The Higher Learning Commission Report on EMU

Hey, we’re back here at after a long time away! The Facebook group for EMUTalk (kind of like EMYoutalk) has been going along great, and so I haven’t seen much of a reason to post here. But this seemed like something worth making available to everyone, including those few people left not on Facebook.

Anyway, the scoop/a little context: for a while go now, EMU has been going through an accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission. I won’t go into the weeds here to explain what HLC accreditation means, but the short version is this is one of the agencies that evaluates and assesses all kinds of institutions of higher learning to make sure they’re doing what they say they’re supposed to be doing. Accreditation– particularly for established universities like the EMU’s of the world, as opposed to less stable/more fly-by-night proprietary schools– is important, but kind of a pro-forma/quasi-automatic issue. For a university like EMU to lose accreditation would be a huge national news kind of deal.

Oddly, EMU hasn’t made the full HLC accreditation report available to the public. The administration has talked about the report in slideshows to EMU administrators and folks like that, but as far as I know, the full HLC wasn’t available publicly. Just the other day though, someone (who wants to remain anonymous for what I assume are obvious reasons) emailed me a copy of the whole report.

Here it is.

Now, this is a 90 page document and most of it is pretty boring bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo, at least to my eyes. But there are a couple of parts of the report that are, well, “problematic,” mostly noted with the slightly damning HLC language “met with concerns,” and I’ve highlighted what strikes me as especially kind of eyebrow-raising in red.

In section 4.C (page 43), which is about “The institution demonstrates a commitment to educational improvement through ongoing attention to retention, persistence, and completion rates in its degree and certificate programs,” the HLC said (my emphasis added):

Although the current strategic plan indicates an intention to improve retention rates – particularly for men of color and single parents – no documentation was provided or found to show that the institution has defined goals for student retention, persistence and completion (although at one point the VP of Enrollment Management stated that there was a goal to increase retention by 4% annually). The Degree Completion and Retention (DCR) Plan was developed to address the low overall retention rate of the university, and of the particular populations identified. The plan included numerous action items, but no benchmarks. Actions have been taken by the institution, in accordance with the plan to improve retention rates, and include participation in the Gateways to Completion (G2C) Project (which included collection and analysis of relevant data); improvements to advising; use of Starfish early notification system; and implementation of the BrotherHOOD and SisterHOOD initiative. However, it is disconcerting that the institution does not appear to have 1) established specific goals or benchmarks, 2) has revisited the plan, or 3) has a process whereby progress is monitored or reported.

The Office of Institutional Research and Information Management (IRIM) shares data with key administrators and the institution identified examples wherein particular data were used to enact change. For example, student survey data were used to support advising offices at the college level, and data on success of first-year students provided information to advisors regarding course selections. But again, there was no apparent systematized process or documentation that provided evidence of benchmarking goals, responding to data and tracking progress to determine the impact of changes.

When asked how the administrative team “knows” when they’ve reached a goal or been successful, the institution responded that they look primarily to see if they are “doing better,” and that they have considered looking at other institutions to compare performance levels.

Then in section 5A, page 46, which is about “The institution’s resource base supports its current educational programs and its plans for maintaining and strengthening their quality in the future.” This is an especially long and wonky section (at least in my view), but it’s really important. The HLC wrote (my emphasis added):

Eastern Michigan University has three main sources of revenue. These consist of approximately 71 percent student tuition and fees, 24 percent state appropriations and 5 percent other revenue (EMU Revenue Graph). Since 1980, EMU has seen a significant shift in both state funding as well as the increase in student tuition and fees. Evidence (State Funding vs Tuition) shows that in 1980 the amount of funding from the State of Michigan was 72.5 percent while tuition and fee accounted for only 27.5 percent of the budget. This is in sharp contrast to 2016 where state funding only accounted for 23.9 percent of the total and student tuition and fees made up the difference of 76.1 percent. When comparing the increase in student tuition and mandatory fees within the state of Michigan, EMU notably ranks second to the lowest of the 15 state institutions in percent increases over the past 10 years. Evidence provided shows a high average increase of 6.1 percent to a low of 4 percent. EMU has a ten year average increase of 4.6 percent.

The Composite Financial Index (CFI) paints a picture of the financial health of the institution at a specific point in time. The Index is built with the values of its four component ratios. These ratios include the primary reserve, net operating revenue, return on net assets, and viability.

Once each of the four ratios are calculated, there is an additional process measuring the relative strength of the score and its importance in the mix of creating a composite score. This results in the production of one weighted score for each indicator and when added together the result is the CFI. This numerical analysis is required each year by the Higher Learning Commission from every institution.

A scale is used to analyze the CFI by the HLC. For public institutions a score of 1.0 to 10.0 would be considered “above the zone.” A score of 0 to 1.0 would be considered “in the zone.” Finally, a score of -4.0 to -0.1 is considered “below the zone.”

In 2012 EMU fell below the zone with a CFI of 0.3. The following years show CFI calculations of: 0.6 for 2013; 0.7 for 2014, -0.02 for 2015; -0.02 for 2016; and 0.04 for 2017. At the time of the team visit, the 2018 reporting year (fiscal year ending June 30, 2017) had not yet been calculated.

As reviewed in Appendix J of the Federal Compliance document, due to being “in the zone” for two consecutive years Eastern Michigan University submitted a Financial Recovery Plan that was reviewed by a Financial Panel of HLC financial peer reviewers. This plan outlined various elements that EMU felt contributed to their deteriorated financial standing. Items included reduction in state appropriations, state mandated tuition restraints, flat enrollment, strategic investment on capital projects, significant investment on campus safety, and variation in investment returns.

Four strategies were developed to correct the financial stability of EMU. These included strategies to increase enrollment, implement campus wide plan to improve student success, comprehensive actions to increase revenue, and develop and implement multiple cost reduction measures. The goal of EMU was to be “above the zone” in 2017. This goal was not met.

Nowhere in the assurance argument did EMU present or discuss the CFI challenges. During a focus visit with senior leadership, team members were aware that the CFI was still “below the zone” but no specific corrective plans were shared as the 2017 goal to be “above the zone” was not met. State appropriations continue to be flat, credit hours have declined over the past five years, capital constructions projects continue to expand, student support for institutional scholarships and grants continues to increase, but no clear plan to reduce expenses was documented. Several examples were verbally mentioned such as not filling vacant positons, voluntary retirement options, the reduction of some fringe benefits for employees, and outsourcing of the food service auxiliary operation.

In visiting with the Board of Regents, they too were aware that EMU’s CFI was “below the zone.” The board does have a Finance and Investment Committee as part of their internal structure. One member of this committee indicated the BOR was “committed to fixing it.” This committee should take an active role in helping senior management develop an immediate, realistic plan to improve the CFI.

Although EMU is meeting all of its current financial obligation, debt payments and payroll expenses, the long term financial stability of the institution continues to be a concern. New long-term debt projects should be carefully evaluated and focus should be directed toward reducing operating expenses in an effort to counter balance declining state revenues and dropping credit hour enrollment. The original CFI correction plan to move the institution back into “above the zone” status was not successful. A revised plan must be developed that is realistic in meeting the current economic and financial climate of the community and university.

EMU appears to have adequate faculty and staff in place to fulfill the mission of the institution. Data provided (EMU Faculty/Staff Headcount) through the human resources office shows the number of fulltime faculty in FY08 to be 683 compared to 688 fulltime faculty in FY17. When including both full time and part time lectures, these academic professionals show an increase over the same time period from 1,229 to 1,390. All three categories showed a slight variation from fiscal year to fiscal year.

Total full time staff working at EMU during FY08 were 1,052 compared to a slightly lower number in FY17 of 1,042. Over that span of time a shift in the type of support staff is reflected. Most notably is a reduction of 63 clerical/secretarial positions while increases in athletic coaches increased by 10, campus police and police sergeants increased by 11, and professional/technical staff increased by 28. Part time and seasonal employees, along with a cross section of student workers, help fill the additional staff void where needed.

EMU has a number of campus buildings designed to provide instruction, student support, auxiliary services and campus housing. Upon review of the evidence provided, dollars are allocated each year to help maintain and enhance the campus buildings and infrastructure. A detailed 5-year Facilities Renovation matrix template has been developed with a scoring rubric (EMU 5 year Facilities Renovation Plan and Scoring Rubric). Addendum documents provided on site show information relating to FY17 through FY20 budget breakdown by various categories and projects. No “project scoring” has yet been completed for the FY17 or FY18 year. Completing this matrix appears critically important and will be needed in tracking and evaluating the progress of this plan and for future capital planning.

An impressive and comprehensive Five Year Facilities Renovation Plan was published in May of 2016. This document provided as additional evidence after the assurance argument was submitted outlines in great detail the condition of campus buildings and infrastructure. A campus tour was taken by two of the team members during the accreditation visit. Buildings toured included the Student Center, Mark Jefferson Science Building (recently renovated, 180,000 square feet of old space plus 80,000 feet of new space) and the Halle Library. During a vehicle tour of the rest of the campus buildings noted included the under renovation Strong Physical Science Building (a 1.5 year projected project), upgraded power plant, recently purchased Trinity Chapel (now Honors College) along with a number of the academic buildings and student housing units. Recent upgrades in campus lighting and safety were also noted during the tour.

EMU appears to be a campus dedicated to keeping up with technology. The Educational Environment and Facilities Committee (EEFC) meets on a regular basis as documented through a plan of work and minutes from meetings. On site meetings with faculty, staff and students confirmed that computer lab space was available, updated computers were available for employees, and wireless connections were updated around campus. One verbal concern from housing staff focused on some student housing units having slow internet access. Assistance from private sources was being investigated.

Eastern Michigan University relies on several different levels of budget input each fiscal year. The Provost and the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) each receive input during the spring from their respective areas. The Provost is responsible for the student affairs budget as well as much of the auxiliary budget and capital expenditures. The physical plant unit reports to the president and also recommends capital projects needing budget consideration. EMU has a University Budget Council that provides input and guidance as the budget is being discussed as well as a Faculty Senate Budget and Resource Committee. Both of these committees were present during focus visits on campus and confirmed the budgeting process. The President has final say in the proposed budget before the document is submitted to the Board of Regents yearly for approval. Board minutes confirm that budget requests are approved.

EMU references the Institutional Strategic Planning Council (ISPC) as providing input with budgeting and strategic planning. The ISPC link on EMU’s web site shows the last official minutes to be from the spring of 2015. Upon visiting with the areas represented on the ISPC committee, they are currently an inactive committee. During the focus topic meeting with this group, the question was asked about the strategic plan referenced in the assurance argument which reflected that strategic theme on Institutional Effectiveness and Service and Engagement were flagged as being a proposed change. Discussion with the group confirmed that about a year ago the plan had been confirmed by the President. The team recommends updating the strategic plan and correcting all links on the web site to reflect the final document.

Upon review and discussion of the strategic plan, evidence is very minimal or completely lacking on tracking of progress or completion of goals or objectives. The team recommends that the President assign individuals to track and keep updates to the document. The President should also discuss with senior leadership to see if the ISPC needs to remain an active campus committee.

Discussion in the assurance argument references unit-level goal setting and outcome measurements linking back to budget decisions, however, no direct evidence was provided. Employee performance reviews were cited as directly tying to the strategic plan, but no examples were provided. Union contracts require this activity to be occurring so the institution needs to have documentation available.

As overall state revenues support in Michigan have declined over time, EMU strives to remain affordable, accessible, and to provide opportunity to students. Evidence of this strategic decision can be seen in the increase of institutional aid provided to students. From FY11 to FY17, scholarships allowances have increased as evidenced by the external university audits.

Training and professional development are important for faculty and staff. Faculty can utilize the resource of the Faculty Development Center to help with syllabus design, information technology, as well as general teaching and classroom guidance. The web site calendar shows a variety of regular workshops available to employees including SPSS and grant writing opportunities. Staff training opportunities are quickly referenced on the HR web site and include such topics as Excel training and Conscientious Leadership: Employee/Labor Relations. Other workshops are offered to all employees that are more individually centered such as Credit Reports & Scores and Dealing with Debt. During both faculty and staff open forum’s employees confirm that they were aware of professional development opportunities and many had acknowledged they had attended trainings. Regular training for new staff is also presented to employees.

EMU has a formal process in place for budgeting. Processes are also in place for monitoring at the departmental level. As confirmed during the focus visit with the finance team, The Office of Budget and Finance sends weekly expense reports to budget administrators. These expense reports will track purchases and provide account balances remaining for the fiscal year. Individual meetings are held with departments on a regular basis. One such standing meeting involves reviewing expense with athletics the first of each month.

There’s certainly a lot more here that I haven’t quite figured out; I’ll leave that to other readers.