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Citing cash crunch, Central Michigan University pauses new student housing

Central Michigan University
At a Central Michigan University Board of Trustees meeting, university leaders said they want to improve housing options but agreed to put a pause on building new housing. “CMU can longer afford to be all things to all people and we cannot spend money we do not have. We must decide whether to merely survive and grow weaker and smaller over time or to be bold and decisive and choose to move CMU forward for a successful future,” states a draft of the resolution unanimously approved by board members Thursday. (Bridge file photo)

April 26: Q+A with Central Michigan University leaders on the plan to rebuild school

MOUNT PLEASANT—Citing economic uncertainty and declining enrollment, the Central Michigan University Board of Trustees voted Thursday to pause plans to develop a four-building residential complex that would include 179 apartment-style units designed for sophomores, juniors, seniors and transfer students.

The university had already approved $14 million to begin the design phase for the complex, called Washington Commons, and complete construction of one parking lot, renovate two others and demolish some housing that now serves undergraduate and graduate students including students with families.

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The board said it plans to reevaluate the housing project by September 30. According to a draft of the resolution approved Thursday, reasons for pausing part of the project include “growing economic uncertainty, current enrollment issues and reductions which will be needed for the 2022-2023 budget.”

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“CMU can longer afford to be all things to all people,” the resolution said, “and we cannot spend money we do not have.” Given the “university’s fiscal and enrollment challenges…now is not the right time to embark upon this project.” 

The vote to pause development is a setback, at least for now. University leaders said they hope the project will eventually make it easier to recruit and retain students by offering independent living options on the Mount Pleasant campus. 

The delay comes as CMU seeks to reverse a 43-percent enrollment decline since 2012. As Bridge Michigan reported in March, the university blamed the loss on “complacency” in its efforts to recruit against other schools for a shrinking pool of high school graduates. Among the problems cited in an internal email: CMU failed to keep pace with other schools in upgrading facilities, with the last new residence hall built in 2006.  

CMU President Bob Davies told Bridge he does not believe Thursday’s vote will hurt enrollment in the meantime, especially since this project would have taken multiple years anyway. 

Some students are concerned about the affordability of the new housing and others are concerned about safety issues related to parking changes. 

Richard Studley, the board chair, told Bridge the decision allows the board to tackle the budget with a focus on “student success” before approving a major project.

“And we will have to take a long hard look at programs that are optional, programs that lack rigor, or relevance or excellence. We have to make investments where there's a positive return in terms of student success,” Studley said.

Davies acknowledged Thursday the school will have more graduates this year than projected first-year students enrolling, meaning reversing the enrollment decline will take time to fix. 

What is the Washington Commons project? 

The Washington Commons project, as designed, would include 179 units with a total of 412 beds for non-first-year students who wanted to remain on campus. 

CMU vice president of student recruitment and retention Jennifer DeHaemers said in a February CMU news release the project is part of the university’s efforts to attract new students and keep current ones.   

“Students have made it clear they are interested in modern, more independent living options,”  she said in the post. “If we do not offer those options at CMU, they may seek them elsewhere.”

But with the pause, some university leaders signaled they were open to looking into other housing plans. Some students are concerned about the price of the new housing.

Both Studley and Trustee Edward Plawecki said they wanted to ensure students could afford to live in whatever spaces are created. 

Vice president for finance and administrative services and chief financial officer Nick Long said the university has the “potential opportunity” to address housing by thinking more creatively. 

At Thursday’s meeting, one student recommended using a tiered method where the university offers small units that are cheaper and then have other options at a higher price, including the original plan for apartment style living. Long said that idea could have potential.

“We’ll continue to refine what we’re thinking about when it comes to independent style living, and then being conscious of the cost implications of housing and living on campus,” he said. 

All board members voted yes on the resolution, which affirms CMU’s interest in improving campus housing, but puts off until later this year a review of the project. 

Trustee Todd Anson said the construction of new apartment-style housing is designed to “meet market-driven needs.” 

“I believe that we’ll have a bigger, better, more vibrant CMU after we're able to get this project implemented, should we get to that point,” trustee Todd Anson said at the meeting. 

Some changes will occur regardless of whether the Washington Commons project eventually is approved. 

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Students who are currently living in housing that will be demolished will move to other housing options at CMU or have the university help them find similar housing off campus, said executive director of student affairs Kathleen Gardner. The current housing will close after the local school district’s academic year has completed.

The parking lot renovations will start this summer, with construction of a new lot to begin in August and demolition of the older housing starting in the fall.

It’s possible the full cost of the project will change. CMU currently anticipates completion of the Washington Commons project would cost $121 million. This number could change if leaders choose a different type of housing or if supply or borrowing costs change. 

Long said the university would need to use bonds to pay for the project and he anticipates there will be higher interest rates in the future.

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