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Kurt Schmoke (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

UB weighs return to upper-level programs only

UB’s four-year undergraduate program might be discontinued, only seven years after it was reintroduced at the urban university known for its law school and other professional programs.

No decisions have been made, but Kurt L. Schmoke, UB’s new president, said Thursday he has initiated conversations with key university groups about whether it makes sense to eliminate some or all of the four-year undergraduate programs. The university would then enroll only juniors and seniors as well as offer its graduate and professional programs.

Schmoke, who took over as president in July, said he wanted to get people thinking about whether lower-level undergraduate programs really fit into UB’s core mission, which he said is to provide affordable, career-oriented education.

“We can’t be everything to everybody,” Schmoke said. “We’re just not structured to do that. We don’t have the breadth of programs that, say, [University of Maryland, College Park] does. But we can narrow our focus, and focus on quality, not quantity.”

Before 2007, the university enrolled only juniors and seniors, graduate students and working professionals seeking degrees in law, business, public affairs or the applied arts and sciences.

UB got approval to expand its offerings at a time when the state anticipated increased demand for higher education. But freshmen enrollment has been tepid since the first year, when about 150 students enrolled.

This fall, about 250 will be admitted, Schmoke said. Last year, the school had an overall undergraduate enrollment of about 3,500 students.

“That’s not a very significant increase, given the resources that have been put into [freshmen programs],” he said.

“It may be that we should be encouraging more of these young people to do two years at community college, and then two years with us,” Schmoke said. “Given the fact that we have limited resources, we’re got to make a decision. Do we try to be a four-year institution or do we focus on our upper-division and our graduate and professional schools?”

Schmoke made his remarks during an interview with The Daily Record on Thursday. He emphasized that he didn’t want to alarm the university community because the discussion is ongoing.

He does, however, plan to make a final decision during this fall semester, he said, based on feedback from faculty, alumni and other administrators.

When Schmoke broached the topic to faculty members, the idea was entirely unexpected though perhaps not entirely unwelcome, said Daniel Gerlowski, an economics professor and president of the Faculty Senate.

“People were actually surprised to the point of being shocked,” Gerlowski said. “It’s a big decision, so it will take a while for people to think through what’s best for the university.”

But faculty members were also pleased that Schmoke sought their input, Gerlowski added.

“Because sometimes, you know, presidents don’t always consult with people they should be consulting with,” he said.

Even if UB does cut its undergraduate programs, Schmoke said a reduction in faculty members would not necessarily follow.

Instead of admitting 250 freshmen, UB could ramp up recruiting at community colleges and instead enroll the same number of upper-level students.

“We’re still going to need a lot of folks teaching,” he said. “It’s just, who are we going to teach, and at what level are we going to teach? I’ve tried to disabuse people of the notion that they should be worrying about their jobs.”

Still, “some folks are nervous,” he acknowledged, “because if we make a major programmatic decision, that’s got to impact somebody.”

Gerlowski said the idea will likely face some opposition, but he respects Schmoke’s willingness to propose major change.

“For a while, our emphasis was freshmen, freshmen, freshmen — that’s all we talked about here,” Gerlowski said. “Now, here’s a new guy coming in with fresh ideas and an open mind. That could be great for the university.”