Oakland University Makes Strides in Quest to be a Top College

Oakland University Makes Strides in Quest to be a Top College

March 13, 2011


By Lori Higgins


The Golden Grizzlies and their NCAA berth may be the talk of the town at Oakland University, but one of the biggest events in this school's 54-year history will have nothing to do with sports.


In August, 50 prospective doctors will don sleek white coats for a symbolic ceremony to mark the opening of the Oakland University William Beaumont School of Medicine.


The medical school marks just the latest evolution for the university, where enrollment has grown, degree programs have been added and more students see OU as their first choice for college. It's an evolution that school leaders say will increase the stature of OU and help it compete with some of the big names in Michigan higher education.


OU President Gary Russi says it's only a matter of time.


"We think we are evolving into an absolute major player," Russi said.


Success, growing pains at OU


In the 16 years since Gary Russi became president of Oakland University, enrollment grew 40%, the athletic teams gained Division I status, new buildings opened and a law school was added.


Construction continues on a $62-million, 160,000-square-foot Human Health Building. And OU recently won state funding to begin building a new engineering center.


But a huge step in the university's evolution comes this year with the opening of a new medical school.


"It changes the character of the university ... and it changes the stature of the university," said Russi, who believes that OU can one day compete with the Big 3 universities: Michigan State University, University of Michigan and Wayne State University.


OU is a very different campus than the one that emerged 54 years ago as an honors college for Michigan State.


Many believe the university is the better for consistent transformation, and it's a belief that senior Marta Bauer says is contagious.


"There is definitely a sense ... that OU is always changing, always improving," said Bauer, a student liaison to the OU Board of Trustees. "Being around that for four years has instilled in me that there are so many places the university can go."


Among students, Bauer says, there is more pride. Sixteen years ago, OU was a second or third choice for students applying for enrollment. Today, university officials say they hear from more students that OU was their first choice.


"Now we've got more students who are proud that they come from OU, as opposed to 'I went to OU because it was close to home.' The atmosphere is starting to change," Bauer said.


So where does OU go from here? Russi believes the answer lies in an April 1 event in which he hopes to engage 500 community and business leaders in a conversation about how OU can help the community.


"Oakland is a vibrant piece of the community," Russi said. "Our economic impact is over $500 million. I think the community wants us to be healthy and we want the community to be healthy along with us."


Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson says OU is a vital part of the community.


"I think OU is more than a diamond in a rough. They're a brilliant stone in the crown of our educational community here in Oakland County. They're a dominant force and they will become more so with the opening of their medical school."


Money tops list of challenges


But even as OU branches out, it faces challenges. The biggest, Russi said, is money.


State support for the 15 public universities in Michigan has dwindled, prompting the university to look for ways to cut costs. Gov. Rick Snyder proposed to cut funding even more, by 15%, for the 2011-12 academic year. The cut would rise to 22.6% if OU increases tuition by more than 7%. Two years ago, OU had the highest tuition hike of Michigan's 15 public universities, 9%.


In 1972, 71% of OU's operating revenue came from the state. Today, it's 26%.


The university is now in the silent phase of a new capital-raising campaign, where it reaches out to its strongest supporters. It likely will be in the silent phase for a couple more years, Russi said. The last campaign was successful, raising $110 million by 2009, a year earlier than planned.


There are other growing pains. Even with its large enrollment growth, just 11% of the university's students live on campus. More want to live on campus, but there aren't enough rooms and apartments.


"Oakland has always had to fight the image that it's a commuter school and therefore that might say something about the quality of the experience. To me those are not correlated," said Jay Meehan, a sociology professor and chair of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology.


Still, student leaders such as Bauer are pushing the university to add more housing. Students are more likely to be involved and be more connected to the university when they live on campus, Bauer said.


"It has the potential to be the defining factor in the campus culture. If we get a larger resident population, that will start to change the view people have of Oakland," she said.


OU has a plan to add more campus housing for freshmen and sophomores in the next three years, but Ted Montgomery, spokesman for the university, said economic factors may play a role in whether they can move forward.


Concerns about OU's growth


Some on the faculty are concerned about how the addition of the medical school will affect other programs on campus, said David Garfinkle, a physics professor and president of the OU chapter of the American Association of University Professors.


"Medical schools are expensive and it's entirely possible that the university ... will drain all the money from its other ventures and the overall quality of the university will go down. Hopefully that won't happen."


The medical school is unique in that it will be the first one created by a public university in Michigan that is funded privately. "Funds from other programs will not be used to support the medical school," Montgomery said.


Garfinkle said there are concerns that the steady growth at OU hasn't been all positive.


"Our administration has sort of pursued a strategy of growth without any particular plan" to maintain quality, Garfinkle said.


He said the university needs to be more selective if it wants to compete at a higher level.


The quality of students has increased at OU. In 1995, incoming freshmen had an average ACT score of 21.2 and a grade point average of 3.11. That has increased to 22.4 and 3.3. By comparison, the average ACT and GPA for the Big 3 research universities are 25.4 and 3.61 for Michigan State University, 28 and 3.8 for University of Michigan and 20.4 and 3.19 for Wayne State University. The top ACT score is 36.


Montgomery says any growth the university experiences has been and will carefully managed by the administration, and with input from faculty, students and staff.


But Garfinkle said that administration has ignored faculty recommendations regarding growth and many faculty are unhappy with what he terms a "top-down" approach to running the university. That's one of the reasons that this year, the faculty may take up a vote of no-confidence in Russi that was tabled last year.


That would come on the heels of a faculty strike in 2009 and a near-strike in 2006.


Montgomery said the administration "has created new channels of communication and has aggressively addressed the concerns raised by faculty."


Where Oakland is growing


Some of OU's growth is seen in its academic offerings. Since 2001, the university has added about 70 new degree and certificate programs in areas such as biomedical sciences, cinema studies and electric and computer engineering.


Programs seeing the biggest boost are those leading to pre-medicine degrees such as biology. In 2005, the program enrolled 367 students. Today, that number is around 800.


"It's been an amazing roller-coaster ride," said Arik Dvir, chair of the biomedical sciences department. "Every year I'm opening new courses left and right, and they're filling up."


Garfinkle says the university is hiring less qualified faculty because more part-time instructors are filling the faculty ranks. The percentage of part-time faculty has risen from 44% to 50% in the last 10 years. Despite that, faculty such as Dvir report having a different experience. He said the growth has allowed him to attract quality instructors.


Chris Donnelly, a senior graduating this spring, said he appreciates that OU has been able to attract top-quality professors who balance teaching with research, giving students the best of both worlds. He believes that's why more students are choosing OU.


"The better your class offerings are, the more students who might be interested," Donnelly said.


Even Virinder Moudgal, the senior vice president and provost at OU, runs a research lab, a rarity for a chief academic officer of a university.


"I cannot ask my other colleagues to engage in research and do the best they can if they see me not associated with research," said Moudgal, who leaves his day job at around 7:30 nightly to spend hours working with students in the lab.


Contact Lori Higgins: 313-222-6651 or lhiggins@freepress.com


Additional Facts
About Oakland University


History: Began in 1957 as Michigan State University-Oakland. The first students enrolled in 1959. The name changed to Oakland University in 1963. And in 1970, the Michigan Legislature granted the university autonomy.


OU enrollment: 19,053


Big 3 enrollment: Michigan State University, 47,200; University of Michigan, 41,674; Wayne State University, 31,505


Faculty: 1,027, about half of them part-time


Degree programs:


Bachelor's: 132


Master's: 106 (includes graduate certificates) Doctorate: 18


Oakland's big moves since 1995


Division I status: OU athletic programs join the Division I Mid-Continent Conference in 1997. Since then, the athletic teams have made it to NCAA tournaments 32 times.


Law school: In 2006, the American Bar Association grants a request for the Thomas M. Cooley Law School to start open at OU. The law school now enrolls 4,000 students.


Medical school: The Oakland University William Beaumont School of Medicine will begin this year with 50 students. OU plans to accept 125 students each year afterward.