By Lora Scripps
Athens State University has made historic strides during the past year — strides that will help the 190-year-old institution stay abreast to higher education trends as well as lobby Alabama leaders for funding much like other universities in the state.
In October, Athens State chaired the first meeting of a newly appointed 11-member board of trustees.
Governor Robert Bentley chaired the first meeting calling it “a very historic day” for the university.
It was the first time the school was led by its own board since being transferred from the purview of the Methodist Church to the state of Alabama in 1975 and becoming a public school.
“We came out from under the state board of education,” Athens State University President Dr. Robert Glenn said recently. “That is a big deal for the university.”
He believes the new board will help Athens State in a variety of ways. “Not that the state board didn’t take their responsibility to us seriously, but we were governed by a board that had 137 K-12 systems, 27 community colleges and one university,” he said. “It was very difficult for us to get the kind of attention and exceptions that we needed to operate in the best fashion.” He used ASU’s tenure policy as an example, which was basically the same as K-12 and community colleges. “That made us the only university in the country, which had a tenure policy that was based on peer review and merit,” he said.
Glenn added a lot of people think Athens State is leaving the community college system, which he said is technically true, but not actually true.
“What we sought in our legislation was to have an autonomous board, but to have a state-wide mission as a community college, transfer student-oriented institution and that is what we have and what we will remain,” he said.
Athens State doesn’t plan to add another two years. “We are going to remain an upper division university,” he said. “We are going to remain focused on cutting-edge delivery and being as frugal as we can because we think that is a viable market for us.”
Like other universities, changes at ASU bring along the possibility of a tuition raise. Glenn said it’s not a subject the institution is “gung-ho” about incorporating. “It is probably inevitable that we will have to raise tuition,” he said. “How much — I don’t know. We are not happy about doing it, but there are a number of things that are going on that will probably force it in the future.”
ASU held a board of trustees orientation a couple of weeks ago with the intention of giving the board a better understanding of the instition and issues that will be impacted particularly regarding the budget.
Glenn said there are a couple of things the university wants people to know. “We will only raise tuition when we have no other alternative,” he said.
In the past five years since Glenn has served as ASU president, tuition has only been raised twice. He noted that ASU is the only bachelorette institution in the state that has not raised tuition every year. In fact, if a tuition raise goes in place next fall it would be two years since the last time it was raised.
“What I would want people to understand is we are not resorting to tuition increases as a first response,” he said. “I think we have learned over the years a variety of ways of dealing with things … We are one of the leanest institutions in the Southeast.”
Glenn said there are a few things the university believes are important and those things would involve a tuition raise. “One is taking care of our faculty and staff,” he said. “They have been without any kind of across the board increase in pay in five years. We are looking at a 2- to 3-percent raise, which is not a great deal when you stretch it over five years.”
He said the board would ultimately decide the best course of action, which would probably happen at the July meeting. By then the institution should know the budget situation, Glenn said. Athens State had asked for an increase in state allocation.
Glenn said while a tuition raise could lie ahead, “We take no joy in a tuition increase.”
“We recognize our students — our niche if you will — is much more negatively impacted by tuition increases,” he said. “Our typical student is a woman in her 30s with a family and a full-time job. Even a relatively small increase in tuition has a major impact on her and her family. We understand that. We agonize over it and we will try to make the best choices that we can.”
At the same time, Glenn noted, students don’t want the institution to be stagnant. “They would love for tuitions to be the same,” he said. However, students also want to get the best technology, the best delivery, the best faculty and all of those things require some investment, according to Glenn.
Glenn said he would like to present a “guaranteed tuition plan” before the board during the next year. “This is very tentative,” he said. “It’s based on whether or not we can make it work.” He would like to work out a plan where students who are transferring to ASU would be in under a guaranteed plan where their starting tuition would not increase as long as they finished school under a set period of time. “We think the way to help our students is to incentivize focus and work to help them get through while managing their budgets,” he said. “We think that is in our best interest.
“It would mean at given time you would have students paying different tuitions,” he said. “That would be very different within the tradition tuition model.”