A transitional future lies ahead
by Mark Reaman
Western Colorado University president Greg Salsbury presented a “State of the University” report to the WCU Faculty Senate on Monday and reported, “A lot of good things are happening at the university.” But he emphasized that the future holds many challenges.
Working on his sixth year as president, Salsbury said the school is up 20 Full-Time Equivalent Students (FTES) over the end of last year. FTES is the budgetary lingo counting full-time students, but it basically encompasses any student doing any work at Western. Salsbury admitted that while FTES is up, revenue at the school has not followed suit and is down. He explained part of the reason is heavy scholarship awards used to help attract students to certain areas of the school.
“In the last five years we have had the fastest FTES growth in the state except for CU–Boulder,” he said. He offered statistics showing that from 2013 to 2018 the number of degree-seeking students at the three rural Colorado universities have struggled. He said Fort Lewis has seen a decrease of 714 such students in that time; Adams increased 76 students; and Western saw an increase of 115 such students. In terms of actual “headcount,” Fort Lewis has seen a 551 person decrease; Adams increased by 24 students; and Western’s number went up by 513 people.
“We have shepherded the second-largest donation to higher education in the state’s history, about $90 million, that is being used in many ways to help the university,” Salsbury stated in regard to the contribution of Western alumni Paul Rady. Rady committed $80 million to build and fund the Paul M. Rady School of Computer Science and Engineering, and since then has added to the contribution to help finance myriad other items at the school, including tools that can help recruit future students.
“There is a bad 80-20 equation when it comes to donations to higher education,” Salsbury told the faculty. “About 80 percent of all contributions made go to 20 schools in the country. Not 20 percent of the schools, 20 schools. So for little Western to pull off a $90 million donation is pretty phenomenal.”
Salsbury went on to tout the new partnership with University of Colorado (CU) and the engineering school and lauded the now “very powerful marketing and recruiting team.”
What’s on his mind
Salsbury recited a number of issues that concern him regarding Western’s future. The engineering school did not meet its goal of 50 students and instead, Salsbury said, has 43 in the partnership program with CU. While not bad, it wasn’t where the university wanted to be, “but overall there are some positive signs with the program,” he said.
Salsbury is disappointed at the progress of the planned soccer fields but again gave kudos to Paul Rady, who has stepped up to fund the lights that will cost about $500,000. Salsbury said that would give Western the opportunity to perhaps form a women’s lacrosse team in the future.
Enrollment and student outcomes are on his mind. He wants to make sure that “students end up getting to a better outcome having gone to Western. Competition has never been fiercer and costs of higher education are going up. Candidates looking at schools want to know what they get for their money.”
Western has a heavy debt load, Salsbury admitted, and while some has been restructured, he said the administration is looking for creative ways to handle the rest of that load. He said staff compensation and the housing crunch in Gunnison County is on his mind and said housing is a major challenge that impacts the school. He said they have lost professors who were offered positions but didn’t find what they considered adequate housing. “Hopefully we can find solutions, maybe in partnership with the county,” he said.
Figuring out a new model that attracts students to schools like Western is also on Salsbury’s mind and thus the need to broaden the offerings.
Responding to faculty concerns
Salsbury’s address then turned to a list of questions submitted by the faculty senators. Many of the questions were pointed, asking about his compensation compared to the general faculty salary structure; asking him to explain what some saw as a damaging move away from Western’s traditional liberal arts focus; asking if his administration should bear some blame for declining or stagnant undergraduate enrollment; and wondering if there is too much focus on the economics of the school and not enough on education.
Salsbury, who makes more than $230,000 annually explained that the board of trustees felt he deserved a hefty raise of 16 percent given his accomplishments that included things like the Rady donation and shifts to help keep enrollment from plummeting. “I am being paid as close to the market rate for that position as the board can afford,” he told the faculty. “I am one of the lowest paid presidents of a four-year university. My compensation is the reality of market rate salaries. The trustees also see my job is more demanding from when I first came to Western, with many more responsibilities.”
Salsbury said Western’s administrative costs are “significantly leaner” than peer universities, saying at Western administrative costs are about 11.4 percent of the budget compared to more than 14 percent at other similar institutions.
Salsbury spent a lot of time addressing the question of what he saw as WCU’s future. He said with Rady’s financial help the school has doubled the names of potential students who can be contacted directly and recruited. He said visits to high schools, especially on Colorado’s Front Range, have increased and he personally makes some of those visits. The number of groups coming to Western has increased as has online marketing efforts and the school’s website has been updated.
Meeting the challenges
“The higher education landscape in the next 20 years and Western’s role in that landscape is challenging,” Salsbury said. He emphasized that it was important to face the realities of that changing landscape and not ignore what was happening in the hope it would all work out.
“I don’t want to sugarcoat the situation. I believe higher education is in the midst of a great transition and Western will have to shift significantly.”
Salsbury suggested that two models of successful higher education were emerging due to demographics, rising costs and technological advances. The first was a highly inexpensive/highly accessible school that was rapidly gaining market share. The second model was a “prestigious and endowed” model. Schools in the middle, like Western, have struggled. He argued passionately that Western worked really well when a lot of things in the world were very different but times change and Western needed to change as well.
“Competition has exploded while state funding for schools like Western has decreased,” he noted as he pointed out the digital revolution has been a major influence for people. He warned that too many institutions feel like a Blockbuster video store of 20 years ago that couldn’t figure out the changing market and were perplexed at why they were losing customers. “Western is not immune to these major changes,” he emphasized.
“I think Western’s future is to move toward the second model,” Salsbury continued. “Western can be a prestigious, high-quality school sort of like Colorado College or School of Mines. We need to expand our footprint. We need to increase our ability to use online formats for undergraduate and graduate students; we need to increase partnerships like we have started with CU and the engineering program; we need to look at existing programs that are growing and support them; we need to reach beyond the Gunnison Valley and we need to dramatically better our student outcomes.
We need to increase our graduate offerings and improve our website. We need to better show off Western in the summer when it is so nice, to attract students here. I have maintained we need to be an institution students flock to despite our location versus because of our location. We need to attract students wanting to come here for reasons other than the location and access to the outdoors.”
Salsbury answered several questions from faculty, many of whom seemed to feel disenfranchised from the administration and its decision making process. Other faculty members however, were excited about the changes and challenges taking place at WCU.
“On the main, I’m optimistic,” Salsbury concluded. “I like what we’ve done and we need to do more of it. As for the liberal arts element of the school’s history, we need to keep it but it is incumbent on us to show how it can lever other elements of the institution as well.” He gave an example of talking to a computer company who told him the business wanted “computer nerds. But they want computer nerds who can write and give presentations and sell. I see that we have a unique opportunity to be able to develop that hybrid.”