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Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Far Sighted

This is surely not the smartest time to be running an institution of higher learning. An economy still reeling from the 2008 recession means alumni must dig deeper to donate. Parents are contributing less than planned toward their children’s college expenses. Students are facing loan debts that have reached $1 trillion, surpassing our nation’s credit card bill. Parents and students alike are demanding that colleges produce more than a diploma on graduation day. They want jobs, and they want them now.

So why is Dr. Tom Kazee, surrounded every day by these challenges, still smiling? It’s because the University of Evansville president has a plan. Kazee is leading the charge to raise the money needed to bolster UE’s future – perhaps as much as $100 million if all of the initiatives are to be funded.

“We are still in the very early stages,” Kazee says, “but I really believe we can meet most of our goals within the foreseeable future.”

The plan now taking shape began several years ago with feedback about the future of the 159-year-old college from faculty, staff, students, parents, alumni, trustees, and supporters. Some ideas may be dropped, others added, but here is the blueprint as outlined in the university’s 18-page Vision Statement. This document, essentially a rough draft, is being shared with friends of the university to gather feedback about funding priorities.

I. Transforming the Learning Environment ($35 to $45 million)
This portion relates to updating, expanding, and in one case completely changing the purpose of buildings on campus. At least $10 million would go toward renovating classrooms in Hyde Hall, to give the old building a look and feel similar to the Schroeder Family School of Business Administration Building, which received a total makeover and expansion six years ago. Another $3 to $5 million would renovate Graves Hall and give the Dunigan Movement Analysis Lab additional space by expanding the south side of Graves. Finally, portions of Bower-Suhrheinrich Library would be renovated — possibly including development of a new front entrance facing the Ridgway University Center — at a cost of $2 to $3 million. Another possible plan is to build a Performing Arts Center with seating for at least 1,000 theatre and music patrons. This is estimated to cost between $10 million and $20 million.

II. Enhancing Student and Campus Life ($32 to $38 million)
The big-ticket item here is $15 to $20 million for a new Wellness and Fitness Center, planned for where the tennis courts now sit, at the corner of Walnut and Frederick streets. Students and staff would get new fitness and recreational facilities, and space would also be set aside for academic activities relating to health and nutrition.

Approximately $10 million would go toward improving campus housing, including construction of townhouses north of Walnut Street and on Weinbach Avenue, along with renovation of Hughes Residence Hall, the oldest dorm on campus and the only one without air conditioning. About $4 million would support the intercollegiate athletics program, including initiatives aimed at student-athletes and renovation of facilities. Another $2 million would make Neu Chapel more flexible for use by various faiths, and $1-$2 million would go toward so-called “streetscapes” that would create a plaza which brings together the north and south sides of campus while still keeping Walnut Street open to traffic.

III. Curriculum Expansion ($9 to $15 million)
“If someone said to me, ‘Here is $10 million; what’s the most important thing you would do?’ I would create an endowment to support the faculty,” states Kazee. “Not that we don’t have facilities needs, but a great faculty is the center of the institution. We’re only as good as our faculty.”

UE’s Vision Statement identifies a goal of $10 million for a Faculty Endowment Fund. It doesn’t put a cost on Kazee’s desire to expand the number of international students from the present 200. The outline does address related areas, including $3-$5 million for the Center for Career Development. The plan includes $2 million for the creation of a Center for Intensive Experiential Educational that will give students more hands-on opportunities to work with faculty and professionals in various fields, $2 to $5 million for the expansion of the UExplore Undergraduate Research Program that provides summer research opportunities for students using faculty mentors, and $2 to $3 million for the creation of an Institute of Global Public Health. This institute would be designed to extend UE’s international reach and unite students in the fields of nursing, physical therapy, engineering, business, physical sciences, social sciences, and mathematics with faculty to solve public health issues.

The future may look good on paper, but Kazee knows the University has immediate concerns that cannot wait for substantial donations to roll in.

After watching undergraduate enrollment steadily increase for several years, UE saw it drop by about 70 students over the last two years to a current total of 2,432. At a private institution such as UE, those seemingly small decreases can be significant. At the same time, tuition was increasing by about $1,000 per year to $29,740 in 2012. While UE is priced competitively with other private schools, and financial aid can often cut the cost of tuition in half, there’s still a wide gulf between private and taxpayer-supported schools. In-state tuition at Indiana University in Bloomington is $8,750. It’s $6,500 at the University of Southern Indiana.

“After the ‘07-08 market decline, there was a sense of stock taking by families in this country,” Kazee says. “They were telling us, ‘Yes, I know the quality of the UE experience. I would really like to go there. I’m not sure I can afford it.’ We need to be more assertive, more affirmative in telling our story that UE is well worth the investment. Our retention rates continue to go up, so when families decide to choose UE, they tend to stay. They believe they are getting a good value on their tuition dollars. But if folks are frightened away by what appears to be too high of a sticker price, we have missed out.

“The vision statement and other steps we have already taken allow us to build on our existing strengths to create a university whose quality is so apparent to prospective students and their families that they will see us as a good investment,” he adds. “Americans in general have a very high opinion of the quality of higher education, especially a private education, but it must match with their sense of pricing that makes it accessible.”

UE’s most assertive move so far was the decision last year to institute the “Big Freeze,” which promises no tuition increases during the four years at UE for current students and those enrolling this year. Gaining less attention was a change at the helm in enrollment services, where Dr. Shane Davidson is the new vice president, and the hiring of Donald Jones in the newly created position of vice president for marketing and communications. Davidson, Jones and Vice President for Institutional Advancement Jack Barner are three of Kazee’s key lieutenants in helping reverse the enrollment trend and raise the substantial dollars needed to achieve its goals.

“The challenge would be considerably greater if the university did not have an excellent reputation and did not have an impressive track record of generating the resource support that it needs,” Kazee said. “Not only do students look at the university and say, ‘Is that a good investment?’ Donors and supporters do the same thing. If I’m a donor and looking at the possibility of donating to a faculty endowment fund, I want to see the great faculty we can recruit. I want to see the good work those faculty can do because of the resources we made available. One of the really good things about a small university is that support coming to UE is much more immediate and obvious than if you made a $10 million donation to Harvard. It’s much easier for me to say to a donor, ‘You will make a difference, and that difference will happen right away.’”

Kazee has met with many potential donors, and he will continue to do so throughout 2013, often accompanied by a PowerPoint presentation entitled “A Vision for the University of Evansville.” It lays out the needs and goals, and reminds viewers that UE’s $60 million Widening the Circle capital campaign surpassed its goal in 2002, and the $80 million UEnvision campaign surpassed its goal in 2010. Tough times or not, he seems unfazed by the task ahead.

“I was speaking to a group of alums in Florida,” Kazee recalls, “and one said, ‘What do you feel best about as president of UE?’ And I said, ‘When I’m having these kind of conversations, and I’m trying to excite people about the University, I never feel like I have to exaggerate the virtues of the place. I know it is really high quality, so it makes my passion and energy very high. You sleep well at night when you know that’s what you are supporting.’” 

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