A dramatic campus transformation is happening at the University of Michigan — only, it’s not happening here in Ann Arbor. With record-high freshmen enrollment, a new residence hall housing and potential plans to expand its athletic and recreational facilities even further, the University’s Flint campus is in the midst of a complete campus overhaul. It’s about time. The University’s two satellite campuses in Dearborn and Flint have been, at best, overshadowed by the Ann Arbor campus and, at worst, neglected by it. Building these two satellite schools into rivals of the Ann Arbor campus will give two struggling Michigan cities a much-needed boost.

While freshman enrollment increased slightly at the University’s Dearborn campus, this year’s changes have been especially dramatic at the University’s Flint campus. Largely because the campus opened its first residence hall this semester and also because of new recuitment efforts, freshman enrollment shot up this year to 909 students. Compared to last year’s class of 626 freshmen, this was a 42-percent jump in freshman enrollment, the largest in the school’s history.

This year’s changes, however, are just one part of the master plan for the Flint campus established in 2004. That plan hopes to expand the Flint campus beyond its traditional base of commuter students. By 2010, the campus hopes to add another 800 students for an overall headcount of 8,000 students. And eventually it hopes to hit a total enrollment of 10,000 students, with roughly 25 to 33 percent living on campus. As the opening of the new residence hall shows: If you build it, students will come.

Regrettably, a lot of what is happening now is playing catch up. When the University’s Flint and Dearborn campuses were founded in 1956 and 1959, respectively, the plan was for them to rival the Ann Arbor campus. But unlike the University of California system, which also branched out with satellite campuses around the same time but now has nearly a dozen reputable schools to show for the effort, the University of Michigan’s campuses in Flint and Dearborn never became much more than commuter trade schools for the all-important auto industry.

Whether you want to blame the University for poorly planning its satellite campuses or the state for not committing the necessary resources (sound familiar?), the simple truth is that the Flint and Dearborn campuses don’t hold a candle to the roughly 41,000 student-strong Ann Arbor campus. But the latest attention being paid to the Flint campus and the Dearborn campus (which expanded its freshmen class slightly to an estimated 960 students) is long overdue.

Flint and, to a lesser extent, Dearborn are cities ravaged by the same economic reliance on the auto industry that has recently crippled metro Detroit. Revitalizing these campuses will help invigorate these cities with a proven formula: Pump the city full of consumption-happy young people, attract high-tech industry with the promise of a highly educated workforce and watch the economy blossom. That’s largely the formula here in Ann Arbor, and thanks in large part to it, the city has been insulated from Michigan’s seven-year recession.

Rebuilding Michigan’s economy after a half century of reliance on the auto industry will take time. And rebuilding the University’s Flint and Dearborn campuses after nearly a half century of second-class status will take time. But both have a fate that is interwined and dependent on a consistent committment from the state and the University. This time they shouldn’t miss the opportunity.

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