Tearing down walls between Michigan’s 15 public universities

Michigan’s public higher education must evolve to provide an affordable, accessible, meaningful and quality education for all Michigan university students.

Michigan does not operate a centralized system of higher education. Unlike other states, Michigan taxpayers fund 15 separate university budgets including separate boards of trustees, administrative staffs, and presidents. Each of these institutions annually pursues state appropriations for their respective operation budgets and to fund separate capital projects. Each of these university boards then sets tuition and room and board costs to hopefully cover the ever-increasing cost of higher education.

This is all done in the environment of a decreasing student-aged population and increasing costs. It is estimated that less than 25 percent of higher education students in the United States are pursuing their education on-campus in a traditional model. The competition for these students is intense with winners and losers.

Those institutions that have not adjusted to the technological demands in teaching in learning are feeling the biggest pinch. Students expect to have access to higher education online and off-campus. For various reasons universities are expected go to the student rather than wait for student to come to them. In other words they must increase their higher education footprint in non-brick and mortar methods of teaching and learning.

To avoid an institutional death spiral, it may be wise for those Michigan universities feeling the budget pinch to consider inter-governmental forms of consolidation, affiliation, and integration. Rather than change the structure of higher education in Michigan, it may be more expedient to change the process.

The Urban Cooperation Act of 1967 may provide a legal mechanism and solution for public agencies like state universities to create an interlocal agreement and a public authority to cooperatively promote the delivery of public goods like higher education while protecting employee rights. The act has been used by other public agencies since its creation in 1967 and allows and promotes governmental units to work together, including raising revenues for operations, technology, and capital projects.

So why wouldn’t state universities look to such a legal model to provide student access to their unique learning opportunities?

The three Upper Peninsula universities are poised geographically to use this state law. Unlike most of the other state universities, the Upper Peninsula universities have access to an abundance of natural resources like water, minerals, animals, and forests. So why couldn’t an environmental student at Central Michigan University study fish health at Lake Superior State University’s renowned aquatic laboratory on the St. Mary’s River?

We Michiganders have so many higher education assets to share with all students in Michigan. It may be time for the universities to step outside their silos and look to what can be accomplished collectively to promote an affordable and accessible higher education in Michigan.

Such an effort among the state universities would require some work but above all it requires trust, innovation, and cooperation with a bit of disruption on behalf of all of our students. It is time to tear down the walls inhibiting the free flow of knowledge and learning among the 15 state universities.

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Thu, 06/09/2016 - 10:15am
Time for the University of Michigan to go private. It would stop Lansing from dictating to U of M tuition rate, facility appointments and the students who should be admitted. Plus the $400 million U of M gets from the state can be spread out among the 14 public university/colleges.
Thu, 06/09/2016 - 11:21am
Definitely on the right track! Also would allow U's to eliminate or consolidate marginal programs. The fact of their resistance and that this hasn't happened again shows how poorly managed and resistant to change our higher Ed bureaucracy really is. Remember this as you listen to their constant whining for more funding!
David Waymire
Fri, 06/10/2016 - 8:51am
They do consolidate and eliminate programs on a regular basis when there are insufficient students. You need to realize, however, that programs needs need to be phased out to avoid disruption to students already in the pipeline, and to recognize university staff in those programs. They also open new programs as demand requires. See all the new entrepreneur-oriented programs at schools. The competition between universities make them market oriented. The proposal in this op ed to have politicians control universities would destroy that orientation.
Glendon Irving
Thu, 06/09/2016 - 11:31am
Or we could replace the revenue lost from the huge tax cuts for the wealthiest Michiganders and fully fund our public universities so that everyone has access to high quality higher education.
Thu, 06/09/2016 - 12:38pm
Three points here, two that address the previous comments. 1. U-M going private is not only a bad idea, it is financially impossible. It's a bad idea because ending the University as a public institution, though not a literal violation of the U.S. Constitution, certainly violates the educational ideals of the founding fathers. Though established in 1817, U-M traces its conceptual origins to the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which was drafted by Thomas Jefferson and passed by the Continental Congress that year. The key language from this document adorns the inscription above Angell Hall: "Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged." The Ordinance also set aside lands that were to become our country's unmatched community of public colleges and universities. This was the first example of free, public, universal education in the history of the world and plays the central role in our country's dominance ever since. Going private is also an impossible idea, because for U-M to go private, and forgo the nearly $300 million it receives in general fund revenues annually from the State, it would immediately have to come up with these funds on its own. There isn't a tuition hike large enough to cover the gap. And to give you a sense of what U-M would need from private donor support: U-M would have to double its endowment from $10 billion to $20 billion. All of these funds, raised from private donors, would have to come with no strings attached. If private philanthropy at U-M has taught us anything, donors like to have a say in how their gifts are spent. 2. I shudder to think what Matt might consider a "marginal program," but will simply respond to the "whining." The State of Michigan ranks near the bottom nationally on spending for higher education, and as a percentage of their budgets, most public universities in Michigan have seen public support drop from near 80 percent of general fund budgets four decades ago to the mid-teens today. This lack of investment doesn't reflect the state's economic downturn of the past several decades; it has precipitated it. One man's whining is another's warning that the disinvestment in our colleges and universities has profoundly hurt the state and violated our moral obligation to teach our children, to say nothing of the disastrous impact its had on our ability to attract new people and businesses. 3. Finally, kudos to Patrick Shannon for a thoughtful article. It is worth noting that there are many collaborations already taking place, mostly at the regional level, and mostly in the academic programs themselves. I'd be interested in hearing more about how the Urban Cooperation Act might facilitate greater collaboration and what it's going to do for the U.P. If this is about opening courses to students from different colleges and universities, I sense that progress is being made and that much more can/will be done. If this is about consolidating administrations to cut cost and increase efficiency, I see considerable resistance. Matt is right that the entrenched bureaucracies in education are resistant to change. In this, they reflect institutional culture generally, in both the public and private sector.
Thu, 06/09/2016 - 3:20pm
I agree with your comments. My daughter graduated from high school a year ago after attending a wonderful two year half day vocational program in business and IT at one of Oakland County's Technical Campuses where she was able to be dual-enrolled at Macomb County Community College taking online classes. She 'started' college with 21 college credits and attended Oakland County Community College in the fall of 2015 taking a full schedule of online classes. It was announced after the semester began that OCC had lost its accreditation for their online class program and they cut all but five online classes. My daughter had already taken three of those classes and didn't need another one of the five, so she opted to go back to MCC for the winter 2016 semester. She has medical issues that make on-campus class attendance difficult and she prefers to take classes online so she can work on the material when she feels well and not at prescribed times when she may not be feeling well. Unfortunately, she is paying double the tuition costs at MCC than what she would pay in-district at OCC. OCC offered that she could take certain online classes from an organization that offers online classes that OCC accepts as credit (can't remember the name), but the cost was significantly higher than MCC's out of district tuition, so she went back to MCC to take online classes. There already IS a certain amount of cooperation between certain community colleges and four year institutions. There is a new transfer agreement between a large number of community colleges and four year educational institutions. It is called the Michigan Transfer Agreement and it went into effect in the fall of 2014. It allows for easy transfer of specific general education class credits for equivalent classes from participating schools. It prevents higher level institutions from denying the transfer of certain classes to a higher educational facility from a community college. I KNOW that was a problem when I went to Macomb Community College in the 80s. Certain schools would accept a student's community college credits at par. Others would only accept a small amount of the credits. I know when I went to MCC, WSU accepted all of my MCC credits, but OU refused to accept many. It made me decide to go to WSU instead of OU. The 'system' for higher level education in Michigan is broken, but it is far better than it was in the 80s, but that is not saying much. There is much more that can, and should, be done to combine programs/schools. There should also be a reorganization of K-12 school districts in Michigan. There are far too many school districts that are spending way too large a percentage of the state allotment for students on administration rather than on the classroom.
Sun, 06/12/2016 - 9:27am
John First of all your comments on why UoM can't go private should be termed, Reasons Uof M won't like to go private, nothing you mentioned would stop them except they would have to change aspects of how they opperate. Stamford,, U of Chicago and all the Ivy leagues and for that matter hundreds of other private schools across the nation prove your error. As to marginal majors, how about any major that doesn't lead to in a fairly direct line to a carreer that will support them, their loan payment and provide a return on the investment they and the Mi taxpayers made in procuring it? There are dozens if not hundreds that don't! Not to mention the fact that we produce far more Ed majors than MI can ever use sending them and our investment off to other states. Majoring in French so you can work at Starbucks. A well known stat is that atleast 40% of college grads go into jobs that don't require a BA or BS. They'd be better off being plumbers! Colleges have majors because they can get kids to take the classes not because the future opportunities. Studying Marine biology, French, Fly fishing or Political science is fine and makes a great hobby. There are many private colleges, books, websites and podcasts that can do a fine job indulging these or any other interest. Reality is that we don't have the money to publicly fund every interest that students think they wish to pursue.
Thu, 06/09/2016 - 12:44pm
Here's another cooperative venture to consider: A Chinese Attorney told me that he will try to take the Bar Exam in California to become licensed in California to practice law. He told me that California is the only state that allows foreigners (Chinese)to take the Bar Exam and become Licensed to practice law in the USA. If true, why not have Michigan become the second state? There is a potential revenue stream, and more importantly, foreign attorneys bring their international contacts and resources when they come to the USA. Organizing the law schools and shepherding appropriate legislation seems managable. That kind of initiative could rub off on the other universities. . . Isn't that what we are talking about here? People need to take the initiative to get the best use of our taxpayer funded resources and get a bigger bang for the buck.
Thu, 06/09/2016 - 2:24pm
Just what Michigan DOESN'T need - more attorneys...
Thu, 06/09/2016 - 1:09pm
Wayne State University, Michigan State University, University of Michigan and Michigan Technological University are world renowned with long queues of students who want to attend. These schools are exceptional and I'm always concerned when anyone other than their elected or appointed (Michigan Tech) boards want to usurp the authority of the governing boards. I absolutely hate it when the state legislature tries to micromanage these schools. There is already considerable cooperation among Michigan's 15 state universities. The Merit Network (merit.edu) is a prime example of this cooperation. There's also cooperation among the Big Ten schools where a student at any of them can take courses at the rest of them. Leave these schools alone. They're not broke and don't need to be fixed. They do, however, need to be better funded.
Patrick Shannon
Fri, 06/10/2016 - 8:58pm
I agree UofM, WSU, MSU, and MTU are some of the best universities in the world. For the thousands of students who attend the other institutions, isn't there room to share access to their programs? In the 1980's there was a clear change in state policy to fund prisons at the expense of higher education and mental health. I served as a prosecuting attorney during those build-up years and I was a vocal supporter of the need to increase prison populations. Our state went from approximately 12,000 inmates to 50,000. Something had to give and it was higher education. The result was a shift of cost to the students and their debt load. We need to support Michigan's higher education system. In the interim, the Urban Cooperation Act of 1967 may be a tool to address the access and delivery of this essential public good. The next time you are in Ann Arbor please read the inscription on the face above Angell Hall. As John suggests, it is a good reminder to all of us of our educational heritage and our mission as citizens of this state and country.
Mon, 06/13/2016 - 9:45pm
First of all, I continue to be amused by these republicans who want the universities to operate like a business and then yell fowl the moment they do. There are 15 independent public universities all competing for a dwindling number of students. Classic capitalism suggests they will be more nimble and more innovative as independent operators, and in fact, that is true. When compared to their national peers, within their own set of peers, the Michigan public universities outperform their peers on nearly every metric except price because of the lack of state support. Ironically, community colleges in the state, who have been far better funded by the state, underperform compared to their national peers. Then they whine when the universities won't take all their credits. Second, I am so tired of these people who claim that only STEM degrees matter. Universities are not vocational Ed. They are there to teach people to be well-rounded and intellectually curious. Those traits lead to people being successful corporate leaders. That's right, those French majors and political scientists actually end up make a living. (I'm one in fact) and I'm tired of hearing how much a waste they are because of how much I made at my first job out of college. And no, I wouldn't have been better off as a plumber you dolt. (They don't make 1/2 of what I do). It is the entire arc of ones career that matters. Finally, whether the public act of 67 can be of some use should indeed be explored, but I am suspect of anything that puts the jewels of the state in the hands of the short sighted politicians.