My Alma Mater is Foundering. It Must Find a New Way

My beloved alma mater, Ohio University, got a small shine from the national spotlight by defeating Virginia in the first round of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Naturally, Bobcats around the country were thrilled and proud. However, time in the limelight is fleeting. Athletic exploits aside, the school faces a multitude of daunting challenges.

When I was a student, OU was ranked nationally in the 110–120 range, a very respectable position. But its academic reputation has slid down to the 170–180 range, and there’s no indication that it will stop dropping any time soon. There are a number of reasons for this. The state has consistently cut funding to public universities, and OU has felt the pinch. Higher tuition has made the school less competitive and admitting more students who were less successful in high school.

They’re relying more and more on adjunct professors rather than tenured faculty. While tenured positions are increasingly harder to come by, plum administrative roles are not. The OU staff directory is awash with Vice Presidents of this and that. It is top-heavy and bloated in all the worst places. It makes me think of a precarious Jenga tower. There is little ambition or innovation apparent in the top offices.

The university does not lean in hard enough on what it does best. The communication school is one of the nation’s best and it provides OU with an opportunity to be the destination for communications within the state and the Great Lakes region. It’s frustrating when I talk about where I went to school, and if the other person wasn’t from the area, they knew little or nothing about it. Just another faceless state school. The mere suggestion is offensive to Bobcats, but it’s hard to dispute.

I could go on. None of their problems have easy, realistic fixes. But I know enough Game Theory to know if you’re losing by playing the same game as the people beating you, you need to change your strategy. It’s time to get radical. The sports marketing team tried to make “Attack U” a thing for a few years. Let’s actually make Ohio University Attack U and get aggressive. The best part is, the blueprint is out there, and there’s a proven method. The Board of Trustees should turn their gaze and look deep into the heart of Texas.

University of Texas-Austin implemented a program in which automatic admission was awarded to all students who finished in the top 10% of their class in high school. They’ve since throttled that down to 6%, but there is a clear positive effect on the student body as well as the university. It was successful enough Texas A&M followed suit.

With that in mind, I propose the following:

· Automatic admission to Ohio University for all students in Ohio who graduate in the top 25% of their class — no application needed

· Substantial grants and scholarships for students who graduate in the top 10% of their class

· Cease using the SAT or ACT as a determining factor in admission

· Prioritize high school record as the most important factor in admission

UT-Austin and Texas A&M have seen a considerable increase in diversity, racial and class.[1] It is a natural by-product of the admission promise and precludes controversial quotas or Affirmative Action. The undergraduate body at Ohio University is 83% White (the state itself is 81% White). I suspect that figure is likely to grow as fewer students come over from Asia, which has been a significant portion of OU’s non-White population. Black students often have a hard time at OU. This is in no small part because there are so few of their peers at the school with them. I don’t think many would disagree the university badly needs to increase its diversity. But not only would the university see a growth in Black students (Latinos comprise just 4% of the state’s population, so increases here would be minimal), it would also have an increase in poor White students from Appalachia. Athens is a poor county in the poorest part of the state in one of the poorest regions in the country.[2] No school is more aware of the challenges and lack of upward mobility potential in the counties and communities around Athens, and no school is better positioned to serve those people. Ohio University should make as part of its core mission educating Appalachian students and helping establish opportunities.

Students in districts with an inferior reputation often do not achieve strong scores on the ACT or SAT. We know standardized tests are a poor predictor of post-secondary success. We know standardizes tests have a stronger correlation to family wealth. We know high school GPA is a relatively strong predictor of post-secondary success. So why are we throwing bad data after good? It’s an easy, fast fix. Most universities that have done away with standardized tests do allow them as an optional supplement to applications. There are a lot of students who coast in high school but get into colleges they don’t necessarily deserve because they took a test well.

The most common argument against giving those students more opportunity is because they didn’t go to “good schools,” they did not have the same academic rigor as those in “good schools” and therefore would not be able to keep up. Remedial classes would be flooded and the gap never closes. This is partially true. Remedial classes often do not bring students in line with others in their class who were not relegated. Again, we can look to UT-Austin for the model. They don’t put the “bad school” students in remedial classes. They start out taking the same courses as everyone else.

Is there a gap between “bad school” students and “good school” students? Yes, there often is. Do they face more challenges? Yes, often. The answer there is to provide robust support — not handholding — but support and the gap by and large shrinks, surprisingly quickly at that. Would you have wanted to be treated as less capable as someone else in your class? Mostly likely not, so why impose that on an 18-year-old? Support would need to be holistic — one freshman in Austin said she didn’t ever learn how to take notes because she never needed to — and responsive to the challenges in and out of the classroom some students have been prepared for and others not.

Of course, I don’t have to balance the checkbook in Chubb Hall. But I do know they have an endowment of nearly $600 million, a number that compares extremely favorably compared to peer institutions. They need not break the bank to attract high-quality students. High achieving students and a strong academic reputation have a tendency to draw more grants, more donations.

This scheme sends a message to the entire state: We are serious, we are equal to the task, and we want excellent students. Come to Athens. Thousands of students who may have never thought about OU would have an e-mail coming to them, telling them what they have earned and how Ohio would be good for them. If this can pull hundreds or a couple thousand people who would otherwise have gone to an Ohio State satellite campus, it’s a big success.

There are other huge challenges. COVID has made residential schools feel extremely expendable, even superfluous for students. Quality faculty need to be in place in order to serve the students. Money has to replace dwindling state support. It’s possible the program would be too much of a success and OU is overwhelmed with a huge freshman class is has to handle. And I love Athens with all my heart, but it is a tough sell for a lot of people. It’s not easy to get to, it’s not near anywhere, and it’s very much a rural Appalachian city, for all its charms and positives.

Stagnation has set in at Cutler Hall, and alumni are watching their alma mater fade into a chimera. I’d rather try, and possibly fail, than wither away. The only thing we really have to lose is what we’re already losing. So, what path will the state’s oldest university chart this decade? Slow deprecation, or audacious metamorphosis?

[1] More details can be found here and here.

[2] Nearly every one of the USA’s 30 poorest counties have either a prison or a reservation. Worth pointing out, because it’s saying something to us.

Using my words to work through depression, personality disorder, and ADHD.