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Sunday, October 7,2012

Hocking prez outlines plans in wake of staff cuts

By David DeWitt

Photo Caption: Hocking College President Ron Erickson

Since the Hocking College Board of Trustees approved 23 layoffs at the end of last month, students have launched several protests, and the college has been in turmoil.

The layoffs, reduction and consolidation of dean positions, and a variety of budget changes are meant to deal with a $4.3 million shortfall that college officials blame on enrollment declines. Figures from Hocking College's Department of Institutional Research show that the college is down 1,327 students from fall 2011. Officials have attributed most of that decline to the switch from quarters to semesters.

But student protesters and others have expressed a wide variety of concerns, some about administrative raises in this time of budget shortfall, others about how the criminal justice program will go forward after losing administrators who hold the program together. Still others have questioned money being spent on campus amenities, while some maintain that the college is in crisis after losing so many deans.

Hocking President Ron Erickson sought to alleviate some of those concerns during an interview with The Athens NEWS this past Wednesday.

He was asked if the college will be formulating a plan to recover the numbers of students lost in the enrollment decline.

"The state of Ohio is very interested in focusing more of its state aid allocation on the metric of college completion (graduation) rather than enrollment," he said. "So one of the strategies we have in mind is to really launch a widespread campaign to encourage our current student body to enroll for the spring semester… and to increase our retention rates."

The college is closely reviewing its programs and studying enrollment patterns, he said. The idea is to look at which programs contributed most to the decline in enrollment and figure out a way to boost enrollment in those programs with strategies using faculty and staff assistance.

"At the same time that we're focused on trying to bring enrollment back to previous levels, we're also sensitive to the fact that in the future more and more of our state allocation will come to us because of improvement in completion rates," he said.

The enrollment problem that reared its head for Hocking College this September had not been anticipated, according to Board of Trustees minutes from the summer.

The minutes from the Trustees meeting on June 26 had the college's director of institutional research reporting that enrollment figures for Autumn 2012 were up 19 percent.

But those figures had dropped sharply by the Aug. 28 meeting, where financial services Vice President Gina Fetty reported fulltime equivalent student enrollment was down 10 percent compared to the previous year.

Hocking spokesperson Laura Alloway noted that in June the college was comparing its numbers to the same date the previous year. She noted, however, that the switch from quarters to semesters made those comparisons more difficult.

A majority of community colleges in the state have experienced enrollment declines in making that transition.

Erickson said that Hocking College plans to make as visible an effort as possible to make it obvious to students that they need to enroll for spring coursework as soon as possible.

With regard to the positions the college has now eliminated, Erickson confirmed that a reorganizing and restructuring effort is underway.

A job listing sent to Hocking staff reveals that the position of the business dean is being combined with that of the dean of arts and sciences. Both of these deans were let go, and the college is now advertising for one person to fill both roles.

"In the case of student affairs, we are looking at a redistribution of the workload through a cadre of new positions that would (introduce) a variety of services into the various schools," he said. "So instead of a centralized student affairs position, it would be more decentralized within the schools across the campus."

Those positions are still being finalized, he said, noting that the dean of student affairs position will not be reconstituted.

IN AN EMAIL TO THE STUDENT BODY, Erickson emphasized his desire to not allow the student experience to be impacted. However, some student critics have said they've already had classes cancelled and are worried about being able to pursue their chosen specialization.

Asked about this, Erickson said that the $4.3 million budget gap was closed to a great extent by the lack of students themselves.

"As enrollment declined, our need to hire adjunct faculty dropped as well," he said. "By the time our term started, we had already experienced a significant savings by the fact that we did not have to hire so many adjunct instructors."

In other cases, he said, the process has been unpacking the positions that are being reduced and figuring out how to cover the services that had been offered through those positions in other ways.

Asked about his vision for Hocking College moving forward, Erickson again noted that similar enrollment declines have been experienced by sister institutions across the state.

"We are comforted by the fact that we are not singled out in this decline, that in fact it seems to be a widespread phenomenon," he said.

The two theories here, he added, are that the change in the start-time of classes led to confusion, and that as the economy recovers from the great recession, as students find work, they are more likely to hold onto it rather than heading back to school.

"This is a family environment here, and we are going through the grieving process of having to say goodbye to our friends and colleagues," Erickson said. "It is never easy but we know that we are going to prevail."


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