Almost two years ago, Laura Hope’s theater arts and dance program was on its deathbed.

The program, a staple at Loyola University for decades, had been on an enrollment slump. Its ballet-heavy dance curriculum, while fine for students interested in that field, didn’t meet the needs of dozens of others intrigued by jazz, hip-hop or tap styles. And an advisory panel once sought to scrap the program from the university's course offerings altogether.

Now, however, Hope has expanded lessons to include everything from African dance to ballroom dance. She’s also adding classes in both dance and theater because the ones she has are full.

“What’s that old joke? Reports of our death have been grossly exaggerated,” Hope said with a chuckle.

University officials say her revitalized program is proof of the success of a financial recovery plan announced in 2015 amid a stark enrollment drop, a daunting $25 million budget gap and rounds of buyouts, layoffs and other cuts.

The Rev. Kevin Wildes, president of Loyola University since 2004, is faced with a daunting, …

But they say that plan is now being re-imagined as a more collaborative project, partly in response to professors who have clamored for more say in the budget process.

The recast proposal is being crafted with the help of an outside consultant and will attempt to plug a remaining $5 million gap through enrollment increases. While it isn’t due to be completed until 2018, Loyola has already begun putting its basic ideas into practice, and is seeing results, officials say: This school year, the Jesuit university is projected to enroll more than 800 first-time students — its highest number since its enrollment woes began in 2013.

Meanwhile, the Rev. Kevin Wildes, the longtime university president whom faculty decried last year as too autocratic, has undergone a transformation of his own, and taken steps to foster collaboration that isn't limited to the new plan.

More changes could come as the entire process plays out. Still, Hope and others remain optimistic. "I think we’ve done a lot in a very short amount of time," she said. "Hopefully that shows what we can still do."

The process

The changes began after Wildes and members of the university’s board of trustees received word from the university provost in December that Loyola was on track within a year to plug most of a $25 million budget gap that emerged after Loyola’s enrollment dropped by more than 200 students in 2013.

That work had been accomplished after the university discontinued some programs, cut funding for others and redesigned still more to attract new students. Officials also offered severance packages to eligible employees, Loyola’s third buyout in three years, and drew on the university’s endowment to keep things running.

Given the hard road, news that a finish line was near was welcome. But board members such as Paul Pastorek, an education consultant and the former state education superintendent, wanted to know if a remaining $5 million budget gap might be filled with tuition money from increased enrollment — not by more cost-cutting. And they wanted to close the remaining gap as quickly as possible.

“Everyone in the room said, 'That is absolutely right. We need to be investing in the growth of our students,'” Pastorek said.

To that end, the board began soliciting proposals from consulting firms that might help it realize its goal. After interviewing three firms in the first quarter of the year, members chose McKinsey & Co., a global management consulting firm that has gained a reputation as the force behind layoffs and major shakeups at struggling companies across the country.

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But Loyola didn’t tap McKinsey to be its newest hatchet man, officials claim. Rather, it picked that firm because the college had already made many of the tough cuts required, and “there was no reason why we wouldn’t be successful if we chose to invest in the university,” said Pastorek, who is leading the steering committee for the revised effort.

Over the past six months, the firm has been a facilitator, not a decision maker. At the meetings it runs, everyone can weigh in. Those who are passionate about fixing certain problems can form committees to solve them, bodies that later present their ideas to the entire group.

The result will be a strategic plan — dubbed “Project Magis” and scheduled for completion in summer 2018, Pastorek said.

The president and the faculty

Though Wildes said the consultants came aboard after several professors said they felt shut out of the budgeting process, he also points out that his original plan took in faculty input.

That plan indeed had some professors’ support. But many others didn’t back Wildes. Tensions that have simmered since the president’s controversial 2006 restructuring plan boiled over after the recent budget troubles, and led to a formal rebuke of Wildes’ leadership last year by the University Senate.

It was his second censure in a decade. And while it was merely an expression of faculty opinion, and had no formal effect on the president’s job, “I’d be lying if I said it didn’t bother me,” Wildes said.

So he set out to change things. After professors asked that he add professors to his Cabinet and involve them in other decisions, he agreed to invite economics professor John Levendis, the chairman of the senate this year, to meetings of the top brass.

Wildes is seen around more on campus, having coffees or lunch with the rank and file.

But he still bristles at the notion that he should be in his office all the time waiting for people to stroll in with concerns when there are budget woes to deal with.

To solve them, he’s been out fundraising, he said. That work is beginning to pay off, as Loyola has $67 million in hand of a $100 million fundraising goal it has set to meet in 2017.

He also says faculty in general are “always critical,” before adding that professors “love this place, are committed to this place, and want it to flourish and do well.”

A handful of faculty members who had been vocal critics of Wildes didn’t return recent phone calls about how his latest efforts are perceived. But Levendis, reached by phone, at least had praise for the new Magis project.

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“With our earlier strategic plan it was really the administrators and a small group of key people coming up with a plan for the entire university, much more of a top-down approach,” he said. “With the new Magis program or project, it is kind of bottom up.”

Innovating and recruitment

The “bottom-up” process has already given rise to new suggestions that senior administrators have taken to heart, Levendis added.

Professors have begun contacting prospective students through texts or emails to give advice about university programs, for example, in keeping with some faculty members’ stated desire to get more involved in student recruitment.

It’s not just the professors who have taken on a greater role. Ellie Diaz, a political science grad and former student government association president, had asked university officials last year how current students could help, then got a group of students together and launched a communications team dubbed “Ellie’s Army.”

Diaz and her colleagues sent out more than 1700 text messages to high school graduates before Loyola’s May 1 commitment deadline, said Laura Kurzu, vice president of marketing & communications.

“To have your college sort of send you a text and say, ‘Hey, what’s up. I’m Ellie, I’m a political science senior at Loyola and if you have any questions at all, I’m here for you…. That’s something that you don’t get at a lot of universities,” Diaz said.

400 at Loyola to get free textbooks 

All of those moves have enticed more than 800 prospective students to send in tuition deposits to secure their seats, said David Borofsky, provost and vice president of academic affairs. That’s up from last year’s 615 and is Loyola’s highest figure since 2012, when there were 866 first-timers.

The school is also adding new degrees, including computer science, interactive design and food studies. And it is restoring its degree for adult learners, after that program had been set to get the budget ax.

Even under the old plan, existing programs sought to innovate, though few have been as radical as Hope’s.

Though Wildes dismissed an advisory group’s 2015 recommendation to cancel Hope’s program entirely, the ultimatium was clear: Either woo more students and raise revenue or face the chopping block later. To meet that goal, the theater arts and dance department went from seven full-time professors and two staffers in 2015 to five full-time professors who now take on multiple roles and a crew of part-timers. After she replaced Georgia Gresham as chair in 2016, Hope began asking students what they wanted to be taught and the kinds of musicals and plays they wanted to perform, in a collaborative outreach effort that predated the current Magis process and is being touted in that process as the revamp to emulate. She put their suggestions into practice, and also launched partnerships with Southern Rep Theatre and the Jefferson Performing Arts Society to give students more professional experience.

This school year, 70 students have selected her program as their major of choice. Eight others have decided to minor in it. That’s up from 53 majors and seven minors in 2015-16.

After she rattled off the slew of new shows her majors would perform next year, Hope joked that she may have worked herself into a dilemma.

“I’m thinking I need to be going into hibernation until August or something,” she said.

Follow Jessica Williams on Twitter, @jwilliamsNOLA​.