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Send in the Wolf

July 30, 2009

When talking with Ron Champagne, one may be reminded of that memorable Harvey Keitel character from "Pulp Fiction," known simply as “The Wolf.” A master of crisis management, the Wolf is a specialist in cleaning up nasty messes in record time:

“I’m Winston Wolfe. I solve problems,” Keitel says by way of introduction.

Champagne could have said as much in 2007, when he took over as interim president of Shimer College, a Chicago-based institution that he says was on the verge of “extinction.” Shimer’s enrollment had slipped substantially because of recruitment and retention problems, and an effort to establish a small residential campus north of Chicago had failed. So Champagne came in on a one-year appointment with a singular assignment: Save this college.

Champagne is a member of what might best be described as the National Guard for higher education, a group of past presidents and consultants who are called on when colleges are fighting for survival. And, in a sad commentary on the state of the economy, business is

Photo: Merrimack College

Ron Champagne, now interim president of Merrimack College, says Shimer College was on the verge of "extinction" when he began a one-year term there in 2007.

pretty good for these soldiers. The professionals in this somewhat gloomy trade say the enrollment and financial problems facing many institutions over the past year have prompted a number of colleges to look for serious outside help, or even total restructuring, hoping a new strategy can stabilize them.

It’s hard not to question what drives people like Champagne. Retired presidents have other options, so why go back into the lion’s den time after time? Champagne says he’s much like a medical doctor who wants to help sick patients -- even though not all of them come out of treatment functioning the same way or surviving the procedure at all.

“A doctor is no sadist,” Champagne says. “You take something that’s curable and you cure it. Why? Because you know how. This is not for amateurs. It’s someone who has been there and done that and knows what works.”

Champagne came to Shimer after a lengthy career in academe, including 12 years as president of Saint Xavier University, in Chicago. He was pulled into active duty, so to speak, after joining the Registry for College and University Presidents, which helps pair interim presidents with institutions in need. Last August, he took another appointment at Merrimack College, which has also had “a lot of trauma” with both finances and governance, Champagne said.

Christopher B. Nelson, chair of Shimer's Board of Trustees and president of St. John's College, in Annapolis, Md., said Shimer turned to the registry to find someone who could bolster sagging enrollment and boost fund raising. Champagne did both, more than doubling the tiny college's enrollment -- although it's still less than 100 -- and investing in development.

"There are times when this is just the thing you need: Bring someone in who can calm down a situation," Nelson said. "You're not going to be able to attract a sitting president [otherwise]. Bring one in to provide an example or get a turnaround started or a program begun that someone can see is an attractive occasion for taking on a [permanent] presidency."

The presidents’ registry doesn’t deal exclusively with institutions facing fiscal crisis, but those appointed through it are increasingly given “transformational” assignments that include restoring financial stability, according to Bryan Carlson, president of the registry and Collegiate Enterprise Solutions.

“They are not there to win long-term friends and [forge] political relationships,” Carlson said. “They are empowered to do what’s right and get the institution back on track.”

College Rescue a Growth Industry

While private colleges on average have reported steady projected enrollment numbers for the fall, more than a quarter expect some level of decline, according to the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. Enrollment declines are particularly significant for heavily tuition-dependent institutions, which can sometimes be imperiled by losing just a handful of students. Given that reality, some colleges are turning to outside restructuring firms to assist in major systemic changes designed to insure survival. Such is the case at Greensboro College, which recently hired a North Carolina-based firm called NaviscentGroup to help put it back in the black.

Huron Consulting has spent years developing a higher education client portfolio, but much of the company’s work has involved developing cost-cutting strategies that a college might employ even in the best of times. In an increasing number of instances, however, Huron is working

Photo: Chicago State University

Frank Pogue, former interim president of Chicago State University, says the institution lacked any semblance of a spending plan when he arrived last July.

with colleges that are in a weakened -- sometimes severely weakened -- financial position.

“There are lot more now that are in trouble or near trouble than there were,” said Jim Roth, Huron's vice president for health and education consulting.

Huron’s teams, which can be as large as 15 people, may spend weeks or months working with a college. Consultants take up residence in a hotel near the campus, and often start by asking an obvious question: How much do you need to cut from your budget?

“Some places have a very explicit answer to that, particularly if they’re under a lot of stress right now,” Roth said.

Not surprisingly, there are some troubled colleges that don't have answers to rather basic questions, including how they manage expenses and allocate resources. That's because some of them simply don't have budget systems in place to determine where dollars should flow and in what amounts. That kind of loose budgeting is what Frank Pogue says he encountered when he took over as interim president at Chicago State University, an institution that had been embroiled in turmoil for years. Pogue succeeded Elnora Daniel, whose lavish spending on a Caribbean get-away and other questionable items led to her contract not being renewed.

Pogue says the university had no concrete spending plan, so programs like athletics would simply run up tabs without apparent restrictions. Buildings were approved for construction with no budget for maintaining them -- or even cleaning them, Pogue says.

“In the absence of priorities, money was being spent on whimsical activities, and not in ways consistent with the mission,” he said. “ … For example, there was no budget whatsoever for athletics. On the other hand, athletics cost the university on an annual basis in excess of $3 million, so those resources had to be taken often from different places to support athletics.”

Pogue, who is also a member of the Registry for College and University Presidents, completed a one-year stint as interim president of Chicago State June 30.

For an institution in crisis, one might have thought Pogue would come in as a hatchet man. While he did dismiss a public relations employee, Pogue says his goal was to retain people -- not fire them.

“[Faculty] kind of expected me to come in with the order from the trustees to clean house because of all the negative publicity,” said Pogue, who spent 11 years as president of Edinboro University of Pennsylvania before coming to Chicago. “I can only say that if the trustees thought I was going to do that they didn’t do a good job looking at my reputation. My position is anybody can clean house. Anybody can walk in off the street without an ounce of education and fire everybody. My job was to empower people to do their jobs.”

Instead of cleaning house, Pogue reached out to faculty and administrators -- and quickly signaled a greater emphasis on transparency, according to Yan Searcy, chair of Chicago State’s Faculty Senate. Before Pogue even moved to Chicago, he met with Searcy at a downtown hotel to discuss faculty concerns.

“I was quite candid,” said Searcy, an associate professor of social work and sociology. “And he listened, so that was a good start.”

Pogue continued his predecessor’s tradition of holding weekly meetings of the president’s executive council, which included deans, vice presidents and the Senate chair. He made one notable change, however. Pogue ensured that the minutes of those meetings were recorded and distributed across campus by e-mail. It was a small change, but still an important signal that there would be no more secrets, Searcy said.

“It may not have been something he thought would be a symbol of change, but in effect it was that,” he said.

Contagion of Fear

Fear has a way of spreading, and in many ways that’s what’s happening across higher education. Scott Colley, who took over as interim president of Lees McRae College on June 1, doesn’t have to look very far to stare his fears in the face. Lees McRae is located in Banner Elk, N.C., about 130 miles west of Greensboro College. Colley has read stacks of news stories about Greensboro’s financial struggles, knowing all the while that a small dip in enrollment at Lees McRae could put his college in a similar position.

“I think we’re different from Greensboro,” he said. “But I don’t think there’s anybody running a small college who can be cocky.”

Photo: Berry College

Scott Colley, who was named interim president of Lees McRae College in June, says all tuition-driven colleges face challenges.

Colley has yet to lay out a concrete financial plan for Lees McRae, but he’s been candid that some of the painful steps Greensboro has taken have to be on the table for his college as well.

“I clearly had an assignment to make sure our expenses were under control,” he said.

Colley, who spent 10 years as president of Berry College in Rome, Ga., was also hired through the presidential registry. He retired from Berry in 2006, and then did some part-time teaching at the University of Virginia. Moving to Banner Elk hasn’t been easy. Colley’s wife remains in their home in Keswick, Va., near Charlottesville, while he lives alone in the presidential residence, spending many of his nights reading over balance sheets.

“I’m a bachelor again, with visits from someone I like a lot once in a while,” says Colley, 67.

Colley says he’s already “earned all the medals” he needs in higher education, but -- like other presidents interviewed for this story -- he says he has expertise and wants to give something back. While none of the presidents mentioned compensation as a motivator, it's fair to say the registry gives them a chance to bring in continual income. Pogue, for instance, collected a $250,000 salary and was provided housing, according to news reports. Champagne took home about $86,000 from Shimer, records show. And while Colley's salary was not publicly available, his predecessor drew $168,420 in total compensation, according to a 2007 tax form.

Asked why he decided to take on a potentially difficult presidency, Colley quotes his wife: “ 'It’s in your blood'; that’s what she tells me.”

 

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