Flint — University of Michigan-Flint officials unveiled plans Friday to embark on an extensive analysis of the school’s operations in an effort to reverse the college’s dire financial situation and struggling business model after years of declining enrollment and insufficient revenues.
UM-Flint Chancellor Debasish Dutta outlined the details during a town hall meeting with faculty and other staff members at the school’s campus in downtown Flint. Dutta will oversee the endeavor alongside a private consulting firm hired with support from the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor), while seeking input from community members within the university and city of Flint.
“This is serious,” Dutta said of the school’s current situation as he addressed dozens of university employees in person on Friday afternoon.
Joining the town hall virtually, outgoing UM President Mary Sue Coleman reiterated Dutta’s sentiments, saying the campus needed to transform to remain financially viable.
“The financial realities facing this campus are significant,” Coleman said. “I want to be direct, incremental progress is not enough nor will it be sustainable going forward.”
According to Dutta, the effort is a necessary step after years of declining enrollments and low graduation rates. The student to faculty ratio, he said, has dropped to 13.6 students per faculty member, significantly lower than other public universities in the state, which Dutta said hovered around 16-18 students per faculty member.
Both Dutta and Coleman highlighted some bright points and improvements in the current fall semester. Dutta said transfer enrollment was up for the first time in more than a decade, while graduate enrollment and retention rates have increased as well. But after declines in enrollment and revenues for several years in a row, they said recent gains were not enough without a serious retooling of the university’s operations. Even with annual tuition rate increases of almost 5% annually in recent years, he said, revenue is still down.
“This is not financially viable,” Dutta said, explaining that the university will need to evaluate which programs are doing well and find ways to increase their capacity.
The university will also look for new in-demand programs that could provide growth opportunities, he said, adding that the school would need to increase its retention rate and diversify its revenue streams.
Right now the university said it is at the “vision” and “planning” stage of its retooling plan, which will take about 30 days. As part of that process, Huron Consulting Group will work with the university to carry out a market and academic program analysis before creating a business case for eventually implementing changes. Dutta said the consultant was hired because the university did not have the capacity to handle the process on its own.
The officials stressed it’s their desire to involve the university community in the process.
“I encourage you to stay involved in this process of innovation and transformation over the coming months with the support of the Board of Regents,” Coleman said, explaining that she had tasked Dutta with developing a vision and plan that “maximizes the opportunity for survival.” and long-term viability of the campus.”
Dutta walked faculty members through a powerpoint with explanations of the process going forward that will seek to strengthen the university’s financial standing.
“I want to emphasize that no decisions have been made,” he said. “We’re taking the process seriously.”
The school said it will launch a website in the coming days to serve as a central resource providing information about the situation, which will also provide an avenue for any member of the university community to provide feedback.
During a question and answer session following the presentation, several faculty members raised concerns that members of the Flint community at large were being left out.
“It doesn’t seem like the wider community is being represented. … We sit in Flint, which is a city that has been routinely pushed aside often to literally life and death circumstances,” said Kay Sacks, a UM-Flint political science and public administration professor.
“This public institution has a duty to include them in the process,” she continued. “This is their institution too. They welcome us into their city, and they will only continue to do as much as we welcome them into this process.”
Dutta responded with assurances that involving the Flint community was already part of the plan and would occur now that the process was underway. He said officials intended to take input from residents, and that Friday’s town hall was intended only as an introduction to the plans.
“Please understand we will do this together,” said Dutta. “But this is ultimately the University of Michigan and we will make our own decisions.”