By Noah Manskar
Ohio Wesleyan’s top administrators proposed several “conversations” about the university’s future at the Sept. 16 faculty meeting.
One major issue was student retention. In his report to the faculty, University President Rock Jones said retention from the first to second year is the lowest it’s been in six years, down from 83 percent to 80.1 percent. Second-to-third year retention increased 3.5 percent from 71.2 percent to 74.7 percent; but third-to-fourth year retention underwent the largest change, decreasing 4.3 percent from 71.5 percent to 67.2 percent.
Jones said the administration has started a data analysis initiative headed by Dean of Institutional Research Dale Swartzentruber to “understand the characteristics” of students who left. Administrators are also testing a “student success guides” program to help students get involved, gain “better awareness” of their academic struggles and increase intervention with those on academic probation.
Provost Charles Stinemetz said he and his office aim to provide “necessary support” for student success to improve retention.
“We do that by offering special programs that contribute to academic success and support bringing our campus community together as a community through a variet(y) of venues (lectures, performances, athletic events, etc.),” he said in an email.
Senior Erika Kazi, who attended the meeting as the chair of the Wesleyan Council of Student Affairs’s Academic Affairs Committee, said she thought the administration’s public reports on the retention problem didn’t address its central issues. She said she will take the retention figures to WCSA so it can work on its own solutions.
“It didn’t seem like it was a big deal to them, and I think it should be a big concern, especially if—they threw this word out a lot and it really grinds my gears—if you’re trying to build a sustainable institution…,” she said. “You can’t just add more infrastructure if you want to keep students on campus. You have to find out what the dividing cause is.”
Kazi said her experience dealing with the administration through WCSA indicates building a “full campus community” isn’t a priority for the university, which she thinks damages retention. She cited the absence of a SpringFest event last year as evidence.
“When students don’t have an opportunity to celebrate with all other students, they start to look at other schools who do, and that’s when they’re like, ‘This sucks,’” she said.
Kazi said she thought the faculty meeting was less open and more hierarchical than WCSA proceedings. She left early because “everyone looked really bored” and she “just kept rolling (her) eyes at everything.”
Kazi also said she noticed a departmental “segregation” among the faculty, which she thinks isn’t conducive to academic or institutional unity.
“I feel like our education should be integrated, so our faculty should be integrated across disciplines…,” she said. “In reality, we’re just going through the motions.”
Jones also reported statistics about the new freshman class.
The class of 2017, he said, has a lower academic profile than its predecessor. The average SAT score is down 28 points from 1151 to 1123.
The class is more diverse—28.3 percent of the 572 new students are domestic multicultural, up 5.55 percent from last year and 10.8 percent from 2011.
With this demographic shift came changes in the incoming class’s financial aid profile. While Jones said many multicultural students come from families with fewer resources and require more aid, the tuition discount—the average university financial aid as a percentage of tuition—decreased just over one percent from the previous year to 60.9 percent.
Additionally, net tuition revenue increased $477,000 and the university received $6,423,000 in cash donations to the endowment over the summer. Both funding areas provide part of the financial aid pool.
OWU’s tuition discount in the 2010-2011 academic year was the second-highest among a list of 40 comparable schools, according to data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System and the National Center for Education Statistics. Jones said the current discount remains one of the highest among peer institutions, which means the university has fewer funds for programs other institutions can more easily afford, like a sustainability coordinator.
To Jones, the question of how to balance the university’s “obligation” to help students who need financial aid and attract good students with scholarships with its other budgetary needs is crucial.
“I wouldn’t want to have a zero percent discount because that would mean we’re not helping needy students,” he said. “Now, our discount is too high, but where it really ought to be—that’s a good question.”
In his report Jones said he wants a conversation about the “values” of OWU’s financial aid structure, which he said has prioritized merit scholarships over need-based aid for the past 30 years.
“The question is, do we continue to do that in order to attract the best students possible, or do we feel an obligation to meet more of the need of our neediest students so they don’t have to have as much debt?” he said in an interview. “And ultimately it’s a balance, but the question is, where is the balance for us?”
In her report as chair of the Committee on Admissions and Financial Aid, Barbara MacLeod said there had been such a conversation between her committee and the administration. She said they discussed giving more need-based aid to the second and third tier of financial aid recipients in order to admit more students and decrease the discount rate.
Student housing and facilities were another major focus of Jones’s report. He said housing is over capacity everywhere but fraternity houses, for which he commended Director of Residential Life Wendy Piper.
Jones said the “dirty little secret” of OWU’s housing structure is that it historically hasn’t reinvested room revenue into residential maintenance, which has allowed between $50 million and $60 million in deferred costs to accumulate. He advocated ending this strategy.
He also said the administration has launched a capital campaign to fund the Edwards Gym renovation and other facility repairs. The university has consulted with Mackie Mitchell, an architectural firm from St. Louis specializing in student facilities, to develop a scheme for completing the Student Housing Master Plan, a long-term renovation project. Jones said a preliminary report from the firm would come this week; the final report will be presented to the Board of Trustees early next month, but the Board won’t take action on it.
An overarching theme of Jones’s and Stinemetz’s reports was the challenges OWU faces as a liberal arts institution.
Jones listed nine external factors the university needs to consider in order to sustain itself; among them were the changing role of technology in education, decreasing funds from the government and individual families and a shift toward learning through hands-on experience like internships and study abroad.
According to Jones, the changing profiles of high school graduating classes is another major factor OWU will face in planning for its future. “Knocking at the College Door,” a 2012 report by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, found high schools will produce fewer graduates in the coming years.
Additionally, the classes’ racial demographics have a propensity for diversity. The report predicts the number of white graduates produced between the 2008-2009 and 2019-2020 academic years will decrease by 12 percent, while 41 percent more Hispanic students, 30 percent more Asian and Pacific islander students and “just under two percent” more American Indian and Alaska native students will graduate. The number of black graduates is projected to decrease by nine percent.
Jones said he thinks OWU’s readiness for increasingly diverse classes will be crucial to its success, as it will be for its peers.
“Certainly schools who are not very welcoming to multicultural students are going to have a very difficult time, and Ohio Wesleyan’s in a very good position there,” he said in an interview.
The administrators also said the public perception of a liberal arts education’s value is declining. Stinemetz attributed this to students’ and families’ desire to ensure a college education is economically valuable job training, which he said is “understandable.”
“In the liberal arts we provide people with the necessary intellectual skills to succeed in a number of professions,” he said in an email. “So, to some it may seem like we aren’t directly training the person for any job, but on closer examination we are providing them with something more important the ability to succeed in life.”
Charlie Ross, interim director of Counseling Services, updated the faculty on changes to his office.
Ross came out of retirement from his position at Oberlin College to head Counseling Services while the university conducts a search to replace former director Colleen Cook, who left in August for a position with Bard College at Simon’s Rock in Great Barrington, Mass. Full-time counselor Eric Johnson also left to work at Colby College in Waterville, Maine.
Ross said the Counseling Services structure has changed to accommodate immediate, short-term needs and eliminate the wait list. Students with long-term needs will be referred to outside clinicians rather than receive treatment within the university.
Ross said he used this model at Oberlin—the office there “had a lot of business,” but couldn’t take care of everyone. He said OWU’s previous model was “not sustainable.”
“If we try to do everything in the counseling center, we will not give everyone the level of care (they need),” he said at the meeting.
In his time at Oberlin, Ross said, he recruited private counselors to open practices in the area so his office could refer students to them. In his experience, most university counseling doesn’t require long-term therapy, but some students do come with “significant” mental health histories and need more care.
The faculty committees followed Jones, Stinemetz and Ross to report their news to the faculty and administrators.
Faculty Secretary Thomas Wolber led elections for open committee positions. Professor of Religion Blake Michael was elected to the Academic Policy Committee; Ramon Carreno, associate professor of zoology, won a position on the Reappointment Appeals Committee; and Professor of Psychology Richard Leavy was elected to the Faculty-Trustee Liaison Committee.
Chris Wolverton, chair of the Committee on University Governance (UGC), said there is a “high need” for faculty involvement in conversations on retention, financial aid, facility renovations, the upcoming capital campaign and other major issues.
Wolverton said UGC will hold office hours twice a month to address questions from faculty. He also said the committee will now receive more timely budget information after meeting with Jones and Dan Hitchell, vice president for finance and administration and treasurer.
Fielding a question from Professor of History Michael Flamm,Wolverton said the university’s health care plan is in a “good position” to meet new coverage requirements under the Affordable Care Act, according to the school’s insurance broker. The ACA will will begin implementation in January of 2014.
Dale Brugh, chair of the Faculty Personnel Committee, said FPC met over the summer and produced an “ideal system” for faculty evaluation, which he said is not the “consensus” of the committee but is “appropriate to discuss.” The document will be released for faculty feedback.
Brugh said FPC has a new website with all relevant public information about the current personnel system. He also announced part-time faculty can be considered for promotion if qualified, whether they teach both semesters or only one.