A top priority for the new president of Wittenberg University is to further connect the school with the Springfield community.
Mike Fransden, the 15th president of the liberal arts college that’s a major local employer with an estimated $70 million impact on the region’s economy, took his seat as the leader of the Springfield school on July 1. He told the Springfield News-Sun during an exclusive interview that he plans to be active in the city and to make sure residents know they are welcome on campus.
“It means me and others at Wittenberg are being out in the community,” Fransden said. “Being engaged with the chamber of commence or programs at Clark State. Making sure there is that connection.”
Springfield, founded in 1801, and Wittenberg, founded in 1845, share a storied history, President and CEO at the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commence Michael McDorman said. However a sentiment has existed among residents that the two are separate.
“At times there has been that disconnect, but I think in more recent history the university has understood they need to be a part of transforming Springfield,” McDorman said.
Wittenberg is a critical part to the local economy, he said.
“I like to say as Wittenberg goes so goes Springfield and as Springfield goes, so goes Wittenberg,” McDorman said. “We need to work together.”
Wittenberg employs more than 420 people, many of whom live in Springfield.
“At the most basic level, having a university in a community generates positive economic impact for the community and region,” said C. Todd Jones, president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Ohio. “It does so directly by the hundreds of people employed there and the students who attend and bring their disposal income to the community.”
The school provides a pipeline for local employers who are seeking educated employees, McDorman said. When talking with companies about coming to Springfield, he said Wittenberg is usually in the conversations.
“Wittenberg people are at every meeting related to workforce development as it pertains to any prospective company that we are working with or existing companies that need talent,” he said. “They have been very involved in our strategic planning and they are at the table when we talk about our downtown, parks and rec and other important ventures.”
Springfield leaders realize that having young, educated people in the city will attract new employers, Springfield Mayor and Wittenberg Professor Warren Copeland said.
“There is increasing recognition on the Springfield side that for economic development Springfield really needs to get young professionals and Wittenberg provides that to our city,” Copeland said.
McDorman expects the relationship between the city, chamber and school to continue to grow.
“In recent history Wittenberg has been very much involved in a lot of development that has happened here today,” he said.
But for Wittenberg to continue to promote Springfield, it has to keep itself sustainable. The new president said he believes the school is on track to do that.
In 2010, Forbes named the university to a list of financially strained schools. The last president, Laurie Joyner, resigned in 2015 just weeks after announcing $6.5 million in cuts.
Additional big cuts have been rumored at Wittenberg since then and it has caused concern among staff and students.
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Wittenberg junior Jessica Stormoen said in her two and a half years at Wittenberg, she has heard rumors and has seen some staff turnover.
“There has been a lot of transition,” Stormoen said. “A lot of staff in general have left and new staff has come in. The residence life staff has changed and with this new president, I am sure things are going to change.”
While change will likely occur slowly, Fransden said he doesn’t believe at this time the school needs to make major changes to sustain itself.
“We are OK where we are at right now but we need to grow enrollment,” Fransden said. “If we don’t succeed in growing enrollment we are going to have some financial challenges. I think right now we are OK.”
The school’s enrollment now is about 1,800 and it has a goal to grow that to 2,000 students. About 600 freshmen are expected to start classes in the fall, which will be close to the amount that entered Wittenberg last fall. The 2016 freshmen class was the largest in recent history.
Fransden said the school needs to take a look at its finances and make sure that it’s serving its students the best way it can. Wittenberg recently gave the Springfield Museum of Art building back to the museum after taking control of it for several years while the museum went through tough financial times. The move to take the museum was cited in a now dismissed lawsuit against Wittenberg’s former law firm as a financially damaging deal for the university.
Interim President Dick Helton said the move to give the museum back was a good one because it allows the university to focus money back on its students. Fransden said he hopes to work with the school leaders to make sure they’re spending wisely.
“I hope there are other things that we are examining and opportunities to evaluate and consider and make decisions that are in the interest of the university and what is in the interest of the community as well,” Fransden said. “There is no big issue that has been put on my desk leading up to this week or in this week. But we are certainly going to have to look what we are doing and how it is impacting students.”
Students and the community
The university wants its students to go beyond Wittenberg’s walls and interact with the Springfield community, Fransden and Copeland said.
“The university in the last 10 years has developed a whole set of goals to get our kids out in the community much more,” Copeland said. “All the students must do a semester of community service and we are have an extensive intern program.”
Stormoen said she has done her community service and learned a lot about Springfield during it.
“I enjoy Springfield,” said Stormoen, who is from Grand Rapids, Mich. “I think it’s a cute little area. It’s not what I am used to. I really enjoy it. I volunteered at the humane society and that was an amazing experience.”
Jones, the president of the independent college association, said Wittenberg does a good job connecting with the city compared to other Ohio universities.
“Wittenberg is probably more deeply invested in the student side than almost any of our colleges,” Jones said. “The amount of time students volunteer is more than other schools. Wittenberg is more deeply invested in that community than our average college.”
Wittenberg is in the process of constructing a $40 million athletic complex on campus. The building will be designed to attract student athletes and to benefit students.
“Anytime a campus that has 2,000 students is undertaking a $40 million construction project, it’s a big deal,” Fransden said. “This is a big deal for Wittenberg and a big deal for Springfield.”
Among the features of the new 125,000 square-feet complex will be an indoor 100-yard artificial turf surface; a six-lane, 300-meter indoor track; a 7,000-square-foot weight room; a sport performance, strength training and wellness center; technology-enabled classroom space; updated locker rooms; and modern court surfaces for tennis, volleyball and basketball.
The construction started in March and the center is expected to be open sometime in 2018. Wes and Ann Bates, members of the class of 1970, donated $10 million to match another $10 million gift from alumni and friends of the university. Wittenberg expects to receive another nearly $13 million in tax credits.
It’s important for the school to open the complex to the community, Fransden said, so that residents also can take advantage of it.
“Obviously we are making sure the facility meets our needs but we think we are building the facility that can meet our needs and be an asset for the community,” he said. “People will be able to use the classrooms and the building.”
The new center will help the school both academically and athletically, Fransden said.
“It shows momentum and progress,” he said. “It is going to re-enforce student wellness and it is going to create some opportunities to build some programs and partner with the community on some programs.”
By the numbers:
$70 million: Economic impact of Wittenberg University in Springfield.
429: Employees at Wittenberg University.
1,800: Approximate current student enrollment.
2,000: Student enrollment goal.
600: Expected amount of incoming freshman in 2017.
The Springfield News-Sun has closely tracked budget cuts, leadership changes and their affect on the Springfield community for several years, including stories digging into its financial troubles and staff turnovers.