Q&A with Central Michigan University's President Robert Davies

The face of education has seen tremendous changes over the last decade. What will the next decade bring?


In his first State of the University address in November, Central Michigan University President Robert Davies talked about just that. He described the vision for CMU as it ventures through the next 10 years.


Now, he talked with Epicenter Mt. Pleasant to give more detail about the “Envisioning Our Future: CMU 2030” plan, changes the university is making to help students pay for their tuition, how CMU is addressing food insecurity among its student body, and more.

Q: In your State of the University address, you talked about the future and what the university will look like in 2030. Can you talk a little more about the "Envisioning Our Future: CMU 2030" plan?


Central Michigan University's President Robert DaviesA: I think the main thing about the Envisioning Our Future: CMU 2030 plan is to think transformational versus transactional. So, the goal is to think longer – 10 years rather than your typical three- or five-year plan – and to look at the big issues, the big questions that higher education needs to fulfill. In that, we put forward five different pathways to help us curate our strategic mindset.


The first pathway is how we can enhance our overall academic quality and environment at Central Michigan University with a really strong commitment to what I call rigor, relevance, and excellence in everything that we do – curricular, cocurricular, and extracurricular. Specifically, there are four general areas that we need to take a look at and understand how they are impacting society, businesses, communities, and the like. The first area is the changes in communication and technology. The second area is the changes in biomedicine and the health sciences. The third area is globalization – no longer are we just an interconnected, but we truly an interdependent society across the globe; and, then the fourth area is sustainability.


The second pathway is to distinguish ourselves as an equitable and inclusive marketplace of ideas and thoughts. Frequently, higher education is described as the marketplace of ideas. I really want us to be an equitable and inclusive marketplace not only of ideas, but also of actions. In doing so, we can debate the thoughts and we can debate the ideas - not the person or their background – making sure everyone has the opportunity to be part of the marketplace of ideas. I think sometimes in higher education, we think too much about thinking and providing thoughts; we need to drive it to action.


The third pathway is to be a very positive community partner with non-profit organizations, for-profit organizations, governmental entities, and the like. This is for economic development, cultural enrichment, and supporting our communities so they prosper as well. The idea is to have this be a reciprocal ecosystem: as we help our communities, they in turn help us by providing internships for our students and being the laboratory for research ideas for our faculty.


The fourth pathway is understanding and serving the changing dynamic need of the college student. This is not only for our traditional-aged student coming in straight from out of high school, but also for adult learners and lifelong learners. It is expanding our geographic footprint to recruit more students from out of Michigan, as well as serving a changing demographic – working with a lot more individuals who are seeing education from a different vantage point.


The fifth and final pathway is really redefining our business model and the way that we think about what higher education is. Right now when you ask anyone what higher education is, they’re going to talk about credit hours and how many students take in credit hours. I think we need to think about higher education – the business model – as the creation, application, and dissemination of knowledge. That opens us in a much wider way to serve the changing needs of society.


At the end of the decade, we’ll be in many ways a different university; but, in many ways, we’ll be the same.


Q: You also spoke about the importance of making college affordable and mentioned that the college will make "significant changes" to how you help CMU's students pay for college. What are some of those "significant changes" that CMU's current and future students can expect to see, and when can they expect to see them?


A: We’ve already started implementing some of these ideas. We have recently changed our scholarship program to be a lot more aggressive specifically and especially on the merit side. One of the things we’ve done there that I think is very innovative and important is that the scholarships we are providing are based on a percentage of tuition versus a fixed dollar amount. The reason that’s important is because if a student’s here for four or five years during that time tuition will most likely increase. By tying it to a percentage of tuition, those scholarship dollars will also increase – providing them a much better budgeting tool for their families and themselves.


We’ve also changed some internal policies that will be more equitable to students to maintain their scholarships. In the past, the guidelines to retain the scholarships were a little higher than what it took initially to earn them.


The other thing we’re doing is being a lot more aggressive with our need-based scholarships. These are for students coming from lower socio-economic homes. One of the things we have done in the past is only allowed those need-based awards for the first two years, and we’re expanding that to cover their complete college career as long as they’re maintaining progress toward earning their first undergraduate degree.


The other part is we have re-vamped and will continue to refine our tuition model to match the tuition dollars to the expenditures. This means freshman and sophomores will have a lower rate than juniors and seniors. As we look at the scholarship model, those too will fluctuate between the first two years and the second two years.


Our whole goal is to provide students and their families the opportunity to earn their bachelor’s degree and at the same time keep debt as low as possible.


Q: In your address, you also talked about CMU needing to find its niche. What did you mean by that and how do you envision that happening?


A: I envision that happening through our strategic planning process. I think our niche is that we are a community. We are about small classes. We are about individuals being challenged academically and intellectually; and, they need to be ready to respond to those challenges, and not just be part of a group that kind of goes along.

Those four areas I stated earlier are really about who we are – about changes in communication and technology, about healthcare and changes in biomedicine, about surviving and thriving in a globalized society, and about thinking about sustainability in very rich and robust terms.


Q: Finally, it's been such a hot topic on campus lately that I think I'd be remiss if we didn't talk about it: CMU is going to be implementing some changes to address food insecurity here on campus this coming spring, correct?


A: A recent survey of our freshman showed roughly 30-35% of our freshman experienced food insecurity while they were in high school. Another report came out from our volunteer center that surveyed our graduates in May 2019 and, from that survey, we learned 38% of the students felt a sense of food insecurity some time during their career at Central Michigan University. So, this is something that is very important.


We have implemented several programs – the food pantry being the most prominent of those – to help our students with food insecurity. We are implementing a new program that will start Jan. 6, which is the first day of the new semester, in which individuals who identify themselves as having some kind of food insecurity will be able to receive meal swipes to their ID card. For some, it may be 10 per semester; for others it may be 50 per semester. As we do at Central Michigan, we will work with all students as individuals to make sure they have enough meal swipes to alleviate as much of the food insecurity as we can.


One of the other programs that we will be initiating on the Jan. 6 timeframe is $1 meals. At the end of the day, several of our cafeterias on campus will package the uneaten food into boxes that will be sold for $1.


This is an evolving topic and will continue to evolve. We always tell our students to always be learning. We as an institution are also taking that charge – we are also always learning because of the changing dynamics of the students. The dynamics of the students will be significantly different 10 years from now than it was 10 years ago. Ten years ago, food insecurity was not really a discussion point. Now it is. So, we need to always be at the forefront of those changes and meet the needs of our students as they also significantly change.