Plans to cut 113 faculty positions at Wright State University over the next several years are meant to keep the university on par with a problem Ohio’s higher education institutions are facing - dropping enrollment.
Wright State President Susan Edwards recommended the faculty positions be cut due to declining student enrollment that has occurred over the past five years and is projected to continue at least two more years. The university says it is cutting faculty to align with projected enrollment declines.
Greg Lawson, a Research Fellow with the Buckeye Institute, an independent think tank that works on higher education in Ohio, said Ohio universities were already facing enrollment challenges and those were made worst by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Wright State, and all other schools, were already facing a competitive landscape. Students are looking hard at their choice of schools and asking whether attending them makes sense economically.
“You hear a lot about the student debt crisis, and of course now with COVID, and with some of the enrollment challenges that universities are having as a result of that, you know it’s not surprising that folks are looking to find out if this is really where they’re going to get what they want,” Lawson said.
Wright State has seen about a 30% decline in enrollment overall in the last five years, according to the university. But attracting first-year students has been a particular problem: First-year undergraduate student enrollment has declined by 53% since 2015.
Part of the problem is fewer high school students are graduating from Ohio high schools. The National Center for Education Statistics projected the number of public high school graduates in Ohio to be at least 5% lower in 2021-2022 than in 2008-2009. The trend toward fewer high school graduates is expected to continue through most of the 2020s.
Bruce Johnson, president of the Inter-University Council of Ohio, which represents the state’s 14 public universities, said many universities are struggling with declining enrollments due to the COVID pandemic and the short- and long-term decline in high school graduation numbers in Ohio.
“You have to right-size the institution. You have to analyze your likely student population, the degrees they’re likely to pursue and determine whether or not that’s the product mix you’re providing them. If it’s not, you have to adjust,” said Johnson, a former lawmaker and former lieutenant governor.
Johnson said he expects Wright State to focus on its strengths but anticipates it’ll maintain its status as a four-year university that offers a broad-based education.
High school graduation numbers aren’t expected to turn around until 2027, he said.
Jeff Robinson, a spokesman for the Ohio Department of Higher Education, said Ohio universities will have to attract out-of-state students to keep their enrollment numbers up, based on the decrease of Ohio high school graduates. He said Ohio has become a net importer of students, with approximately 6,000 more students coming to Ohio for college rather than leaving Ohio, according to Ohio Department of Higher Education numbers.
“Students must also be given the confidence and encouragement to pursue postsecondary education, and then we must continue our efforts to retain those students once they begin,” Robinson said.
How does Wright State plan to increase enrollment?
Wright State says that it must continue to attract students, especially first-year students. In documents released this week the University plan included not just staff cuts but also investment in recruitment - particularly for students interested in nursing, computer science and engineering.
Wright State was created to meet the workforce needs of the Dayton region, Edwards said during a meeting Friday in which she briefed the university’s board of trustees on the plan. Nursing and engineering are two fields she said where the Dayton region needs more workers, she said.
“Nursing is a prime example of an area that this region is constantly calling out to us to improve,” she said.
Many of the proposed cuts would affect the College of Liberal Arts and the College of Science and Mathematics, which are two of the colleges with the most faculty members at the university.
The colleges where cuts over time were not proposed as part of the plan released Friday are the College of Nursing and Health, the Boonshoft School of Medicine and the School of Professional Psychology. The medical school and psychology school faculty are not part of the faculty union. Wright State’s Lake Campus in Mercer County has expanded enrollment, the university said, so no cuts were planned there. Wright State also forecasts an increase medical student enrollment.
In addition to focusing recruitment efforts on specific majors, Edwards said the university has further plans to support enrollment. The plans include:
- Contacting former students who are within 12 credit hours of completing their degrees
- Working with local community colleges, particularly Clark State College and Sinclair Community College, to get students who are working on their associate’s degrees to consider further education into a bachelor’s degree
- Expanding the number of students with disabilities who are interested in higher education.
“I am a glass half-full kind of person, and I do believe that this community, I know this university, has the people who realize that this region relies upon Wright State. And if we work together, we can change the tide,” Edwards said.
Jeff Hoagland, president and chief executive of the Dayton Development Coalition, views Wright State as “critical” to the Dayton area’s “workforce education infrastructure.”
“The vast majority of Wright State students stay in the region once they graduate, and many of their degree programs are closely aligned with the needs of our major employers,” Hoagland said. “Wright State’s graduates help our region build a strong workforce pipeline for employers such as LexisNexis, Reynolds and Reynolds, and Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. The university’s Lake Campus works closely with major employers in our region’s northern counties, as well.”
Trustees on Friday approved Edward’s request for the school to first offer an employee voluntary separation incentive program. That would seek to reduce faculty positions first through attrition.
As of Saturday, specific cuts have not yet been announced. Noeleen McIlvenna, president of the AAUP-WSU, the unionized faculty at Wright State, and a professor of American history, said she doesn’t know when the specific announcements of cuts will come, but she expects them to begin in upcoming weeks.
McIlvenna said while the board has said the cuts are about sizing the university faculty to the size of the students and not about budget issues, she doesn’t believe that’s the case. She said the university is expecting a $7 million surplus in the 2021 fiscal year, though revenue from enrollment is down.
“What’s the best education you can afford to give your students?” she said. “If you are making a surplus you can afford to give them smaller classes as opposed to cramming people into big classes with fewer teachers.”
According to Wright State budget figures released recently, the surplus came from unexpected revenue sources: the sale of a downtown Dayton building, higher-than-expected returns on stock market investments and additional federal funding the school received from the COVID-relief bill the CARES Act.
McIlvenna said Wright State faculty had done a fantastic job of switching to online learning over the summer and the university had done a great job of preventing COVID-19 outbreaks. Hearing trustees talk about “excess faculty” was hurtful.
“Hundreds of people are very, very anxious,” she said. “People are upset, they feel unvalued, when they’re doing the good work.”
Laura M. Luehrmann, Wright State Faculty Senate President, which represents all faculty, and a political science professor, asked the board to also find ways to mitigate cuts.
“Please help me and my faculty colleagues trust that as you consider these grave decisions about faculty, which will ultimately impact academic programs and the opportunities we provide for the students and region, that you will exercise every bit of care, judiciousness, and foresight so that we may continue our essential mission as a community of educators,” she said.
Kaylee Raines, a senior majoring in English, said this week she is frustrated that liberal arts professors seem to be bearing the brunt of the cuts.
Raines said she wants to teach English abroad. But the Teaching English as a Foreign Language summer certificate classes, a reason she picked Wright State, have already been cut. She is now reconsidering if she wants to stay at Wright State for her master’s degree.
“All majors and faculty have worked diligently and chosen the field they feel best suits their career choices, so it’s disappointing to see another incident where Liberal Arts students/faculty take the brunt of the damage in this situation,” she said.
The university says no student should face delays in finishing their degrees. D. K. Adrian Williams, Wright State student body president and a neuroscience major, said he knows the university has a plan in place to prevent any delays in students getting their degrees.
“It is far too early to determine the exact effects of these decisions right now, but as a student I am confident that all parties involved will do everything in their power to ensure the quality of our education is maintained, as they always have,” Williams said.
Kaitlin Schroeder and Tom Gnau contributed to this report.
By the numbers:
Maximum cuts to Wright State University faculty positions: 113
Number of students in Fall 2017: approx. 17,000
Number of students in Fall 2020: approx. 12,000
Projected number of students in 2023: Approx. 9,000
(Note: Students includes graduate, undergrad and professional schools)
Previous provost’s recommended cuts to the university faculty:
College of Education and Human Services: 12
College of Engineering and Computer Sciences: 12
College of Liberal Arts: 49
College of Nursing and Health: 0
College of Science and Mathematics: 26
Raj Soin College of Business: 14