University of Akron's Matt Wilson Sees a Turnaround Coming in Finances, Enrollment and Communication
The president of the University of Akron says the school he took over six months ago is starting to see a recovery in finances, enrollment and graduation rates. WKSU’s M.L. Schultze spoke with Matt Wilson after he outlined to the Akron Press Club today what the university is doing to recover from a tumultuous two years.
Wilson came to Akron in 2014 to head the university’s law school. But when the two-year tenure of President Scott Scarborough imploded last summer, Wilson was picked to take over. He says his early months have been focused on stabilizing the university’s relationships with faculty, students and the community, and on helping it recover from steep drops in enrollment and contributions.
Akron’s operating with an $18 million deficit this year, and faces another, smaller deficit next year.
“But with the planning we have in place in terms of a new scholarship system, revamping our graduate assistantship, looking at doing a whole host of conservation measures without harming the student experience, we have this two-year plan that will allow us to balance the budget in two years.”
Wilson says the buyouts will be voluntary and the university will be working out the details over the next month. He expects offers to be extended by March.
Meanwhile, the university is cutting some hefty administrative costs, including salaries it was still committed to pay to some of the top lieutenants under former President Scarborough. (Scarborough remains at the university under a contract that guarantees him 65 percent of what he was paid as president – a package that is costing the university $1.5 million through 2021.)
“Last year if you look at our budget, we reduced our operating expenses by $20 million. This year what you’re see is more and more of these large administrative salaries fall off,” Wilson said, though he didn’t have exact numbers.
“One of the things that I tried to do when I came in as president was to set an example in taking a compensation package that was far under market -- with the idea that we all need to band together right now, we need to be conservative.
Wilson says his priority at Akron is communication.
“It’s about connecting with the individual… connecting with everyone on a ... one-to-one basis: hearing what they have to say, understanding who they are and what their concerns are.
“And even at the end of the day, if the decision that you make isn’t consistent with the desire of, for example, a staff member or faculty member … they will know that you’ve taken the time to listen to them, to understand them, that you’ve done everything you can to try to support them.”
He says that lays the framework for unity.
Sanctuary and asylum
An issue colleges are dealing with nationwide is whether to become sanctuary campuses to protect students who may be undocumented immigrant. Wilson said given its other problems, the University of Akron hasn’t had time to consider that yet. But he did note that he spent 25 years in international education and “international education and globalization of our campus as one of our prongs of transformation.” So he expects the issue will come up.
Meanwhile the law school has established an immigration and asylum “to train our students in terms of immigration law and the practice of that type of law, but also to be assisting folks in the community as well.” It begins operating this semester.
Coy on scholarship details
Wilson would not provide details about an overhaul of the university’s scholarship program beyond saying it will be aimed at ensuring stability for students.
“My track record in terms of being in higher-ed leadership roles has been to try and take the uncertainty out of the scholarship process to invest in the student as we move forward.
“So you can look at seeing a new program that’s going to do just that, it’s going to remove the uncertainty from our scholarship process, invest in our students and find every way possible to keep them in school and get them graduated.”
Wilson said during his speech to the Press Club that the university’s graduation rate is lagging at about 40 percent. He said that’s in part because of the university’s open enrollment policy up until five or six years ago, and he plans to delve into issues ranging from finances to academics that keep students from graduating.