Well, after two years Helen and I can now find our way around the President’s House without GPS, so there’s that.
The members of the Executive Council have stopped bringing their business cards to meetings to remind me of their names and position titles.
Seriously, here are seven top priorities I have pursued during my first two years as President – Leadership Structure, Enrollment, Financial Health, Kingdom Diversity, Religious Freedom Issues, Community Relationships, and Global Christian Learning Community.
Today, I’ll talk about three things for which every president has to be responsible. If we get these wrong, no matter what else we do, the institution can’t flourish. They only get exciting when things go wrong.
Next I’ll talk about diversity, religious freedom, and community relationships. Then I’ll touch on my focus for the next couple of years.
I’ve been in leadership positions at IWU since 1994. I have had a ringside seat for our exceptional growth in size and complexity. In recent years I became convinced that our leadership structure had not evolved along with our institution. There are markedly different knowledge and experience bases needed to effectively lead the different parts of our university. But leadership was concentrated in a small group of senior administrators who, no matter how brilliant they may be, just didn’t reach far enough out into the university.
I wanted to create a leadership structure that would push decision-making farther out into the university. In looking for models to follow, I settled on a modified multi-campus university structure in which there is a system head (me), “chancellors” (our CEOs) and cabinets for each major administrative unit. We now have what might be considered three “campuses” – Residential Education, Non-Residential Education, and Wesley Seminary. Eventually we may find it advantageous to add a fourth – Global Education. These last two years we have focused on installing, understanding, and implementing this leadership structure.
Since about 2011 our enrollment patterns had become alarming. Residential enrollment was shrinking. Non-Residential enrollment growth was unpredictable and much more difficult to achieve. Enrollment matters to us for two primary reasons. First, our mission is to make the world a better place by developing students. Without students, our mission falters. Second, very pragmatically, our operations are funded almost exclusively through the tuition our students pay us. Simply put, without students we go out of business. I think this is entirely appropriate. We don’t exist to take care of a bunch of nice buildings in Marion and across the Midwest. Personally, I aspire for us to be more of a research university, but even so, we wouldn’t exist just for the creation and application of knowledge. We exist for students.
We have spent these last two years pouring great energy and thought into turning around our enrollment trajectories. The College of Arts and Sciences staff, faculty, and administrators have done stellar work in increasing retention and working together to recruit a larger incoming class. Wesley Seminary just hit the 500 mark in enrollment, and is now a top-20 seminary in the nation. Non-Residential Education had a very healthy year last fiscal year, but has faced some new challenges in the last few months. I have every confidence that they will work through those challenges. So, while enrollment will always be an interesting challenge, after two years of hard work I am beginning to gain some comfort that we have turned the corner on this challenge.
Two things happened in 2008 that amounted to a perfect storm for our financial health. First, we admitted the largest residential class in our history that fall – 100 more than any previous class. Those who were here in the 2000s will remember just how lean we were. In the mid-2000s we added more staff to ease the burden. We ramped up even more after that huge class in 2008. Second, the financial crisis of 2008 hit us. Enrollment in both Residential and Non-Residential units started to decline and Residential financial aid costs started to climb. We could not make up for stagnant revenue by increasing our tuition. People were already deeply concerned about the cost of college attendance. Meanwhile our bills were climbing. Left unchecked, this pattern (stagnant or decreasing revenue vs. increasing costs) would soon become perilous.
For the past two years we have worked very hard to reverse this pattern. No president likes to take things away. It is a lot more fun to add benefits, raise salaries, and add personnel. But for the last two years, I knew that we had to do the hard work that would lead to longer term financial health. I am deeply grateful for the cooperation of our university community for helping us in this work. We are now on our way to a much healthier future.
Whew! Congratulations if you’ve stuck with me through those three. Next, I’ll write about our diversity work, religious freedom issues, and our community relationships.