University President George Ross discusses tuition increase, graduation rate


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University President George Ross visits the Central Michigan Life office on March 4 in Moore Hall.

A handful of people knew University President George Ross was a candidate to be the next president of the University of Nebraska before it became public.

During his interview, an official from UN asked Ross what his relationship was like with the board of trustees at Central Michigan University. 

Ross told the official about sharing the news with Bill Kanine, the chair of the board.

"I said, 'Bill Kanine knows that I'm sitting here today, interviewing for the presidency,'" Ross said. "That's my relationship."

After choosing to remain at CMU, Ross received a lot of support. He said students, faculty and staff knew it was a great opportunity for him, but said they're glad he stayed.

"University of Nebraska is a pretty big, spectacular place, but I'm happy with the decision I made," he said. "CMU is a pretty spectacular place, too."

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President George Ross visits with Central Michigan Life Editorial Staff and answers questions March 4 in Moore Hall.

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President George Ross visits with Central Michigan Life Advertising Staff March 4 in Moore Hall.

Being honest is important to Ross, he said, and he keeps integrity and character in mind with every decision he makes for CMU and its staff, faculty and students. Central Michigan Life sat down with Ross to speak about leadership, student success and the future of the university. 

Most students expect that tuition will increase every year. As the cost of tuition nears $400 per credit hour, do you envision CMU ever having to draw a line we can't cross? 

Tuition doesn't sit in a vacuum. There is an inverse relation between state appropriations and tuition. 

As I testified before the Senate subcommittee of education, 17 percent of the budget is coming from the state. In the last 35 years it was north of 70 percent. I'm proud to say, as I've said to the committee, the last five years since I've been president, we've had the lowest increase in tuition of the 15 universities. We strive to do that. We can't operate on state funding even though we're called a state university. We are trying constantly to convince the legislature to invest in higher education. If you look at tuitions across all 15 universities in the state, it's not something that's unique to CMU. Tuition is rising all over the country.

In Michigan, universities are eligible for increases in funding if they meet prerequisites in the state budget, including the tuition cap of 2.8 percent. What would have to happen at CMU to consider exceeding the cap and increasing tuition beyond Gov. Snyder's limit? 

I just refuse to use the term "an increase in funding." The term I use is partial restoration. CMU, along with our sister universities, are autonomous. The state has no legal authority to put in tuition caps. It's a practical matter. Every university has adhered to tuition restraints since Gov. Snyder has been elected. CMU is the first university in the state to set its tuition, and we will be again this year. We set the tuition before knowing what the final budget will be. 

Do you think a tuition increase would affect our enrollment rates at all?

For us, we'll admit probably close to 5,000 students this fall, with transfer student numbers remaining pretty flat. It could. With more funding directed toward community college and away from universities, it could.

President Obama, in his State of the Union address, proposed making two years of community college "as free and universal in America as high schools today." If this plan is implemented, how do you think that could affect CMU?

I think there is a positive place for universities and people that graduate from them. At the end of the day, for the overall health and wealth of our state, students with these four-year degrees are making a significant difference. Students leave here and wind up majoring in a different job, because of their ability to learn. I hear the president and the governor talking about community colleges, but at the end of the day for me it's about higher education. It's what we do at the university, so I'm going to keep fighting for that. 

How do you define student success?

For students, success is different plateaus. When you arrive here, my first check on success is if we keep you here and keep you engaged, so retention is part of that plateau. Success, for me, is completion. You come here to get a degree. A significant plateau is that you actually graduate. Success is that you leave here going to a job, in some cases graduate school. Success is being back in your communities, and not necessarily home, but in Michigan, that you're back in communities making a positive difference. Faculty and staff on this campus all play a part in that, and (students) play a part in that, because you have to participate. I do believe in my gut that that's why we're here. With all of the tough, big decisions I have to deal with, I honestly get it down to a very simple equation for me: What is the best decision, given the evidence, that I can make to help make our students successful? It really gets that basic for me. It is tough, but if I keep that in front of me, it crystalizes things for me. 

Recently, the Bridge Magazine did a story on the graduation rate among Michigan public universities. Only 20 percent of CMU students graduate in four years. Is that an acceptable percentage to you?

No, it's not an acceptable percentage if you look across the country. I don't defend it; I think we need to do a lot better to put it in context with the rest of America. 

The four-year graduation rate is abysmal across this country. We have to do better at our six-year rate at about 57 percent, which actually makes us very competitive across the U.S., but it still means 43 out of 100 students don't graduate in six years. I don't think that's acceptable. 

One of the strategic priorities we talk about with student success is to improve at the six-year level, and at the four-year level. 

Some students don't understand the value of research conducted at small public universities like CMU. Can you explain why you believe there is value? Is CMU becoming more active as a research institution? 

I truly believe research informs teaching and learning. Without research pushing scholarship and scholarship informing teaching and learning, that's the connectivity as far as our university community. The bottom line for me is that scholarship informs teaching and learning. I think it's important. In my tenure here, we will be a primarily teaching university. Research is important. I think we should do more, but we will primarily do teaching while I'm here. 

On campus students are having a hard time getting into some sections, pushing them to take online courses through Global Campus. Is Global Campus the best way to have these on campus students get into their classes?

Online or hybrid, or even face-to-face, is about access and how you deliver education. Online is an evolution of access. My belief is that it will continue to evolve. I think we have to make that access available to our students. If certain courses are on that online format, it provides greater access. My belief is that if we don't provide that access to our students, they will find a way to take it online and transfer it back here. I don't think it's either or, I think they complement each other. Scheduling is between the dean and the department chairs. The decision for class offerings is based on student demand for those courses. 

In response to the projected decline in high school enrollment, you challenged the university officials to increase Global Campus numbers. You also mentioned at the Board of Trustees meeting that the market has become more competitive. Other institutions are starting to catch up to us. How do we continue to be innovative? 

We've been operating it since 1971. We are raising questions internally about the role of Global Campus going forward. There are market pressures out there. There are institutions that started much later than us, but offer much more sophisticated offerings. I want the faculty and the staff together to figure out what makes sense for our students. You can't teach everything online, I get that. The bigger question about global campus is the world of Global Campus and online in reference to the curriculum at CMU. What do we need to look like? What is it going to look like 10 years from now? We should be planning toward that right now. My belief is more students on campus will be taking online classes. The bigger question is appropriate offerings. What we are doing online right now we will not be doing in 10 years. It's going to be much more sophisticated. 

Looking back, how has shared governance affected your relationship with faculty?

It's about who participates in the decision-making process in this community of scholars. When I charged the shared governance and communication committee back in 2012, that group actually did some study. They ordered research, a book. They studied the book. They met every Tuesday morning at 8 for 18 months. It was faculty. It was staff. In our history at CMU, there have been blow ups on this campus about shared governance and what it means. My involvement is trying to get a definition we can all agree with. To that extent, the committee has been about to do that. I think we are doing well.

What has been the most rewarding part of being president of this university?

Watching the progress of students. I say it with all sincerity. I've gotten to meet and know students, faculty and staff personally. I talk about education transforming lives. I start with myself being one of 12 kids. If it wasn't for education, I wouldn't be sitting here. It makes a difference. I've seen students at our university who wouldn't be doing what they're doing now without a CMU education. The most rewarding part is not only talking about my personal story of transformation, but also watching it. On those tough days, I think about how I'm probably making a little difference some place because there are students progressing here, leaving and going to to do great things. 

What's been the biggest challenge? 

Communication, communication, communication. It's the toughest part of my job. It's not only what I saw. It's the look on my face, the inflection of my voice. It's not just me. Communication is tough because we all filter messages. The budget will be a problem, but we're going to deal with it. I'm very concerned with only spending what we have. If we have to adjust budgets, we will. Not everybody will be happy, but as long as my wife and daughters love me, I'm good. 

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About Sydney Smith

Sydney Smith is a super-senior at Central Michigan University. She comes from metro Detroit ...

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