New UNO President John Nicklow plans to make growing enrollment his top priority _lowres

John Nicklow

A search committee on Friday named New Orleans Deputy Mayor Andy Kopplin and University of New Orleans Provost John Nicklow as finalists to lead the city’s largest public university, winnowing down its list after conducting three days of public interviews with five candidates.

Kopplin and Nicklow will be presented to the full University of Louisiana system board Tuesday in a public meeting. The board will decide who will get the job.

Before reaching a final decision, search committee members twice voted on advancing three finalists. In one case, the list included Kopplin, Nicklow and John Valery White, the strategic adviser to the president of the University of Nevada in Las Vegas. The other time, the board voted for Kopplin, Nicklow and Jaimie Hebert, the provost and vice president of academic affairs at Sam Houston State University in Texas.

Both of those votes deadlocked 5-5, which prompted the committee to return to a closed session. When the members re-emerged, a motion to recommend all four candidates to the University of Louisiana system board was narrowly defeated. That set up a vote to name just two — Kopplin and Nicklow — which passed unanimously.

Nicklow, UNO’s provost and vice president for academic affairs, has been in his post since July. Before that, he spent four years as provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs at Southern Illinois University, a flagship campus with nearly 18,000 students.

During a public interview with the committee earlier Friday, he discussed ideas for bolstering UNO’s enrollment, which is at its lowest point in decades, as well as retaining students and packaging financial aid effectively.

As an example, he cited a direct-mail recruiting effort that targeted 500,000 students who recently took the ACT test. That effort put “postcards on coffee tables all across the country,” he said.

If chosen, Nicklow said, his top priorities would be increasing enrollment, improving fundraising, building partnerships with businesses and the community and rebranding UNO to make it more appealing to prospective students.

“There are too many choices today, and it’s too competitive of an environment for us to bank on it, so we have a lot of work to do,” he said.

Over the past eight years, UNO’s state support has shrunk by more than half, from $74 million in 2008-09 to about $33 million in 2014-15. Enrollment has followed a similar downward trajectory, from 17,142 students registered before Hurricane Katrina to just 8,423 last fall — UNO’s smallest class since 1967.

As state legislators grapple with a $2 billion budget gap for the fiscal year beginning July 1, Nicklow said, further belt-tightening on the campus can take UNO only so far. “You can’t cut yourself to greatness,” he said.

Kopplin has served as the city’s deputy mayor and chief administrative officer since Mayor Mitch Landrieu took office in 2010.

Before that, he spent two years as a senior adviser at Teach for America and two years as executive director of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, the state agency tasked with leading the state’s recovery after hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. Kopplin also served as chief of staff to former Govs. Kathleen Blanco and Mike Foster.

During his public interview Wednesday, Kopplin said his previous experience in government makes him uniquely qualified for UNO’s top job, describing the opening as “an incredible opportunity that’s consistent with all of the things I have done in my career.”

He touched on a range of challenges facing UNO, including a recent dearth of stable leadership, dwindling enrollment and a need to raise money from new, untapped sources of revenue, such as partnerships with large businesses or corporations.

“To be successful in bringing the institution to where it needs to go, it’s going to take multiple years, and we’ve got to have commitment and steady hands behind it,” he told the committee.

Kopplin has a bachelor’s degree from Rice University and a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard University.

UNO President Peter Fos retired last month. Fos, whose four-year tenure was marred by steep funding cuts and declining enrollment in the wake of Katrina, was paid an annual salary of $325,000.

Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.