January 8, 2016

Oakwood Cuts 46 Jobs as Adventist Enrollment Declines Across U.S.

Oakwood University announced Thursday a major personnel restructuring that will eliminate 46 jobs as it seeks to streamline operations and better position itself amid challenging times for Seventh-day Adventist education in North America.

Four faculty members and 18 staff members have taken a voluntary exit package, and another 26 staff positions are being eliminated, consolidated, or reformulated, the Huntsville, Alabama-based university said.

The restructuring, which reduces the number of Oakwood employees to 299 from a previous 345, is expected to provide a one-off savings of $2.8 million and to reduce costs by $11 million over the next five years.

“We are getting ready for the future, and we believe that we are using the best stewardship,” Oakwood president Leslie N. Pollard told the Adventist Review.

Pollard said he didn’t want to be a “doom-and-gloom, sky-is-falling kind of person,” but the university had to be realistic about market trends and prepare for an “uncertain future” in Adventist education in North America.

Adventist higher education in North America collectively experienced a 15 percent loss in enrollment over the past five years, according to figures from the Adventist Enrollment Association. This academic year alone, Adventist colleges and universities in North America saw a 4.3 percent decline in first-time students, a 3.3 percent loss in undergraduate enrollment, and a 5.2 percent loss in graduate student enrollment.

Oakwood’s fall 2015 enrollment fell to 1,749 students compared to 1,925 students in fall 2014.

Leslie Pollard, left, praying at the dedication of new fitness stations around the university campus in late 2015. Oakwood received a $50,000 grant from Home Depot to build outdoor exercise circuits and a 2-mile (3-kilometer) walking trail. (Oakwood University)

How Oakwood Carried Out Revamp

In light of higher education trends, Oakwood University was authorized by its board of trustees to review its academic and administrative structure on Oct. 19, 2015, with the goal of “right-sizing” the institution, the university said in an e-mailed statement.

“I believe Adventist education is at a crossroads,” Pollard said by telephone.

At Oakwood, “it’s as much stewardship as it’s repositioning,” he said. “Leadership is about identifying what the future will be and better steward our dollars so we can meet that future in a robust way.”

Pollard said the changes would not affect the university’s operations or the quality of its education.

Oakwood had employed twice as many staff members as faculty, and at least three different outside consultants had asked in recent months why the university had so many employees for an institution of its size, Pollard said.

“We have known for some time that we needed to right-size our institution,” said Pollard, who lost one of his three administrative assistants in the restructuring.

The four departing faculty members will leave after the university’s graduation in May.

Pollard called the decision to restructure difficult because he viewed Oakwood employees as family.

“These unavoidable leadership decisions on how to best structure our human resources to maximize our mission were agonizing decisions,” Pollard said in an e-mailed statement. “We feel deeply indebted to every employee who served Oakwood. We are not just an organization. We are the Oakwood family.”

Each departing employee received a financial severance package based on his or her years of service. Those choosing the voluntary exit program were given an extra financial incentive, along with other benefits not normally available to exiting employees, the university said.

Enrollment Challenges Across North America

Adventist education is not alone in facing enrollment challenges. A total of 144 small, private, and public colleges missed their enrollment and revenue goals for this academic year, the Chronicle for Higher Education reported Oct. 30, 2015.

Oakwood, a traditionally black school founded in 1896, is the first Adventist institution of higher education to unveil a major personnel revamp. The university shifted from being sponsored by the General Conference, the administrative body of the Adventist world church, to the North American Division in late 2014, and Pollard said North American Division president Daniel R. Jackson has been strongly supportive of the restructuring.

But Adventist Church administrators have called for a re-examination of the church’s education system. Larry D. Blackmer, director of the education department for the North American Division, said the model for boarding academies should be revisited after the church’s oldest academy, Mount Vernon Academy in Ohio, folded under heavy debts last year.

“We need to be stewards of the resources we have,” Blackmer told the Adventist Review at the time. “It is difficult situation we must address as a church.”

Blackmer was carrying out a school evaluation in a remote area of the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean on Thursday and could not be immediately reached for comment.

Pollard expressed confidence that Oakwood — which has students from every region of North America and 40 countries worldwide — is now better positioned for the future.

“Our board of trustees said to get our institution ready for a robust future, and we could not do that by carrying extra positions,” he said. “We want to exert leadership that will be future-oriented.”