ADA, Ohio -- Just 10 years shy of Ohio Northern University's 150th anniversary, newly inaugurated President Daniel A. DiBiasio has his work cut out for him.
He is on a mission to develop a strategic plan that will help ONU figure out "what we want to look like" in 2021, its sesquicentennial year, but, he said, it has to examine where it's at now before it can look to the future.
Since arriving Aug. 1, Mr. DiBiasio, who insists that staff and visitors alike call him "Dan," has hired a financial consulting firm to oversee a comprehensive review of the private university's finances and programs.
The nationwide recession coupled with enrollment declines hit ONU hard, as it did most colleges and universities. ONU's bond rating with Moody's Investors Service dropped from "good" to "adequate" this year, leaving the university without the ability to issue bonds for facilities.
"We're all trying to figure out what the new normal is, and you do spend some time looking at different paths that you might take," he said. "We're at a time now where we need to pick one and move smartly and thoughtfully. I'm glad to get that going. It needs to be done."
Mr. DiBiasio, 62, who came to ONU after 16 years as president of Wilmington College in southwestern Ohio, said ONU's bond rating was hurt by a succession of low enrollment years as well as the loss of $10 million in endowment funds invested with the Westridge Capital Management Group, which was charged with running a fraudulent investment scheme.
He said ONU recouped about $6 million from the investment debacle, and he is encouraged by fall enrollment figures, which showed a 14 percent increase in new students -- mostly freshmen -- and an overall increase of 41 students.
"The biggest challenge has been to see revenue in previous years decline somewhat due primarily to enrollment decreases, but while I can't say that one year a trend makes, we're reversing that at the moment and certainly have plans to continue on that path," he said.
For a small university struggling to compete in a difficult economy, ONU has a lot of the right stuff, namely career-focused programs that translate into jobs for its graduates.
Its pharmacy program had a 100 percent placement rate for jobs last year as did a number of its arts and sciences program.
About 92 percent of its 2011 law school graduates passed the bar examination this summer, putting ONU first among private law schools in the state and right up there with the two highest-performing public universities.
Ohio State University and the University of Cincinnati both had a 94 percent passing rate.
Carol Flax, ONU's director of communications and marketing, said those are powerful points when it comes to selling ONU and recruiting new students.
"We had an overall placement rate in 2010 of 93 percent. This was after six months," she said. "This was with the economy and everything else."
Mr. DiBiasio said he believes ONU's high-quality academic programs will help sustain the enrollment growth seen this fall. The university's financial health also will be boosted by the completion of a five-year, $100 million fund-raising campaign in the spring. It has raised $95 million so far.
A portion of the money raised in the capital campaign has gone toward the nearly $80 million in new construction that has taken place on campus over the last decade, including modern suite-style residence halls and new business and science buildings.
The new president clearly is enthusiastic about Ohio Northern, its programs, and its 3,611 students.
Marsha McMunn, president of ONU's Student Senate, said the feeling is mutual. Mr. DiBiasio has made a concerted effort to get to know students, visiting residence halls, meeting with student leaders, and having a campus-wide coffee.
"I know he has to lead the campus. He's out meeting alumni, trying to get funds, and it is a challenge to make time for students and to have an open door policy, but that's something he says he wants to have," said Ms. McMunn, a senior from Pinckney, Mich.
While ONU's tuition is $34,380 a year -- slightly higher for engineering and pharmacy -- students receive an average financial aid package of $22,300 a year. Despite the high cost, ONU's graduates have a relatively low student loan default rate -- 0.6 percent compared to the national average of 8.8 percent.
"Our students are getting placed and that gives them the ability to retire their loans in a timely fashion," Mr. DiBiasio said. "To have less than 1 percent default rate is pretty amazing."
Mr. DiBiasio said not everyone agrees with the importance of college rankings by the various organizations that produce such lists, but he said it's hard to ignore ONU's consistency on the lists.
"What's impressive about ONU is that we're consistently ranked highly on all of them so you can quibble perhaps with the methodology of one or another, but when you're consistently rated it kind of takes that into consideration," he said.
The president's wife, Chris Burns-DiBiasio, has been named director of community relations -- an unpaid position that will enable her to work as a liaison between the university and community groups. Mr. DiBiasio said his wife held the same job at Wilmington.