Q & A: Eastern Michigan University President Susan Martin on challenges, accomplishments and goals
- Related article: EMU President Susan Martin to focus on enrollment, graduation rate and endowment growth over the next two years
After receiving a contract extension on Friday, Eastern Michigan University President Susan Martin said she's "a more experienced president" who has a lot of ideas for her next two years at the Ypsilanti college.
As she sat at a table in her office, next to the green bike she rides around campus, Martin talked with AnnArbor.com about the atmosphere on campus when she arrived five years ago, what she sees as the greatest challenges she'll face over the next two years and her relationship with the school's governing board.
Below are excerpts of an hour-long interview with Martin that took place on Friday afternoon. For a comprehensive look at the renewal and Martin's plans, check out the related links above.
Q: When you came to Eastern in 2008 what was the school like?
A: When I came in 2008, the school had had four presidents in five years —two interims, two presidents. There were reputational issues on campus because we had had a death on campus and the manner in which it was handled. There were concerns about the big house I live in and how much money we spent on it. We had been declining in enrollment. We had been in fall 2002 at 24,505 students and when I arrived in fall 2008 we were at 21,972. The place was pretty run down, it was over 160 years old. We have over 122 buildings, 70 acres of roof, a lot of which were leaking. We didn't have a lot of money and we hadn't been raising money and there were several holes on the leadership team.
... It was quite daunting.
Q: What are ways you've increased enrollment?
A: It's a combination of things. We wanted to keep college affordable. Michigan was having such a severe economic time and our students really do work their way through. It is difficult for them to pay their way through college, so we've kept it affordable, we've increased financial aid.
... We had paperbound processes. This fall we had over 12,000 applications. All of that paper coming together and being moved around, people ... they'd be waiting a long time to hear from us because it took a long time to process the papers, so we now have an automated admissions system.
Q: How have you changed student advising?
In the student center you will see opening up in June we're going to have a new advising center right in the food court. It will be designed a little bit like an Apple store, in that there will be an entrance and there will be people there to triage you with questions
We're looking at possibly this fall at having a transfer student center... You just wander in here and if you come to [the center] you can get all your services, instead of going from this building to that building. We're trying to eliminate that and make it easy to come here.
We'e added a new software... Whatever hour students are up in the night they can just go online and it well tell them how much credits they need to be graduate. It's been automated so students can self advise.... We've hired some new advisers.
Q: You were saying that there was a reputational gap when you started. How have you tried to remedy that?
One of the things that was an unintended effect of doing the 0-0-0 campaign (EMU did not raise tuition or fees in 2010) was it really ignited our image as being competent managers. Alumni were saying 'Wow what's my school,'... where before they were kind of down.
It dramatically improved our reputation. I think we benefit from that to this day In Lansing, state legislators said 'How did they do that?' And I said, 'Well, I am an accountant and I use my No. 2 pencil a lot.' It's not easy but we did it and other people weren't doing it so they thought: 'They must really have their act together.'
Q: What are your goals for the next two years?
A: We've been engaged in a strategic planning exercise, which we're coming to the end of. Eastern doesn't need to be reinvented. We know who we are, but I think we need to do a better job of saying who we are and what we believe in.
If we have scarce resources, how can we allocate our resources so that we're enabling our students to get through with proper advising so they don't waste credits. They get through in a timely manner, they're emerging to get jobs in Southeast Michigan or Michigan as whole so they'll have a great life and contribute to the economy. That's what it's all about.
We're very focused in everything we can do to improve our service to our students, develop our employees to be great servants to our students. We have a lot of paperbound processes. Admissions was just one. We have a lot of things we can do to be more efficient with technology so we need to dig through all of that and automate that. ... We need to think about how much technology we want to deliver our instruction in. Our students probably need more online courses to help them with degree completion because they work so much to get through school.
Q: What about the school's graduation rate? (EMU has a 12.9 percent four-year graduation rate and a 37.2 percent six-year graduation rate.)
A: Last year we had 5,076 new students, 2,595 of them are traditional freshmen so they will count in our graduation rate. From the first moment the other half of that incoming class walks on campus, they will never count in our graduation rate. So from day one they won't count.
We should be able to get a graduation rate that is up above 50 percent. We are improving our persistence rate. When I first came here the freshmen that came, we only had 71 percent the next year, well that went up to 76 percent. So now we're getting a stronger academic profile in our incoming class. We're doing some more advising, we're doing some more support stuff to help people here. Those rates should move up too.
We're going to watch all of these and actively figure out what we can do to influence [these rates]. [If a student leaves without completing their degree] and they have debt, that's terrible. We don't want that to happen, so the board and I and the leadership team, we're really committed to taking a lot of the little things we do and knitting that into a really strong process.
Q: How has EMU felt the effects of dwindling state funding?
A: It has been difficult because we don't have significant reserves. ... We've had to shift healthcare costs. ... It was very difficult the year we got the 15 percent cut because we had not done the big tuition increases. I found myself in Lansing begging for a 10 percent cut. I said we don't have room [in our budget].
We did end up laying off 40 people, which at a university that's pretty much unheard of. It was very difficult and a very painful thing for the campus. ... I would look at those sheets and we would talk trying to figure out how we could minimize the impact on those people and how soon could they get called back, because we have over 1,900 employees so openings occur. But it was probably one of the hardest things I've ever had to do.
Q: You've been a strong supporter of the school's athletic program, why?
A: The decision to be a Division 1 school was made many years ago. We have a 30,000-seat football stadium. We're not going to teach history 101 in it. We need to figure out how to be competitive. We're not going to fill all 30,000 seats every Saturday, but we're in southeast Michigan. We have over 100,000 alumni in Michigan alone, so it's not unreasonable to think if we were competitive that we could fill the stadium for some of the games or have a much larger crowd to help support football and some of the other sports.
... I am a little shocked that the male presidents before me didn't have our major sports more competitive, but I am determined to fill these venues. I am determined that we will win and make these sports more revenue generating and competitive. ... It can also add an excitement and pride to the school.
Q: What about your decision to feature the former Huron mascot on the inside of band uniforms?
A: The purpose of welcoming the Hurons back is to try to put this issue behind us. Many alumni were a little alienated at the time [the mascot was changed]. It's been a long time. We were Hurons for 62 years, so we want to welcome those Huron alumni back.
Q: What would you consider some of the most difficult moments of your tenure?
A: I would say the financial difficulties have been daunting, and they have been continuous. I spend an incredible amount of time on it. I think that is going to ease as we've gotten now more stable enrollment growth, but it has been challenging because we want to do so much to fix up the place. I will be shifting more of my time to fundraising because we have 150,000 alumni that love this place and we want to get them to help support us.
When you have a student death, as a president you take it personally. You identify with the family, it's very hard. You're a large university, it's going to happen [but] it breaks your heart.
(Martin was referring to the death of EMU student Julia Niswender, who was found dead in her off-campus apartment Dec. 11. Police have ruled her death a homicide.)
Q: How is your relationship with the Board of Regents?
A: It's great. I really have their full support. I am delighted they extended my contract. We've got a full plate of things to do. They're an accomplished group and they're very committed to Eastern. I think we're looking forward to the future and excited that we've got a good team here.
Q: Have there been times of tension?
A: Any president would tell you that the board relationship is complicated and you don't always agree, but in the end this board [usually comes to a consensus]. This board has always had a consensus vote on the budget. I think there's only been one vote, on room and board, that had one negative vote in the time I've been here and that's all I can recall.
I do appreciate the fact that when I first started the board sent me to the Harvard seminar for new presidents. [The board chair] insisted on sending me to something every three months to be developed. That was invaluable. They have sent me to a lot of things. These jobs are tough at any institution and board people are very busy. These are tough times for universities, there are a lot of complicated issues. There are lawsuits, there are protests, there are all kinds of things going on and they take their jobs very seriously.
It's always a challenge for presidents to improve their skills at serving the board and keeping them well informed and making them feel comfortable when they vote on things, that they've had the right information to make that decision. But together I would say across the past five years I am very proud of them. They've dealt with a lot of tough stuff, they've been very supportive of the administration.
[The level of board involvement] varies by board member and changes over time too. When I came, to be fair, they had had turnover in presidents and they were very concerned and we had a lot of problems. We were declining in enrollment. It's not a surprise that the board would be much more involved at that time and much more engaged, because I had never been a president. But over time, we've seen that change quite a bit.
(A letter was placed in Martin's file by the Board of Regents executive committee in May 2012, reprimanding her for getting into an argument at a bar with an alumnus, drinking and acting unpresidential. Martin sent an email in July to all EMU students and staff informing them of the incident.)
Q: What was the impact of that incident?
A: I come in as president every day, and it's my job to lead the institution through things and I made a decision to put this [issue] out and to move on with the university and I think we had a lot of work to do and we did move on. ... That's in the past and was evidenced by the fact that the board came and had a special meeting just to reappoint me today.
Q: Did you think the letter was warranted?
A: I am not going to talk about that. I said at the time I respect their right to issue the letter.