In Flint, a campus trying to find itself

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U-M Flint Chancellor Ruth Person attends the Board of Regents meeting in Flint, Mich., Friday. Buy this photo

By Sam Gringlas, Daily Staff Reporter
Published October 19, 2013

FLINT, Mich. — Just a 55-mile drive up US-23 from Ann Arbor, the University’s Flint campus is by no means geographically distant.

On the satellite campus, streetlight banners display the same Block ‘M,’ and in a conference room at the Harding Mott University Center, the same regents and executive officers crowded a long table at the annual meeting at the Flint campus on Friday to discuss an array of University proposals.

But in many ways, UM-Flint faces very different challenges than the University’s flagship campus in Ann Arbor.

In an interview Friday, UM-Flint Chancellor Ruth Person said recruiting and enrolling students presents the campus’s greatest challenge.

“For institutions like this, continuing to have a robust enrollment in the future is always going to be a challenge,” Person said.

Person partly blamed Michigan’s decline on demographic shifts, as the population ages and fewer families with children move to the state.

“You can see that curve of high-school students going down,” Person said. “They’re gone, and they’re not going to come back immediately.”

But UM-Flint has coped — and excelled — in creative ways, as Jon Davidson, director of admissions for U-M Flint, explained in a presentation to the regents.

Undergraduate enrollment has increased by 22.6 percent since 2007, according to U-M Flint data. Current undergraduate enrollment is 8,555 — a record high despite a challenging recruitment climate.

Davidson said enrollment growth is a strategic necessity. UM-Flint, like the rest of the University, has been forced to contend with shrinking state funding. With the capacity for more students, Davidson said increased enrollment provides further financial resources via tuition dollars.

“Clearly Ann Arbor doesn’t have enrollment challenges,” Person said. “They have more applicants than they can possibly deal with, but lots of other institutions more like UM-Flint and UM-Dearborn probably have similar kinds of challenges.”

As a commuter campus traditionally relying on Genesee County residents, UM-Flint is working to expand its enrollment of international students, first-time students and military veterans.

To recruit those students, UM-Flint has been reshaping its identity over the past five years to capture a larger demographic. In 2008, UM-Flint opened its first residence hall after five decades as a commuter campus.

Donna Fry, an associate dean in the UM-Flint School of Health Professions and Studies, said the campus is still grappling with its character.

“We’re still trying to define ourselves more clearly, and becoming a residential in addition to a commuter campus is part of that definition,” Fry said. “I think we need to define how far we’re going to go in terms of the residential part of our campus.”

UM-Flint’s growth has also been spurred by recent glimmers of renewal in the economically distressed city. The city of Flint has operated under a series of four emergency financial managers since December 2011, all appointed by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder.

“This growth has been a result of the transformation of both the campus and the downtown area,” Davidson, the admissions director, said. “Flint has received quite a lot of revitalization in the last few years, and that has contributed to a much more inviting environment.”

UM-Flint’s role in the future of the city seems equally as decisive.

When the University opened a satellite institution in Flint in 1956, the city’s assembly lines were still humming. Business for General Motors — the automobile company founded in Flint in 1904 — was booming. Brand new Buicks rolled out of plants in Northeast Flint bound for destinations across the United States.

But as companies shuttered their factories in the second half of the 20th century, urban decay, unemployment and crime packed a heavy punch. At its peak, General Motors employed more than 80,000 blue- and white-collar workers in the city during the 1970s. Today, the company has fewer than 8,000 employees across all of its Flint operations. The population has also fallen from 196,940 citizens in 1960 to 100,515 today. In 2012, Forbes rated Flint as the most dangerous city in the United States.

Despite initially bleak prospects, downtown is beginning to find its footing. Spurred in part by UM-Flint’s recent growth, the city is mounting a comeback.

“If you came into town and you drove around, you could see we are an anchor tenant in the city of Flint,” Person said. “This campus has a huge footprint in the middle of the city. We are an economic driver.”

Mark Hoffman, owner of Hoffman’s Deco Deli on Garland Street, said Flint’s downtown has changed dramatically over the past few years. He correlates Flint’s revitalization with the UM-Flint’s move towards a residential campus.

Hoffman, who has been in business for five years, has noticed big impacts on the local economy since UM-Flint introduced student housing in 2008. Students and faculty are frequent customers at the deli, located a few blocks from campus.

“UM-Flint has been a big part of helping Flint regain its popularity,” Hoffman said. “Everybody around here welcomes the University with open arms because they know it will impact their business and stimulate others.”

Hoffman, one of UM-Flint’s approved caterers, said the University strives to work with local businesses as well.

“As long as they keep doing what they’re doing, in five years, Flint could be another Ann Arbor,” he said.

Fry, the associate health dean, said the school also works with the city to collaborate on strategic planning for Flint’s future development. She added that the next chancellor will play a large role in determining the extent of UM-Flint’s future connections to the city. Person will step down from her role as chancellor in August 2014 — one month after University President Mary Sue Coleman finishes her term as the leader of the University system. A search for a new chancellor is already underway.

“Over the years we’ve had more or less of that,” Fry said. “And right now, we really need more.”

At Friday’s meeting of the Board of Regents, UM-Flint students also asked for more support from the University administrators in Ann Arbor.

During the public comments segment, three students read speeches berating regents and administrators for their failure to address student concerns on the Flint campus.

“You have denied us a voice by failing to provide students with adequate representation in the decision making process on campus,” UM-Flint student Shaquille Greene, the campus’s Black Student Union president, said in a speech.

A group of about a dozen students stood up and read parts of the speech in unison.

The students expressed discontent with the board’s decision not to meet in Flint next year. Instead, the regents will hold their October 2014 meeting in Grand Rapids, Mich.

“If you feel you can best do those jobs from Ann Arbor, so be it,” Greene said. “But the tradeoff has to be that you institute and support sustainable systems to address problems on our campus in your absence.”

Flint student government president Amir Baz echoed similar sentiments during his report to the regents.

At presidential search forums in Dearborn and Flint, attendees also emphasized the need for the next president to improve connections between Ann Arbor and the University’s satellite campuses.

Fry pointed out that neither UM-Flint nor UM-Dearborn is represented on the Presidential Search Advisory Committee.

“Sometimes UM-Flint and UM-Dearborn are kind of dropped off the radar, and so it’s a matter of keeping on the radar,” Fry said.

However, Fry pointed out the satellite campuses benefit from many symbiotic relationships such as internship opportunities and graduate school recruitment.

Fry and Person, who graduated from the University in Ann Arbor, said forging relationships with Ann Arbor administrators and faculty is also crucial.

“It’s just a constant need for us to try to keep a voice presence with the regents and the Ann Arbor campus,” Fry said.

And as UM-Flint pushes into its sixth decade, it will likely continue to mold its identity within the University of Michigan system and the city of Flint.

“When we say challenges, I look at those as opportunities,” Fry said. “Because there are a lot of good things happening on campus.”