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Emporia State University defends changes ahead of declining enrollment report


Emporia State University defends changes ahead of declining enrollment report

Sep 26, 2023 | 5:32 pm ET
By Sherman Smith
Emporia State University defends changes ahead of declining enrollment report
Emporia State University officials say declining enrollment isn't an indicator that the "ESU model" isn't working. (Max McCoy/Kansas Reflector)

EMPORIA — Emporia State University president Ken Hush downplayed the significance of the university’s declining enrollment in an open letter Tuesday preempting the official release of fall enrollment figures across state universities.

The Kansas Board of Regents plans to release enrollment figures Wednesday, and the numbers will show a decline at ESU. The extent isn’t yet known.

A year after taking dramatic measures to reshape the university, ESU officials say they are committed to a long-term strategy and remain optimistic about their path forward.

“We made substantial changes to our academic structure, suspended certain programs and introduced new ones to better serve the needs of our students and our region,” Hush wrote in an “open letter” dated Tuesday and addressed to “Hornet Nation.” “We are in the middle of a full-scale transformation, and change of this magnitude takes time.”

Hush also said “enrollment isn’t necessarily equal to success.”

ESU in September 2022, with the blessing of the Kansas Board of Regents, fired tenured faculty members, eliminated programs and majors, and invested in new programs.

The moves were widely scrutinized in part because of the secrecy surrounding them. The university didn’t specify why certain professors were fired, or provide data indicating which programs met the interests of students or needs of businesses. Six weeks after firing tenured professors, Hush secretly awarded bonuses to other professors under mysterious circumstances.

The university’s narrative about the changes has evolved. Now known as the “ESU model,” officials says they want to cater to student interests and business needs. The Legislature added an unusual $9 million earmark in the state budget to underwrite the experiment.

In an email to lawmakers Tuesday, Gregory Schneider, executive director of government relations for ESU, said “changes like we made at ESU take time and we are committed to, and confident in, the validity and success of the ESU model going forward.”

He said he was disappointed in the declining enrollment figures — the extent was undisclosed — and that the university was focused on making changes to improvement enrollment.

“Some in the media will claim the changes we made last year are responsible and that we need to go back to business as usual,” Schneider said. “This is why we wanted to address you and make sure you understand that nothing could be further from the truth.”

Hush, in his open letter, said the university expected enrollment would be down this fall. The university expects enrollment will continue to decline before stabilizing in 2025, he said.

“Emporia State is doggedly committed to continuously making substantive changes that address the total health of the institution,” Hush wrote.

Those changes include attention to enrollment, retention, academic and non-academic programming, and operational costs, Hush said. He referenced efforts to manage expenses, modernize the portfolio of academic programs, expand outreach to prospective students, and reduce the physical campus footprint.

Hush described higher education as an industry at a crossroads. Challenges include popularity of online education, a shortage of workers, the increasing costs to attend college, corporations offering on-the-job training and national campaigns urging students to forgo higher education.

“You can be confident that Emporia State is in a good position as we are on the leading edge of this industry change,” Hush wrote. “A simple Google search will show you that we are not alone. We remain steadfast in our direction and know we are building a stronger, better, Emporia State for the next generation of students.”