‘Creating the Future’ for OU

Oakland University is often labeled as a commuter school,  sometimes chosen as an alternative or second-choice school.

The physical branding of OU was explored in last week’s cover story, “What’s it to you?” This is the second part of a series examining the identity of the university as an institution.

The first part of the series can be viewed here.

Public Perception

A major difference between the larger Michigan public universities and OU is the absence of traditional campus life due to the low percentage of students able to live on campus, despite continuous rises in the number of housing contracts.

“I thought the school would be boring, since it’s a commuter school,” said Josh Tsao, a junior computer science major. “My first impression was that there was no community and everyone just came, went to class and went home.”

Current students and alumni alike said their primary reason for choosing OU was that its proximity to their homes allowed for a more affordable education.

Senior finance major David Dueweke said the commute does completely change things and wishes there were “more of a draw to campus life.”

“It feels more like a job because of driving and how people behave,” said Dueweke, who transferred from Central Michigan University.

When he was a prospective student in the late ’90s, Bryan Barnett thought of OU as “a very local option that probably wasn’t among the top schools in the state, but it was a decent choice.”

He initially had his sights set on MSU, and was admittedly “a commuter who pulled in 30 minutes before class and left 10 minutes after,” but the former student body president said things changed after he got “super-involved.”

As the current mayor of Rochester Hills, he wants the public to rethink “the commuter, isolated image to a school that is really engrained in the community.”

While it will be difficult to change the opinion, awareness and exposure of the university has increased in recent years.

The academic image of OU has also changed.

“There’s always a chance OU can measure up to U-M but it might take a lot,” prospective student Corey Conrad said. “I know that when people hear that you’re going to OU, you’re going to a good school.”

Academic influences

Competitive advantages will be what give OU an edge in the higher education industry, Russi said.

It is necessary for OU to set itself apart from the other 2,719 four-year degree-granting institutions in the United States recognized by the National Center for Education Statistics in order to increase both enrollment and retention.

That number also includes community colleges and enrollment has steadily increased at nearby campuses like Oakland Community College, Macomb Community College and Wayne County Community College in the past five years.

OU may be edging out its competition, though.

“OU was close to home and a much better option than a community college without being [too expensive],” Komal Patel, a senior double majoring in English and political science, said.

Dual admissions partnerships with OCC, MCC and Saint Clair County Community College were created to combat the competition aspect.

Attracting and keeping talented students and faculty are the cornerstones to improve the service OU provides, though economic difficulties coupled with a 50 percent decrease in monetary gift support for facilities and equipment over the last year have made things more challenging.

“Competition is the highest threat,” Russi said. “The elite schools heavily endowed are coming after the top students with programs, research and support in a way that’s very difficult for institutions like Oakland to compete with.”

Anandi Sahu, professor and chair of the economics department, proposed that the school’s legacy could be built through “teaching emphasis with a difference.”

“We should pay real attention to how OU educates its students,” Sahu said in a proposal sent to Russi.

He said there is proof of a lack of student engagement in the “high dropout rate,” though he noted the school is “by no means alone.”

According to a poll done by the Associated Press in September, 87 percent of adults surveyed place some amount of blame on college administrators when it comes to low graduation rates.

That’s almost as much as how many, 89 percent, blamed students themselves or professors and teachers.

Last year’s first-year retention rate clocked in at 73.3 percent. Keeping students may be the first step, but ensuring their graduation is another story.

With a six-year graduation rate of less than 50 percent, the school ranks far below U-M’s 90 percent and MSU’s 70 percent.

“I wouldn’t say that OU is as prestigious as U-M or MSU, however those schools had to start somewhere and I can see OU getting on that level in the coming decades,” said Jeremy Tadros, a freshman majoring in secondary education with a focus in history.

Sahu believes the school should seek to compete with MSU in the future and Russi agrees. Currently, a higher percentage of Oakland County high school students go to MSU rather than OU.

He presented possible solutions in his presentations and repeatedly encouraged staff and faculty to present proposals much like Sahu’s.

OU has a plan for higher retention rates that involves more advising for first and second-year students and vetting program development.

Another way to boost enrollment was to focus in on programs — Russi specifically pointed out the necessity of a strong liberal arts core and fine arts program — in order to appeal to creative students.

“If I went back to school, I would major in art, something along the lines of animation or illustration,” Conrad said. “I would want it to be geared towards illustration for movies or books.”

Conrad, who has completed some college, is also in another group Russi wants to cater to. There are 1.4 million Michigan residents who have attended college, but have not obtained a degree.

Creating an inviting environment for non-completers will help OU toward its projected goal of 25,000 students for 2020, Russi said. Such enrollment growth may be the opposite of an image OU already has, though.

“My first impression was that it felt homey and just right. I didn’t feel overwhelmed or overburdened,” sophomore information technology major Flavius Popan said. “The campus size was just fine, and it was a welcoming experience.”

Russi has repeatedly said the target number may be changed, though.

“OU is a much smaller school than MSU or U-M so we have a personal connection with faculty,” said Candice Lambert, a junior psychology major. “Prospective students should look at OU because it’s a smaller university.”

Creating the Future

During the 1997-98 school year, a meeting of movers and shakers called “Creating the Future” took place in order to gather ideas and elevate the profile of the university before the school’s first comprehensive capital campaign.

By June of this year, 500 people will have completed “Creating the Future II,” which is focused this time on getting OU to use its resources to better the community.

The project is geared toward identifying and engaging more people in the life of the university.

“The same benefits will come out of it as last time,” Russi said. “It will cultivate more people and it’s going to excite the philanthropic community once again. We can’t overemphasize in the area of partnerships.”

According to Barnett, the city of Rochester Hills is currently working on cross-promoting and engaging with businesses to embrace the school.

“Much of our success locally is tied to the growth of OU, from the medical school to smaller things like Meadowbrook Theater and the cultural aspects available with speakers,” Barnett said. “Our successes are closely intertwined.”

He was asked to participate in this next project.

Michelle Moser, director of integrated marketing, believes that the idea for the OU brand will come out of these talks.

“We kind of started this without the support of the administration, so in the marketing department, we went and did it,” Moser said. “We all follow the industry and where things are going and headed and help OU with that. It was almost a pet project … I was taken aback by the communities we were able to bring together.”

According to Russi’s action agenda, OU’s community position should be boosted for years to come based off location and the current economic, financial, intellectual and cultural stipulations of both Oakland and Macomb Counties. By building a national OU brand, its position will be strengthened among competitors.

While some of the operations including improving efficiency and implementing strategies to reduce costs, Russi would also like to hire a senior director of communications and marketing.

“Our passion should be and must be to make our university even more relevant to the public good,” he said. “We need every idea. We need every thought to move us through this.”

— Nichole Seguin and Veronica Leontyeva contributed to this report.