A sagging economy, a university lacking direction and leadership of a fledgling medical school greeted George Ross in March 2010.
“The faculty and staff were and remain hardworking, dedicated individuals, but the university lacked direction,” the Central Michigan University president wrote in his recent self-assessment report.
The 17-page report by Ross, obtained by Central Michigan Life following the December board of trustees meeting, outlines goals and expectations placed on him upon his December 2009 appointment, while also serving as a defense for a hectic, and at times mistake-driven, 2011-12 academic year.
In the report, Ross blamed a weak state and national economy on future enrollment efforts and declining state appropriations but also said it “formed the backdrop of other challenges facing CMU.” When he started in March 2010, 15 of the university’s 39 senior officers were working on an interim basis, including Provost Gary Shapiro.
“The university had suspended its strategic planning process in Spring 2009,” Ross wrote. “As I arrived on campus, I was greeted with the question: ‘Who are we and where are we going?’”
Ross also acknowledged a lack of direction with the fledgling College of Medicine, approved in 2008 under then-president Michael Rao, but under tremendous scrutiny from several campus constituencies. By the spring of 2010, there still was no permanent dean or senior staff members, no facility or money to show for and a self-study report for accreditation that had not started.
“Hospital affiliation agreements were being discussed, but only a few had been executed, and we faced challenges in negotiating primary partner relationships and agreements in the Saginaw community,” Ross continued. “CMU’s research profile lagged behind our peer institutions, having stagnated after some earlier improvements through investment in faculty.”
Ross said the board identified expectations it wanted him to meet, including a campus plan and to “move the university in a positive strategic direction.” They asked him to examine CMU’s mission and strengthen financing and resources through “enhanced relationships with legislators in Lansing and Washington, D.C.”
Enrollment has also become a major concern, evident by figures showing a 2.2-percent overall decline in fall 2012, including an alarming 12.4-percent drop among freshmen.
Ross hired Steven Johnson as the university’s first vice president of enrollment and student services, charged with trying to figure out a way to make CMU more attractive for potential college students.
In the report, Ross touts the steps he took to deal with internal and external conditions, including charging a presidential transition team that led to academic prioritization, laying the ground work for strategic planning, enrollment management and the recently approved facilities master plan.
Even so, Ross acknowledged that some of these goals were not accomplished during the 2011-12 academic year in which he described “a difficult one for the university.”
“Contentious negotiation of the Faculty Association contract strained the relationship between faculty members and the administration,” he wrote.
Ross also pushed back at the Academic Senate’s December 2011 vote of “no confidence” against himself and Shapiro, pointing out the 26-24 vote in favor of declaring “no confidence” in the administration included 19 senators not in the room.
“Yet, this vote by 26 members and those they represent–a vote later echoed by about 20 academic departments–represented voices that needed to be heard,” Ross wrote. “It revealed a relationship that needed attention.”
In the report, Ross touts his response to the divide, charging a committee on shared governance and communication, meeting regularly with FA leadership, academic departments, staff focus groups and the Student Government Association.
“I have taken dramatic steps to bring the campus together, to heal and to create more effective processes,” Ross wrote. “The lessons of last fall tell us we at CMU must address these matters with diligence. We must work to achieve the same level of cohesion with faculty that exists with staff, alumni and other external stakeholder groups.”
Ross’ work was confirmed in December when the CMU Board of Trustees gave him full support following a lengthy job review that did include 12 points of constructive criticism, echoing much of the president’s self-assessment report.
Students, administrators, community members, officials and university stakeholders, by and large, believe in the job he’s doing. But Ross continues to fall short with faculty, which conducted a fall survey that continues to show substantial unhappiness with the job he’s done.
The survey, which included a 39.7-percent response rate from faculty, was not included in the board’s review of Ross.
Ross acknowledged the survey and report at the meeting, saying communication is key in moving forward.
“I hear you loud and clear,” Ross said to the board. “I hear the constituents loud and clear.”