Champaign County’s only institution of higher learning – Urbana University – has experienced many changes over its 167-year history, including name changes (founded as Urbana Seminary in 1850 and known as Urbana College until 1985), a five-year closure due to the Civil War, and, most recently, being acquired in 2014 by Franklin University in Columbus.
While the developments over the past few years have some staff, faculty, students and community members concerned about the future of the university, UU Executive Vice President and Provost Christopher Washington, Ph.D., seems to have made it his mission since taking over the reins of the university in late April to let everyone know UU is here to stay.
“We’ve (Franklin University) invested $15 million into the university, and we are talking about the possibility of adding new sports teams, new academic programs, and building new relationships with the community,” he said. “I’m here to stay, and I’m in this for the long haul.”
Currently operating as a division of Franklin University, UU could become a branch campus of the Columbus-based institution pending approval from the Higher Learning Commission. A decision is expected this month.
“I’m very optimistic about it,” Washington said. “We are ready to go and ready to move forward with all of this.”
He added if UU becomes a branch campus, it’s his belief it would remove the university from its current probation status, which the HLC imposed on UU in October 2014 over concerns about the autonomy of its governing board.
The move, Washington added, would benefit UU by expanding its academic offerings, which would help local companies fill voids in their workforce.
“It would enable us to leverage programs that are available to us through Franklin University out here in the Urbana market, which will accelerate our efforts to collaborate with employers in areas of high need for them,” he said. “It would also allow us (both universities) to share talent (faculty and staff).
As for whether UU is destined to undergo another name change, Washington said he doesn’t anticipate that to be the case, except for a mention of some sorts noting UU as a branch campus of Franklin University.
“We have every intention of maintaining the Urbana University brand,” he said. “This is a school that has been here in this community since 1850.”
Washington added in just his short time as provost, he’s already “embraced the brand,” and he’s challenged himself to increase support of the brand among the alumni base and surrounding communities.
“We have a great brand already, but I want to add brand equity,” he said.
Capital improvements continue
Franklin University has invested approximately $15 million into the UU campus, and more improvements are underway or in the works.
According to Washington, the list of improvements on campus over the past couple years include, but are not limited to, the removal of various structures, roof and ceiling repairs, construction of additional sidewalks, resurfacing parking lots, and technology upgrades in the science labs.
“We’ve done a lot to improve facilities,” he added. “We’ve also done a lot with the residence halls, and we have a new food service coming in with more healthy options in the commons.”
UU announced recently it had reached a deal with Aladdin Food Management Services, which will assume the duties of providing all dining needs campus-wide beginning Aug. 1.
The collaboration, according to a UU press release, includes the renovation of The Dining Commons as well as improvements to the White Family Grill.
Washington said not only is he “really pleased” with the healthy food options Aladdin will soon offer on campus, but he’s excited about being able to offer students a better “commons experience” as well as one highly-coveted item in particular – Starbucks coffee.
Joshua Keeran may be reached at 937-508-2304 or on Twitter @UDCKeeran.