When students return for their first day of spring classes at the University of New Orleans (UNO) next week, they'll be joined by UNO's new president, who'll be showing up for his first day on the job. Dr. Peter Fos has his work cut out for him.
UNO has a proud history. The first public university in Louisiana that was never segregated, it built the middle class of southeast Louisiana. Most UNO grads remain in the metro area.
In a sign of the times, revised state revenue forecasts brought a new wave of budget cuts — $2.3 million — to UNO just days after Fos was hired. He initially planned to start Feb. 1, but instead he will begin Jan. 17.
Fos comes to UNO from the LSU Health Sciences Center; he began working there in April and spent the previous decade at universities in Nevada, Texas and Mississippi. A native of New Orleans, he graduated from Holy Cross High School and UNO (then LSUNO).
During the search for a new UNO leader, the University of Louisiana System commissioned an institutional review of the campus. The study paints a stark but realistic picture of a university on the bubble — but with lots of potential. It concludes with 28 recommendations.
"The good news is that many of these things can easily be addressed," Fos says of the document. "We can't do all 28 at one time, but one thing we can do right away is improve communication on campus and off campus. ... That's what separates a university from private industry — at a university, you can tell the president what you really think. I have already met with the Faculty Senate leadership, and we will meet regularly going forward."
Fos' second goal is to increase enrollment at UNO, which peaked before Hurricane Katrina at more than 17,000. Last fall, enrollment fell below 11,000. Next fall, UNO's new admission standards kick in; incoming freshmen will need an ACT score of at least 23. Fos admits that could drive enrollment down even more, but he notes that attracting a better quality of student will increase retention and graduation rates.
"We will have to work more closely with Delgado and other local community colleges," he says. "In the long run, UNO will have just as many transfers as first-time students. Because of the higher ACT entrance requirement, we'll have to cater to transfer students."
One change he plans to implement quickly in that regard is making registration easier. "I want to cross-train everyone involved in the registration process," he says, "so that a student can go to one place, one time, and get everything he or she needs from course registration to financial aid — without having to go to several offices just to get registered."
His third immediate goal is to reconnect UNO to the local business community. "I will go on the speaker circuit to personally reconnect with the public, to let them know what UNO contributes to the community," Fos says.
His message will be what he calls UNO's "FOBBs" (first, only, biggest and best) — reminding people of the things that UNO is first at ("the highest research productivity per faculty member in Louisiana"); what UNO has that's the only one of its kind ("the only accredited master's [degree] of urban planning program in the state"); what UNO has that's the biggest ("the biggest school of business in the state"); and what UNO does best ("the best naval architecture program in the nation").
"There are many more FOBBs at UNO," Fos says, already sounding like a university president.
Fos will need time and lots of help to succeed, but UNO's mission is critical to metro New Orleans' quality of life. Here's hoping he gets the time and help he needs.