President of Urbana University resigns

Urbana University’s president abruptly resigned Tuesday after leading the roughly 1,800-student campus for the past two years.

The news of George Lucas’ resignation comes as the university potentially shifts to a branch campus of Franklin University. Franklin acquired the smaller campus in 2014 after Urbana University faced years of lean enrollment and serious financial struggles. As part of the deal, Urbana now functions as a division of Franklin, but retains its name. Athletic teams also retained their affiliation with the NCAA.

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The 2014 deal was seen as critical to the community because the city of Urbana would have been faced with a vacant 128-acre campus and would have lost about 1,800 students who often volunteer in the community, work at local companies and support area businesses. Local officials have previously estimated the campus has a roughly $31 million economic impact on the region.

Lucas could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

“It has been a tremendous honor to serve Urbana University students and the Urbana Community,” Lucas said in a press release. “The campus has been through a lot of change and this was not an easy decision. I believe the campus is well-poised for the kind of transformation necessary to fully restore our reputation in the hearts and minds of current and future students and their parents.”

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The two entities currently undergo a separate accreditation process, said Linda Steele, vice president of enrollment and student affairs at Franklin University, a private nonprofit institution based in Columbus. If Urbana University becomes a branch campus, she said, the Champaign County University would no longer be accredited separately, and would fall under Franklin University’s process. Urbana University has been under academic probation since November 2014 when the smaller campus was facing a variety of challenges, Steele said.

If the branch campus status is approved, it would be a significant step toward ending the probation and allow Urbana University to add new academic programs and initiatives.

“This probation cloud is what really needs to be lifted in order to provide to the students, the parents and the community the confidence that we have moved out of any concerns and that our accreditation is solid,” Steele said. “By becoming this branch campus we’ll be able to ensure that to the students and the alumni.”

RELATED: Urbana University to become part of Franklin University

Franklin is expected to begin the process to make Urbana a branch campus in late June under a proposal with the Higher Learning Commission, an accreditation agency.

“That’s pretty significant and it’s the direction we took from the Higher Learning Commission following their guidance that that’s the direction we should move in,” Steele said.

Christopher Washington will take over a new role as executive vice president and provost for Urbana University. He currently serves as senior vice president and provost at Franklin University.

It is a permanent position, meaning there will not be a search for a new president for Urbana, Steele said. Washington will be responsible for leading Urbana University as its new chief executive. He is expected to preside over Urbana’s May 6 graduation ceremony, and will meet with students, faculty and staff members over the next few days.

Lucas was credited with supporting the accreditation efforts during his tenure, as well as revamping Urbana University’s enrollment management system.

RELATED: Lucas named new Urbana U. president

Franklin University appears to have made strides to stabilize the Urbana campus since 2014, said Bill Bean, Urbana’s mayor and an Urbana University alumni. He was unaware of Lucas’ decision Tuesday afternoon, but said he is still confident the campus will continue to make progress.

“I feel very confident and fortunate Franklin has come in and taken over,” Bean said. “I guess we’ll just have to wait and see what the outcome of this whole thing is.”

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

By the numbers:

1,800 — Students at Urbana University

1850 — Year Urbana University was founded

128 acres — Size of Urbana University campus

30 — Estimated undergraduate programs

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