University of Akron Promises to Correct A Failure to Communicate

Unopened olive jars were donated to the Akron-Canton Food Bank.

The University of Akron leadership admits it made mistakes in how it handled hundreds of job cuts, the future of E.J. Thomas Hall and other controversies in recent months.

But it also insists each move is part of a process that will make the university better.

Akron will have to sell that message hardest to some of its own students, alumni and faculty.

The trustees met behind closed doors for nearly three hours while about 150 people stood outside with signs, chants, violins -- and olive jars.

Alumna Wendy Duke even recited a poem to her simple jar of manzanillas.

“Ode to an antique olive jar. Oh olive jar, you are empty while I am sad. I cannot afford to fill thee with expensive imported olives, for I am still paying off my student loans ...”

The reference was lost on no one. A $550 antique olive jar is part of the $951,000 renovation of the university home for President Scott Scarborough. It’s become a flash point for many – a representation of lavish spending at a time when the university is cutting more than jobs and facing an estimated $40 million to $60 million deficit.

After a short public meeting -- that allowed no one from the public to speak -- Trustee Chairman John Pavloff largely defended the expenses to reporters:

“Again, the budget that was approved seemed reasonable at the time. We didn’t get into the line-item specifics as to how it was allocated…”

But Pavloff acknowledged that early figures released for the renovation did not include some significant costs -- including the labor of university employees – some of whom have since been laid off.

And he – and Scarborough – acknowledged communication has been a problem.

"I think in the future we’ll look for better ways to better communicate," said Scarborough, turning to Pavloff. "I’d add, it’s not just what we were going to do but how we were going to go about it. We probably owed answers to folks in advance of the announcements coming out.”

Both said they’ve learned and promised to do a better job from now on.

But for many of those gathered outside the meeting, the failure to communicate has been going on for months, beginning with the rebranding of the university this spring as “Ohio’s Polytechnic University.”

Grant Morgan, a sophomore majoring in philosophy, political science and economics, isn’t buying the university’s packaging.

“The administration gets away with it by saying poly-technic means ‘many arts.’ This is a very archaic use of that term, I believe. The connotation is not that. The connotation is a vocational, technical college specializing in the hard science.”

His mom and dad are Akron alums, his sister is about to graduate, and he’s 90 percent sure he’ll stay. But he’s keeping a close eye on what the university does with the humanities.

Another murky area has been E.J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall, where the staff was terminated last month and where it remains a bit unclear as to which community shows will be staged there after this year and under what terms.

Kevin Kern is a history professor and supporter of E.J. Thomas – which the university estimates is costing it $2 million a year. Kern thinks the deficit may be exaggerated. But even if it isn’t…

“There are things that seem to be sacred cows which were not even on the table. Things like obviously the football program, which is a huge money loser; $8 million a year and the lowest attendance in major college football. The administration says we need this to be the front porch of the university to get people to come to the university. Well, 400,000 people come to E.J. Thomas Hall. That’s the front porch.”

Scarborough acknowledged the $8 million football figure, but said it’s a marketing investment.

“We’ve seen studies that show the athletic program is very much a part of your recruitment appeal to a particular university. And so we’re committed not only to the student athlete, but we’re committed to the investment that will allow us also to grow our enrollment in the future. We just need to get a better return on the investment and that’s where we’re concentrated at the moment.”

Cuts aren’t the only issue targeted for criticism. At the same meeting two weeks ago at which the board approved eliminating 213 jobs, it authorized an $840,000 contract with TrustNavigator. The startup is supposed provide a coach for every freshman to ensure they get any academic, social or other help they need to graduate.

Jodi Henderson-Ross says the timing makes no sense.

"I get that everybody needs their first customer," she said. "But I’m not buying that in a time of crisis, when you’re eliminating positions of qualified people that you go give your money to a non-proven entity.”

But Scarborough doesn’t share her concerns, even though the program is supposed to begin this semester – and TrustNavigator’s web site says it won’t have the coaches fully in place until December.

“Well, we heard a report from the principals of trust navigators, our partner, and we’re going to work together to get the success coaches hired as soon as possible and that process is beginning now.”

And Scarborough said time will prove that investment is a good one, along with so many other decisions the University of Akron has been making his first year on the job.

It’s a case he’s likely to have to keep making – at least to the skeptics who are likely to keep showing up at trustee meeting looking for the evidence.

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