Wittenberg interim president seeks to unify Springfield campus

Staying with the story

The Springfield News-Sun provides unmatched coverage of Wittenberg University, a major employer in Clark County. We’ve dug into the university’s ongoing financial woes including stories on retirees losing their health benefits and the resignation of President Laurie Joyner.

By the numbers

45 — Year’s Dick Helton has worked in education including as a teacher, athletics director, superintendent and President of Vincennes University.

1,900 — Wittenberg students.

$70 million — Estimated economic impact on the Springfield community.

$56.5 million — Wittenberg’s annual expense budget for fiscal year 2016.

$6.5 million — Structural deficit projected for end of fiscal year 2015 an amount set to be cut from expenses.

Wittenberg University’s success in a competitive market depends on the entire campus pulling together and moving with a “oneness of spirit,” interim President Dick Helton said.

Interviewed this week during his first days on campus, Helton said he hopes his skill at consensus building and his proven ability to increase enrollment can help Wittenberg chart a course for success beyond his 18 months on campus.

“I can be helpful in trying to get a huge segment of (the campus) on the same page,” he said. “Students may choose to go to college wherever they wish … So we need to be focused on the recruitment of those students and offering good, quality programs and finding ways to move this institution forward.”

Wittenberg has an estimated $70 million economic impact on the Springfield community.

Helton retired last year from Vincennes University in Indiana after serving as president for 11 years and moved to Cleveland to be closer to family.

He’ll be commuting between Springfield and Cleveland over the next year and a half, spending at least three days a week at the university.

So far he’s been impressed with Wittenberg’s beautiful campus, traditions and quality liberal arts education.

“We have much that we can market,” Helton said, including strong academic programs, outstanding faculty and staff and the things that make up the other half of an education. “Whether it be the performing arts, or whether it be athletics or student government, all of those play a part in the recruiting process.”

Vincennes experienced record-breaking enrollment in 2014 thanks to Helton’s efforts, his successor said.

That achievement was reached through an aggressive marketing campaign, Helton said, and by diversifying the school’s offerings.

Vincennes is a public university with about 19,000 students across several campuses that offer mostly one- and two-year degrees, but also some select four-year degrees. Wittenberg, a private Lutheran school, has about 1,900 students, 475 employees and an operating budget of about $50 million.

Diversifying degree programs the way Vincennes did might not be applicable to Wittenberg, Helton said, but the Springfield university may be able to expand its offerings to attract students without affecting its liberal arts mission.

Helton did his undergraduate study at Hanover College, and still sees a strong liberal arts program as an advantage in Wittenberg’s market.

“Maybe there are some programs that will compliment that advantage, that will allow this institution to broaden its footprint a little bit more that will be attractive to students,” he said.

The school has begun that process, adding the Nursing Pathways Program, which partners with Clark State Community College to allow nursing students to get both their Associate’s and Bachelor’s degrees in four years.

Other new programs include a new major in Sports Management and a new Exercise Science Master’s program. In the fall the school will launch a Master’s degree in Analytics.

Former President Laurie Joyner vowed to eliminate the school’s $7 million structural deficit when she arrived on campus in 2012, and oversaw several rounds of budget cuts including eliminating some programs and jobs.

She resigned in November shortly after announcing an additional $6.5 million in cuts at the university, including the elimination of retiree health benefits, cuts to employee health benefits and a review of academic programs that could lead to job eliminations.

Helton hasn’t had a chance to delve into the details of those cuts, he said Monday, but will meet with senior leadership to discuss them soon.

When the cuts were announced, interim Provost Mary Jo Zembar said the goal was to find $1.5 million in savings from the academic program review. The Educational Policies Committee was to create a plan to do that, identifying programs that aren’t attracting students, those that need restructuring and those that are strengths.

The committee has developed a framework by which the Wittenberg community can begin preliminary discussions on the academic program, Zembar said Wednesday.

“The EPC plans to hold several open forums in the next several weeks where these discussions can take place and provide feedback to the EPC,” she said. “Those dates will be announced at week’s end.”

As an interim, Helton said he’s cautious not to embark on any initiatives that go beyond the scope of his role, but continuing the financial turnaround is a must.

“We know we have to deal with enrollment, we know we have to deal with the financial issue, we know we have to deal with the endowment,” he said.

One of the key projects that will improve the school’s marketability will be completion of the planned $30.6 million in upgrades and additions to the school’s athletic complex, Helton said.

Wittenberg has previously announced plans to restore its historic 1929 field house, renovate the 1982 Health, Physical Education and Recreation Center, and construct a new 125,000-square-foot indoor athletic facility, as well as other improvements.

Although he likely won’t be around for the construction or unveiling of the facilities, Helton wants to make the final push for funding to get the project underway.

The school was awarded $4.5 million in Ohio Historic Preservation Tax credits in December, bringing the fundraising total for the project to $21.6 million. About $17 million of that money is from private donors.

“That will be something that will be important for me to move forward because it’s going to be important to the institution … particularly new students, that will be coming to us. It will be all about the recruitment opportunities,” Helton said.

Wittenberg has also asked the Clark County Convention Facilities Authority to pledge $750,000 to the project over the next three years. The board hasn’t decided on that application, according to board member Michael McDorman, CEO and president of the Chamber of Greater Springfield.

The college has also applied for federal tax credits and could receive up to $2 million to $3 million.

The project will be valuable in creating opportunities for regional events in Springfield, McDorman said. “We’re looking at that as a community asset.”

He had the chance to meet Helton and said he was impressed with his experience.

“He certainly is well suited for what the college is trying to do,” McDorman said.

Students who have already met with Helton said he was approachable.

“He has made a concerted effort to get to know the students he’s met with,” said senior Michael Southard, who serves as faculty student coordinator for the Student Senate.

The biggest concern for students in the wake of Joyner's abrupt departure is a lack of information, Southard said, which has led to rumors.

“No one knows if she actually left under her own decision or if she was forced out,” he said.

Students are really looking for a leader who will communicate with them, he said.

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