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Given current circumstances, Richard Vedder, an economics professor emeritus at Ohio University, has decided to teach his fall course, “Economic History of Europe,” for a salary of $1. Plus, a parking sticker.

Richard Vedder, an economics professor emeritus at Ohio University and national expert on higher education finances, began teaching at O.U. in 1965. He says the university’s quality of education has declined, leaving the campus with “a crisis on our hands.” Credit: Donovan Lynch

“It will take a little bit of burden off the university,” said Vedder, who is a national expert on higher education finances. His career — he began teaching at O.U. in 1965 — spans the robust rise of public higher education and, now, its shakiest chapter.

The coronavirus crisis has hurt colleges everywhere. But for schools like O.U. — non-flagship public campuses in Ohio and across the Midwest that were already struggling — it has hastened a reckoning. The campuses have become heavily reliant on dollars from higher and higher tuitions just as the Midwest faces a demographic dive and continued cuts in state funding.

At the same time, more students need college to get jobs, but it is harder for them to afford.

Sprinkled throughout the Midwest, including in remote areas — O.U. is in southern Ohio in the foothills of Appalachia — these schools were built to educate locals and serve as regional economic engines. But after chasing national profiles to attract more out-of-state students in a bid for more tuition dollars — and financial survival — there is now “a lot of hand-wringing around ‘What are we supposed to be?’” said Christina Ciocca Eller, an assistant professor of sociology and social studies at Harvard University who studies regional public universities. “There is big tension over purpose and identity.”

Basic questions — Who should O.U. serve? What kind of school is it? And how do you pay for that? — are fueling conflicts with administrators that, amplified by the coronavirus pandemic, have ignited protests by faculty, staff and some students and alumni.

Founded in 1804 on hills beside the Hocking River in a city named Athens for its ambition to be a center of learning, O.U. is the state’s and region’s oldest public campus. It is known for its liberal arts programs — Roger Ailes, Clarence Page, Peter King and TV sports reporter Allie LaForce are grads — and, more recently, for business and health care.

It is a classic liberal arts campus, set in a charming downtown with bricked streets, and distinguished by such programs as the Honors Tutorial College, in which one student is guided by one professor.

There was a time when its formula worked, and O.U. offered an affordable, quality education. In 1980, for example, in-state tuition was $1,206. That is $3,792 in 2020 dollars.

This gateway on the Ohio University campus commemorates the university’s founding in 1804. Some faculty members say that budget cuts have led to a lowering of the university’s academic reputation. Credit: Donovan Lynch

Related: Analysis: Hundreds of colleges and universities show financial warning signs

But as state funding waned, Ohio’s regional campuses generated needed income by raising prices. Today, in-state tuition at O.U. is $12,612. And tuition, fees, room and board now provide about 55 percent of university revenues; at some campuses in Ohio, it’s even higher (tuition and fees at Kent State are 65 percent of revenues).

Colleges in Crisis

Hundreds of colleges and universities had financial warning signs long before the coronavirus threatened to make everything worse. Our Hechinger Report/NBCNews.com collaboration analyzed higher education’s poor financial health, explored how it got that way and looked at the ultimate consequences for students.

The dependence on enrollments and tuition has become a central problem for many Midwestern schools. A June 2020 study by the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program shows enrollments at regional public universities across six states — Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin — have fallen by over 10 percent since 2011.

Meanwhile, flagships and major research campuses saw a 1.4 percent rise in enrollment. Plus, flagships like Ohio State, which one O.U. professor called “the behemoth to the north,” in Columbus, have more financial resources. In-state tuition is less there, $11,518. And unlike O.U., Ohio State can offer robust campus aid to its poorest students.

The result is an inversion of what makes sense: These regional public universities serve a greater proportion of in-state, low-income and first-generation students than the flagships do, but often end up costing more to attend.

“[Universities] become great when their students become Rhodes Scholars or their faculty win Nobel Prizes.”

Richard Vedder, Ohio University economics professor emeritus and a national expert on higher education finances

Yet, these schools are vital to the Midwest. The Brookings study counts 100 regional public universities serving 1.2 million students, greater density than anywhere else in the country.

To Vedder, a committed Midwesterner who turned down Harvard College as a youth to stay in the region, O.U. is caught in a competitive game that it is losing.

“We have a crisis on our hands because there is a flight to quality,” he said. “Everyone wants to go to the best school.”

In remarks he had planned to deliver in person to the Board of Trustees on March 19 (emailed instead), Vedder said O.U. has faced “a spectacular reputational decline” as a result of wrong-headed moves by leaders with “a disdain for excellence” that is now hurting enrollments.

From 2005 to 2020, Vedder said, O.U. fell from 98th to 185th in the U.S. News Best National University rankings. Instead of doubling down on academics to become more competitive, he said, the university has invested in “activities having little to do with learning and discovering,” spending on “administrative bloat” and Division I sports. Rather than by buying “ads on television” or seeking “success in ball-throwing exercises,” he said, universities “become great when their students become Rhodes Scholars or their faculty win Nobel Prizes.”

Related: How higher education’s own choices left it vulnerable to the pandemic crisis

Others agree. Last fall, a white paper by O.U.’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors, or A.A.U.P., pointed to some of the same culprits: a $20 million annual loss in athletics and rising numbers of well-paid administrators, from 800 to more than 1,190 since 2010.

This critique came even as M. Duane Nellis, the university president, last fall announced a “bold and dynamic vision” for the university and an incoming class that had “posted a record-high grade-point average” of 3.55 on a 4.0 scale.

The problems pre-date Nellis, who arrived in 2017. But they haven’t been solved on his watch. Enrollments have been falling since 2017; for the past three years the university has dipped into its financial reserves.

This spring, with the pandemic, everything got worse. For everyone. In Ohio, which has 14 public universities and 24 branch campuses, the government cut its higher education budget by $110 million.

The University of Akron reduced 10 percent of its staff, including layoffs of 96 faculty, and will close six of 11 academic colleges. Wright State University let go 50 university employees; in addition, 35 faculty took early retirement. Bowling Green University non-renewed or laid off 119 employees; Miami University of Ohio let go 40.

At O.U., there were three rounds of layoffs, non-renewals and cuts in May and June that have added up to a loss of 334 positions, just over 7 percent of the workforce (in addition, 82 faculty members have taken buyouts so far, according to a university spokesperson). The actions drew faculty members, staff and union workers in trademark orange T-shirts bearing signs like “Can’t Spell Ouch without O.U.” to numerous protests.

In May, the Faculty Senate voted “no confidence” in Nellis and his vice president of Finance.

Nellis acknowledges the challenges, but emphasizes that, before the pandemic, there was a plan.

“We were in the middle of a strategic repositioning” that involves a rebranding, he said. Overall, he is trying to make the university “more nimble and dynamic” to be able “to pivot where there are emerging opportunities.” As an example, he mentioned esports, and a new curriculum that could be used as “a vehicle to enable training.”

Related: Amid pandemic, graduate student workers are winning long-sought contracts

Nellis’ approach is a common one on stressed campuses across America: More online enrollments, more vocationally appealing certificates, more money-making master’s degree programs. And marketing the schools’ brands to (hopefully)increase revenues.

It’s a strategy that faculty are blanching at. Jennifer Fredette, an associate professor of political science and an active member of the O.U.-A.A.U.P., said the overarching problem is the dearth of state funding, but that the administration’s budget choices reflect the wrong values.

“We do not enrich our citizens and help ensure equal access if we pour our money into marketing and recruitment,” she said, adding that the crisis is an opportunity for people to press larger issues like “how they want the state of Ohio to spend taxpayer money.”

Just as protests around the country have challenged public spending on police, there is a parallel awakening about budgets on state campuses. At the University of Cincinnati, student leaders, representing groups advocating causes from fossil fuel divestment to anti-human trafficking, recently identified a common foe: university spending practices.

“We do not enrich our citizens and help ensure equal access if we pour our money into marketing and recruitment.”

Jennifer Fredette, associate professor of political science at Ohio University and member of the O.U.-A.A.U.P. chapter

Their website, “Boldly Bankrupt” (a play on the campus mantra: “Boldly Bearcat”), aims to educate — and activate — peers by showing them “how your tuition money is actually being spent,” said Abigail Stidham, an organizer who is majoring in environmental studies. Among the effects of budget choices — they call it the “financialization” of their education — are more adjuncts, fewer upper-level classes and inadequate funding for student mental health.

Recent O.U. alumni built a website of testimonials protesting layoffs because, as one founder put it, this “is not the O.U. that we knew.” A current student made a Twitter hashtag, #SaveOUrprofs.

Faculty from O.U., Ohio State and Miami of Ohio started #SaveOhioHigherEd, signing a solidarity pledge and vowing to let “the administrative class” know that it is “running higher education in a very different way than we want to see it run,” said one organizer.

More than 100 faculty members, adjuncts and others joined the group’s first Zoom meeting. This was before adjunct faculty at O. U. were laid off, but amidrumors of cuts to the Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies and the African American Studies departments. Although those cuts did not happen, the rumors fed a sense that the administration misunderstood the college’s liberal arts mission. In particular, professors argue that applying business-like metrics to things like academic departments misses key contributions.

Related: Enrollment and financial crises threaten growing list of academic disciplines

For example, Akil Houston, a filmmaker, social critic and hip-hop scholar who is an associate professor in the African American Studies department, said the discipline does not generate many majors and minors, a typical university measuring tool. Yet, he said, “given that we live in a racist, sexist, classist society” the department is the place on campus where students in fields from business to science can have conversations on issues now seen as critical in any career.It is one reason why hiship-hop course, he said, is always full.

As a Black professor, he also advises students outside of his department, a role that “doesn’t get counted,” he said. To those focused on the financial impactof student enrollments, he would ask, “What does African American Studies provide to a university and how does it play a role in retaining students of color?”

Mayor Steve Patterson of Athens, the home of Ohio University, worries that university cutbacks, faculty layoffs and students staying away because of coronavirus concerns will damage the local economy. Credit: Donovan Lynch

It is not a rhetorical question. O.U. has an urgent need to enroll and retain students. This got trickier following a surge of Covid-19 cases in the region; on July 31, Nellis announced that classes would begin August 24 remotely for most. About 1,700 students, including those in certain programs requiring in-person work plus some athletes, have been invited to campus. A Phase 2 envisions inviting more back September 28, but there is skepticism about that happening, and the plan is for all classes to be remote after November 20.

In June, things felt more hopeful. One weekday morning, near the South Side Espresso Bar in Nelson Commons, O.U. staff were filming a short video to show how meal service would work in the fall (an “OHIO Eats” app to order; five pick-up points around campus).

Everyone was masked and socially distanced. The video director cued a student actor standing on the spot he had just marked with duct tape. Micaylah Nash, a junior in a green T-shirt with “OHIO” in white letters, said through a black cloth mask. “I’m here where we all want to be — at Ohio University on our beautiful campus!”

“I am going, ‘OK, where are the comparable paying jobs in the city of Athens that these people could be employed into?’ And they are few and far between.”

Steve Patterson, mayor of Athens, Ohio, speaking of layoffs at Ohio University

The video was made not just to reassure, but to lure students (and is still being sent). Without students this fall, one professor predicted, “you can toe tag us.”

Things may not be that dire, but in Athens, Mayor Steve Patterson is very concerned. That’s because he notes that 18,000 of his city’s 24,000 residents are students.  

When the campus emptied in March, Patterson, a former O.U. psychology professor, saw how it hurt the shops and eateries along Court Street. Now, he wonders, what’s next? He fears that the students’ absence will reduce the city’s 2020 Census count, leading to $30 million in lost allocations over a decade. If students do return on September 28, only to leave in November, he worries for local businesses: “How long will those establishments be able to hang in there?”

And, of course, what about those university layoffs?

“I am going, ‘OK, where are the comparable-paying jobs in the city of Athens that these people could be employed into?’ ” he said. “And they are few and far between.”

Patterson traces a troubling forecast. The laid-off commute for jobs, then leave Athens altogether. Will they be able to sell their houses? “Will we see more and more vacant homes?”

These are concerns not only for the city, but alsofor Athens County. It is one of the poorest in Ohio; O.U. is — by far — the county’s largest employer and the region’s economic driver. It’s whyLarry Fisher, an O.U. grad and now executive director of the Appalachian Center for Economic Networks, worries about the loss of disposable income from layoffs and early retirements. Businesses count on that spending, he said, adding that O.U.’s troubles, “will ripple down to the more rural communities and counties.”

To Vedder, the economics professor and a longtime Athens resident who counts bar owners and landlords among his friends and has studied higher education economics for decades, the economic security that his public university once provided his community is falling away.

Yes, he said, this is an “unusual downturn,” amplified by the fiscal stresses of the coronavirus pandemic. Before, said Vedder, there was a cluster of problems, from a decades-long decline in state funding to a competition for students so fierce “someone’s gain comes at someone else’s expense.” But now, “it is the perfect storm at work here.”

Additional reporting by Donovan Lynch.

Correction: This story has been changed to correct the number of student invited to campus on August 24.

This story about higher education in Ohio was produced by  The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on  inequality and innovation in education. Sign up  for  our  higher education newsletter. 

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Laura Pappano is an education journalist who also writes about gender and sport. She is a regular contributor to The New York Times Education Life section and former education columnist for The Boston...

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  1. Excellent story.

    Regional flagships across the country are going the way of the Titanic, taking their college towns with them to the bottom of the cold dark ocean.

    And, lo and behold, standardized testing (that first and foremost served the needs of the schools for one-hundred years) is going away now, too.

    What other institutionalized practices are next? What will the end result look like? Will we even recognize it when it appears?

    Considered as a fitness landscape, even the higher education peaks — Regional flagwhips — are being transformed as the entire sector metamorphoses.
    Covid is a brutal arbiter about whose final judgments we know nothing.

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