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Eastern Michigan University's President optimistic for academic year despite numerous challenges

James Smith
Eastern Michigan University
Dr. James Smith


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and I'm David Fair. Well, you may have noticed the streets are busier today. There's bustling activity around the K-through-12 public schools and the institutions of higher learning in Washtenaw County. They're going to be busy today as well. The 2022 school year has begun. A lot of work took place on the campus of Eastern Michigan University over the summer, and there's a great deal of excitement and anticipation for what the academic year will bring. There's also a bit of a cloud with the potential of a strike by unionized, tenured and tenure track professors. Joining us in studio today is EMU president Dr. James Smith. And thank you for stopping by. I appreciate it.

Dr. James Smith: My pleasure, David. And it's a joy to be back in the studio and not with you on the telephone.

David Fair: Exactly right.

Dr. James Smith: Whether at home or other locations.

David Fair: Well, for those who don't know, WEMU is located in King Hall on the campus of Eastern Michigan University. And so, as you walked over today and you started to see those students about all those backpacks and smiling faces, do you, after all these years, still get kind of first day of class jitters?

Dr. James Smith: I do. Matter of fact, I was helping with move-in day. As I said, on one of the little social media feeds, I did not lift a refrigerator. And I get as excited, I think, as the students are and as the parents are, to show them the new things we've been working on and talk a little bit about what we think are our strategic priorities for the university. And it's always a fun day.

David Fair: For the past two years plus, we've obviously been dealing with some unusual circumstances with the pandemic ongoing, and it continues today, even high transmittable levels throughout Washtenaw County. How are protocols going to be different this year?

Dr. James Smith: Well, we have some good safety measures in place, and we've been articulating those. The one that is probably the most noteworthy is faculty's ability to determine whether they want masking in their classroom or not. Provost Longworth has worked very hard with faculty leadership to get the right kind of syllabus language to explain to students just as if you and I were teaching classes, David, and you said, "I don't have an attendance requirement." And I say you do. That's the professor's priority or prerogative. So, we're working with that. And, outside, no masking requirements--inside in the hallways, no masking requirements. But we're still going to have telehealth, and we're still going to have our our testing clinic. And we're hoping to ease into a time where we don't have to do that. But, as you said, our county is not quite there today.

David Fair: With all that has had to go on to accommodate life with a pandemic, now there's the possibility of another outbreak--that, of course, monkeypox. How closely is the university administration and telehealth going to be monitoring that situation?

Dr. James Smith: We're watching it every day. We understand that the supply of vaccines for monkeypox is too low. We've spoken to our representatives in Washington saying, you know, we need to be on top of this. We need to be aware. Right now, I am not aware of any cases here on campus, but that can change within 24 hours. And we're aware of that. As you said, we've been a long ride with a pandemic.

David Fair: And it ain't over yet.

Dr. James Smith: [You can't say, you know, we're done because we're not done.

David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU on the first day of classes throughout the area, including at Eastern Michigan University. And we're talking with EMU president Dr. James Smith. Now, I've been on campus all summer, as you have, and I've noticed a great deal of construction and maintenance work. What was done over the summer that's going to enhance the student experience?

Dr. James Smith: Well, I mentioned earlier, you know, our focus on what our key priorities are, and the one that I think really symbolizes what this work that you've seen is our promotion of student success and engagement: How do we make our campus a place where students can be more successful? So, you know, the Welcome Home 2025 we've already marked off with fencing what was Westview townhouses, those will be demolished in apartments will go there. And right above the area that we call the Boathouse will be our new Lakeside Apartments. And then we have several other residence halls offline because we're going to modernize those, not demolish them, but modernize them. You saw basketball and volleyball courts be moved from that spot where we're going to have a new set of apartments over right next to the Rec IM where we've wanted to have it for a number of years. Again, students engaging with students, playing basketball, sand volleyball, doing things that are recreational is really important to us.

David Fair: So, future students are going to have some new housing options as EMU tries to keep up the facilities and amenities arms race that's taking place at college campuses across the country. Why did administration believe that privatizing housing at EMU was the right path to take?

Dr. James Smith: It's really not a privatization, and I understand that that's kind of a buzzword. It's a 501c3 that we've entered into as an agreement with a builder, with us, with an architectural firm where we all virtually pool our money in that 501c3 and then redistribute it. We still own every piece of our housing. You'll notice other places around the country, David, that literally sold their housing. We've not done that. We're in a relationship now that has common pooling of dollars. We still hire all of our residents, all folks. We hire all of our RA's, for example. But the really important part is, I think embedded in your question, is why would we do that? It's a $200 million plus project, and most institutions in the Midwest just can't borrow $208 million, for example. So, we found a way to work as a unique entity to make this happen for the benefit of our students.

David Fair: Well, that brings us to budget. There was more given to EMU from the state this fiscal year, but education, demographics, and trends at mid-major schools in particular have everybody fighting to keep enrollment numbers up. It's one of the reasons tuition keeps going up, that housing costs keep going up. How is enrollment and what will that impact have on the budget at EMU?

Dr. James Smith: Well, our first time in any college, as I said to you before we came on the air, fiddyac is a word that that we use, is almost identical to last year. We were at 2,255 last year, and we are 2,196. If I read the statistics--

David Fair: For incoming freshman class. Right. [

Dr. James Smith: For incoming freshman class. We have seen a little loss in juniors and sophomores returning. I think some of that is because of the job availability in the area, but we're going to continue to do the things that we've done. You all are welcome here. We've recruited around the world. We certainly continue to recruit around the country, and we want to have our facilities as filled as humanly possible.

David Fair: There was a time at Eastern Michigan University where student population was well over 20,000. Now it's 5 to 7,000 less than that. How does that bode for the future of Eastern Michigan University?

Dr. James Smith: It's a challenge. I think you've seen high schools that are much smaller than they were just five or six years ago. So, we're going to have to look a little further away from campus. Our big, sweet spot has always been five counties around our campus. And we're going to have to look at a little broader range for that. We also need to make sure that we bring students on who stay with us until graduation. The best day of a president's life is commencement. I say that all the time. We have too many students who stop out and drop out. And I don't care who they are. They tell me at 20, "I'm going to go take a job for six months." We often don't see them for three, four, or five years if we ever see them again. So, that's really critical as well.

David Fair: With the new academic year upon us, our guest on WEMU this morning is Dr. James Smith. He is the president of Eastern Michigan University. Now, there is a lot to the college experience, but the focus is on what happens in the classroom. The student body is only as good as those who choose to educate them. And right now, there are about 500 tenured and tenure track professors that feel undervalued. The membership of the EMU American Association of University Professors this weekend voted to authorize its bargaining team to call for a strike if a new contract isn't reached by the time the current contract expires. And that's only two days away. Additionally, this weekend, EMU administration did make another contract offer on Saturday. Has your bargaining team received a response as of yet?

Dr. James Smith: I don't know, because they were still bargaining late yesterday. I do assume that they will if they have not already received a response. And I would say this, Dave, and I've said it before in various places where I've served as administrator, we need to let the process work its way through. There's today and two more days till we get to the end of the contract. And I've seen those very last hours be where we rally around and we get to a number that we're all comfortable with. I'm proud of where we are with our other labor groups. You know, from the board meeting last week, we were able to ratify three new contracts, and we have almost all of our labor groups except the full-time faculty and tenured faculty. And we'll continue to work as hard as we can to make a deal that represents the best for the university and, hopefully, the best for all parties.

David Fair: You are a president now and an administrator now, but you have in the past told me that one of your great passions and one of the great loves of your life is teaching. So, you do see it from the other side, don't you?

Dr. James Smith: Oh, absolutely. And I think if we were in a state with more robust student support, dollarwise, we could have a different posture. I believe Michigan's now 47th in per capita student funding. I wish it was higher. I wish we had more that we could operate from. But, yes, I do understand I loved being an ed policy professor. I loved working with master's students. I still taught undergraduates when I was working with doctoral students. And I certainly understand the point of view, the perspective, that says it's being brought forward.

David Fair: So, what will you say to the 15,000 plus students at Eastern Michigan University who may not be able to take classes after they've paid for or borrowed money to take those classes should a strike not be averted?

Dr. James Smith: Well, I think...I really haven't thought through that because I'm always the optimist. Someone said once I run around with rose-colored glasses, but I am the optimist that will get this done. And if we don't, we'll work hard to get a good message out. We'll work hard to be fair with our faculty and fair with our student body. As you said, there's a whole lot that goes on in the life of a student here, whether it be marching on a new band field or playing on a new lacrosse and soccer field. We want all those experiences to come together and really be as good as they possibly can be.

David Fair: So, Friday night, Eastern Michigan's football team kicks off its season. Picking a win?

Dr. James Smith: I'm not a very good picker, but I would love to see a win every week.

David Fair: Well, we'll certainly be watching. You can hear that game right here on 89 one WEMU. Dr. Smith, thank you so much for stopping by today, and we appreciate the conversation.

Dr. James Smith: Thank you, David. Always a pleasure.

David Fair: That is Dr. James Smith. He is the president of Eastern Michigan University, joining us on the first day of classes for the 2022-2023 academic year. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station. It's 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti.


Eastern Michigan University

Eastern Michigan University Office of the President

EMU Safe

EMU Residence Life

EMU Contract Negotiations

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Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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