Russi on the record

By Colleen Miller


Managing Editor and Editor in Chief

The Oakland Post met with Oakland University President Gary Russi Wednesday, April 8 to check in on the status of ongoing and new initiatives.

Russi spoke positively about the successful fundraising efforts of the university, the expanding affordability campaign and the growth of the university.

The Capital Campaign

The goal of raising $110 million has been exceeded and it has been done a year ahead of time. The exact amount will be announced at a ceremony Wednesday, April 15 in the Fireside Lounge in the Oakland Center.

“To tell you what, in these economic times this is remarkable, absolutely remarkable to raise that kind of money,” Russi said.

“The money is being used as we speak. But the money is not money that is at discretion. The donors typically tell you what they want you to do with the money. It is a variety of donor-driven projects and initiatives and it starts with scholarships, programs, capital, operating — you name it, it’s in the campaign.”

In light of the success of this capital campaign, another campaign will be initiated in the near future.

“We’re going to close this capital campaign, celebrate it, and then launch another one,” Russi said. The next campaign will focus on raising funds for the medical school, a performing arts center on campus, as well as the traditional scholarships, support for students and programs.

‘You can afford this’

OU’s affordability campaign, “You can afford this,” is designed to provide affordablity and access to a college education for new and existing OU students.

“This is our effort to respond to the economic times,” Russi said, and as a result, the university has seen a 35 percent increase in applications for fall.

The campaign already has multiple components: no fees, the $250,000 emergency fund (of which only about $31,000 was used over fall and winter), a guarantee not to have to take loans for need-based incoming freshmen (as determined by the federal government), more merit based scholarships, and an alumni ambassadors program designed to mobilize alumni (who have committed $1 million for scholarships )to recruit students.

Additional features such as three-year degree programs and full-time OU jobs are also in the works.

“Soon it will be announced we will have a summer employment corps,” Russi said. “For those students who need a full-time job, they will have a full-time job. And it will be in meaningful work … something that will help your portfolio. It’s $10 an hour, it’s full time it’s all summer.” Russi said there may be 35 such positions.

One reason why college can be so expensive is the length of time it takes to complete. But Russi said that three-year degrees are strongly being considered.

“The deans and the department chairs are working on this right now. Obviously it only works in those programs in which there aren’t requirement for beyond four years,” said Russi.

“That’s a huge affordability issue too because you only have three years of cost and then you get out on the job market a year early.”

Graduation ceremony changes

Addressing rumors that the administration is going to change commencement ceremonies, Russi said that’s an affirmative.

“We’re outgrowing our commencements,” he said.

After looking at other universities around the country, Russi said the commencement coordinator, Stephanie Lee, has narrowed it down to two possibilities:

1. There would be one commencement ceremony. No names would be called and nobody would walk across the stage. However, each individual college or school would be able to have their own celebrations.

“It’s a lot more intimate than what we do right now. The school will add their own awards, their gifts,” Russi said. He said that this is the preferred option.

“If we’re going to do something, let’s make the student experience and recognition more intimate and more powerful for the family,” Russi said.

2. The other possibility would be to have separate ceremonies for graduates and undergraduates.  Undergraduates would continue to have a similar experience to what is currently being done for graduation, where the commencements, an all-day affair, are broken down by colleges and individuals walk across the stage. The graduate students would have their own celebrations by unit.

“[This] scenario is only short term. Because you continue to grow, you have the same problem,” Russi said.

The new graduation procedure will be decided on before the next commencement ceremony at the end of the fall 2009 semester.

Med School update

While the changes to the commencement ceremonies are high on the priority list for the administration, keeping the OU William Beaumont School of Medicine on track is Russi’s number one priority this summer.

“That’s going exceptionally well,” he said. “Now they’re in the process of hiring faculty.” Russi said that they are looking for the best in the country, as they usually do, focusing on quality. The progress on the medical school is also on schedule.

“At this point we see no barriers to getting this done on time.”

Budget, tuition and stimulus

Russi said that they fight the budget every day and may have to create a contingency budget before the state makes any decisions about stimulus money and state funding.

“The volatility of the state is just enormous right now,” he said. “That’s a concern for us because families have to know what the cost is.”

Russi explained that OU is waiting to hear from the state of Michigan before deciding on next year’s budget, which may affect tuition:

“The budget bill starts with [Gov. Jennifer Granholm and she] said cut higher education three percent, freeze tuition, and move forward. That’s just a recommendation. Ultimately where it’s played out is in the legislature … The House just came out and just essentially reinforced the notion of cutting 3 percent, took out the language to freeze tuition and now the bill moves into the Senate,” he said.

Russi will be giving a testimony before the Senate on May 5, presenting OU’s case for state funding. OU is also waiting to hear about the appropriations of federal stimulus money.

“If the governor accepts stimulus money, she’s got to hold K-12, community colleges and universities harmless in cash flow,” Russi said. “[If Michigan] were to cut us the three percent or [Gov. Granholm] does an executive order for five percent, she’s got to take some of that stimulus money and make it whole.

“That’ doesn’t solve any problems because that’s patchwork. You’re using one-time money to solve base problems. At the end of the day you’ve got a worse problem down the road because you’re going to have multiple cuts that they fill with stimulus money.”

As for the five capital projects that OU submitted to the state for stimulus funding — including a biomass/wind energy plant, new buildings and an engineering center — Russi said that those are going to be determined later after the state goes through the budget process.

Lines of communication

In response to the April 8 article in The Oakland Post, “Lack of faculty input prompts lawsuit,” Russi said that the administration has made efforts to increase communication among faculty and the administration.

OU’s chapter of American Association of University Professors, which represents full-time faculty members and special lecturers, filed an Unfair Labor Practice lawsuit last November against OU after the Rhetoric, Communication and Journalism departments were split into two departments. Read the story here.

We are receptive to any ideas to open up communications more,” Russi said. “Everything that’s come to us as suggestions we try to implement and we’ve cataloged all of that … Open up and suggest ways to improve communication.”

Russi said that he solicited suggestions from faculty for solutions to the financial crisis in the state. An e-mail was sent out in December for ideas.

In order to ensure I get the ideas and it not be filtered by some supervisor we ask that they do one of two things … send your suggestions either by e-mail or drop a note. And send it directly to me,” he said. According to Russi, there were 1,000 suggestions sent in. Russi’s e-mail is [email protected]

Board of Trustees liaison for faculty

Joel Russell, chemistry professor and the president of OU’s AAUP chapter, said that he has been pushing for a faculty liaison to the board for a long time, but doesn’t know if the trustees even know of this desire. He said having a faculty liaison like the two student liaisons to the board would help because then the faculty could give the board live feedback at the board meetings, instead of having to sign up to speak days in advance.

Russell said that he knows the trustees are busy, but that he wishes the board would meet with faculty sometime. He said AAUP invited the board to meet faculty in May 2008, and that the then chairman of the board said they’d get back to them.

“It’s been 11 months, and we haven’t heard anything,” Russell said.

When asked about this, Russi said “that issue’s been on the table many times, at least since I’ve been here, and the board’s chosen not to move in that direction.”