During one of last fall’s pep rallies, a crush of University of Toledo students cheered for the Rockets along with the school’s new president.
The football team was enjoying a winning season — it would go on to win a bowl game — and the campus was buzzing.
President Sharon Gaber, now 52, had left her provost post at the University of Arkansas a few months before to lead a school battling dwindling enrollment, battered finances, and, in some cases, broken trust. The board of trustees picked her from a field of 29 candidates, gave her a five-year contract, and told her they wanted to transform the university.
On this particular day, she stood in Centennial Mall, the grassy gathering place in the center of campus and one of her favorite spots. Months later, she still recalls someone telling her how, in 20 years at UT, they had never seen so many students on the mall.
“How fun is that?” Ms. Gaber said, during a recent interview in her University Hall office. “The students were excited, and the faculty were excited, and ... it was a great moment.”
She counts it as one of the best of her first year, an inaugural lap she finished Thursday amid applause from campus leaders who have cheered her fresh approach.
“I think the optimism is really only growing with every decision she makes,” Faculty Senate President Mary Humphrys said. “We’ve got the real deal with [Ms.] Gaber.”
Her supporters frequently praise her open demeanor.
The president meets monthly with faculty senate leadership, has visited high schools to talk to guidance counselors and principals, traveled to the east and west coasts to connect with alumni clubs, and spent a November day at the student union buying Starbucks coffee for students with her personal credit card.
“Before if you asked any student what our president’s name was, they probably wouldn’t even know,” said Amal Mohamed, a senior and student government president. “She really tries to get to know students.”
Ms. Gaber relied upon her instinct to involve others when making big decisions and said she will continue to do so as she tries to deliver on lofty goals.
When it became clear that fall 2015 enrollment would fail to meet the optimistic projection on which the budget was based, she ordered a hiring freeze and across-the-board cuts. She gave deans and vice presidents the discretion on what to trim.
“It’s together that we are going to do this,” Ms. Gaber said. “If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t expend as much energy trying to talk and communicate and trying to make sure people understand.”
Filling an $11.5 million shortfall about seven months into her presidency was one of the two toughest challenges of her first year.
The other came a few weeks before, when a black student was allegedly punched, kicked, and called a racial slur at an off-campus fraternity party.
A university investigation resulted in disciplinary probation for the fraternity and sanctions for six students.
The incident occurred amid heightened racial tensions and student-led protests at colleges across the country. Ms. Gaber said she had already been thinking about how to enhance diversity at UT.
Last month, the board of trustees adopted a diversity plan, one of several Ms. Gaber initiated in her first year.
University of Toledo President Sharon Gaber says one of her favorite spots is Centennial Mall in the center of campus. She is focused on the future of the university.
The university has committed more than $1.5 million to pay consultants who are developing a master plan for its campuses, creating an enrollment plan, and reviewing the University of Toledo Medical Center operations.
The studies are part of the foundation Ms. Gaber has laid as she strives toward “the big five” — as some in her administration have taken to calling the handful of goals she outlined in her September inauguration address.
They are to grow the university’s national reputation, enrollment, fund-raising, and research, while also cutting administrative costs.
Enhancing UT’s reputation will mean climbing in rankings. The university is currently unranked by U.S. News & World Report, and Toledo has languished below the 200 spot among national universities for the last dozen years. Bowling Green State University is currently tied at 185, and the nearby competitor’s rank-touting hasn’t gone unnoticed by Ms. Gaber.
In worldwide rankings, UT is listed between 500 and 600.
The president has stepped up efforts to jump in rankings. UT e-mailed materials to university presidents, provosts, and admissions directors whose votes help determine rankings, which she called “a new first step.”
Early signs point to increased fall enrollment, which would mark the first bump since 2010 when UT topped out at 23,085 students.
The number of high schoolers who applied as of May 31 has dropped by 479 students, compared to a year ago. But the number who had made deposits to confirm fall attendance is up by 92 students.
Ms. Gaber said she has yet to set a specific enrollment target.
Soon after she arrived, she and the vice president in charge of enrollment, Cam Cruickshank, agreed he would leave. Ms. Gaber announced in May she had chosen a member of the consultant group hired to create an enrollment strategy to hold the position going forward.
Boosting fund-raising has been part of Ms. Gaber’s mission since she interviewed for the job. The number of gifts increased from 7,990 in fiscal year 2015 to 9,103 through mid-June, two weeks shy of the close of the 2016 fiscal year. Donations rose from about $16.36 million the previous year to $16.75 million through mid-June.
“To be up is good, but we need to be up more than this,” Ms. Gaber said. “These would be low-end expectations.”
The university received $43 million in external funding in fiscal year 2015. That’s down from a high of $75 million in fiscal year 2010. Numbers for the year ending Thursday were not available.
Government research funding has dropped, though Ms. Gaber said prestigious universities don’t use that as an excuse. Instead, she said, UT may not have conveyed to faculty that their research is valued, and she’s now stressing its importance.
Ms. Gaber championed the merger of several colleges, reducing the number of UT’s colleges from 16 to 13. She points to the consolidations as one way she’s trimmed administrative costs. Senior administrator positions have dropped from 15 to 14 by consolidating jobs and other maneuvers.
Ms. Gaber stepped into the presidency after the early departure of Lloyd Jacobs, who left in 2014 before his contract expired.
Engineering college dean Nagi Naganathan served as interim president for a year before Ms. Gaber arrived.
Tensions between Dr. Jacobs’ administration and faculty sometimes flared, such as in 2010 when the faculty union sued and lost over a massive academic reorganization.
Such widespread resistance has not occurred during Ms. Gaber’s efforts to consolidate colleges.
Ms. Humphrys, an associate professor in the business college, described the current atmosphere as a “tremendous turnaround.”
“I think in her first year the term that you could use to describe the feeling of the faculty was probably ‘cautiously optimistic,’” she said. “When someone comes in and seems to be a 180-degree difference from what we had become used to … you really appreciate the differences and you hope that it continues.”
The board of trustees has yet to schedule Ms. Gaber’s annual evaluation. Her contract allows trustees to give her a yearly bonus of up to 20 percent of her $450,000 salary if they’re enthusiastic about her performance.
“The board continues to feel very good about [Ms.] Gaber and about the progress that she’s made in a relatively short amount of time,” said chairman Sharon Speyer. “She’s very transparent. She makes sure that she consults and makes sure that she engages [the] university community.”
With the first year behind her, Ms. Gaber’s focus is on the future.
But with her academic degrees in urban planning, she’s not done creating strategies.
Among the first tasks her new provost, Andrew Hsu, will tackle is creating a strategic plan, a roadmap for the university.
Mr. Hsu said he was drawn to Ms. Gaber’s vision, one reason he left his post as San Jose State University’s engineering dean.
“One of the things that I was really impressed with is that there seems to be a real improvement in faculty morale and excitement among faculty and staff about the future of the university. Everybody is so hopeful that something great is going to happen to the university,” he said.
Ms. Gaber said the strategic plan will be the university’s, not hers.
“It’s not just this person sitting in the president’s office thinking this is a great idea, but, in fact, we all own a part of this,” she said. “I think that’s part of what this year has been about … to figure out, ‘Maybe she’s OK, and maybe we’re going to get this place in a position to be even stronger than it is now.’”
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