Urbana University was once on the verge of collapse, but now its leaders are optimistic. Here’s why.

Dr. Christopher Washington, president of Urbana University, talks about the new multipurpose athletic building their building on the Urbana campus. Bill Lackey/Staff
Dr. Christopher Washington, president of Urbana University, talks about the new multipurpose athletic building their building on the Urbana campus. Bill Lackey/Staff

As the school year wound toward its end this month, Christopher Washington cruised across Urbana University’s 128-acre campus pointing out improvements like a concrete foundation for a new wrestling facility and new turf laid down on the Blue Knights’ football field.

It’s been a little more than three years since Franklin University stepped in at the last minute and acquired Urbana University’s assets. But in that time, Washington, the executive vice president and provost, estimated Franklin has poured more than $15 million into Urbana’s facilities as part of a long-term plan to attract new students and shore up a campus that was on the verge of closing for good.

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“I don’t think there’s a place you can see that we haven’t impacted with investments,” Washington said.

Officials from Franklin provided a two-page list of the improvements made since its acquisition of Urbana University in 2014. The improvements ranged from relatively small projects like removing tree stumps and repairing the grass soccer field to renovating the university’s physics and biology labs.

The improvements also included relocating the campus’ Johnny Appleseed Museum, developing a Graduate Services Office, ramping up wireless accessibility campus-wide and signing on with a new food service vendor.

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Urbana University’s financial situation still isn’t in the black a few years after Franklin’s takeover, Washington said. But along with developing new academic programs and building better ties with local businesses, the improvements are part of a larger plan to drive up enrollment and make the campus a thriving part of the community, he said.

The university has always played an important role in the city and Champaign County, he said. But many people throughout the region still don’t realize Urbana is home to a private university with a history that dates back to 1850.

“Years from now, I would love it if everybody in the community believed it was a college town,” Washington said of Urbana.

Coming off probation

Urbana University had a long history in the city, but it has also faced financial challenges for years. Those problems became critical in 2014, when lean enrollment, a handful of failed business decisions and effects of the Great Recession meant Urbana couldn’t take on more debt to survive. At that time, the university nearly shut down entirely, until Franklin University, based in Columbus, stepped in.

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A handful of local banks accepted millions of dollars in losses to wipe the debt clean, allowing the transaction to occur. As part of that deal, Urbana now functions as a division of Franklin but retains its name.

Local leaders have said saving Urbana University was critical because it employs more than 200 staff and faculty members and provides a potential pipeline of skilled workers for local businesses.

A 2017 economic impact study by the Southwestern Ohio Council for Higher Education estimated that Urbana University provided more than $60 million to the economies of Champaign and Logan counties for the 2015 to 2016 school year. That study considered the university's impacts from operations, student spending in the community and capital investment.

Urbana had been under academic probation since November 2014. But that was wiped away in July last year when Franklin University received approval by the Higher Learning Commission to make Urbana University a branch campus.

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Taking the Urbana campus under Franklin’s accreditation was a critical step as Franklin looks to develop new academic programs and provide better service to students, Washington said.

“There’s work to be done here and as we grow our goals are designed to create a sustainable university,” Washington said.

Boosting community ties

Washington said drawing more students to the university also means developing closer ties to alumni, providing more reasons for students to stay on campus and working more closely with local businesses to provide job options for students.

The university hosted its first-ever night football game last fall, an event that drew about 3,500 alumni and other guests to the campus. The university also hosted its spring game at night this year, and there are already plans to host additional night games this fall as one way to make the campus more entertaining for students and to develop better relationships with alumni, he said.

There are some signs that the work is paying dividends, Washington said. He noted the university received about 420 applications for new students last year, but that figure has about doubled to more than 800 applications for the upcoming academic year.

“To offer the programs we want to offer, we have to have a sufficient number of students to support those programs,” Washington said.

Another key, Washington said, is developing closer ties with area businesses. The university has developed a program called UrbanaWORKS, which will provide students with leadership skills while tying educational programs more closely to the needs of local businesses.

Marcia Bailey, economic development coordinator for the Champaign Economic Partnership, said the university is making a more visible effort to work with local companies and determine what training is needed to match current demands. The CEP is the economic development agency for Champaign County.

She said Washington is part of a team developed to address the needs of local businesses. That group recently visited Honeywell Aerospace in Urbana and is scheduled to meet soon with Bundy Baking Solutions, a local manufacturer.

“They are intimately getting involved in the community,” Bailey said of Urbana University’s recent emphasis on local business.

The community is also embracing the campus more than may have been the case in the past, she said. Last year was the first year community members hosted a block party in downtown Urbana to welcome students to the campus at the start of the school year, and a similar event is scheduled for August.

“The university is making certain they’re a part of the community and the community is making certain they’re engaging the university with different events and activities too,” Bailey said.

Student reaction

Despite some uncertainty about the university’s future a few years ago, Jennifer Alflen, a junior in exercise science, decided to attend the university on a basketball scholarship. She is still active with the basketball team but has since switched to an academic scholarship with the university’s Presidential Scholar program.

Next year, she will be part of the first graduating class that started after Franklin’s acquisition. She became interested because of the university’s student-to-teacher ratio.

“It’s been more subtle rather than major changes,” she said of improvements on the campus.

Madison Davis, originally of Nelsonville, Ohio, initially decided to attend Urbana University in part because it allowed her to play volleyball at the college level. A junior majoring in English, she said some of the more recent changes like an improved weight room have been noticeable.

“It’s been a gradual increase,” Davis said.

Kelly Evans-Wilson, director of assessment and academic quality, has served as a faculty member before and after Franklin’s acquisition. The biggest difference, she said, is that Urbana University had few resources while its financial situation deteriorated. That meant faculty members and staff were often using outdated equipment and were focused mostly on day-to-day challenges. There was no five-year plan for improvements just a few years ago, she said.

Now, she said, there are more resources for basic needs like faculty development.

“We’re over a hump,” Evans-Wilson said. “I feel like we’re really on a good trajectory.”

Washington said more changes are underway. He noted the university is developing new academic programs in fields like environmental science, information systems, health systems and cyber security.

And moving forward, it’s likely all students will be asked to learn more digital creative skills to learn how to more effectively convey ideas regardless of their major. Washington said the university isn’t providing the value needed if it can’t keep up with the skills employers will need in the future.

“The test of our relevance is how we’re meeting the needs of the community we’re in,” he said.

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By the numbers:

$15 million — Franklin’s estimated investment in past three years

$60 million — University’s estimated economic impact in 2017

1,650 — Estimated total students

55 percent — Students living on campus

Sources: Urbana University, Southwestern Ohio Council for Higher Education