Central State beset by challenges, vital to region

Central State University is a vitally important institution to the region and state, but the historically Black university is facing internal turmoil and external financial challenges that threaten to undermine successes the school has claimed in recent years.

Central State helps lead a project to bring diverse workers to Intel’s new plant in Licking County, works on key agricultural projects and provides a college pathway to thousands of students, most of whom are Black or first-generation students. From politicians to alumni to current students to people too young to be in college to businesses, the university’s impact is wide.

But it’s beset with challenges. The Ohio Attorney General is investigating allegations against university President Jack Thomas brought by five women who worked at the university in 2020, accusing Thomas of discrimination and unfair work practices. The university is also facing an enrollment crisis, as its free online program that accounts for the majority of its enrollment is shutting down because of action by the U.S. Department of Education.

Central State’s financial situation was already precarious. It just emerged from fiscal watch in 2017 after making deep budget cuts to address plummeting enrollment. Without its online students, it would be the smallest public university with undergraduate programs in Ohio. It has the lowest tuition among Ohio’s public universities, and the lowest percentage of students staying through graduation.

“You’re talking about my beloved university,” said Edwin Lloyd, immediate past president of the Central State University alumni association, who sent a letter in September to Central State trustees outlining several issues he saw in the university. “I graduated from Central in 1978 and I love Central State University. It offers students an opportunity who otherwise may not have the opportunity to attend school and matriculate.”

For students at the university, it’s a place to call home and a place where they can be themselves.

Ocean Washington, a senior at CSU in business administration and the student body president, said growing up as the only Black girl in many of her classes in New Albany, a Columbus suburb, meant she didn’t get all the support she felt she needed. That all changed when she came to Central State, where she found a supportive community and began to excel.

“I love it here at Central,” Washington said. “This is my home.”

President under pressure

The Ohio Attorney General’s Office investigation came at the request of the university board of trustees, after they received a letter from five women accusing Thomas of harassment and discrimination, claiming he unfairly demoted them or pushed them out of their jobs at the university. Only two of the women — several of whom held prominent administrative posts at CSU — still work at the university, both in demoted positions.

The AG’s office appointed a law firm to look into the claims. The status of the investigation is unknown, but the law firm’s contract is through June 30 unless the attorney general’s office extends it.

Thomas faced similar criticism before. He was previously president at Western Illinois University, but was placed on administrative leave in 2019, according to documents from Western Illinois University. He officially resigned from Western Illinois in 2021, when he was already president at Central State — a job he undertook in July 2020.

Thomas’ resignation from WIU “was the culmination of a public campaign for his ouster, with allegations of infighting and racial animus,” reported the State Journal-Register of Springfield, Illinois.

Central State University trustees met on Jan. 17 for six hours in a closed door executive session in the University Student Center. Thomas did not appear to be at the meeting. The agenda did not state the reason for the meeting, and trustees took no official action afterwards.

University trustees President Mark Hatcher did not comment for this story, referring all questions to university officials. University officials also did not make Thomas available to comment.

Thomas’ contract is up in July. It’s up to the Central State board of trustees to decide if they wish to renew his contract.

Alumni past president letter

Lloyd sent a letter to trustees on Sept. 19 questioning enrollment numbers and raising concerns about fundraising efforts, hiring practices and employee morale.

“The lack of leadership has led to a period of declining enrollments, probable budget crises, and a precipitous drop in the morale of students, faculty and staff,” Lloyd wrote.

“These problems are likely to continue, and even be exacerbated, if the current leadership remains in place.”

Lloyd said his letter speaks for itself and he wrote it because, “I want to make sure the university is moving in the right direction.”

“I have not received a written response from the board on my request,” he said.

Laura Wilson, the university’s attorney, says much of the information in Lloyd’s letter “is demonstrably inaccurate, and as a result the letter is a mischaracterization of the performance of the university and that of Dr. Thomas.”

To rebut Lloyd’s criticisms, Wilson provided a copy of the recent announcement that Tiffiney Gray was appointed vice president of institutional advancement and executive director of the university foundation to help lead fundraising efforts; and records saying fundraising increased 305% from 2021 to 2022 with $4.8 million raised in one year.

Enrollment challenges

In 2015, the Ohio Board of Regents, which oversees all the public universities in Ohio, put Central State on fiscal watch, in part due to its decline in enrollment and students’ difficulty in qualifying for federal financial aid. The university was removed from fiscal watch two years later.

In 2019, the university entered a contract with the Student Resource Center, a for-profit organization that ran the free college program in at least two Ohio colleges and universities, to have a free college program for qualifying nationwide union employees and their families.

But the program came under scrutiny last year when the U.S. Department of Education sent a cease-and-desist letter to Eastern Gateway Community College in Steubenville, which was running an associate degree program. The students in the associate degree program could later go to Central State to get a bachelor’s degree.

Central State terminated the agreement last September, and the current semester is the last that students will be enrolled in the free college program at Central State, the university recently confirmed. Those students will be able to continue their education through Central State’s other online programs or through traditional Central State classes, but they will have to pay like everyone else.

The free college program brought thousands of students to the university. In fall 2019, before the program started, Central State counted 2,033 students in its required preliminary headcount to the Ohio Department of Higher Education. By fall 2020, the number of students had nearly doubled, to 4,021 students total with 2,234 students fully online. In fall 2022, preliminary enrollment was 5,435 total students, with 3,633 students enrolled 100% online. Nearly all the online growth was through the free college program.

While Central State was expanding its overall enrollment, the university’s in-person, on-campus population was dropping — something that happened at many universities during the pandemic. The university only had 1,802 students who weren’t 100% online in fall 2022, according to preliminary numbers from the Ohio Department of Higher Education.

Central State is one of the smallest universities in the state. Only two public Ohio universities have fewer students — Shawnee State, with 3,135 students as of last fall, based in Portsmouth, and Northeast Ohio Medical University, a graduate-only college focused on training pharmacy and medical students, with 1,011 students as of last fall.

University officials say new honors dorms opened last year and a new Honors College launched in 2021 are attracting and retaining high-GPA students. They are planning for additional student housing and amenities to attract more in-person students.

The loss of students in the free college program could affect CSU’s funding because the state decides how much money each public university and college gets based on a formula that includes enrollment and graduation numbers. And while the students in the online courses weren’t paying tuition, the unions backing the program were paying for them to attend school, and the free college program was also taking federal Pell grants for students who qualified.

CSU officials say their online programs remain high-quality and affordable and they look forward to serving new and continuing students.

Accreditation, graduation rates

Central State is currently being evaluated for reaccreditation by the Higher Learning Commission, which accredits most of the universities in Ohio. Having accreditation is key for a university’s ability to operate.

The HLC placed Eastern Gateway on probation in November 2021, in part because the quality of the free college programs came under scrutiny.

Central State has Ohio’s lowest six-year success rate for graduating students among public universities, according to an Ohio Department of Higher Education survey from last fall. Central State has a 33% six-year success rate, while the next-lowest, Shawnee State, has a 42% success rate in six years. However, Central State is the least expensive college choice in the state, charging $7,596 for two semesters.

Comparing success rates is not apples to apples, however, because Central State and Shawnee State serve populations who are often the first in their family to go to college, while universities like Miami University and Ohio State University, who each have six-year success rates over 80%, are more likely to have students whose parents did go to college.

“First-generation students can face more barriers to attending and graduating from four-year institutions in comparison to their continuing generation peers,” Thomas said in a statement. “Central State University is committed to helping students overcome the challenges.”

Central State officials say they are addressing the graduation rate with student supports such as an extensive orientation process, mentoring, tutoring, mental health services, and the creation of an office of Student Retention.

‘Crucial to the region, state’

Last September, Intel announced Central State as one of the seven college and university leads in its project to train Ohio’s workforce before the new plant opens in 2025. The others include University of Cincinnati, Columbus State Community College, Kent State University, Lorain County Community College, Ohio University and Ohio State University. Intel said it expects this first phase of the project to produce nearly 9,000 graduates for the industry and provide more than 2,300 scholarships over a three-year period.

Central State got about $1.3 million to lead a project focused on creating a diverse workforce and first-year engineers for Intel.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, both said Central State plays a critical role in higher education in the Dayton region and the state.

“We know that postsecondary education attainment has a direct impact on the economic vitality of Ohio and our citizens,” said Dan Tierney, spokesman for DeWine. “As an HBCU and a land-grant university, Central State is uniquely positioned to support the Dayton region and the state of Ohio in preparing our future workforce.”

The work Central State does to further manufacturing also is key for the state, Brown said.

“Central State is one of Ohio’s great institutions of higher education and is crucial to the region and the state to continue our proud history of leading the country in manufacturing innovation,” Brown said.

In 2022, the U.S. Economic Development Administration awarded a $3.6 million grant to Central State to establish a workforce and business development center at its Dayton campus. The money came from the American Rescue Plan Act.

The center is expected to open this March, said Debbie Alberico, interim director of public relations for Central State.

Minority institutions and historically Black colleges and universities, known as HBCUs, are also now eligible for expanded U.S. Department of Defense funding opportunities under provisions of the BEACON Act, introduced by Brown and U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Virginia, and passed as part of the National Defense Authorization Act in December.

Supporting minority students

Central State officials say an economic impact study found the university had a $213.7 million economic impact on Greene and Montgomery counties in 2020. Of the 235 graduates that year, 62% stayed in Ohio, further supporting the region’s economy.

As the larger of the two HBCUs in Ohio, Central State plays a key role in giving first-generation and minority students a chance to attend college and fostering a diverse regional workforce. Wilberforce University, down the street from Central State, is Ohio’s other HBCU.

Brown said Central State and Wilberforce both offer students a “world-class education.”

“HBCUs are a crucial part of our nation’s higher education system and have provided millions of Black and other minority students the opportunity to pursue a higher education. Despite their importance, these schools have historically been underfunded and ignored since their creation,” Brown said, adding he is committed to seeing institutions like CSU get their fair share of federal dollars.

Brown and other members of Congress, including U.S. Rep. Mike Turner, R-Dayton, worked successfully to get Central State 1890 Land Grant status in 2014, which enables the university to receive additional federal funding.

This led externally funded awards to quadruple since 2017, according to university officials, setting a new record in 2022 with $50 million in sponsored research and external funding.

Central State provides free tuition for qualifying students from Dayton Public Schools, Trotwood-Madison schools, Xenia Community Schools and Springfield City Schools. Thomas visited DPS last year to present the scholarships to the winners.

For Dayton Public Schools, Central State is also an employment pipeline. DPS has hired 32 Central State grads since the summer, according to DPS officials, and the district also has a program to get people with associate degrees in education already working at DPS as paraprofessionals to get bachelor’s degrees in teaching.

“From scholarships, student mentoring, and special visits to high schools to engage with students, Central State continues to have a big impact on students and encourages them to enroll in college after graduation,” said Chrisondra Goodwine, DPS board of education president.

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