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President Leahy on Drafting a New Strategic Plan

President Patrick Leahy, Ed.D., informed the student government of the formation of a new Strategic Plan for the University last Wednesday, Sept. 25.

Student-senators inquired about how the plan would address tuition, inclusion and safety on campus, and residential living. 

Following the session, The Outlook organized a one-on-one meeting with Leahy to inquire about the Strategic Plan’s role of administration, fiscal sustainability, and its approach to higher education.

The following is a series of questions and answers from that meeting, this Monday, Sept. 30: 

Would you support having more than just two students to serve on the Strategic Planning committee, as well as including students on committees where they are not currently represented by their peers at all?  

“Of course I would consider it; I think we were pretty deliberate about naming two students to the Strategic Plan committee. I think there’s only going to be about 10 or 12 members anyway so we thought it was proportional representation. But, I guess I would be open to it if the student government wants to make a recommendation.”

Would you say that we take a top-down approach to University operations and do you see yourself using this frame of mind as you begin to draft and implement your own Strategic Plan?

“I think that, while I’m the president, there will certainly be leadership from the top, but my leadership style is very collaborative; so I think that style will engage all the different constituents of the University into decision-making so I can ensure that the people who are working here and are closest to the action have plenty of say in the decisions before we make them…that’s the style that I think I’ll bring to the university, as evidenced by the new staff council initiative that I will be rolling out. That’s an attempt to try to make sure we have staff members providing regular input into decision making like how we have with the faculty council.” 

I’ve spoken with former President Dimenna about the creation of these new administrative levels that had stemmed from the Strategic Plan under President Brown in 2014.  When comparing current operational charts and ones from previous years, many operations under “Vice President of Academic Affairs/Provost” had either been occupied by Deans or simply did not exist. Would you consider trimming administration in order to return to the University’s previous structure?

“I mean, to be honest, as a new president who is only seven weeks on the job, I think I will be looking at potentially restructuring the administration to ensure we are doing everything we can to serve our students best. I wasn’t here when some of those positions were created; I want to be respectful to the decision-making process that might have gone into establishing those. I think that the good opportunity for me as a new president, I get to spend some time trying to assess whether I think the organization is the best structure where I think the university needs to go. So the short answer is: yeah, I’ll consider looking at it, but I want to be respectful to predecessors who made those decisions at that point in time.”

Before the Strategic Plan in 2014, Monmouth’s operational budget had been 91 percent student-dependent. Following its implementation, we have increased to 94 percent. I believe this model of depending on students and their families to carry the burden of operating the University is not only fiscally irresponsible, but immoral. How do you intend for your own Strategic Plan to be fiscally responsible and sustainable?

“Look, we’re going to be tuition-dependent as far as the eye could see; we’re just not going to be able to raise money quickly enough to grow our endowment robustly enough to decrease our reliance on tuition. It’s just a fact. We have a $100 million endowment, which may seem like a lot but as you know, it’s not compared to other institutions who can claim to be less reliant on tuition…I think the key is can we make sure that what we’re asking you and other students and your families to pay is considered worth the price of what you’re getting. And, that’s a fair question and we’re going to work extremely hard to try to make sure to keep the increases as modest as possible; and then to ensure that we keep raising as much scholarship money as we can to flood the system so that we can try to make the net price of what students are paying as reasonable as possible…Our goal in the Strategic Plan will be how do we continue to make Monmouth University the highest value option among our peer set of schools?”

“Remember, value is not syn­onymous with costs; value is a function of price: what you pay for something, and quality, what you get for that price. So I think what we’re going to be focused on in our Strategic Planning pro­cess is how to ensure that we’re doing what we can, making the necessary investments, trim­ming the necessary costs, raising the necessary scholarship money to make Monmouth University the highest value option we can make it…It’s a complex mix of factors to create a high value op­tion.”

Another factor taken into consideration in how Universi­ties are ranked is their endow­ment and alumni participation. So, going back to securing the alternative funding and grow­ing the endowment, what are some ways you intend to secure alternative funding resources, as well as increase our endowment?

“A major focus of our Strate­gic Plan, when it is fully devel­oped, and we’ll spend this year fully developing it, there will be major capital campaign as a part of it to try to raise resources from individuals who see in our work a really important philanthropic opportunity, so we will of course continue to try to raise endow­ment money so that we can give ourselves more resources to give students more scholarships. How will we do that, what is the most logical constituency to go for that philanthropic support? It’s our tens of thousands of al­ums that we have at Monmouth. Only a small portion, as you rightly point out, give to their in­stitution right now and we need to grow that number. I think it’s an interesting thing because one way that third parties mea­sure alumni satisfaction is how many of your alums give back to the university. Well, I need to make more of a case to our al­ums that if you were satisfied at Monmouth, if you had a positive experience, or you are in the job and the career of your choice and you give Monmouth even a little bit of credit for that, if not full credit for that, the one way you can signal to individuals that you enjoyed your experience and are satisfied, you can make a dona­tion to the annual fund…”

In the SGA meeting last Wednesday, my colleagues in the Senate raised the point of Monmouth’s high tuition. [More than] two-thirds of the operating budget goes to com­pensation. National inflation was relatively low this past year, averaging 2.44 percent. Even accounting for increased salaries, our tuition increased greater than the inflation rate did this April, at 3.85 percent. Are these increases sustainable and will you take this sustain­ability into consideration in your Strategic Plan, and how?

“I’ll just reiterate that in the Strategic Plan, our goal will be to ensure that we remain a very sought-after option by students and the way you do that is to try to figure out how do we make what we ask students and their fami­lies to pay as valuable as possible. So, there will be a joint focus in our Strategic Plan on how do we keep what we charge as reason­able as possible and then add as much value to that cost as pos­sible so you that look at it and say, ‘I could go to a lower cost option for $X, and this is what I’d get for that.’ Or you could come to Monmouth and we might make you pay a premium over the low cost option, but my hope would be that you’d look around and see the interaction you have with fac­ulty members and you’d see the wealth of extracurricular activi­ties that we offer, and say, ‘I think that may be worth the incremen­tal expense to attend a place like Monmouth verses a low cost op­tion.’ So we’re going to be very focused on that because with the demographics changing in the coming years, we have to make sure we’re doing everything we can to build demand in the seats here at Monmouth. Part of that will be sensitivity to what we charge; part of that will be sensi­tivity to what we offer students.”

In your interview with Tom Bergeron on the ‘untapped po­tential’ of Monmouth, you said that you do not see “a lot of growth opportunities at the un­dergraduate side,” and therefore intend to focus on the graduate programs. What are some ways you see your Strategic Plan ful­filling this initiative, and how will it be different from what previous administrations have been doing? For example, if the market is trending toward grad­uate programs, why wouldn’t Monmouth invest in its under­graduate programs to lead that market instead, and give greater incentive to attend our college?

“I think it’s unfair to suggest that I’m going to focus on gradu­ate programs at the expense of undergraduate programs. Abso­lutely not. We will continue to focus on ensuring that we are enhancing the experience of our largest group of students, which is the traditional, residential un­dergraduate students. I think what maybe Tom Bergeon was getting at is do I see growth poten­tial with the undergraduate student body, no I do not; I see growth po­tential with graduate students. But that does not mean that somehow the university is going to reorient itself to graduate programming at the expense of undergraduate pro­grams.”

“When you say ‘growth,’ what you mean is enrollment? It’s just sort of a misnomer then.”

“Yes, exactly. Enrollment growth. He was asking if I saw any enrollment growth and I said no, in fact the demographics are going to get tougher from which to enroll students. So we have to, on the contrary, be doubly focused on ensuring that we are offering the highest value undergraduate ex­perience because it’s going to get more competitive to attract stu­dents here when really fine schools all around the state and all around the region are focused on a fewer number of traditional 18-19-year-old undergraduate. So we will be totally focused on that. If I see opportunity on the marketplace where we are not serving graduate students and we think we could serve them well, we will look at adding those. And I don’t think that’s different from my predeces­sors; we have added some gradu­ate programs in the health sciences and I support that entirely because if you ask healthcare systems what kind of professionals do you need? They will say we need nurses, and we need physicals therapists, and we need athletic trainers and occu­pational therapists; and they need that for years to come. So I think it’s wise of us as an institution to say there are certain programs we want to educate students and get them prepared for those roles. There will clearly be a dual focus on undergraduate students and on graduate students.”

How much do you expect stu­dents in Monmouth’s five-year programs will contribute to en­rollment in graduate programs? Because securing the undergrad­uate program would be essential in this measure.

“I don’t know how much five-year programs will play in this. To be honest, I just don’t know well enough, Nick, how many we have, or how well-subscribed they are right now. I like the idea. One of the reasons I like the idea of a five-year program is, let’s say someone can stay here an extra year and get an MBA, and be well-prepared to get a job in business, I would love to get that student more comfort­able studying English literature or history, or sociology or psy­chology, traditional humanities or liberal arts degree that maybe they would be reluctant to study if they had to take that out into the marketplace and try to convince someone in business to get a job. But if you had all of the skills that come with that degree and then add an M.B.A. on top of it, now I think you have a student who is extraordinarily well-prepared for the challenges and complexities that he or she is going to face in their career. So I’d like us to look at more 4+1 sort of programs; I just don’t know how many we have or how well-subscribed they are.”

Do you intend to increase out-of-state student enrollment?

“We’ll have little choice but to try to enroll students from a wider geographic area. Right now, 75 percent of our students as you probably know are from New Jersey. And I’m happy to have 75 percent; I would like to have 80 percent. I want more New Jersey. In fact, I want our value proposition at Monmouth to be so strong that fewer people leave the state and stay here right in state; and consider coming to Monmouth verses leaving and going to Pennsylvania, or New York, or Maryland. So I want to do that, but with the demograph­ics in the state shrinking, we have little choice but to try to find ways to recruit the markets near us. I don’t think we will all of a sudden start recruiting students from California easily, but we might be able to do some things to recruit more aggressively in Pennsylvania or Maryland, Vir­ginia, some of the more-or-less surrounding states. I think that will be good because it will en­sure we have the kind of enrollments that we want to try to cre­ate the community we want.”

Well, thinking nationwide, we do have the Polling Institute and the Urban Coast Institute; I think those would be good ways to utilize and highlight the institutions at Monmouth that would attract students nation-wide. Would you agree with that?

“That’s one of the principle reasons I wanted to come to Monmouth; I think there’s great work being done here. We have first-rate faculty and you can’t have a great university without first-rate faculty. We have them here and I think what we need to do is to find ways to, as I always say, shine a spotlight on that in­credible work that’s being done here. The Polling Institute allows us to do that because of the expo­sure it brings Monmouth; the Ur­ban Coast Institute allows us to do that because of hopefully the exposure it brings to Monmouth; the Bruce Springsteen archives we have here hopefully brings recognition to Monmouth Uni­versity that shines a spotlight on the great work that is done here. Our first-class athlet­ics programs, designed to be a program that shines a spotlight on our academic programs, so I sense that there is a lot that Monmouth has to offer to gain us greater exposure and I’m not sure we’ve fully tapped that yet.”

Final question, again back to your interview with Tom Bergeron, you also said, “Higher educational institu­tions should rightly act like a business: Where are the holes in the marketplace, and are we equipped to meet them…” Do you find this ideology to view higher education less as an investment in transforma­tive learning and more an ex­change of financial transac­tions, whereby those who study are seen more as customers/ clients rather than as students?

“No I don’t agree with the premise of the statement. Ev­ery organization on earth…has to make sure that they generate more revenue than they spend in expenses, lest they seize to be sustainable, right, in the long run. So I certainly look at a university as a business in that regard that I am commis­sioned with ensuring we have more revenue than we have in expenses so that we can con­tinue on for centuries to come. The nice thing about an educa­tional institution is not only do you have multiple ways of gen­erating that revenue, including one that businesses don’t have which is philanthropic support; we are very lucky that we have an opportunity to solicit philan­thropic support because that’s money people give us because they believe in our mission. If we didn’t have that mission; we were not an educational institu­tion focused first and foremost on the student experience, we wouldn’t have the case to make for philanthropic support. So, yes I think that where there are holes in the market, where there are students who are not being served that want to be served, we should respond like a busi­ness would and try to figure out how would we get them pro­gramming they need in order to have more fulfilling lives…”