03 March 2011

House Rep Reverses Statement Of Possible University Closures In MI

The chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Higher Education ignited a heated controversy after mentioning that some universities in the state may be closing due to Michigan's large budget deficit.

However after Rep. Bob Genetski, R-Saugatuck told Crain’s Detroit Business News that the potential shut down of one or two public universities was "a real possibility," he revoked his statement.

Rep. Genetski flipped is comments, telling Lansing's Gongwer News Service that he had no intentions of cutting the funds for any universities.

Prior to his backpedaling statement, on Monday the chair said to Crain's that some of the state's public universities, including Oakland University, Eastern Michigan University, University of Michigan-Flint, and Ferris State University, may be closing as Michigan follows through with budget cuts. "Unless the economy turns around big time, it's a very real possibility," he said.

Genetski added that the state's three research universities - Michigan State University, the University of Michigan and Wayne State University - are safe from closure.

"The research institutions have a bigger niche than everyone else right now and are pretty well-defined," the chair said. "We'd be looking at some of the regional institutions."

In the interviews conducted by Crain's Detroit Business News, Genetski said closing one or two regional universities would help to maintain minimal tuition hikes at the remaining colleges.

"Really, we're trying to buffer cuts to all schools by closing an institution or two," he said. "Otherwise, we're going to have a bunch of public universities that no one can afford to attend."

Eric Keldermen, a reporter for the Chronicle for Higher Education based in Washington D.C., thinks otherwise. Shutting down an institution would have the opposite effect on tuition, he said.

The closure of just one university would result in more students attending existing universities, which would force these schools to expand capacity and hire staff before increasing enrollment. One potentially optimistic outcome from a closure would be the efficiency of offering more opportunities in the way of online MBA courses.

"We want to reward colleges that keep tuition low, but what you're going to do is cause increased demand on other campuses, and what they are going to do is raise tuition," Keldermen said.

The communications officer at Ferris State University, Marc Sheehan, added that universities across the state are driving up enrollment and tuition costs across the board and closing a university would cause bottlenecks in education. Compounding the concerns are more limited professional programs that only select universities offer, like Michigan MBA degrees or PhD's.

Enrollment at Ferris has steadily grown 32 percent over the past decade for the mid-Michigan university, from 10,930 students in 2001 to 14,381 students in 2010. The university has also experienced tremendous growth in its MBA courses.

Shutting down any of Michigan's universities would lead to fewer graduates in the state, claimed Michael Boulus, executive director of the Presidents Council, State Universities of Michigan.

In an email to Crain's, Boulus wrote "If we close colleges, we will have fewer graduates — there is very little room for expansion at the other schools. In other words, if Genetski wants to close two schools, then are we willing to tell students and the employers who depend on these regional universities for graduates that they will have to go elsewhere for education and training?"

Also weighing in on the topic was Gov. Rick Snyder. He shot down the idea of closing any universities in Michigan.

"We shouldn't walk away from our universities," he told Lansing's Gongwer. "I'm a big advocate, long-term, of, we need more students going through our universities. Higher ed's important in our state. ...We've got a great group of institutions, and I hope they all can successfully navigate through the challenging times we all face together."

In a series of hearings with university presidents, which is to stretch throughout March, a subcommittee plans to evaluate these as well as other budget-related matters.

Proposing to shut down a university would be opposed by community leaders because educational institutes are powerful drivers to the local economy, Kelderman said.

"I would argue that the legislators in those areas are going to be resistant because those are big employers in their region and students are big spenders in the region," he said.

Budget constraints have resulted in significant proposals in many states throughout the country.

Legislators in Texas have proposed shutting down four community colleges and cutting financial aid for incoming freshmen. Arizona's governor has proposed slashing funding for public universities by 20 percent and 50% of allocations to community colleges.

Fortunately, no public university in U.S. has been closed because of budget constraints, said Kelderman. The creation of a state public university system or a regional board of governance system, like those in California, is an option to aiding the deficit, he added.

"Michigan's campuses have more autonomy than any other state has," Kelderman said. "Combining some of the administrative campuses is a more plausible idea."

Genetski told Crain's that a current bill exists proposing a state system, but the bill is expected to see opposition by Michigan's research universities whose boards are protected under the Michigan Constitution.

Ferris State, UM, Grand Valley State University and Oakland University were scheduled to testify today in front of the House and Senate subcommittees on higher education.

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