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Set up to fail? New restrictions on Central State University considered “punitive” by supporters

Central State University supporters fear that a compromise plan to rescue the school could end up killing it instead.

Even some of the school’s trustees believe the legislative plan –
scheduled for a final decision by the end of June – is designed to
cause Central State to cave in on itself, saving Ohio’s legislators and
other state officials the political fallout from a direct decision to
shut down the state’s only historically Black, public university.

Dr. George Ayers, the consultant heading up a temporary management
team, said the legislative plan’s restrictions, coupled with a new
round of budget cuts that threaten additional layoffs at the school,
are “putting a rope around the neck of the institution.”

Central State (CSU) has been fighting for its political and
financial life for several months, after a ballooning debt prompted
efforts by some Republican members of the Ohio General Assembly to
remove all state funding for the school. Some legislators had floated
the prospect of merging CSU with another university, such as the
private Wilberforce University – which gave birth to, and sits across
the street from, Central State – or the much larger Ohio State
University. But the merger talk has faded, and members of the Ohio
legislature now have devised a very different plan that they say could
restore CSU’s health, but which has the possibility of closing the
school altogether.

Legislators have amended the state’s budget bill to include $28
million in funding to keep the school open for the next two years. But
they have also attached more than two dozen restrictions and conditions
to that funding, requiring Central State to reduce its academic
programs, faculty, and athletics, and to pay off an accumulated debt,
estimated to be at least $8.6 million, within its existing budget. The
school would have to mothball its powerful football program – which was
already under sanction by the National Association of Intercollegiate
Athletics (NAIA) – and raise its private fund-raising totals and
admissions standards while reducing student attrition and loan-default
rates. It also would be prohibited from using state funds to provide
grants or scholarships to out-of-state students.

If the school fails to meet any one of the conditions, the state’s Board of Regents would take steps to close the school.

Legislators presented the proposal to CSU’s board of trustees in
late May as the best and only compromise that would allow the school to
remain open. Trustees criticized the restrictions, saying they amounted
to punishment of current trustees and students who had nothing to do
with the prior mismanagement that led to CSU’s problems. However, the
board voted four to one to accept the provisions.

Trustee Member Mervyn Alphonso, who abstained from the vote, said
later that he felt the package of provisions appeared to be designed to
set the university up for failure. He also said that he interpreted the
restrictions as an attempt by legislators and other state officials to
shift responsibility for that likely failure to a board of trustees
that has taken several steps over the last ten months to correct
Central State’s problems.

Dr. Julian Earls, a trustee who was serving as chair of a search
committee that was looking for a new president for CSU, cast the lone
vote against acceptance of the provisions. On May 31, he stunned his
fellow board members by announcing his resignation.

According to Earls, “Certain conditions could not have been drafted
better by fools or racists – or both. I don’t tolerate either.”

Earls, deputy director for operations at the National Aeronautics
and Space Administration Lewis Research Center in Cleveland, singled
out for criticism “restrictions on funding intercollegiate sports
activities from private funds.” He called the restriction “punitive to
the highest degree.”

At the meeting where Earls announced his resignation, he said, “I
don’t accept being punished by those who contributed to the problem I
have been asked to solve.”

Earls was one of the nine trustees brought in en masse by Ohio Gov.
George Voinovich last August. Voinovich forced out the previous

Earls’s departure may not be the only protest resignation from the
board. Alphonso, president of a banking operation in the Dayton, Ohio,
area, said he will wait to see the CSU language of the final state
budget before deciding whether he too will step down.

The provisions were written in part by State Sen. Eugene Watts
(R-Columbus), a long-time critic of state spending on CSU who has
lobbied for its closure. Watts said the restrictions are “absolutely
necessary for Central State to survive. Without these changes, I’m
afraid we’d be throwing a frayed rope to a drowning man.”

The provisions drew a chilly response, however, from the U.S.
Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR), which had
reopened a sixteen-year-old investigation into its 1981 finding that
Ohio violated federal civil-rights laws in its funding and treatment of
CSU. OCR officials have said that the state must enhance CSU’s
programs, making them more attractive to students of all races, in
order to resolve the case.

“It is sad that Ohio and Mississippi would remain in company as the
two states failing to address the mishappenings within their states
histories,” said Raymond Pierce, OCR deputy assistant secretary.

“If the state of Ohio moves to address the crisis at Central State
by punishing the institution – the victim – in the form of
constrictions, that will only make the school less attractive to
prospective students. Such actions cannot be viewed by the federal
government as part of any plan to remedy the damage done to [Central
State] students as a result of neglect and the shameful disregard of
tragedies carried out over the years.”

In response to Pierce’s comments, Watts said, “We’re not concerned
with what he says anyway…. If we did not believe that what we did
would hold up in court, we would have closed the school.”

But news of the proposed restrictions, coupled with the absence of
an ironclad assurance that the school will exist after July 1, has
sabotaged student recruitment and retention efforts and forced the
suspension of the presidential search – key components to Central
State’s survival.

“This has put us in a terrible situation,” said Board of Trustees
Chairman Fred Ransier, a CSU alumnus. University officials were
scrambling to figure out ways to cut $5 million from their budget in
part because enrollment projections for next fall were reduced even
further – from 1,600 to 1,200 students. The school had nearly 2,000
students last fall.

Ayers, who has essentially served as acting president during the
entire school year, said he abhors the prospect of more staff cuts to a
school that has lost more than 20 percent of its workforce through
thirty-five layoffs and thirty-four retirements this school year.

“I don’t think you can cut much more,” Ayers said. “We’re at the bone.”

Of particular concern to both Ayers and Ransier is the legislative
provision that requires CSU to gain reaccreditation by the next school
year to remain open. Further cuts in faculty, staff, and academic
programs will likely make that task difficult.

Robert Marcus, president of CSU’s chapter of the American
Association of University Professors, said the university must complete
“a delicate balancing act” to retain adequate faculty to gain

Faculty members will offer ideas on how to save money in the
school’s existing budget, but realize some personnel cuts will be
necessary, Marcus said.

“We’ll try to ensure (the cuts) are done in a fair way,” he said. “We’re going to work for the survival of the institution.”

There are a few encouraging signs for the school. Although
admissions as of late May were running 73 percent below last fall – 350
compared to 1,303 – the academic quality was high. Approximately 40
percent of the incoming freshmen had grade point averages of 3.0 or

“I don’t believe there is an urban university with an
open-enrollment policy in the state that can match that,” Trustee Paul
Dutton said.

State Sen. Jeffrey Johnson (D-Cleveland) has held meetings with
faculty and students to assure them that the proposed conditions can be
met. He said that he believes that the Board of Regents would develop a
due-process procedure that would put CSU on notice and give the school
time to correct any deficiency, rather than moving to immediately close
the school. And some trustees were still holding out hope that the
conditions could be eased in the final budget bill due on the
governor’s desk by July 1.

As the June 15 commencement approached, though, the mood on the campus was glum.

Valencia Williams, Central State’s student-government president,
said she hopes recent events will amount to a “call to action” for
students and alumni. She issued a challenge to those who want to punish
students for misdeeds of prior administrations.

“In the future, I hope those who are not supporters of this school
will come to Central State and visit the campus,” said Williams, “just
to realize it’s not just buildings, but lives.”

RELATED ARTICLE: Proposed conditions, currently before the Ohio
legislature, that CSU would have to meet in order to remain open.

The Board of Trustees shall:

* File quarterly reports on annualized budget, comparing budget to
actual spending with projected expenses for the remainder of the year.

* Place all residence hall and meal fees in a rotary account
dedicated to the upkeep anti maintenance of the dormitory building and
to fund meal programs.

* Place monies for the operation of residence hall and meal
programs in separately maintained auxiliary funds in the university
accounting system.

* File the minutes from Board of Trustees meetings with the Board of Regents within thirty days of meeting.

* Submit a plan to the Ohio Board of Regents for phasing out all
academic programs that cannot reasonably be contained within either the
university’s College of Business, College of Education, or College of
Arts and Sciences.

* Reduce the number of faculty to a level needed to support the
programs of the university’s College of Business, College of Education,
or College of Arts and Sciences.

* Not enter into any collective bargaining agreement until after July 1, 1997.

No state university in a state of fiscal exigency [which includes Central State University] shall:

* Use state funds for the purpose of providing grants or scholarships to out-of-state students.

* Use state funds to subsidize off-campus housing or transportation to and from off-campus students.

Central State University shall:

* Raise admission standards for freshmen entering after July 1, 1998.

* Reduce its student attrition rate to a level agreed upon by the
state’s Board of Regents and the university’s Board of Trustees.

* Gain reaccreditation from the north Central Accrediting Agency.

* Seek funds to rebuild the endowment fund to a level that at least
meets fund level targets appropriate for institutions of comparable

* Implement a system of alumni donations that at least meets donation targets appropriate for institutions of comparable size.

* Reduce its default rate for student loans.

* Not expend any private or public funds for sponsorship of, or
participation in, intercollegiate sports activities [football and
baseball] for which the university is under sanction as of July 1,
1997, by the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics.

* Reduce expenditures for all other intercollegiate sports
activities to a maximum of the fiscal year 1997 expenditure levels for
those activities.

* The Director of budget and Management shall maintain a financial
supervisor at CSU to monitor adherence to the Fiscal Recovery Plan.
Within ten days after the end of each month, CSU shall prepare a
payables report delineating by fund and vendor all outstanding payables
owed by the university. A comparative analysis by month shall be
presented with the rationale provided for the variances reflected for
changes from the previous month.

It is the intent of the General Assembly that if CSU fails to comply
with any requirement, the Board of regents shall thereupon develop and
implement a plan for the closure of the university.

Mark Fisher is the higher-education reporter for the Dayton Daily News.

COPYRIGHT 1997 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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