"The first thing I'm going to talk about is our SACS reaffirmation. If we don't get re-accredited we're all out of work," said UWF Florida President Dr. Judy Bense in opening her annual State of the University address before a crowd of a couple of hundred students, staff and faculty. SACS stands for the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which is the organization that reaccredits the University of West Florida every 10 years.
The UWF singers sang the national anthem before what turned out to be an upbeat session looking back at the university’s accomplishments over the past year and its goal looking forward.
"It's been an upbeat year," Bense said. "We've resolved a lot of issues. We've reorganized. We got some new leaders in. We've got five new deans and we're in a better place."
One of the highlights of the year was the reorganization of the colleges at UWF, a project that started years ago and has finally been completed with the addition of the College of Health.
"We only had three colleges, forever!," said Bense, noting that there are now five. "It's a sign that we're growing, that we're healthy. the programs are maturing and we're bringing new programs in and giving them a chance." Such programs include logistics, mechanical engineering, and physician assistants.
And with the new programs has come an increase in enrollment. Bense says there are just over 12 thousand 700 total students enrolled at UWF, an increase of 2.8 percent. She also says university housing is 94 percent full. And Dr. Bense reported negotiations with the faculty union has produced an early agreement for the coming year.
"We reached an agreement for 2015-16 and it's important for several reasons," she said pointing out that they've never settled this early. "What this agreement addresses is cost of living, compression, raises; all those are rolled into it. The union ratified it unanimously, and it will be presented to the Board of Trustees next week, September 30 for their ratification."
If you recall last year’s address, one of the main topics was performance based funding. UWF received the lowest grade in among all state universities and lost funding. A concerted effort was made to raise the school’s score and restore that funding. It worked…perhaps too well.
"I never thought I would regret being at the top of the class for improvement," Bense said. "But, we improved so much it's hard to improve anymore, because we have to hit what we did last year plus some. And, that's not sustainable." She suggested that the university's rating will level out, likely with a drop in points for the next year or two.
But Dr. Bense won’t be here for much longer. Her contract was extended through 2016 and a search is going on for her replacement.
That makes this Dr. Bense’s penultimate state of the university address. She closed the speech with a note of thanks.
"As always, it's a privilege to be your president," said Bense, noting that his was her eighth State of the University Address. "Eight years ago, I became president as the biggest surprise of my life. You have helped me along the way. You've stood by me when I needed your support. We have great administrators, great faculty, great staff, and I thank all of you for your hard work."