Keene State College President Addresses Financial And Enrollment Challenges

Dec 17, 2018

Credit www.visitnhcolleges.com

The University System of New Hampshire announced this fall that Melinda Treadwell would be the next president of Keene State College.

Treadwell led the school on an interim basis since the unexpected departure of former president Anne Huot last summer. She's overseen significant cost-cutting and restructuring efforts, and like many rural colleges in the state, Keene State has struggled with enrollment declines.   Morning Edition Host Rick Ganley spoke with Treadwell about how she plans to continue to handle these challenges.


(Editor's note: this transcript has been edited lightly for clarity.)

Some have said that the administration before you had some issues with mismanagement with Keene State's finances. What kind of issues did you inherit that you've had to work with?

Sure. So I think if any president at any institution was here standing with you this morning Rick, they'd probably be talking about the turbulent landscape in higher [education] and the fact that all institutions, public and private, are facing challenges to ensure they meet their market. When I entered Keene State as the interim president about 22 months ago now, the challenges that we inherited were some structural gaps in the budget. There had been an enrollment decline that the campus had worked aggressively toward, but we hadn't quite found the footing. And so we now have established a balanced budget. That was a lot of the work that we did last year.

Was this from mismanagement per se or was it just from lack of foresight?

I think it's hard to point to any one factor honestly. I think that what happened at Keene State is that as the demographic declined, to be a liberal arts college is hard to articulate at times. What is the value of the liberal arts?

To want to quantify the value for that education.

Exactly, and so I think we needed to be more sophisticated. I would say that we lost some of our promotional value, and I think that the administration dealt with a number of challenges.

So how have things changed in the past year and some months?

So we've balanced the budget. I think that was the hardest work of the campus. We worked very hard as a community last year to close the budget gap that we had.

How did you do that? That involves some shedding of faculty and then also shutting down of programs?

We shut no programs down. In fact, what my focus has been as leading the institution, I think this is what any CEO is looking at at this point, which is investing in the student experience. So we've actually hired more faculty in the past couple of years. I've limited administrative overhead. So we've been eliminating senior administrative positions. We've also tightened budget in areas that didn't affect the student experience.

When you say student experience, what do you mean?

So the average class size at Keene State, one of our strengths, is 20 students per faculty member. That very close relationship means that students get a lot of mentorship by our faculty. So that's something we're holding onto, making sure that our programs have that type of investment. I think the other area of students support are things you might expect from a residential life experience, or advising, tutoring, academic support programs, our athletic programs -- making sure that the whole life of the student is a primary focus as well as the classroom.

Of course going forward the name of the game would be to increase enrollment. You know you've got the aging population. You've got less younger people going to rural colleges in some cases. But you know, there's an example with New England College, also rural, also in New Hampshire. They've seen record enrollment rates. Is there a model there you can see for Keene State College?

Right. So I think Keene State origin is as a normal school. So we have a very strong education program. We also are a public liberal arts college, as I mentioned at the outset. And we've been honored that Keene State for two years running has the most employable graduates of any institution, public or private, in the state and we're number 18 in the country. I don't know that the general population in this state, or in this region, is fully aware because we haven't championed that story strongly enough.

So it's a question of marketing?

It is. It's marketing. It's also promoting and advocating what a liberal arts degree means. And the fact that we intertwine liberal arts and professional studies, and we do so through partnership with the community college, and with our own programs and other employers in our region is what is going to be the essential stepping forward for Keene State. We've stabilized our enrollment now. We are at about 3,700 Students. The peak enrollment that we're projecting is 4,000, and we won't be there for another four years by commitment in our budget. We've developed a four and a half to five year plan. When we get to that number, that's about right size. We've talked a lot with the chamber [and] the mayor. We're not in a constant growth model. That's healthy size for Keene State.

I want to turn your attention to Title IX now. U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy Devos [is] proposing to roll back some guidelines on how to implement Title IX. Of course that could change how colleges and universities are handling complaints of sexual harassment and assault. Have you looked at what those new proposals would mean for how Keene State College handles those kinds of complaints?

Yes, and in fact I'm very proud of what our system and our college did. We had some early complaints. We along with our university system colleagues and with the board were one of the first systems in the country to establish very aggressive standards, and expectations and reporting requirements. So what I'm proud to have inherited is now a culture of reporting. When the proposed rules came out, in fact our Title IX director attended a panel recently to talk about what those changes would mean. And we've provided testimony to the federal government appealing that the existing structures that have been built over the past five to 10 years, are so important that we really don't believe these new proposals will be helpful for us. In fact, they will weaken the systems that we think have made a positive, prominent difference. So we've gone on the record with that and we'll continue to watch this closely, but I'm very hopeful that those rules will not be implemented as proposed.

What happens if they are?

I think what we will do within those rules is we'll ensure that we are meeting the federal requirements. But there's also the opportunity for us to do more than the minimum. And so I think we'll be doing aggressive work to ensure that the environments on our campus is a campus of zero tolerance for harm to be done to any member of our community. And we'll work very aggressively to make sure that we are doing so.