Eastern Michigan University President James Smith urges Michigan lawmakers to support state’s universities as they cope with costs of pandemic

EMU has worked hard to reduce costs, yet remains a distinct institution of opportunity with a powerful focus on educating students for high-demand careers, President Smith says in testimony before state legislators

YPSILANTI – Eastern Michigan University has worked hard to reduce costs, yet now, like so many of its peers, faces acute challenges amid the COVID-19 pandemic as it seeks to continue preparing students for high-demand careers that benefit the state of Michigan, President James Smith told Lansing lawmakers today (Thursday, March 18).

EMU President James Smith
President James Smith

“The nationwide impact on higher education from COVID-19 has been catastrophic,” President Smith said in testimony to members of the House Higher Education Subcommittee, noting that Eastern has lost more than $67 million in revenues from tuition, housing, dining, and other services.

Eastern has incurred more than $6 million in COVID-related expenses, and that number continues to climb as the University maintains its sharp focus on safeguarding the health of its students, faculty and staff, President Smith said.

President Smith urged lawmakers to understand the unique context the past year has imposed on the state’s public universities, and to be mindful of that in future state budget planning.

EMU “an institution of opportunity”

In making that point, President Smith noted the distinct role EMU plays in Michigan’s economy and the state’s educational landscape.

He noted that nearly 90 percent of EMU students are from Michigan, and that nearly 80 percent of graduates remain in the state after graduation.

“We are an institution of opportunity – our mission is to serve students who might not otherwise have the chance to attend college,” President Smith said, adding that the majority of EMU students work while they are in college, and that nearly 25 percent are first-generation students.

Increasing efficiency and reducing costs

In addition to being very diverse, Eastern Michigan is a lean institution, President Smith said.

“We have spent the last several years making the difficult – but needed –  decisions to increase efficiency and reduce costs,” he said. “For these reasons, we thank the Governor for proposing additional funds for higher education in the fiscal year 2022 budget.”

Yet Smith expressed disappointment at the possibility that the funds would be one-time payments.

“One-time payments, while better than nothing, do not provide the ability to plan our finances beyond one year – thereby providing uncertainty for our students and parents,” President Smith said. “We therefore urge the legislature to maintain the Governor’s proposed funding increase, but to make those dollars an increase to our base appropriation rather than a one-time payment.”

Helping drive economic growth

President Smith encouraged lawmakers to recognize that, as a state, investing in higher education is the best and most cost-effective way to drive long-term economic growth.

“The fastest growing jobs generally require a college degree in fields such as health care, technology, and finance, just to name a few,” President Smith said. “College graduates earn more money, they have lower unemployment rates and are more likely to own a home.”

Unfortunately, President Smith added, Michigan continues to spend less on higher education than it did 20 years ago – and that is before adjusting for inflation. In just two decades, Michigan has dropped from 20th in the nation to 44th in per-capita investment in higher education, President Smith said.

“I know you face difficult choices in an uncertain economic environment,” President Smith told lawmakers in concluding his remarks. “But the data are clear: investing in higher education pays off – now and tomorrow.”

 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.

March 18, 2021

Written by:
Geoff Larcom

Geoff Larcom