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The Daily Wildcat

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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    “The pursuit of excellence: More to the UA’s mission than budget cuts,”

    It’s been something of a transition for President Robert Shelton, riding the coattails of Peter Likins while quietly restoring fiscal discipline. But while the former Tarheel has certainly proved his monetary mettle, it remains to be seen if he can achieve the larger goal of making the UA a prestigious research institution.

    When Shelton assumed the office of UA president in 2006, it was a turbulent time.

    His predecessor, Peter Likins, was lauded for his ability to form consensus. But some considered Likins’ diplomacy an obstacle to making the kind of tough decisions that would make the UA financially solvent. And the state Legislature’s perennial unwillingness to fund higher education was a seething storm on the financial horizon. Likins had left a steaming ship, to be sure, but one with its fair share of leaks.

    So it was relieving to see Shelton take the reins from Likins with a firm hand. Within months of getting the job, the newly selected president announced $9.3 million in budget cuts and followed up with an additional $10 million budget cut after the fall semester.

    It hasn’t made him popular. Pierre Meystre, the head of the physics department, even resigned in a huff, citing a “”lack of leadership and vision”” and an “”apparent inability to make tough decisions.””

    To the contrary, Shelton’s hard-nosed fiscal discipline is nothing but a testament to his leadership ability and willingness to make tough decisions. No administrator wants to see his departments suffer; to suggest that it’s easy to make painful cuts itself shows a disheartening lack of vision.

    Even so, Shelton came to the university promising a “”new covenant”” with the state of Arizona, one that would propel the UA to the upper tier of research institutions.

    Being a top-10 research institution is “”about telling Arizona families that they don’t have to look outside of Arizona to get the best college education in America,”” he observed in his inaugural address. “”It’s about telling high-tech, high-end companies that the educated work force they seek can be found here in Arizona.””

    But in his mission to make the UA a top-10 research institute, Shelton argues in linear terms – that the UA must first make it through the short-term financial shortfalls before it can pursue excellence. However pressing it might be to get the UA’s fiscal house in order, though, it’s unlikely that the UA will realize that mission if Shelton allows his tenure to be dominated by budgetary wrangling.

    Balancing the budget and pursuing excellence aren’t mutually exclusive. In fact, it’s not unreasonable to think that pursuing excellence (in the form of higher graduation rates, higher retention rates and higher admission standards) will help precipitate the kind of funding that will balance the budget.

    Shelton lamented to us yesterday that his schedule has been dominated by “”public relations”” appearances this year, and he hopes to use his time next year to increase his communication and to head off conflicts like the row with Meystre. But if he truly hopes to make the UA the prestigious institution we all hope it can be, he should also be focusing on excellence in the coming year.

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