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Senate Higher Education Subcommittee Comments

February 22, 2010
Kalamazoo, Michigan

Testimony given by Les Wong
President, Northern Michigan University

Senator Stamas and members of the Senate Higher Education Committee, rather than talk about where NMU has been, I'd like to focus the majority of my remarks on what we're doing today and what we plan to do tomorrow to make a meaningful difference in the lives of our students, our community and Michigan.  We are a recognized community engaged university, one of only 200 universities in the country so recognized by the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education.  Our accreditors have made special note of our commitment to affordability and access while providing a very unique and innovative high tech, high touch environment.  I'd like to share what we're doing to help our students and this state move ahead.

While many speak of high tech campuses, we regard ourselves as a high tech community.  Northern owns one of the few FCC licenses regulating the next generation wireless technology known as WiMax.  Current wireless technology offers about a thousand feet of coverage per antennae.  WiMax allows us to cover almost 30 square miles with just 5 towers.  The 7500 students and most of our employees living and working off campus will have continuous access to the web to support their class work and their scholarship.  We have also extended our high speed wireless bubble to city and county governments and K-12 schools.    This network includes police and fire services so all the police, state patrol and fire vehicles within this 30 square mile bubble experience full broadband services on the fly in each vehicle with full motion video and data services.  Critical information via the web to each car will offer a new level of safety and security at lower cost.  City and county governments will save additional dollars using WiMax, for example, to manage water and power services including automated metering, billing and lift station management.  We are also working diligently to bring public schools into the network so that remote, rural schools will have access to high speed wireless broadband services, some for the first time.  We expect adult, place bound students in our communities to have access to courses and course materials on-line in their living room.  

On campus, on the business side of the house, technology has saved us considerable dollars.   Virtual server technology has lowered our back end, operational costs significantly.  In addition to a web based campus communication system, an automated online human resource system helps us standardize and monitor personnel processes more efficiently, we are able to monitor professional development opportunities for every employee and we are setting new standards in accurate student records and services such as billing, financial aid, housing, degree auditing as well as offering families better access to financial aid information.   

With regard to cost saving strategies in health Care, NMU belongs to the consortium known as MUCH (Michigan Universities Coalition on Health) where we have kept our health care costs below industry markers.   We are also a member of MUSIC (Michigan University Self Insurance Corporation) to manage property and liability insurance costs.  BTW, a small but vivid anecdote regarding health care services:  we made a decision just before winter started to open the Superior Dome to the community at no charge so they could walk during the winter months.  You can imagine how hard it is to walk outside when you average over 200 inches of snow each year. U.P. winters can be colder and snowier longer than most communities in Michigan.  Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, Marquette General Health Systems and NMU split the bill three ways to offer our community year round walking in the dome.  Our tally shows hundreds of Marquette citizens walking and talking together on a daily basis.  I should mention that our new partnership with our neighbor, Marquette General Hospital has been particularly productive.  Together, we offer programs in respiratory therapy, radiology, EMT training, cyto-genetics and a program to identify and treat brain tumors through the Northern Michigan Brain Tumor Research Center.  In a different but creative piece of work together, Northern's public safety and police service teams now patrol and provide security services to the hospital saving both us some money.

In the area of reducing costs and remaining efficient, the following statistics are interesting.  We have made being efficient and smart a top priority.  We have added about 55 faculty lines in the last six years to serve the increase in students and we have reduced service and professional staff lines by 218 over the past decade.  By means of comparison, in 1990 we served 6678 FYES with a workforce of 1017 FTE.  In 2009, we served 8417 FYES with a workforce of 853 FTE.  That's a 26% increase in students with a workforce that is now 16% smaller. 

We are making considerable headway in improving retention and graduation rates.  Please keep in mind that students can graduate in 4 years.  Our data shows they choose not to, for example, by adding additional majors and minors to enhance their distinctiveness and employability.  We have seen our 3rd and 5th semester retention rates improve as well as improving our relationship with the community colleges.  We have increased our financial aid support to students and we will use all our stimulus bill dollars to support Michigan residents next fall term with a tuition credit equivalent to 2.5% per student.  Please keep in mind that we serve a broad range of students from our community college function (one year certificates, AAS degrees) to Master's degrees.

In the area of jobs and economic development, we are opening the U.P. Great Lakes Center for Economic and Community Development.  With federal and private support, this effort will ramp up our work with both small and large business owners.  This center will

  • Serve as a central data depository for all research on the U.P. and associate regions.
  • Support the extensive rural network of upper peninsula communities by assisting local units of government cope with dwindling resources and by assisting in private sector economic development. The Upper Great Lakes Region and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in particular, contains natural resources that are essential to the economic vitality of the state and nation.  These include iron, nickel, timber, fisheries and water.  These natural resources require constant care so they will be developed responsibly.  Our ability to sustain these resources depends centrally on the sustainability of the widely dispersed and small communities prevalent in our region. 
  •  Develop e-Government expertise, create GIS-based analyses for local governments, transfer technology and provide economic education and entrepreneurial training.
  • Marshal student participants in our student service operation (for example through our nationally recognized Superior Edge Program) to engage with communities through internships; (ii) marshal faculty/staff expertise; (iii) collaborate with the tribes; (iv) provide workforce training; and (v) deliver economics education to Upper Peninsula schools.

We believe this effort will complement another business spun off from Northern some years ago and known as Northern Initiatives.  Located on campus and sponsored by a banking partner, Northern Initiatives has already offered start up and ongoing business plan assistance to over 200 U.P. entrepreneurs, offered $20 million dollars in capital loans to some 500 businesses, 54% of which are new startups. We believe assistance to both the public and private sector with regard to business and economic acumen are essential to a diversified and successful economy. Northern remains a leader in providing innovative and creative services to the business sector in our region.

I cannot close without a comment on the constantly changing evolution of our programs.  Education has been the bread and butter of regional universities like Northern since our inception 110 years ago.  Today our top ten programs starting from the largest are Art & Design ( a very technology intensive program), Nursing, Criminal Justice, Elementary Education, Construction Management, Social Work, Management, Biology-Physiology, Marketing and Biology.  380 student clubs and a rich array of student support services support student learning outside of the classroom.  We will continue to change.

Last but not least, our most significant challenge is sustaining our creative momentum. We pride ourselves on being smart with our money, collaborating with local government, private entities and non-profit organizations.  We recognize our responsibility to sustain the public's confidence in Northern each and every day we operate.  In order to meet tomorrow's challenges, we are asking ourselves difficult questions about who we are and how we operate.  We are restructuring and reorganizing how we do our work using technology.  We are setting goals for ourselves that will guide us as we move forward.

Thank you for this opportunity to share with you our story.

This is NMU


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