Foundation being laid for the next decade at UM

While students are taking final exams on May 2, the University of Miami Board of Trustees will meet to vote on a plan that could impact every aspect of the university in the next 10 years.

Among the proposals are goals for the university to expand research and graduate programs, increase on-campus housing and provide more flexibility for students to choose classes in schools outside their major. The goals are part of Provost Thomas J. LeBlanc’s strategic plan for the university, which he previewed at the April 16 Student Government Senate meeting.

LeBlanc, the chief academic executive, has been developing the plan since he arrived at the university three years ago.

UM President Donna E. Shalala told The Miami Hurricane she wanted LeBlanc to create the plan because the university needs a strategy to propel itself into the top ranks of higher education.

“I’ve got a very clear idea of what Miami can and can’t do,” she said. “I do believe it can move into the top ranks, but I’m impatient. We have to do it quickly. We can’t take a hundred years the way the great research universities have done. We just don’t have that kind of time.”

Building on progress

The university’s strides to improve its academic standing in the last decade are already noticeable: According to UM’s Web site, the freshman retention rate jumped from 79.5 to 90.4 percent from 1995 to 2007 and the four-year graduation rate increased from 45.9 to an estimated 65.8 percent from 1993 to 2003.

As a result, Miami’s ranking on U.S. News and World Report’s “America’s Best Colleges” list, which is partly based on graduation and retention rates, has moved 14 spots in the last five years from 66 to 52.

Despite these increases, LeBlanc said the university cannot settle on the status quo.

“The question is, where do we go from here?” he said. “What is our aspiration as a university? Yes, we’ve made some great progress in recent years, but what’s next?”

LeBlanc said he found the answer through discussions with faculty and students, and in a Faculty Senate report that suggested that the university strive to be a member of the American Association of Universities, an organization that LeBlanc described as an “elite club” of the nation’s most prestigious research institutions.

But LeBlanc said the main goal of the strategic plan is not to receive an invitation to join the AAU, but rather to “seek to embody and exhibit the characteristics of a private institution” in the association by 2020.

Other members of the AAU include the University of Florida, Tulane University and Syracuse University. LeBlanc cited the last two institutions, tied two spots ahead of UM at No. 50 on the U.S. News and World Report ranking, as the university’s main competition.

He said that Miami could outrank the institutions in as early as one year by working towards the main goal of the strategic plan.

Becoming AAU-like

According to the AAU’s Web site, the association is “distinguished by the breadth and quality of their programs of research and graduate education.”

To fit the mold, the university must increase research funding, productivity and facilities, put more emphasis on graduate education and hire researchers that are the “top scholars in their field,” LeBlanc said.

The AAU site also said it is “flexible” in assessing undergraduate education, but Shalala said it is still a high priority.

“To be rated as a world-class research university, undergraduate education has to be superb,” she said. “You can mess around all you want with the medical school, the law school and the business school, but at the end of the day, the academy and my peers judge us by the quality of undergraduate education.”

For Shalala and LeBlanc, eliminating the boundaries that prevent students from multidisciplinary education is crucial to improving the undergraduate experience.

“A lot of [students] are majoring in one school and want to take something in another school,” LeBlanc said. “If the school’s rules are all designed for just the school’s students in mind, it makes it really impossible for you.”

Though LeBlanc said the plan does not propose altering curriculum, it does set forth an agenda for changes that the administration and faculty should consider making to the academic structure, among other things, to make UM more competitive with other institutions.

Stephen Sapp, chair of the Faculty Senate, told The Hurricane that he does not know if a majority of the faculty would support the provost’s goal to loosen general education requirements and provide more flexibility in the curriculum.

“There are certainly going to be people who will affirm that,” Sapp said. “There will be people on the other extreme that will say, ‘No, absolutely not. Students are not mature enough to have any more flexibility.’ I don’t know if anybody’s saying that [now], but it wouldn’t surprise me.”

Getting approval

LeBlanc has periodically updated the Board of Trustees regarding his progress with the strategic plan, but Shalala said she expects them to ask tough questions at the May 2 meeting, such as how to fund LeBlanc’s proposal.

“The strategic plan is for 10 years, but we’re only asking for a five year economic plan because we have no idea what’s going to happen that far out,” Shalala said.

Momentum, the recently completed, five-year fundraising campaign, garnered more than $1.4 billion for UM – a first for any private university established in the 20th century.

But Shalala said this isn’t enough, also adding that the university will eventually announce an even more ambitious fundraising campaign than Momentum. She declined to provide specifics.

“I don’t know what the next number is going be, but it’s going to be very large,” Shalala said. “I think it’s doable, but we’ve got to be very disciplined, very focused. And the people who give us money have to give us money for what’s in the strategic plan, not just what they’re interested in [funding].”

Though the Board of Trustees meeting could be the first step towards implementing LeBlanc’s ideas, most of his proposed changes will not take effect until current students at the university have graduated.

But Shalala said they will see an impact after they graduate.

“It will make their degrees more valuable, so they should welcome it,” she said. “They should never go to a university that is not constantly trying to improve itself.”

Nick Maslow may be contacted at

What could make UM an AAU university?

According to Provost Thomas J. LeBlanc, the following will help the university to embody the characteristics of an AAU institution:

Continue to hire world-class research faculty

Make investments in and build nationally prominent graduate programs

Enhance the undergraduate experience

Build the necessary facilities and infrastructure to accomplish the above

Top three possible changes for undergraduate students

Multi-disciplinary education: Vice Provost William S. Green, who worked with LeBlanc at the University of Rochester before joining him at UM, created a cluster system at UR that provides its students with the flexibility in the curriculum that both Shalala and LeBlanc would like to see here.

According to UR’s Web site, “There are no required subjects. Rather, students pursue at least one major in one of three divisions of learning-the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences (including math and engineering). They then take a ‘cluster’ or a minor in each of the remaining two. Clusters are sets of related courses. Each cluster contains a minimum of 12 credits of coursework, which is usually equivalent to three courses.”

Though Shalala, LeBlanc and Green each told The Miami Hurricane that UM is not planning to copy the cluster program, they did not rule out a similar program as a possibility.

A more residential campus: The percentage of students living on campus rose eight percent with the addition of University Village in 2006. By 2020, the goal is to have as much as 65 percent of students living on campus – nearly a 20 percent increase from this year’s 46 percent. The university is also looking into plans to house more faculty near the Coral Gables campus.

More convenient study abroad opportunities: Reducing the number of general education requirements in the curriculum would provide students with more flexibility and time to study abroad, LeBlanc said. He said that most UM students who study abroad go to England or Australia, but Green is working towards adding more programs.