OPINION: Trustees, higher education meetings provide chance for CMU to shift priorities


By John Irwin

Central Michigan University President George Ross will testify for state funding in front of the state Senate Subcommittee on Higher Education at Park Library today at 1:30.

Insider has previously documented the steep decline in state appropriations over the last two decades. Funding has dropped by about 30 percent since 2000, and that means students are shouldering more of the burden for college costs than ever. Tuition rates rose by more than 250 percent during that same timespan.

Rick Snyder
Rick Snyder

Members of both parties in Lansing bear some blame for the declining funds, but the most recent culprits are Gov. Rick Snyder and Republican leaders in the state legislature, including Rep. Kevin Cotter, R-Mt. Pleasant, who is now the speaker of the House. Snyder’s 15 percent cut in higher education funding in 2011, supported by Cotter and other GOP leaders, was a major blow for college affordability, including at CMU. While funding has risen incrementally over the last few years, funding remains well below what it was prior to the 2011 cut.

It’s important that Ross, as well as leaders from Michigan State University and Wayne State University who will also testify, state their cases for increased funding to the subcommittee clearly and forcefully. Hopefully, the members will listen and advocate for more funds in Lansing.

However, Ross and the Board of Trustees must also make sure the university’s priorities are in line with a new reality, one where state funds are not likely to return to previous levels any time soon and one in which on-campus enrollment, and thus tuition revenue, is more likely than not to decline in the coming years.

So far, it appears that the university’s priorities have not changed. The university will likely spend around $158 million over the next several years constructing four new projects: a $95 million Biosciences Building, $37 million College of Medicine facilities in Saginaw, a $15 million hotel and, if approved by the Board of Trustees today, an $11 million addition to the recently renovated Grawn Hall.

Meanwhile, tuition rates are the highest they have ever been as the university struggles to adapt to smaller enrollment numbers. More money than ever is being used to subsidize an athletics department and medical school that are deeply in the red and that directly impact only a very small percentage of students.

George Ross
George Ross

In short, the university’s current fiscal outlook appears unsustainable. Barring significant, unforeseen rises in on-campus enrollment and state funding, future CMU students will likely find themselves paying tuition rates far beyond what would be considered reasonable for the education they receive in Mount Pleasant.

That fate can be avoided, though, if the CMU powers-that-be set their sights on forging a more sustainable path. That can start by re-evaluating the university’s investments in athletics and the medical school. Is remaining an FBS school at the cost of a $20 million annual subsidy worth it? How can the medical school, once promised to be self-sustaining, work its way toward fiscal sustainability?

The university might also be wise in moving away from multimillion-dollar construction projects, especially those like the hotel that provide little direct benefit to students. That would free up CMU funding for investments in college and library budgets that have had to make cutbacks in recent years.

These changes could start today. As Ross meets with state legislators and as the Board of Trustees convenes, the conversation about CMU’s future should begin immediately. University leaders must make certain that the future is one that’s financially viable for students.

Check back with Insider today and Friday for analysis and reaction to today’s Board of Trustees meeting.

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