Interim President William Crothers gives wide-ranging interview to student media

Zack Lemon

During an All-Institutional meeting Monday, William Crothers, Ashland University’s interim president for the academic year, shared a story. While moving into Eagle Ridge Manor, his home for the year, a facilities employee bluntly asked him why he would want to come here. Crothers responded, saying that when he took this job, he realized, at 71 years old, he only had about 10 years left of service to the world, if he was lucky. When offered this position, he contemplated whether AU was worth one-tenth of the rest of his productive life. 

He decided it was.

“I wasn’t looking to do this again but somehow they found me,” Crothers said in an interview Tuesday.

Crothers has made a second career out of working with financially struggling colleges and universities. After retiring as the president of Roberts Wesleyan College in 2002 after 21 years of service, Crothers started Presidential Leadership Associates, a consulting firm that worked primarily with colleges and universities.

“I’ve worked over the last 12 or 13 years now with close to 50 colleges and universities across the country,” he said.

He has also had two separate stints as an interim president. The first, in 2006-07, was at Asbury University in Kentucky. Then, in 2012-13 he took over as interim president at Judson University in Chicago. Both were small, Christian liberal arts schools.

“Ashland is different than the other schools that I’ve worked with but it shares some common values,” he said. “As I talked with the consultant about what (AU was) looking for in terms of a skill set for the interim president I felt that fit pretty well who I am.”

Crothers has spent most of his career working with small liberal arts colleges. Although his undergraduate degree is in business, he believes strongly in the importance of a liberal arts education. 

“I think somebody who is going to be effective in business also needs to be able to communicate effectively, write effectively, understand history,” he said. “There are dimensions to a core curriculum that every educated person should have exposure to.”

During the all-institutional meeting, Crothers expressed his positive feelings towards the liberal arts and a core curriculum, but said he would have designed Ashland’s core differently. Tuesday, he identified Ashland’s Global Perspectives requirement as one place he would like to see some change.

“Our core program includes a commitment to a global perspective,” he said Tuesday. “A half hour in a taxi in Calcutta at noon would give a stronger global understanding to a student than a full semester studying some of the courses that we’ve included as part of the core. I just have a bias there.”

He also expressed concern over the number of credit hours students are required to take, both in the core and in various majors.

“I think it’s important for college students to be able to take electives to experience a variety of disciplines because through that process one can sort out what they want to do in life,” he said. “When that option is not available you have to decide very early in the process what you want to major in. If you change your mind, you’re going to add another year to your education experience.” 

However, he does not expect changes to be enacted during his time here.

Crothers is coming into a challenging financial situation. Ashland is mired in large, poorly structured debt, which leaves the university with little working capital and an unbalanced budget.

During the all-institutional meeting, Crothers put forward seven aspects of the university where he will devote most of his energies. These include progressing towards a balanced budget, researching possible debt restructuring, and completing the prioritization process the Board of Trustees launched last spring.

Currently, Crothers is in the midst of a tedious budget evaluation, where he will go through every line item in the more than $130 million budget in order to understand the financial state of AU, and to uncover the remaining areas of waste.

“It’s like taking a steak,” he said. “You can cut off a chunk of fat and throw that away, but we’ve already done that. The rest of it, the fat permeates the steak. You have to be very discriminating as you make adjustments, a little bit here, a little bit there based on where you think you can make reductions without jeopardizing the mission.”

The prioritization process initiated by the Board of Trustees will also identify aspects of the university that require additional funding, as well as programs and services which need to be discontinued.

“There are some really great programs here, real distinctive programs and marks of quality throughout the institution. We need to keep that in front of us and not jeopardize that,” he said.

The process involved more than a dozen committees tasked with evaluating every aspect of the university, from teaching loads to organizational structure. These groups will prioritize both the academic and non-academic parts of the university.

These committees are comprised of faculty, administrators and trustees, and will also seek input from other bodies within Ashland University, such as Faculty Senate and the academic departments.

“This really speaks well for the university that we’re being so systematic with that kind of planning effort,” Crothers said. “This is hard work, but very important and I think it’s going to give us a major competitive advantage in the future because we will fine tune what we do. This will only strengthen the university.”

One area Crothers thinks requires additional funding is marketing. During the all-institutional meeting, Scott Van Loo debuted Ashland University’s marketing plan, including a new tagline. 

On Tuesday, Crothers placed his faith in the new marketing strategy.

“(Scott Van Loo) has developed a very good marketing strategy, we just have to put more money behind the marketing effort,” he said. “We need to be doing more in social media and some of the current technologies in addition to the more traditional billboards and things like that.”

Even with budget adjustments and the prioritization process, the debt still looms as a major issue. During the all-institutional meeting, Crothers talked about the research Stephen Storck has put into finding ways to restructure Ashland’s debt. In the interview Tuesday, he also mentioned the role Fred Finks will play as chancellor in reducing the debt.

“One of the challenges that he has on his plate as chancellor is to talk with the major donors to help address that issue,” he said. “He has a strategy, every day he wakes up thinking about that. He’s going after it, he’s out talking to key leadership people to address that. I think in time the debt will come down through gifts that he’s able to raise.”

With all the negative effects of the debt, Crothers also emphasized what this debt acquired for the university.

“We do have too much debt. We also have some first class buildings. The experience that students are getting is pretty positive, but we do have to manage that debt,” he said.

Despite the challenges, Crothers is looking forward to his year here at Ashland.

“I think it will be a good year, a challenging year and I expect it to be of worthwhile service here.”