategic goal related to inclusion and access into the overall university goals, to that end.

Our commitment to inclusion remains at the core of all we do, and it’s part of our roots as an institution where American history was made. Texas State is recognized as the birthplace of TRIO programs. The Higher Education Act was signed on our campus in 1965 by alumnus President Lyndon B. Johnson. Now, we’ve come full circle, with some exciting news from the Department of Education. Texas State was recently awarded $1.3 million for the McNair Post Baccalaureate Achievement program, which gives research funds and internships to first-generation and low-income students. This is a monumental event that completes our TRIO trifecta of serving pre-college, undergraduate, and graduate students from underserved populations.

My second commitment relates to you as individuals and as a group. It has to do with employee morale – especially among our staff members but faculty as well. It’s a theme that has emerged this summer. COVID and the changing economy have left us with low staffing levels that are becoming unsustainable. For the past three years, we have asked you to do more with less. And I recognize that the vision I have introduced today requires we do even more. More work in recruitment, enrollment, student success, research – and the list goes on and on. It’s certainly an ambitious agenda, but I have full faith and confidence it’s attainable, or else I wouldn’t set these goals. I am committed to adding the resources it’ll require to get from here to there. I don’t expect you to do more with less, or even to do more with the same. It’s time to do more with more.

When leaders say they can’t afford to do something that employees ask for, it often signals that it’s not as high of a priority as other things. Increasing salaries and benefits, while rightsizing job responsibilities is a high priority for me, and I’ll do everything I can do address those issues in the coming years. To that end, I have tasked my Cabinet to seek ways to positively impact your experience here at Texas State. We will work together to remove processes that waste time with unnecessary administrative burdens. We will create a comprehensive university remote work policy, create new positions where needed, and work to increase your compensation.

Now, because the budget has already been approved there are limits to what I can do to compensation this year, but I’ll remind you that you’ll receive a merit-related bonus in October 2022 and March 2023. If our positive enrollment continues at its current trajectory – which I expect to happen – we will seek opportunities to add an additional one-time bonus before the end of this calendar year, and create a permanent merit raise program in fiscal year 2024. 

Finally, I don’t have all the answers for all the issues in front of us, but I am encouraged by the opportunity to tap into the experience of our staff and faculty. Many of them have served 20, 30, 40, 50 plus years here. I don’t want to hear, “we’ve never done it that way before, that means we can’t do it.” The only way to reach our goals is to create a culture where we can work collaboratively and speak candidly about the challenges and opportunities in front of us. As Peter Drucker wrote, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” I invite you to help us create that kind of culture here.

I covet your institutional knowledge, your expertise, and your wisdom as we plan for the future of Texas State. Staff Council, Faculty Senate, and numerous affinity groups allow us to facilitate some of these conversations. But I also want to foster an improved culture of accessibility, where I remain accessible to you to the greatest degree possible. One way I’ll do that is by being out on our campuses as much as possible. I love JCK, there’s a great view outside my window, but I much prefer to be “out and about,” as we say in Canada. So you’ll see me in your building walking around, meeting with you in your offices, in your faculty meetings and staff meetings. To help make that possible, I will be scheduling recurring events at both campuses where I can engage with you in small groups, as individuals, and in larger groups as well throughout the semester in the years ahead.

I’m committed to creating open lines of communication with you. I believe that’s the only way we can get this done, together. I am only one member of this large team, all of us striving to have a positive impact on our campuses and our community. No one will work harder than me to make sure that happens, to advance the mission of Texas State, and to ensure that you and our students have every opportunity to succeed.

I cannot wait to see where this road takes us. Thank you for allowing me to share my vision for the future of Texas State with you. I am looking forward to seeing you at Bobcat Stadium tonight as we kickoff the start of our new academic year. Thank you for everything you do for Texas State.