Named interim president of Shawnee State University in mid-September, the same day former SSU President Rick Kurtz resigned, during a recent interview, former SSU Provost Jeffrey Bauer didn’t hesitate to say the school he now heads has lost students and money.
However, Bauer also was quick to say he and university officials have decided SSU has things to offer and there are no plans to close up shop or even significantly downsize. He added there is no truth to rumors SSU is about to become a southern subsidiary of The Ohio State University or any other school.
“In terms of the pathways to a stable budget, we really had two options available,” Bauer said. “Either you decide that you’re just never going to be able to recover those students and you direct yourself towards institutionally getting smaller, downsizing… Or you make a determination that you still have advantages, competitive advantages as an institution…and you should expect to have enrollment growth and I think we’ve landed in the latter. We think we have a great thing going in this institution.”
How bad have things gotten for SSU? Just how many students and how much money have been lost? Bauer said in the 2011- 2012 school year, SSU had about 4,700 students. They are currently down to about 3,200.
“Especially this year, we had a major falloff in enrollment,” Bauer said.
Accompanying the drop in students, there also has, of course, been a drop in funding. Bauer said SSU’s overall budget tumbled from approximately $50 million a year to approximately $40 million a year. He did make the comment other schools in Ohio have seen similar drops in enrollment and budget. However, SSU clearly is one of Ohio’s smaller public universities. A school the size of, say, OSU, likely would not even feel a $10 million drop in funding.
At SSU, responding to the decrease in funding, over the last two years, officials have made some adjustments in programming. Bauer said SSU at one time offered over 80 academic programs, a number, which given the size of the school and the faculty resources available, was not sustainable. Bauer said officials have trimmed academic programs students were no longer supporting with their enrollment.
At the same time, SSU moved forward with what officials deemed needed capital improvements. Upgrades were completed to SSU’s gaming and plastics engineering facilities, for example. Both programs are seen by school leadership as unique niches for SSU. Bauer said the gaming program is especially a very strong one for SSU, ranked as one of the best in the country if not the world. Dollars also went for improving the school’s aquatic center (many local high schools use the facility and SSU will launch a swim team in 2019) along with some other buildings.
“We have great things available here on campus,” Bauer said.
While it might seem contradictory SSU is completing physical improvements at a time of declining enrollment and funding, Bauer said the school’s dollars come from two pots. One pot is operational money. The other consists of capital dollars handed out by the state in two-year cycles. Obviously, the capital dollars went into physical improvements. Bauer was quick to admit more such improvements are needed, that while the campus is in generally very good condition, there are buildings reaching the end of their physical usefulness barring some improvements or rehabilitation.
For the record, SSU is one of Ohio’s youngest secondary educational institutions, founded July 2, 1986.
“We’ve had 30 years of great results,” Bauer argued.
In addition to the gaming program, Bauer highlighted some of SSU’s medical or health science programs as some of its key strengths. SSU is not a medical school, but does offer several medical assisting programs, for example, along with occupational and physical therapy degrees. While it is a four-year school, Bauer noted SSU somewhat serves as a community college for southern Ohio. He further talked about attempting to attract what he termed “post traditional students,” primarily meaning online students.
“We have good reason to believe we can draw a lot of (those) students to this institution,” he said. “We’re going to bring up four completely online programs.” Bauer admitted there are lots of online universities out there, but he argued even most online students like to go to school close to home and he said SSU offers cost advantages other universities can’t match.
Given that SSU has lost students, where did those students go? Bauer and SSU spokesperson Liz Blevins stated a marketing study done by the school showed a large percentage of students who once expressed interest in attending SSU ended up joining the workforce instead of pursuing an academic degree. Bauer said SSU has no one particular rival institution. “It would be nice if we did,” he added, saying officials would know exactly who to sort of counter program.
Not entirely incidentally, Bauer’s title is for now officially “interim president.” However, he said when the SSU Board of Trustees offered him the president’s position, they made the decision not to open a search for a new president.
“They decided at this point, at this critical point in the institution’s history, that it was important we have some level of stability,” Bauer said. The trustees can always revisit that decision, but for now no one is looking for some other replacement for the departed Kurtz.
Prior to his appointment as president, Bauer served as Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs at Shawnee State for three years. He has been with the school for a total of over 30 years and also worked as Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Interim Dean for Research and Community Development, Interim Associate Provost and Chair of the Department of Natural Sciences. He became the first full-time faculty member in geology at SSU in 1987.