Student enrollment is down at the University of Memphis, and that's one of the reasons for a major budget gap at the school.
The shortfall was the main topic of last week's town hall meeting held by interim president Brad Martin.
In the first of a two-day series of meetings for students, faculty, and staff, Martin showed that the fall in enrollment accounted for $14 million of the $20 million gap. Other factors included more students taking advantage of scholarships ($1.5 million), an increase in technological infrastructure costs ($1 million), construction costs ($1 million), and a lack of state funding ($2.5 million).
Martin presented a seven-part plan outlining how he would like the university to deal with the fallout. Part of that plan addressed the need to have an increase of approximately 700 students by the 2014-15 school year and an additional 1,000 students by 2015-16.
Martin said he wants to put in place an incentive program that increases the university's graduation rate from 46 percent to 55 percent. And he wants to make the College of Education a national destination with a goal of graduating more than 400 students from that department each year.
In regard to student services, Martin said the university will develop better standards in recruitment, admissions, transfers, financial aid, advising, housing, and dining. He also wants to develop a 10-year "human capital plan" between the university and local employers to help students find work in the area.
Multiple times during his presentation, Martin emphasized the need to not only raise attendance at the U of M but to keep students enrolled at the university until they graduate.
After the presentation, Martin and his board of advisers fielded questions from students and faculty, most of whom seemed worried that his plan for the university was too similar to a corporate business model. Art professor Cedar Nordbye expressed concern that Martin's focus undermines what makes a university special.
"My fear of us shifting from a university into a jobs machine or an incubator for employment for corporations is that we will lose track of what universities do that is so unique in terms of creating citizens of this country who are broadly educated," Nordbye said. "After all, our motto isn't dreamers, thinkers, doers, and widgets."
Members of the Progressive Student Alliance voiced concern over the job security of the university's food workers and custodial staff. While Martin said he would make no declaration against outsourcing workers, he said there were no plans to do so at this time. Toward the end of the meeting, University of Memphis provost David Rudd encouraged students and faculty to email him with any concerns or ideas that they may have.
"What we're asking for is help us find the solutions. This isn't top-down," Rudd said. "We are reaching out and asking for your advice, knowing that when all is said and done we still have to come up with $20 million."