Urbana University approved to become branch of Columbus school

Franklin University has received approval to make Urbana University a branch campus effective Aug. 1, a step Franklin officials said will allow Urbana to offer new academic programs and provide better service to students.

Urbana had been under academic probation since November 2014 when the Champaign County school faced a variety of challenges, but that will also no longer be the case now that it’s under Franklin’s umbrella. Urbana University will maintain its name but will now be described as either a branch campus or division of Franklin.

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The Urbana campus has a significant impact on Champaign County, where local leaders have previously estimated it has a $31 million economic impact. Urbana University employs about 75 full and part-time faculty members and serves close to 2,000 students, Decker said.

The change will bring Urbana under Franklin’s accreditation after an application was approved by the Higher Learning Commission. The two sites were previously accredited separately. Franklin acquired Urbana’s assets in 2014 after the Champaign County university faced serious financial troubles.

“The immediate practical impact of this is that the difficulties that previously were encountered, which had led Urbana University to be on a probationary status with the Higher Ed Commission, are removed,” said David Decker, Franklin president.

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While it was on academic probation, university officials at Urbana couldn’t propose new academic programs and the university was subject to regular monitoring by the Higher Learning Commission. All that is swept away because only Franklin needs to be accredited now and that college has no sanctions.

“It also allows us some flexibility to consider some new sports program and address other needs and interests of the community,” said Christopher Washington, executive vice president and provost at Franklin.

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Urbana staff members are already looking into what programs might make the most sense in Champaign County, Washington said. That has included meeting with local businesses, economic development organizations and K-12 school districts.

That could include expanded teacher education programs, a Master’s degree in business focused on health care and more programs designed to train workers for careers in manufacturing, Washington said.

“We have to align our program opportunities to the local workforce market,” Washington said. “Urbana is situated in a manufacturing hotbed where there are a lot of employers that are supporting companies around the world and need people who are skilled in areas like information technology and quality assurance. We’re really looking at how we connect with these employers on these important subjects.”

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Franklin has invested more than $15 million at the Urbana campus since the acquisition, including funding scholarships and making improvements to science labs, resurfacing parking lots and installing new stadium turf. Franklin also is installing lighting at the football stadium to allow more evening events and draw community members on campus.

Urbana recently announced it will add an acrobatics and tumbling program and could eventually add more sports like wrestling, Washington said.

Since Franklin stepped in, operating expenses at Urbana University have been slashed through contract negotiations, improving technology and other items, Decker said. Franklin is also working to boost enrollment in areas like teacher education.

Urbana is also developing a program called Urbana Works, which will link students more closely to local businesses in the region. Urbana University could also provide more training and educational programs for local firms.

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Urbana was at risk of closing when Franklin stepped in, said C. Todd Jones, president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Ohio.

“I am thrilled that Franklin was able to make that happen, both as the head of the association and as an Ohioan,” Jones said. “Urbana University is a central component of the life of the town of Urbana.”

The university is important not just because of the education it provides to students, Jones said. It also draw visitors to the town, provides options for high school students trying to get a head start on college courses and provides a boost for area businesses.

“I don’t think anyone on the Franklin board expected that we would get some enormous financial return or make some huge profit from this,” Decker said. “Franklin is a nonprofit university with a community-oriented mission and a service mission. We are a very well-run organization and very financially strong. We had the capacity to step in and save this institution and these jobs and these students’ opportunities.”

By the numbers:

$31 million — Estimated economic impact of Urbana University on community

1,800 — Students at Urbana University

1850 —Year Urbana University was founded

128 acres —Size of Urbana University campus

30 — Estimated undergraduate programs

Staying with the story

The Springfield News-Sun has provided unmatched coverage of Urbana University’s previous financial struggles, and Franklin University’s investments in the campus.

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