By Starla Pointer
Staff Writer, McMinnville News-Register
Dec 6, 2018
Linfield College has a critical need to increase its enrollment, President Miles Davis told a crowd of employees and students at a community forum on Friday.
He described a nationwide trend of decreasing college and university enrollment and, in some cases, withering support for the idea of higher education.
Since Linfield, a private school, depends on tuition and fees to pay the bills, enrollment is critical, he said. This year, declines led to a $3 million shortfall.
“We can’t keep spending the endowment” to make up differences like that, Davis said.
He reiterated how Linfield must make a multi-pronged effort to market the college and recruit and retain students. Some strategies are in process, like focusing on first-generation students, and redoubling recruiting efforts aimed at transfers and non-traditional students.
He’s been welcomed when he visits community colleges, he said, and he is eager to persuade students to go on to Linfield. “They’re good people,” said Davis, noting he started at a community college himself.
In addition, he said, Linfield is working on attracting more diverse students. The number of students who are white and middle class is shrinking, but there is great potential for recruiting students of color, he said. Already, Latino students represent 17 percent of the enrollment.
When a student asked about Linfield’s efforts to raise cultural awareness and decrease harassment -- which she said she’d suffered -- Davis told her that those are priority issues. “It’s the right thing to do,” as well as good for the college, he said.
He invited the student to participate on Linfield’s new bias response team.
“Please don’t leave” Linfield, he implored her.
Davis discussed a wide range of other topics, from finances to Linfield’s continuing commitment to the liberal arts, during the hour-long forum in Ice Auditorium on campus. A direct video feed let people on the Portland campus listen and ask questions, like their counterparts in McMinnville.
At the outset of the forum, the president said he wanted to provide an opportunity to air concerns and to address rumors, such as recent speculation that the college will cut positions or eliminate programs.
Between the McMinnville and Portland campuses and the Office of Continuing Education, which attracts adults who work while attending classes, the college in 2017-18 had 162 faculty members, not counting adjuncts, and 430 other employees, ranging from administrators to groundskeepers.
Davis, who joined Linfield in July, said the budget for 2019-20 has not been drawn up yet, so no decisions have been finalized. Programs growing and attracting students will be supported; others, in which enrollment is declining, need to be critically analyzed.
Every year, he said, the administration considers the potential for serving students represented by each department. Then the president has to present a balanced budget plan to the Board of Trustees based on realistic projections for revenues and costs.
If growth were projected annually at 10 percent for the next five years, he said, that would “get us back to where we were” before enrollment started to decline.
He likened the process to gardening: “To grow, we often have to cut. There’s no contradiction. We have to decide what’s useful to the growth of the body as a whole.”
Davis said representatives of all areas of the college have formed a cabinet to discuss potential budget items. They will be meeting several times before the budget is finalized in early 2019.
A few of those present at the forum said later that they had received early retirement offers. College officials confirmed such offers were made in November to an undisclosed number of employees based on their years of service and proximity to retirement age.
Those employees have until early January to decide, so the college won’t know how the offers will affect the budget until then.
Asked about the next 10 years, Davis said his long-range vision includes stable finances for the college, improved branding and marketing, flourishing enrollment and a new science facility — a capital campaign for the latter is underway.
He also wants to expand into graduate programs and increase Linfield’s online presence. In addition, he wants to continue to “seek to attract and retain the most qualified faculty” as well as quality students, who are “at the heart and soul” of the college.
Drawing laughter, Davis said he wants to change Oregon’s landscape so drivers will see signs everywhere promoting Linfield, rather than George Fox.
In the short term, enrollment declines are driving concerns. Linfield, like schools across the nation, is suffering from a societal shift in the way higher education is delivered and considered.
Some people are questioning the need for higher ed. Others, largely those who look at it as simply job training, think it can be better delivered by for-profit schools. And many students are choosing community colleges or online programs, rather than residential schools, due to costs alone.
Like many schools, Linfield has seen enrollment decline. But other institutions are worse off: 106 schools across the country have closed in the last few years; seven in 2018.
So belt-tightening is necessary, Davis said. “We’ve had to postpone some hiring to stop the bleeding,” he said.
Linfield has not filled the position of vice president for enrollment services, which has been empty since mid-summer. Instead, the president is overseeing those duties.
To save additional dollars, he said, he is proposing handling data analysis in-house, rather than hiring an expensive outside company to examine enrollment trends, recruiting and financial aid packages. In-house analysis also could be more relevant to Linfield’s particular needs and strengths, he said.
On the positive side, Davis said, this is a time of great opportunities.
Linfield just purchased the University of Western States campus in Portland, which in 2020 will become the new home of the Linfield-Good Samaritan School of Nursing.
Davis said nursing school graduates now represent 44 percent of those who receive degrees. The new facilities will provide expansion in Linfield enrollment and its range of health-related fields of study.
He observed how Linfield could become the go-to school for training nurse practitioners and physician assistants, as well as registered nurses.
He’s open to all ideas, he said, but he’s already ruled out two types of graduate programs.
“I wouldn’t launch a law school or an MBA,” said Davis, who was dean of the business school at Shenandoah University in Virginia before coming to Linfield.
There may be more specific programs Linfield could offer successfully, though, he said.
In addition to its cabinet reviewing budget items, the college also has formed an academic innovation council. Its members — faculty, deans and other members of the staff — will examine ideas that could draw students.
When someone asked about the potential for summer programs, Davis quipped, “We’re giving thought to everything. Nothing, from my perspective, is off the table.”
Linfield may eventually have more programs that combine liberal arts and professional studies, as the bachelor’s degree in nursing does.
But it will not lose its essential focus on the liberal arts entirely, Davis said, defining “liberal arts” as “reasoning, history and citizenship ... to function as a citizen in society.”