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The Year Ahead (2014-15)

President Dan Dibiasio's Opening Year Remarks delivered on Aug. 20, 2014, at the Opening Year Meeting.


This summer, Chris and I checked one item off our bucket list. We climbed this peak in the Green Mountains of Vermont.

(I thought a winter image of the mountain, which is known as Camel’s Hump, would make it look even more imposing than it does on a soft summer day in mid-July).

Camel’s Hump is perhaps the most iconic landmark in Vermont and one of its best hikes. The mountain is one of only five 4,000-foot peaks and the third highest in the state. The striking asymmetry of the summit is compelling as a symbol of Vermont itself, and it has been widely adopted as a state symbol, including on the state quarter.

This is what it looks like in July from a distance.

As I began to think about and prepare for these remarks, the image of a summit came back to mind and seemed to be an apt metaphor for describing where Northern currently rests academically and where we aspire to be financially.

With that in mind, I want to identify five priorities for the year ahead that aim to keep us on top educationally and move us closer to the summit financially:

  • Becoming reaccredited
  • Optimizing The Ohio Northern Promise
  • Increasing enrollment
  • Elevating our financial position
  • Implementing our strategic plan

But first, I want to affirm that we are deeply committed to and justifiably proud of our place among the very best private college and universities in Ohio.

An educational summit, like the summit of Camel’s Hump, is also a bit asymmetrical; it is not a perfect peak that comes to a narrow point where only a single school can plant its flag. Rather, in the geo-educational landscape of Ohio, there is room at the summit for several top private schools, and by most relevant measures of quality, Northern is among them. Here are a few reasons why:

  • We continue to attract well-prepared students with academically strong profiles.
  • We stretch our students with high expectations and rigorous programs, guided by faculty who are inspiring teachers, productive scholars and dedicated mentors.
  • We engage our students in high-impact practices more than our peers, according to the NSSE survey results.
  • We enhance and enrich the abilities and interests of our students with a robust co-curriculum that is under the care of capable and professional staff who extend student learning and development beyond the academic realm.
  • We provide the resources and resourcefulness to help our students find employment and admission to graduate school at impressive rates: 94 percent for the Class of 2013, and the Class of 2014 is on pace to meet or exceed that percentage.

As a result, we launch students for life, prepared for career success and civic engagement, and poised to make significant contributions to their professions and a difference in their communities. That is what we do, and we are very good it.

Friends, in the midst of all the challenges we face, and especially at a time when the mantra for the final months of the last academic year was “all budget all the time,” it is necessary to lift up the true virtue and value of our University. To be sure, we have room for academic and educational improvements across the board, and we must be diligent in our continuous improvement efforts. But let’s not let the good that is here or the quality that we want to build on be overshadowed by our present challenges. Our academic excellence must motivate us to be steadfast in elevating our financial position to higher ground.

The start of another academic year, with all the promise of a new beginning, is the perfect time to be mindful of and motivated by the considerable good qualities of Ohio Northern University. It is also the right time to address the five priorities I listed earlier, some of which will dramatically impact the life and work of the campus.

Becoming Reaccredited

The first priority is becoming reaccredited by the High Learning Commission for another 10 years.

The Higher Learning Commission, commonly referred to as HLC, is the higher education arm of the North Central Association, ONU’s regional accreditor. HLC visits every 10 years to reaffirm the accreditation that was first granted to us in 1958 and has been reaffirmed continuously since then.

An evaluation team will visit us in late February, during which time the team members will hold open discussions and interviews with a range of ONU community members.

They will be looking to confirm the information presented in our self-study report verifying that we meet the five criteria listed on this slide.

In spring 2013, 58 faculty, staff and administrators, including 38 faculty, began gathering information to document the five criteria. Their materials have been compiled by Academic Affairs into a draft self-study that will undergo several more revisions following campus input. I appreciate the work they have accomplished and the leadership provided by Provost Crago and Drs. Hurtig and Keas in Academic Affairs.

As drafts of the self-study are made available for comment and review, please respond promptly and provide any suggestions and ideas that may have been overlooked by the drafting committees.

Your input matters because we want the self-study report to document how all members of the ONU community contribute to our success.

Optimizing The Ohio Northern Promise

A second priority for the year ahead is optimizing The Ohio Northern Promise by keeping affordability and quality as the key drivers of our new economic model.

Already, The Ohio Northern Promise has produced positive results. It has helped to meet enrollment and financial aid goals in Pharmacy, to stabilize enrollment in Law, and to increase the number of applications and new students in the College of Arts & Sciences. I have no doubt the same will happen in Engineering and Business Administration as the benefits of the Promise become better known to prospective students who are interested in those programs.

The increase in student visits to campus is a very encouraging sign as well. Attendance at the six open houses held after Jan. 1 for high school juniors entering college next fall has increased over the previous year by 26 percent, bringing the total to 593. Individual visits are also on the rise. Similarly, since Jan. 1, the number of high school freshmen, sophomores and juniors who have made individual visits to campus has increased 22 percent to 801. This is the highest year-to-year increase and the second highest number of visits since before the recession.

Another element of the Promise is the four-year graduation guarantee. Nearly 100 new students have already signed on, and more will before the deadline. With the banner module called DegreeWorks now in place, students and advisors have a new tool for academic planning that will help students graduate on time. This monitoring tool will help all students and advisors, but especially the students who have contracted for the four-year graduation guarantee. Finally, we will continue to promote high-impact practices and high-placement rates to ensure that students and families see the educational value and return on investment of an ONU education.

Increasing Enrollment

A third and related priority is a renewed focus on increasing enrollment. New strategies will be directed toward increasing the size of the inquiry pool – which is the widest part of the enrollment funnel. Our goal is to increase inquiries by a range of 7-10,000. We will also be reviewing the report submitted by the Strategic Planning Work Group on Retention. Retention has been a neglected at the University, and it is time to become more focused and organized around retention strategies. I am grateful to members of the work group and their leaders – co-chairs Sandy Calvert and Laurie Laird – for their good work.

We also intend to give greater attention to diversity in the years ahead. This will be accomplished by identifying goals and actions intended to increase the number of diverse students from the U.S. and around the globe. Raymond Orinoco, our new director of international admissions, will travel this year to Asia and Latin America in partnership with Brandeis, Kalamazoo, Tufts, and Kansas State to visit nearly 90 high schools in 14 countries.

Finally, we have begun the search to replace Dr. Lesick. I am grateful to Larry for both his years of service to ONU and his willingness to be flexible so that we can conduct a thorough and deliberate national search. I am also grateful to the members of the search committee for agreeing to serve and represent all of you on this important task.

Elevating Our Financial Position

A fourth priority is taking the next steps to improve our financial position and establish multiyear financial planning and budgeting.

Our work continues on closing the $3.5 million budget gap in the Preliminary Operating Budget for the current fiscal year. By following the budget reduction principles we established last spring, we have made significant progress and have covered a substantial portion of that gap. From many, but not all, of the reductions proposed by VPs and Deans, we expect to recover about $2.9 million.

We have also concluded the Voluntary Retirement Offer program, known as the VRO. Of the 54 faculty and staff who were eligible, we had 19 acceptances. Financially, we believe the net benefits to the University are positive. However, because of the experience and value of individuals who have elected to retire, it will take some time to adjust to so many positions turning over. On the instructional side, a number of faculty who have accepted the VRO have also accepted an adjunct teaching position for at least the fall and likely the spring semesters. This is beneficial to both the students as well as the faculty members as they transition to retirement.

When the current number of open positions is combined with the VRO replacements, it is clear that we are likely to have an extraordinary number of searches this year.

The biggest budget uncertainty at this point is net tuition revenue for the fall. While enrollment is holding near expectations, how much tuition per student we achieve is not yet fully known. That, coupled with other known changes since the Board approved the preliminary operating budget in April, will determine whether or not there is a need for involuntary workforce reductions. We will have more complete information about net tuition revenue by early October at the latest, and probably before then.

At this time, the budget still includes increased funding for compensation, which is a very high priority to sustain and allocate. It will be part of our considerations as we finalize the budget.

Beyond the budget, we have plans to refinance the final bond series from 2005; this represents the last public debt on our books, and we are having a conversation with a bank that is interested in terms that are equivalent to the refinancing we accomplished last year. When this transaction occurs, all of our debt will be privately held. Thus, we will no longer be subject to reviews by Moody’s but will subscribe to its rating service for internal use and monitoring.

Financial Affairs also plans to continue to improve budget monitoring and reporting. On behalf of Financial Affairs, I greatly appreciate the assistance we have received in these efforts.

In addition, we intend to implement multiyear financial planning and budgeting this year. It is essential that we have this financial tool in place in order to develop longer-term programmatic, enrollment and employee compensation strategies as called for in our strategic plan. I commend the work of CFO Bill Ballard, his staff and the members of the Budget Advisory Council for their diligence and good counsel.

Implementing the Strategic Plan

The fifth priority for the year ahead is the ongoing implementation of ONU 2021, our strategic plan, with a focus on completing two important elements of the plan: the comprehensive master plan and branding.

We are nearing completion of the overall master plan and will hold a University Forum early this fall semester to present a draft to the campus community. Our goal is to ask the Board to approve the final version of the plan in October.

I appreciate the work of the Master Planning Committees and the assistance we have received from The Collaborative, Inc. To give you a sense of the Committee’s thinking, I want to identify the facilities and building projects that are among our highest priorities at this point. They include:

  • A new engineering building and the corollary repurposing of Biggs and Taft Memorial. Biggs would house the tech studies program and our ESL programs, and Taft would enable us to consolidate all of IT under one roof.
  • A renovation of the first floor of Heterick Memorial Library to better meet the collaborative learning, social and study space needs of our students.
  • A renovation and expansion of the McIntosh Center to address its current limitations and age.
  • A renovation and expansion of Presser Hall to address its current limitations and age as well.
  • A new student recreation center to better meet the health, wellness and recreational needs of students, faculty and staff.

The other initiative is branding. I am pleased to report that we have made good progress on this important task and that the presentations scheduled for later today will provide an opportunity for you to learn more about the results of our work with the branding firm 160over90. For those who are unable to attend the appropriate session today, you will be able to access information from those sessions shortly afterward.

We have selected a brand concept that best aligns with the University’s mission and is based on the impressive outcomes of an ONU education. It will help us tell our story in more compelling ways and enable us to share a common, core message that we believe will resonate with prospective students, their families and our many publics. I want to acknowledge the members of the Creating Greater Brand Awareness Work Group for helping us to move this initiative forward and Amy Prigge for her leadership.

By working together to focus on becoming reaccredited, optimizing The Ohio Northern Promise, increasing enrollment, addressing our fiscal issues, and implementing our strategic plan, we will remain academically strong and improve our financial condition.


Tomorrow is the start of another academic year, our 143rd; it will be a year of challenge and choice, of accomplishment and achievement. We will formally welcome new members to our community at Convocation and begin to help them on their journey to higher ground. Our commitment to them and to ourselves is to keep Northern at the top – at the summit of higher education in Ohio and the region.

During our descent of Camel’s Hump, Chris and I were reminded that it is often more difficult and strenuous to come down from the summit than it is to scale it. The same is true for a University of our caliber, which is why we must stay on top and acquire the resources necessary to keep us there.  

Thank you so much for your service to this great University; let’s make the most of the year ahead as we embark on another season of teaching, creating, mentoring, working, learning, serving and celebrating together.

Chris and I look forward to seeing you at lunch over in King Horn.