13 Sep Provost’s Forum documents UND’s strengths
University leaders share evidence of fiscal health, new leadership, campus renewal and growth
For a University of North Dakota administrator, it’s great to have good news to report about the University’s finances.
It’s even better when Moody’s credit-ratings service confirms the information.
“This is a direct quote from Moody’s in their management letter when they handed out our rating,” said Karla Stewart, associate vice president for finance for UND, as she showed a PowerPoint slide with the quote on Wednesday during the academic year’s first Provost’s Forum.
The quote from Moody’s reads, “UND management continues adjusting the university’s campus footprint and operating expenses to better position the university in the future.”
Moody’s issued an Aa3 rating with a stable outlook. “That’s a tremendous rating!” Stewart enthused. It’s a prime rating, which Moody’s defines as “judged to be of high quality and subject to very low credit risk.”
The rating service further indicated that UND is making difficult decisions which are not being made at all other universities. “They referenced all those hard decisions we’ve made, and how we’re ahead of the game because we were able to do those things,” Stewart continued.
“So this is really exciting stuff – especially if you’re a nerd like me!” she said, joining in as the audience laughed.
“And even if you’re not a nerd, just trust me. This is really exciting.”
Thrilling times on campus
Held monthly throughout the academic year, the Provost’s Forums invite campus leaders to take the stage to talk and answer questions about developments at UND. And at the forum on Wednesday, other UND executives who spoke also had very good news to share, including Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Tom DiLorenzo himself.
“It’s a really, really exciting time to be on campus, starting with all of the capital improvements that we’re doing,” DiLorenzo said.
“I have to give a shout out to the mayor and the city of Grand Forks for the work on University Avenue,” which UND partnered on.
“Of course, for those of us who’ve been here all summer, it’s been a little tough at times. But we just had to keep that view of the future,” DiLorenzo said; and now that the future is here and the reconstructed main thoroughfare is open, the campus community can see that it’s spectacular.
DiLorenzo also took note of the Legislature’s support of the university in the 2019 legislative session, and offered another shout-out – this one to the faculty. “Through the use of Open Educational Resources, we have saved students $8.4 million in the past four years,” he said.
Faculty take advantage of Open Educational Resources by finding online resources for students, thereby helping students save on textbook costs. “I’m very, very proud of the faculty for doing that, because again, we’ve saved students $8.4 million over four years,” DiLorenzo said. “To the best of my knowledge, no other university across the country has been able to do that.”
DiLorenzo closed by praising faculty and staff as they were central in improving the graduation rate at UND. He noted that this year, the focus will be on retention. “We want to retain students from fall to spring, and from freshman to sophomore until they graduate.”
Debbie Storrs, senior vice provost for academic affairs, spoke of the burst of creativity and enthusiasm that new deans and other administrators are bringing to UND. “I’m very excited that we have four new deans, who are bringing new perspectives and energy,” she said.
“The deans are the academic leaders of this institution. They support faculty to do their research and teaching, ensure that students are successful and help our staff to do their work and continue their professional development.”
Other key administrators who’ve recently assumed their posts include Yee Han Chu, academic support and fellowship opportunities coordinator, who’s helping UND students compete for nationally recognized scholarships; Janelle Kilgore, vice provost for strategic enrollment management; Admissions Director Jennifer Aamodt; and Associate Professor of Philosophy & Religion Rebecca Rozelle-Stone, Honors Program director.
Storrs highlighted successes in all of those departments and more, such as the Honors Program welcoming 192 freshmen this year – a 48 percent increase from two years ago, and a 19 percent increase over last year.
Across all of these departments, “there’s always a focus on improvement and on working together as a team,” Storrs said.
“We have an incredible group of leaders, and I know we’re going to do great things for the university.”
More new students find home at UND
Speaking of Janelle Kilgore, she updated the audience on UND’s upbeat enrollment news – and on the steps her team is taking to strengthen those numbers even more in years to come.
“For our new students – graduate and undergraduate — we are up 3.3 percent over last year,” Kilgore said.
“We again have a more diverse incoming freshman class, we have higher academic quality in that incoming class. … We had an 18 percent increase in low-income students committing to an enrollment deposit.”
The latter are students who may never have dreamed of enrolling at UND, Kilgore said. But thanks to generous donors and academic deans who more strategically allocated scholarships, “we’re able to say to them, ‘We want to invest in you. We know you can be successful.’”
In years to come, UND’s use of the national Common App is likely to attract strong interest from outside the state. Applicants can use the Common Application to apply to multiple undergraduate institutions at one time.
Some 800 member colleges and universities nationwide take part, but UND is the first in North Dakota to do so, Kilgore said. As a result, many more applicants in the Twin Cities and elsewhere will be exposed to UND.
“When I visited high school counselors in Minot, N.D., they were really, really excited that we are launching the national Common App,” she said.
“So this is a very exciting opportunity for us.”
A campus under construction
UND’s Director of Construction Management Brian Larson gave forum attendees a PowerPoint tour of the extensive new construction on campus.
That started with a campus map that looked a bit like it had the measles. “This is kind of a Google Earth image of our campus, and what all of those items in red represent are our individual projects,” Larson said.
“What we want to show is that we’re really working everywhere throughout this campus – and this summer, it felt like we were working everywhere at once. We very much appreciate everyone’s patience. … In recent memory, we have never been as busy with construction projects on our campus.”
Larson pointed to the University Avenue reconstruction, the roadblocks for which were removed one day before Move-In weekend. “So we cut that one pretty close,” he said to a laugh.
“I got a lot of gray hairs this summer.”
Other major projects include the new steam plant, “which will allow us to take down our old coal plant to drastically improve the aesthetics of our campus”; the Chester Fritz Library renovations, “in which we’re taking a wonderful, beautiful building on the outside, and creating a modern library on the inside”; and the renovation of the original President’s House on campus into the Gershman Engagement Center for graduate students.
“That was the first house in Grand Forks to have electric lights,” Larson said. “So, pretty cool.”
Bonds sold, future secured
Let’s close with Karla Stewart, the associate vice president for finance who announced the Moody’s bond-rating news. That rating came on the $80 million in bonds that UND sold Wednesday morning, hours before the Provost’s Forum, to build the new Memorial Union.
“This is a huge project for us,” Stewart told the crowd.
“And what is so wonderful is that this project will be paid 100 percent through student fees, because students believe that it’s important. Students pushed this initiative forward. …
UND is committed to providing funds for some of the operating costs of the union to keep overall student fees low.
“And I think that’s another huge reason Moody’s rated us the way they did: because they saw students’ full commitment to this project.”
When the Memorial Union project was budgeted last fall, “we were estimating a 5 percent interest rate,” Stewart said.
Thanks to the Moody’s rating and a favorable borrowing climate, “we sold our bonds today for 3.28 percent. So that is huge.”
As Provost DiLorenzo put it in closing the forum, “it’s a great time to be at the University of North Dakota. And I think that you saw that over all of the presentations today.”