A magical moment occurred on December 15 during one of the three winter commencement ceremonies held on Purdue campuses. John Blaha, who received an engineering degree from our University in 1966, delivered a special message to the graduates and their families from the Russian Space Station Mir where he has been in orbit around the earth since September.
John, who is one of nearly two dozen Purdue alumni in America's astronaut corps, could not be with us in person as his daughter, Carolyn, was graduated from the School of Science. However. his voice crackled across the miles and thrilled the crowd in the Elliott Hall of Music with words of hope and encouragement. Hearing his message caused me to reflect on the year past and on all the wonderful possibilities Purdue creates.
1996 was a year in which Purdue was highly successful by any standard of measurement for a higher education institution. Enrollment increased to more than 64,000 students systemwide and exceeded 35,000 on the West Lafayette campus. This growth is happening at a time when all the demographic indicators tell us that enrollment should decline, and it is being achieved without sacrificing academic standards. Even more important, Purdue's graduation rate continues to be the highest among public institutions in Indiana and one of the best in the country. Nearly 10,000 students received Purdue degrees during the 1995-96 academic year.
I believe that this record is the result of a strong commitment to students by faculty and administration. Every large university must solve the problem of its own bigness and help each student find an identity and a place in a large and complex environment. Purdue has done this very well through the combined efforts of professors, the student services administration, the residence halls system, and our own students, many of whom help counsel their peers.
Another positive indicator in 1996 was continued strong support from private contributors, who responded so well to the challenge we presented in the Vision 21 campaign and have continued to increase their gifts to Purdue in the campaign's aftermath. Research support also continues to grow, and this is further evidence of the strength of the faculty. Virtually every dollar spent on research must be earned in a competitive arena in which every other university also is a player. Although federal agencies, which fund most of the basic research done in this country, have made the process more stringent, Purdue continues to be highly successful, and this success results in more opportunities for both students and faculty. It also brings significant new dollars into the state's economy and even sometimes leads to direct economic benefits for Indiana, such as industries that either spin off from the university or locate here because of the proximity of research.
During fiscal 1995-96, research spending by Purdue was about $185 million -- a significant industry in itself -- and the total economic impact of the University is estimated conservatively at more than $2.2 billion a year!
Construction on our campuses also is a major economic factor, as well as a necessity for the University to carry out its missions. A new food science and biotechnology complex is under construction in West Lafayette, and a major addition to the veterinary complex has been completed. Also under way is a renovation of the golf complex, which will be accomplished entirely through private support. We also have begun to raise private funds for a new headquarters for the Black Cultural Center. Indianapolis architect Walter Blackburn has completed a spectacular design for this building. On our regional campuses, Purdue North Central moved into a new classroom-office building, and another classroom-office building is under construction at Purdue Calumet. At Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, work has begun on a new science building.
Financial numbers and new construction make good examples of progress, but they do not even begin to take into account the human contributions of an institution that regularly changes the lives of individuals and their families. It is not an exaggeration to say that the American university has become the greatest force for positive change in history. By making higher education accessible and affordable to a large sector of society, we create a tremendously productive and creative force.
I am proud that Purdue has done far more than its share in this respect. Our graduates and those of our sister institutions become the leaders and the "doers" who allow the state and nation to prosper. The challenge in the decades ahead will be to expand the number of people who take advantage of the opportunity for college education.
I look forward to new challenges in 1997, and I wish you a happy and prosperous new year!
Steven C. Beering
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