On February 23, President Brien Lewis hosted the virtual town hall meeting for the winter semester. Lewis addressed important items from the February Board of Trustees meeting, as well as providing updates on ongoing and future facilities projects on campus, new grants that have been received by the university, Transylvania’s ongoing financial picture, and many more topics.
While coming later in the town hall, the likely topic of most interest for the general student body is ongoing facilities projects. The clear elephant in the room in regards to campus facilities is Hazelrigg Hall, which has sat empty for nearly two years. President Lewis restated his recommendation to the Board of Trustees that Hazelrigg be redesigned as a technology center with “flexible classrooms and lab spaces.” President Lewis spoke to his hopes that Hazelrigg could show Transylvania’s commitment to technological advancement, stating, “[Hazelrigg] will be a real visual beacon for anyone who comes to the campus to see that we are engaging with innovative and cutting-edge technologies for the benefit of our students.” Lewis also claimed that a top priority would be getting what he called the “Hazelrigg diaspora,” that being professors who once had offices in the hall, back in Hazelrigg. Beyond Hazelrigg, President Lewis also announced refurbishments and renovations to the Cowgill Center and the Rosenthal apartments that will be completed over the summer, the addition of card-access to all buildings on campus that don’t currently support it, and continuation of land-use planning for the open 4th Street lot.
When summarizing the events of the Board of Trustees meeting on February 17th, which was called “a historic day,” President Lewis specifically highlighted a proposal by the Bingham Trust for Excellence in Teaching, a proposal that “enthusiastically endorsed and accepted” by the Board. The Bingham Trust, an organization that has former Transylvania president John Norton Williams Jr. as its executive director, has had a relationship with Transylvania since its founding in 1987, and has provided support through awards that shine a light on excellence in teaching. The Bingham Trust Board, in an effort to deepen the relationship with Transylvania, has approved a grant of up to $25 million over the next 15 years to fund teaching excellence awards. President Lewis acknowledged that not every detail of the new program was set in stone and that more questions would be addressed in a future forum. But he also assured that the program was reflective of proposals from the Faculty Concerns Committee, and that more details would be coming the way of faculty in the near future. President Lewis finished by calling the grant, “a very historic and exciting step for Transylvania and our commitment to excellence in teaching and excellence in education.”
However, not all topics brought up in the Town hall were nearly as positive. This was especially true of the tone when President Lewis moved on to discussing the financial situation of the university, which he contrasted to the earlier exciting news by calling it a “not-so-fun thing.” President Lewis emphasized that while enrollment had remained steady over the past few years, even out-performing some national trends, tuition revenue had not. This is because due to, as he put it, “increased competition for a shrinking pool of students,” there have had to be increased discount rates on tuition for prospective students. While President Lewis was confident in the short-term financial health of the university, he stressed the importance of addressing long-standing structural issues. The university has had to restructure its long-term debt, and when combined with other pressures such as wage increases, health care costs that work on a different calendar, and rising inflation, the university’s net cash deficit for this fiscal year is approximately $2.8 million. Some of this is covered by Covid relief funds, but that is far from a permanent solution. President Lewis reiterated the need to address these issues, stating, “We need to take action now in building our budget for the coming year to maintain as much stability and flexibility as we can going forward.” This involves reducing spending in the next three fiscal years by roughly 2.3% a year, which President Lewis described as “not draconian, but something we need to be serious and thoughtful about.” Lewis acknowledged that it was possible that “we will see some positions go away over this period of time,” but claimed it would mainly be through retirements and “recalibrating” positions once they become open. But overall, the university is counting on increased revenues from increased enrollment and retention, areas which have seen positive growth in the past few years, as well as enhanced fundraising.
Many topics were addressed by President Lewis, ranging from rankings and admissions to fundraising and community support, all with an eye to building towards Transylvania University’s 250th anniversary in 2030. If you wish to watch the Town Hall for yourself, a link to the recording was posted in the February 24th edition of the Daily TNotes that are emailed to all students.