Thursday, December 26, 2002

College ready to sell concept

Thomas More: 'Things are going to take off now'

By Kristina Goetz
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Thomas More College President Joseph Lee underneath a portrait of Thomas More.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
| ZOOM |
CRESTVIEW HILLS - At Thomas More College, it's a long-standing campus joke that the school is Greater Cincinnati's best-kept secret.

But it's an image the institution's president, E. Joseph Lee II, intends to erase.

With the cloud of a two-year warning status by the school's accrediting agency lifted this month, Dr. Lee stands ready to lead the 81-year-old liberal arts school of 1,402 students into a new era.

Now is the time, he says, to start aggressively selling what Thomas More students already know: That the 60-acre campus nestled in this Northern Kentucky suburb offers personalized attention to make sure students don't fall through the cracks.

"Thomas More College is now poised to take its place as a nationally known institution of excellence serving a broad-based and vigorous academic community," Dr. Lee said.

A full-blown marketing campaign will kick off in early 2003 with the goal of increasing enrollment and name recognition beyond Greater Cincinnati. But with the changes implemented since Dr. Lee's arrival in June 2001, picking the right color blue and a catchy slogan will be icing on the branding cake. He'll have meatier changes to sell both to prospective students and potential alumni donors:

A strategic plan that will guide enrollment, campus life and diversity decisions through 2005.

A new dorm built on campus to bury the "suitcase college" image.

A budget balanced for the first time since 1999.

Tight new controls to ensure years of financial stability.

"It's just a relief," said Stefanie Kremer, a 20-year-old biology major from Alexandria. "We don't have to worry about our future. It's hard to describe exactly what it is. It's this newness that's building excitement on campus."

With the new marketing strategy, there will be no question about Thomas More's strengths, its academic reputation in liberal arts or the popularity of its nursing, science and business programs, Dr. Lee said.

It may prove to be the most pivotal time for growth since the campus moved from Covington to Crestview Hills in 1968.

"Now, all of a sudden, we're coming from strength," Dr. Lee said. "We want to use this as a springboard. You have so many things in place now: the strategic plan, the new residence hall. Things are going to take off now."

When Dr. Lee took the helm from the Rev. Williams F. Cleves, he inherited a four-year institution with a strong focus on academics and a faculty and student body with an enormous affinity for a place that emulates the teachings of its patron, Saint Thomas More (1478-1535), who was known as a scholar and statesman committed to public service.

But there had been years of unstable finances, and the strategic plan was a book collecting dust on an administrative shelf.

"The atmosphere was kind of laissez-faire," Dr. Lee said. "The board had to be, perhaps, intrusive at times to get things done. I brought the expertise, the work ethic and numbers that are believable, whether it's in enrollment or finance.''

When Dr. Lee interviewed, strategic planning was an integral part of his platform. It was something he knew well as vice president for student life at Manhattan College in New York.

"We broke down the whole system and started over again," said Bill Bisset, assistant vice president for enrollment management and dean of admission and financial aid at Manhattan. "We wanted to get bigger. We wanted to grow enrollment. We wanted to improve the acceptance rate, to create and expand secondary markets."

The school in the Riverdale section of the Bronx overhauled the financial aid process to more aggressively recruit both need-based and merit-based students by maintaining consistency in the offers. And to entice people to stay on campus, officials changed the food service from the traditional cafeteria to station-style with more choices.

Just two years after the strategic plan at Manhattan was implemented in 1997, the acceptance rate went down 20 percent and applications went from 3,000 to 4,000. Before the school implemented the plan, enrollment stood at about 2,100 full-time undergraduates. This year, enrollment peaked at just over 2,550, an increase of more than 21 percent.

"That's a lot for a school our size," Mr. Bisset said. "We are at maximum capacity in our majors and in our residence halls. Now, I sit here six years later and that strategic plan that (Dr. Lee) helped implement is totally obsolete. We met all of those goals."

With those successes behind him, Dr. Lee is using some of the same strategies to turn the corner at Thomas More: changing the food service, pushing to move from 750 to 1,000 traditional full-time students enrolled per year by 2006 and reaching $3.5 million in annual gift income by 2004-05.

Creating a strategy

When Dr. Lee arrived on campus, he found Thomas More officials working to rectify 39 problems outlined by the college's accrediting agency. The College Commission of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) began assessing the institution in November 1999 as part of the 10-year re-accreditation process. The agency put the school on warning in December 2000, citing financial instability and a lack of long-range planning.

Three months after Dr. Lee took office, all but nine of the original recommendations had been addressed, though tough decisions were still to come, including a tuition increase, 11 non-faculty position cuts and overhaul for the budget process.

But to have goals that every employee would work to attain, each had to have input in any plan that would address basic issues such as enrollment, fund-raising, academic standards, diversity and student life, Dr. Lee said. In just under a year from his arrival, students, faculty and staff helped formulate the 33-page document that will guide the institution over the next several years. The Board of Regents approved the initiative in May.

"Dr. Lee comes to us with a record of achievement," said Julie Perry, a British literature professor. "So we just put our trust in him and he did, ultimately, prove worthy of that trust. As long as we're current, cutting edge, I think they look to that leader to implement change.

"And when expectations are met, the institution grows because of that."

The plan starts by building on strengths, Dr. Lee said.

"The niche is liberal arts," he explained. "It sounds almost trite, but it's our strength. That's (preparation) for job four, five and six that might not even exist today."

Students have noticed the recent changes. More live on campus and participate in student activities, cultural programs and attend sports events. Admissions officials want to share student experiences like Tom Beck 's. The junior history major from Edgewood says the atmosphere on campus has changed. It's not tangible, but a new sort of energy or excitement.

"Bringing in the new food service, the new residence halls, I know those are really going well," he said. "I know everybody staying in them loves them. It's really easy to hang out and have a good time."

But the core values that led him to choose Thomas More are still there, like the personal attention and access to the administration.

"I sound like a damn commercial, but those really are the selling points," Mr. Beck said.

Just how to do that is what a committee is working on now to choose the right color blue, an official slogan - like "disciplined thinkers and ethical leaders" - and one college seal that will brand the institution.

"When I came, I knew this school was an easy sell, but I realized after a year that we're not selling it," Dr. Lee said, adding that by February he expects to launch the marketing campaign. "The students love this place, and from a marketing standpoint, that's what you want.

He added: "You shouldn't have to guess at the color blue. And the tag line, it should come off your lips almost automatically and then that becomes a part of my speech for fund-raising."

Once it's sold in Greater Cincinnati, college officials will move beyond the 50-mile radius in which it usually recruits. Having a new suite-style dorm that opened this year will make it an easier sell.

"You lose the suitcase image," Dr. Lee said. "And now you can really sell a beautiful campus."

Officials also hope the new observatory opening next semester and increased cultural programs will reconnect some of the alumni who have in recent years identified with their graduate schools rather than their undergraduate alma mater.

"You have to bring them back into the fold and not just with an annual request," said Jack Parker, vice president for institutional advancement.

About 22 percent of alumni donated in 2001. School officials want that number to be at 25 percent by 2004-05.

Despite all of the changes implemented in the past two years, school officials were nervous about the annual accrediting agency meeting earlier this month. In September, the finance official from the accrediting team still wasn't convinced about the school's financial stability, the final criterion the school had to meet.

"I think the committee had a great feeling about Thomas More, but the finance person on the committee was acting conservatively. People here took it a personal challenge not to fail," Dr. Lee said.

But after a written response and an agreement by the archdiocese to back the school financially, the school's accreditation was fully reaffirmed Dec. 10.

"When you're on warning, it stifles creativity," Dr. Lee said. "You don't take any risks. Now, we can show this product all throughout the region. SACS, in some ways, made us a stronger institution. These days, I don't think you stay in place anymore.

"And this is our time to go up."


About Thomas More

Founded in 1921 as Villa Madonna College to train Catholic teachers and to provide college education for young women.

The college went co-ed in 1945, the year the Diocese of Covington purchased it.

The school moved from downtown Covington to Crestview Hills in mid-winter 1968. The 60-acre campus is now a landmark in this Northern Kentucky suburb.

In February 1968, Villa Madonna was renamed Thomas More College because the saint was a scholar and statesman committed to public service. and canonized by the Catholic church.

At the September 1968 dedication, President Lyndon Johnson visited the campus to receive a degree of doctor of laws and speak on the school's mission.

Enrollment: 1,402.

Tuition: $7,100 per semester.

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