2013 Future State of Academic Affairs

A statement on the Future State of Academic Affairs, provided February 27, 2013 by Provost William M. "Mike" Sherman.

What is the Future State of Academic Affairs?  I believe we are facing conflicting forces. We at The University of Akron are known for innovative and entrepreneurial thinking.  Indeed, we have helped to transform our city and our region by investing in our campus and creating new knowledge that fuels economic growth.  Yet, we have been slow to react to the external forces that demand a transformation in the way we deliver our primary product (education) to our most important audience (our students).

Indeed, as the authors of the book Riptide1 suggest: “The growing forces gathering outside the campus walls for the past couple of decades are about to gain tsunami force and smash the venerable but vulnerable ivory tower into smithereens.” The pace of change has increased faster than our response to change. Our behavior has been evolutionary but now, must be revolutionary. Our well-being depends on it.

No one survives a riptide if they panic. In fact, there is no cause for panic. In the year ahead, our collective wisdom and action will be a thoughtful, purposeful and confident response to the disruptive forces demanding change:

  • We will increase the value of education to our students
  • We will invest in our faculty but restrain costs to students
  • We will streamline the pathways to degree completion
  • We will make the educational process more responsive to student needs
  • We will better prepare our graduates for career success

I will outline below the opportunities that exist and corresponding actions we must take so that we are not lost in a riptide of change.

Confronting our Challenges

We are facing a budget deficit for which there is no simple fix. Our traditional sources of revenue, including state subsidies, are declining. The nearly $14 million reduction in state funding over the last two years has caused us to delay some important investments in our infrastructure and completely rethink how we can stabilize the balance sheet and provide a stronger foundation for growth. At the same time, our spending has increased due, in part, to our commitment to funding new and replacement positions and salary increases. Future funding will be based more on what the state and federal governments define as our “value” to our students—Do they persist year to year? Do they complete college in a timely fashion? Do they graduate with immediate career opportunities? Do they shoulder less debt? 

These are issues we face in long-term budget planning. In the short-term, we will all be asked to make some hard decisions and shared sacrifice in the name of sustained and long term viability. The market for our services is more competitive than ever, with some institutions freezing tuition, guaranteeing degrees, and creating courses that can be completed without students ever setting foot on a college campus. We must invest in change and growth to stay competitive; generating revenue to invest will require innovations in delivery, credentialing of learning and a reduction in costs and prudent elimination of non-essential services.

Implementing New Pathways to Success

We enjoyed a rapid growth in enrollment over the last decade, partly because the high school population was increasing and we welcomed the many graduates who selected The University of Akron. We created a Landscape for Learning that was unmatched in offering a beautiful campus in the midst of an urban setting. More recently, that high school market is shrinking--the number of high school graduates in Ohio peaked in 2009, and now is on the decline.

Many hundreds of students who came to our doorsteps were unprepared for college. We invested heavily in remedial coursework to help them, but state funding to support remedial education will be phased out starting next year. We wrapped expensive services around the students most at-risk and, in a few cases those students thrived. But for the vast majority, the university setting was too daunting and they did not earn a degree yet had incurred debt.

So our enrollment strategy evolved, and our Pathways to Student Academic Success were designed to provide the right path for the right students at the right time. We are deferring some students to partner community colleges where we believe they will be more successful and less burdened by cost and debt. We are currently working with our community college partners to make the transfer to UA seamless for those students who have proven themselves capable of and motivated to doing baccalaureate work.

This strategy - which we believe is better for students and their families by reducing financial burden and emotional stress—does have a temporary negative impact on our bottom line.  But we’ve studied the data, and we know our strategy will ultimately result in more successful students, higher retention and graduation rates, and a better learning environment for all students who have prepared themselves for a university-level education.

Institutions such as the University of Cincinnati that implemented strategies to change their student profile saw a temporary dip in enrollment similar to what we are now experiencing. Their enrollment has since recovered and accelerated because they have become more purposeful in admitting better-prepared first-time full-time students directly from high school. We will begin to experience this shift over the next couple of years, if we continue to maintain the Pathways strategy and a campus-wide focus on recruiting academically prepared students to our university.

Embracing a Changing Market

We used to talk about high school students as the “traditional” market and everyone else as “nontraditional.”  But with the rapid growth of adult learners—people over the age of 25 who are returning to college for continuing education or a new degree—we must begin to think of a student body filled with “new traditionals.”  If we continue to focus our recruitment efforts on the “old traditionals” we will miss the proverbial boat. There are tens of thousands of adults in Northeast Ohio who have begun college coursework, but left college before completing a degree. Thousands of veterans with a high degree of training will return to Ohio over the next year or so.

We can attract some of those potential students. “Stop-out” students can regain momentum and complete their programs and veterans can take advantage of their G.I. Bills. We can help them with a focus on flexible and alternative academic program delivery models. Our faculty are developing courses and offering classes on-line, during evenings and weekends, making degree and certificate completion and career advancement a tangible goal for many adults.  We must become better at recognizing college-level knowledge, regardless of how or where the learning occurs.

Degree and certificate completion, professional licensing and even career advancing coursework are vital pathways to educational and professional achievement. The statewide recommendations to increase program completion, put forth by the Ohio Board of Regent’s Complete College Ohio Task Force, provide a roadmap to help Ohioans complete educational milestones. Our commitment to the Complete College Ohio recommendations means we must provide the most seamless and connected pathways possible for degree attainment.

Supporting Educational Accomplishment

We are accountable for graduating our students. The Pathways for Student Academic Success enrollment strategy puts us on a trajectory to increase our six-year graduation rate for first-time full-time students from 40 percent to 60 percent by the year 2020. Yet, a 60 percent graduation rate may still be considered too low. Provided we change our behaviors and focus our energies on educational accomplishment and degree completion, our own analysis projects we will do better than 60 percent.  Certainly, we must start with and act like every student can and will be successful at The University of Akron.

All of our students deserve to be part of an educational environment that incorporates diversity at its core, contributing to a truly inclusive Akron Experience – where we work hard to enhance the ethnic, racial and gender diversity of our faculty, staff and students. No matter how students come to us – as traditional, transfer, veterans or adults returning to complete a degree, we must provide the guidance they need to succeed. This guidance will be provided by:

  • Incorporation of new advising practices
  • A commitment to revising credit hour requirements
  • Providing clear roadmaps to degree completion
  • Pursuing a holistic approach to student support
  • Encouraging student progress both in and out of the classroom
  • Providing the financial literacy education necessary for our students

A degree can be accomplished in a timely manner and in cost effective ways, provided students take 15 credits per semester. Advising our students to take less than this is an academic disservice to them, lowering their aspirations, because we have lowered our expectations. Paying for summer courses that might have been taken during the academic year within the tuition plateau also adds costs.  Not every student will be able to take 15 credits per semester; they need to make the decision with our guidance and advice, and they need to understand the cost implications of such decisions.

The reform of our General Education curriculum must result in a logical flow of coursework—from one semester to the next—that facilitates degree completion. We must be flexible enough to accommodate the many students who change majors.  We must reduce our undergraduate credit hour minimum to 120, as have most of our competitors, making certain that the coursework prepares our students for success in their majors. Students must know, from their first course to their last, that they are meeting program requirements. Curriculum guides that students access from the web will match the DARS requirements from day one, ensuring a clear pathway to completion.  This means a student will know the courses they need to take will most likely be available when they need to take them.

We are no longer permitting students to begin their studies as “undecided.” Upon acceptance, advisers are working with students to identify a “pre-major” pathway that will encourage and enable progress towards degree completion. No longer will students languish with 150 or more credit hours and no end in sight. If they do change their majors, the General Education courses they have completed will need to be accepted in their new pathway.

Academic advisers across the University have displayed a great commitment in supporting the success of all students. We will now do an even better job—through closer working relationships between faculty and advisers—to help students find their passion earlier in their Akron Experience. We want them to have a clear goal to pursue. I urge that our interactions with prospective students include discussions on career interests and skills aptitude. We should help them decide on a major area of interest and set their educational goals from the outset.   

Importantly, we must ensure that our students have “early and often” contact with our talented full-time faculty. This helps to ensure student academic success, progress and completion of courses and degrees because students are learning from the faculty who are fully invested in the sequence of knowledge in their major.  

Because we measure personal success with as much significance as academic success, a holistic approach to student support is vital to ensure high levels of accomplishment. We must look beyond our students’ academic lives and ask several important questions: Are students achieving their full potential? Are they having difficulty adjusting to college? Are they homesick, or needing to manage depression or anxiety? Are they able to balance work, family, volunteerism, activities and academics?  We must be especially observant and sensitive to the behaviors and use the systems we have in place to identify students who need support and intervention so that we can help them succeed.

Paramount to all of these success initiatives is ensuring that students and parents understand the true cost of education. By enhancing financial literacy, we can impact how debt and economic pressures influence completion, helping students understand their personal responsibilities.  We must explore ways in which we can expand and diversify financial opportunities and incentives for students to maintain full-time enrollment. In addition, we will find more ways to employ our students.

Ensuring Placement after Graduation

Every research study points to a common concern of our students: they worry about getting a job or into graduate/professional school after graduation. We must be able to address that universal concern by increasing the likelihood of placement in a career path of choice and documenting our students’ success.  Some of our professional colleges have a documented job placement rate greater than 60 percent within six-months of graduation. Our College of Engineering does much better, with a placement rate of more than 90 percent. A university-wide placement rate of 80 percent or greater will achieve our Vision 2020 goals, and, more importantly, secure brighter futures for our students and our university.

We will achieve this goal with a focus on internships and co-ops. We have begun by creating an additional 260 internships and co-ops with the help of a nearly $1 million grant recently awarded by the state. Employers will match that amount and leverage the success of our robust engineering program by building upon its relationship with employers, and understanding those employer needs for graduates with degrees in other fields, like marketing or data analysis, English and applied mathematics, to name a few. The more our faculty members encourage students to pursue experiential learning opportunities like internships and co-ops, the more successful this initiative will be.

When our students succeed, we succeed. I am confident we can effect positive change by looking closely at who we educate, how we educate, and what doors we open for our graduates.

Our new enrollment strategy, increased focus on student persistence and success, and a concerted effort to ensure job placement after earning a University of Akron degree will lead many more students to make The University of Akron their institution of choice.

Investing in our Future

Our core business, of course, is education, and our University of Akron faculty is at the forefront of creating an environment that upholds the highest values of higher education. Even in these challenging economic times, we are investing significantly in our faculty. Over the previous three years, a 15+ percent compensation adjustment was made to ensure that UA faculty compensation is in the higher ranks of Ohio public institutions. We are committed to attracting and retaining the best faculty, and this will help us to do so, particularly in anticipation of increased turnover as a result of retirement system changes. Further, as a part of annual decision-making, a significant amount of funding has been committed for faculty searches.

We will attract new faculty and support current faculty through our ongoing Achieving Distinction Initiative, a multi-million dollar program that originated as the result of recommendations by the Faculty Senate Ad Hoc Committee on Interdisciplinary Research and which is responsive to the Board of Regents Commercialization Task Force report, “Advancing Ohio’s Innovation Economy.” The first two projects identified for funding are the Biomimicry program and the Entrepreneurship, Commercialization and Proof-of-Concept program. These projects bring together 45 faculty across 5 colleges and connect them with 18 of our community partners. We anticipate these two projects will pave the way for the creation of even more interdisciplinary programs at our university.  This program is an investment strategy that will transform our contributions to knowledge and provide solutions to everyday problems.

Enhancing Academic Excellence

All of our faculty members have been involved in some fashion in the process of Academic Program Review. We are committed to ensuring its progress and the positive impact it will have on our future. The completion of this process is part of our commitment to update the Board of Trustees on recommendations to invest, maintain, merge or converge, disinvest or sunset academic programs. I have asked the Academic Program Review Committee to make “actionable recommendations” this spring that will result in measurable actions in the future.  The outcome will be stronger academic programs and will allow a reallocation of resources across the institution.

Last year, the faculty, department chairs/school directors and deans worked to improve the efficiency of our classroom and laboratory utilization.  As a result, we are meeting student needs with an increase in classes offered all hours of the day and all days of the week.  Importantly, about 8,000 more students are taking classes on Fridays.  Our daytime classroom utilization rates have improved from 57 percent in FY10 to 63 percent in FY12. We are well on our way to meeting our objective of 70 percent thanks to successful collaboration with chairs, directors, and deans.

We are now working with chairs, directors and deans, who will be consulting with faculty to assure their full engagement with our students as early as possible in their academic program.  This may change the amount of time our full-time faculty spend in the classroom as well as in office hours and student advising. It is important that every faculty member is working at their highest capacity across teaching, research and service. This will help ensure student academic success because it will optimize the interactions of students with full-time faculty members.  I look forward to updating the campus on the success of this initiative that will be the result of collaboration amongst the chairs, directors, deans and faculty members.

Developing a Global Strategy

The University is a global institution and many of our programs are known worldwide.  Many faculty and individuals visit annually to observe and learn from our world-class programs and initiatives.  While many students come to learn from us, we must create more opportunities for our students to study beyond the borders of the United States.  We must facilitate professional development opportunities for faculty to extend a world-view into their teaching and research. We will develop a true global strategy for implementation so these aspirations happen. 

As a global institution, our diversity and inclusive excellence agenda will be extended. Our objective to be more diverse will be enhanced, although we must and will work harder to enhance the ethnic diversity of our faculty, staff, and students. By creating a global community we will become a multicultural university.

Together, Anything is Possible

I believe we can do anything; we just cannot do everything.  What we choose to do must be strategic to ensure our University’s distinctiveness to our students, faculty and community. When a riptide threatens to pull a swimmer out to sea, the immediate response must be thoughtful (try to find solid ground beneath your feet) and purposeful (don’t fight the current, swim with direction parallel to the shore). 

We have a solid foundation and a clear direction via Vision 2020: The New Gold Standard of University Performance at The University of Akron.

As we find ourselves facing environmental forces of change, stronger than ever before, we must remember what remains unchanged - our core business of education and student academic success. How that student “looks” and how we deliver what that student “wants” will change.  But our commitment to our students remains unchanged in the Future State of Academic Affairs. Thank you for making this commitment with me.

[1] Riptide: The New Normal for Higher Education.  D. Angel and T. Connelly. The Publishing Place. 2011.

Provost Sherman discusses approaches to reducing the cost of higher education.

Provost Sherman discusses the value of early and frequent contact with full-time faculty

Provost Sherman discusses our role in helping adults and veterans in Northeast Ohio complete their degrees

Provost Sherman discusses how Gen Ed reform may improve time to degree