Edward Nicholson

Edward Nicholson has a boat he christened “Tuition Free,” named when he figured that all of his four children had completed their education.

But he pulled the cord just a little too quickly, it turned out, because his last offspring to finish undergrad studies decided, after all, to go to medical school.

As a parent, Nicholson has intimate knowledge of the buy side of higher education. As president of Robert Morris University, he has a keen appreciation of its sell side, as well. And he needs it.

Robert Morris College, a 5,000-student institution with nearly 300 faculty members, became Robert Morris University in 2002. While migration to university status was an issue the college had considered over more than two decades, Nicholson says the development of the institution to serve its constituents led to its decision to become a university, not the other way around.

“University fit us better as we looked forward than the term college,” Nicholson says.

Robert Morris needs every competitive edge it can muster to meet the challenges of a limited pool of students to draw from locally and changes in the education delivery system that have brought new competitors into its realm. The growth curve of local students bound for higher education has been relatively flat, and competitors have been encroaching on the traditional turf of Robert Morris with products and services unknown a decade ago.

The solutions? Bolstering existing programs and adding niche offerings that draw students from a broader pool, building facilities that modern students demand, and raising awareness and status with the public and its alumni with bold initiatives like the Pittsburgh Speakers Series, a subscription program that has brought the likes of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to packed houses in Pittsburgh. And, as in any business, meeting change head on.

“It’s a highly competitive industry, and if you’re not changing, I can tell you, you’re falling behind,” Nicholson says.

Nicholson talked with Smart Business about the competitive environment in higher education, how Robert Morris University is securing its position in the marketplace, and “the ugliest building in the academic world.”

What competitive challenges does Robert Morris face?

In 1989, we were principally a business school. Since then, Pitt started an undergraduate business school, Waynesburg College started a business degree, Grove City College started a master’s program, Chatham College started a business school, Indiana University has come to town, California University has come to town. They offer principally information technology and business.

Why? Because that’s what’s happening in the marketplace. People aren’t embracing history, but a business degree, not philosophy, but an IT degree. That doesn’t include the proprietary schools like the Art Institute, which has gone from nondegree programs to an associate’s degree to a four-year degree and now, a master’s degree. You bring in (the University of) Phoenix and DeVry (University) and another one that’s up in Beaver.

Think about it. The market is declining, and the number of programs offered is increasing. We’re sitting here with the largest business and the largest information systems program. What do you think will happen? They’re going to get some market share, right?

So we’re going to shrink. They’re in our market, we’re not in theirs.

We don’t offer musical theater, we don’t offer some of the majors they offer. They’re competing with us, but we’re not competing with them in other academic areas, so it’s another recipe for disaster.

So we have to expand our services, our products to continue to stay healthy and compete with them.

How do you compete in such an environment?

You build apartments instead of typical dormitories, you have a fine student center and a fitness center, you create popular majors that occupy unique niches. For example, we have the only manufacturing engineering program in the commonwealth.

We have a new actuarial science program, one of 50 in the United States, probably (one of) only three in Pennsylvania. We have one of the few sports management programs that results in a degree in business.

You have to compete where you are strong and where they might be weak. So our average class size is 24. There are very few classes that exceed 35, and we have a lot of classes that are under 20.

We have a strong teaching faculty that are, by student reports to me, very accessible, very student-oriented.

What are the competitive advantages to being a university?

One advantage is that our enrollment of foreign students has been increasing. Students in Europe especially understand the word college as high school, and it’s difficult to explain the difference.

So it has a recruiting advantage, especially in Europe. In addition, there’s this thinking among American students that a university is somehow better than college. It made a lot of sense in terms of how we wanted to grow.

We certainly had been diversifying our curriculum, growing at the graduate level. We intended to continue to do both; that is, diversify our curriculum into other areas beyond engineering.

We have nursing, and we’re likely to have other health care programs in the future. We found there was an increasing interest in research by our faculty on campus, and that certainly is described better by university.

When I came (in 1989), about 97 percent of the students came from Western Pennsylvania. Today, it’s about 75 percent, and we expect it to drop to 65 percent, maybe even 60 percent, in the next four of five years.

What role does athletics play in the bigger picture at Robert Morris University?

There are students on this campus who would otherwise not be here because of football alone. There are another couple of hundred students who are from outside the region who came here not only because we offered the major they were interested in, but they could play volleyball, tennis, softball or golf.

We bought a very fine sports facility on Neville Island about four miles from here. It’s truly an extraordinary facility. It’s going to be a great asset for our students, for our collegiate athletes as well as our students that are using it for recreation purposes.

We have a new football stadium going up in the spring. We’re building lacrosse fields and a track at Neville Island.

Any other infrastructure improvements?

We are going to renovate the old student center into the new home of engineering, science and mathematics and nursing. We took down the ugliest building in the academic world, the old maintenance building … and built a new maintenance center that hides all of the maintenance stuff. How to reach: Robert Morris University, www.rmu.com