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Gaber notes UT's ‘upswing,’ knows there's work to be done

University president focused boosting school’s standing

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    President Sharon Gaber looks back on the struggles of trying to right the reputation of the University of Toledo, which continues to rank low compared to other institutions.

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Sharon Gaber sums up her first two years at the helm of the University of Toledo with the kind of measured assessment that has come to define her leadership.

Much has been done. Much remains to do.

“We’ve made a lot of great progress. I think every good president would hope for even greater things, so I will continue to work hard on that,” said Ms. Gaber, who started July 1, 2015, as leader of the public university with the state’s third-largest operating budget. “We’ve had some struggles, and we’ve had some great things happen. And that’s what we want to highlight: We’re on the upswing.”

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President Sharon Gaber looks back on the struggles of trying to right the reputation of the University of Toledo, which continues to rank low compared to other institutions.

THE BLADE/KURT STEISS
Enlarge | Buy This Image

Ms. Gaber took over a university fighting falling enrollment, low faculty morale, and an $11.5 million midyear shortfall that arose just months into her five-year contract.

She’s tried the last two years to right the ship while charting an ambitious course for UT’s future. 

From the start, Ms. Gaber focused on five major goals, to mixed success so far.

Fund-raising and enrollment have increased.

She’s made strides to cut administrative costs, and she has a plan to grow academic research in core areas such as biomedicine and environmental sustainability.

But she hasn’t improved the university’s academic ranking — a key part of boosting UT’s reputation, which she has called her top priority.

The school remains in the bottom 25 percent of 310 private, public, and for-profit national universities rated by U.S. News & World Report, which publishes a popular annual college guide.

In the edition issued in September, UT’s numeric rank is too low to be published, but university officials said the school fell to the No. 245 spot among all peer institutions, its worst mark in at least 15 years.

By December, Ms. Gaber was warning the community to brace for an even lower number when the next list comes out this fall.

She blames poor retention and graduation numbers among UT students who enrolled before she arrived. Retaining first-year students and graduating students within six years makes up 22.5 percent of the rankings formula.

Only 41.5 percent of full-time undergraduates who enrolled at UT for the first time in 2011 graduated by 2017, or within six years. 

That represents a 1.8 percent drop from the year before, and Ms. Gaber expects it to cause UT’s rank to drop again this fall.

“We have to focus on graduation rates, and we know that. But there’s not anything I can do about what occurred six years ago. I can only say since I’ve been here we have done everything we can to focus on that,” she said.

In recent world rankings encompassing schools in 79 countries, UT stands solidly middle-of-the-pack. London-based website Times Higher Education placed UT in the 501 to 600 range among 980 top universities, which the site said represents 5 percent of higher-education institutions.

UT is ranked No. 133 by U.S. News among 189 public universities nationwide. A strategic plan created at Ms. Gaber’s direction and approved by trustees in June calls for UT to push into the top 100 public schools by 2022.

Even with little movement on UT’s poor rankings, the board is “delighted with her performance so far,” said Steven Cavanaugh, newly named UT board chairman. Making progress on the “elite” rankings goal will be the challenge of her next three years, but the board understands there are “lagging indicators” she can’t control.

“We want leadership stability, financial stability, and once we have those two things our expectation is that we take the university to the next level,” Mr. Cavanaugh said.

Incoming junior Jimmy Russell, 20, of Delaware, Ohio, would welcome a jump in UT’s national rank but the cost of a degree is important too.

The president has made students her priority, said Mr. Russell, recently elected as student government president and who is pursuing a double major in political science and communication.

“I think that she’s making the right steps, creating the right positions ... to make our ranking go up,” he said.

Implementing plans

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Ms. Gaber, 53, aims to climb the rankings and boost UT’s reputation by improving graduation rates and ramping up research.

For the first time, many sophomores this fall will have to live on campus to try to keep students engaged in campus life and closer to faculty and staff support. 

UT also is expanding programs to help students transition from high school to college.

A new summer scholars program is open to incoming freshmen who have not decided on a major or have been admitted to UT but don’t have the academic credentials to enroll in a specific program.

Participants will arrive on campus eight days before the semester starts. Students in dorms will move in early, and commuters will join them for daily team-building exercises and workshops on how to adjust to college life and navigate UT’s grounds.

The idea is to help them acclimate to college life to better their chance to succeed.

UT is developing first and second-year experience programs that include scheduling a cohort of students into the same classes and housing them in the same dorms. A peer support group will help students build friendships and find study partners, said Provost Andrew Hsu, whom Ms. Gaber hired a year ago.

The strategic plan also calls for UT to do more research, a goal Ms. Gaber has championed as a way to burnish the school’s reputation.

She wants to identify by February several research clusters, or “nodes of excellence,” in which UT can invest money. Two logical areas are environmental sustainability — including water quality — and biomedicine.

UT has experts from numerous colleges in those fields. Researchers at the school’s Lake Erie Center study environmental conditions, law professors examine Great Lakes policy, and the medical college looks at algal bloom toxins, as well as work done by biologists.

Pinpointing the strongest research areas will drive financial and hiring decisions. Mr. Hsu said attracting “outstanding faculty” is the top factor that influences research standing and will make the university nationally competitive.

UT “de-emphasized” research before Ms. Gaber’s arrival, which hurts the overall reputation, Mr. Cavanaugh said.

Recharging those efforts has broad faculty support because it can “put UT on the map,” said Amy Thompson, a health education professor and Faculty Senate president.

“That is something that really creates prestige of an institution but it also helps provide support and services to the city of Toledo,” she said.

UT will attempt to move up in the rankings while maintaining its open-enrollment policy, accepting a high number of applicants so that it can continue to educate many northwest Ohio residents.

The school will not raise its admissions criteria but will aim to recruit more highly qualified students, Mr. Hsu said.

UT wants to continue to improve the high school grade point average and ACT test scores of incoming classes. Freshmen who enrolled last fall had a high school grade point average of 3.38, up from 3.34 the previous year. The strategic plan calls for UT to raise its average ACT scores for incoming students from 22.8 to 23.5 in five years.

Plans include helping students find internship and experiential learning opportunities, and marketing the honors college to students with top-notch grades.

“Our goal is to build the honors college so that ... high-performing students could receive an excellent world-class education in the public university environment,” Mr. Hsu said. “Our hope is that the experience of the students of the honors college would rival those at Michigan or even some of the Ivy League.”

Huge strides noted

Ms. Gaber has fostered hope and energy among faculty, Ms. Thompson said.

“Will all of these goals happen overnight? Absolutely not. But the good news is we’ve made huge strides — the fact that our enrollment is up for the first time in several years, our fund-raising is increasing,” Ms. Thompson said.

In the fall of 2016, UT posted its first enrollment jump after five declining years. Student numbers edged up by 1.3 percent to 20,648 students — the first increase since 2010 when enrollment reached 23,085.

Ms. Gaber is projecting another modest enrollment boost this fall.

She’s also targeted fund-raising. UT raised $16.6 million the year before Ms. Gaber’s arrival and $18.6 million her first year. In her second year, donors had given $22.6 million with a few days left in the fiscal year.

She ran into a glitch in August, when she ousted the fund-raising official whom she had hired less than a year before to grow UT’s donor base. Vice president of advancement Samuel McCrimmon failed to attend meetings and complete assignments, according to a letter she wrote to him.

The position was not filled until this spring.

Ms. Gaber intends to launch the silent phase of a new fund-raising campaign in a year. UT is doing a feasibility study to determine how much it could raise for scholarships, faculty endowments, and construction projects included in a 10-year master plan approved in February.

The master plan alone envisioned raising about $175 million to pay for recreation fields, mixed-use retail and student apartments along Dorr Street, expanding Greek housing, a research building, a baseball and softball complex, and other facilities.

One of Ms. Gaber’s biggest challenges occurred soon into her term. In the fall of 2015, she announced that the budget approved before she became president was based on overzealous enrollment projections. She ordered across-the-board cuts and an eight-month hiring hold on many jobs to fill an $11.5 million hole.

Since then, she’s worked to stabilize finances and cut administrative costs, another big goal. She merged colleges, reduced cell-phone stipends paid to about 500 employees, and decided to close most campus operations for a week during winter break.

A voluntary buyout taken by 121 employees in June will save $4.8 million in the fiscal year that started July 1 and about $8.4 million the next.

Some critics

While Ms. Gaber has strong support among trustees and many employees, she felt some public criticism during her second year.

One came in September, when trustees awarded her a $90,000 bonus, the maximum allowed in her contract. She deferred until January a 2 percent raise that brought her base salary to $459,000.

The extra pay rankled some community and union members, who cited the university’s oft-proclaimed fiscal troubles and the multiple six-figure administrators hired as Ms. Gaber builds her administrative team.

The Communication Workers of America Local 4319 held a rally outside her first state of the university address in April. At the time, the union and UT were locked in talks over a contract to follow one that expired months before.

The university since has agreed to a three-year pact with the 535-member union that includes small raises, but the local’s president Bob Hull is still concerned about UT’s direction.

Relationships have frayed under Ms. Gaber’s presidency, he said.

“Everything has a smiley face but behind it there’s an undercurrent of poor relationship or disdain or no respect for the working employee,” Mr. Hull said.

Mr. Cavanaugh defended the trustees’ decision to give her a bonus and raise, saying she met her first-year goals. He expects the board to consider her compensation again Thursday, when trustees will vote on the fiscal 2018 budget.

“We are very sensitive to the issue, and I understand it. Dr. Gaber is very well paid by any standards that you may use,” he said. “But the flip side is that there’s a market for whatever profession you are working in.”

Trustees will hold her responsible for implementing the strategic plan, Mr. Cavanaugh said. “As you have an ability to influence those metrics you become accountable for metrics,” he said.

Ms. Gaber said she feels the pressure to deliver.

“Every day. I go to bed every night worrying about it. That’s what I love and that’s what’s stressful all the time,” she said.

Contact Vanessa McCray at: vmccray@theblade.com or 419-724-6065, or on Twitter @vanmccray.

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