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HUNTINGTON — With enrollment down 19% at Marshall University compared to five years ago, the school is focusing its efforts on how to adapt to shifting expectations of higher education across the nation.

Marshall President Brad D. Smith discussed the shift Monday during his inaugural press conference at Drinko Library on the school’s Huntington campus. He also reviewed the outcomes of his “first 100 days” in office tour, which he’ll use to help mold the university’s future.

Smith said Marshall has about one-fifth fewer students today than five years ago for reasons that include the changing landscape of higher education, such as the creation of online schools, and a shrinking number of college-bound high school students.

However, the warning issued during Monday’s press conference was of an “enrollment cliff” projected for 2026, which will be the peak of high school students graduating since birth rates in the United States have declined in recent decades.

“If you’re only focused on 18-year-olds coming to college, then your enrollment is going to go down just because the demographics are not working in your favor,” he said.

Another issue facing the institution is the future of the local and national economy. As a possible recession looms, Smith said the university has studied what it would take to not be at risk when the next “black swan event” happens.

The university found it needs two months of operating cash and the ability to pay the bank what is owed for one year. Anything above that is a strategic reserve that can be invested back into students, staff and infrastructure.

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Marshall University President Brad D. Smith speaks while conducting a press conference regarding his first 100 days as president on Monday, June 20, 2022, in Huntington.

Smith wrapped up his 100-day tour in April, with more than 1,000 participants giving more than 1,200 suggestions. He also got feedback from community members and visited other institutions. The feedback was narrowed down by an outside analytics firm to five key areas, known internally as the “Big Five.”

The top three categories mentioned were recruitment and enrollment; student experience; and staff and faculty needs, followed closely by strengthening diversity and equity; strengthening marketing; and leaning into technology and data.

Based on that tour, Marshall has contracted with a consulting firm to help come up with a five-year plan by analyzing data. The firm is McKinsey & Company, which recently entered into a nearly $600 million nationwide settlement for consulting services given to Purdue Pharma, which has been accused of creating and fueling the opioid crisis. It has denied {span}culpability, however. {/span}

Smith said the school found McKinsey brought the best expertise to the table and he doesn’t feel conflicted in using their services.

“Our view is we take a look at them now and say ‘OK, has there been a lesson learned? Are they the right skills? Are they the right individual and they help us accelerate,’” he said. “We’re not keeping them in the penalty box forever, because I think, like everybody, they came out of that thing and they learned a lesson.”

In discussing the “Big Five,” Smith said about 85% of Marshall students come from West Virginia, which has been losing population for 50 years. Marshall also gets a disproportionate share of the state, recruiting a lot of students from the southwestern part of the state, which has had the hardest economic downturn in recent decades due to the loss of coal production.

Smith said there are 10 different kinds of students the university will be focused on in the future ranging from traditional, veterans, working adults, metro students and more.

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Marshall University conducts a press conference regarding Brad D. Smith's first 100 days as president on Monday, June 20, 2022, in Huntington.

The plan also includes improving the student experience by allowing students to attend class from anywhere they want, whether it be in person or online, because life is busy and being in person doesn’t always work anymore.

There is also a focus on making services more available and accessible for those who don’t follow the traditional path. He used an example of a working student who can’t make it to the bookstore because it closes at 5 p.m.

After a six-week engagement with the Boston Consulting Group, Marshall also has looked at how tuition and fees can stay accessible and affordable. Smith said the university is “mystery shopping” for what it feels like to be a student and to enroll.

“Someone said to me recently, ‘It’s easier to buy a Tesla than it is to enroll for college,’” he said. “And we’ve got to figure out how to make it easier to do that.”

For the university’s faculty, Smith said Marshall will continue to work under a shared governance — giving the president’s office, faculty and students a say in decisions — but Smith said it is currently writing down a “constitution” of sorts, so expectations of the parties are clear. Smith said despite the university being 185 years old, this hasn’t been done.

Smith added Marshall needs to refocus on how it invests in its professors and research. This includes more labs, graduate assistants, and giving professors a chance to reduce teaching to increase their research.

Marshall has identified what Smith called “no regret” decisions, obvious problems which need to be fixed, such as pay equity analysis. The university will look at pay compared to other institutions in the region and whether Marshall has discriminative policies — intentional or unintentional — or gender and race disparities.

“We don’t think that is true, but what we want to do is have an outside firm come in and assess,” he said. “If we do learn, there’s something that needs to be fixed, then we’re more aware of it and we can go in and correct it.”

Marshall will also move toward a Responsibility Centered Management, he said, which will give different entities in the university a budget and allow them to make the decisions, rather than having to send wants and needs up the ladder to him.

Smith said the university should increase its diversity and inclusion, pointing to a team of new hires who will work together to make it happen.

Finally, the university is in the midst of creating a digitally focused marketing campaign to let the world know who Marshall is.

“We’re going to control the narrative. We’re going to tell the world who we are, what we do and why our people are so special,” he said. “But we’re going to do that in a modern way.”

The “Big Five” plan is big and to do it, Smith said Marshall must lean on its “good bones,” meaning the faculty, staff and students he said are the heart of the university.

Courtney Hessler is a reporter for The Herald-Dispatch, primarily covering Marshall University. Follow her on Facebook.com/CHesslerHD and via Twitter @HesslerHD.

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