Reflecting on the academic year05/08/2017
Interim President Matthew J. Wilson
Thank you for all your efforts this past academic year in assisting our students and making a difference at UA.
As a community and institution, we have made significant and necessary strides in a short time. It has been an honor serving you as president and I appreciate your patience and support. I will continue trying my best to support you, our students, and our University as we collectively move forward.
At this time last year, my focus was on leading my academic unit as dean. Over the past 10 months, I have gained a much broader and deeper appreciation for the individual aspects, challenges, and achievements of each segment of our scholarly community. The open discussions, meetings, and college town halls held throughout the past 10 months were enlightening. I look forward to additional open dialogue this coming year as we discuss our strategic vision and the next steps in our journey.
As I have engaged with the general community, I have observed a great deal of appreciation and respect for our University. I also encountered much positivity and hope in our recovery plans. This came from over 100 visits to high school, middle schools, and other institutions as well as with my interactions with you, our students, thousands of high school students, hundreds of principals and school counselors, and those whom I have encountered at dozens of meetings of local Kiwanis, chambers of commerce, city council meetings, Rotary clubs and the like. As you might imagine, I’ve continuously met with many, many wonderful alumni and donors as well.
Without question, we will face tough challenges in the coming years. Conquering them will require cohesiveness, understanding, positivity, and extra effort. I want to personally thank all of you who have answered the calls to enhance student engagement, redouble your efforts in the community, and think creatively about finding solutions to our problems. Your efforts are noticed and appreciated by many. Going forward next year, we are going to collectively need even more from everyone in terms of student engagement, retention, and recruitment from all quarters. Your assistance is respectfully requested in stepping up our efforts, innovating, and going the extra mile for our students.
At the same time, please know that there is an unmistakable air of goodwill toward our University. Alumni and citizens of greater Akron and beyond want to see UA thrive and succeed. They understand and appreciate this University’s importance to the region’s economy, culture, and legacy. And yet, while they are sympathetic to our challenges and many continue to look for ways to contribute, they expect us to solve our difficulties on our own. They are right to do so. In fact, in the immediate future, we need to have in-depth conversations about our strategic mission.
Along these lines, I wanted to report to you on how far we have come in responding to our challenges, and how much further we have to go.
First and most importantly, we have made great strides to reunify our University family. I am grateful to the leadership of Faculty Senate, University Council, SEAC, CPAC, the AAUP and other bargaining units, student government, and all other groups for their efforts to bring about conciliation and cooperation. That was our most immediate and vital test as a community last year, and we successfully met that challenge. I will do my best to nurture this renewed spirit of teamwork, and I humbly ask all others to do the same for our common benefit. Teamwork, quick action, and positivity are crucial to our success.
Please allow me to share some evidence of the first fruits of our collaborative efforts:
- Positive Higher Learning Commission Visit: Initial feedback following the HLC accreditation site visit in February was very positive. We are still awaiting official feedback from the HLC and will share this with you as it is provided.
- Higher Cost Savings, Lower Draw On Savings Account: As I have explained on numerous occasions, we anticipated an $18 million draw from the University’s financial reserves to balance the 2016-17 budget. Thanks to your patience with hiring and the response within academic and administrative units to rethink activities and control expenditures, the actual draw on our accounts will be several millions less than expected. With the next fiscal year looking even more challenging, this savings is critical.
- Transformation Plan: As you know, the University has embarked on a two-year plan to stabilize, invest, and grow, with a target of achieving $60 million in revenue generation and expenditure reductions within this two-year period. To that end we have taken the following steps:
- Entered into a short-term limited arrangement with Ernst & Young for data compilation, analytics, analysis, and advice regarding savings and revenue maximization. In the near future we will phase down this arrangement and transfer its function in-house.
- Revamped our merit admissions scholarship system with a unique and innovative Akron Guarantee Scholarship program. Not only has this program received positive attention from families and students, but it has also garnered positive attention in the state and national media. Also, we anticipate that this program will realize an additional $1.5 million in additional net revenue this year alone, and will put students on a faster track to graduation.
- After significant study and discussion, rolled out a program for full-time faculty that makes retirement a career transition, rather than a termination, thereby also contributing to cost-savings for the University.
- Repositioned our graduate assistantship program to motivate more students to quickly graduate, and reduce expenditures to better align our graduate assistantship program with that of many other Ohio public universities.
- Enhanced our international student recruitment and retention program by attracting more than 100 interested faculty and staff members to town hall meetings on the topic, by signing and updating memorandums of understanding with several institutions in Asia, and by hiring a team to advance international recruitment, global engagement, and student/scholar retention.
- Enacted cost-containment measures that include a “hiring frost” that have saved millions this year.
- Conducted an in-depth analysis of our State Share of Instruction (SSI) funding that prompted changes to certain practices that could result in an additional $1 million or more in funding from the state.
- Adapted to changing student needs by reinvesting in undergraduate and graduate programs to make them available in evenings, on weekends, and online, and extending student services operations into the evenings and weekends.
- Studied ways to make University-related travel more cost-efficient, thereby potentially saving UA hundreds of thousands of dollars on an annual basis.
- Convened a “dashboard committee” with 23 representatives of various units on campus and EY personnel to develop a basic set of metrics of institutional performance.
- While holding down costs, we have eliminated interim status for many leadership positions and brought in new talent to assist with recruitment, retention, fundraising, and student success. This includes the hiring of colleagues Jolene Lane, chief diversity officer; J.P. Yates, international recruiting; Jarrod Tudor, dean of Wayne College; and Christopher Peters, dean of Akron Law, among others.
- Major Gifts, Partnerships & Recognition: This past year our faculty, students, contract professionals, and staff gained regional and national recognition; we partnered with a variety of organizations; and received significant gifts from major foundations and donors. These included:
- Individual faculty and student awards and honors too numerous to list here.
- A $5 million gift from benefactors Jim and Vanita Oelschlager to create The Oak Native American Museum as part of the Institute for Human Science and Culture at UA’s Drs. Nicholas and Dorothy Cummings Center for the History of Psychology.
- A $3 million endowment from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to establish the W. Gerald Austen Endowed Chair in Polymer Science and Polymer Engineering.
- Over $2.5 million raised toward student scholarships, including more than $500,000 raised for immediate application through our Making a Difference Moving Forward campaign.
- Partnerships with a broad range of organizations, including DANCECleveland, NASA, Soap Box Derby, and the Portage Lakes Career Center.
- International rankings for our chemical engineering program and additional national rankings in business, law, surveying and mapping, veterans’ services, recreation and wellness center, among other areas.
- Recognition and positive publicity earned for our University by our fine student-athletes who won individual and team honors.
At this point in the enrollment cycle, current trends are encouraging. If confirmations continue at this pace (400 more than last year) and hold through the summer, we anticipate a substantial increase in freshmen enrollment this fall over last year. I invite you to proactively find ways to welcome incoming students to help ensure their arrival on campus in August. Concurrently, the number of housing contracts is on the rise and we anticipate full or nearly full occupancy in our residence halls this fall. At the same time, comparisons are down with Fall 2015 and total enrollment will likely decline this fall. Ohio universities and colleges are feeling the effects of a shrinking pool of prospective students due to demographic changes in the state and Midwest. This trend, combined with the impact of such a small freshman class last year, necessitate a collective effort to recruit and retain students.
Likewise, fundraising shows improvement from FY2016, with donors responding to the Making a Difference Moving Forward campaign that enables their gifts to be applied immediately to student scholarships.
In summary, we have made great progress in improving public perceptions and confidence in our institution, but the effects of the previous year’s turmoil and reduced 2016 cohort will take time to overcome.
This, in combination with a 3,000-member graduating class this week, ongoing debt burden and uncertainty over the new biennial state budget before the Ohio Legislature, ensure that fiscal challenges will remain with us in the coming years. We must redouble our efforts to reduce costs and increase revenue while providing an outstanding educational experience for our students.
I end this message the same way I began, with my profound thanks to you and everyone in our University family for your hard work, goodwill, and collaborative spirit. I am genuinely confident that if we maintain those traits in 2017-18 and collectively work with a focus on our students, The University of Akron will celebrate its 150th anniversary in 2020 in good financial health and with a bright future ahead of it.
Have a safe, enjoyable, and productive summer.
Matthew J. Wilson
The University of Akron