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Dean Defends “Priorities” Amid Huron Concerns and Mixed Results

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Amid growing concerns from students and community members over the state of financial and academic affairs at the University of New Hampshire (UNH), President James W. Dean, Jr., used his annual State of the University address at the Hamel Recreation Center (HRC) on Tuesday to defend his “strategic priorities” and desire to make UNH a “top 25” university despite “limited resources,” a mission dubbed the “future of UNH.” 

Dean’s attempts to ease those concerns, however, failed to sway a group of roughly six students, who protested on Tuesday during the president’s “Building Financial Strength” segment by holding up signs reading “Fight For Us, Stop The Cuts” and chanting lines such as “What do we want? Stop the Cuts! When do we want them? Now!” The demonstration lasted for nearly two minutes before the students peacefully departed the event without police or administrative action. 

William Miller Hardesty-Dyck, a second-year graduate student who claimed to have led the demonstration, told reporters, including The New Hampshire, that it stemmed from Dean’s announcement of potential staff layoffs, as well as the release of 17 lecturers last year following UNH’s decision to not renew their contracts. 

“We’re a group of students here who are concerned about the trajectory of the university, specifically all these cuts,” Hardesty-Dyck said. “I mean, we’re shedding lecturers, we’re shedding staff now, and it’s time for the university administration. I think, to buck up and fight for us in terms of getting more state funding, fighting for that at the governor’s office [and] statehouse…”  

The “priorities,” introduced at last year’s address, consist of four intertwined yet unique missions seeking to improve academic wellbeing at UNH and expand its financial and cultural standings beyond the Durham campus. The priorities include “Enhance Student Success and Well-Being,” focused on helping students “graduate on time” and making them “engaged and ethical global citizens,” according to UNH’s website; “Expand Academic Excellence,” aimed at bringing in “strong and diverse” sets of students and faculty from across the country and beyond; “Embrace New Hampshire,” designed to attract collaborations between UNH and outside organizations, legislative bodies and various schools up and down the state; and “Build Financial Strength,” which seeks to make UNH a “national leader in cost management,” “aligning” its budget and resources to achieve the other “priorities,” and making UNH more “accessible” to students through a more diverse set of revenue sources. 

However, public support for Dean’s “Financial Strength” initiative has been put to the test in recent weeks following the unveiling of the “Huron Report” – named for UNH’s newest financial consulting partner – in Dean’s seventeenth email update on Jan. 27. The 33-page report saw the Chicago-based firm highlight potential opportunities to reorganize spending and cut costs at UNH by consolidating 13 “decentralized units” associated with the college’s Facilities unit, a potential annual savings of up to $2.1 million; “standardizing” IT and computing support, a potential savings of $837,000 per year; and reduce “library spend” through bringing per-student and per-faculty costs closer to the “median values” of 181 other nearby research universities, among other methods. 

The report also cited “revenue enhancement opportunities” such as boosting “alumni engagement” and student retention, as well as increasing the number of “institutional and parent gifts” to UNH and adjustments to the college’s “credit hour threshold,” all totaling a potential “impact” measuring between $3.6 and $6.6 million. The report’s “benchmark” or comparison institutions included the likes of University of Maine, University of Massachusetts-Amherst, Northeastern University, Quinnipiac University, University of Rhode Island, University of Vermont, Florida State University, Auburn University and Oregon State University, among many others. 

“One question I have heard a few times is, will there be a loss of jobs,” Dean wrote on Jan. 27 in reply to public concerns about potential layoffs due to the Huron findings. “We anticipate that there will be a reduction in the number of FTEs [full-time equivalent]. At this time, because we are at the beginning stages of establishing implementation teams for phase one, we are not able to project how large that reduction might be. I have also been asked if there is a list of employees who will be displaced.”  

The president added that any layoffs would be “in service” to the priorities, and employees who ultimately lose their positions would be “treated with the utmost concern and respect” while UNH explores “outplacement services.” 

Hardesty-Dyck told reporters he fears such cuts would negatively impact UNH as a whole, stressing the “critical roles” various staff members perform on a daily basis and that a move to cut staff “speaks to how the university wants to treat all members of its community when it chooses to fire these people.” 

In a press gaggle following the event, Dean responded that UNH has not stated or committed to a “reduction in the total workforce” and that they are instead looking into ways to “redirect resources,” a move that could result in “reducing workforce in some areas and increasing it in other areas.” 

Speaking to the protests themselves, the president, while stating he was “really happy” that the students expressed their “constitutional rights to free speech,” told The New Hampshire that he wished they had stayed for the entirety of the address. 

“…I think they might have gotten a better understanding that we were actually trying to enhance their education and fighting for them,” Dean said. “So, I think that, while I respect their right to speak and certainly protected it, I don’t know that they had a complete understanding of what we’re trying to accomplish.” 

Outside the financial sphere, the address aimed to update attendees on UNH’s progress on achieving its top 25 ranking, which, between 2019 and this year, have generated mixed results. On the plus side, UNH saw its “Student Participation in High-Impact Educational Practices” ranking rise from 19th to 17th place, while rankings for “Percentage Loan Repayment” and “Sustainability” remained consistent with the year before.  

Most rankings showed a decline over the last 12 months, with its graduation ranking falling from 34th place (78.7 percent) to 45th place (77.4 percent), its ranking of first-year students arriving as the “Top 10 percent of Their High School Class” decreasing from 135th place to 146th place despite remaining at 20 percent, and its “Ratio of Administrative to Instructional Expenses” plummeting from 131th place to 201th place; the ratio of those expenses itself rose to 25.7 percent from 22.2 percent the year before. 

Dean told attendees that the mixed results come from “improvements at other institutions” over time, and that such results give UNH “a sense of how competitive universities have become, and how focused we will need to be to compete more effectively against other universities.” 

“I would say the biggest message [of the address] is that we need to use the limited resources of the university as effectively as possible to achieve our core mission, and that’s what we’re doing,” the president told reporters. “The environment isn’t getting any easier for higher ed – it’s getting harder – and so we to be very careful about how we spend our money and make sure that it is going directly toward what we need to do as a university: educate students and, in the case of this university, to do research that benefits the world.” 

When asked by The New Hampshire whether any of his “priorities” proved harder to accomplish than others, Dean said that the most results have stemmed from “Embrace New Hampshire,” stating that people are “looking to UNH to try and be a very strong state university” and to be more connected to local governments, businesses, and high schools filled with potential UNH first-years. 

“So, every time that I’m out meeting people in that community, you don’t have to wait for some number to go up,” he said, “it’s like, ‘hey, we’re happy to see you; glad you’re here…’” 

As for the most difficult initiative, Dean pointed to “Building Financial Strength” due to “limited resources” and developments from Huron and others. He said that he has never encountered a situation “quite like this” during his academic career, but recalled facing similar challenges during his time at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), which went through a “shared services initiative” that, similar to Huron’s suggestions, reportedly collapsed multiple groups aiming to accomplish similar objectives into a single unit. 

Although Dean departed UNC before that initiative was seen through, he said he imagined there were layoffs “associated with that” as they tried to redirect resources toward improving their academics, similar to what he faces now at UNH. 

At the end of his address, Dean told attendees that the university is “healthy and enjoying success…across our three campuses” and “well positioned to build on our accomplishments and to excel in ways that will make us even better…in a rapidly changing world.” Despite the obstacles that lie ahead for the president’s “future of UNH” and, in his words, the public’s “more mixed reception,” he stressed to the crowd that its “best days” are ahead of it and its students, urging them to “share this message of optimism.” 

“…People are not entirely happy with what we’re doing, I understand that,” Dean said afterwards. “…that’s why I feel that – despite the challenges and despite the criticism I’m getting, including today’s student demonstrations and all that – I still feel like it’s the right thing to do.” 

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