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Originally published October 17, 2009 at 12:07 AM | Page modified October 17, 2009 at 12:50 AM

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Departure may mark shift in admission goals at Seattle U.

Seattle University's dean of admissions, Mike McKeon, was forced out by the college last month, at a time that Seattle U. grapples with a significant freshman enrollment shortfall and fundamental questions about the type of students it wants to attract in the future.

Seattle Times higher education reporter

Michael McKeon, Seattle University's dean of admissions, was recruiting and networking in Hawaii last month, according to sources familiar with the situation, when he took a call from the university provost: Drop everything and return to Seattle.

McKeon, a 14-year veteran at Seattle U. who'd built a national reputation for opening the doors to poor and minority students, was then abruptly forced out by the university, according to sources. Associate director Melore Nielsen took over his duties Sept. 21 pending a national search for a replacement.

Seattle U. has not offered an explanation for McKeon's departure, either to its own staff or to the public. Both McKeon and Provost Isiaah Crawford declined to be interviewed for this story.

While McKeon's departure came as surprise to educators across the country, behind the scenes Seattle U. has been grappling with a freshman enrollment shortfall and fundamental questions about the type of students it wants to attract.

The numbers show Seattle U. is poised to lose its status as the state's largest private university to its Jesuit rival in Spokane, Gonzaga University.

This year, Seattle U. managed to enroll just 747 freshmen — about 10 percent below its target and 17 percent less than last year's class. Gonzaga, meanwhile, enrolled 1,239 freshmen, 15 percent above its target. So many freshmen showed up in Spokane that Gonzaga is renting half a wing of the Red Lion River Inn to house 80 students.

"It's a problem," said Jim White, Seattle U.'s associate provost for enrollment management. "And we are going to work very carefully to overcome that problem."

But the steps Seattle U. is taking have raised concern.

Over the summer, Crawford hired a private consultant company, Noel-Levitz, to troubleshoot enrollment. That move upset McKeon, according to sources, because the company often uses a hard-numbers approach to evaluating students rather than McKeon's "holistic" approach.

Many schools use consultants such as Noel-Levitz and continue to attract a mix of students with a broad range of economic backgrounds. But some fear Seattle U.'s move could signal a willingness by the college to target wealthier students — who typically arrive with better grades and are more able to pay tuition — over the types of disadvantaged students McKeon championed.

"There are real concerns in the profession when outside marketing firms are asked to come in," said Lloyd Thacker, director of the Portland nonprofit advocacy group The Education Conservancy. "They are typically brought in to improve the average SAT scores, the selectivity and the wealth of students."

Thacker said Seattle U. in particular, with its Jesuit underpinnings and mission, may be in danger of "losing its soul" if it focuses too much on improving its finances and rankings at the expense of helping disadvantaged students.

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One Seattle U. source said staff have been told there will be a "different direction" when it comes to admissions, but they don't yet know how that will play out. While there will likely be more emphasis on students' test scores and income, the changes won't necessarily result in a wholesale departure from the university's mission, according to the source.

Pam Jennings, a Noel-Levitz spokeswoman, said the company has worked with 2,500 institutions and its approach varies from campus to campus.

"The campus leadership decides on their goals and we give them some suggestions on how they can reach their goals," Jennings said. "It's often related to improving retention and recruiting the kinds of students who can be most successful on campus."

Provost Crawford declined to answer specific questions on his enrollment strategy and the role of Noel-Levitz. He did issue a statement: "The successful completion of our capital campaign solidifies Seattle University's legacy of providing access to higher education to those who depend on financial assistance to pay for their education and of creating a diverse educational environment reflective of the world in which we live," the statement read in part.

"Seattle University is always seeking ways to improve our performance ... As a premier institution of higher education, the timing is right for us to reach a new level of educational achievement and service, and Noel-Levitz is assisting the university with that process."

Like many private colleges, Seattle U. relies on tuition for about 80 percent of its budget. So a shortfall in admissions can have immediate and severe repercussions.

"Reaching enrollment targets is very, very important," said John Goldrick, vice president for enrollment management at the University of Portland, another Seattle U. rival. "There's a lot of pressure and stress in the admissions office."

The University of Portland this year enrolled 816 freshmen, a little above its target of 800. Goldrick said the university this year increased its tuition discount — the average amount of tuition given back to students in merit and need-based aid — to 41 percent to counter the bad economy. Seattle U.'s discount rate is 37.5 percent.

While Seattle U. raised $169 million during its recently completed six-year capital campaign, it continues to face a number of financial pressures. The school's endowment has lost 20 percent of its value due to the market downturn, and companies such as Boeing and Paccar have cut back on employee-tuition benefits. Financial-aid costs have also been on the rise.

Ron Smith, Seattle U.'s vice president for finance and business affairs, said the university instituted a 5 percent budget cut for nonsalary expenses last year.

"We did get caught with a little bit of a concern with liquidity, but it didn't amount to anything," he said. "We don't want to be caught with no money when we need it."

Smith said the university recently borrowed $41 million, bringing its total debt to about $150 million. But, he said, the university has retained a good bond rating and its overall finances remain healthy. He said unexpectedly high numbers of transfer students this year helped balance the lack of freshmen and kept the budget on track.

Part of the reason Gonzaga and the University of Portland were able to outperform Seattle U. in freshman enrollment this year was because they offered more generous financial-aid packages. Gonzaga now has 7,682 students, just 69 shy of Seattle U. Go back six years and the gap was 1,200 students.

Much of Gonzaga's success can be traced to its rise in Division I basketball.

"Basketball allows us to have a bigger fish net ... the exposure is great on the front end," said Julie McCulloh, Gonzaga's dean of admission. "And students like a school environment where there is something to rally around."

Seattle U. intends to spend about $11 million a year (including $3 million from ticket sales and fundraising) on athletics by 2012 as it tries to revive past Division I basketball successes. But it has a long way to go.

Many people remain confused at the ousting of McKeon, who had just finished a year serving as president of the Pacific Northwest Association for College Admission Counseling (PNACAC).

"Michael McKeon had a following and a reputation that was just amazing," said Cynthia Thornquist, the director of admission at Carroll College in Montana. "He was definitely a leader ... It just makes you shake your head."

Cathy McMeekan, a Spokane high-school counselor who took over from McKeon as PNACAC president in May, said high-school counselors across the state are awaiting an explanation from Seattle U. about its enrollment strategy, so they can better advise students on whether to apply. She added that McKeon was an "ethical barometer" that people turned to for guidance.

"He is the person on the local level, the regional level and the national level who stood up for marginalized students and students of color," McMeekan said. "One of the big impacts he had on our national organization was to make sure we were inclusive, and it wasn't just your typical white, middle-upper class students going to college."

News researcher David Turim contributed to this report. Nick Perry: 206-515-5639 or nperry@seattletimes.com

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