Ottawa University charts increased enrollment despite COVID-19

The Herald Staff
Students had their temperature checked upon their return to campus.

Ottawa University announced this week that enrollment on the first day of classes for the fall 2020 term showed a notable increase over last year despite the widespread ramifications of the coronavirus pandemic.

Total combined enrollment at all university campuses exceeded that of fall 2019. This included increases at the university’s two residential campuses in Ottawa and in Surprise, Ariz.

As part of the university’s COVID-19 action plan, the fall semester started early at the two residential campuses. In-person coursework will end in mid-November, just before Thanksgiving, and final exams will be administered exclusively online. This will give students an extended break through January 2021, when the spring term begins.

“In April, as the pandemic threatened to bring our world to its knees, we had to make some very difficult and urgent decisions,” Ottawa University Chancellor Kevin Eichner said. “We had to cut back salaries, put people on furloughs, and trim educational and other benefits. From that vantage point, no one could be sure what we might be facing. Fall term enrollments at OU and throughout higher education were very much in doubt. In true OU fashion, our faculty and staff stepped up and responded.”

OU officials said that 6.3% more students were enrolled university-wide than in 2019, for a total of 3,534 as of Aug. 31. At the university’s original residential campus in Kansas, enrollment increased to 796 students, a 7.7% increase. At OUAZ, the 4-year-old residential campus in Arizona, 859 students were welcomed this fall for a 5.4% increase.

At Ottawa’s adult campuses in Kansas City, Phoenix and Milwaukee — plus its online and international units — there was a slight decrease in enrollment of 1.8%. However, within that number were increases of 8.5% at the Phoenix campus and an impressive 23.5% in the international Executive MBA program.

Eichner said he was “absolutely delighted” by the fall 2020 numbers, which were even more remarkable considering the new term was clouded by the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic. He credited the university’s administrators, faculty and staff for their tenacity in the face of a critical challenge.

“I have never been prouder of our institution,” Eichner said. “We shifted academic delivery on a dime, starting at the end of last term, and made many changes to our modes of operation throughout the university. Then, we focused over the summer and took several key actions to ensure the safety and ongoing support for our students and personnel. Even in a work-from-home environment for most of our staff, it was clear that people were digging in and adjusting their work patterns and, indeed, their lives, in order to be productive and helpful.”

The chancellor said the tough decisions of senior leadership and steadfast work of OU’s people had a definite impact on the returning numbers.

“I was keenly aware that overcoming these unprecedented circumstances depended on the talent, dedication, follow-through, creativity, responsiveness, and grit of our people.” Eichner said. “All of us understood that if we suffered major drops in enrollments this fall, the consequences would be very painful. It certainly is for a number of other institutions less fortunate than we are right now.”

Eichner said the university is cautiously optimistic in light of the favorable enrollment numbers. He said everyone at OU understands that more challenges lie ahead, many of them daily.

“This is merely the beginning of a long new year as we will continue to navigate the new world that we live in,” he said. “But face masks and all, here we are. We have had excellent starts at our two residential campuses and, so far at least, our students have been behaving responsibly with the new protocols in place to ensure we keep them healthy, happy, and learning. All of us will need to stay the course and shift it when necessary.”

The university plans to end the in-person semester by Thanksgiving and administer final exams completely online.