Erickson addresses packed town hall meeting

Mike Klarin

Students filled Mead Auditorium to near capacity Tuesday, Oct. 13, for a chance to field their questions to NMU President Fritz Erickson and Vice President for Academic Affairs/Provost Kerri Schuiling in an open forum town hall meeting.

The meeting was held in response to growing concerns from the student body over university budget cuts, among other things.

After a short introduction from ASNMU President Lindsey Lieck, Erickson took the stage. The first topic raised for discussion was the issue of declining enrollment at NMU and the immediate and long-term effects it would have on the course catalog and teaching faculty, which the administration has hinted at after a drop of more than 400 students and $2.4 million in tuition revenue.

The decline is not without reason, however. Erickson says the majority of the blame can be placed on rapid declines in high school graduations throughout the Midwest.

“Over the last five years the pace of the enrollment decline has continued,” Erickson said. “We are now seeing 45,000 fewer high school graduates over a five-state region every year.”

What the school can do to combat the issues at stake, Erickson said, will boil down to two fundamental questions.

“One, we could simply reduce our expenditures to match up with our enrollment, or we find new and innovative ways in which we share the excellence of who we are as an institution and help bring greater and more diverse populations of students to the university,” Erickson said. “Our efforts are really in the latter.”

One student in attendance was concerned about the effect of course cuts on faculty members, fearing the reduced course load could mean as many as 150 faculty would be shown the door this spring.

“I’m a little perplexed by this idea that we are somehow eliminating 150 positions; nothing could be much further from the truth,” Erickson said.

“We are not stopping any contingent contracts, [or] term appointments that we currently have. We’re honoring all of those.”

Erickson did concede, however, that once an adjunct or part-time faculty member’s contract expired, it could potentially not be renewed if conditions dictate fewer course offerings.

In response, one student from the English department took the microphone to bring up the subject of former English professor Jason Markle, whose contract was not renewed after five years due to an earlier than expected course cut.

According to the student, the course had only been offered for three weeks before it was stricken due to low interest.

Erickson declined to comment on the issue due to personnel matters, but countered  saying that all contingent faculty are encouraged to apply to tenure track positions as they become available, adding their job security cannot be guaranteed otherwise. A petition for the reinstatement of Markle has been posted online, garnering 206 signatures since February.

The town hall meeting was sponsored by ASNMU, whichdecided to host the event after hearing about a faculty focused town hall version that occurred two weeks ago.

Lieck stood-by for comment after the conclusion.

“Students were concerned. Rumors were flying around,” Lieck said. “I wrote down all the ideas that came out of this [from students],” Lieck said.

“I’m going to send a summary of what I heard and what answers I got back to the president’s office, so hopefully we can continue the discussion.”

At the townhall meeting, attending students took the opportunity to bring up other campus issues in addition to budget concerns.

New construction and renovations to existing campus facilities were on the radar for the coming years.

While stressing their tentative nature, Erickson outlined his plans for replacing at least two dormitory buildings, along with the aging Summit St. apartments.

“Our plan is to pursue this as a public/private partnership,” Erickson said. “We lease our land, somebody comes in and builds [the building] and maintains it, then we manage and operate [the building] like any other dorm.”

A proposal to undertake cosmetic upgrades to the University Center as well as interior renovations are also on the table.

According to Erickson, requests for qualification have been issued in an effort to source qualified bidders for the projects the administration has in mind.

However, these projects are still a few years off in terms of completion.

In the case of the dormitories, new facilities would have to be completed and furnished before the existing buildings can be demolished.

The green space left behind in the footprint of old Jamrich has been slated for potential landscape development, Erickson said.

The addition of waterfalls and decorative rocks and foliage is one potential outcome students can expect in years to come.

However, the space is not and will not be considered for the construction of a new parking lot, Erickson said.