There have been a rash of schemes for “innovation” spreading through Ohio’s public and private colleges and universities. One of the latest is at the University of Akron.

A common theme among the so-called “innovative” plans, Akron’s included, is to restructure, focus on special programs, and to try to eliminate full-time faculty positions.

But these are very corporate approaches inappropriate in the academic context and fail to enhance the academic mission. Unfortunately, UA’s presidents and board of trustees over the years have seemed eager to fall for these “strategic” plans.

What they fail to recognize is that the economic engine for the state’s colleges and universities is undergraduate enrollment. Thus, having full-time faculty who have the time, space, and resources to help students is essential. Further, retention of those students is key to having them graduate and go on to careers. Full-time faculty are especially prepared to help with that goal. Focusing on strong undergraduate education, however, won’t get the top executives at our institutions many headlines or be much of a resume-builder for the next job. Yet, it is at the heart of what faculty do.

Instead, the focus is diverted on some shiny new thing – a new plan, new buzz words, a new building. Anything these mobile top executives can call “innovative” and use to pave the way to another highly-paid position somewhere else. So, again and again, we see growing administration, grandiose construction projects, and athletic departments that are financial black holes, while new “strategic” initiatives divert attention and take institutions on Wild Goose chases where some magic formula will be found to solve their problems.

But here is the truth about academic success: It is not that complicated. The answer is as old as Socrates. What you need is fine faculty working with students to educate them in small group environments where students can be challenged to read or calculate or debate or experiment and to think critically. None of the expensive bells and whistles our administrations or some education “reform” gurus are calling for changes those simple facts at all. And strong undergraduate programs can provide the revenue, if it is not diverted elsewhere, for quality graduate programs.

Akron has been, in some ways, uniquely distracted from these simple truths. Some years ago, one president wanted to transform the university into something entirely different, proposing that he was being visionary instead of foolish. Another president sunk an incredible amount of money into new construction on campus thinking that somehow concrete and glass would put students in the classrooms. More recently, “esports” has been seen as a financial salvation and, again, resources disappear off in a new direction as though playing games is a substitute for study.

While all this has been going, UA has been subsidizing an athletic program that loses massive amounts of money. UA subsidizes nearly 70 percent of the annual athletic budget – the highest in the state – and over $24.3 million in 2017-2018 alone. We can only imagine how much good could be done for the university if just $20 million were redirected to the academic mission. In fact, over the last five years, UA has covered a shocking $117.5 million deficit in athletics. That kind of revenue could have enormously enhanced UA’s academic mission over the years.

And now, instead of eliminating that deficit, we have this targeted buyout to 47 percent of the faculty to encourage those in the arts, humanities, and social sciences to retire as though somehow they are the problem. Of course, partly because of their low cost, these departments and their large enrollments are the financial heart of any university. Certainly, the University of Akron has some departments, especially in the STEM disciplines, that are unique strengths and deserve protection and investments. But to do so at the expense of the rest of the university seems, once again, a wrong-headed “innovative” strategy.

We encourage the Akron administration and board of trustees to reconsider the path down which they continue to go to the detriment of the university. Return to basics. Focus on the academic mission – full time faculty, small classes, a real university education. Similar problems exist at all of Ohio’s universities. The University of Akron could be model of reform. The people of the Ohio deserve it.

 

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