As The University of Akron makes widespread budget cuts, it is important to ask where the money saved will be spent. Given the university’s tight finances, it is of course necessary to make the best use of our money. But developments this summer suggest that the administration is pursuing expensive gimmicks at the cost of policies that will advance our educational mission.
In an effort to reduce expenditures, on July 27 the administration, after weeks of rumors and extreme anxiety, eliminated over 200 staff positions, including laying off current employees.
In addition, the administration effectively shuttered EJ Thomas Hall for the performing arts, although after ten days of strenuous community objection it announced that it would honor its commitment to this year’s already-booked events after all. It let go all the staff of the University of Akron Press with its esteemed poetry series and books on Ohio’s history and culture. Despite assertions that the Press isn’t closing but will simply move to the library, it is very hard to see how it can function without staff, especially as the library too lost staff positions on July 27 )https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2015/07/31/university-akron-says-it-hasnt-eliminated-its-university-press-has-eliminated-all). And the administration attempted to impose a $50-per-credit fee on all upper-level courses–rescinded only after serious push-back from students, state legislators, and the Ohio Board of Higher Education (Cleveland Plain Dealer, July 28).
One could imagine from all this that the university is down to its last dime. And yet the budget has in it $10.4 million a year of new money for the president’s “priorities.” Curiously, this amount is roughly equal to the annual salary and benefits of the staff members let go on July 27. So what are these priorities?
“The sixth initiative in the past four months.” That’s how President Scott Scarborough characterized the newly created Corps of Cadets and Leadership Academy on July 2 (http://www.uakron.edu/im/news/ua-launches-two-career-focused-programs-with-a-military-flavor). It’s hard to keep track of all of these “initiatives”—most announced after many faculty members left campus for the summer. But the following seem most likely to be those to which he refers.
- First is the “re-branding” of the university as “Ohio’s Polytechnic University”
In spite of strong opposition from faculty, students, and alumni, the president has pushed ahead, promising that people will like the concept once they understand it.
In the meantime, it has been very expensive. Approximately $200,000 has already been spent on re-branding, including the “Ohio Polytechnic” T-shirts handed out during the final Cavaliers NBA game in the post-season. For all this spending (a drop in the bucket compared to what a full re-branding will cost), the one concrete result so far has been a sharply-worded open letter from the other four northeast Ohio university presidents, who did not care for President Scarborough’s prediction that their institutions would fold because they are not pursuing bold rebranding initiatives of their own (Akron Beacon Journal and Cleveland Plain Dealer, May 21).
- The second presidential initiative is the “GenEd Core” program, offering “blended” online courses through Wayne College at a cut-rate $50 a credit hour.
The announced goal is to lure students to UA and away from the local community colleges. This is ironic, given that just three years ago the university launched the successful Pathways to Academic Success program, in which under prepared students were encouraged to start their post-secondary education at those very community colleges, rather than getting in over their heads by going straight to UA.
The GenEd Core program roll-out has been poorly handled, primarily because no faculty were consulted. The cut-rate classes were added to the schedule with, so far, no indication of what days or what times they will meet, or even where (at least some class meetings are required for “blended” classes). Not surprisingly students, who have to organize their classes around other required courses and their work schedules, are wary of signing up for classes without a specific meeting time or place. The IT staff member who was helping coordinate the on-line portion of these “Core” classes was one of those let go on July 27.
Although there are spots for 3,000 students to take these courses, as of the beginning of August there were just over 700 total registrations for the GenEd Core courses. The course that is drawing the most interest is “Bach to Rock,” a music appreciation course. Essentially all of its enrolled students are upperclassmen, not new students lured to UA but our own students, taking advantage of cut-rate offerings and costing the university money it can ill afford to lose. The regional community college presidents have also weighed in, pointing out that even with the low GenEd Core pricing, an associate’s degree at their colleges is still cheaper than at UA (Akron Beacon Journal and Cleveland Plain Dealer, April 16).
- The third and fourth initiatives, apparently, are the “Center for Data Science” and the “Center for Experiential Learning.”
All that has happened here is the hiring of two industry executives as “executives in residence” to head them, for a combined salary of half a million dollars. The faculty who would teach “data” courses or organize internships have yet to be consulted.
- The fifth initiative is the hiring of 20 to 30 “success coaches,” supposedly to help freshmen balance classes, work, and social life.
This initiative has been outsourced for $840,000 a year to Trust Navigator, a Cleveland company owned by an investment firm (Cleveland Plain Dealer, July 28), even as most of the employees in the university office of Student Success have been let go.
Trust Navigator is a brand new company (http://www.thedevilstrip.com/home/a-tale-of-two-proposals-sorting-out-trustnavigators-pitch-for-uas-student-success-coach-job/), and its website was still being hastily assembled on the day (July 27) that it was authorized to provide “success coaching” to UA students. Curiously, this website (www.trustnavigator.com/index.html), rather than indicating any experience in helping freshmen succeed, focuses on the importance of college graduates gaining corporate jobs, and states that the “Trust Navigator curriculum,” described as watching corporate videos, will provide data on students for the benefit of employers seeking to hire. There is no indication of the qualifications or training of the “coaches” this company will provide, which would appear especially crucial since academic advisers were among those laid off. Indeed, Trust Navigator has not yet even started hiring these “coaches,” three weeks before the beginning of classes (Akron Beacon Journal, August 9).
- And sixth is the announcement of a Cadet Corps.
Students will engage in a kind of quasi-military training, complete with uniforms, without risk of an actual military service commitment, as they would have if they joined ROTC. Some military veterans among the faculty are understandably appalled. The announcement stressed that no other university in this part of the country is doing anything similar. There may be good reasons for this.
But these six initiatives are not all that the president is undertaking. The College of Health Professions is teaming up with a for-profit corporation, Academic Partnerships, to attract students nationwide to take on-line courses in nursing. Academic Partnerships will recruit the students and provide “academic coaches” to administer the coursework, and in return will keep a reported 40% of the tuition dollars (Chronicle of Higher Education, July 15). Interestingly, this project is being rolled out with no official announcement from the administration.
The chairman of the Board of Trustees has said that these initiatives are just the beginning, with many more to come (interview on WKSU, August 4).
Disturbingly absent from all these initiatives is any commitment to hire full-time faculty to replace the scores who have left in recent years.
Although it is technically true that no faculty members were laid off on July 27, if the many who have left or retired – 42 since this time last year – are not replaced, the effect is the same.
So what do all these gimmicks cost, and what is their result? Salaries and benefits for the new administrators running these “initiatives,” their office expenses, and the advertising required for “re-branding” will add up fast. So far there is nothing to show for the “initiatives,” other than alienating the faculty, staff, students, alumni, the Akron community, the Association of American University Presses, and the presidents of the region’s other colleges and universities.
It is indeed difficult to see how any of these are likely to swell enrollment, improve retention, lead to alumni donations, or inspire the state legislature to send the university more money, and they are even less likely to improve the quality of the education of our students.
The Akron-AAUP shares the administration’s desire to use what we have to strengthen UA. But wasteful gimmicks will do nothing to enable students to get the education for which they have paid their tuition dollars. Instead they detract from The University of Akron’s core mission, to educate students and to attain new knowledge through research. This can only be done by hiring and supporting committed, highly-trained faculty members, and giving academic programs appropriate staff support, not through gimmicks such as these.