Walking through the new Gibson Student Center, Ottawa University Chancellor Kevin Eichner can barely pass a table of students without stopping to welcome them to a new school year. With students arriving on campus, Eichner said its one of his favorite times of the year.
“The energy of it, you can just feel it,“ he said. “We had a super group of parents [Wednesday]. It’s just meeting new people and its the anticipation and excitement. Its meeting new faculty and new staff. Its 154 years that we have been doing this and there something really special about it. You know your going to change a lot of those students lives for the better, you just don’t know exactly how. I call that worthy work. That’s why we are here.”
In the 10 years since Eichner returned to Ottawa University as president, the school will have its highest enrollment numbers. In fact, the numbers are the highest since Eichner first enrolled at Ottawa in 1969. Now serving as Chancellor of Ottawa University’s three campuses, Eichner said the investment that has been made in the University from its athletic programs to its staff has played a big role in the enrollment increase.
“Arabie Conner, our athletic director, reminded me that 10 years ago we had 14 varsity sports, we have 28 now,” Eichner said. “That’s a big part of that. The students are having a better experience. We’ve revitalized the campus, we’ve invested in faculty with four new faculty members this year for example. We are so blessed to be growing here because we have 32 competitors within a two-and-half hour drive from here.”
Ottawa University is expecting more than 1,300 residential students to its Ottawa campus this fall. There are another 600 expected at its newest campus in Surprise, Arizona.
Eichner said the Gibson Student Center was the hallmark of the 20/20 fundraising campaign. That fundraising effort helped pay for the new building as well as renovating the chapel and the new athletic field.
“When we got to Ottawa in 2008 this place was kind of reeling he said. “It’s a great place but we needed a new vision but not a vision for a few years, we needed a real strategic vision so be built vision 20/20.
Eichner said when he came to Ottawa he expected the school’s growth to come from adult continuing education students but the market quickly changed and growth came from residential students. He said he was not even thinking about starting a new campus. Eichner said the university’s revenue exceeded $50 million for the first time this year and their fundraising efforts were the schools largest in history.
While the Ottawa campus has undergone a facelift, the Surprise campus is preparing for its second year and the campus is in an area where they don’t have to compete as much for students.
“We announced the opening in February 2017 and opened with 434 students, thinking we might have 250,” he said. “So for the student that wants a faith-based, personalized high quality educational experience where they can continue to play their sport or be involved in music or whatever their passion is, they don’t have those options out there. By opening out there it not only gave us the southwest market, it gave us California and a third of our kids are California students already.”
The Surprise campus opened with 21 sports that all started in less than six months. Those sports teams have helped the campus grow quickly.
“We like to say it was an overnight success, six years in the making,” he said. “It was a good move for us because knew we had to get critical mass because who wants to come to a university with 50 kids. The highest probable was to do that was through athletics plus they don’t really have any option to play unless they are a Division I athlete.”
With the additional students, Eichner said balacing the institutial support mechanisms has been a priority.
“At the end of the day a university is a service enterprise,” he said. “That’s the way people really keep score. It tests your systems, your personnel, it tests your programing. Obviously when you grow that’s a good thing for cash flow ultimately but in the short term it tends to use cash. It was already a pretty complex organization but when you add a new residential campus which has facilities, security, food service, athletics, academic programming and financial aid support, everything you have to have, thats a geometric change and we knew that.”
Financially the Surprise campus was difficult because hiring had to be done a year in advance with no revenue coming in. There were already a base of adult students so he said it’s has been an amazing journey to this point.
“It’s the most exhausting thing and the most invigorating and satisfying thing that I have ever done and I’ve led two publicaly traded companies and started businesses from scratch.” he said. “This job is quite literally 24/7. I get a chance in this job, through this institution to change people’s lives every day. Who gets to do that. And most of the time we get it done. Every single day for me is a gift.”
Eichner credits the schools success to the leadership of the board which allowed him to hire the best possible staff. People, he said, like Dr. Reggies Wenyika, who was named president of the Ottawa campus, this summer.
“I think he was a great addition,” Eichner said. “If someone asks why we have been so successful over these 10 years, its because the board understood the difference between vision and dreams. They understood if they had the right leadership in place they could count on that leadership to really do the heavy lifting. Our board has been nothing but supportive including financially.”
Eichner is not ready for retirement. His commitment to the school has been rewarded with a new contract that will ensure he is around as the growth in Ottawa and Surprise continues. This spring he will conduct his 50th commencement.
“It’s been quite a run,” he said. “We always have our challenges. Schools like this will never be free of that. I think we are very blessed. We are very missions centered and we are being rewarded with growth, which is just not happening in higher education. We don’t take any of it for granted.”
Other accomplishments under Eichner’s leadership in the past 10 years include:
— Revitalized the relationships with the Ottawa Indian Tribe, the American Baptists and strengthened relationships between Ottawa and the university.
— Organized three university wide schools; the Angell Snyder School of Business, The School of Arts and Sciences and the School of Education.
— Launched an Executive MBA program for international students which should have nearly 400 students this year.
— Completed two comprehensive accreditation processes with the Higher Learning Commission, obtained CCE accreditation for the university’s nursing program and ABCSP accreditation for the Angell Snyder School of Business.