Joy Ballard had a tough decision to make when the University of New Orleans eliminated several degree programs in late 2014 — including hers.
Dwindling state funding, dramatic enrollment drops and a yearslong, multimillion-dollar structural deficit led then-UNO President Peter Fos to put seven programs on the immediate chopping block and target others for restructuring.
Ballard, 24, had earned her master’s in political science at UNO in May 2014, and she was working toward a doctorate. She will be able to finish her studies but in a department she expects to be much diminished, a decision Fos attributed to the program’s low enrollment.
Worn out by the years of budget uncertainty, many of Ballard’s classmates and professors have departed for other schools. If she had known her program wasn’t going to survive, Ballard probably would have joined them.
“Everyone’s making the most they can with what they have at this point,” she said recently.
That’s become almost an unofficial mantra among the school’s dispirited faculty and staff.
For a half-century after its founding in 1958, UNO offered generations of middle-class New Orleanians an affordable pathway to a four-year college degree. But it has fallen on hard times during the past decade, beginning with the damage caused by 2005’s Hurricane Katrina and continuing with deep budget cuts and admission requirements that have seen its student body shrink by half.
Like its peers, UNO got few favors from former Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration. Over the past eight years, UNO’s state support has shrunk by more than half, from $74 million in 2008-09 to almost $33 million in 2014-15. The school’s overall budget has been cut by about 20 percent over that span, to $102 million.
Enrollment has followed a similar downward trajectory, from 17,142 students registered pre-Katrina to just 8,423 last fall — UNO’s smallest class since 1967. Over that time, UNO has gone from being the state’s second-largest four-year school to its seventh-largest.
Some of the fall-off has to do with Katrina, of course, but the flood isn’t the only culprit. Enrollment at UNO has fallen by 26 percent since Jindal took office in 2008. It’s the steepest decline recorded by any four-year public school in the state over that period.
Like Louisiana’s other universities, UNO has turned to increased tuition and student fees to fill the gap. But the free-falling enrollment has made that a challenge, too.
Current and former faculty members and administrators say a variety of factors have stymied UNO’s recovery: annual anxiety over additional cuts and potential layoffs; longer hours and bigger course loads; and a vacuum in leadership marked by a revolving door of top administrators. The school currently is seeking a new president.
During a recent public forum, many faculty members and students told a search committee that UNO needs a “healer,” someone who would provide “strong leadership” and work alongside faculty to make decisions.
Budget cuts and a void at the top aren’t UNO’s only challenges. Tighter state-mandated admissions standards also have weeded out hundreds of students in metro New Orleans.
Students enrolled in the city’s public schools have averaged an 18.8 on the ACT in 2014, about a point behind the statewide average. Under the new standards, that’s roughly the minimum score a student can achieve, and a score that low also requires a minimum 2.5 GPA.
The effect of the changes is apparent in the school’s changing demographics. Before Katrina struck, about 1 in 4 UNO students was black; last year, it was roughly 1 in 7.
Setback after setback
Fos, who took over in 2012 and retired this month, was given the unenviable job of shrinking an institution several years too late. He blames his predecessors for not making the hard decisions to reduce UNO’s footprint when enrollment didn’t bounce back after the storm.
The same year Fos took over, the state ordered UNO and several other universities to stop offering remedial courses to freshmen who were not ready for college coursework.
Fos — a New Orleans native and UNO graduate — was appalled to find his alma mater in such disarray.
It wasn’t long before he faced his first budget challenge: In his first year, the state cut its support by more than $9 million. Then, the new admission requirements took effect, further reducing an already low enrollment. He estimates that about 750 students could no longer enroll at UNO in fall 2012.
“You couldn’t have planned a worse scenario for me, to be honest with you,” he said.
To cope with less revenue, Fos made a number of controversial cutbacks, deep-sixing academic programs, eliminating hundreds of jobs and closing a popular on-campus day care center.
Mostly through attrition, UNO’s faculty has shrunk considerably, from 199 professors in 2005 to 91 professors in 2015.
As colleagues left and weren’t replaced, faculty members who stayed had to pick up added responsibilities — including teaching more classes — after going years without a raise.
The uncertain climate has led some faculty to pack up sooner than they had anticipated.
Not long after being hired as a UNO professor in 2006, Renia Ehrenfeucht was named chairwoman of the school’s Planning and Urban Studies department, viewed as one of UNO’s stronger areas. Her research has focused on how environments shape urban life; in post-Katrina New Orleans, she studied disaster recovery and how cities react to prolonged population loss.
Ehrenfeucht, 45, was thriving at UNO and had no plans to look for a job elsewhere. Her outlook changed three years ago, after feeling like each spring ushered in another round of cuts.
“In the last year, with the endless talk of financial exigency and how you could be laid off in 90 days, I think it created a situation that any people who would’ve been willing to stay and were productive and very engaged in the university and the region were saying, ‘I don’t know where I’m going to be,’ ” said Ehrenfeucht, now a professor at the University of New Mexico.
Andrew Goss also expected to stick around for a while.
But by late 2013, Goss, who was chairman of UNO’s history department, had grown increasingly frustrated.
“Basically, I lost my confidence in the institution as a whole,” said Goss, who has since left for a similar post at Augusta University in Georgia.
“I have not regretted moving,” he added. “I do miss living in New Orleans and miss being part of the UNO experience, but I don’t regret this from the point of view of my career and my job satisfaction.”
Those who have stayed at UNO, meanwhile, aren’t necessarily feeling fulfilled.
“I’ve worked harder than I ever have in the last couple of years,” said Vern Baxter, the head of the sociology department and a member of UNO’s faculty for more than three decades. “I’m not optimistic, and I’m not pessimistic.”
Since 2010, Baxter’s department has shrunk by more than half. That’s led to more courses being taught by part-time instructors with less experience, “many of whom are good, some of whom are not as good,” he said, but none of whom “bring the same kind of research agenda and breadth of knowledge.”
At 66 , Baxter has a few things left to finish before retiring, he said, but he’s working on an exit strategy. “I’ve figured out that I can’t outlive this crisis,” he said.
Trying new things
Hoping to reverse its recent fortunes, UNO is trying new ideas, including targeting international students and people from along the Gulf Coast outside Louisiana. The university also has sought to establish a new School of the Arts in hopes of drawing students to New Orleans’ cultural sector.
Another fix that’s been discussed: lowering the admissions standards to where they were before the reforms.
Fos had said he’d support such a change, though it would create some political and philosophical blowback.
Fos noted that part of the idea behind raising the standards was that stricter standards would push more students to enroll at a two-year school, like Delgado Community College, and then transfer to UNO. But ultimately, that hasn’t happened: Delgado’s enrollment is down too, he said, and its transfers to UNO have fallen off by a quarter.
“Everybody thought that the year after Katrina, everybody would come back, and it didn’t happen,” he said.
As he neared the end of his tenure, Fos had no delusions about his legacy at UNO, where some faculty quietly refer to him as a “hatchet man.”
“People ask me what keeps me awake at night,” he said. “Very simple: I’ve never had the resources financially that I think this university needs for me to help move it forward. I think it’s a better place than I found it.”
Some UNO alumni and faculty wonder why it’s so difficult for a state university to succeed in Louisiana’s most beguiling city.
“UNO has tremendous potential,” Ehrenfeucht said. “People want to be in New Orleans, and all you have to do is make that possible. But right now, I think we’ve created a situation where it doesn’t seem possible for everybody.”
Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.