Friday, January 06, 2006

Is John Carroll in a Freefall?

For a few years now, we’ve been hearing reports that our alma mater, John Carroll University, has been increasingly hobbled by poor management. The problems, alas, seem to be growing ever worse. Some insiders are even wondering if the new president, Jesuit Fr. Bob Niehoff, something of a turnaround specialist with strength in organizational finance, might not have arrived on the scene too late to fix the organization’s multiplying dysfunctions. The school has to quickly cut $2.8 million from its budget by the end of the current school year, and we’re told one of the ways of doing that will be to not fill as many as a dozen tenure-track faculty positions, thus winnowing the teaching staff through attrition.

The roots of these financial problems are complicated. JCU, like many other colleges and universities, got fat and happy for years from generous alumni gifts and abundant federal aid. More recently, the feds have been in a cutting mode--just days before Christmas, the Senate cut nearly $13 billion once earmarked for student aid from the federal budget. But poor management is surely a large part of it. Perhaps the biggest boo boo was building a giant science center, that massive, hulking building (the Dolan Center) on the front lawn.

I'm told that former Development VP Peter Anagnastos (who was later pushed out, and who now works at Hawken School) kept telling anyone who would listen that the school could get the feds to pony up $20 million (or nearly one-third of its ultimate cost) for the building. But that money never came through. Now JCU is saddled with a too-large science building (which has no endowment for maintenance, another no-no, we're told) even as it has recently eliminated the graduate programs in physics and chemistry! Not to worry, the university is said to be adding a master’s program in philanthropy, to compete for the first time with Case’s Mandel Center for Nonprofits.

Meanwhile, the loss of good people who have nervously headed for the exits continues. Last year, the head of Career Services, the talented Dr. Dumont Owen, left for NOCHE, the trade association of regional colleges and universities. And more recently the head of admissions, John Gladstone (formerly a legendary Latin teacher at St. Ignatius High School and part of a large family with roots like Ivy in the Jesuit educational system), left too. Let’s hope the new prez, who has been having a number of well-received “town hall meetings,” can quickly get a handle on things.

His biggest task will be helping the community decide what this university is and should be all about. Not long ago, I ran into an old JCU acquaintance, a veteran member of the humanities faculty, and he put it in startling perspective. He had this to say (I'm paraphrasing): John Carroll used to be known as a good undergraduate liberal arts school, and then it became known as a strong business school (which once cranked out nearly all the accountants the industry needed). And now it wants to be known as a strong school for the hard sciences. In the process, its mission and identity have become impossibly blurred. I think he had it precisely right. And the real job of the new president, might I suggest, is to decide where this ship is headed, and to get it back on course. We wish him much success.


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