Wednesday, October 8, 2003

UC president charts new course

Nancy L. Zimpher, president of the University of Cincinnati, met Tuesday with the Enquirer's editorial board. It was her fifth day on the job. The following are excerpts from the interview.

Q. On your first day as UC president, you had long list of people to talk with. How did you compile the list and who was on it?

A. I felt it was important to connect with a series of people who have bearing on the future of the University of Cincinnati and to do it immediately. You really only get a chance to do Day One once. We visited seven colleges on Day One on campus and also tried to connect with the (Ohio) governor, chancellor of the board of regents, the mayor of Cincinnati, elected officials of both the Ohio legislature and in Congress; key people in the private sector who've been supportive of the UC. I was assisted by the end of the day in a gathering of civic leaders. I did the same thing on Day Two and Day Three. Yesterday I was at Clermont College and today I visited the College of Applied Sciences.

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Q. Also on your first day, there was a full-page advertisement with your picture on it that was published in The Enquirer. What message was UC trying to send with that ad?

A. It's three- or four-fold. First we continue to try to build identity with the institution. I think universities have an opportunity similar to professional sports. There's a lot of color identity in the institution; it's part of the brand or marketing of it. So it wasn't totally accidental that I was wearing the institution's colors (red/black) and it was an outdoor picture. It was a composite or statement of this person in the context of the university and its physicality; there were people in the picture featuring all types of people, the constituency we serve. And if you got over the person in the red suit and read the copy, it talked about our size, magnitude and prominence.

Q. Will you follow the master plan for campus rebuilding that was started by your predecessor, Joe Steger?

A. I think the transformation of the campus is extraordinary. It will define Joe Steger's legacy. It's creative. It's taking a very eclectic campus and turning it into a commodity that is sought after. I think not only it's an accomplishment in its own right. It's actually a model for the kind of academic master plan that we need to do. A lot of academic implications are held in those buildings. We created them intentionally; we created laboratories, facilities for instruction, for students. We're redefining the campus from the center out, with this Main Street concept for student living. Around that then, almost in umbrella fashion, is a kind of academic master plan. What I've tried to say in the past few days is that I felt the (UC) board was asking me to come and, if you will, marry an academic master plan to a facility/building plan so that over time, the academic plan will drive the future phases of the building program. I suspect you'll always see some cranes around because we'll continue to expand our lab and instructional facilities. But we really want to get that capped off so the students can appreciate what we started to do, which was to create a new living space for them. The building is a model for the kind of academic plan we need to have. I think the strategy is to bring the two of them together, just as we need to think in our academic plan about the east campus, the west campus, Clermont, Raymond Walters and our work in Warren County and in the College of Applied Sciences.

Q. What are the weaknesses at UC? What needs the most work?

A. I came here with the idea it was growth experience for me and within a community supportive of the institution for a long time with endowment and research efforts. But I think if I could identify some things I think I've been asked to attend to, certainly this concept of an academic master plan is one. What we have is an array of accomplished academic units, some working together, some not, not sure what the total picture is or where we want to be 10 years out. We need program prioritization; we need to encourage more collaboration, more scholarly cross-disciplinary work, cross-highway work ... with important satellite campuses. We have to find a way to conceptually move that together.

With regard to our research capacity, this is very competitive moment for medical centers nationwide. At a time when the National Institutes of Health have issued a roadmap for future funding, we must continue to position ourselves to build research collaboratives.

With regard to enrollment, I could say the same thing. We ought to set a vision of the right size at UC. And we ought to know exactly know what the relationship is to the Clermont and Raymond Walters campuses and now that we're working in Warren County, know why we are out there, what we intend to do over the long haul. That's a wonderful thing. We have some assets here that could serve the whole state, but we need to be very systematic and strategic about that.

I'll say as well about our student experience, because we're still under construction, we must work with students to compliment their patience and get them to see that Main Street and Varsity Village are really going to be the beginning of some serious, important rituals and memorable events that will define this institution in the future. We must never let up on the student experience being at the center of our thinking.

Q. What is UC doing to serve the growing number of non-traditional, over-age-25 students?

A. I'm thinking we need another word than "non-traditional" because I read that 75 percent of all college students today are out of the 18-21 year old range. It's a big priority for UC to think 24/7, for us to add the click to the bricks, moving programs to more acceptable locales for adults, like the workplace. What we're doing in Warren County is really bachelor and master degree for workforce professionals. This is a huge commitment.

Q. Where do you get the money in these times of shrinking budgets?

A. For starters, this downward spiral of state support has had profound implications for tuition and for the kind of year-after-year cuts we've had to endure, and efficiencies we've tried to institute, until I think every public institution in America is at a bare-bones level. At the same time, every public and private institution is trying to counter this decreasing public support with (in the case of a research university) more federal grants and contracts and with private donations. It's more than filling a gap for us. UC really has premier potential. It is a great university, attracting a great amount of federal grant dollars. What we're really doing is laying the groundwork for the kinds of research partnerships and technology transfers that will attract even more funds. The problem is those monies and those from individuals and from philanthropic organizations typically don't pay for operations. So it's important that we continue to work with the legislature and the governor on this.

The University of Cincinnati's President, Nancy L. Zimpher talks to the Cincinnati Enquirer's Editorial Board Tuesday.
(Jeff Swinger photo)
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Q. Is there a limit to the escalating costs of higher education?

A. I would hope so. It's not as if higher education likes the dilemma it's been put in ...doing more with less. Growing our enrollment is huge agenda for us. I don't know yet the right, exact size for UC. There comes a time when you can no longer extend and maintain the quality of the program. That's what concerns me. We owe students and their families a quality education. When you finally say "enough is enough," it will regrettably be when we can no longer serve the number of students we ought to be serving and that is a net loss for the state. We're an under-educated state. We're low in number of citizenry that has a bachelor's degree and the opportunities provided by that degree. So it would be terrible crisis for Ohio. I think we all hope that as the economy turns around, the (state) priorities will turn as well. We are working with an informed legislature, administration in terms of beginning to restore some of these funds.

Q. What's your philosophy on how athletics fit into the UC picture?

A. I enjoy collegiate athletics and think they have a tremendous role to play in the campus experience. I also think there has to be a great deal of leadership and oversight of a collegiate athletic program. I see the athletic director and coaches as leaders and I am part of that equation. I'll be very interested in academic retention and graduation rates. I'll also be a fan.

Q. Some UC athletes have been arrested for various offenses. Are you concerned about the image of the university when this happens?

A. Nobody wants that kind of thing to happen. The best thing I can say is that I intend to exert the leadership responsibility I've been given and I expect to work in a team with Bob Goin (athletic director) and the coaches and other academic officers and those in student life to give our athletes as much support as other students. No one wants events to occur that indicate our student athletes are not mature enough to handle both the collegiate experience and the adult-living-learning experience that all our students have to grow into. This year, I want to see the athletic program unfold, and have my own take on what's really happening with it. In fairness to the athletic program, I'll be a student of what's going on. I should observe the leadership, get to know the players and understand how athletics work at UC before I make any pronouncements about whether there's a big problem or not. Suffice it to say I will be paying attention.

Q. UC recently did away with University College causing some to say this will reduce minority enrollment and graduation. How will you address access for minorities?

A. Again, I'm in Day Five. I've tried to come up to speed ... to know what this means in terms of relocating our freshmen opportunities. Today, when I visited the College of Applied Sciences, we're going to add to that unit an assistance support office that will increase not only the retention who come with less academic opportunity in elementary and secondary levels, and increase scholarships with Cincinnati Public Schools, will increase not only attraction of people of color and minorities but also retain them. When we took the lid off, we found retention rates were not positive. So I don't think we were doing anybody a service by saying it's a high-access institution, but guess what, you're probably not going to matriculate. So we turn it around. We're paying much more attention to retention and particularly from freshman and sophomore year and also priming the front end with more scholarships. I have met with president of the NAACP and believe me he has made his concerns known, but he also has said that the bottom line is what matter to them and let's see what happens. If you have a plan, stick with it and we'll hold ourselves accountable. I intend to hold myself accountable.

Q. There are mixed messages about UC's law school, that it's slipping in some rankings. Do you have feel for what needs to be done there?

A. Somehow in this first five days, I managed to fit in a meeting with the board of the law school, and also key alumni. I've had several in-depth conversations with Dean Joe Tomain about the energy and direction of the College of Law. I didn't come here, nor did Joe Tomain, to preside over any downward spiral, so if there's a blip in the rankings, it may be because of some transitions, but I couldn't judge anything in that room any thing other than real confidence.

Q. Did any of the city leaders ask for your help in problems the city has been experiencing?

A. I've had incredibly warm response with civic leaders I've met. If I were to try to unpack that enthusiasm, I don't think it's to the level of specifics yet. We have good representation on 3CDC.I've met briefly with leadership of the chamber and convention center; met with individuals, with neighborhood leaders of Corryville and Uptown councils. I assume they want my presence because it will continue to draw expertise from the campus to the challenging issues we face, not only in revitalization and development form the Banks, to Over-the-Rhine to creative solutions to downtown living, partnerships. The mayor mentioned he was pleased UC was moving around their boundaries to work with neighborhoods. I've met with CPS Superintendent Alton Frailey, with the folks at KnowledgeWorks, with people from a lot of sectors.

Q. What is the story newspapers miss about higher education?

A. I think the most powerful story of American higher education is what we do every day to produce competitive, qualified future members of our citizenry. It's incredible. Most of (our students) will find their way eventually to a bachelor's degree and jobs that will pay them twice what they could earn as a high school grad. I think we're so successful at the core business that the core business gets overlooked. Yes, the problems are tragic. But incredibly, we are preparing this nation's doctors, teachers, social workers more in huge proportion.

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