KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Western Michigan University is truly excellent. We’ve been serving students, Michigan, and the world for 115 years, a tremendous accomplishment by any measure. We stand tall as a top-tier university—ranked in the top 10 percent of all universities in the U.S., as we have been for more than two decades.
Our faculty and staff are dedicated to serving students. We have numerous top-tier academic programs. Our research and creative activity advance the frontiers of knowledge and create new patents and companies. We combine our arts and cultural amenities, which rival those of major metropolitan cities, with excellent athletics and a great college town.
It’s no wonder nine out of 10 of our graduates are employed within their field of preparation within three months of graduation and 250,000 alumni worldwide are proud to be Broncos.
Recognizing today's higher education climate
While we have so much for which we can be proud, the world has changed around us. We now find ourselves swimming against the strong currents of declining demographics, a smaller share of high school graduates going to college, a shift of the cost of higher education from the public to families, and the changing nature of work itself.
A decade ago, the number of graduates from Michigan public high schools started to decline. We believe to be about halfway through the trend, which is anticipated to continue through 2030. That year, the pool of Michigan public high school graduates will be 14 percent smaller than it is today.
That pool of prospective students is very important to WMU. Over the past decade, our total enrollment has averaged 88 percent Michiganders, and 82 percent of this year’s freshman class is from Michigan. Over this same period, the cost in tuition and fees for Michiganders to attend the 15 public universities has increased 30 percent on average, with some universities increasing as much as 35 percent. WMU is in the middle of that range at 31 percent.
These increases are due to multiple factors. But the leading cause is a 20-year shift in public policy at national and state levels that is moving the cost-burden for higher education from the public to students and their families.
Ongoing challenges of Michigan universities
The upshot is that families are sacrificing more to obtain a college degree. For a family in Michigan with an $85,000 household income, what was about 10 percent of annual income is now about 14 percent—an increase that equates to the size of a household’s monthly car loan payment.
Not surprisingly, students and their families are now actively questioning the value of college in general, and the value of a degree from specific universities in particular. They are much more discerning in their choices and want to know what they are getting for their investment.
All these data help us understand why total enrollment at Michigan’s 15 public universities has declined every year since 2011.
We are not facing change alone. Around the world, the very nature of work is being transformed. For example, looking backward, job titles such as cloud computing specialist, sustainability manager, and social media manager didn’t exist just a decade ago. Looking forward, Dell Technologies estimates that 85 percent of the jobs that will exist by 2030 haven’t even been invented yet. We must prepare our students for an unprecedented level of adaptability both at work and in their community. We are already moving in this direction. Western Essential Studies is an example. But we must go further.
Moving forward as a University community
What we know for certain in an uncertain world is this: We must evolve if we are to fully realize our mission. We must offer our students an undeniable advantage that can be expressed clearly, crisply and compellingly.
How are we going to do that? Together. And I’m excited to help us get there.
I am honored to serve as WMU’s first vice president of marketing and strategic communications. In this capacity, I am charged with leading us to that undeniable advantage.
My role is one of facilitator and convener. I come with ideas, to be sure, but not preconceived notions. We will bring together the campus community to think and design collaboratively. We will build upon what is excellent about WMU today. We will bring together our faculty, students, alumni, donors, staff and employers to work together in a new, empathic way in order to better understand how WMU can focus, amplify, scale and amend it strengths to offer an unparalleled education, scholarship, and creative activity. This type of engagement is already in our nature as a university that values inclusion and diverse perspectives.
We have already taken our first steps by focusing on our institutional strategy. The Office of University Relations is now the Office of Marketing and Strategic Communications. The new designation is part of an enlarged and more integrative mission to build the power of the WMU brand in order to support enrollment and retention, philanthropy, research funding, and public support. We seek to position WMU in a way that is real, relevant, and rare, and therefore a compelling first choice for students, donors, talent and policy-makers.
Reimagining on-campus communications
We recently printed the last edition of the Western News faculty and staff newspaper, which is a fitting example of our approach to accomplishing our mission. Today we have technology that was unimaginable at its first printing four decades ago.
On-campus communication is not going away. In fact, it’s going to be improved and focus more on how we are working together to make WMU a special place. We’ll highlight our successes and build community. Campus will get news faster, in a more compelling manner, and in the form to which we are now accustomed. The team is already hard at work building the digital backbone to make this possible, and we look forward to launching phase one early in 2019.
I’ve spent my first four months doing a lot of listening and observing, and my initial impression has been confirmed. Our future is bright. We are responding to the world around us. This is a university that is ready to pursue new thinking in service to our students and our communities. This is our greatest advantage—the willingness to work together and think big.
Keep an eye out in the coming days and weeks for your opportunity to get involved in building our brand. Meanwhile, I encourage you to reach out to me or any member of the President’s Cabinet with your thoughts and one about getting involved, or strengths upon which we can build. Together, we’ll ensure that WMU is prepared for the next 115 years.
For more WMU news, arts and events, visit WMU News online.