“Actually, in the middle of the interview, he put his feet up on the desk and crossed them,” says Henderson, Point Park’s president. “He said, ‘I find it hard to imagine functioning in this atmosphere.’”
And he wouldn’t have to he didn’t get the job. Henderson acknowledges the lack of greenery on campus but doesn’t apologize for it. Instead, she talks about the advantages of a Downtown location for students and how the university is planning to grow and beautify the city’s streets in other ways.
Under Henderson, who arrived at Point Park as its president in 1997, the school has earned university status and boosted its enrollment by 50 percent to nearly 3,300 students for the 2004-05 academic year. To keep facilities current, sustain its enrollment and ensure that it retains prominence in its flagship programs including journalism and performing arts, the university is planning several major capital projects over the next few years, made possible in no small part by aggressive capital campaigns mounted during Henderson’s tenure.
New programs such as criminal justice, which had almost 250 undergraduate and graduate students in 2004, are providing growth for the student body.
Henderson talked with Smart Business about coaxing support from alumni, how the university is playing to its strengths and why Point Park is a good choice for those expecting to work in an urban environment.
What are the challenges of operating a university in a downtown setting?
I guess I should say first that the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. Actually, nationally, urban institutions are growing and rural institutions are not growing at the same rate.
Definitely, it is a challenge to not have land, because even if you could afford to buy real estate and either renovate it or demolish it, some people don’t want to leave, so you have the challenges of occupancies. We are gradually creating a campus. We are building ... a new building on the (Boulevard of the Allies). We bought three small, very nondescript, kind of ugly buildings. We’re going to demolish them ... and build state-of-the-art dance studios.
We’re also going to do facade work on the boulevard so there’ll be a match, there will be architectural harmony and unity starting with our buildings in Academic Hall and going halfway to Smithfield Street.
So you don’t see a lack of green space as a disadvantage?
If we were a typical liberal arts college, I think it would be a big disadvantage because practically every institution in the country has a good English department, a decent political science department, and so do we. But that’s not our niche.
Our niche is urban programs. If you’re going to be a dancer or an actor, if you’re going to be a journalist, if you’re going to be in engineering technology, you’re probably going to work in a city. So there’s this really good match between our identity, our specific niches and the urban landscape.
What is the biggest challenge that Point Park faces over the next five years, and how are you addressing it?
I think the biggest challenge is keeping up with enrollment growth in terms of having enough faculty, having enough classrooms, having sufficient facilities. Our facilities now range all the way from very old-fashioned residence hall rooms which are just one room students now want suites with microwaves and air conditioning and everything to our TV studio, which is absolutely state-of-the-art. So when we do things, we try to do the ideal so that it will be state-of-the-art for at least 10 years.
We’re doing them sort of one-by-one. I would say the capital investment to provide the resources for all the new programs and for the increased enrollment is going to be challenging.
Where will the money come from?
You’re going to have a lot of fund-raising campaigns, capital campaigns. We’ve operated at a surplus; we have a board-mandated surplus running at between 1 percent and 2 percent. Most years we’ve had a surplus of over $1 million, actually about every year. This year it will probably be about $1.4 million. We take that surplus and put half of it into the endowment and half into facilities and capital projects.
What is Point Park’s greatest strength, and how do you leverage that to attract students, faculty and financial support?
I think the greatest strength is the professional orientation of the faculty and the curriculum. The conservatory, for example, runs auditions for our productions and they’re run just like productions on Broadway.
I think that’s our principal advantage and distinction. Every faculty member in the journalism program is a practicing journalist or was a practicing journalist for a long time. All of our part-time people are practitioners as well.
How do you make the case to alumni and donors for supporting Point Park?
Most of our graduates were not rich people. Most of our graduates came from families of modest means, and that is still true.
I tell our graduates we need scholarship money. We have a budget of $53 million; $6 million of that goes right back to students, and that’s in addition to state grants, federal grants, loans and so on. So that’s a big appeal because most of them had scholarships. We have quite of few endowed scholarships from donors and former students.
I think that in fund-raising, the fact that we’re only 40 years old as an institution is a disadvantage because we’re not getting a lot of bequests yet. I’m glad our alumni are alive, but on the other hand most institutions can count on a half a million dollars a year in bequests.
I was with a trustee recently who has no children and I said, ‘Can we approach you and your husband about a charitable gift annuity?’ She said, ‘Well, not yet.’ ... So giving will get better. Our annual fund is not where it should be, but we’re focusing more resources on it.
Western Pennsylvania is rich in institutions of higher education. How does that affect Point Park?
The good thing is really that most of those institutions have their own niches and their own identities, and there really isn’t as much duplication as you would think. Pitt is the only huge, 20,000-student Division One university. CMU is very Ivy, very national and international. Some of the institutions have strong Catholic identities. There’s not another institution like Point Park. There’s not another institution that could match our dance, theater, journalism, film and digital arts, engineering technology. So as long as you have your niche, your distinct identity, I think it’s great for the young people and the adults in the region to have all this choice.
How to reach: Point Park University, http://www.pointpark.edu