Features & Perspectives

This Perspective might also be called a "Halftime Report." Two years ago, the board of trustees and people of Lakeland agreed to an interim presidency that would last 12-18 months. Nine months in, I asked to extend the term of service and to do so with permanent rather than interim status. The rationale for that request, which you accepted, was that (1) prospective donors needed confidence that the vision they were hearing was long-term, and (2) the work we were doing together was too substantive and complex to risk a leadership change 12-18 months into this administration. The primary focus of this office was three-fold: (1) completing the capital campaign, (2) turning around declining enrollment in the traditional program and (3) turning around declining enrollment in the evening and online program.

That three-fold focus continues to drive my agenda, with the latter two elements consuming more time than the first because of the success of the (Un)Common Campaign and the lack of success in retaining students in both our traditional, evening and online programs. Note the reference to "retaining students." We actually have turned around the declines in new student enrollment in our programs, but we are one of the poorer performers among our benchmarked institutions in the critical area of retention. Therefore, our overall numbers are not yet what we agreed was a reasonable goal for the university when developing Lakeland's strategic plan.

Determined to reverse that longstanding retention pattern, I recently asked the board to plan on my staying into the spring semester of 2021 with the intent of LU's accomplishing that reversal by that time. I ask the same from you, on the assumption that the next two years of our four years of work together will see (1) new student and retained student goals achieved in the traditional program, (2) new student and retained student goals achieved in evening and online and (3) new modern residence halls to replace the five oldest halls on the campus, pursuant to LU Board and USDA approval. The substantial new scholarships and essentially new Younger Center that the Beth Borgen-led team funded in the campaign will combine with the new residence halls to influence student enrollment on the home campus, but those advancements alone will not solve our retention problems.

Let me say a word about the three strategic items listed in the previous paragraph, beginning with achieving overall enrollment goals in the traditional program. How might we complete this turnaround? The first turn of the wheel has already happened with the advent of Cooperative Education at LU, as evidenced by a 27 percent increase in this year's first-time, full-time students over last year's number. Projections for fall 2019 are for an increase over the fall 2018 number, with 71 percent of applicants seeking admission to the Cooperative Education program. But these successive increases will only keep enrollment where it is rather than where it would be if we retained students at the same rate as schools with student profiles like Lakeland's on the retention metric.

A strategic planning team of faculty, administrators and students will be addressing the retention problem this semester. The provost and deans have already been meeting on the problem with the intent of assisting that planning team. Also, a task force on residence life has recently submitted recommendations for improving that critical component of the Lakeland student experience, and the influence those recommendations could have on retention will be considered by planners. There is an obvious sense of urgency in this matter, so we will expedite the work of the strategic planning team in a way that finds it functioning intensively as a task force with a first draft of recommendations expected by March 31. We simply will not wait one day longer than we have to implement a Retention Intervention plan.

As to retention challenges in our evening and online program, analysis has indicated the following contributing factors: (1) "life's" occasional interruptions for working adults, (2) a regional economy that is demanding more time on the job for many employees and (3) marketing to enrolled Lakeland students by competitors whose general education requirements for transfer students with associate degrees have changed and now offer degrees more quickly and at a significantly lower total cost. Regarding item (3) above, we are confident that the general education transfer articulations developed by the Summer Study Group led by Dean Joshua Kutney will restore our competitive position in terms of required courses and cost. We are equally confident that the self-design (co-op type) course option developed by Dean Scott Niederjohn and colleagues will allow students to continue studies even during stressful periods, responding to concerns (1) and (2).

We also believe that those two dean-led changes will strengthen new student enrollment in our evening and weekend program, as will teaming with Fox Valley, Milwaukee Area Tech and Madison College to provide our programs on their campuses during daytime hours. Such a daytime initiative begs to be done since more than 80 percent of their students are day students who also work while attending college. Almost none of them transfers into Lakeland's evening classes immediately upon taking their associate degrees. We look forward to testing the hypothesis that they will continue studies by entering LU baccalaureate courses on their familiar campuses at habituated times. We are grateful to Jane Bouche for working with the three two-year colleges on this new initiative and expect her to succeed in that role, just as she did in the turning around new student enrollment in evening and online. As in several other significant cases, Lakeland will be the first university offering such an opportunity.

Lakeland's new residence halls initiative is being led ably by the team of Amy Wirtz and Rich Haen. Their objective is to secure long-term, low-interest funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Community Facilities Program to consolidate existing debt and construction costs, with an annual debt service obligation that LU could manage without impinging on existing educational activities. The task facing Rich and Amy is complicated by reams of regulations but, so far, we have met USDA expectations in each of three phases of the application process. Just imagine how much more compelling Lakeland's living environment will be if students' options are all Brotz Hall-like rather than in the five existing halls that are almost as old and decrepit as the author of this note!