In hard times, Lamar University becoming a ‘leader in online education,’ president says
Lamar University has weathered storms before. In 2005 there was Hurricane Rita, in 2008 there was Hurricane Ike, and in 2011 there was the 82nd Texas Legislature. This year Lamar lost 18% of its state funding, which amounts to over $15 million cut from their budget over two years.
In an interview with the Texas Independent, Lamar President Dr. James Simmons said that being a university president in the current higher education environment in Texas is, in a word, “challenging.” As the Texas Tribune reported, a 25 percent cut to special items, outside the state’s basic higher ed funding, was especially tough on smaller universities.“The biggest challenge that we face as we look into the crystal ball is whether or not state funding for universities will continue to decrease or if it will increase,” said Simmons.
Simmons said expanding Lamar’s online learning options has been one of the school’s most promising strategies for success in a tough budget climate. “We really are at the cutting edge of online education,” said Simmons.
Although Lamar has not be at the center of the higher education debate in Texas, Simmons said he does not believe it’s saved them from extra scrutiny over the last few years. “We are all equally under a microscope,” said Simmons. “It is important that we find ways to improve the efficiency in which we deliver to the consumer, the students.”
As the Texas Independent has reported, the Joint Committee on Oversight of Higher Education Governance has been holding hearings on the future of Texas’ public universities, and how university regents should run them. Simmons said that “it has been a productive discussion,” and called the efficiency debate a “healthy” one.
Lamar has responded to the lost revenue due to state budget cuts in a variety of ways. “We raised tuition, which will accommodate a great portion in state funding.” They also eliminated academic divisions, and are looking at outsourcing. “We are looking to outsource our facilities and custodial services staff, but we wanted to make sure that they would have adequate insurance and it turns out that their benefit would be more significant if outsourced,” said Simmons.
Lamar University faculty and staff have been placed on a salary freeze, and the university has extended its freeze on hiring non-essential personnel. “It wasn’t a ‘hard freeze.’ If there are essential positions they will be filled,” said Simmons. “The goal has been to protect our academic core during these changes.”
As part of their efficiency strategy, Lamar has embraced online and distance education. “We are the leaders in that area,” said Simmons. Simmons specifically touted Lamar’s Master’s in Education program, which, he said, they began “assuming that we would enroll about 300 students, but it has grown to and stayed steady at 3,000 students.”
In July, the university touted the approval of its proposed online Doctorate of Education in Educational Leadership by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board as a “move to the head of the class.” The program will be will be 100 percent online, and will compliment Lamar’s online Master’s of Education programs.
The incorporation of online education into universities has received resistance from some faculty members at colleges such as the University of Toledo and Arkansas State University. But Simmons said that his staff worked with the Lamar faculty to avoid that type of backlash.
“We spent a lot of time discussion the issue with each department,” said Simmons. “Thanks to a courageous faculty senate who supported this, we did not experience those types of issues.”
Lamar has already expanded its online presence beyond the education programs, Simmons said, and is looking to expand it even further in areas like nursing, business, and engineering.
Lamar has joined with Academic Partnerships, a company founded by Dallas entrepreneur Randy Best, to offer many of its degrees online. Lamar’s website says the school offers online degrees in addition to their Master’s of Education, including a bachelor’s in criminal justice and general studies, as well as professional certifications for principals and superintendents.
Simmons said that while online education programs are a “work in progress” he believes that ultimately they will be a success. “We are further along than anyone else, and have really left them [other universities] behind,” said Simmons. “I believe that Lamar University is the leader in online education, and streamlining higher education. We give students more bang for their buck.”