The Reality of Higher Education is Change 

Focus on the Presidency

By Santa Ono    //    Volume 32,  Number 1   //    January/February 2024

As higher education leaders, we aspire to stability for our institutions, for our faculty, and researchers and teams. Yet the reality of higher education is change.

So we must be change managers—constantly reimagining and recreating, always adapting to both the short-term needs and concerns of many different constituencies as well as to the long-term trends that will shape the future of our universities.

This is a challenge for all of us, especially in these times.

Much of the time, universities evolve and change gradually. Yet they may also go through periods of sudden, rapid change, through a punctuated equilibrium that disrupts their long-laid plans, opens new horizons, and sets them on decisive new trajectories.

We are seeing those changes in institutions across the country.

In the September/October issue of Trusteeship, David Tobenkin described how rural-serving institutions are embracing innovation and location to overcome challenges.1 And at the University of West Virginia, major cuts have been made, as President Gordon Gee said, in order “to be able to invest in the programs that we think are going to be essential for our institution.”2

Our University of Michigan-Flint campus also went through an extremely challenging period. Flint’s population has shrunk by about 60 percent since 1960, and it has gone through incredible fiscal and economic stress including decades of economic decline, two periods of state receivership, the water crisis, and the COVID-19 pandemic.3

As a consequence, UM-Flint, which was founded in 1956, suffered as well.4 It saw a 25 percent decline in enrollment between 2015 and 2022, it experienced budget deficits and accordant budget cuts, including significant cuts to the ranks of its lecturers.

In response, during the 2022–2023 academic year, UM-Flint embarked on a Strategic Transformation planning process,5 which continues to this day. Its goal is to see UM-Flint emerge as an academically strong and financially viable institution that is an undisputed engine for economic growth and social mobility in the region.

The trends are already improving. Last fall, for the first time in nearly a decade, UM-Flint recorded an increase in fall enrollment, including an increase in new undergraduate students for the second year in a row, and an increase in new graduate students.

I’m hopeful that through the strategic transformation process, upward enrollment at UM-Flint will not only sustain but accelerate.

Concurrently, we have launched a 10-year strategic visioning process called Vision 20346 for three of our campuses—Ann Arbor, Flint, and Dearborn, as well as Michigan Medicine—designed to sharpen our impact and determine who we are, what we want to stand for, and what we will dare to achieve as a university.

Our vision is not intended to be a detailed and prescriptive plan, but rather a North Star which will point our way forward, and under which we will align our assets and resources as a university.

We’ve spent a year engaging thousands of members of our community in this visioning effort, and after a process of study and consolidation, expect to formally launch the vision later this spring, and then begin the work of making it a reality.

Accompanying our strategic visioning, we have also launched a campus planning process—Campus Plan 20507—a blueprint for our future which will ensure our physical campuses evolve to provide the living, learning and working environments necessary to fulfill our strategic vision, and ensure that in the days and decades hence, we will continue to be a university where all members of our community can learn, grow, and thrive.

As we do so, we want to sustain U-M’s place as a leading public research university. We had a significant research volume this past fiscal year of $1.86 billion, but leadership is a choice, one that must be made every day.

So we embarked on an external research review, convening U-M experts and external partners to assess the current state of our research and creative practice enterprise, and to offer strategic guidance on ways we can more effectively advance our mission.

Based on their insights, we plan to implement a series of tactics and strategies to advance our research excellence and accelerate our groundbreaking discoveries, even as we continue to serve as a wellspring of education and training for future research leaders.

That’s truly our aspiration as higher education leaders—adapting and readapting, recreating and reimagining, and reenvisioning—looking to stability but never standing still. In our constantly changing environments, we will continue to do all we can to ensure that our institutions sustain and grow and thrive on a solid foundation.

Santa J. Ono, PhD, is the 15th president of the University of Michigan. He also serves as chair of the U-M Health Board, Fulbright Canada, the University Climate Change Coalition (UC3), and as an honorary Chairperson of the Japan America Society of Michigan and Southwestern Ontario.


Notes

1. David Tobenkin, “Rural Institutions: Embracing Innovation and Location to Overcome Challenges,” Trusteeship, September/October 2023, https://agb.org/trusteeship-article/rural-institutions/.

2. Hari Sreenivasan and Christina Romano, “Students Protest West Virginia Univ. Budget Cuts Targeting Academic Programs and Jobs,” PBS NewsHour, October 31, 2023, https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/students-protest-west-virginia-univ-budget-cuts-targeting-academic-programs-and-jobs.

3. Ford School News, Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, University of Michigan, June 8, 2022, https://fordschool.umich.edu/news/2022/20-year-review-flint-finances-shows-consequences-lack-investment.

4. David Jesse, “U-M Flint Hits Crossroads as Enrollment Slumps; Transformation Study Underway,” Detroit Free Press, February 5, 2023, https://www.freep.com/in-depth/news/education/2023/02/05/u-m-flint-hits-crossroads-as-enrollment-slumps-transformation-study-underway/69818143007/.

5. University of Michigan-Flint, “Strategic Transformation Initiative,” updated September 22, 2023, https://www.umflint.edu/strategic-transformation/.

6. University of Michigan, Office of the President, “Vision 2034,” November 2022, https://president.umich.edu/initiatives-and-focus-areas/vision-2034/.

7. University of Michigan, Office of the President, “Campus Plan 2050,” n.d., https://president.umich.edu/initiatives-and-focus-areas/campus-plan-2050/.

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