VOICES: Change comes to higher education — and to UD, too

Once reserved for the arcane higher education press, headlines about the considerable challenges colleges and universities face have become a mainstream drumbeat.

They announce mergers and closures in the wake of a shrinking number of traditional college-age students, a trend projected to continue for two decades. They trumpet controversies over free speech; ideological diversity; and diversity, equity and inclusion. They give voice to concerns about affordability, the lack of price transparency on too many campuses, and the bungled rollout of a new FAFSA form that has harmed millions of students.

This has contributed to a stunning decrease in confidence in higher ed – a new low of 36% of Americans have a high degree of confidence according to a 2023 Gallup poll. We see the fallout everywhere: some smaller schools have recently shut their doors, some large flagships are facing daunting financial difficulties, and belts are being tightened across every sector of higher ed.

The universities that will survive – and thrive – in this challenging era are those that embrace change, far too often an unmentionable word on campuses. But every other industry — health care, IT, automotive, telecommunications, etc. — has transformed itself when the market changed. We must do the same.

At UD we began serious conversations with faculty and staff about the pressures on our operating model even before the pandemic. Like all of higher education, we fought to enroll, educate and graduate students during those two disruptive years. Our talk of transformation – why, what and how – intensified this past year, with multiple meetings with faculty and staff, key leadership, advisory and governance groups, and our board of trustees.

Some of our changes will be subtle, and others more visible, with all focused on our mission, values and priorities as a Catholic and Marianist university that prizes its ability to graduate leaders for the common good and values its roles as an anchor institution and as an engine of opportunity.

For instance, we intentionally have begun to shrink our undergraduate student body – by about 10-15%, back to 2012 levels. This is partly in response to demographic changes, but it’s also a move to foster the rich connections between faculty and students, strengthen our already-high graduation rate of 82%, and continue to prioritize access for middle-class and lower-income families. More than 21% of our incoming class is now Pell-eligible, an indication that we’re opening our doors more widely, particularly in the Dayton region. With a smaller student body, UD will become a modestly smaller university with a reduced cost structure and a smaller employee base that will be achieved through a recently completed retirement incentive plan and other attrition.

On the curricular front, we are working to adapt our offerings, including sunsetting low-demand graduate programs, while maintaining others that are deeply connected to our mission, have high demand and quality, and differentiate a UD degree. We will continue to invest strategically in innovative programs as we enrich the undergraduate experience to provide every student with deep mentorship that supports their success and meaningful, hands-on learning opportunities before they graduate. Additionally, UDRI, with an annual sponsored research volume that skyrocketed from $85 million to $240 million over the last decade, will continue to grow.

Change is hard, and we understand it asks a lot of our talented faculty and staff, but with a focus on our mission and our higher purpose as a faith-based university, we face our future with confidence and from a position of strength. Our credit rating agencies affirmed our ratings as financially stable this year; our reserves form a healthy part of our growing long-term investment pool; and while our annual operating margin has shrunk, we have avoided budget deficits that are more common than ever in higher education. Our “We Soar” fundraising campaign is nearing its goal with still a year to go, with generous donors creating new opportunities for students by supporting scholarships, hands-on learning experiences, curricular innovations and more.

As we adapt, we will continue to invest in the future through selective hiring across campus, physical plant improvements, access programs such as Flyer Promise and the UD Sinclair Academy, and partnerships that provide value to our students and strengthen our role as an anchor institution, including The Hub Powered by PNC Bank, Greater West Dayton Incubator, and the onMain development with our partner, Premier Health. Since the University’s founding in 1850, the Marianists have valued community and community building. The city’s name is part of our name and serves as a deep bond and reminder that we are building a shared future.

For nearly 175 years, the University of Dayton, in the Marianist spirit, has educated for adaptation and change and has often modeled those ideals. UD’s mission will remain our true north as we evolve further to meet current demands and transform for the times.

Eric F. Spina is the President of the University of Dayton.

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