BLOG: Presidential Perspectives

Addressing alarming headlines

This message was originally sent as an email to the CMU community on Wednesday, April 6.

Earlier this week, a distressing headline from The Detroit News raised alarms across campus. It read, “CMU’s enrollment is plummeting. Some worry about its viability.” That single word, viability, called into question the future of our institution, and some members of our community are understandably concerned.

Please be assured that CMU remains a strong university and a leading institution of higher education. Indeed, in the same article that questions our viability, a quote from Lou Glazer, president of Michigan Future, challenges the headline. To quote the article:

Glazer doesn't think CMU's future is threatened. In his conversations with leaders in higher education, Glazer said Central was never on the list of schools that could potentially close.

"My guess is 10 years from now, Central is around and doing fine," Glazer said.

It’s important to remember that headlines are written with the intent of quickly capturing a reader’s attention; headlines that evoke powerful emotions, such as fear and anger, are more likely to result in a “click-through” to the article. There is no doubt that recent headlines about CMU were intended to evoke those strong feelings. 

Let’s explore two of them — the Bridge Michigan article, “Central Michigan University blames 'complacency' for enrollment dive,” and The Detroit News article, “CMU’s enrollment is plummeting. Some worry about its viability.”

Integrity is a core value at CMU
Both stories correctly indicate that CMU has seen significant enrollment declines — that is not new information. We have been talking openly about our declining enrollment frequently since my arrival in 2018 in a variety of forums — which is not always common in higher education. 

We cannot fix problems we are unwilling to talk about honestly; therefore, as a community, we have frequently shared information about our enrollment challenges and what we are doing to turn the trends around. Enrollment has been, and remains, a top priority for me, the Board of Trustees, all university leaders and our entire university community. 

We know we cannot rely on what was done in the past to address our challenges, we must instead take bold action swiftly. We will continue to talk about this issue and what we are doing to solve it, even when it may be uncomfortable to do so. 

Both news stories included information shared with our campus community in a March 24 letter from Vice President Jennifer DeHaemers. In that message, she clearly outlined the challenges, as well as the strategies and tactics we are implementing to move CMU forward. I have received numerous emails from faculty and staff applauding the honesty of this message. 

Both stories also included information gained in interviews with members of our campus community. Both included data and information we willingly provided to these media outlets — information that may have felt uncomfortable to share but was important to provide. As a community resolved to meet our challenges head-on with a Fired-Up attitude, we have chosen integrity over hiding and hoping the problems will go away.

We do accountability
Next, both stories mention our use of the term “complacency” to describe how CMU’s enrollment declines reached this point. 

Our Leadership Standards require us to be accountable for our actions, and so we must be willing to look critically at the role we have played in the challenges we face. As we reflect on the years since 2012, when CMU had its highest enrollments, we can see the steady progression of enrollment declines. During the decade that followed, one can debate what CMU could have done differently to curb those declines.  Regardless, we are taking action now to address these issues. We are overhauling our website, increasing our presence in key recruiting areas, replacing outdated technology used in the admissions office, refreshing and strengthening our brand, investing in the residential student experience, and more. 

No one individual, division, department or issue is to blame for where we find ourselves today, and yet we cannot pretend that this enrollment decline happened by accident or by surprise. We are not focusing on the past; instead, we are openly and honestly talking about the steps that we are taking today, and acting swiftly to rebuild our enrollment with a sense of purpose and urgency.

We are open communicators
Both stories included quotes from students, faculty, staff or community members who expressed their concerns. Those concerns are understandable, and everyone has the right to speak up when they identify a problem. Again, our Leadership Standards challenge us to be open communicators, and that means listening — and responding with appropriate action — when members of our community identify issues. 

The concerns expressed in these two stories are linked to many of the challenges we are actively addressing now as a community through the Strategic Envisioning Process and other forums. We have identified and are implementing initiatives to improve the residential student experience, build upon the rigor, relevance and excellence of academic programs, create a more inclusive environment for all individuals, and more. 

These are not challenges that can be addressed overnight; they require ongoing effort on the part of our entire community. As we continue to revise and build on our model of Shared Governance, these are issues our students, faculty and staff will play a role in resolving. 

We are not alone
Readers who reach the end of each story will see another truth: CMU is not alone in these enrollment struggles. Both stories also correctly note that 12 of the 15 Michigan public universities are experiencing enrollment declines, and both also note that many of our struggles are shared nationally by colleges and universities. 

Both also note that our challenges have been exacerbated by the pandemic, which led some students to pause or discontinue their higher ed plans, and which caused major disruptions in service and activity on most college campuses.

Institutions of higher education nationwide are struggling to address tremendous challenges, including significant enrollment declines, and CMU is hardly the only institution that could have been named in these articles. We have made the bold decision to be honest about where we find ourselves. We likely will be in the headlines again, because we will continue to talk openly about enrollment.

Closing with hope
My express hope is that having this open conversation with our community will continue to inspire us to greater collaboration and action. I have no doubt that, as we come together as a university to generate ideas, we will be successful in turning this trend around and stabilizing our enrollment.

Again, consider the quote in the Detroit News article from Allison Curtiss, manager at the Bird Bar and Grill: “The university will figure it out.”

Yes, we will. Both articles mention some of the strategies underway to address enrollment declines. I want our students, faculty, staff, alumni, supporters and partners to know this: We are seeing signs of improvement. Based on the hard work of many individuals and the intentional focus to implement our strategies, we have seen significant increases in key metrics that are predictors for our entering class. At this time, we are on track to meet our overall goals. We must continue to work the plan, keep pressing and remain focused in this very competitive market. We cannot — we will not — let up in these efforts.    

While we face many challenges, which we are addressing transparently, we also are working diligently to ensure we continue to offer outstanding educational experiences for students, impactful research, and service to individuals and communities in Michigan and beyond. We remain strong and, importantly, we certainly remain viable. 

Blog: Presidential Perspectives posted | Author: by Bob Davies, Ph.D., CMU President | Categories: President's Office
The views and opinions expressed in these blog pages are strictly those of the page author.