The installation of Eric F. Spina, as the 19th president of the University of Dayton, was held at UD Arena Tuesday. Spina, who became UD’s president July 1, 2016, succeeds Daniel J. Curran. LISA POWELL / STAFF
Photo: Lisa Powell
Photo: Lisa Powell

A conversation with Eric Spina: diversity, Arcade, onMain, UD’s future

As he looks forward this summer to his third anniversary as president of the University of Dayton, Eric Spina met recently with editors and reporters from the Dayton Daily News to talk about where the school stands on several key initiatives, and where he wants to lead it. Topics ranged from enrollment trends to student diversity to UD’s part in the redevelopment of the historic downtown Arcade, where it was announced last week that the university has signed on to co-create an innovation center for students and others in the community. Today we share a transcript of Spina’s conversation with us, edited for length. To learn more about UD and Premier’s plans for the onMain project, visit — Ron Rollins, community impact editor

Thanks for meeting with us today. I want to touch upon four areas at UD, things we are working on — they’re pretty broad, but they’re all really important to us. First is outcomes – what students do when they leave here. Next is enrollment, and trends there. Third is research, the nexus of research and economic development. Finally, the idea of UD as an anchor institution.

What outcomes can students families expect?

On outcomes, here are some statistics hot off the press. We spent six months looking at the previous year’s graduating class and from 2018, 97 percent of the students are doing what they want to be doing — either working in their chosen field, in graduate school or some kind of chosen service. That’s a good number we are proud of. We’re a private institution with a high tuition, so you want to be able to look parents in the face and say, Junior has pretty good prospects when he leaves.

Importantly, our graduation rate continues to go up and our level of student indebtedness continues to go down. Six years ago UD instituted a new tuition plan that did away with all fees of all kinds. Other schools advertise fixed tuition, but they still have a lot of fees that you’ll see rise year to year. We have no fees whatsoever, so that when a family sits down with us to determine the appropriate financial aid package, they will leave knowing what they are going to pay across the board. I can brag about this because I had nothing to do with it.

So there is an expectation that the graduation rate would go up and the financial situation would improve – we have seen that now with two cohorts that have graduated. So we are really pleased that what expected to happen is happening — that we have a plan for families that really works, and can provide real opportunities for students to succeed.

All universities have come a long way on transparency – I’m a critic of what univerisities have done the last 20 years, sort of playing hide the ball on tuition and costs. It leads to too many bad outcomes. All universities have gotten better, but I think UD is leading the way nationally on this.

Enrollment: Focusing on grit and diversity

On enrollment, we’re now bringing in between 2,000 and 2,100 undergraduate students a year, and this year we’re again seeing record quality by traditional metrics — SATs, ACTS, GPA, class rank, etc. We’re looking for someone who will not only benefit from our Catholic Marianist tradition, but will also contribute to the community — so we are increasingly paying more and more attention to the essays, the recommendation letter. We want to make sure we are building a class that will succeed, that reflects our values. So we may take a kid with lower SATs who has shown an ability to overcome challenges – perhaps whose father died when he was a freshman in high school, or who has worked three jobs, or started their own business in high school. So we’re looking for students who have shown that grit and determination that every college kid needs these days.

We’re also very focused also on getting a very diverse class. The most important factors there are socio-economic and racial diversity. If you have socio-economic diversity, then you will have kids from every background — kids from the farm, city, African-American families. We’ve spent a lot of time on it, with some signature programs. We are proud of being in a leadership position on the American Talent Initiative, a program originally seeded by Michael Bloomberg and his philanthropies, and now driven by the Aspen Institute. I’ve been asked to sit on the steering committee with the presidents of the University of Washington, Davidson, Princeton and Ohio State. That’s good company for UD to be in, and the focus is on lower-income students and providing better access to higher education. 

Every school will challenge itself and set its own goals. Ours is around our percentage of Pell-eligible students, decreasing the differential between lower-income students and others in terms of the graduation rate, working with community colleges, and supporting veteran enrollment and success. We will share best practices, work together and try different pilots. It’s one of the most unique things I’ve seen in higher education in years. All the presidents focus on how can we have the best environment for students, but also what can we do to shrink this inequality gap around the country. From a UD perspective, being involved and seen as a leader in these conversations puts us in a very different place.

So we have been actively recruiting lower-income students for our Flyer Promise program for several years – 49 and 42 in the last two years, and we’ll enroll more than 50 or 55 this coming year, and all of them are still on campus. These are really talented kids, they really bring up the quality of our student body and they don’t need remedial help or academic support — but they need, for want of the right term, socio-cultural support. These are kids whose parents have never thought of college, don’t know how navigate conflicts with the institution, or how and when to ask for help. So that program is very successful. The Dayton Early College Academy and Chaminade-Julienne are the schools that have the most students in that program.

The other real signature is the UD-Sinclair Academy. It’s a great partnership with Sinclair Community College, which you know is one of the best in the country. Students from there are terrific. This academy has grown rapidly. Last year we had 85, 90 students enter the academy, this year so far we have almost 200 in the pipeline. We really love community college transfers — they’ve shown they can succeed, and they have the degree to prove it. The unique thing here is that when a Sinclair student is in the academy, they know they are really students of both institutions – they know their financial aid package from UD two years ahead of time; they have a UD ID card. Some of them are in the band. There is one of them in his first year at Sinclair doing undergraduate research at UD in the biology department. So they really are members of the community.

We are also working very hard on attracting international students and engaging more at the graduate level. We don’t envision growing the size of our undergrad enrollment, but at the master’s level it can and will grow.

Research: the place where ideas and development meet

The third thing I’ll talk about is research. As much as we think we know the UD Research Institute, it’s a hidden gem with an extraordinary staff. UD is different from most universities — we do a lot of research that I would call curiosity-driven: “Geez, I wonder why?” type of work that we pursue without any notion of whether it will matter to anyone, or make a difference in how you bottle water, or create a widget, or what have you. And it’s important to have that sort of folks on a college campus. We also have folks working on a problem that needs to be solved in three months for a company, or for the Air Force, or what have you, and given that our undergrad and graduate students are research assistants on these projects, that whole spectrum of work provides them with a strategic advantage — the knowledge that yes, there are big questions we need scholars to figure out, but there are also things that we need to solve today.

So UD last year did $150 million worth of sponsored research. For our size, that is extraordinary. This year I expect we will do at least $175 million, may be north of there. UDRI’s leadership team has done a lot of hard work to be seen as a place that can solve problems and develop solutions to lots of different sort of things. Think of economic impact – I would maintain neither GE nor Emerson would be located next our campus without UDRI, which itself has over 600 employees. That has doubled over 10 years, and these are good-paying jobs that matter.

An ‘anchor institution’ that reaches far into the community

The last thing I want to touch on is UD as an anchor institution. I would not be here if did not see a university that cared deeply about the community, that thought a lot about the community, that sees part of its role is to actively engage with the community – and that the community is valued. My fiduciary responsibility is to the students, so my decisions need to be good for them. I also recognize we live in a city, we are part of a city – if it’s a city that good staff and good faculty don’t want to move to, I’ll have trouble hiring. And if it’s a city that when families visit they don’t have a good place to eat, and they don’t have entertainment opportunities and there isn’t a good hotel to stay in, Junior may not want to come to school here. So in my mind there are multiple reasons that we should be doing things in the city.

One is to make certain the city is a place that the university is proud of and can be a selling point – and it is. But there are also many engagement points where our students and faculty can work together with community members and add value, but also get value. Talk to our students who are engaged, whether at Mission of Mary farm, or a local internship, or in West Dayton, or in the city schools — these are kids who are better than they would be, if they just sat in the classroom, so that engagement makes our education better. When I talk about my fiduciary responsibility to the students, part of that is seeing that they get out there among people who are different from them, to learn the lessons that you learn. Some are hard, some are fun but it’s really really important.

Very little, maybe nothing, that we are doing in the community are we doing alone. 

So when we talk about onMain, the former fairgrounds site, we wouldn’t have done that without Premier. Obviously it’s a property that matters to both of us, and we think we can bring value there. We are not going to do things there meant to extract maximum return over a short period of time. I tell the board it may be a 150-year return that UD gets from that space. We’re going to be thoughtful. Development there may take up to 10 or 15 years — possibly less if we see opportunities emerge sooner. But it’s not a mindset of let’s do something on these 38 acres right away because we have to. We chose the name “onMain” very carefully – a place-based situation where people are going to work on Main, play on Main, learn on Main. You can expect this spring see demolition on the site, some time soon letting a contract for site design. If things go well, in 2020 you might see some dirt moved around, probably for infrastructure. In 2021, you’ll probably see something built – I would expect the first building will be a kind of signature building that will not have just one tenant, but might include a bit of UDRI, or a tech group from Premier, and would be a catalyst or an attractant to a going business, maybe someone who would want to partner with GE or Emerson and would see value in the proximity to those two buildings. But we want to see it bring new jobs to the area, and we think tech companies make the most sense. We want it to ultimately be a place where everyone in the region sees it as a place for them.

With the Arcade, people who really care about the city see it as a thermometer – how are we really doing? So from the beginning, we’ve been excited by the possibilities there. It’s a very complex deal. We will be a tenant, a lot of faculty, staff, students are really excited about it. The joint venture, UD and TEC, the Entrepreneurs Center, will have about 100,000 square feet, maybe 15,000 of that academically oriented — we will move our entrepreneurship program there, and have some art and design and engineering classes there. Most of the space will be wide open as an innovation and co-working hub – where people can rent work spaces and interact with others in an innovation ecosystem to develop ideas and projects. Faculty, staff or students from UD, or Wright State or Sinclair or Clark State who have an idea or a skill, who want to partner with others, create a venture, create value in the community in same way — we think it’s a great opportunity for our students. Again, my responsibility is to our students, and I think getting them down there will be life-changing for them. We hope it will benefit everyone.

What are the selling points for the region?

My wife and I were in Syracuse for almost 25 years, and when you leave a place after that long for a new community, you worry you’ll never have a home again. And within two months of being here, we felt this was home — the way we were welcomed by people, the way people care about the community. So I think the No. 1 selling point for Dayton has to be the quality of people and the quality of interactions they have, in a caring supportive way. We talk a lot at UD about building community, and I think that is true for the Dayton region as well.

We have been blown away by the quality of the arts. We recently went to a Dayton Contemporary Dance Company concert where DCDC was hosting dance groups from around the nation, and it was the most extraordinary thing I’ve seen on stage in my entire life. In Dayton. The symphony, the ballet, the arts that happen at Wright State and UD, the arts here are really significant.

And third, the quality of what you can do here in the outdoors. Mention the bike trails, and my wife will wax poetic. I think people are increasingly seeing the river as something that can be a friend, not a foe.

And then just the history of the region, the more you learn about it, the more extraordinary it is, and you can connect it to things that are going on today. So I think there is a lot going on for us; I think certainly the worst times are behind us.

That said, there are parts of the community that are struggling, and that feel left behind – and at UD we are thinking about the role we have to play to make certain its is not just segments of the community that come back, but that it’s all of us.

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