There’s a lot that goes into being a university president, but job No. 1 for John Nicklow, recently named to the top post at the University of New Orleans, is pretty clear: Find more students.
UNO is in a tenuous place. Its enrollment is less than half of what it was before Hurricane Katrina. And because of Louisiana’s budget woes, direct aid from the state for higher education has dropped precipitously, forcing public universities to rely more and more on tuition and fees to cover costs.
The one-two punch of declining enrollment and shrinking state support has brought serious pain to all of the state’s schools, but none more than UNO. The school’s last president, Peter Fos, saw no other option than to make drastic cuts in programs, which earned him a “no confidence” vote from the faculty.
Nicklow insists he is unfazed stepping in to lead the university during such a dire period. In an interview, he said he is confident the school will grow under his leadership.
He pointed out that he has faced these challenges before, when he was provost at the similarly challenged Southern Illinois University.
UNO’s recent history has “created a new landscape,” Nicklow said. “Let’s recognize that and move forward and grow.”
That Nicklow won the job of righting this particular ship came as something of a surprise to some. Though he has been serving as UNO’s provost since July, he faced a higher-profile rival for the top job in Andy Kopplin.
As Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s top deputy, Kopplin played a major role in reorganizing City Hall and closing a yawning budget gap inherited from Ray Nagin’s administration. He also served previously as chief of staff to two state governors and as director of the post-Katrina Louisiana Recovery Authority.
City business leaders pushed Kopplin for the UNO job. In a letter to the board of supervisors of the University of Louisiana system, current and former members of the New Orleans Business Council and Greater New Orleans Inc. wrote: “At this critical juncture for UNO, Andy has the specific skill set — and the clear track record — required to lead the institution.”
The UL board instead picked Nicklow by a vote of 10-6, opting for the finalist with direct experience in university administration, rather than the “CEO-type” candidate that Kopplin was pitched as.
The choice clearly matched the preference of many at UNO itself. The school’s student body president told the board that “we need leadership now, and we want that leadership to be academic.” The head of the Faculty Senate backed Nicklow as well.
Nicklow, 45, has spent his entire career in academia. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in civil engineering from Bucknell University and a doctorate from Arizona State University.
The Pittsburgh native, who now lives in Gentilly’s Lake Terrace neighborhood with his wife and 15-year-old son, spent four years as provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs at Southern Illinois, a campus with nearly 18,000 students and its own budget problems.
In Illinois, Nicklow said, he faced “year after year after year of structural deficit and budget reductions.” He said his recruitment efforts there paid off after a few years, with the school seeing its largest freshman class in decades and a higher retention rate.
The challenge at UNO is considerable. The school’s state subsidy dropped from $74 million in 2008-09 to about $33 million in 2014-15. Enrollment has dropped from 17,142 students registered before Hurricane Katrina to just 8,423 last fall — UNO’s smallest student body since 1967.
As UNO’s provost, Nicklow has already started trying to improve the school’s numbers. Last year, he used a direct-mail recruiting initiative to target a half-million students who recently took the ACT test. He wants to rebrand the school for potential applicants, hoping to draw on the appeal of living in a city like New Orleans.
He does not see a silver bullet. Improving enrollment and retention will mean studying the available data and making an array of small improvements that will eventually add up, he said.
Last year, he created nearly two dozen separate committees of faculty and staff members to study issues ranging from initiatives aimed at veterans to reducing barriers to registration.
“Enrollment is an interesting and extremely complex problem,” Nicklow said. “It’s easy to say you need more students, but … you don’t buy students. They’re very savvy. They’re just like customers for a business.”
He said he thinks some of UNO’s marketing techniques need adjusting. For instance, the “Heartbeat of the Crescent City” campaign probably isn’t resonating well with applicants living outside south Louisiana, he said.
“That message was especially relevant post-Katrina,” he said. “Where we are today, though, I think we can talk about what we are and what we can be to the city going forward.”
Nicklow hesitated to name specific goals for enrollment. “I always get a little bit nervous talking about what’s the overall number,” he said.
“If we could be at 9,000 in two to three years, that’s progress,” he added. “If we can be at 12,000 within a few years of that, that would be progress.”
Of his predecessor, Nicklow said, “I have a lot of respect for Dr. Fos,” adding, “I think he really was dealt a difficult situation.”
Still, he said he would have handled some things differently, including a 2014 review that led Fos to eliminate seven academic programs and target others for restructuring.
A day after the cuts were announced, UNO’s Faculty Council passed a largely symbolic vote of “no confidence” in Fos’ leadership.
Overall, Nicklow described the review process as “a real challenge on campus” that has left morale low, although he’s optimistic that it’s already bottomed out.
“I think the level of communication for whatever reason could’ve been better, and I think that’s something we certainly want to focus on going forward,” he said.
Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.