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Kevin Mersol-Barg: Keep the ‘U’ honest

By Kevin Mersol-Barg, Columnist
Published February 27, 2013

In the constant tug-of-war for state funding, the University has historically been on the losing end. In 2011, Michigan Gov. Snyder and the state legislature savagely cut state appropriations to higher education by 15 percent. Seeing the error of their ways — or more likely, an electoral opportunity — they raised funding by 3 percent in 2012. And, once again, the oh-so-generous governor cut public universities some slack and proposed a 2-percent increase this year.

With state appropriations on the rise, everything must be peachy keen, right? Wrong.

University President Mary Sue Coleman was right to underscore this point on Tuesday. Speaking before the House Appropriations on Higher Education Subcommittee, she urged legislators to invest in Michigan’s public higher education as a means to fuel the state economy. She said this last year, and years before that. Yet, more often than not, these words fall on deaf ears.

Ultimately, a 2-percent increase this year won’t remotely offset the 35-percent cut in appropriations over the past decade. Coleman and other higher education leaders around the state recognize that the state legislature has abandoned public universities; the governor has forsaken his alma mater. And the students, saddled with tens of thousands of dollars in debt, feel this reality bearing down upon them every day.

Now that the University knows it’s effectively on its own, it must reflect on how to increase revenues in the absence of state funding. To their credit, Coleman and her administration have been mulling this over for some time. And from what I can tell, they’re focusing on two sources of revenue: out-of-state students and corporations. Both have pitfalls.

Last May, Coleman asserted that the University, among others in the state, is “underperforming in terms of our out-of-state student population.” By what measure is the University underperforming?

This semester, Winter 2013, 51.7 percent of the student body is in-state — about 21,200 students. And about 19,800 students — 48.3 percent — constitute the non-resident part of the student body. Already almost half of students on campus are from outside of Michigan.

In addition, more out-of-state students enroll per year as compared to in-state students than ever before. By my measure, it seems like the University has this “performance” issue covered.

But President Coleman sees it a different way. In a recent article in The Michigan Daily, Coleman stressed that greater numbers of out-of-state students “come paying full freight … (and) add tremendously to the economy of the state of Michigan.”

In other words, the University best performs when more of its students pay higher tuition rates. True, this does generate greater revenue — but at what cost? Among other costs, the expressed mission of the University: “to serve the people of Michigan.”

Coleman, identifying this shortcoming wisely, has sought to address it by arguing that out-of-state students will stay and invest in Michigan post-graduation. While this may be the case elsewhere, what proof is there to support this in Michigan, a state grappling with grave unemployment? Until she presents solid evidence, I’m calling this what it is — a ploy to generate revenue that exploits out-of-state students and fails to meet the University’s commitment to the state.

The University is working to address the employment issue through partnering with corporations, which serve as another potential source of revenue.

On Monday, Coleman spoke to Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs about partnering with Business Leaders for Michigan. BLM serves as a roundtable of prominent leaders from business and public universities in Michigan. In part, it works to partner industry and universities in research initiatives and fundraising efforts.

At the SACUA meeting, Phil Hanlon, University provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, identified corporate partnerships, such as those through the BLM, as key in “boosting the University’s financial base” and by extension, bolstering the Michigan economy. The thrust of the effort promotes education in the fields of science, technology, engineering, math and entrepreneurism. Almost as a footnote, Coleman assured faculty members that the efforts would incorporate broader fields, like liberal arts.

This approach stands to increase opportunities for students and offset cuts to state appropriations. However, I’m concerned that efforts such as this, and Coleman’s other initiatives around entrepreneurism, fail to engage students from all corners of campus in a meaningful way.