President's Testimony before the House Subcommittee on Higher Education Appropriations

March 16, 2011

Good morning.

First, thank you, Chairman Genetski, for inviting me to talk with you and the members of the subcommittee. I would like to introduce Marcus Coleman, an EMU student from Holland, Michigan, in Representative Haveman’s district. Marcus is a graphic design major who worked as a resident assistant in one of EMU’s residence halls.

Marcus is also a member of EMU’s award-winning Forensics team, which is ranked sixth nationally and has won 11 team national championships starting in 1973, and 38 out of 40 State championships. Marcus, tell this committee about why you came to Eastern and what you found when you got there.

A President’s Michigan story

There are so many success stories of humble beginnings from students being schooled in forensics/debate at public universities that result in great careers, including my own story.

But, first, let me tell you two other stories.  Dann Florek, the longest standing star on the TV show “Law & Order,” now in “Special Victims Unit,” came to Eastern and found his way onto the stage as he performed in Shakespeare’s Richard III.  He headed off to New York shortly after that, leaving his wife, Karen, behind. She wanted to earn her degree, and to be a part of winning the first national forensics overall championship for Eastern in 1973.

Soon after, Rodney Slater came to Eastern from Arkansas to play football, and joined forensics.  He later became Secretary of Transportation in President Clinton's cabinet, and now chairs our fundraising campaign.

Now, in two weeks, Marcus and the Forensics team will be competing in another national championship competition. We’re proud of Marcus and his fellow EMU students, and we wish them luck at nationals.

There are thousands of these stories on our campus. EASTERN is the essence of a great public university that any Michigan citizen can come to, get access to faculty, afford the degree, and head from Eastern to live productively, earning $1 million more on average than citizens who do not have college degrees.

I accepted the job as President at Eastern because I, along with my leadership team, believe this is very meaningful work for the State of Michigan, a state that we love.  We seek to educate students and produce more degrees for citizens who will actually LIVE here, will want to stay, and, when they complete their degree, become part of reinvigorating our economy.

I have a similar story of staying here.  I grew up on a dairy farm in the Thumb – a first-generation college student. I went to a one-room school and my teacher, Iris Murray, graduated from Michigan State Normal, now Eastern Michigan University.

I was the baby of the family.  Our house was heated with wood.  My mother was often tired from milking 100 cows morning and night.  She washed clothes in a wringer washer, and was determined to hang them on the clothesline in the dead of winter regardless.  I would haul those icy stiff clothes back in and then lay them on a wood drying rack over the one vent from the wood fire heating the poorly insulated home. I drank unpasteurized milk fresh through a little filter like you put in your coffee machine.  It was great, and I am still standing at age 60.

I took a test in high school and scored well, and I must personally thank the taxpayers of the State of Michigan for supporting me, as I had my tuition and fees fully paid. I only had to earn enough to pay room and board. I worked my first summer in college at Aunt Jane’s Pickles, and as a teller in a bank during future summers. I emerged from college only $1,000 in debt with a degree in public speaking and traveled the country on the college debate team at CMU. I earned an MBA and Ph.D. at MSU.

Today I am the President of Eastern Michigan University. But with the proposed state budget, if I were standing in those same shoes today, my parents and I would be completely bewildered and frightened by the cost. 

Michigan taxpayers deserve the opportunity to earn a degree so they can live in the State they love, raise a family, own a home, and not be burdened with a large debt for college tuition.

I had that opportunity. Did any of you?

EMU’s special role in Michigan

During this challenging economic environment in Michigan, Eastern has sought to do its part. For two years in a row, Eastern has led the State’s 15 public universities in tuition restraint. Last spring, our Board of Regents approved a zero percent increase in tuition, fees, and room and board. ZERO, ZERO, ZERO.

And yet we are still reinvesting $195 million in capital improvements on campus in learning and living centers, including 75 percent in academic space. We hired 43 faculty last year, we are conducting 30 searches this year, and we increased financial aid to our students significantly. That marked the first time in many years that any public university in Michigan held the line at zero.

The year before, we held our increase to the Consumer Price Index of 3.8 percent, also the lowest percentage increase in the state. And Eastern has the lowest tuition increase over the last five years. We now stand third lowest in freshman tuition among the state’s public institutions. These dramatic measures provided some difficult and extraordinary budgetary challenges.

Yet the Board of Regents and I believe that taking such action was the right thing at the right time for students and their families. We acted as a public university that creates a space where you realize dreams you didn’t know you had – “I got a college degree?” Eastern made that happen. Such stories occur again and again for our alumni, 140,000 strong, with more than 100,000 in Michigan, part of an incredibly important historic university founded 161 years ago and the second oldest in Michigan.

But if you accept the Governor's recommendation for the drastic cut in higher education of approximately 20 percent, it will have a devastating impact on students and their families. We will not be able to increase financial aid and may have to decrease it. Tuition will increase and some students and families cannot take on any more debt due to their troubled financial situations. They want to realize the dream and get a college degree so they can earn a living in Michigan. This shuts the door to a college degree for many Michigan citizens.

Michigan taxpayers have a tremendous higher education asset which the state invested in many years ago, and which citizens expect to serve them NOW in times of trouble, despair and uncertainty.  Some states, such as Wyoming, have one public university. We have 15 complementary and diverse institutions, which serve as a powerful engine for economic growth in Michigan.

Michigan citizens can't sell their homes, a spouse may still have a job, but the wolf is at the door serving notices via the mailbox and email. Yet at Eastern, you can come to us with some college but no degree, and we will serve you. We will graduate you as you turn your life around and stay in Michigan. This is how we must and will revive this State – one life at a time, one student, one job gained as a result of an affordable degree.

Eastern provides an accessible, affordable, nurturing undergraduate experience for Michigan citizens to achieve a degree while working many hours to put themselves through college. Our graduation rates are lower because we serve many students who come to us with some college but no degree, transfer students from community colleges and displaced workers.

We fill a critical role in the future of this great State of Michigan.

Effects of the Governor’s proposal

Eastern understands shared sacrifice and was prepared to work hard to deal with a cut in our funding, but we were extremely disappointed to find that we were cut 19.3 percent. The proposed budget invests in Medicaid and increasing the appropriation for corrections, but how is that investment going to get a return on investment in Michigan's future and economic growth?

Our strong partners at community colleges were completely spared with a cut of zero percent, despite their independent millage support from Michigan taxpayers, which we do not enjoy. And Eastern works with many community college partners, with more than 100 articulation agreements that accept 84-92 credits toward an Eastern degree. 

Michigan is 50th of the 50 states in funding higher education. If you adopt this budget proposal, we can assure that we will occupy that dead last spot for the indefinite future.

At Eastern, the Governor’s proposal would mean a $14.7 million cut to our operating budget. This will have a dramatic impact on the 23,500 students who attend Eastern – the vast majority of whom are from Michigan. The largest piece of our operating budget is personnel, particularly faculty. Another large piece of our budget is financial aid to students. A reduction of this magnitude to our operating budget from the State will force cuts in these and other areas. And tuition must go up. None of these outcomes will help Michigan as we strive to increase the number of our residents who hold a four-year degree.

Even if Eastern and other universities limit tuition increases next year to a fixed amount, the Governor’s budget would still slash $11.4 million from Eastern’s budget, and $213 million from the entire public university budget.

Moreover, this proposal – which the administration refers to as “tuition restraint grants” – does not actually reward past tuition restraint or encourage tuition restraint at all. Instead, the Governor’s proposal encourages every university to increase tuition next year by at least 7 percent. Eastern has not done that, but I will certainly recommend it to my Board if this proposal is enacted. The tuition "restraint" add-on is only an add-on – our operating appropriations have been slashed by 19-22 percent, depending on the university.

It is a very, very harsh message, a disinvestment in a crown jewel asset of the State of Michigan that my parents paid taxes to invest in, but is now being cast aside, as are those unfortunate State taxpayers who would like to attend but can no longer afford it.

The gap between rich and poor grows wider and has huge implications for future state budgets across time for the social services, and for the possible incarceration costs of the uneducated, disadvantaged citizens who did not have the opportunity I did to get an affordable, accessible college education.

Worse yet, the Governor’s proposal will punish those universities, such as Eastern, that have been holding the line on tuition for years.

Michigan’s 15 public universities are all different, and EMU does not support an across-the-board funding formula for all 15 universities.  Each university should be held accountable based on metrics and measures that uniquely reflect its role in advancing this great State of Michigan.

EMU responds to economic challenge

Some might argue that the Governor’s proposed cuts to public universities will force universities to trim the fat. But Eastern has been cutting costs for years. Eastern’s low tuition, room and board rates are largely the result of management’s focus on cost savings and efficiencies. Here are just a few indicative examples:

• EMU has reduced its staffing levels by 140 personnel since 2004.

  • 75 percent of EMU’s employees are effectively paying 20 percent of the cost of their health insurance; we plan to move the remaining employees into this 80/20 plan when their union contracts are re-negotiated.
  • EMU has reduced energy costs by almost $2 million/year.
  • We have in place a 90-day freeze on replacing vacant positions.
  • In 2009, we instituted an 18-month pay freeze for the top 100 highest compensated employees.

Investing in Michigan’s future

Despite strict cost controls, Eastern continues to invest in new facilities.

Renovations are continuing on the Pray-Harrold classroom building, Eastern’s busiest academic facility, with 10,000 students circulating daily through its halls. This year, we executed a massive, temporary move-out from this building, the beginning of a fast-track construction schedule that aims to complete work on the $42-million project by this fall. The move-out plan is called “Swing Space,” a collaborative effort that will expedite construction by one year and save $3 million in construction costs that can be reinvested in this first-class facility. We again thank the State of Michigan for the capital outlay appropriation for this project.

This semester we opened the spectacular addition to our self-funded, $90 million Science Complex project. This move added 80,000 square feet of new science space, with a planetarium that will also be open for community use, but with no additional overall energy costs. We are now renovating the adjacent Mark Jefferson building. The complex and renovation, which form the largest building project in Eastern’s history, will encourage interdisciplinary research and help train scientists and science teachers in Michigan.

Eastern remains hopeful that the University can be considered for a capital outlay bill that funds needed renovations at Strong Hall to complete our science complex. Capital outlay should reward tuition restraint and self-funded investments in facilities.

Eastern has also worked diligently and successfully to increase enrollment. Eastern’s enrollment has increased by almost 7 percent over the last two years, to more than 23,500 students. For next fall, freshman applications are up 29 percent, transfer applications are up about 30 percent and graduate applications are up 16 percent.

Eastern has also increased financial aid by 57 percent, to $33.7 million. Such aid is crucial. About 80 percent of Eastern’s students received some form of financial aid in the 2009-2010 academic year, with an average award of $11,762. More than 6,400 students received Pell Grants, amounting to about 38 percent of the undergraduate student body. The percentage total of Eastern’s Pell Grant recipients is among the highest of Michigan’s public universities.

An example of the distinct opportunities we create at Eastern is the new “Keys to Degrees” program, which enables single parents to earn a college degree. Parents will live on campus year-round, and have easy access to the University’s on-campus child care facility. It’s the realization of what program director Elise Buggs calls “a dream deferred” for young, single parents. The program has been widely featured in the state’s media.

Along with such internal efforts, Eastern remains highly conscious about working with other complementary institutions around the state. Notably, we have a program to train nurses at Jackson Community College, a partnership that illustrates the ideal way to allocate resources and work with community colleges. We see no need to institute four-year degree programs at community colleges. 

With all due respect, if the State is struggling to fund the existing 15 public universities and cutting their appropriation by 21 percent, how can Michigan afford to create more four-year universities by permitting community colleges to offer four-year degrees?

Affordable, accessible, excellent

Our focus at Eastern Michigan University is clear: higher education is the path to prosperity for Michigan. Eastern Michigan is accessible, it is affordable, and it emphasizes academic excellence. The sum of our efforts is that Eastern is an economic engine in southeast Michigan: Eastern returns $42 to Michigan’s economy for each $1 invested by the State.

The data are undisputed: college-educated workers earn far more than those with associates or high school degrees. Higher education must be the centerpiece of our shared goal of reinventing Michigan’s economy and ensuring prosperity in the coming decades.

Having worked in Michigan government in positions such as assistant auditor general, deputy state treasurer and as commissioner of revenue, I acutely understand the financial challenges facing Lansing.

Please do NOT cut public university funding by 21 percent. Support Michigan students and recognize the desperate need of our students for continued support to enable them to earn a college degree and not give up hope on a pathway to success.