Analysis: Ross’ possible departure to Nebraska necessitates swift action on enrollment

By John Irwin

George Ross
George Ross

Central Michigan University President George Ross made one thing clear during his State of the University address last month: Tough times are ahead for CMU unless drastic changes are made.

Rapidly declining high school graduate numbers in Michigan means CMU’s on-campus enrollment is expected to decline by about 12 percent to 17,500 students, he said.

“If we drop down to 17,500 students from 20,000 by 2020, that’s a $50 million loss in revenue,” he said. “That’s pretty tough stuff. But it’s an economic reality.”

Ross told his audience that he would not accept seeing CMU’s on-campus enrollment numbers decline and insisted that enrollment would remain at 20,000 under his watch thanks to a coordinated effort to revamp how the university attracts students.

“Personally, I’m not OK with on-campus enrollment declining,” Ross said. “I don’t care what the predictions are. We’re capable of maintaining a 20,000 student enrollment.”

Ross has been short on many specifics as to how to reverse the decline. But he ‘s adamant that he and his administration will lead, and in the process, transform, CMU through a difficult transition period.

But on Monday, Ross was tapped as one of four finalists to become the next president of the University of Nebraska.

And suddenly, an already uncertain and challenging future for CMU became even murkier.

‘Nothing stops’

In a meeting with reporters Monday afternoon,  Ross said the potential move makes sense for him professionally, even though he said he declined offers from the search committee to apply over the past several months.

“It’s a professional opportunity at a university that shares my values as an educator and, frankly, shares values with CMU,” Ross said, adding that Nebraska, as a land grant university, shares his commitment as CMU president to keeping costs down and expanding access to higher education.

Ross said money was not a factor in deciding to apply, although he’s likely due for a pay raise should he become president of Nebraska. The previous president’s salary was north of $420,000, well above Ross’ annual salary of $364,000.

Until something changes, though, Ross said he’s still committed to CMU.

“I am still the president of Central Michigan University and will be the president until I leave, whether that’s in a few months or a few years,” he said. “We’re going to move forward. Nothing stops.”

Uncertain future

Ross said CMU is “in a good place” to address its issues head-on whether he’s there or not.

“The challenges that I put out in the State of the University address – to maintain 20,000 students in Mount Pleasant and 10,000 in Global Campus – are not only achievable, they’re doable,” he said. “We haven’t slowed up on that march and again, it’s admissions, marketing, faculty and staff that are doing the work, not George Ross.”

It’s certainly true that the university’s strategy, whatever it may be, goes beyond action by Ross alone.

But admissions, marketing, faculty and staff all ultimately report to the president, and lacking a full-time president for a significant period of time makes implementing a long-term strategy difficult. And that strategy could be significantly altered by Ross’ replacement, should he leave.

The potential of a Ross departure leaves many question marks in place for CMU.

Should he leave, the most immediate issue would be finding someone to replace him, a process that could last for months. That’s time CMU needs to properly implement its long-term enrollment strategy, and that’ll likely be tough to do with an interim president at the helm.

The search committee might have its hands full finding a replacement, as well. Finding a president to tackle CMU’s looming enrollment crisis might make for a difficult challenge.

The new president will have to dive in head first to a situation that, if it is not properly managed, could send the university into a financial crisis that would require deep budget cuts and/or steep tuition increases. That, in turn, could exacerbate CMU’s problems, as students looking for a quality education at a relatively affordable price might not find CMU as attractive to them as they once did, sending them (and their dollars) elsewhere.

That’s why Ross and his administration must clearly articulate a long-term enrollment strategy that directly addresses Michigan’s high school graduate problem as soon as possible.

Leaving CMU without clearly articulating that vision could leave the university adrift for the better part of a year as Ross’ interim takes over, the search for a replacement takes place and the new president adjusts to CMU.

That would cost CMU time, and it doesn’t have much to spare.

However, articulating and beginning to implement a plan over the next several weeks would do wonders for the university, especially if the plan is concrete and puts students first.

The continued implementation of the strategy would likely be the top priority of the interim president, and the search committee could look for candidates internally and externally that could take Ross’ plan, build on it and hopefully prevent a financial crisis at CMU.

This all assumes, of course, that the administration’s plan truly does put students first and doesn’t make unnecessary cutbacks in academics or financial aid. The best strategy is one that invests in those areas first and administration, bureaucracy, athletics, etc., second. A plan that does not put students first is not one worthy of considering.

The university’s plan has not been fully laid out as of yet, but it must do so as soon as possible if it hopes to move forward, whether Ross stays or goes.

The last thing CMU needs over the next several years is a crisis of leadership. Should Ross leave without laying out and implementing a clear strategy, it will have one.

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