In downturn, RU OK ‘so far’

The Rider community listens to the president’s annual address.
The Rider community listens to the president’s annual address.

By Brian Long

Rider is well prepared to handle “an unpredictable and turbulent economy,” according to President Mordechai Rozanski and other members of the administration who spoke at the Town Hall Meeting on April 21 in the Cavalla Room.

Rozanski spoke to a full house of administrators, professors and students on the state of the university and future plans.

“So, how are we doing?” Rozanski said. “The answer is so far, so good, but there are some challenges and uncertainties still on the horizon.”

Rozanski credited Rider’s current financial stability to the contingency planning that the university began implementing as early as last summer. The plan has four key points: the lowest tuition increase in the last eight years, an increase in financial aid for current and new students, better housing — such as the new West Village Commons and renovations to Switlik Hall — and the strengthening of contingency funds in case of shortfalls in enrollment, investments or fundraising.

The plan includes budget constraints and salary freezes for division heads, including Rozanski, for next year.

“We must maintain our financial discipline throughout the coming year,” he said.

This is especially important because of the cut in state funding that will impact Rider in the upcoming year, which will lower Rider’s income by about $10,000. However, Rozanski remains optimistic.

“Of course we are relieved,” he said, “because it could have been a lot worse.”

After Rozanski’s introduction, Vice President for Enrollment Management Jamie O’Hara came to the podium to give a report on Rider’s enrollment and recruitment progress and financial aid strategies for the 2010 fiscal year. As of April 20, applications for the fall 2009 semester had increased by 10 percent, which contributed to a 19-percent increase over the last two years.

O’Hara also said that 90 percent of the fall ’09 students applied online, a new record for Rider. Overall interest in Rider University has grown as well with a 15-percent increase in on-campus visits and a 25-percent increase in attendance at admitted-student events.

O’Hara then switched focus to the changes that would be made in financial aid for next year. The total amount of financial aid available was increased by 11.5 percent, bringing the total for the university up by $3.9 million to $38 million.

Rider will also be expanding on need-based grants and merit awards as well: as housing grants for rising seniors, alumni and sibling awards and graduate merit scholarships and community service/scholar grants.

Julie Karns, vice president for finance, spoke about Rider’s financial planning. Karns showed the audience feedback that the university received from a financial rating agency. Strengths included gradual enrollment growth and goals met in revenue, consistently balanced operating results and consistent financial planning, strong management team, strengthening market position and manageable debt levels.

However, with all strengths come challenges, and Rider has a few to face, according to the rating agency. These challenges include a high reliance on tuition and fees, low unrestricted resources relative to operating budget and debt levels, the reliance on building donor support for capital needs and endowment and, of course, the challenging economic and investment climate.

Despite a 31-percent loss in Rider’s investment portfolio over the past nine months, there is a silver lining, Karns said.

“Rider was not impacted by investment frauds like many colleges were,” she said.

Karns laid out some strategies that Rider is enacting in order to keep its financial stability, such as proactive and collaborative planning, keeping the university affordable by having competitive financial aid and tuition prices, keeping balanced personnel and operating budgets, enhancing enrollment contingency and making selective faculty investments.

These faculty investments include teaching and lab spaces as well as practice rooms, the renovations being made over the summer to Switlik Hall and expanded parking and new signage at the Westminster Choir College campus.

Karns was followed by a fundraising update from Jonathan Meer, vice president for University Advancement.

“As you might imagine, given the current economic climate, there are plenty of challenges to our fundraising aspirations,” Meer said. “But even though there are dark clouds all around us, there are still occasional periods of sunshine.”

Some of that sunshine comes from the increase in cash donations as well as gifts and pledges for all purposes. As of this month, gifts and pledges had increased 5 percent and cash donations increased 70 percent in fiscal year 2009 over last year, in part because of two major gifts.

Cash gifts for the annual fund, however, have dropped 29.8 percent from last year. Meer said new fundraising campaign plans are continuing, including meeting with donors at the top of the “gift pyramid” and advancing relations with the top 100 prospects with the help of the Campaign Steering Committee, followed by an overall assessment of the campaign to be completed over the summer. A public announcement of the campaign is still possible in June 2010, he said.

Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs Donald Steven spoke last.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Steven said, “I can say that despite all of this economic uncertainty, we continue to plan strategically and implement our academic agenda.”

Steven went on to discuss numerous accolades and awards that had been given to students and faculty.

“Clearly, despite these uncertain times, we’re moving forward, onward and upward,” he said.

During his closing remarks Rozanski left the audience with a message of confidence.

“I think you can see from what we shared with you that we have been quite successful,” he said. “Of course, I want to assure you that we’ll be making the concrete decisions that help us to manage our immediate challenges. We will continue to make a long-term review of our future.”

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