The new president of Wright State University, Cheryl B. Schrader, arrived on campus a month ago after a long period of financial and administrative turmoil at the school. In June, trustees worked with an interim president to cut more than $30 million from the budget, eliminating 189 positions. As she works to begin a new era at Wright State, Schrader met with editors from Cox Media Group Ohio to talk about her plans and vision. This is an edited, condensed version of that conversation. — Ron Rollins
Q: What’s your first month on the job been like?
Schrader: The first month brought some amazing facts every day – on how integral Wright State is to this community, on the educational opportunities and access it provides, and on the tremendous research being done in partnership with many other institutions – academic, business and military. It’s been wonderful to get up to go to work every day and figure out how to move the university forward.
Q: Wright State was recently named one of the best schools in the Midwest in a survey – thoughts?
A: I think sometimes Wright State might be a well-kept secret, so having that opportunity to be recognized nationally and across the state is important. Sometimes, we don’t understand the gem we have in our own back yard.
Q: Regarding the university’s budget problems, what have you heard from faculty, students and staff about their concerns?
A: I’ve been in meetings with faculty, staff, students, alumni, business and academic leaders from across the region, and finances of course have been part of the conversation. Great care has been taken not to impact the educational experience – tenure-track faculty were not involved in any of the layoff situations. And that’s our priority, to educate and improve the lives of our students.
Q: Can you gives us a snapshot on the finances?
A: We’re finalizing FY 2017, and things are looking very positive, with a much stronger FY 2018 than we anticipated. It’s good to know the measures we’ve taken had a great impact, and that helps people feel better about some of the decisions that had to be made. We’re looking at what we can continue to improve, and at where we can be more efficient and effective with the resources we have. We’re well on our way, due to a lot of good and hard work the last few months.
Q: Did you get the feeling when you got here that a lot of people expected you to pull a rabbit out of your hat and start working magic?
A: It surprised me, the intensity I was greeted with – “We’re really so glad you’re here!” It felt more intense than the typical new leader coming in. But the best part about it was finding how eager people are to work with you to make this institution all that it can be. So I hear: Yes, we want leadership we can rally around and work together with, and there’s an openness but also a willingness to work together as a team. And not just at the university, but around the community, as well. That takes off some pressure, too.
Q: At the very least, it’s better than people saying, “Hey, good luck with that.”
A: Correct … and as I mentioned, there’s already been a lot of good work from spring on to get us ready to move forward and find out what the university’s next 50 years will be like.
Q: Your learning curve has probably been pretty steep, especially regarding the relationship between Wright State and Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.
A: That relationship is a big part of what attracted me to the Dayton area. It taps into the founding of the university, the core of innovation with the Wright brothers, and also the research needs of the institution – it’s in the fabric of the university. I’ve had great opportunities to work with the military in past jobs, and had the chance to innovate and work with some national models, so we’re taking steps to build on that here – it’s tremendously important, with the work already occurring at Wright State Research Institute. The connections with the military and the Department of Defense are very active here.
Q: Back to finances, if we could – you mentioned things are looking better than expected; is it accurate to say that the worst is over?
A: I would say we’ve turned the corner, but there are still a lot of very important decisions to make, and you can imagine it will take more than 90 days to strategically put the right culture in place as we move forward. What I’m inheriting, though, is a financial situation better than what people would have expected out of FY 2017. The thing now will be to sit down and decide how to be very strategic about our resources and how to use them. How should we invest in those priorities and areas of excellence? This year we’ll complete our strategic planning and identify what Ohio needs Wright State to be for the next 50 years. We’ve had a short-term solution which now needs to become a sustainable business model. We’re much leaner now but it’s also time for us to lean in – we need to really embrace this business mindset to be able to deliver what the region needs.
Q: Along those lines, what would you like the community to look to Wright State for? The trend has seemed to be that many things were asked of the university and some went well, and others did not.
A: I think that’s a very good observation. Wright State has been very responsive to the needs of the region over the years, but perhaps we need to take a step back and determine what are the right areas of excellence, and focus on them.
Q: You seem to be suggesting that the university can’t really be all things to all people, so there will be a lot of interest in the things you choose to focus on.
A: I won’t be doing it in a vacuum — we’ll be planning with thousands of people, and not just on campus. It would be presumptuous of me at this point to state these areas when the team is still working on it. But you’re right that the university has been pretty good at adding things, but not so good at trimming things, so it’s hard to figure out what not to do. It can be freeing, though, when you have a shared strategic plan because it can help you say no to things and keep you from chasing shiny objects or things that are important but you’re not able to do well all at the same time. So it will be interesting to see — I have some sense of what those conversations may be, but I don’t want to say first what I think. There will be some tremendous ideas out there, and I don’t want to squash them.
Q: Thoughts on where athletics fits into those conversations?
A: I just met with our athletics director, talking about how many people may not understand the great return on any investment you make in your athletics program — media attention being one of those, for very positive reasons. Many people may not know our athletes have higher GPAs and graduation rates than many other schools — and they’re often our most engaged alumni, very motivated people who turn out to be quite successful. So when you look at the goals of the institution, student athletes help you achieve those goals. I was pleased when our AD talked about the PSA model — which is people first, students second, athletes third. That means really investing in the people and not on winning, and the impact we can have on those students, and how to be that hub for the community. You can tell I’m an avid college sports fan.
Q: It seems fair to say that over the last few years of its difficulties, transparency has been an issue at Wright State, which is a public institution.
A: So, the three areas of focus for me in this first year are financial stability, administrative transparency and campus conversations — building trust, setting the course for the next 50 years. Administrative transparency is very important to me, and we’ve already made some inroads, such as a governance policy the board put in place with new reporting systems, as of this spring. People will see regular reporting on finances, P&L and cash statements, and what details they want to see. We’re putting together a council of representatives from across the university so I can sit down on a periodic basis to have conversations about how things are going, what I need to know, and hear what others think. To be successful, people need to see how decisions are being made, and for that you have to be open.
Q: In your conversations with people at the university, have you been able to figure out just what happened?
A: If you’re asking was there just one cause, it’s eluding me what that is. I haven’t found anyone who has that answer, but I’m beginning to understand more and more some things that may have led to this perfect storm, if you will, and now we’re putting into place some additional oversight — and frankly, as folks have more authority, they will also have responsibility and accountability. I said earlier we really are looking for excellence at the university and in how we do business, and we really have the opportunity to demonstrate what we learned through some tough years. That’s the real mettle of the university.
Q: Former President David Hopkins is still on campus – what’s his role? Is he teaching now? Are you leaning on him in any way?
A: My understanding is that he’s back on the faculty. I’m not aware of what he’s teaching.
Q: Will he be able to help with the transition in any way?
A: There’s not a formal role for him in that regard. We’ll just get him back into a faculty role – which is why any of us come to a university to begin with.
Q: Have you had a chance to meet with state officials?
A: I’ve been meeting quite regularly with staff from the governor’s office, and they’re very supportive. They’re very interested in Wright State and what we’re doing, and they stress that the university is very, very important for the state and they’re ready to ask how they can help us to be a success. We’ve not talked about state funding, but we have talked about what the university is doing to put itself on sounder ground.
Q: You mention state funding — when you look at the future revenue mix for the university, what does it look like in terms of tuition vs. grants and state money? There’s been a lot of disruption in higher education, surely.
A: There has been disruption driving changes in our industry, and Wright State is no different from other higher education institutions in how the funding model has dramatically shifted – in terms of what portion is from the state and what part is from tuition, there’s been almost a dollar-for-dollar change. Certainly you’ll see more of a focus on tuition. And you can see that Wright State is one of the best values by far in that regard, and has worked very hard to keep that access open. That means we have to look to other places, as well – so, there are opportunities to grow research. This fiscal year we should be close to $100 million there, and that looks quite promising. Also we have opportunities to work with other academic partners, and we have to look at how we can work more closely with industry – providing training, online courses, certificates – and focus on the need for a STEM workforce and anticipate, not just respond to, industry’s needs.
Q: Community colleges also talk about workforce development, and you’re in between two of them, Clark State and Sinclair Community College. First impressions?
A: I’ve met with both presidents a few times and talked about what partnerships already exist and what other possibilities might make sense. We agreed that we can continue to be innovative in the ways we meet the needs of the students who begin there and may ultimately end up at Wright State. I’m very passionate about access and success, and so working with community colleges is very important to me.
Q: Any thoughts on Wright State’s Lake Campus in Celina? Is it in good shape?
A: The Lake Campus is really is an asset. I’ve seen the latest enrollment numbers, and it’s grown over last year. They really are doing very good job, and the opportunities and connections they’ve made with high schools in that area help feed into that. The fact that students can go there for about half the cost of the Dayton campus provides access that might not be available to people otherwise. What’s amazing to me is the breadth of the educational experience they have there, associate degrees through professional degrees — so they’re meeting a very important need for the state. I think you’ll see a lot more coming from the Lake Campus.
Q: Look down the road 10, 20 years — how do you see the business model of higher education changing? Will everything be online?
A: Clearly, all the models are changing, and there is more and more we can do remotely. My view is that we need to understand what is the advantage of people being physically brought together, and what requires it. Some things are just extraordinarily difficult to do in a virtual manner, and we need to find out what is best done in the physical space and focus on that. We also need to understand how to best use these disruptive technologies to the advantage of the learning process. I’ve taught online, and even won an exemplary course award, so I have an appreciation for online teaching. I like a hybrid approach, where you do some work in a virtual setting and some in face-to-face settings. I see some institutions going completely one way or another, but a place like Wright State will be in both spaces and learn how to integrate them.
Q: So, some schools will be Amazon University where you get a diploma by drone and never set foot on a campus?
A: Well, it does happen — I’ve awarded Ph.Ds to people who first set foot on campus the day they graduated. It’s really exciting if you do online teaching right — you can create this virtual community full of give-and-take dialogue and engagement, and can tailor the process to the various ways people learn. Some things are easier to teach online, but it really takes a lot of work.
Q: It’s interesting that the process you’re following for setting the new direction for the school is much like the one Eric Spina followed when he became president at the University of Dayton — a similar time frame of gathering information from the community and a broad strategic planning process. Do you have a time frame?
A: We will be in a good position in late spring to really have a good idea of where we’re going and how to get there. It’s also interesting that both of us are engineers.
Q: What would you like people to be saying about your imprint as president five years from now?
A: Well, I’d be looking for you to be talking not about the president, but about the university – with the imprint being that here is the model of what a metropolitan research university should be, embracing the role of an intellectual, social, cultural hub and how lives have been transformed by it – not just students’ lives, but the lives of people in the community. That’s what I’d like.
STAYING WITH THE STORY
Our news organization has been closely covering the challenges at Wright State University. This Q&A came from the latest meeting of our Cox Media Group Ohio Community & Editorial Board, talking with key local leaders. We’ll continue to be your best source on this important, evolving story.
“It surprised me, the intensity I was greeted with – ‘We’re really so glad you’re here!’ It felt more intense than the typical new leader coming in.”