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Jim Due, chair of the Franklin College Board of Trustees, begins the open session of the board's February meeting Saturday morning.

Franklin College’s Board of Trustees met Saturday morning to discuss new developments around diversity and inclusion, the campus response to COVID-19 and upcoming capital projects.

Around half of the 36-member board attended the meeting in person, gathering with social distance and masks in the college’s Branigin Room. The rest attended online via Zoom to discuss during the meeting’s public session reports shared by trustee committees that met throughout the day Friday.

President Kerry Prather acknowledged in opening remarks the stress Franklin College has been under in the last year because of challenges like the COVID-19 pandemic. But he also pointed to hope on the horizon, such as continuing to limit virus spread and academic innovations.

“What is immediately in front of us is the continued successful management of the COVID situation,” Prather said. “We’ll continue with all of our vigilance, all of our surveillance testing.”

Prather touched on more recent news, too, providing an overview of efforts by white nationalist groups to spread propaganda on campus, including flyers and stickers shared by Patriot Front at the college this week.

“We’ve had these flyers distributed on campus, which is a true violation of the sanctity of the campus and our values,” Prather said.

Dean of Students Andrew Jones joined him to condemn the efforts and said they are committed to prosecuting anyone found to be trespassing on college property. The college has also alerted Franklin Mayor Steve Barnett, who Prather said has agreed to offer stepped up police patrols, and the local FBI, a standard practice when hate group activity is discovered.

Read on for more details from the February meeting:

Message from Black Student Union: More effort needed to retain Black students

Trustee Randy Stocklin, speaking over Zoom, said leaders in the Black Student Union presented a report to the Student Affairs committee Friday that shows more work needs to be done if the college is to value and keep Black students.

While Stocklin said progress has been made in some areas, such as making the shift to pay student Diversity Advocates and by implementing a college-wide plan to improve diversity and inclusion, the students he spoke with are “not happy overall and don’t feel enough has been done.”

Among the student recommendations are calls to improve strategies for hiring and retaining Black faculty and staff, who can serve as mentors to Black students, requiring mandatory attendance at events sponsored by the Center for Diversity and Inclusion and race training for the staff and faculty.

Black Student Union leaders also said budget cuts have disproportionately affected efforts to include Black students, arguing more money needs to be allocated for programming and community efforts like the Arthur Wilson Living/Learning Community.

The vast majority of trustees are white, and as a white man himself, Stocklin said solving the problems—not just identifying them—is “absolutely critical.”

“It’s our obligation as trustees and leaders of Franklin College to fully understand why students feel this way, and how we can all work together to resolve any issues that may exist,” Stocklin said.

Student deposit numbers increase, but threats to enrollment remain

Leaders on the board’s Enrollment Management committee reported the number of deposits received by admitted students is up 40% from last year’s total, a promising early sign that is being watched carefully as more students are expected to delay or change decisions due to COVID-19 challenges.

In addition to complicating public health, the pandemic has also taken a toll on family finances, making it difficult for some to send students to college without financial aid.

Committee Chair Rob Brown said he believes this reality is being reflected in Franklin College’s future student class, where only 38% of recently admitted students applied without filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. This is a departure from past trends at the college where 50% of students tended to not file a FAFSA, indicating they might not need financial help.

“Students and families may be more driven financially than ever before,” Brown said.

Student retention between semesters is also down by about 1.5 points from the five-year average, with many students citing personal reasons as their top reason for leaving. In past periods, financial problems were identified as the number one contributor for students departing.

Expanded athletic facilities, technology center and esports continue to take shape

Susan Williams, trustee and chair of the Physical Facilities committee, said three projects—esports, new athletic facilities and the construction of a Center for Technology Innovation—are a priority for the next year.

The development of Franklin College’s first esports program is well under way, with leaders starting to recruit interested students and consulting with professional esports teams like Pacers gaming.

Esports players will soon have a central location to practice and compete, Williams said, after the college completes renovation of one of the two racquetball courts in Spurlock Center. The area is expected to have 18 gaming rigs, including computers and seating for the team’s use.

The college also wants to finish fundraising for the proposed Johnson Memorial Health Athletics Annex, first announced in December. The $1.3 million project is mostly funded from a $1 million commitment from Johnson Memorial Health leaders, but the remaining dollars—somewhere between $335,000 to $500,000, depending on how the project takes shape—needs to be collected through donations.

Prather said there’s a “critical need” for the complex, which is expected to double the amount of weight room practice space available to the campus community. The interior will be about as large as the current weight room in Spurlock and include nets that can be arranged for batting practice and other needs.

The college is also working to renovate a building near the Athletics Annex near the intersection of Second Street and Park Avenue to serve as a new Center for Technology Innovation, which will serve as a hub for teaching students about how technology applies to their careers. That’s an initiative the college has aimed to improve after hearing about a tech skills gap from alumni, Prather said. The renovation is expected to cost $200,000.

Prather added the Center for Technology Innovation could serve more than just Franklin College students. The college applied for a $10 million grant through the Lilly Endowment in Indianapolis to make the center a statewide hub for digital learning with other small, private liberal arts schools. The application is still under review.

Endowment bounces back and philanthropy efforts gain steam

Investments committee chair John Talley said the college’s endowment improved significantly, its value estimated at around $67 million one year ago. The endowment is now at $92 million as of Feb. 10, even after the college made $3.5 million in withdrawals over the last year.

Development is also trending in the right direction, despite the pessimistic outlook of how the COVID-19 pandemic might hinder fundraising. Committee Chair Doug Brown said giving rose to $3 million in the first half of this academic year above a three-year average.

“We’ve surpassed expectations,” Brown said.

Fundraising is also nearing a goal to raise $675,000 for the Franklin Fund, the source of many scholarships at the college. Around $325,000 has been raised toward that goal so far, at the halfway point of the fiscal year. That’s up from last year’s $270,000 total and a $292,000 three-year average.

Overall giving is currently over $3 million, Brown added, also above a three-year average, and the number of donors increased from 963 to 1,287.

The college is hoping to raise more money during its annual Give to Griz philanthropy campaign April 14.

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