2021 Commencement at CMU

The future of regional public universities, part one

As thousands of 2020 and 2021 graduates crossed the stage at commencement this month, we spent a great deal of time ruminating on their futures: the careers they will have, the leadership they will demonstrate in their communities, the lifelong learning they will undertake. Now that they are off to their next adventures, my thoughts have turned to the future of our university and of the hundreds of regional public institutions like ours across the country.

While Central Michigan University is national in scope, the majority of our students come from the Great Lakes region, and our research, teaching and service agendas tend to focus on meeting the needs of this area. Institutions like ours fill a vital role in our economy and the future of our state and nation, yet our existence sometimes feels under threat as public confidence — and public investment — in higher education wanes. As birthrates decline, and as competition from new players increases, it would be easy to imagine a dire fate for regional public colleges and universities like ours.

Here’s the truth: We don’t need saving, but we do need support, and we must be willing to make the changes that will allow us to thrive. To get there, we must articulate our value to our stakeholders, and we must undertake the challenging work of remaining relevant in a rapidly changing educational marketplace.

In this two-part blog, I will address both the current forecast for CMU and what is needed to move us forward. Let us begin with a look at where we are today.

Overcoming “gloomy” headlines

I have been closely watching the announcements of plans for mergers in Pennsylvania, currently one of the latest and most controversial discussions in higher education. Those plans follow similar conversations in states like Vermont and New Hampshire. These stories are brighter than those of colleges closing their doors, but they still raise many concerns and challenges. With headlines like these, it is no wonder there are questions about higher education’s future.

Less exciting, and far less frequently told, are the stories of fiscal responsibility and adaptability in our nation’s regional public universities.

Think about what CMU achieved in a pandemic year. We embraced new technologies and offered flexible learning options. We kept tuition rates flat, increased scholarship values and did everything we could to serve our students. And, yes, we reduced spending, adjusted our budget plan and, in some cases, made hard choices about programs and personnel. These decisions were difficult, but they have kept CMU in a strong financial position to allow us to continue to serve students and communities in Michigan.

We need to reclaim the narrative about institutions like ours. The headline we need to see in our national media is this: In spite of many challenges, public universities like CMU remain committed to providing rigorous, relevant and excellent educational opportunities with a focus on the success of our students. Here are a few headlines I would love to see shared in the year ahead:

CMU serves the underserved
We have long said that education has the power to transform lives and communities, and we stand by that assertion. The benefits of higher education are clear: Individuals who earn their college degrees earn much more over their lifetimes, experience unemployment at lower rates, and have better overall physical and mental health outcomes than their peers with only a high school degree. Education drives upward mobility for individuals and families, and regional public universities, like CMU, open that door for students from historically underserved populations.

Here in the Great Lakes region, a Brookings Institution report shows that universities like CMU enroll more than 70% of Black and Native American students. In addition, regional public universities tend to enroll more veterans, first-generation students, adult learners and lower-income students. Our mission “to prepare students for productive careers, meaningful lives and responsible citizenship in a global society” encompasses every interested student; we remain committed to making education accessible and affordable for all.

Just this year, we announced a major initiative, or moonshot goal, to significantly increase and equalize degree attainment rates at CMU. We want every student to have the tools, resources and support to begin and complete their degrees successfully at CMU. Our region needs knowledgeable, skilled and compassionate leaders in many career fields and disciplines. At CMU, preparing students to lead in life is what we do best.

CMU drives the local and state economy
It has been well established that higher education yields impressive outcomes for individuals. The less obvious outcome is the positive impact higher education has on communities.

Referring again to the Brookings Institution report, we find that counties with regional public universities had lower employment losses during the Great Recession and have, on average, higher per-capita incomes than their surrounding counties. In our area, CMU is one of the largest employers. Families of our faculty and staff, as well as our students, are employed by and are customers of hundreds of local businesses.

CMU also helps to address critical employment needs of our region. When we saw a growing shortage of health care providers in Michigan, we opened the CMU College of Medicine and expanded our health professions programs. As small businesses began to play an ever-greater role in our state economy, we offered new degree programs in entrepreneurship, and we continue to promote and support startups through the Central Michigan University Research Corp.

CMU is focused on service to the community
In addition to meeting employer needs, regional public universities also play a role in addressing the most critical needs of our areas, whether through research to address complex issues, through volunteer service or through partnerships with local government and community agencies.

Consider the vital work of the CMU Institute for Great Lakes Research, which takes a multidisciplinary approach to protecting and preserving our largest national resources. The work of our researchers touches everything from clean water access to tourism. It impacts health and wellness as well as the economy. Our faculty also are engaged in research, field work, scholarly and creative activity related to health care and public health, education, anthropology and archeology, psychology, business and innovation, and much more. As a university community, we leverage the knowledge, skills and resources of our institution to address challenges and needs of our local community, region and state.

Think, too, about the thousands of hours of volunteer service contributed each year by our students through programs in the Mary Ellen Brandell Volunteer Center. Consider the contributions of faculty and staff to efforts like Special Olympics Michigan, United Way and more. CMU Chippewas are service-oriented leaders who reach out to lift others up. They put their time and talent into improving our community in many ways.

Preview of part two: Surviving and thriving

CMU is an important player in our local and state economy, and an integral part of the fabric of our community. And, as I said previously, we don’t need saving, but we do need support. I encourage all our students, faculty, staff and students to share our story and to help us spread the good news about what we do every day at CMU.

We also must continue to adapt. We will need to increase outreach to supporters and friends, and we’ll have to make challenging decisions to prioritize our resources. The path ahead won’t be easy, but it will be worthwhile.

Next month, I will outline some necessary steps we will take in the year ahead to keep CMU moving forward on a path to success in 2030 and beyond.