Friday, August 9, 2013

Proenza and UA: Red Ink spreads the blues

 Rumors are always the juicier back story  of an institution's narrative.   It follows that the larger the institution,  the more sustained and embellished the rumor mill.

But in the matter of the University of Akron, the rumors were true.  President  Luis Proenza is relinquishing the throne.  And like some other campus chiefs these days - say, OSU's Gordon Gee - he will return with many of the accouterments that have attended his days in office.  Well, not quite so many as Gee's pot of gold out the revolving door but certainly enough to keep him in the style that he's accustomed to.

For the time being  however, before he comes back to the campus after finishing out a new school year and a sabbatical in 2114, Proenza will be the subject  of post-presidential analysis by friends, foes and don't-cares.

Clearly, his dedication to the bricks and mortar development of the campus to make it seem more like, um...a campus, has won him approval from those who see it as a turn-around landscape to attract more students when UA is desperately in need of a strategy to  reverse the serious decline in enrollment.  But so far it hasn't worked and instead has piled up new debt on top of the cost of old stuff, plus a bonded new football stadium.

Times are tough all around for today's state-supported campuses.  I doubt there are many conservative lawmakers in Columbus who want to spare classrooms of the burdens  of budget cuts.  The over-fed pols that I've met over the years already had their college degrees from the days when an education didn't force you didn't have several jobs to pay for tuition,  parking and a few pencils.

If tuition is out of reach for many young people, you must remember that Gov.Kasich is running for reelection next year boasting  of tax cuts and even leaner public spending.

Proenza not only tried to live with  red ink. The financial swamp deepened. It didn't help the public perception of UA  that during his tenure the rise of well-paid (six-figures) titled employes, including public relations operatives,  became commonplace.   When Proenza's critics raised questions about the university's priorities  that seemed more corporately-inspired  than academic with so much cash floating around at the top of the organizational charts,  there was little discernible response from the president's office.

Meantime,  enrollment was plunging,  poor graduation rates placed  UA near the bottom of the ladder and...well, eventually we had to accept that new $61.6 million football stadium that  was expected to lend pride and power to the gridiron hereabouts.

Even before Proenza's arrival, the elixir  for the grid program was the hiring of a high-cost "celebrity" coach"  - Jerry Faust,  with Notre Dame credentials.   (It didn't do much good down on the field.) The latest celebrity to arrive (in December 2011)  is former NCAA Coach of the Year Terry Bowden, whose team won one  game and  lost 11 in 2012 playing in the Mid-American conference.

Oh, should mention former Ohio State University Jim Tressel, now the glad-handing motivational "engager"  (read, fund-raiser) on the campus. (Among the current soaring rumors:  Tressel will replace Proenza,  which is so rumorish that I'll step aside from such wild speculation.)

You have read that faculty hours are being cut for budgetary reasons, and some part-time teachers have been shown the door. Fact:  UA leads all Ohio state universities with nearly 60 pct.  of faculty comprising the part-timers. Some supermarkets may boast of better ratios.

There's not much hope for the next two years. UA is now faced with up to a 7 percent decline in enrollment while $30 million is whacked out of the budget and maybe 100 more jobs are eliminated.

Some of the dark clouds were beyond Proenza's control;  but the debt has grown   worse over the years. One of the reasons university presidents are paid so well is that they are expected to lead the school to higher achievement.  And if things don't go as well as planned, they also will be held accountable.  You see some of that in the corporate world. Isn't that what we've been talking about?

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