Trustees discuss fall term success, enrollment and initiatives

The University of Oregon’s return to mostly in-person instruction this fall has been very successful, the Board of Trustees of the University of Oregon heard at its December quarterly meeting.

Thanks to exceptionally high vaccination rates among UO students and employees, and a multilayered safety plan, the university was able to safely resume in-person instruction and activities, UO President Michael Schill told the trustees. The number of reported cases employees and students has remained low throughout the fall for the UO campus community of 27,000 people.

“I’m pleased, and a bit relieved, to report that this term was very successful. I have been hearing on a daily basis from faculty, staff and students how glad they are to be back in person,” Schill said. “It took a tremendous amount of hard work for us to come back together as a community, and that hard work paid off.”

The return to in-person instruction coincided with a record-breaking first-year class for the university, 4,617 freshman students and 1,070 transfer students, reported Roger Thompson, the UO’s vice president for student services and enrollment management. The freshman class also set records for academic preparedness, based on high school GPAs, and diversity.

Trustee Steve Holwerda applauded the UO’s student recruitment efforts during the pandemic, when prospective students couldn’t visit the campus in person. He said he was also impressed by the long-term trends in UO recruitment as well.

“We have, in essence, increased the demand for our university during a time where the number of available (Oregon high school graduates) has gone down,” he said. “At the same time, we’ve managed to attract an even higher caliber of student (over the last decade). That’s a pretty amazing story, and I think we should be proud of that.”

The rebound in first-year enrollment has helped improve the UO’s financial position this academic year, Jamie Moffitt, vice president for finance and administration and chief financial officer, told the trustees. However, the university’s total enrollment has not yet recovered to pre-pandemic levels.

Tuition and fee revenue for the fiscal year is up $5.8 million, or approximately 1.3 percent, over earlier projections, she said. And the UO’s non-tuition-supported key auxiliary operations, like housing and athletics, “appear to be back on track” after facing large budget shortfalls caused by the pandemic, she added.

Still, Moffitt said that the significant dip in enrollment during the 2020-21 academic year will have a sustained budgetary effect on the university, as the loss of those potential students represents a significant loss of tuition dollars over a period of four to five years.

Moffitt also provided an overview of the tuition-setting process for the next academic year as co-chair of the UO’s Tuition and Fee Advisory Board.

The advisory board, which is made up of UO students, faculty members and staff, will meet weekly during the first half of winter term, as it crafts tuition recommendations to present to Schill. Schill, in turn, will present a recommendation to trustees for their March meeting.

Under the UO’s Oregon Guarantee program, tuition rates are already set for all continuing undergraduate students at the university, so the winter term process will be centered on determining tuition and fees for the incoming first-year class.

Moffitt noted adopting the guaranteed tuition model at the start of 2020 has been “a really good shift for us” in terms of providing students and their families financial security and assisting with recruitment.

The trustees received an in-depth update from the Office of the Provost on the UO’s academic initiatives.

The five initiative areas are data science, innovation, environment, sports and wellness, and diversity. The initiatives are at different launch points, Provost Patrick Phillips said, but they represent a common goal of creating new cutting-edge, cross-disciplinary academic programs for UO students.

The initiatives “do not define the university in and of themselves,” he said. “The idea is to bring together strings from across the university and catapult us as a national or worldwide leader in some of these areas.”

Adell Amos, executive director for the Environment Initiative and Clayton R. Hess Professor of Law, told the trustees that the initiative comes at an “unprecedented environmental moment, one that might be bigger than the industrial revolution.”

The opportunity to collaborate across disciplines on environmental issues is profound, Amos said, while creating opportunities for teaching, research and policy influencing around climate solutions.

“The goal is to reimagine the student experience and the degree and professional pathways in the field with a problem-centered approach,” she said.

Trustees asked questions about how the initiatives are funded, both in the short-term and long-term, and how they are being tied to career paths.

The board was also briefed on the status of the UO’s graduate programs and developing plans to rebound graduate enrollment figures.

Krista Chronister, who became the vice provost for graduate studies in August, told trustees that the key will be “offering accessible training that students see as relevant and valuable” taught by faculty members who are prominent in their disciplines.

Chronister said the UO plans to become more active in recruiting students to targeted graduate programs, using alumni networks and promoting current graduate students and their work, with the goal of increasing graduate enrollment by 10 percent in the next five years.

“That keeps us in line with our peer institutions at the (Association of American Universities) and keeps up with growth in undergraduate enrollment,” she said. “The ratio of undergraduate to graduate student enrollment matters in terms of our (university) profile.”

Trustees asked about the possibility of offering additional shorter and more on-demand graduate programs, influenced by the remote instruction experience during the pandemic, and about the UO’s success in growing international graduate enrollment while overall graduate enrollment has flagged.

In other business:

  • On a unanimous vote, the board approved a new masters’ degree program in applied behavioral analysis. The one- or two-year program, offered by the UO’s College of Education, is designed to provide specialized training to work with individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, including autism spectrum disorder. The program is responsive to an employment shortage area in the U.S., associate professor of special education and clinical sciences Wendy Machalicek said, as many fields are seeking workers with that type of certification.
  • UO Foundation President and CEO Paul Weinhold provided a report on a strong year of investment returns for the university’s endowment at 28.6 percent. Weinhold also explained the transition from the foundation managing the endowment’s assets with an internal team to its hiring of outside adviser Jasper Ridge Partners and the advantages the new partnership provides.
  • The UO’s external auditor Moss Adams presented an unmodified opinion on the UO’s audited financial statements, with no significant deficiencies identified.
  • Andre Le Duc, chief resilience officer and associate vice president, provided trustees with an overview of the UO’s enterprise risk management systems and protocols.
  • Mike Harwood, associate vice president for campus planning and facilities management, and Steve Mital, director of the office of sustainability, briefed trustees on the long-term plans for capital projects and sustainability initiatives, respectively.

By Saul Hubbard, University Communications