As the school year fast approaches, many throughout Ardmore know this year is the beginning of the end for East Central University as the university begins phasing out programs at the University Center of Southern Oklahoma.
   The announcement, which came in May, calls for a complete withdrawal of all of ECU’s programs. ECU President Katricia Pierson cited the state’s budget cuts as the reason for pulling the programs, stating that the programs in Ardmore have operated in the red for the past two years.
   According to documents obtained by The Ardmoreite under the Freedom of Information Act, ECU’s nursing program in Ardmore operated at a loss of $227,271 for the 2016-2017 fiscal year. During the same time ECU’s other programs, such as the Masters of Education program and Bachelors of Criminal Justice operated at a $3,207 loss for the university. While ECU cites money as the reason for their withdrawal, legislators, UCSO Board Members, and Ardmore city officials say it wasn’t about the money at all.
   “We had the funds available to pay the $227,271 for a couple of years,” UCSO Board Member Gary Farabough said. “Obviously it wasn’t the money because we had the money there. As an individual and a board member it is frustrating because the city of Ardmore and local entities banded together to build the new (health, science and math center) and they walked away for $200,000.”
   The decision to leave Ardmore came just five months after UCSO’s construction of a new $17 million building — which contains a state of the art nursing facility — opened to students. Eleven million of those dollars were donated from various Ardmore-area organizations,  $1.5 million was donated by the Chickasaw Nation, and $4.5 million was contributed by the city of Ardmore — something city officials said they might not have done had they known ECU would leave so quickly.
   “We probably wouldn’t have given that money,” City Manager J.D. Spohn said. “We thought the program was going to be here a while. The city and other foundations gave a lot of money and we were never given a chance to work out the issue with them. They made the decision and told us this is how it is.”
   “The city commission knew this was a great program for Ardmore and allocated the funds,” he added. “So, it’s really disappointing to see them leave.”
City officials, representatives from the state legislature, UCSO board members and president, as well as other community leaders with a vested interest in the programs ECU offered met with Pierson on June 19 in an effort to persuade ECU to stay in Ardmore, but they were unsuccessful.
   Rep. Pat Ownbey (R-Ardmore), Spohn, UCSO President Steve Mills, and Farabough all said that the decision to leave Ardmore was made before the meeting and that the community leader’s efforts were all for not.
   While ECU’s claims that they needed to cut out expensive programs, their spending habits suggest that money isn’t an issue. Since 2000, ECU doubled its budget, from approximately $22 million to $44.3 million. Of that increase, $11.4 million was spent to increase employee salaries. During that time, ECU didn’t see an increase in enrollment. According to ECU’s website there are currently 4,428 students enrolled at ECU. In 2007, ECU’s enrollment was 4,549 students, according to Data-lists.com’s Universities and College database.
   In 2017, ECU’s revenue from tuition and fees was up to $28.5 million, where just 17 years prior revenue from tuition and fees was a mere $6.5 million.
   “Obviously, if you’re running a university, the sum of $227,271 is not a lot of money,” Farabough said.
   While ECU phases out its programs in Ardmore by delivering courses through classroom instruction, online, and webex over the next two to four years, programs at McAlester on the Eastern Oklahoma State College campus may also be on the chopping block. In an email sent from Pierson to Oklahoma State System of Higher Education Chancellor Glen Johnston, Pierson said that “a faculty committee is asking that I reconsider McAlester. Thus, we are still in discussion on it.” The email also states that the nursing program at ECU operates overall at a loss.
   “Without the general education revenue or state appropriations, a program such as nursing simply isn’t sustainable,” Pierson wrote.
   ECU has operated in Ardmore since 1974, and educated thousands of students here. This year a total of 41 undergraduate students, and 8 graduate students will be working on their degrees through ECU at the UCSO campus.
Ownbey said campuses like ECU need to learn to work with the budget they have.
   “Higher education, like every other agency has to learn to live within their means,” he said. “The legislature can’t print money. In East Central’s case I don’t believe it’s an issue of finance. These smaller universities do face a greater impact though, but ultimately it’s up to them to decide where they’re going to trim — in administration or services.”