State of the University: Oakland encounters ‘success,’ faces challenges in a ‘new context’

Akin to the president’s annual State of the Union address, a State of Oakland University address was given Tuesday morning in the Banquet Rooms.

“There’s some storm clouds out there. Pretty tough ones,” OU President Gary Russi said.

But, using a presentation titled “Success and New Context,” Russi said that while OU has been affected by the economic recession, it isn’t hard to make the “cuts, cuts, cuts” that other universities of “similar means” have had to make.

A ‘new context’

Russi, who was joined by OU’s six vice presidents, said changes in the economical and political landscapes have created a “new context” for OU to deal with.

John Beaghan, vice president and finance and administration said manufacturing jobs have slowly disappeared while jobs requiring higher education are on the rise. That has contributed to a higher average age of students.

Beaghan also said that available jobs in Oakland County are expected to rise in 2011-12 and that the top three projected growing job sectors are business and finance, bio-technical engineering and energy.

Politically, Michigan — the only state to experience population decline, according to the 2010 Census — lost one seat in the House of Representatives following the 2010 midterm elections.

Rochelle Black, vice president for government relations, said one positive that could come from the elections is a proposal to enact a July 1 deadline for a two-year state budget, which would give OU a clearer picture when drafting its own budget.

Still, state appropriations have continued to comprise less and less of OU’s budget, while tuition rates have risen steadily. Plus, Susan Davies, vice president of university relations, said that monetary contributions from alumni have decreased over the last 15 years.

But OU currently possesses about $53 million in endowments, according to Beaghan, and grants and contracts have increased, too.

Retaining, gaining students

Retention rates remain a problem.

Virinder Moudgil, senior vice president for academic affairs and provost, noted that 25 percent of students are looking elsewhere in their first year. He said OU needs to focus on “anchoring students,” so they feel intrinsically connected to campus and the community.

Still, undergraduate enrollment has seen a steady increase in recent years. However, Russi noted that OU is “experiencing some challenges at the (graduate) level.”

“The issue for us right now is dealing with our master’s program,” Russi said.

Mary Beth Snyder, vice president of student affairs and enrollment management, said Michigan has fewer high school students eligible to go to college. Plus, OU’s main feeder counties, Macomb and Oakland, expect further drops in population.

Mary Otto, vice president for Outreach, said more and more students are opting to go to a community college for two years before transferring to OU.

“Frankly, from a competitive point of view, we need to start having some really good answers for that,” Otto said.

“We need to offer something that makes it worth the extra money to be here for those four years,” Otto said, and to be responsive to the wants and needs of those who attend community colleges.

For instance, she said, OU is well-situated geographically. “We need to build on that,” Otto said.

Future plans

Russi said the above changes will cause OU to be “held to a different standard than we have (been) in the past.”

“We’ve got to figure out what our competitive advantage is,” Russi said.

Russi expressed hope that the Human Health Building, which is expected to open in 2012, and a new campaign — “Creating the Future II,” which currently consists of 500 local leaders who are looking into ways OU can use its resources to enhance the community — will provide that.

Just over 50 years old, Oakland, Russi said, is still young enough to re-brand itself.

Possible ways of doing this include emphasizing learning outcomes, opening a center for “non-completers” and increasing the expectation of students.

As far as aesthetic improvements, Russi said it was suggested to him that OU build “imposing” main gates.

Russi urged staff and faculty, who he repeatedly praised throughout the presentation, to “act with a sense of urgency.”

“There’s a lot of potholes and we need to drive over those pothole and around those potholes, but I’d like to pave a new road and drive right over it,” Russi said.