State of the University Address

President Fitts delivered the State of the University Address to faculty and staff on Wednesday, August 23, 2017. Watch the highlights video, which includes the balanced budget, a new parental leave benefit, the extraordinary Class of 2021 and a record-breaking fundraising year.


August 23, 2017

Hello everyone, and welcome!

Thank you Robin.

You are a few days away from completing your first full year as provost.

It has been an extraordinary year - I can’t thank you enough for everything you have done to make Tulane university second to none.

As I’ll soon discuss, we are at a truly pivotal moment in Tulane’s 183 year history.

Without spoiling all of the details, our 2017 Princeton Review rankings should give you an idea of where we are:

Tulane students voted us #1 college city.

#1 in “community engagement.”

#4 in “happiest students.”

#9 in “quality of life.”

This is a good one – of 382 universities polled, we were ranked 7th in the country for “students who love their college.”

And, while we may be rather frustrated that our students paid us the honor of voting us the top party school, (ahem) I also want to note the ranking that we can really embrace, they voted us the 4th “best-run university” in the country.

So give yourselves a round of applause.  “they like us, they really like us.”

Tulane has never looked better.

And that is a direct output of your hard work and passion.

Tulane is an amazing place because you make it so.

And starting now – I have decided that we are going to do a better job of highlighting the folks that best represent this incredible community.

Today, I am proud to announce the launch of the “Tulane spirit awards,” our new way of recognizing members of the Tulane family that go above and beyond in exemplifying what it means to be a Tulanian.

This award is for the colleague who brought in the first king cake of Mardi Gras season – or the one who is covered head to toe in green for every single home game.  

And it’s for the colleague who treats their co-workers like family-- bending over backwards when anyone is in need.  

We will be sending out a nomination process going forward, but I want to start us off by recognizing the very first recipient of the Tulane Spirit Award.

I think we all know this individual very well – in fact, it’s hard not to know him – a factor of both his unflappable enthusiasm for all things Tulane, as well as his marvelous collection of hats, both figurative and literal.

He has been with Tulane since 2006 and has worn a number of hats in his time here; from career services to student employment -- academic advising to teaching tides courses –

He has done it all in his nearly 12 years at Tulane.

And though his role has often changed, his importance has not – since day one, he has been a well of inspiration and leadership.

One of his many ideas was to recognize the contributions of others through a Tulane spirit award, though I know he’ll be embarrassed to be the first recipient.

With that, I feel that it is only fitting that our own Amjad Ayoubi is the very first winner of the Tulane Spirit Award!

Thank you, and congratulations again Amjad!

I think you’d all agree, the Tulane Spirit Award isn’t the kind of recognition that can only be given out once a year.

That’s why tomorrow, I’ll send out an email with a link to my website where you can submit nominations for the Tulane Spirit Award, all year-round.

Now, we turn to the main reason we’ve come together – for you to hear how we’re doing, and where we’re going.


In the last three years, I have learned a great deal from all of you.  

I have learned that everyone looks good in green.

I have learned never to make light of the weather, because it will change in an instant.  

I have learned to turn off all the lights when the termites are swarming.  

I have learned to stop and take in moments of joy, like seeing the campus come alive again after a long hot summer.

And most of all, I have learned to love this university and the people who make everything happen.

I’ve gathered us all together today because we have an amazing amount of good news to share -- the collective accomplishments that all of you helped make happen.  

And sometimes, it is the good news that takes a lot longer to spread.  

I want to personally thank you for the part that each and every one of you has played in creating that good news and pushing us all forward.

For 183 years, Tulane has grappled with crises and helped solve the problems of the world.  

We were founded by doctors trying to cure yellow fever, because thousands of people were dying in the streets.  

For almost two centuries, we have been building a better community.  

And we’ve done this through the sheer determination of people like you.

When I arrived here, i quickly learned a Tulane mantra – doing more with less.  

That means accomplishing remarkable things even though we have the fraction of the endowment of some of our wealthier peers.  

It means doing more with fewer resources, through creativity and hard work.

But here’s the thing -- what I want most to accomplish for Tulane --  let’s find out how much we can accomplish with more.  

I want us to double down on ambition.  

I want us to find the resources and raise the money we need to accomplish everything we dream of.  

I want our faculty to do their extraordinary teaching in beautiful high-tech classrooms with all of the support they need.

I want our staff to take pride in all they do at Tulane.

I want our students to learn in every aspect of their experience here, out in the community and in our labs, in coursework that cuts across disciplines, and in residence-halls centered around intellectual themes.  

I want Tulane to create even more cutting edge research that  solves the problems of the world, from curing disease to reducing the education gap.   

But not only that, I want us to expand our understanding of humanity through literature, art and architecture.  

I want us to expand our expectations of each other through law, political science and in business.   

And to learn how to take care of each other through public health and social work.  

Each and every one of you -- whether you tend to our beautiful quads, or keep the accounts that help us function -- you are essential to our shared mission.

I think there has never been a moment in Tulane’s history when it has been better positioned to launch to these heights.  

And there is a reason for that.  

Together, all of us have made sacrifices to get our fiscal house in order.  

We have thought creatively and pushed through the forces of inertia with a can-do attitude.

We have tackled some of our understandable fear of the unknown and launched ourselves into the future.

Today, I want to tell you where all of that hard work has gotten us and where we can go.

I am happy to announce that this year –– we balanced the budget.  

For the first time in many years, we did not need to rely on the line of credit.  

We will finally be able to tackle deferred maintenance and take better care of those classrooms and labs.

Most of all, we are quickly working towards investing in more meaningful support for all of you, who are the lifeblood of the university.

And I have an announcement here today: for the first time -- starting October 1st -- Tulane will offer parental leave to our staff –  four paid weeks after the birth or adoption of a child.

We worked so hard together to put ourselves on sounder financial footing so that we can pursue all of our dreams together.

We have also tackled some other challenges.  

First, we needed the world to understand how extraordinary we are.

We needed to transition from the post-Katrina branding that worked so well for a decade, and create a message that would launch us into a better future.

And, also, we needed to discover the right balance of embracing the richness of New Orleans without the party school label that can diminish all that we work so hard to achieve.  

We need to focus on our excellence.  

That begins with our admissions branding, to help us attract better and brighter students who will raise our profile while we support their success.  

Satya Dattagupta and the entire admissions team have made that transition, using social media in ways that, as an old guy, I don’t even understand, and instituting early decision to build momentum.  

The results have been, well, astonishing.

Applications this year were up by double digits.  

The average SAT score has jumped 48 points in the last three years -- and it’s now a whopping 1449 for the incoming class.  

And, what I'm most proud of – though we still have a long way to go – we’ve made real progress on diversity, raising the percentage of students of color to 22%, and tripling the number of international students.

Partly as a result of those accomplishments, and our focus on retention, our us news ranking has shot up from 54th to 39th in three years, more than any other school in the top-100.  

Now we all love to hate rankings, especially when we’re not doing well, but we have no choice but to pay attention to them.  

They can create a cycle of success, attracting even better students, and moving us further ahead.  

And they help more than just our undergraduate schools; they also build the university’s reputation across our graduate and professional programs.  

Second, we have focused more on our academic mission, investing in capital projects like the extraordinary Goldring-Woldenberg expansion.  (for all of you who work in or near the business school, thank you for your patience!)  

We are merging academic and career advising in the dynamic Mussafer hall, serving students in a far more holistic way to plan their futures to be successful.

We will dismantle the silos that keep us from working and teaching across fields.

Most of all, we are investing strategically in our research strengths, in ways that increased our grant funding last year by 35%, to 160 million dollars.  

The Bernick faculty grants provide a million dollars a year to support research for faculty in every school, from liberal arts to medicine.   

We have begun raising money for presidential chairs, to attract the kind of rock stars who will raise our profile and help launch our junior faculty.  

And we have invested in our research strengths, because it is part of the mission of a great university to solve the most pressing problems of the world:

How do we balance the need for energy to fuel our economies with the protection of the environment?

How do we solve the mysteries of the brain? And protect it from injury and disease?

How do we create early warning systems for the infectious diseases that threaten humanity?  How do we cure Ebola and Zika?

And how do we protect our sinking coastlines from rising sea levels?  

In fact – the entire existence of this region depends on finding the answer to that question.  

And so we have built the River and Coastal Center on the banks of the Mississippi, to house the Bywater Institute.  

From investing in the Primate Center to launching the Brain Institute, we have brought ourselves together across schools and disciplines to focus on the areas where Tulane can make the most difference in the world.  

Because all of you support the mission of the university, you are all part of how we make the world a better place.  

For every scientist in a lab, for every economist with a whiteboard, there are a hundreds of you making that work possible.  

The assistants who help process grant applications, the technology workers who keep the super-computers, and the facilities people who keep the labs clean.  

We are in this together.

And our success builds more success.

Together, when we trumpet our vision of the university and its possibility, we engage our alumni and inspire our donors.

Thanks to Ginny Wise and her incredibly hardworking development team, we have been able to persuade more and more of our supporters to step up to the plate and invest in the future of Tulane.  

To make us their priority.  To show us how much they believe in the work that all of you do.

I am thrilled to tell you that this year, as we approach the public launch of our campaign, we set a new fundraising record for Tulane, raising over $126.1 million.

I can’t quite describe to you how many countless hours went into that number for our advancement team, and how grateful they are in return to the rest of you for giving them so much to brag about to donors. 

Thanks to all of you, this is what we get to tell our alums-- that we have leapt in the rankings more than any other school, that interest in Tulane is skyrocketing, that we will welcome the most accomplished and diverse class in our history, that we jumped in federal research funding.  

That we balanced our budget and we had the best  fundraising year in Tulane history.   

It just does not get any better than that!

I could talk endlessly about why we have all of this good news, but it comes down to one thing.  

There is a special magic here – a spirit that I haven’t seen in any other university in the country.  

I could try to describe it for you, but I think it’s best expressed by telling you my favorite story, something that happened last spring and that I haven’t been able to stop bragging about since.

Last year, NASA had a real-life problem they needed to solve – how to bring more cargo up into space.  

They decided to kick the problem to universities and to hold a “big idea” contest to see if students might be able to help.  

Most of the competing teams from around the nation came from the top aerospace programs in the country.  

But, as you may know, Tulane does not actually have an aerospace program.  

But that didn’t stop our students.  

A group of them met at our new maker space, where they bonded over their love of problem-solving, 3d printers and general geekiness.  

They decided to form a team.

They were engineering students, but also majors in physics, economics and architecture.

They were a remarkable group, but in this contest, they were more “bad news bears” than New York Yankees.  

No one was more shocked than they were to make it to the final round.

They watched the other finalists present variations of a traditional NASA concept --- a satellite, with rectangular flaps that fold out.

Then, it was Tulane’s turn.  

Our students had designed something entirely unique: like Pringles, they loaded a bunch of hexagons into a tube that could be projected into space.  

Once it got there, the hexagons would unfold outward, like a flower, exposing solar panels to the sun for fuel.

You could hear a pin drop.  The judges had never seen anything like it.

The students told me they knew they were either going to come in first place, or more likely, dead last.

But why would I be telling you this story if they came in last?

They took home the grand prize.  

It was an unbelievable underdog story.  

But at Tulane, this kind of thing happens all the time.

Because here, we connect with each other across fields.  

We gather strength by surrounding ourselves with people who think differently than we do.

As our own Walter Isaacson put it, the future of innovation will come “from people who are able to link beauty to engineering, humanity to technology, and poetry to processors.”

And not only that, Tulane has the kind of gumption it takes to compete with the best and brightest.  

To take on the top aerospace programs when you’ve never even had a class in aerospace engineering.  

That kind of chutzpah is hugely important, even when we don’t win.  

But after three years here with you, here is what I’ve really learned. 

I think we need to start getting used to winning-- even when we’re not supposed to. Those of you who were Saints fans for decades before 2009 know what I’m talking about.

Because there is nothing we cannot do together when we put our minds to it.

So thank you!

Thank you all for hard work, your passion, your vision and for your loyalty to this great university.  

You are Tulane, and Tulane is you.

So let’s hear Roll-Wave on 3:

1 – 2 -3 Roll Wave!