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Officials at Nicholls State University could name a new president by mid-September, but, for now, interim president Larry Howell is working to keep the school on course.

“For now, I am here to keep the ship straight and to keep it from sinking,” Howell said. “I am not a candidate for president of the university, and I will not make a whole lot if any changes while I am interim president.

“I don’t know what the ‘real’ president will want to do when he or she takes over. I have ideas, but I don’t want to implement them quickly just to have them changed.”

Following Dr. Stephen Hulbert’s retirement at the end of July, Howell is pulling double duty as interim president and executive vice president. According to Howell, the deadline for any interested candidates to submit an application for the presidency has passed. The applications are now at a search firm where they will be narrowed down to eight to 10 candidates.

“The search committee will invite two to five of the candidates to visit the campus the week of August 26,” Howell said. “Then there will be a special meeting of the board on Sept. 9, and they will decide if they are ready to select a new president. At that point, we could have a new president in a number of weeks or a few months, depending on the amount of time the person needs to get here.”

In the meantime, Howell will keep a watchful eye on the goings-on at the school, including the university’s fast-growing masters of nursing and petroleum services degree programs, the upcoming construction of the new culinary building and the school’s online course offerings.

“Our nursing master’s program is blowing and going,” Howell said. “We have 50 students registered for this fall so far. We will add a third cohort in the spring, and we will be able to increase the number of students by 30. We are getting students we would not have had if not for that program.”

While Howell expects the nursing program to grow by 30 students by next spring, he has high hopes that the school’s 120 online students will one day grow to 2,000 online learners.

“I think we will get more online students,” he said. “Eighty percent of our online students would not be students if it was not online. We just started it last spring and haven’t even advertised for it yet. It’s all spreading by word of mouth. You can finish a degree very fast. Our fourth eight-week session is just starting.”

According to Howell, the online courses are very popular among teachers earning a graduate degree, and the online facet allows students who may have families or full-time jobs a flexible schedule to complete a degree program.

“Higher education online is growing, but Nicholls will remain predominately a face-to-face university,” Howell said. “There is a certain niche of students and a certain niche of teachers for online courses. Students have to be very self-disciplined. Also, online teachers do not get to answer questions in front of an entire class. They may have to do it one student at a time.”

In addition to growing the nursing program and the number of students taking online courses, the school will also expand its petroleum services department sometime this year when it begins offering continuing education programs relative to petroleum services and safety.

“Petroleum services is really growing, especially in this area,” Howell said. “We don’t have a date yet in mind for these courses, but it will hopefully be sometime this year.”

The petroleum services continuing education programs will likely be taught at the Duet Building in Houma, now that Fletcher Technical Community College is no longer using the building since moving into its new location in Schriever.

“Most of our degree programs serve the people and economy of the region,” Howell said. “We want to grow and keep these programs as well as others. Nicholls will continue to serve this region. That’s why we are here.

“Sixty percent of students at Nicholls are first-generation college students. Just that says that we are a value to the region.”

While Howell will also keep an eye on the university’s pocketbook, it is unlikely he will make any drastic changes to the school’s budget in his time as interim president. Howell and his staff will make sure that the next in line will have the information needed to make such decisions.

“We will look at options and the data of programs and present the data to the next president,” Howell said. “I will make suggestions to the new president, but I do not wish to make those public.

“I am excited about the future of Nicholls, but we will continue to face financial challenges. I hope state funding and the economy will turn around so that higher education can recover.”

In the short-term, financial issues are limiting the school’s ability to find faculty within the budget to teach all classes.

“This has been a struggle for years,” Howell said. “It’s a problem everywhere, growing and maintaining faculty. We have been maintaining what we have here because of our faculty’s love of what they do. Some people are doing the job of two of three people, and it’s beginning to wear on people. I hope that one day soon we will see the light at the end of the tunnel.

“Many people believe in Nicholls, and we hope that the financial situation will improve.”

As for the long-term, Howell is concerned that budget cuts could prevent the school from keeping up with the educational needs of the region.

“You have to see the needs and implement the changes in time before the need is so great you can’t cater to it fast enough,” Howell said.

Money woes have also added to the school’s maintenance struggles, but there is some light at the end of that tunnel in the form of a state legislature-approved $4 credit use fee.

Despite financial difficulties in the last few years, Nicholls had a record number of graduates last year, and this fall marks the second consecutive year that the school has seen an increase in the number of first-time freshman. Even with these records, Howell does expect a slight decrease in enrollment, but the change shows that students are getting through college much faster.

“Instead of taking six, seven or eight years to finish school, students are graduating in three, four or five years,” Howell said. “We are seeing better prepared students and anticipate more with the new admissions standards. Last year, one out of five undergraduate students graduated from the school.

“This is a great thing, but we are also seeing a decline in revenue. Tuition and fees now make up 70 percent of our budget and 30 percent is state funded. Not that long ago, it was the other way around. A decrease in enrollment hits the pocketbook of the university.”

There is also a possibility that the new admission standards may impact the number of students enrolling at the school, but Nicholls is working with regional K-12 school systems to ensure that high school graduates will be up to par, especially in math.

“The K-12 systems in this area are doing a good job at both public and parochial schools,” Howell said. “Come 2014, as it stands now, if you have a developmental need, you won’t be able to go to most four-year institutions. K-12 schools are working hard to have students at mastery levels to get into four-year schools.”