A President's Reflections

Rumors (and my future as wildlife photographer)

Posted on December 18, 2011

It’s been a while since I’ve posted on any campus rumors, but a couple of real doozies [Is that how you spell “doozie”?  It’s one of those old phrases my father would use and I’m revising it out of nostalgia.] are making the rounds, so it might be helpful to set the record straight.

The first one is that the University is preparing to sell off the College of Online and Continuing Education.  The corollary to this one is that University College would not be able to stand on its own and would not survive. 

We are not selling off COCE.  First, it would only have value to a buyer if it had stand alone accreditation.  An operation as large as COCE with great operations, a large suite of program offerings, and a talented team is still not going to attract students if its programs are unaccredited.   It would quickly go out of business.   If you see us pursuing separate accreditation (a likely two year process and one that is quite public) you can ask the question then, but for now you can completely disregard this notion.  

Let me speak to the corollary.  University College does run an operating deficit.  It was about $3.9m last year and the university back fills that operating deficit from its surplus.  But in the crazy logic of rumors someone missed the obvious: if we were selling COCE the proceeds would go to what would become a much larger endowment that could then provide the needed additional funds to keep UC afloat. 

That said, the rumor is baseless, the logic flawed, and it would all be laughable if these things did not upset people.  In this case, a worried UC employee sought reassurance from her supervisor that her job was safe.  Geez, our world has enough uncertainty and stress without making stuff up.

A second rumor apparently came from a non-SNHU employee who ran into a faculty member at a local gym.  In this one, I am selling off COCE “for millions and getting 10%.”  Based on market evaluations and our current revenues, COCE would be worth around $400m right now and my take would be $40m in the rumored scenario. 

Okay, I take the whole first part of this post back.  Maybe we will sell COCE off.  I’ve always wanted to be a wildlife photographer.  I can see it now.  I’d relax in a hammock sipping a mojito and instruct my assistant to run over in the hot sun and take photos of a lion or a cheetah while I watch from a safe distance in the cool shade and then have my work in National Geographic.  Works for me.  Put out the “For Sale” sign!

Oh, wait a minute.   Is there is no scenario (legally, fiscally, ethically, or governance-wise) that would allow the president of a non-profit to “sell” it and reap a commission?  There is not.  If I might quote my old man again, and forgive the colloquialism here, but this one really is looney tunes (for all you kids out there, Looney Tunes was a production company that made silly cartoons).

If I knew that real, well-meaning people were not potentially upset about these kinds of things, I’d find rumors as far-fetched as these  highly entertaining.  As I reported at my last Q&A on campus, the reality is that the Board has given us a green light to grow COCE and to become one of the largest non-profit providers of online education in the country if possible.    While it won’t be easy (the for-profits will come roaring back; other non-profits are entering the market; the regulatory environment keeps changing), if we are successful we can extend our mission and address the national need to educate more Americans.  We can create more opportunities and that includes opportunities for our own employees to grow, take on new roles, move from one area of the university to another (far from that one staff person’s anxiety about her job), and provide the resources to help more of our needy students, re-invest in the quality of our offerings, and continue the awards winning benefits we offer faculty and staff. 

Something that does not fall into the category of rumor, but that does invite comment is the occasional grumble I hear that “Paul favors COCE over the traditional campus.”  There are variations on the theme: “COCE gets everything it wants.” and “All the cool stuff happens at COCE.”  None of that actually holds up to scrutiny.  In any given week, less than 20% of my time is spent in COCE and I know far more UC students than COCE students (in last week alone we hosted students at our house, I spoke at the Future Business Leaders meeting, read at the holiday concert, sat in on a student presentation of their portfolios in SoE, and dealt with any number of individual items, often appeals for aid).  It is true that we are investing in COCE, as dictated by the Strategic Plan, but consider the investments in UC (five years of great benefits and comp; new programs like College Unbound; a 50% multi-million dollar increase in UC scholarship funds; new buildings and renovations; more staffing). 

The needs, goals, and priorities of the two units are different and that may feed some of the grumbling.  COCE is all about growth, a focus on state of the art service, and improving quality of delivery.  UC is all about improving retention (instead of growing), improving student learning outcomes, and creating a more appealing campus environment.  Also, COCE has garnered enormous media coverage – -there is a another story today in the Union Leader — and that feeds a sense that it is getting all the attention. 

In reality, COCE needs a strong traditional campus with an ever improving reputation.  Potential COCE students are increasingly wary of their for-profit alternatives and find reassurance that there is a real bricks and mortar campus witha non-profit mission.  In turn, UC needs COCE to be successful as it remains the economic engine of the university and will remain so for the foreseeable increased development effort (though those will always pale in comparison to COCE’s bottom line contributions).  While we increasingly treat COCE and UC as very different academic and business units (with their distinct cultures, student markets, and needs), they have to remain mutually supportive.

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