“One of our errors was we just had a lot of hope that it would correct and so now we have to do it differently."
Editor’s note: The Frontier was founded by Robert Lorton III, a member of the University of Tulsa’s board of trustees.
In his spacious office seated at a conference table piled with books, University of Tulsa President Dr. Gerry Clancy looks every bit the busy university president.
But on a recent afternoon when a prospective student from Booker T. Washington High School was unsure about coming to TU, Clancy jumped in to try to close the deal.
“We had a counselor who called and said, ‘Dr. Clancy, we have a student who’s on the fence. Will you talk to him?’ She handed me the phone and I talked to him. … It’s telling the story that way.”
Demographic changes — such as a declining number of college-age people — and financial pressures are prompting a university-wide discussion about TU’s future.
Former President Steadman Upham stepped down in November, about eight weeks earlier than planned. The decision for Upham to leave early was a mutual one between him, the board and Clancy.
In meetings with Clancy, some veteran professors have expressed concerns about TU’s financial picture, which includes a $25 million deficit.
An aggressive plan to add 1 million square feet of new facilities to the campus — some not fully funded — combined with increased spending on athletics, an expanded administrative staff and rising operations costs all contributed to the deficit.
Declining enrollment, mostly driven by demographics and energy prices, also took a toll. Too many of TU’s new modern dorm rooms have been sitting empty because its freshman class has declined for the past three years, dropping by more than 10 percent this year.
Overall, the university went from a $135 million increase in funds generated from operations and investments in 2011 to an $84 million overall loss last fiscal year, according to the university’s consolidated financial statements.
However, the university’s supporters point to its $1 billion endowment and note TU has plenty of resources to weather a short-term financial challenge. Clancy said TU would tap the endowment to preserve essential services if needed, though some of the funds are restricted for certain uses.
In September, Upham sent an email to faculty and staff announcing TU was cutting 43 staff positions and eliminating contributions to staff and faculty retirement funds, which amounted to a 9 percent average pay cut.
Upham’s $704,000 base pay ranks #1 among TU’s peer group of universities as measured by the Chronicle of Higher Education’s 2016 salary survey. Upham’s total compensation of $1.2 million ranks #2.
TU declined a request by The Frontier to release information on Clancy’s compensation.
Upham, who did not respond to a request for comment, plans to return to TU to teach after a one-year sabbatical, the university has said.
According to the Tulsa Historical Society, which inducted Upham into the Tulsa Hall of Fame in 2011, Upham is a widely published archaeologist, “having written or edited ten books and more than 75 book and monograph chapters and journal articles.”
Upham served as TU’s president from 2004 through 2012 and then agreed to return 74 days later after the abrupt departure of Geoffrey Orsak.
Upham led the largest fundraising campaign in TU history, totaling more than $600 million to support endowments, research and other priorities. The university campus now has more than a million square feet of new, state-of-the-art facilities.
U.S. News & World Report has ranked TU among the top 100 research universities in the nation for the past 14 years and the university competes for the best students. Its freshman class has an ACT average of 30.
On Dec. 14, Clancy sent a university-wide email to employees announcing the retirement benefits would be restored, though not at the same level.
“Beginning in July 2017, the university will provide a dollar-for-dollar match for your retirement, up to 4.5 percent contribution from the university and 4.5 percent contribution from the employee. … I know this does not bring us back to where we were, but it is a start in the right direction.”
Clancy’s email also states that TU will open a clinic at 1215 S. Boulder Ave. to provide primary care for employees and their families without a co-payment.
The University of Tulsa Boulder Medical Clinic — funded by the Chapman Trust Health Funds — will be staffed by nurse practitioners and a new medical director, TU’s first full-time physician.
The university is also providing new assistance to faculty seeking research grants and is continuing a Shark Tank-style competition that awards $5,000 research grants to the best proposals.
While the new benefits are welcome news on campus, some faculty members remain rankled about the current situation and what they see as Upham’s role in creating it.
‘So what happened?’
In a wide-ranging interview with The Frontier recently, Clancy discussed his plans to draw more students to TU and emphasize programs with growth potential.
“Psychologically one of our errors was we just had a lot of hope that it would correct and so now we have to do it differently,” Clancy said.
Though he just took over TU’s presidency in early November, Clancy has won respect for his approach to putting the university’s financial house in order.
Clancy came to TU in January 2015 as vice president for health affairs and dean of the new Oxley College of Health Sciences. Before joining TU, Clancy was president of the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa for eight years.
TU’s board of trustees named him TU’s 20th president in May and before Upham’s departure was moved up, plans called for Clancy to assume his duties Jan. 1.
Clancy invited all faculty and staff to a meeting at the Lorton Performing Arts Center last month, where he gave a presentation that highlighted reasons for the deficit and plans for the university’s future. He held a second meeting Wednesday with faculty to discuss issues including how changing demographic patterns impact TU.
Clancy said many forces, some that couldn’t be controlled, contributed to TU’s financial squeeze. An “education bubble” created by demographics and rising tuition is hitting most higher ed institutions, he said.
“So what happened? A 4 percent drop in 18-to-26-year-olds across the United States. Baby boomers’ kids … they’re gone,” Clancy said. “They’re 30 years old now. So they’re not in school anymore. That hit everybody hard.”
The decline in energy prices also didn’t help.
“Energy hit us hard. We are very energy dependent as a school, not just as a state. … The international students would come over for all the energy-related stuff and it stopped; it just stopped.
“And so we’ve done all this growth, a bunch of new dorm rooms and housing for a freshman class of 800, all these professors, all these classrooms and then they’re not here. … We’ve had three years of that now. It adds up.”
Clancy said it’s his job “to get people back here so that it all runs like it should, in sync.”
Far from hunkering down, Clancy is reaching out to reshape the university.
“I’ve been trying to be very input oriented,” he said with a smile.
- Clancy has held more than 70 one-on-one meetings with faculty members, traditionally a tough audience for university administrators.
- He formed a committee to develop a vision for TU’s future and asked members to start by completing this sentence: “By 2021, the University of Tulsa will be … as evidenced by ….”
- He’s teaching a class this year — a presidential fellowship on leadership for 100 students — using books on Oklahoma and Southern culture to teach about complexity. Among them: “The Worst Hard Time,” a book about the Dust Bowl.
- He and his wife, Paula, have traveled throughout the region, meeting with parents and prospective students to tell TU’s story.
- Clancy has even personally delivered TU acceptance letters to students in area high schools.
To boost enrollment, Clancy has focused on figuring out why some students apply to TU and are accepted but don’t choose TU. He’s confident if students learn enough about the university, that pattern will change.
“We have a lot more students who applied to TU, were accepted to TU but then didn’t come to TU. … I think part of our problem is we haven’t been telling our story well enough.”
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