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Creativity can help IPFW keep priorities

IPFW has a lot to celebrate after 50 years, and Chancellor Vicky L. Carwein has good reason to tout the accomplishments outlined in her June 1 column. Indeed, IPFW has fared better than many other institutions in tight economic times. In addition to being cause for celebration, though, 50 years is also an opportunity to reflect upon the core principles that make up who we are as an institution.

IPFW’s priorities are complex. Student success is one priority, but traditionally there have been other equally important ones.

Those include providing both access to and value in public higher education in northeast Indiana. Historically, IPFW has offered extraordinary value to undergraduate and graduate students through a range of courses and degrees. Besides IUPUI, in Indiana we are the only public, four-year institution with graduate-degree offerings in a large metropolitan area. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, for 2011-12 IPFW’s net annual tuition after accounting for scholarships and financial aid is a relative bargain at $12,481 annually. This is in line with IUPUI, and about $500 less per year than the average net annual tuition at Purdue-West Lafayette.

Yet IPFW is a campus facing a great deal of uncertainty, in part because economic and legislative pressures have contributed to a steady erosion of this historic commitment, not just to facilitate student success, but to ensure an extraordinary educational value for the tuition dollar. At best, West Lafayette continues to tolerate IPFW as a potential siphon to its own enrollments. In developing a budget that was $3.3 million less than the previous year, IPFW administrators offered to cut off our own nose so that Purdue would magnanimously agree not to cut off the arm. Just to put this cut into perspective, West Lafayette gave itself a $60 million raise – roughly more than half of IPFW’s entire annual operating budget. Just 0.03 percent cut from Purdue’s own $1 billion operating budget would have covered IPFW’s 2.9 percent cut.

IPFW has responded by embarking on a University Strategic Alignment Process to set priorities and determine how we allocate limited resources. This process began late in the academic year and bypassed many of the existing shared governance structures in place to ensure full faculty representation and input. As part of the University Strategic Alignment Process, these newly created committees will make determinations about the metrics the university will use to determine which programs get rewarded, which ones get cut, and which will be eliminated. Few details have emerged regarding how these committees will interface with existing shared governance structures and other representative bodies, and there is some concern that those from non-academic areas will get to determine metrics for judging whether academic programs should continue.

True, IPFW has not had to cut academic programs. Yet. But meeting budgetary challenges should be more than just a boast that we have not cut as many programs as we could have. It is about not losing sight of the most important priorities any university should have, front and center: teaching and learning. It is about making sure non-academic services work in support of academic programs, not take the place of them when allocating resources. It is about finding ways to protect and nurture the aspects of university culture that do not immediately translate into getting students jobs but that do contribute to producing well-rounded and thoughtful college graduates who will fill the jobs requiring resourcefulness, creative thinking and complex decision-making. When those jobs come, those skills will be the ones that make IPFW graduates competitive.

For IPFW to truly make student success a No. 1 priority, it needs to make bold investments in achieving that success, and not just say so while malnourishing the resources available to maintain high-quality academic programs.

A recent National Public Radio story profiled some of the bold measures schools have taken, bucking a trend to invest heavily in athletics, elaborate new student union buildings or well-appointed student housing.

New College of Florida, a state-funded Honors College, has no Division I sports and offers little in the way of student services. Instead, it invests almost all of its budget in high-quality faculty, so that it has about a 10:1 student-faculty ratio. The school routinely ends up at the top of rankings as a best value in higher education.

Temple University also made student success a top priority. When the university discovered that its students were working 30 and even 40 hours a week off campus – and trying to complete a college degree – it cut some Division I sports so that it could offer all students $4,000 a year in grants if they promised not to work off campus more than 15 hours a week.

IPFW indeed has had to meet an unusual set of challenges as it approaches its 50th anniversary. If it is to meet its priorities with any integrity – including student success, graduate success and offering access to an extraordinarily good value in education – the university will have to make bold investments like those at New Florida and Temple. Non-academic programs and support services remain vital to the continued operations of IPFW, but they exist to serve the most important function of any university: to foster quality teaching and learning. Indeed, this is the most important function in which any university will ever have to succeed. We can only wait to see how far IPFW is willing to go to maintain this commitment; and whether IPFW is up to the challenge of performing this most important of all functions through its investment in both faculty and diversity of academic programs.

Steven Alan Carr is graduate program director and associate professor of communication at IPFW. The work represents his own views and not those of the department. He wrote this for The Journal Gazette.