The University of Akron has been through a lot of changes in recent years: new presidents, plural. An academic program review that did away with almost 20% of its degrees and degree tracks. Most recently were a restructuring that cut or merged about half of its colleges and the layoffs of almost 100 union faculty members.
But board of trustees chair Joe Gingo has never felt better about the future of the institution.
Earlier this year, the university voted to end its College of Polymer Science and Polymer Engineering in favor of a streamlined program that will fold the polymer department into a new college of engineering.
"With where we are now, we don't have to be sitting around worrying if the university's going to be there," Gingo said. "The university is going to be there. And now again, we can focus on our strengths and build on those strengths as we go forward."
That's because the university has been able to cut its budget, its faculty and its program offerings — or, as Gingo put it, to "right-size" things to match current enrollment.
"Now, there's a lot of reasons why our student body declined, but it did, and you can't ignore that," Gingo said.
Much like Gingo, UA president Gary L. Miller, who joined the university in October 2019, said he is "very optimistic" about the institution's future.
"I was optimistic before COVID, and I'm optimistic now," Miller said.
In his first year, Miller has changed the university's leadership structure, hiring a provost, and has overseen a restructuring of the colleges and schools. The university also recently announced the hiring of a new chief financial officer. Dean searches also are moving forward, as many of those positions have been interim in recent years.
The college restructuring was focused on the future, said executive vice president and provost John Wiencek, who joined UA in April. In shrinking the number of schools and colleges, the university looked for efficiencies and ways for programs to better share resources. And by bringing programs and faculty together, Wiencek thinks it could lead to new curricula offerings.
Miller said it's important that the university begin reestablishing innovation and leadership at the mid-level of the institution. When an organization is in turmoil, everything rises to the top, he said. But the university has a lot of innovation at the faculty and staff level, as is evidenced by how quickly everyone has pivoted during COVID. UA needs to "mine" that creativity, he said.
The strategic planning process that began before the COVID-19 pandemic will start again soon, Miller said. And it will be critical to engage the faculty, staff and community in that future.
Additionally, while difficult, Miller said the faculty layoffs the university made will allow it to be more strategic in its hiring going forward.
"We didn't have that luxury before," he said.
Gingo said the plan had been to make those personnel cuts over time, through attrition, but the COVID-19 pandemic meant a faster approach was necessary. And using force majeure actually meant the university could focus on its areas of strength and do more "surgical" cuts than across-the-board ones, he said.
Such sweeping layoffs aren't without controversy, however. The Akron chapter of the American Association of University Professors tried to block them but was overruled by an arbitrator.
Akron AAUP president Pamela Schulze said the relationship between the union and the administration has been strong in recent years, despite some issues raised by faculty about leadership prior to Miller's arrival. The two parties had even negotiated a new contract prior to the pandemic, but that was set aside when COVID-19 complicated the university's financial picture.
Schulze said it quickly became clear that the administration intended to make some dramatic changes, and the relationship changed, becoming more "adversarial." The administration was set on cutting faculty jobs, she said.
Still, she thinks the university is in a stable position now. And she thinks it will be around for the future, as long as it provides the region what it needs. But leaders going forward need to figure out what the institution needs to be. And that's a problem that's bigger than the University of Akron, Schulze said. She sees it as part of a trend to defund state higher education systems that's creating an ever more tiered system. And teachers and faculty face a system where, increasingly, they have more work, but less academic freedom and shared governance.
At the University of Akron, Schulze wants to see shared governance increase, especially in decisions of curriculum. People feel "afraid and insecure," she said.
Miller said leadership is working to better integrate the university's shared governance model. And, ultimately, he thinks the faculty at the institution are engaged, and that there's support for the university.
"There's a lot of frustration about the final outcome, and that's what's shown a lot," Miller said. "But people love this place. And I think we'll coalesce around the future and not the past."
Miller thinks all urban universities, including the University of Akron, need to be thinking about what their campuses will look like going forward. That's one reason UA is working more closely with Cleveland State University, which faces similar challenges and opportunities.
The two universities are exploring the possibility of merging their law schools, but Miller said it's not an "efficiency exercise." In fact, collaborations like this tend to bring more bureaucracy, he said.
"We're collaborating for new opportunities for students, for new opportunities for legal education. We want to be a model," he said. "This is something, if it's going to work, we'll have to invest in."
And despite increased collaboration, Miller wants people to know that the two universities intend to stay that way: as two separate universities in their respective cities.
Universities across the country are evaluating their strengths and weighing what makes them stand out, Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan said. Growing the population of the city is critical to Akron, and the university is a "key component" of that, Horrigan said. He'd like to see enrollment grow, but he knows the city has to do its part toward that goal, making sure there are internship and job opportunities for students.
"We need to have that symbiotic relationship, where our growth is intertwined with each other," he said.
The challenges are far from over, but after a turbulent few years, the University of Akron might now be in a place where it can turn the page on the past and look to the future.