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Wayne State University Facing Tough, New Tests

Wayne State University works to stem enrollment losses caused by Michigan’s economic crisis while providing management expertise to the city of Detroit.

For more years than most people can remember, Detroit’s Wayne State University has weathered nearly every storm to strike the Motor City — see-sawing economies, the 1967 riots that devastated neighborhoods all around the urban university’s campus, even the embarrassing fall from grace this year and eventual imprisonment of the city’s mayor.

Amid all the gloom buzzing around it, Wayne State has steadily grown in student population, academic offerings and facilities, sustaining itself as a jewel in a battered American crown. Wayne State proved its staying power and alumni support this summer when a $500 million capital campaign led by immediate past president Irvin Reid ended with more than $900 million in contributions.

Nobody saw this fall coming, however. Wayne State, the little engine that could, stalled. Michigan’s economic meltdown finally caught up with Wayne State as it felt a stunning drop in enrollment of nearly 5 percent. Total enrollment for fall 2008 was 31,668, including graduate and undergraduate students. It was the school’s first significant enrollment decline in more than a decade. Not exactly the kind of welcome gift the school had hoped to give its new president, Jay Noren, imported late this summer from Omaha.

“It’s essentially a function of the economy,” says Eugene Driker, chairman of the board of governors at Wayne State. “We’re working on a variety of programs to address it. We’re not sitting back saying ‘this is inevitable.’”

While working to reverse its enrollment slide, Wayne State is also planning to do more to help the city reverse its economic and political slide, highlighted by the resignation of embattled Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. Kilpatrick resigned from office in October after pleading guilty to charges he lied to authorities in conjunction with an ongoing investigation. He is serving a 120- day jail term and is barred from seeking office because of a five-year probation.

Driker, a Wayne State alum and veteran Detroit attorney, says a variety of factors figured into the enrollment decline, including loss of jobs (Michigan’s 9 percent unemployment rate is expected to hit 10 percent next year), loss of employer tuition reimbursement and inability to get student loans as banks and other lenders depleted or began to hoard their own resources.

At Wayne State, 72 percent of undergrads and 63 percent of graduate students rely on some kind of financial aid. Wayne State’s need to raise more money as state aid declines may also have figured into the surprising enrollment drop, school officials say. Tuition at Wayne State has risen 80 percent since 2002 to $7,844 for freshmen this fall from $4,330. In the fall of 2009, tuition will increase to $8,109. During the same period, state aid to the school for its operating budget dropped nearly 20 percent, falling to $216.4 million this academic year, excluding a one-time payment of funds withheld from earlier years, from $240.8 million in 2002.

“We don’t want to blame everything on the economy, but it’s played a big part,” says Susan Zwieg, senior director of undergraduate admissions and new student orientation.

Zwieg says freshman applications were up 10 percent, leading school officials to feel quite confident about this year. Admits were up 2 to 3 percent. When school started, however, more than 300 freshmen failed to show.

There were a few bright spots in enrollment news, Zwieg adds. Enrollment of graduates from the beleaguered Detroit Public School system was up 3 percent. Also, diversity at Wayne State, which prides itself on having one of the most ethnically diverse populations of any school in the nation, did not suffer significantly. Wayne State is busy addressing its enrollment matter, a challenge school officials say could be a serious one for another two years based on economic projections by the state.

The school is boosting its community college transfer efforts through its “Wayne Direct,” “University Bound” and “Pathways” programs, all aimed at linking Wayne State with community college students. The school is conducting a “major” calling campaign courting current students, says Henry L. Robinson, director of the school’s Academic Pathways for Excellence retention program. The calling campaign hopes to get students to focus on their next step in college earlier than usual and register for winter, summer and fall classes.

“We’ve boosted financial aid to students from the school’s general fund to hold the line on stopouts,” Robinson adds, defining “stopouts” as students who temporarily postpone their studies for financial reasons. “We’re trying to get them to move higher education higher up their priority list. … There are opportunities to grow and expand.”

As the city prepares to elect a mayor next year, Wayne State is trying to pull together a corps of its academic experts whom the city can call on for assistance in various areas of expertise at no charge to the city.

“Detroit has a phenomenal opportunity to rethink itself,” says Harvey Hollins III, vice president of government and community affairs at Wayne State and the school administration point person on the new initiative. Hollins says it would be modeled after the Boston College Boston Management Consortium.

“From human resources to public works to the law department, the city could become more agile and out of the box,” says Hollins. “They (the city leaders) don’t have to spend money trying to find that expertise when we have it at Wayne,” says Hollins, adding that the management group structure would give the city “an innovative way for management of a municipality.”

The former mayor’s preoccupation with his legal problems over the past year is cited as one reason for the city’s inability to focus on many of its worsening problems, including development of a sound land use policy for the scores of abandoned neighborhoods, improving public education and working on overall economic development such as participating in a Chrysler-like campaign to help the nation’s automakers secure federal assistance to stay afloat.

In the late 1970s, when the Chrysler Corporation was near closure and asking the government for loan guarantees, then-Detroit Mayor Coleman Young and then-Chrysler chairman Lee Iacocca formed a tag team that went to work on the administration of President Jimmy Carter to keep Chrysler and thus Detroit afloat. That local political clout has been AWOL in the past year, further weakening the city’s political hand in Washington where all three financially troubled Detroit automakers spent this fall lobbying Congress for an urgent $34 billion bailout loan.

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