Catawba College addresses cuts to budget, personnel

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, June 26, 2019

SALISBURY — Addressing rumors about cuts to Catawba College’s personnel and budget, President Brien Lewis on Tuesday said impending changes for the fall semester are not the result of dire circumstances.

Rather, Lewis said, “It’s more a matter of fine-tuning.”

“There are a lot of market forces that are impacting higher education pretty broadly,” said Lewis. “What that means is that every institution has to really decide where it’s going to commit resources and where it’s going to reposition itself.”

The “fairly commonplace” and yearly endeavor of evaluating and projecting a complex mixture of elements — student interests, enrollment and demographics — has Catawba, a private college, planning for budget reductions that would affect both operating and personnel budgets, Lewis said.

“Yes, we have eliminated some positions, but we’ve also added some positions,” he said.

An exact number of positions eliminated was still in flux Tuesday as the college waited for final fall enrollment numbers, but the outlook is positive, Lewis said. The school is looking at potentially its largest incoming class in roughly five years, and the number of “summer melt” — or students who decide to go elsewhere after enrolling at Catawba — is down compared to prior years.

“I’m not anticipating as we sit here today to see any significant number of reductions,” he said.

But Lewis said a definitive number could be a ways off as the college engages in what he called an ongoing chess game: a strategic maneuvering seen at colleges and universities nationwide as they work to meet the needs of an ever-changing crop of college students.

At Catawba, market changes include an increased interest in the school’s nursing and health science tracks, a decline in interest for teaching tracks and a shift in enrollment away from traditional, “college-aged” students, he said.

“This is not about people’s job performance; it’s about where is there the demand and the need for students,” said Lewis, pointing to a statewide 30% decrease in interest in education fields of study and a 10% decline in what he called “college-aged, college-bound students.”

“There are fewer students in that traditional 18 to 22 age bracket,” Lewis said. “We’re seeing more and more working adults who are coming back to get their first degree or earn an additional credential.”

Accordingly, the college is working to meet students where they are by ramping up its capacities for online or hybrid education, receiving approval from the accrediting Southern Association of Colleges and Schools’ Commission on Colleges for programs in which 50% or more of learning is online-based.

“We’re doing things like that to hopefully attract more adult students in ways that are compatible with their needs and availability,” said Lewis.

By meeting the needs of the student market, Lewis said, the college is working to ensure continued growth and, potentially, the renewal of some staff contracts that at present are set to expire in one year.

“We put a lot more into marketing and recruitment the last couple of years and I think that the increases that we’re seeing for the fall enrollment are paying dividends,” said Lewis. “If those come to fruition and we’re able to keep some of the folks that we gave that one year of notice to, that would be a terrific outcome for everybody.”

Addressing concerns or displeasure voiced by the student body on some potential reductions, Lewis called his position as a sounding board a difficult line to walk.

“In almost every case that I can think of, you share the student’s view of somebody’s talent and dedication and you would love to keep them here,” he said. “It might sound kind of strange that I’m pleased when people come banging on my door saying they’re unhappy with a decision, but, well, that’s a good indicator they are invested in the success of our institution.”

And the vocalizations are proof of the positive impact and dedication of Catawba’s faculty, said Lewis.

“I continue to be just deeply impressed by the faculty and the staff at Catawba and their commitment to the students,” Lewis said. “Even if their area is getting impacted by a reduction, and it’s going to mean more to do among fewer people … they continue to put students first.”

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