IU's prime motivating force: The pursuit of excellence

Dear IU Student, Colleague or Friend of the University,

With the in-person part of Indiana University's spring semester now well underway, and in the wake of several major positive announcements, I write to you today with a renewed sense of hope and optimism about progress in the fight against the pandemic and prospects for the rest of 2021.

On Monday, we were extremely pleased to announce that IU will hold in-person, outdoor May commencement ceremonies on all campuses for undergraduate and graduate students, including members of the Class of 2020 who were denied this much-loved and time-honored tradition in May 2020.

Two days later, we announced that IU is planning for an in-person fall 2021 semester and a return to mostly normal operations in the fall.

These come as IU approaches the one-year anniversary of having to adapt very rapidly to the enormous and unprecedented challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, which we have done with tremendous leadership and resolve.

Each of these major developments reflects the continued success of IU's robust, deliberative, and data- and science-driven public health strategy for responding to the pandemic, and the continued adherence of all IU students, faculty and staff to the health and safety policies that have kept us together this academic year.

Snow clings to a limestone feature on the side of the IU Auditorium on a winter day at Indiana University Bloomington.   Photo by James Brosher, Indiana University

In pursuit of excellence at IU

In reflecting on IU’s successful response to the pandemic when many others have faltered, one is constantly struck by the excellence of all aspects of it: the work of our medical and public health advisors on the Restart Committee and the Medical Response Team; the personnel from University Events who have done such outstanding work operating IU’s mitigation and arrival testing; facilities staff who have kept campus building environments cleaned and maintained; and thousands and thousands of faculty, staff and students who, through their dedicated, determined and creative actions based on our public health policies, have helped keep our campuses and each other healthy and safe.

Since my first days as president, I have emphasized the vital importance of excellence, and its centrality to ensuring IU's success. In my inauguration address, in 2007, I stated that the No. 1 goal of my presidency would be the unrelenting pursuit of excellence in our two fundamental missions of education and research, ensuring that IU would be one of the great research universities of the 21st century and the preeminent institution of higher education in the Hoosier state. Achieving excellence in these areas would, in turn, allow IU to continue to grow as a major contributor to the economic and social development of Indiana, our nation and our world.

My September 2010 State of the University address outlined the six core Principles of Excellence that would guide the university forward in the years to follow: ensuring an excellent education; recruiting and retaining a great faculty; maximizing research; increasing international engagement; supporting the health sciences and health care; and strengthening the university’s efforts in engagement and economic development. These would be supported by an additional framework of four additional principles that we deemed vital to academic excellence: private philanthropy and alumni support; physical facilities and infrastructure; information technology; and responsible stewardship of the public and private resources entrusted to the university.

These principles formed the basis of the IU Bicentennial Strategic Plan, approved by IU's Board of Trustees in December 2014, which contained numerous bold action items to be completed by the end of IU’s Bicentennial Year in 2020. IU trustees heard a concluding report on the wide-ranging success of this plan in the fall. The report illustrated IU's unwavering focus — in nearly every key area of the university — on building on its past accomplishments to meet the challenges of its third century.

Jack Brown, a senior studying management, works part time as a prepper during the first day of on-arrival testing for spring 2021 semester at Garrett Fieldhouse at IU Bloomington. Photo by Chris Howell, Indiana University

IU's successful response to COVID-19

The fifth of IU’s core Principles of Excellence is excellence in the health sciences and health care. And nowhere has this been better exemplified than in IU’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic — a massive team effort involving thousands of IU students, faculty and staff across the state, who have been confronting the gravest public health challenge that IU, the state, the nation and the world have faced in the past 100 years.

The mitigation testing, symptomatic testing, contact tracing and vaccination programs we have planned and implemented together — and which have been led for nearly a year by the nationwide experts who make up IU's superb Medical Response Team — constitute one of the most comprehensive, robust and efficient testing and tracing programs at any college or university in the country. These programs have been critical, as I have repeatedly said, in helping IU successfully navigate our way through the pandemic and maintain the safety of our campuses and communities.

By now, you know many of the details of how we successfully completed the fall semester with a significant number of in-person classes and on-campus activities — constrained as they were by all the necessary public health precautions we needed to implement. Dr. Aaron Carroll, who continues to lead our COVID-19 response as director of mitigation testing for the Medical Response Team, has written an excellent article for The Atlantic, "The Colleges That Took the Pandemic Seriously," that describes, in extensive detail, our strategy for confronting the pandemic. In short, while many great universities floundered or fell by the wayside, we succeeded without in any way compromising the health and safety of the IU community. Just the opposite: IU campuses are some of the safest places to be in Indiana based on COVID-19 positivity and prevalence rates.

And thanks to all of you, we are continuing to succeed and serve as a model for other colleges and universities to follow.

Our ongoing mitigation and symptomatic testing data continue to show that COVID-19 cases on our campuses are very low and remain manageable. For much of the fall and winter, our weekly positivity rates have fallen well under 1 percent, even though IU's Pandemic Response Labs in Indianapolis and Bloomington are now conducting up to 50,000 tests a week.

IU's campuses are planning to resume in-person instruction, research and clinical operations in fall 2021.   Photo by Liz Kaye, Indiana University

In-person spring commencement and plans for an in-person fall semester 

As our campuses and communities remain safe — and as our nation continues its progress in getting vaccines into the arms of more and more Americans — IU expects to hold in-person, outdoor May commencement ceremonies on all of its campuses for both 2020 and 2021 undergraduate and graduate students. While in-person attendance at these ceremonies will be for graduates only, we are also inviting family and friends to attend commencement virtually.

We made this decision, as we have made all of our decisions during the pandemic, based on the best medical and public health advice from our Medical Response Team.

As I said in an email to our 2020 and 2021 graduates, commencement is one of the most beloved ceremonies at any university across the nation. It was an agonizing and deeply disappointing decision for us to have to cancel it in May 2020. We were all bitterly disappointed that this was necessary.

But we are excited to move forward this year with this time-honored tradition on all of our campuses in a way that is consistent with our pandemic public health policies. And we are especially pleased to include all the members of IU's Bicentennial Class of 2020, who remained dedicated to their studies in spite of the enormous challenges presented by the pandemic, in these commencement ceremonies, which will be the crowning moment of their studies at IU and which they have so rightly earned.

We are also looking forward to a fall semester on all IU campuses this year that will be in person, and though we expect that some of our present public health policies may need to remain in place, we expect that this semester will see a return to mostly normal operations of the university. 

Here again, our ability to plan for an in-person fall is made possible by the way we have met the challenges of COVID-19, coupled with the increasing pace of the roll-out of vaccines. Already, more than 963,000 individuals in our state have received at least one dose of the vaccine, and nearly 532,000 have been fully vaccinated. The new vaccines that are being produced and distributed to Indiana and other states have been spectacularly effective.

Of course, as we have all learned intimately over the past year, we cannot set any of our plans in stone, and, as long as the pandemic is with us, we must be ready to adjust course quickly. However, we believe we are heading in the right direction to mostly normal campus operations in the fall. Until that point, however, it will remain vital that all of us — students, faculty and staff — get vaccinated when we are eligible, while continuing to be highly vigilant and engaging in the actions and behaviors that have kept us safe, healthy and together. 

Students hard at work in University Library at IUPUI.   Photo by Liz Kaye, Indiana University

IU's continuing strong and diverse enrollment

In February at IU, we have been celebrating Black History Month with a wide range of programs and events, during which we have stressed that diversity, tolerance and inclusivity are — and must remain — among the cardinal virtues of all of our campuses.

During this month, we also underscore our commitment — as the state's flagship public university and the "people's university" — to provide a world-class education that is affordable, accessible and relevant to academically outstanding, promising students from diverse and underrepresented backgrounds throughout Indiana, the nation and the world. This is the first of IU's Principles of Excellence, and it drives all of our efforts to ensure the success of students from all racial, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds.

Despite this being one of the most challenging years in IU's two-centuries-old history, we continue to welcome large numbers of students, including a record number of students of color.

As we announced at the start of our spring semester, which began online Jan. 19, IU's flagship campus in Bloomington enrolled nearly 41,000 degree-seeking students. Remarkably, in the face of a pandemic, those numbers exceeded the total number of degree-seeking students at the same time last year.

IU has enrolled nearly 84,000 degree-seeking students across the seven campuses it administers, with those students enrolled in nearly 1.1 million credit hours. Despite a slight decline in overall enrollment, the university once again continued to enroll more Hoosiers than any other college or university in the state; nearly 70 percent of our degree-seeking students are Indiana residents.

Additionally, we further advanced efforts to ensure our student body closely reflects the makeup of the communities we serve. This spring semester, we welcomed a record 21,481 students of color, which represents a 4.9 percent increase from spring 2020. These students now constitute well over a quarter (27.9 percent) of the total degree-seeking student population. Four IU campuses -- IU Bloomington, IUPUI, IU Kokomo and IU South Bend -- also set new spring semester records for the number of degree-seeking students of color.

IU's strong spring enrollment figures clearly reflect the success of our continued efforts to keep an IU education affordable and responsive to the needs of students from all backgrounds.

Furthermore, they suggest the confidence that members of the broad IU community continue to have in our efforts to keep our campuses safe, healthy and operational. Indeed, the successes we were able to deliver last fall undoubtedly gave students and their families confidence moving into the spring that we would continue to do everything we can to protect their health and well-being while still ensuring their access to world-class teaching and research and a community of scholars that is as diverse as any time in IU's history.

Our newest distinguished professors

One measure of IU's standing as a great research university is the sustained excellence it demonstrates in an extensive range of disciplines, from the humanities through the sciences to medicine. This is the second of the Principles of Excellence.

There are countless exemplars of this among our outstanding faculty, but the pinnacle of such excellence is demonstrated by those who hold IU’s highest academic rank of distinguished professor. IU trustees established this rank 70 years ago; since that time, only 254 faculty members have been appointed as distinguished professors. Out of the present total of about 5,000 faculty members — full- and part-time, tenured and untenured — across all IU campuses, there are presently only 98 active distinguished professors.

This includes the 11 faculty members whose appointment as distinguished professor we announced earlier this month. All were recommended by me to the trustees after an exhaustive selection process that relies heavily on the opinions of external experts from some of the greatest universities in the world. All have made transformative and lasting contributions to their fields that have brought great renown and distinction to them — and to IU.

I invite you to visit the University Honors and Awards website to learn more about IU's 2021 distinguished professors and all those who have built — and continue to build — IU's reputation as a world-class community of scholars.

Indiana University Facility Operations staff member Marty Shipley vacuums in Hodge Hall at the Kelley School of Business. Photo by James Brosher, Indiana University

Recognizing the contributions of IU's faculty and staff

I cannot write or say enough about the superb contributions that those of you who are part of IU's dedicated faculty and staff have made — in hundreds of different areas and thousands of different ways — to keep the entire IU community safe and continuing to function during the COVID-19 pandemic. These, of course, also reflect your efforts in normal times.

You make up one of IU’s most vital resources: its human resources. You are among the 20,000 talented and innovative people at IU whose work helps form the foundation for advancing IU's core teaching, research and community engagement missions. As such, we strive to ensure staff are paid fairly and have access to decent, competitive and reasonable benefits.

This is why, even in the recent era of low tuition increases and constrained state higher education appropriations, IU trustees have insisted on annual pay raises where budgets allow, that adequate benefits are made available to all no matter what their gender, race or sexual orientation, and that the lowest paid at least receive a living wage.

Toward these ends, in 2017, IU trustees approved a plan on my recommendation to offer fully paid parental leave for all staff employees of the university. In 2018, they approved John Whelan as IU’s first vice president for human resources, which further signaled IU's commitment to improve the conditions and workplace environment of all IU employees. And in 2019, they approved a plan to increase the university's contribution to the IU Retirement and Savings Plan for support and service staff to a flat 10 percent — the same contribution IU makes to retirement plans for faculty and professional staff.

When I became president of IU in 2007, IU’s hourly minimum wage was $8.85. This saw modest increases in subsequent years. But the concern remained that this was simply not a living wage. So, in response to these concerns, in 2017 IU trustees approved a plan I recommended to them to increase the minimum wage to $15 per hour by the 2021-22 fiscal year for all appointed staff on all campuses.

We planned to do this in four stages, beginning with an increase to $11 per hour in 2018-19, $12.33 in 2019-20, $13.66 in 2020-21 and $15 in 2021-22. Unfortunately, because of serious financial uncertainties of the pandemic last year, we had to pause this plan at $12.33 per hour.

Thus, earlier this month, I was pleased to announce that — with the approval of the IU trustees  — we are resuming this plan. All appointed staff will now earn at least $13.66 an hour before a shift to $15 an hour as of July 1.

We believe it is essential that IU provide fair, adequate and competitive compensation for all of our employees. We also believe this increase will underscore the value we place on our employees, who deserve to be rewarded for their dedicated and outstanding efforts.

This increase will put IU’s minimum wage well above the regional average as well as state and federal minimum wages. It will also help us to recruit and retain talented employees who continue to make greatly valued contributions to our educational, research and engagement missions — and it will ensure that IU stays competitive in this area with other leading public and private research universities in the U.S., a number of whom have announced similar moves.

A final word

This update includes several of our most recent accomplishments, achieved in a year in which all of us have faced enormous challenges and pressures. As remarkable as they are, however, these represent just a fraction of our successes.

All of us should take great pride in what we have accomplished, together, and how we have adapted to the pandemic with courage, creativity and resolve, and with an unwavering focus on ensuring excellence.

During this most difficult time, we have demonstrated — time and again — our renewed commitment to excellence in education and research, our two fundamental missions. And we have further strengthened our engagement in the life of our state, our nation and our world.

As hopeful and optimistic as we all are, we know that we are still far from out of the woods. But our successes convince me we are on the right path to meeting the challenges of the moment and returning to the work of the university as we typically know it.

With sincere thanks and appreciation for your continued efforts to keep IU safe, healthy and strong,

Michael A. McRobbie