The University of Arizona has a new road map for the future, one that calls for billions in new spending to build on the school’s strengths, tackle its weaknesses and boost the employability of its graduates.
The Arizona Board of Regents gave unanimous approval Friday to a wide-ranging, 10-year strategic plan that aims to prepare students for the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution, in which new technologies are merging the physical, digital and biological worlds.
UA President Robert Robbins told the board, which was meeting on campus, he wants to make the UA a premier player in the academic world. “What we’re seeking to do is build a championship team,” he said during a three-hour presentation.
One of the plan’s goals is for the UA to break into the Top 100 in the U.S. News and World Report best colleges rankings within the next five years. The UA ranked No. 106 in the country in the last listing, up from No. 124 the previous year.
Among other things, the plan calls for:
- A new common course for freshmen that will focus on so-called “soft skills” — critical thinking, communication, collaborative teamwork, cultural understanding and creative problem-solving — that are in high demand among employers.
- Recruitment and retention of top talent to build on the success of premier programs and create opportunities for innovation.
- A new College of Data, Computing and Network Science focused on areas such as artificial intelligence, precision health care and cybersecurity.
- Increasing spending on research and development from $622 million to $800 million.
- Creating 10 signature partnerships between public and private entities.
- Becoming the No. 1-ranked school in space and planetary science and technology in the world with research investments of $100 million per year and by creating an Arizona Space Center and additional graduate programs.
- Advancing the UA as an arts, humanities and design destination.
- Increased graduation and student retention rates, and increased enrollment of minorities, international students, national merit scholars and Pell Grant recipients.
- Increased alumni engagement to encourage philanthropic giving to the university.
Perhaps the biggest challenge will be finding the money needed to make it all happen.
For now, the UA plans to use about $25 million from the state’s technology research fund to jump-start some of the improvements. But Robbins said $3 billion to $4 billion will be needed over the next decade or so to fully realize the plan’s goals.
Robbins said he expects the UA to launch a new capital campaign within a few years, with the ambitious goal of raising an average “$1 million a day” over an eight-year period.
Robbins, who arrived at the UA last year, also hopes to cultivate “diverse streams of revenue” by partnering with companies, generating companies, increasing online student enrollment and running the university more efficiently by cutting expenses.
The UA hired a global consulting firm, McKinsey & Company — reputed to be one of the most prestigious and expensive in the world — to oversee the strategic planning process. UA spokesman Chris Sigurdson said he didn’t know the total amount spent because some of the consulting work is still in progress.
He would not release a copy of the consulting contract, and the Arizona Daily Star has filed a public-records request for the document.
Regents lavished praise on the new planning document, with board Chairman Ron Shoopman of Tucson saying it represented “an inflection point for this university and Southern Arizona.
“The University of Arizona means everything to Tucson and Southern Arizona. You have so much influence on our future, so we’re counting on you to do the things that are necessary to make this plan a reality,” he told Robbins.
Jessica Summers, an associate professor in the College of Education and chair of the UA Faculty Senate, said faculty are “cautiously optimistic” about the plan.
In her 12 years at the UA, Summers said she’s been governed by four presidents and weathered three strategic plans.
“Whiplash is a good metaphor for what the faculty are feeling,” she said, but this plan “has more teeth” than the others because it is more detailed in the execution and cost.
“I like the way President Robbins is thinking about this, which is, if we’re going to do it, let’s propose full models, not just ideas but translate (the plan) into actual work,” Summers said, referring to the initiatives.
Faculty skepticism creeps in when they start to think about the sheer number of initiatives (over 90) outlined in the plan and figuring out which get priority, Summers said.
Robbins said discussions are underway on how to best prioritize the improvement efforts.
A team will be dedicated to monitoring initiative completion, he said. He expects to report progress quarterly to the regents and hopes to publish results online to keep everyone involved accountable.
“The beauty of the plan would be I don’t need to be here to implement it because it’s so good, and we’ve got all these implementors. We’ve set the vision and now it’s about going in and executing it,” he said.