Behre keeps focus on students in SRU’s State of the University address
Slippery Rock University President William Behre conducted his annual State of the University address through an emailed letter to the campus community Sept. 11 that was followed by a Zoom Q&A open to faculty, staff and students, Sept. 15.
Sept. 16, 2020
SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. — In his annual State of the University address, Slippery Rock University President William Behre maintained perspective of the University's mission and vision amid the disruptions and anxiety associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Despite this year's context, we mustn't lose sight of the wonder of a new year," said Behre, who is in third year as SRU president. "In our students, we see the embodiment of our mission and our future. This year marks our institution's 131st fall semester. Despite the pandemic, our tradition of serving students remains strong."
Those words, including a three-part report focusing on 1.) enrollment, affordability and outcomes; 2.) University finances; and 3.) looking forward, were emailed to students, faculty and staff Sept. 11. As a follow up, Behre hosted a Zoom call, Sept. 15, to answer questions from the campus community. Typically, SRU's State of the University address is delivered at an in-person assembly on campus, but, like many activities during the pandemic, it was moved to a virtual setting.
Addressing enrollment, affordability and outcomes, Behre commended the faculty and staff for improving the institution in those areas. Total enrollment increased by 70 students to 8,876 compared to last year, buoyed by a record number of graduate students. Although the first-year undergraduate cohort decreased by 119 students, Behre attributed the decline to the pandemic because the numbers were significantly higher before the announced shift to distance modalities earlier this summer.
"We're not without our challenges in an incredibly challenging environment," Behre said during the Sept. 15 Zoom call. "Based on the modeling from the spring when we were trying to determine what would happen because on this pandemic, things did not look particularly good. Because of the work of our faculty and staff, we recruited a solid class and I'm incredibly impressed with the retention of our existing students. It wasn't just the Admissions Office, this whole community stepped up in ways that we've never anticipated. We reinvented an academic support structure that expanded beyond what we would normally do and I appreciate everyone who has shifted their role this semester to help us maintain our student population."
First- to second-year retention rate at SRU is 82.8%, a decrease of less than 1%; cumulative second- to third-year retention is 74.6%, reflecting a 2% increase; and cumulative third- to fourth-year retention stands at 67%, down just 1.8%. Behre said that, given other colleges and universities have lost substantial enrollments, both in the pre-pandemic and current environment, SRU's marginal reductions can arguably be interpreted positively.
"From an enrollment standpoint and from a financial standpoint we are holding our own," Behre said. "But we can't be complacent because if we do not continue the strong work that we're doing, we will find ourselves in a weak position. It's hard work, it's good work, it's rewarding work and we are achieving it. If we keep the students who come here, we can grow our student population by hundreds. We have an extraordinary faculty and staff, so we need to continue to meet the needs of our current students, keep them here, and then work on attracting students weren't thinking about us. We can now compete with the private schools in the Pittsburgh area, ... (so) we can take some more of that market share as well."
SRU's average cost of attendance ($24,981) is less than the largest state-related and private schools in the Pittsburgh market. Additionally, SRU remains one of the most affordable schools in Pennsylvania's State System of Higher Education with the average students' unmet financial need at $9,971. Behre anticipates unmet need to be even less this year, at approximately $9,151.
Regarding outcomes, SRU's six-year graduation rate is 69%, which far exceeds the national average that regularly hovers around 50%, as well as the PASSHE average of 61%.
"Still, let's not spend too much time congratulating ourselves," Behre said. "Graduating 69% of our students also means that we failed to graduate the other 31%. Each time a student leaves us without attaining a degree, we must ask ourselves why this happened. What could we have done differently to help the student succeed? Continually questioning ourselves will lead us to answers that will guide us to better results."
Addressing University finances, Behre acknowledged several constraints due to the pandemic and the need to keep the campus less populated. They include a $2.8 million deficit in the budget for auxiliary enterprises, such as Campus Recreation, the Smith Student Center and student housing, because fees that supported those enterprises were refunded. Also, after the onset of the pandemic, the SRU council of trustees withdrew its proposed 3.5% tuition increase that would have offset the contractual average annualized increases in salary costs over the next three years. This withdrawal is projected to result in a year-end deficit of $1 million.
Behre said that many of the pandemic-related losses were recovered, at least in part, by funding provided to the University through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, also known as the CARES Act, as well the University's commitment to holding open and not filling vacant faculty and staff positions.
"Our institution runs very efficiently; we've got some of the best employee-to-student ratios in the State System," Behre said. "There isn't a lot of cost-cutting (that could be done). We'll always look to see where we can trim to limit our costs, but that's tinkering at the margins for us. Our revenue model is driven by our tuition rate and our enrollment. (...) How we're going to sustain ourselves is a revenue problem more than it is an expense problem."
Looking forward, Behre's charge for the University is to increase the six-year graduation rate to 75% in five years and 85% in 10 years.
"We can achieve this goal by continuing to improve our outcomes at a deliberate pace," Behre said. "By virtually any measure, SRU is the strongest state school in western Pennsylvania.
As such, it is time to stop measuring ourselves primarily against our System peers. We are poised to be one of the premier schools of any kind in our region."
Other areas addressed by Behre in his campus email and during the Zoom Q&A included plans for the spring semester and diversity and inclusion initiatives.
His remarks preceded the announcement of an altered 2021 spring academic calendar, which includes no spring break, but overall he could not offer any further predictions regarding a switch back to pre-pandemic operations.
"If there is a significant change in the landscape, we may decide to pivot to more in-person experiences," Behre said. "However, I must emphasize that we have no current indication that this will be the case."
Behre also outlined recent and forthcoming work to improve diversity and inclusion on campus. Among them are reviews of hiring and police procedures, allocating financial aid for students and further studying why students from underrepresented minorities leave the institution.
"Fostering diversity and inclusion remains a priority," Behre said. "While diversity and inclusion concerns do extend beyond race and ethnicity, the police-involved shootings and subsequent protests this summer have underscored the immediate need for both challenging conversations and actions particularly as they relate to ethnic and racial diversity."
Prior to Behre's Q&A session with the campus community, Jason Hilton, associate professor of secondary education and foundations of education, and APSCUF president, spoke on behalf of APSCUF, SRU's faculty union, providing a message of solidarity between the faculty and SRU administration.
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