UNH’s Manchester campus nears the tipping point

'We are smaller, and therefore obviously more nimble and we can really work more quickly to get things done'

The number of students majoring in biology has more than quadrupled in two years at the Manchester campus of the University of New Hampshire. The growth can be attributed to the college’s new bachelor’s degree program in biology and a new microbiology lab, according to Stephen Pugh, chairman of the college’s Science and Technology Division.

“The college has plans to expand,” he said. “We are desperately needing that.”

In fact, the Manchester campus in the Millyard area along the Merrimack River is “absolutely shovel-ready” for a new 60,000-square-foot building designed by the Manchester architectural firm of Lavallee Brensinger, at a cost estimated at $30 million, said Kristin Woolever, dean of UNH at Manchester.

But while the campus is poised to grow, it also must compete with priorities laid out in early February by Mark Huddleston, president of the University of New Hampshire.

As Huddleston explained in his strategic plan address, tuition costs have outpaced a typical New Hampshire family’s ability to pay — if things continue in such an “unsustainable” way, he said families will be paying 75 percent of disposable income to send a single child to UNH in 2020.

Huddleston called for a new “culture of philanthropy” and unprecedented efforts to involve the university’s 123,000 alumni – all of which could boost prospects for the Manchester expansion.

But the project that gets top billing is the Peter T. Paul College of Business and Economics at the Durham campus. The project is scheduled for a summer 2011 groundbreaking.

Alumnus Peter T. Paul has committed $25 million for the project, and the university must raise a matching $25 million to complete the funding. So far, the university has $11 million toward that goal, including $3 million in gifts.

But Woolever, who said she understands the urgency of the project, still sees the importance of expanding UNH’s Manchester campus.

“Leveraging this location, which is in the business center of the state, I believe should be very high priority for the university, and I would like to see it more front and center,” she said.

Getting closer

In his speech, Huddleston mentioned a “much-needed expansion of the UNH Manchester campus,” drawing applause in the Manchester auditorium where the address was simulcast. Yet Huddleston spent far more time in his remarks on the Peter T. Paul College and a new arts center, also on the Durham campus.

But for Woolever and other faculty in Manchester, those few mentions were a good sign. As outlined in its 2007-2012 strategic plan, the urban campus has sought to change the culture of the University of New Hampshire at Durham to include UNH Manchester more fully.

“I felt that we were more included in those discussions than we have in the past. We haven’t always made those lists,” said Pugh.

Manchester businessman Ralph Sidore, who is on UNH Manchester’s advisory board, praised the overall strategic plan but was disappointed on behalf of the urban campus.

“I think it badly underplays the opportunity that UNH has in Manchester at this time,” Sidore said. “This is the most nimble branch of the university because it’s not tied into huge amounts of bricks and mortar with 100 and some odd years of history and how we do things,” he said.

In fact, “nimbility,” was a term used by Huddleston, in challenging the university to enter a new era. As Huddleston acknowledged, the word itself isn’t in the dictionary yet, but its meaning is clear: become more entrepreneurial by “recognizing untapped markets and seizing promising opportunities.”

Many say that’s already happening on the Manchester campus, in part because its students have traditionally been more nontraditional – holding jobs while pursuing degrees, returning to school later in their lives. Night classes, blended courses (part-classroom, part-online), and intensive semesters (allowing students to earn credits in less time) are common.

Dean Woolever said she has visited with many chief executives in the area, seeking their input in determining the direction of the school.

“We are smaller, and therefore obviously more nimble and we can really work more quickly to get things done,” Woolever said.

John Aber, UNH’s provost and vice president for academic affairs, said Durham has made much progress in achieving a closer relationship with its urban campus.

In recent years, the provost’s office provided $230,000 for that new microbiology lab in Manchester that has helped to attract new students.

“We see it as a very crucial part of the university, being the urban campus and being closer to an area of higher economic activity,” Aber said. “It has a tremendous role to play in workforce development and in developing programs that integrate with companies that operate in Manchester.”

One of those companies is Hoyle, Tanner & Associates, an engineering firm and Millyard neighbor of the Manchester campus. Frank Wells, senior vice president of HTA, serves on the advisory board of UNH Manchester and served on the steering committee for the UNH strategic plan.

“We see their programmatic offerings tailored to the needs of our people — not just the students that are going to come out of there, but sometimes even in-service professionals that might be facing a change in their working environment or may be looking for a different career path,” he said.

Aber said faculty flows more frequently between the two campuses. About 10 years ago, the Durham campus began offering its professional graduate program to Manchester. This January, there were 279 students in the program — up from 254 a year ago.

The university also is reviewing its budget program, Aber said. Like other colleges on UNH’s Durham campus, UNH Manchester sets its own budget, using revenues from tuition to help fund operations.

“One of the goals is to make that a simpler and cleaner process,” Aber said. “There would be clear incentives for people who want to offer programs in both places.”

That could amount to more money for the Manchester campus. The operating budget at UNH Manchester in 2009 was $11.2 million (about half the size of UNH’s athletics budget), up from $9.9 million in 2008 — the result of an increase in enrollments, as well as grants.

Turning points

The effort to raise money for the proposed new UNH Manchester building would need help from the UNH Foundation, the money-raising arm of the university, which in the past “has really concentrated on Durham,” said Woolever, who added that “now we are very much in the picture,” Woolever said.

In this interest, the Manchester campus now has a liaison to the foundation who splits his time between Durham and Manchester, she said.

The last time the foundation was involved in a major way in the urban campus was during the expansion of its library — helping to secure several gifts amounting to about $175,000 for such improvements as audiovisual technology and increasing the book collection.

Mark Rubinstein, interim vice president for advancement for UNH, said the Manchester expansion is among several projects that will be the subject of a feasibility study over the next year or so.

“When we get to a point where we’re raising funds, in addition to talking to individuals about the value UNH Manchester provides, we expect also to be having that conversation with legislators about the value that UNHM brings to the state as part of the system of higher education,” he said.

According to Dean Woolever, the Manchester campus is at the tipping point.

“We’ve just developed a computer information systems undergraduate degree,” Woolever said. “And we have in the pipeline a master’s of science in information technology, which we hope will be implemented starting in fall.” But, she said, “We can’t develop new programs because we don’t have space for faculty, the classrooms.”

The main building at 400 Commercial St. makes use of every corner, it seems, with students studying at tables under stairwells and clusters of lounging chairs in hallways. The proposed new building would add space for student activities and be connected to the original building by a glass-enclosed walkway suspended over the nearby Cotton restaurant.

If the school is now at a juncture, Karol Lacroix, dean of UNH Manchester from 1996 to 2004 and now president of Granite State College, recalls another turning point.

About 1998, the choice was between creating a more Durham-like campus at what was then UNH Manchester’s Hackett Hill location or becoming an urban campus, she said. “The students were very much in favor of moving downtown,” she said.

The university sold the Hackett Hill property to the city and used the money to purchase and renovate the building that now houses the undergraduate program.

About five years ago, undergraduate enrollment was about 779 students. There was a slight drop from 2006 to 2007, from 796 to 773. But last fall, enrollment was at 844, up from the previous year’s 792.

“Any time the economy goes down, people tend to go back to school,” Woolever said. “But also, we are very affordable compared to any other institution around here. We don’t have student housing — we’re a commuter college, so we don’t have high student fees others may have.”

At UNH, tuition is about $22,000 for in-state students. Most students can attend UNH Manchester for just under $9,000 for a full year, Woolever said. “But the degree you earn here is a full UNH degree. It’s not a UNH Manchester degree,” she said

Getting that message out there — that the Manchester campus is not a lesser choice but a full-fledged part of UNH — has been one of the school’s challenges.

When Derek Johnson, assistant director of admissions, joined the staff about eight years ago, he said, “It was, ‘How can I get to Durham?’” Now, Johnson said, high school juniors and seniors are taking a look at UNH Manchester as one of their choices, rather than as a fallback. Informational sessions, which used to attract a few dozen people, now fill the 150-seat auditorium, standing room only, he said.

The average age of students is about 23 years old, down from 25 several years ago, he said. Woolever said she sees enrollment as potentially doubling within 10 years — with a new building.

“I don’t think it makes sense to go beyond that here. My target would be 3,000 students.” The total head count this January, including those taking graduate and non-degree courses, was 1,370.

John Aber suggested things are looking hopeful. “I think they have a real shot, sure,” he said. “The plan is there. The need is there.”

But whether the money is there is the main question.

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