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Professors Calling Students

August 22, 2014

The new interim president of the University of Southern Maine has advice for faculty amid an enrollment decline: Call students who have yet to re-enroll and get them to come back to campus.

Some faculty members were already doing this, but other professors are bristling at the directive from interim President David Flanagan, a former power company CEO who has been on the job just three weeks.

Southern Maine has been through a tumultuous period of budget cuts, prospective faculty layoffs and efforts by the new and previous administrations to eliminate programs. Faculty members, programs and the budget got a slight reprieve earlier this year and state system officials adopted a plan to dip into reserve money to shore up the college’s finances, but now millions of dollars are expected to be cut from the Southern Maine budget in coming years.

A big problem, according to the university’s administration, is enrollment. Southern Maine administration officials said this week that projected enrollment is about 7 percent below this time last year. The first day of classes is Sept. 2.

To cope with that, Flanagan is telling faculty members to call students who have not yet graduated to get them to sign up for classes if they haven’t already. At some universities, that job is left to student advising staff members, though some faculty also already do this.

“I know you and the whole faculty are deeply concerned with what can be done to reduce the number of positions and programs we have to forgo,” he said in an Aug. 15 email to faculty representatives. “Right now and for the next two weeks the single most important thing faculty members can do is to personally, directly call and contact past students who have not signed up to return in the fall.”

This has irked at least a few faculty members.

Others are open to the idea, including some who had been doing it already. The president said he got the idea from one such professor, who has called students to make sure they plan to return.

“I thought that given our decline in credit hours, which is a very serious matter here, that it would be in everyone’s best interest if professors would just get in touch, just call up people who are in this terrible purgatory of still having student loans and not completing their programs,” Flanagan said in a telephone interview Thursday afternoon.

Flanagan said the idea was a last-minute way to try to shore up enrollment, which has fallen from 8,500 full-time-equivalent students in 2010 to just 6,500.

He said he’ll have more strategic efforts by next year. Part of his mandate is to come up with a balanced budget, which will mean millions in cuts – more than $12.5 million, perhaps – to both administrative and academic line items by next summer.

Flanagan, the former head of Central Maine Power, Maine’s largest public utility, wants to try to increase enrollment through more attention to recruiting, retention and career services, and by turning to online education and other areas where there is “collective judgment” in favor of efforts that could reverse the enrollment decline.

Jerry LaSala, the chairman of the Faculty Senate, said he’s already heard a few comments from faculty on both sides of the president’s student calling directive.

President Flanagan is, LaSala said, hoping that the senate will endorse the idea, which LaSala said was “possible.”

“My own reaction is that it sounded like a reasonable thing to try if it’s on a voluntary basis,” LaSala said. Right now, it’s voluntary.

Still, the Faculty Senate chairman said, “There is a problem, which is that an awful lot of the popular courses are overfilled already, so I suspect that some of the non-returning students are students who have not been able to register for the courses that they want."

Some faculty members have been provided with a call sheet that instructs them to ask students if they know who their adviser is, if they have made an appointment with the adviser, what their plans are for the fall, and if they have any questions or concerns.

Flanagan said he got the idea of faculty calling after he heard about the efforts of Libby Bischof, an associate professor of history who is incoming chair of the university’s history and political science department.

In an interview, Bischof said she’s been making the calls voluntarily for years to students who have yet to re-register.

“I know most of my students pretty well, and I really like talking to students, so I really see it as an extension of teaching, which I am here for,” she said.

Southern Maine has a policy that allows students to walk at graduation even without having met all the qualifications for graduation. That has apparently resulted in some students leaving campus without their actual degree.

The university has changed another requirement that prevented some students from getting their degrees, a spokeswoman said: it once required every one of a student’s final 30 credits to be from Southern Maine for the university to grant him or her a degree. It changed that requirement to 30 of the last 45 credits, which allows some students who leave campus to get their degrees using credits from another institution.

Susan Campbell, the chief student affairs officer who is now on special assignment, beginning this week, to tackle enrollment issues, said she’s not yet gotten feedback from faculty members who have been asked to make calls, but she has heard about differing reactions.

“I am certain there are some who think this is just not a good idea for them or appropriate role for faculty, and I think there are others who think it’s a great way to keep in constant contact with your students,” she said. “In the ideal world, every student who crosses our threshold, if they turn around and go the other direction, we ought to know why so that we can continue to improve.”

Campbell said in past years that faculty were not asked to call because they are unionized and not on contract during the summer, but that such efforts may not be unusual at private colleges, where faculty are “often more engaged with their student advisees.”

Bischof wonders if there’s a generational shift afoot.

“I think the role of faculty is changing and it might be a generational difference.... I think faculty play a pretty key role in retention and I think we probably will going forward,” she said.

There are, Campbell said, now three overlapping efforts designed to get students to come back to campus this fall. One is a longtime initiative traditionally handled by staff to get students who enrolled in the past year to re-register if they have yet to do so. That includes about 1,200 students.

There’s a second effort within the college of arts and humanities that aims to get students who are seniors who have not graduated to come back to graduate.

A third effort is to identify all students who have not come back to campus in two years but are eligible to graduate. 

 

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