Terry Falk

Troubles At Marquette University

$20 million shortfall, declining enrollment, half-empty dormitories, faculty discontent.

By , Wisconsin Examiner - Dec 9th, 2020 01:22 pm
Looking west down W. Wells St. at Marquette's Campus Town Apartments. Campus Town East is the most visible. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Looking west down W. Wells St. at Marquette’s Campus Town Apartments. Campus Town East is the most visible. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Acknowledging that Marquette University faces an uncertain future, Rev. Jim Voiss S.J. prayed with staff and students over the future of the Jesuit university at a town hall meeting on Sept. 28 “We are coming together at a difficult time… We have hard decisions to make. What we choose and how we come to those decisions will leave their mark on the Marquette of the future and on each of us.”

Marquette is facing a more than $20 million shortfall in the near term and a darker picture over the long term. It has been hit by a one-two punch of COVID-19 and a downward trend in new college applicants due to decreasing birth-rates.

The book Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education by Nathan Grawe shook up higher education when it came out in 2018. Other books and articles have underscored Grawe’s findings. “By 2030 over 50% of colleges will collapse” an article in Business Trends stated in 2013 — and that was before the pandemic. The current trends were outlined in a May 5 Wisconsin Examiner article. 

Many of Marquette’s dormitories sit half empty. Whether students will continue to look to Marquette as a viable option for higher education remains to be seen. With vaccines just around the corner, the near future looks somewhat brighter. But the aftershocks of the pandemic will forever change how education is delivered. How Marquette handles all this will determine whether the university comes out much weaker or renews itself and forges ahead.

Transparency and collaboration

After the opening prayer at the September online meeting, university president Dr. Michael Lovell began to speak. Unfortunately, his mic was not on, and for a brief moment, his lips moved but his audience heard nothing. He started out with an apology for holding the town hall meeting on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish year. “I’m sorry this Marquette town hall meeting was being held on your day of atonement,” he told Jewish faculty and students.

His opening remarks were more than symbolic, since the university administration has been accused by students and staff of not sharing information nor being transparent concerning plans for its future, and of sacrificing Marquette’s Jesuit liberal arts education and being insensitive to the community’s minority population.

The town hall meeting went on for an hour and a half, with presentations delivered by administrators, who answered only a few written questions. There was no interaction between the administration and the larger Marquette community. Other town halls that have followed are posted on Marquette’s website but hidden behind a firewall, preventing public access.

Peter Staudenmaier, professor of history, criticizes what he sees as “a lack of transparency,” at Marquette as well as “a lack of shared governance.”

“They have involved some faculty, certainly not all faculty,” he says, adding, “They have been terrible in involving students. … A whole lot of decisions are being made at the level of the president and the provost that get communicated to the faculty ex post facto.”

Kevin Conway, associate director of university communications at Marquette, responds that Marquette has hosted numerous town hall meetings and has developed “workstreams and workgroups in eight key areas to create a path to structural, strategic change.”

(Conway said he could not put me in touch with someone who could be interviewed about faculty and student concerns, but provided answers by email to written questions.)

“They do the talking, and we do the listening,” says Chris Gooding, professor of theology. Gooding says that work groups have not received the financial documents they need from the administration in order to do their work and have to piece together the financial picture, according to several faculty involved in the process. Work groups are to look only at cuts, Gooding adds, not other creative solutions.

Jesuit liberal arts

In a statement outlining “the Purpose of Marquette as a Jesuit University,” for students, the Catholic institution states that “Jesuit education is grounded in a Catholic, Christian understanding of God, the human person and society. As such, it is inclusive of all who share our mission and seek the truth about God and the world. This vision is framed by the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola.”

A Jesuit school should be more reflective, more willing to take on big ethical questions, say Gooding. He and other faculty fear that Marquette is making many of its cuts in the liberal arts and humanities while increasing offerings in job-producing areas such as business, sciences, technology and health. While the university may simply be reacting to student demand for certain majors, Gooding believes that students on these career-oriented paths need a well grounded ethical education. Cutting the humanities undercuts that foundation.

An open letter to administrative officers and trustees from over 50 professors of science, mathematics, engineering and health voiced their concerns that cuts may come in areas other than their fields. “To adequately serve students, Marquette requires humanities and social science departments filled with scholars who are leaders in their fields, who model and embody the quest for human understanding in all its complexity and pluriformity.”

The Anti-Austerity Coalition for Jesuit higher education is a movement coordinated by like-minded organizations across Jesuit institutions to fight off budget cuts in Jesuit institutions across the country. Workers and student groups across Jesuit colleges have formed an alliance to protest cuts to people and programs, according to an article in Inside Higher Ed. Clearly what is going on at Marquette is part of a larger picture.

Marquette’s Board of Trustees voted on the 2021-22 budget, which was released to the campus community on December 7 and reportedly includes lay-offs of 225 to 300 employees and cuts to the College of Arts and Sciences that could eliminate a quarter of its programs.

The Marquette University chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) responded by calling for the suspension of the current economic planning process. “The Faculty Handbook states that university leadership must exhaust all other financial options before they resort to reductions in faculty. To date, none of the working groups have seen data suggesting that this criterion has been satisfied,” the AAUP said in a statement. “Further, none of the working groups have been provided an explanation of how their recommendations will be implemented.”

AAUP’s resolution for consideration by the University Academic Senate, endorsed by Marquette’s Faculty Council, will be discussed at the December 14 senate meeting, according to the AAUP, and can be put to a vote as early as January 2021.

The resolution recommends that the budget process, which has been underway since September, should be suspended and substituted with “a more cohesive and discerning process that conforms to principles of shared governance.”

“Poorly designed processes lead to poor outcomes,” Doug Smith, president of the AAUP chapter, said in a statement. “Unless the Academic Senate and the Faculty Council can obtain full information and participate in the entire process, the university’s academic mission will be at risk.”

Sergio Gonzalez, professor of Latinx Studies says of the work groups: “These groups are only supposed to be looking at the academic side; they are not looking at the administrative, and the other parts of the campus that cost a lot of money.”

Gooding points out that Marquette’s instructional budget is less than that of other Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities (AJCU). A spreadsheet of the budgets of the 27 AJCU members appears to show that Marquette spends much more on administration than other AJCU members. “So why is the university pushing so hard on faculty and staff cuts?” asks Gooding.

According to Conway, Marquette’s administrative costs are actually somewhere in the middle of the AJCU: “Other universities may interpret definitions and classify expenses differently than Marquette.” Some services in the provost’s office at Marquette may be classified as administrative while other universities may consider those same services educational, he explains.

Student diversity

According to Conway, Marquette is committed to becoming a Hispanic Service Institution (HSI) and works to recruit and retain Hispanic students. These students have received over $33 million in university funding. HSI’s goal is to reach a 25% Hispanic share of the total student population. Marquette has increased the number of Hispanic students from 10.6% in 2016 to nearly 15% today. HSI designation comes with additional federal funding.

“I came to Marquette … because Marquette had made a commitment to become a Hispanic-serving institution,” says Gonzalez. “HSI has become an unfunded mandate. The promise was made but the resources were never put behind it.”

“Provost said that 25% might not be the ultimate goal anymore. That we might get somewhere close to 20%; that would be something the university would be proud of,” says Gonzalez. “It’s an abdication of a promise to the community.”

Marquette becoming smaller means “doubling down on its white middle class, upper middle class, suburban student population,” Gonzalez adds.

Our Marquette — a group representing tenured and tenure-track professors — takes issue with some of the interpretations of the demographic assumptions Nathan Grawe makes concerning the demographic cliff that is to hit higher education around 2026. The book relies on who is in colleges today — white, middle class students, critics say. They state that Grawe does not take into account the possible lower income minority students that could fill in the empty seats.

Grawe was interviewed on the issue of dropping student numbers back in April and again, just a few days ago, for this story.

Grawe does not dispute that he draws mostly upon the existing data for the current population, which meant mostly the white, middle class students. But he has a warning: “What if we keep doing what we are doing? How will things play out?” says Grawe. That means a lot of schools will either close or consolidate without change.

“We cannot simply keep doing the same things,” he says. Reaching out to new populations is essential to the survival of institutions of higher education. “Then the question is what do we need to do to be attractive to those students.”

For Grawe, this means a lot more than just providing more financial aid. “It’s not just inviting them to see how great we are, but we might have to transform who we are and change the ways we teach.”

In his book, The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students, Harvard professor Anthony Abraham Jack draws upon his experience as a Black student who attended an elite prep high school and university. In his research he found that, while minority students who attended elite preparatory high schools did better than their public-school counterparts, all minority students found a lack of support coming from elite universities. It wasn’t so much that the university didn’t care, rather that it was clueless as to what these students needed.

Eduardo Perea is a product of Jesuit education. He attended Nativity Jesuit Middle, Marquette High, and Marquette University for both undergraduate and graduate degrees in political science. Even he has often felt alone in the classroom filled with white, middle class students. “Throwing in a couple of Black or Latino students into a classroom doesn’t make the space feel more inclusive,” he says.

While there are some programs to support minority students at Marquette, “I don’t think they are working at the rate that they should be,” he concludes.

Nor does he think Marquette recruits much beyond its middle-class base. “Conversations I have had with people in admissions, I’ve asked them why they don’t go recruit at [Milwaukee Public] South Division, at Hamilton High School, in the same way they are recruiting at Marquette High School, Dominican, or going to Chicago or going to Texas? They’re saying, ‘Frankly, the money isn’t there. Even if the students get in, they are not going to afford to come here.’ They are thinking with a business mindset.”

Although Perea is a Latino from Milwaukee’s southside, he is just as concerned about Marquette’s lack of commitment to the Black community just north of its campus. Blacks make up over 37% of Milwaukee’s population but only 4% at Marquette.

Marquette administration argues that they don’t want to fill up empty seats with lower paying students if there are still some higher paying students out there. The problem, say faculty, is there aren’t many higher paying students to get.

letter sent to the administration and board by the Marquette Faculty Council on Dec. 3 expresses concerns about “the impact of decision-making that does not appear to be driven by careful analysis.” Among the concerns the faculty express is the move to reduce significantly discounted tuition so more students are paying full tuition.

“Marquette should consider that even a student paying discounted tuition is bringing revenues into the institution,” the faculty group wrote. “Giving the admissions department a larger financial aid pool and greater latitude with the tuition discount rate will also impact student debt ratio,” the faculty add, which, they point out, is a factor in US News and World Report rankings for universities and colleges.

In his most recent interview, Nathan Grawe said he could not specifically speak on Marquette’s situation; however, he did say, “It might be much better off financially to reach into the [financially poorer]student population if the alternative is to simply let the seats go empty.”

Building for the future?

The financial initiatives by the administration and the board of directors that Gooding and Our Marquette criticize include :

  • The Commons dorm opened in 2018 came in over $12 million over budget.
  • The $24 million Athletic and Human Performance Research Center completed last year appears to be mostly empty.
  • The Marq, a high-end residential facility on 21st and Wisconsin, sold for $20.5 million in 2014. Marquette bought it in 2018 for $42.3 million, and raced to complete renovations for rental during the Democratic National Convention. Those plans never materialized.
  • The M12 online learning program was established and was to have 55 employees. Perhaps a victim of timing, the program folded before the pandemic.

Gooding sees a university throwing a lot of money at various projects trying to see what works. Concludes Gooding, “It has a gambling problem.”

In January, Lovell announced the development of a new $70 million home for the College of Business Administration. Conway explains that the project is 100% donor driven, meaning it is not part of the budget cuts discussion. It “will be built for the future and equipped with an enhanced technology infrastructure and flexible spaces that don’t exist today,” Conway explains.

The building was designed before the pandemic. As in so many fields, business employees will continue to work remotely even after the pandemic subsides. The question remains whether Marquette may now be building the equivalent of an educational shopping mall where no one goes because they are getting their education online.

Our Marquette, which describes itself on its website as “a group of concerned tenured and tenure-track faculty working in solidarity with our students and colleagues to stand strong for a transformative Jesuit education,” states that Marquette should “direct fundraising to scholarships for our students of color rather than new buildings.”

Perhaps Marquette’s administration and directors have a better understanding of what the university must do to survive and prosper than the dreamers among the staff and students. Or perhaps Marquette is sacrificing its humanities and Jesuit soul, as those dreamers believe, by striving to be a more elite university. Finally, Marquette must determine whether cutting programs and staff will actually save money, or whether such cuts would result in the devaluation of the quality of its education in the eyes of the public to the point that even fewer students will want to attend Marquette.

Reprinted with permission of Wisconsin Examiner.

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