Frustrated, 2 businessmen quit UNHM advisory board

They expressed frustration with their shared view that the Queen City campus has not been responsive to the needs of students or businesses in the Merrimack Valley

Two members of the dean's advisory board of the University of New Hampshire at Manchester handed in their resignations last month, expressing frustration with their shared view that the Queen City campus has not been responsive to the needs of students or businesses in the Merrimack Valley.

Jeremy Hitchcock, CEO of Manchester-based Dyn Inc., and Ralph Sidore, property manager and treasurer of the Saul O Sidore Memorial Foundation, both resigned from the board at the end of January.

NHBR obtained a copy of their resignation letters, as well as the response to Sidore from Dr. Sally Ward, interim dean of UNH-Manchester, in which she defended the university's support of UNHM.

In his two-page resignation letter, Sidore — who has served on the satellite school's advisory board for more than a decade — did not hold back his criticism of the "priorities and attitudes" of the University System of New Hampshire trustees and UNH administration, who he said have insularly focused on the Durham campus, unattuned to the economic realities and workforce needs in Manchester.

"With the Durham Deans focused on Durham, and truly ignoring both the need and opportunity in Manchester, any enthusiasm for an effort to make Manchester a real center for growth and learning, on the part of those with a real interest in UNHM, is wasted," he wrote.Dr. Mark Huddleston, president of UNH, wrote in an email to NHBR that Sidore's claim "is absolutely not true."

"Both the Board of Trustees and my administration are committed to the success of our urban campus," wrote Huddleston, who also said he was disappointed to receive the resignation letters and has personally asked both men to reconsider.

In his letter, Hitchcock — who said UNHM has remained "relatively unchanged" since he joined its board in 2006 — similarly expressed frustration with what he called the school's inability "to respond creatively or in a timely manner to local needs and opportunities."

For example, he wrote, Dyn decided two years ago to set aside a large pool of resources to help support learning institutions in the region.Over six years, Dyn's agenda included helping to create research labs, review curriculum, sponsor research, fund graduate work and offer paid internships. While efforts with other schools have been successful, all efforts so far to partner with UNHM have come up dry, he said.

"Speaking as Dyn's CEO," he wrote to Ward, "I can say that I have been disappointed with our inability to develop meaningful partnerships with UNHM, given the resources we have offered up to spark progress."

'Very supportive'

The men's charge — that there is a disconnect between what Manchester needs and Durham is giving — is one that even UNH Manchester itself alluded to in its most recent strategic plan.

In the 2007-2012 plan, UNHM characterized its relationship with Durham as "unclear at best." To bridge the gap between the two, it said, the culture at UNH would have to change "to include UNH Manchester more fully."

But representatives of the Durham campus say that UNHM is very much fully supported by the university. Ward, a UNH sociology professor who was appointed interim dean of UNHM a year and a half ago, said she understood the point being made in the strategic plan, but that it was "probably overstated."

"Since I've been here I've found the university to be very supportive," said Ward.

In fact, she said, the USNH trustees held their January board meeting in Manchester, during which time they expressed support for UNHM's efforts to expand its offerings, and said that obtaining additional space for the school is a board priority.

But to Sidore, that's lip service.

"I believe Durham is very good at saying one thing, then doing another," said Sidore. "Dr. Huddleston has repeatedly said how great the campus can be and what we can do for it, then he's gone back to Durham and nothing worthwhile has happened."

Established in 1985 as UNH's urban commuter campus, UNHM is within a 30-minute drive of half the state's population. In 2000, the school — which has a strong liberal arts base and offers undergraduate and graduate degrees — moved from its Hackett Hill Road location to the city's millyard in an effort to anchor it in the economic heart of the city.

But the move downtown would reveal a challenge. Its restored brick buildings, tucked into two compact blocks overlooking the Merrimack River, have become filled to capacity. In 2007, UNH announced it had formed a planning team to explore the school's expansion.

While there has been talk of a physical expansion of UNHM for a long time, "there hasn't really been any forward progress," Hitchcock told NHBR. He said he was shown architectural drawings for its expansion when he joined the UNHM board in 2006.

"They seem like they're at this plateau of not being able to do much more in the structured environment they have," Hitchcock said. "They don't want to make large capital improvements, and they don't have enough space to improve what they're doing."

Huddleston conceded that "a physical expansion is crucial to the ability to expand and add programming."

But at least for now, "we've put the pause button on a major building project now because of money," said Ward. "But what's the long-term plan? That building idea might come back into the discussion."

For now, any expansion will be incremental — "slow and steady" growth, said Ward. That may include renting space, though that could be a challenge, since much of the needed facilities would require costly infrastructure.

Supply and demand

That a physical expansion of UNHM has not yet come to fruition is "a mistake," said Dr. Kristin Woolever, dean of UNHM from 2005 to 2010 and now president of Prescott College in Arizona.

In a 2010 interview with NHBR, Woolever guessed the school could likely double its enrollment of about 1,400 students with a new building.

"I do realize that UNH itself in Durham suffered greatly in this economy, and I don't pretend to know how that all played out, but I do think that UNH Manchester is an opportunity still waiting to happen," Woolever said.

Even though its growth has been stunted by space constraints, there has been positive progress at UNHM over the past decade, said Ward.

Enrollment, for example, has risen by 32 percent over the past 10 years. Four years ago, the school added an extremely popular bachelor's degree in biology, with $245,000 provided by the Provost's office to construct a biology lab.

In recent years, the school has introduced a bachelor's in computer information systems, a master's in information technology, and is about to roll out an urban studies program, focusing on large towns and small cities.

"Our five largest programs are all programs we've added in recent years," said Ward.

While Sidore conceded there have been positive developments at the school over the past decade, he said most were locally generated and due to what he called the hard work of former deans Woolever and her predecessor, Dr. Karol Lacroix.

And while there has been some progress in programming, he said, a lot of the curriculum suggestions that board members have made over the years — in areas like graduate nursing, finance and engineering programs — have been "either ignored or followed through at such a slow pace as to be of little value."

He said one of his tenants, an engineering firm in Manchester, has eight engineers pursuing engineering graduate degrees at UMass Lowell, because UNHM has no offerings to meet their needs and it's closer than going to Durham, he said.

"There's no excuse for that," he said. "Eight people from one firm means there's a demand for these kind of courses around here."

Ward said she has been having "ongoing conversations" with colleagues in Durham about setting up arrangements through which engineering courses could be offered simultaneously to both the Durham and Manchester campuses, whether through Skype-like technology or faculty members moving between the two campuses.

Arrangements like remote classrooms should have been done years ago at the onset of the recession, said Sidore, when college enrollment historically tends to rise as workers try to better their qualifications or purse new careers.

"When the downturn started, there should have been a major effort to market UNHM," said Sidore. "It should have been expanding courses offered, class times, class types and (offering) a more remote setup."

In this regard, other nearby schools "have been eating UNH's lunch for the last four years," he said.

He pointed to the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy on Elm St., which has expanded its graduate nursing offerings, and millyard neighbor, Southern New Hampshire University, which has ramped up its online offerings in a big way in the past few years.

But Huddleston defended the school's marketing efforts, saying that the budget for the school's marketing department has been increased by 200 percent over the past 10 years.

'A better job'

Neither Sidore nor Hitchcock disputes that the University of New Hampshire and the university system itself have dire fiscal constraints.

Still, in recent years, USNH did get a major allotment of funds from the state through the Knowledge Economy Education Plan. In two appropriations, in 2001 and 2005, the state awarded more than $200 million to help update its science, technology, engineering and math facilities across the university system.

KEEP funds went toward the renovation, expansion or replacement of five buildings in Durham, as well as projects at Keene State College and Plymouth State University. None of the funds supported building projects at UNHM.

What it comes down to is where the school wants to put its money, said Woolever. And "they chose and continue to choose to put it in the Durham campus."

But, according to Ward, when it comes to lack of support for expansion at UNHM, fingers should be pointed not at the university system, but the state.

"I think the pressure point, the place to call attention, is the state support for the university system, as opposed to the university system, for what we're doing in Manchester. We need to do a better job of making our case to the Legislature," said Ward. "That said, we know it's a tough funding environment. We're doing what we can to address the issues that both Ralph and Jeremy raised on a continual basis."

Sidore isn't convinced, nor does he intend to consider rejoining the board.

"Manchester has to be looked at differently, more entrepreneurially, more in terms of what is needed here, not what they wish to provide here," he said. "And we just don't see that happening at all."

That point was brought home to him when the word "entrepreneurial" was cut from the job description for the new dean, he said. Sidore said he heard the word was removed because others thought it implied "money for credits" — in other words, a diploma mill.

"They don't understand what the word means," said Sidore.

But, according to Ward, "there was some discussion of the word to use. I think the word that ended up in the ad was to be innovative and involved in the business community. The word 'entrepreneurial' is used a lot, and it means lots of different things."

In his email, Huddleston wrote simply: "I am committed to hiring a dean for the Manchester campus with genuinely entrepreneurial credentials."

If UNHM can broaden its role in the state's technology corridor, former dean Woolever told NHBR she believes it could have a very bright future.

"I think Manchester is a place that could expand and really could be productive and gain the university quite a bit of money — and also credibility with the various industries in the Merrimack Valley."

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