OPINION: Focus on HU Huntington instead of HU Arizona

Editor-in-chief Jared Huhta explains why the university should focus its resources on the main campus instead of a potential branch campus in Arizona.

Jared Huhta (Photo provided)
Jared Huhta (Photo provided)

In 2012, former President G. Blair Dowden and the institution began pursuing an entirely new campus in Peoria, Ariz. It would feature exciting programs such as nursing, visual arts, pre-med and math. After the Huntingtonian staff eventually published the article online, I knew the Arizona campus would be an exciting story for my future years on the newspaper.

That was two years ago.

Today, the Peoria “dream” remains exactly that – a dream. A dream that the university still wants to pursue. A stubborn dream that seems like it will never become a reality.

A dream that should be vanquished.

When President Sherilyn Emberton, Ed.D., said the plans were “kind of a mess” last year after Peoria changed its funding for the initiative, the proposal was all but dead. Now, the university is focusing on a simpler plan – a digital media arts school in a pre-existing building we would rent out. The lease comes with an early-exit clause in case of insufficient enrollment – an escape plan, if you will.

While it is not a secret that the university boasts a credible film program, the Arizona branch campus will not have any HU faculty transferring to Peoria. Instead, Emberton said they are talking to a nearby faculty member to head up the new DMA school. For a school 1,800 miles away from the university’s dean, this seems like a risky hire if we want to continue the film program’s excellence.

Even though Jeff Berggren says there aren’t a lot of higher education DMA schools in the area, Arizona State University actually has a DMA program and is only 25 miles away from Peoria. If prospective students are looking for a Christian film school, Grand Canyon University – a mere 17 minute commute from Peoria also has a DMA department. Specifically for film, six of the 11 accredited film schools in Arizona are at most 36 miles away from Peoria, according to educationnews.org. I highly doubt a prospective DMA student from Peoria would choose our small program led by an entirely new faculty member over proven film schools in the area.

Let’s also examine Trine University’s branch campus in Peoria. Trine has long been a model for the university’s Arizona initiative, but Emberton said their first class had roughly 15 students enrolled.

“We don’t want to repeat that,” Emberton said in her October board of trustees update. “We want to be able to produce something that has some sustainability.”

Trine’s enrollment is up since then. David Pearson, Trine-Peoria’s assistant vice president, said they have 40 undergraduate students enrolled and another 125 in their high school dual enrollment classes. But Trine also offers several associates, undergrad and graduate degrees ranging from business to criminal justice. Our branch, on the other hand, will offer one program to an entire city.

That does not sound sustainable.

This campus, right here in Huntington, is another reason to reconsider moving forward in Peoria. If things were perfect here, I would support the Peoria initiative, but we must face reality. In 2010, Forbes ranked the university as the 289th best college in the United States. Today, we are the 406th best college with a financial grade of D. The tentative plan to boost faculty and staff salaries could very well be shot down if enrollment continues to stagger. Full-time professors are a rarity in too many departments for a full liberal arts institution. We are just now growing our graduate program and will continue to do so in the future. Yes, we have made progress since I was a freshman, but the classes of 2016, 2017 and 2018 deserve to see even more on this campus.

The administration needs to devote their full attention to increasing revenue, boosting enrollment and satisfying current students and faculty here in Huntington rather than on a hit-or-miss film school in an area overflowing with other film programs.

That would be an exciting story for future Huntingtonian staffs.

Jared Huhta is a senior history education major. He can be reached at huhtaj@huntington.edu. This column reflects the views of the writer only.

10 comments on “OPINION: Focus on HU Huntington instead of HU Arizona

  1. Steven Uhey

    Jared, I very much agree with your argument. I have always been skeptical of this endeavor. With all of the other available DMA programs within such a short distance, it makes me curious as to why Peoria was chosen as the location. I’m sure that there are plenty of potential, untapped markets elsewhere in the United States where a DMA program could be much more successful. In regard to your other point, I too share your disapproval of this use of resources. Of course, it is possible that Peoria becomes successful and brings in extra revenue for Huntington. However, I do not believe this is the best plan for benefiting the University. From my perspective, the University could benefit greatly by promoting its study abroad options to prospective students, something that has been almost non-existent in Huntington’s past. To give an analogy, I would relate the Peoria project to that of a failing sports team; let’s use the Cubs for this example. If the Cubs invested a lot of money in recruiting and training a new bat-boy, then that aspect of the franchise would improve. However, that improvement is only marginally beneficial and seems to overlook the more beneficial improvements, such as recruiting players (professors) full-time or paying them better salaries to help with retention.


  2. Luke Brenneman

    Jared and Steven,

    I’ve been away from HU for 2 1/2 years now, so I’m out-of-touch with much of what you wrote regarding what’s happening on campus. I can, however, write about metropolitan Phoenix, where I’ve worked (at a university) and lived since graduating from HU. For these reasons, I’m responding solely to your paragraph about the 6 other DMA university options for Arizona high school students in the area. It is important to note that as an HU student a couple years ago, I would have probably agreed with you based on the knowledge available to me at the time, so I am in no way trying to “win” a discussion here. I’m just trying to add a new perspective from someone familiar with both HU’s DMA program (Bri, my wife, is an HU DMA grad) and the area of HU’s potential new DMA program in Peoria.

    You mention ASU as an option. I teach and study at ASU, and comparing it to HU as an undergrad option isn’t possible. ASU is my employer, so I’m cautious with what I put online about the institution, but I would not advise any high school student I cared about to choose ASU for a major offered elsewhere–such as DMA. This year, ASU has over 82,000 students. As a Ph.D. student, I have the benefit of a very small program and community atmosphere I love similar to HU, but Bri (my wife), who took an undergrad class at ASU with several DMA majors, and I have both experienced first-hand how a university this size is incapable of treating its students as humans. We have both felt like documents pushed from desk to desk, stamped, filed, and forgotten. Also, when prospective students call their admission counselors, the counselors ignore the name of the person calling and ask, “What’s your ASU ID#?” So, people feel reduced to 10 digits. Obviously, at least 82,000+ respond okay to this, and ASU has different (not inferior) goals than universities like HU. Those goal differences, though, make comparing HU and ASU like comparing apples and orangutans.

    Grand Canyon University–oh boy. I have no affiliation with this FOR-profit institution, so here we go. GCU is the archetype of a “””””Christian””””” university (added quotes for added emphasis). You don’t have to live in the Phoenix area long at all to hear about GCU and its very state-school campus atmosphere. It also has well over 8,000 students. It is also surrounded by BARBED WIRE FENCES and security gates guarded by full-time security staff. Students can’t enter parts of their own campus/home without showing their ID to a guard, who pushes a button to open a gate. I had to do this once, and it was very disconcerting to think about living and learning there. It helped me realize I had another reason to be thankful for my experience at HU. At best, this is comparing apples to oranges.

    I’m pretty sure another of the DMA programs you found was at Arizona Christian University, although I can’t know for sure. The only knowledge we have of ACU is from a student we met at a church we were visiting. She’s actually minoring in DMA, which she said she’s doing because it’s kind of a joke, and all you have to do is watch movies to get the degree. Let’s call this comparison apples to 10% real apple juice.

    To find the remaining of the 6 DMA programs you cited, I just did a quick search of the area community colleges. None of them offer a Bachelor’s degree. They are either Associate’s degrees or “Certificates of Completion.” These may be amazing, perfect options for some students. They are not, however, up to the standards of what HU would offer in Peoria. Apples and apple seeds.

    I definitely could be wrong, but I think this covers the 6 “proven film schools in the area” you asserted prospective students would see as the obvious choices over HU.

    In short, I’m saying there are dozens of selling points for an HU DMA program in Peoria. The other options out here are so different that HU’s marketing and admissions staff won’t have to try very hard to show the differences and benefits for prospective DMA students. If I’m able to write up this comment in several minutes with basic knowledge of the area and a couple Google searches, I’m confident HU’s trained marketing and recruiting staff can show students why HU’s Peoria campus is a great, distinct option for their education.


  3. Bri Brenneman

    HU Community,

    Like Luke (above comment), I’ve been away from HU for a couple years. He already covered the 6 area film programs, so I’ll offer something else as an HU DMA insider (2012 grad of the program), Phoenix resident, and admission staff member for both HU and a private, start-up, branch campus, religiously-affiliated university in metropolitan Phoenix.

    I was one of the first 5 employees hired for a start-up branch campus in Mesa (a suburb) that is very similar to HU’s potential campus in Peoria. I have since left the job to pursue my MA degree, but here are a few things I learned relevant to this discussion:

    -AZ high school students are sick of their limited college choices. I didn’t realize just how privileged I was to grow up in the Midwest surrounded by options for education, especially small, Christian university options. Until you tap into the experiences of Phoenix-area high schoolers, you can’t understand their lack of options. Many say, “Well, I guess I’ll go to ASU because everyone else does, even though that’s nothing like the atmosphere I want,” or “There’s Grand Canyon University, but that’s not actually a Christian school, so crap,” or “I could look into community colleges.” I was an admission counselor at a Catholic university, and students who had no Catholic affiliation were really excited just to have another choice. Most Huntington students, like me a couple years ago, can’t understand this experience faced by so many AZ high schoolers.

    -Phoenix-area high school students largely can’t afford long-distance options. The socio-economic status of students out here is more limiting than that of the typical Midwestern prospective student. Yes, Los Angeles is close-ish to here, and it has countless DMA programs. It also requires out-of-state tuition, a car and/or plane tickets, living outside of parents’ homes, and an astronomical cost of living. That’s just not possible for many students here. Many need to live at home and take public transportation. When combined with the above point about the type of campus and degree they want, what else fills the gap other than a program like HU wants to offer?

    -Students were intrigued by my university. “So you’re not ASU, or GCU, or a community college? Okay what are you then?” Those are the kinds of questions that come from students who haven’t had the opportunity to think about other options for their college education. They are also the kind of questions that generate excitement and interest, which is exactly what start-up universities need.

    -Phoenix lends itself to college film programs in many ways. Students who can’t afford 4 years at a school like HU often go to community colleges for 2 years and then transfer. The community college system out here is excellent, so HU would get well-prepared students. Also, the high school system is very different here from the Midwest. There are many more vocational schools here (beauty schools, mechanics, etc.), and there are at least 3, huge, DMA-focused high schools in the Phoenix metropolitan area. Students from these schools told me, “I have to stay close for college, which means I’ll get my DMA degree from ASU even though it’s not a good program.” So, the high-school and community college education system is set up to put prospective DMA majors into college, but then it leaves them hanging. HU’s DMA program can certainly get these students!

    Again, I emphasize that I wouldn’t have had this perspective as an HU student a couple years ago. The contrast, though, between my experience at HU and my work as an admission counselor in Phoenix has made the privilege of Midwestern Christian-college seeking high-school students glaringly obvious. Privilege blinds us to the lack of opportunities presented to others, and HU has the chance to offer an opportunity to these students with its DMA program in Peoria.


  4. Steven Uhey

    Luke and Bri,

    Thank you for sharing your perspective on this issue. You were right to mention that those are factors which some internet research can not answer. With your added input, I am now very curious about what the pricing for the Peoria program will be like. If money tends to be an issue for local students, as you have mentioned, I would certainly hope that the price is not so high as to outweigh the benefit of being close enough to the target students.

    I will, however, maintain my current frustration that this project is taking priority over many other potential projects HU could be undertaking. I would really like to hear input on why this is the case.


  5. Luke Brenneman


    You’re absolutely right–the pricing is definitely a point of interest. I know some start-up universities have had some really creative solutions for it, but I don’t know the details. Also, with start-ups, student workers are often much needed, so that can help offset the cost of tuition for a higher percentage of students than at a large, established university.

    Regarding what this means for HU in Huntington, I don’t know, and I won’t comment. I hope people understand how a Peoria, AZ campus could generate money to help the Huntington campus, and that that’s probably a main goal, but I also understand frustration about the new campus depending on current needs in Huntington.


  6. Kris Burgess

    Bravo Jared!

    As an HU student, I found that time with my professors invaluable. In the classroom my worldview was put through the crucible of higher education and came out refined, and tuned up to engage with the real world – for me this was being prepared to venture into law school and succeed. I survived my first year, arguably the toughest in law school and amongst other graduate programs. Now I am one semester away from completing my JD. This current state of my world is in large part due to the full-time professors at HU, especially in the history department. (this is not any attempt to give preferential treatment to a specific department, only to provide context for any reader)

    I think it would be safe to say that most HU alumni can think back to at least one FULL-TIME professor who completely changed their life. This reality would likely change if HU continues to not emphasize its own affairs, in its original geographic location, resulting in a complete shift away from one thing that HU has done well in the past.

    Arguably, a university graduating naïve students, not fully exposed to the rigor of numerous classes taught by full-time professors, would be a travesty, a disservice to the community, and a detriment to the world as a whole. Full-time professors make it their job to challenge students and further research in the professors’ respective fields. Less of this is going away from what I thought was HU’s institutional model – a liberal arts university.

    I always thought the Peioria campus was a joke, and firmly believe that HU’s dabbling with that campus is essentially akin taking its eye off of the proverbial ball. I whole-heartedly agree with Jared’s “A dream that should be vanquished” tone and op-ed. Jared’s piece brings to light a clear problem with going to Arizona – any campus in Arizona will be nothing like HU. If an Arizona campus does not ultimately bring real benefits to HU, then why bother? HU should be trying to further its liberal arts aspirations, and if these potential campuses are not financially viable or going to bring other real benefits to HU then why bother? There is nothing wrong with scrapping bad ideas – good entrepreneurs do it all the time. The statistics presented by this article just do not sound like good business sense, or good future growth of a liberal arts institution sense.

    As a potential future donor, seeing time and energy being spent in ventures like Arizona, I wonder whether HU will ever begin to behave like an institution that wants my support.


  7. Kris Burgess

    With regard to Luke and Bri’s comments:

    As much as HU may be able to provide the opportunities you speak of, what mandate does HU have to Arizona? I get that you are both trying to clear up that there is a need in AZ for DMA schools, but why does HU have to be the entity to provide that need?

    HU has been refining its model in Huntington, IN for over 100 years. No faculty who teach DMA at HU will be moving to AZ, and I doubt HU would provide costs of relocation to faculty wishing to – that is assumed from what I have observed as a student and an alumnus.

    I am also not trying to “win” any sort of debate, but am curious why Bri takes it as far as, “HU has the chance,” means that HU should go through with an AZ Campus. Additionally, Luke, I see dozens of opportunities mentioned in your comment for the AZ locale, but what’s in it for HU? I see way more risk and little to no ROI for HU in this situation, when things at home so to speak are still not “stable.”


  8. I remember when the whole AZ thing first was mentioned, and it struck me as odd. It didn’t make sense to me that HU was laying off profs and/or cutting full time teachers to part time, but we were thinking about a branch in AZ? If we don’t have the money to pay full time staff, then we don’t have money to expand.


  9. Brad Barber

    Unlike Steven and maybe Kris, I have bought into the idea that the AZ campus will be a great opportunity for HU. From the research I did when i was at HU, there seems to be a lack of Christian higher-ed options in AZ and a lack of DMA-math-nursing (the original plans, which I believe they will go back to in a short amount of time after start up). When there is demand, the market says someone should supply.

    However, my objection has always been the timing, which Jared, Steven, Kris, and Susanna seem to agree with. I think HU needs to straighten themselves up first before they proceed with AZ. The problems HU should be worried about have already been enumerated. I feel it is a bad move to chance something when you are not situated to pay for losing.

    I think HU AZ will eventually succeed as a program and as part of HU. But until it does — which may be 5, 10, 15 years — it will just cause strain on HU AZ, HU, our board, and our financial resources. The damage, especially to the main campus, can be institutional altering. If this damage happens, will it be worth it?

    I think God will take care of HU, but that does not mean HU should test God by placing itself in potentially perilous position. If this were another 5 years removed from the recession, budget cuts, etc., and the main campus was better off, I think HU AZ would be a perfect opportunity to expand and spread HU.


  10. As a graduate of the DMA program and as a former admissions counselor for the same Catholic university in Mesa, AZ as Bri, I had some thoughts that I wanted to add to the conversation.

    First, I don’t believe that any university can ever be perfect – and thus there will never be a perfect time to expand or make changes – that doesn’t mean that some times aren’t better than others, but there is no perfect time.

    Second, from a marketing perspective, I think that it will be cheaper to acquire students at an AZ campus than it would be for the Indiana campus. Because it’s only one program and because the market isn’t saturated, I can see the program taking off very fast because of the vocational schools Bri mentioned. We did a presentation at one of them and I remember being AMAZED at the technology and level of professionalism that these high school students had – think about having the resources of Becker as a high school student. It wouldn’t take much to partner with these institutions to create a funnel of incoming students for the department.

    Third, to say that we should focus on the main campus because of problems or because it isn’t good enough for current students is selfish in my opinion. The main campus can never grow without expansion, and sometimes that means taking risks and make sacrifices to be around in the future to be able to continue to benefit students for another 100 years. There is an abundance of resources at Huntington even at its current state, and it’s far easier to complain about not have this or that than it is to put in the time and effort to capitalize on a fresh opportunity that’s begging for the tools HU already has (a great DMA department). If HU delays this process by making excuses, even ones with some merit, someone else will fill this void and reap the benefits instead of HU. Then, they will have a sustainable financial plan for the future, and HU will have missed out.


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