‘Dramatic consequences.’ Eastern Michigan University President James Smith outlines how the pandemic has affected finances at Michigan’s public universities

COVID demands massive changes in course delivery, health protocols and campus layout, EMU leader tells Lansing lawmakers

YPSILANTI – The process of safeguarding the health of the campus community of Michigan’s public universities during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the pandemic’s effects on auxiliary revenues, has had a dramatic and unprecedented impact on each school’s budget, Eastern Michigan University President James Smith said Thursday.

“I know I speak for every public university in Michigan when I say this: This process has had dramatic negative consequences to our financial bottom line,” President Smith said in virtual testimony before the Michigan Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Universities and Community Colleges.  

EMU President James Smith
President James Smith

President Smith spoke on behalf of the state’s 15 public universities, which are represented by the Michigan Association of State Universities, or MASU.

‘The most difficult task of my career’
President Smith echoed the thoughts of other presidents in noting that managing a public university’s COVID response has been the most difficult task of his career. He sketched a variety of measures taken at EMU. Those included:

  • Revising the University’s entire scheduling system to modify how and where every course is delivered.
  • Designing new layouts for buildings, classrooms, and housing.
  • Preparing a comprehensive COVID health screening and compliance system.
  • Communicating extensively with the campus community during a time of uncertainty.

Expenses at Eastern
EMU has incurred enormous expenses related to cleaning, testing and technology, President Smith told the committee, with COVID testing alone costing well over $1 million.

Other expenses and effects have included:

  • EMU has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars buying more than 500,000 face coverings, and millions of dollars in housing and dining refunds last winter.
    Today, fewer people live in campus housing, which historically has helped subsidize other campus operations.
  • Fewer students are enrolled, and those who are enrolled are taking fewer classes.
    Facilities are not being rented to high schools for proms, SAT and ACT testing, and graduation ceremonies.

President Smith noted that Eastern takes pride in being an institution of opportunity, meaning the University supports students who often work there while attending college.

“But with fewer jobs due to the economic impact of the pandemic, those students have fewer chances to earn money to pay their tuition,” he said. “That means they’re taking fewer classes or even stopping out completely – taking a semester or year-long break.”

A “new normal” that’s much different
President Smith said that on-campus life must and will return to universities, but that the “new normal” after COVID will look different, and it will be a slow transition.

“Rather than a light switch that we flip on or off, the return to a new normal will be akin to a dimmer switch that slowly slides up,” he said.

Long-term changes will include more courses being delivered fully or partially online, and greater investment in technology. That means more laptops, more hotspots and broadening access to technology among a student population with highly varied resources, President Smith said.

Another permanent change will occur in accelerating or altering the delivery of non-academic student services, prime examples being campus mental health and student housing, in which many students will prefer single rooms.

Unknown elements
President Smith concluded by noting that there are some aspects of college operations where the future remains somewhat unknown.

“We do not know what kind of impact COVID will have on students’ ability to remain in college all the way through receiving their degree” President Smith said. “Retention of students is a significant unknown … As we slowly evolve to a post-COVID ‘new normal,’ it will be important for institutions of higher education to support students to help them persist toward a degree.”

President Smith said he believes that higher education has done its best to rise to challenges posed by an unprecedented global pandemic.

“The cost was dramatic,” he said. “Make no mistake – any cost savings in areas like reduced travel and federal assistance were vastly outpaced by the astonishing cost increases.”

President Smith noted that Michigan now ranks 44th in the nation in per-capita investment in higher education, adding that just 20 years ago, Michigan ranked 20th.

“Other states are beating us by investing more in higher education, just as we are investing less here in Michigan – and that is why they are creating new, high-paying jobs,” President Smith said. “We join business leaders from throughout Michigan in calling for a significant new investment in higher education.

“That investment is even more important in light of the rapid changes as a result of COVID.”

Vaccinations for faculty and staff
President Smith told the lawmakers that he is in support of prioritizing faculty and staff personnel at Michigan universities for earlier vaccinations, given their interaction with student populations on campus.


About Eastern Michigan University

Founded in 1849, Eastern is the second oldest public university in Michigan. It currently serves more than 16,000 students pursuing undergraduate, graduate, specialist, doctoral and certificate degrees in the arts, sciences and professions. In all, more than 300 majors, minors and concentrations are delivered through the University's Colleges of Arts and Sciences; Business; Education; Engineering and Technology; Health and Human Services; and, its graduate school. EMU is regularly recognized by national publications for its excellence, diversity, and commitment to applied education. For more information about Eastern Michigan University, visit the University's website.

February 11, 2021

Written by:
Geoff Larcom

Media Contact:
Geoff Larcom