Nearly three years have passed since Scott Scarborough ended his short, tumultuous tenure as the president of the University of Akron. Much activity has ensued as the school has attempted to address its challenges, most notably, the enrollment decline and a structural deficit, now $45 million. Still, for all the time devoted to the academic program review, the review of administrative activities and the development of three-year action plans, the university appears in many ways still in the same place, failing to come together around an overall plan that defines its identity for the decade ahead.
Part of the problem has been timing. It surfaced again this week.
On March 6, John Green, the interim president for the past year, released a reorganization plan, including the creation of a combined College of Polymer, Chemical and Biological Sciences. On Tuesday, the email arrived, titled “Pause in reorganization,” Green encountering push-back. Part of the critical response asked: Why not wait until the completion of the current presidential search process, a selection possibly made by late summer?
The university has suffered from an absence of leadership. Green has made his best effort, yet the UA trustees have squandered time, notably during the detour with Matt Wilson, the interim and then briefly permanent president before Green. So there hasn’t been the presence necessary to drive and sustain a strategic plan. If anything, the influential provost has been a divisive figure.
The feedback concerning the reorganization is a reminder that the trustees have let slip an opportunity. The Scarborough debacle fueled much distrust in the university community, especially about the judgment of the trustees. The trustees have made some gestures in the right direction. Yet the divide remains, and the bad feeling doesn’t owe merely to those who resist change.
Practically everyone in Akron gets it. The university must change, or truly find a way to enhance its strengths and develop what is distinctive. The city and region cannot afford to see the school fall short. That should be impetus enough for drawing fully on the talent available at the university, especially in view of trustees who, again, are political appointees, typically landing on the board without much knowledge or understanding of higher education today.
That kind of capacity to rally people for the long term belongs high on the list of traits UA is seeking in a new president. Morale sags on campus because so many people feel left out, or consulted out of little more than appearance.
This isn’t to diminish the hard choices or that some do not accept change. The Plain Dealer and cleveland.com recently have examined the athletic programs at public universities in Ohio, finding, among other things, that UA spends $1,359 per student to subsidize athletics, the highest sum among the state schools. In pausing the reorganization to see whether the objectives could be achieved in a less disruptive way, John Green noted that past efforts along such lines have not succeeded or taken too much time. So if the university leadership adopts a more inclusive approach, all participants would have an obligation to address seriously the challenges. Perhaps this pause will surprise and prove productive.
More broadly, it would help if the Statehouse stepped up for higher education, which has suffered a decline in state support of 20 percent in real dollars the past decade. In the end, this is a University of Akron problem. Its many strengths amount to a promising opportunity for the next president. Yet the university won’t get to where it needs to be without rallying and engaging the campus community, especially the faculty. This is where UA hasn’t made needed progress the past three years.