Analysis: UM – Flint wrestling with implications of Strategic Transformation effort: will liberal arts — or the campus itself — survive?

By Jan Worth-Nelson

Pressed by a complex mix of serious financial issues, declining enrollment, momentum to supply expected workforce needs, effects of the pandemic, and even socio-cultural shifts, the University of Michigan – Flint is grappling with the likelihood of major changes in its character and institutional design.

It appears the new era is already underway, with the launch in 2021 of the new College of innovation and Technology (CIT)  which offers eight degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM)-based programs, along with an intensely market-driven attempt to attract students in fields where data suggests  demand is greatest or growth is predicted.

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The looming changes are ringing alarm bells for purveyors of traditional liberal arts and humanities, once a source of pride at UM – Flint, who in the present climate find themselves targets for what many fear will be austerity measures threatening to axe anything not in a growth phase.

Both the process and content of what is happening on the downtown campus, in a broad-based effort called Strategic Transformation,  are proving tumultuous  and controversial —  especially among the faculty from the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) the largest of the University’s six colleges and the bulwark of the liberal arts and humanities.

One place where change already is visible is the English Department, once a reliably large-scale generator of credit hour dollars and majors.  Because of enrollment declines, shifts in demand and other factors, it has gradually shrunk to a double handful of tenured professors and untenured lecturers, with almost all of them teaching business communication along with or instead of their disciplinary specialties such as literature or rhetoric. The dwindled department has been folded into a new combination, called the Department of Language and Communications, along with Communications and Foreign Language and Literature.

Some faculty, along with top administration officials, are lauding the efforts underway and see them as essential for the UM – Flint’s survival, but a far more vocal group are criticizing the use of a consultant, Huron Consulting Group, with a “slash and burn” reputation and suggesting that the community comment period underway is merely window-dressing for decisions that have already been made on the Ann Arbor campus.

It is not just a philosophical issue for the CAS faculty;  based on what has happened at other universities where Huron Consulting has run “market analyses,” as well as the drift of early assessments and actions already undertaken, they fear not just that their concerns are not being heard, but that they actually will lose their jobs.

UM-Flint campus – (Photo source UM-Flint Facebook page)

At the New School in New York City, for example, 20 percent of the staff were laid off in the wake of  a Huron Consulting contract — including many faculty in the humanities — in favor of a more online “corporatized” model.

At the University of Wisconsin — Stevens Point, according to an October, 2020 report in The Nation, “In addition to laying off a hundred employees, reducing employment for non-tenure-track staff, and forcibly reassigning tenured faculty, Huron’s plan shuttered thriving programs in humanities and social sciences and drove mass faculty layoffs.”

But university officials up and down the power grid acknowledge changes at UM – Flint must be made and are coming.

In the Aug. 29  “charge letter”  officially initiating what the university has labeled a Strategic Transformation, then-interim UM president Mary Sue Coleman made it clear minor adjustments would not be enough to “reverse any of these negative trends” on the Flint campus.

She said the need to implement bold changes was based on “a realistic description of the financial realities facing UM-Flint”  provided to top UM management and the Board of Regents by UM – Flint Chancellor Debasish Dutta, since his arrival as UM-Flint’s eighth Chancellor in August, 2019.

Coleman, who had come back to lead the university after the firing of former UM President Mark Schlissel, set a December, 2022 deadline for the plan to be completed.

She also wrote,  “At the end of this study and with the approval of the President, a one-time financial investment (which will be dispersed as milestones are achieved) will be committed by the University.”

What that amount is and how it might be distributed is the carrot dangling before the Flint campus.

In the meantime, the new UM president, Santa J. Ono, came into office Oct. 14, and has indicated in visits to UM – Flint and various public statements that he fully supports efforts to achieve “a robust transformation that results in a viable financial model and a strong, attractive brand that conveys a clear and nimble institutional focus that meets the immediate career needs of students, coupled with current and future employment needs of businesses and supports the local community,” as Coleman put it.

“We are striving to remain positive’

“It’s obvious from the town hall [held Sept. 23 to launch the Strategic Transformation effort] and some of the communications since then,  this isn’t something that faculty necessarily requested,” according to James Schirmer, associate professor of English and the lone representative of CAS on the Innovation and Transformation Advisory Council (ITAC).

 “But faculty, and staff , and students are very much involved,”  he said.  “We are striving to remain positive. The amount of ideas that are being generated and are being shared is incredible —  about what do we mean by “strategic,” about what do we mean by “transformation”?

ITAC is one of two official groups meeting every other week receiving data from Huron Consulting, and   preparing to advise University administration  as the process plays out.

ITAC  is composed of 11 representatives from each of UMF’s six colleges as well as the staff and libraries.

French Hall on the UM-Flint campus in downtown Flint. (Photo by Tom Travis)

The second group, the Strategic Transformation steering committee, includes the UMF cabinet — Provost Sonja Feist-Price along with the four other vice-chancellors and the deans of all six colleges.

Data is flooding in, Schirmer said, at all levels — in meetings at the unit level, the  college level, surveys, interviews, focus groups and small-group meetings with the Chancellor.

“For me,”  Schirmer said, “what remains a concern is how and where and to what degree all of this stuff being generated is feeding into and being filtered through Huron Consultants and the Chancellors’ office.  It’s not clear how all of that is coloring or balancing things like the market analysis.

“I worry that those two things  are not going to complement each other, and that they will show contrasting visions.”

He said a lot of the ideas emerging are “revolutionary” — still grounded in disciplinary knowledge and expertise, but designed around the skills that come through those courses that can prepare students for what they might need.  It’s a shift in perspective he said he thinks is positive.

A 70-page draft report dated Nov. 7, titled a ‘Market Analysis’ from Huron Consultants,”    depicts data supporting a realignment prioritizing technical degrees and rethinking or repositioning liberal arts degrees like English, psychology and economics.

Two days after the release of that draft,  Nov. 9, a special meeting for CAS faculty was conducted on Zoom with Huron Consultants representatives.  Participants were given three minutes each to share ideas about how to achieve “Strategic Transformation.”

“There were lots of great ideas put forward that day,”  one faculty member reported, “but now we wait  — we have some concerns about whether any of those ideas will see the light of day.”

Draft report emphasizes market demand, growth predictions

The Nov. 7  document,  identified and offered to faculty and staff  as a “preliminary analysis,” is heavy on bureaucratic language, and it raises many questions and issues which await the final report.  But its six chapters can yield some suggestions about how the process is organized and what the data is showing so far.   Taking each of UM-Flint’s colleges one at a time, it clearly emphasizes market demand for various degrees and attempts to predict growth in various markets.

It  compares UM – Flint to a “comparator set” of five other institutions:  Eastern Michigan University, Wayne State University, Oakland University, Saginaw Valley State University, and Mott Community College.

Missing in that set is Kettering University, a high-tech institution in UM – Flint’s own neighborhood.

While all involved stress the report is a draft,  it indicates that analyses of student demand, employer demand, and what the report labels “demand intensity”  are 100 percent complete, while studies of the competitive environment and conclusions from the market analysis are 75 percent done.  These last two categories, the report makes clear, rely on “synthesizing findings and insights from primary research and community input” — the latter category clearly underway as feedback continues to come in.

The report “infers demand for educational attainment” based on trends in the number of jobs, trends in degrees conferred across the disciplines, and trends in population demographics.”

According to the report,  the ten fastest declining occupations, for complicated reasons,  include three that have been supplied by UM – Flint’s degree options for decades: elementary teachers, secondary teachers, and middle school teachers.  The other seven are buying/purchasing agents, pharmacists, computer programmers,  computer user support specialists, and computer systems analyst.

The ten fastest growing occupations, according to the report, are home health aide, software development, general manager, market research analysis, health services manager, financial manager, manager, nurse practitioner, logistician, and load officer.

“Jobs in healthcare, business and tech  are growing and transforming,”  the report states, while the education workforce is expected to contract.  These trends have implications for academic program focus, content, and modality.”

In analyzing and developing hypotheses about which disciplines may be ripe for growth or investment, the report states that “demand intensity” is greater in nursing, engineering, business and computer science-related programs, and that the five “comparator institutions” are prioritizing these market-driven programs , while Flint has a low market share except in nursing.

Growth trends favor programs in business, health and technology, the report asserts, which it says comprises “all the top ten fastest growing professions in the region.”

The report says it aims  “To determine how UM – Flint should  go about investment in and structure of its core portfolio, which may include programs with objectives beyond direct skills/market alignment, e.g. positive externalities.”

One seeming anomaly is that it notes UM – Flint’s master’s in mechanical engineering is “in moratorium” due to declining local demand.

And it states that “Flint’s recent investments in programs such as cybersecurity are well-positioned to benefit from market forces, while “other components of the Flint portfolio such as business administration and liberal arts should be considered in light of degree conferrals and workforce trends.”

“Market intervention, such as recent actions by the state of Michigan to address education-related workforce shortages, may impact student demand in certain fields.”  Later the report hypothesizes that the institution might “align education programs with student demand, unique market opportunities and the provider landscape.”

In a section titled “emerging hypotheses,” the report suggests that UM – Flint “leverage liberal arts strengths to empower and differentiate tech and health programs,” a suggestion that got the attention of some in the College of Arts and Sciences.

Faculty begin to respond

“On some level I’m advocating on behalf of my unit,”  Schirmer said of his role in the ITAC group,  “but I also want whatever sort of transformative ideas we bring forward to benefit the university as a whole. I would hope that the transformation would lift everybody – I’m trying to be more of a believer in “both/and.”  He said he hopes the thinking about transformation is not exclusively about growth.

“Unfortunately from the draft, my take is that it’s very much growth focused,”  he said.  “We can read the writing on the wall…are the liberal arts a growth area right now?  No, they’re not…what seems to be the omission of certain fields from the draft market analysis gives me pause.  I’m hoping we will do what we do to not just grow.  How do we also answer and change the declines that we’ve seen in enrollment?  At some level we’re coming up against social and emotional forces.”

Schirmer said he’s seeing that effect  it in his communications in business classes  — a class required of all business majors.

“So many, 85 to 90 percent of the students, are saying, well, I’m majoring in business, but my real joy is photography, or literature, or my real passion is travel —  there is a widening gap between what students think they have to do to get a job and what they really want to do.”

For his part, Dutta has provided regular updates to the campus and on the Strategic Transformation website, the latest posted Nov. 16.

In that update, Dutta said feedback has poured in from faculty, staff, students, alumni and community leaders through ” three surveys, multiple focus groups, 30-plus small group meetings” with him.

A request from EVM  for specifics about that feedback was turned down by Robb King, UM – Flint director of marketing and communications, who said a presentation would be made public to the campus on UM’s own timeline —  likely in December.  In a similar response, CIT Dean Chris Pearson declined to comment, stating, “As you are aware, the university is in the information-gathering stage with its constituents, and with no decisions having been made, for me to comment at this time would be premature.” King directed readers to the Strategic Transformation website for as updates become is available and noted feedback still can be provided there.

Responding in part to concerns about the fate of liberal arts programs, Dutta wrote,

“Themes are emerging from the feedback, and I would like to share a few of those with you. Some are very positive, like UM-Flint’s distinctive high-touch offerings and the hands-on nature of so many academic programs that are keeping students engaged in their learning. We are also hearing that you believe there is a need for increased marketing and advertising to tell the compelling stories of UM-Flint’s educational value. At the same time, we are hearing concerns about the future of liberal arts programs. This is all to say that – and I want to emphasize this to everyone – we are intently listening to all that is being shared with us. As I have emphasized, no decisions have been made and therefore your feedback throughout the process is important.”

“We are very excited and energized”

One faculty member happy with the process and likely changes is Mojtaba Vaziri, a physics faculty member of 32 years, who addressed Regents at their Oct. 20 meeting.  He was one of the faculty  moved into the College of Innovation and Technology (CIT) from the College of Arts and Sciences this summer.

“Right now we are all fully engaged in a college-wide discussion on curriculum and how to enhance them to better serve our students and community,”  Vaziri said.  “We are fully invested in making UM-Flint a great destination for prospective students.

“In my 32 years here, I have witnessed many changes and initiatives – but nothing at this level,”  Vaziri concluded, thanking Dutta and Provost Sonja Feist-Price. “But I also recognize that additional change is needed to transform UM-Flint towards a healthy future.”

Another  faculty member however,  Associate Professor of English Mary Jo Kietzman, called the draft report “concerning.” Among many critiques, she lamented that the report does not describe or mention specifics of the Flint community and its significant history — and that UM – Flint’s longstanding commitment to liberal arts establishes it as unique and distinctive in the region.

Commenting on the statement that “Liberal Arts should be considered in light of declining [degree] conferrals and workforce trends,”  Kietzman is skeptical. “There is plenty of data that shows all kinds of companies need a literate workforce, capable of researching, writing, and managing digital platforms for communication.”

Teaching students for resilience

Kietzman continued, “There is NO foolproof way to design a school based on the market.  We need to teach and train students for resilience:  basic skills, thinking, coping with ambiguity and alternatives, and preparing them to be lifelong learners.  They’ll have to be with the employment landscape shifting so rapidly.”

In addition to the basics of the transformation discussions is a recent donnybrook centered around psychology professor Susan Gano Phillips, fired as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences in June.  Gano Phillips delivered a heated commentary at the October Regents meeting in Flint,   Her comments and others that day, led to a letter of concern from 21 emeritus faculty to UM President Santa J. Ono,  and a reply from UM saying the allegations had been received and that the UM had “responded appropriately.”

Gano Phillips  said she is not satisfied with the UM’s response and that formal complaints of administrative practices of bullying and intimidation of those disagreeing with the Chancellor  — “dozens of incidents,” she said —  have been met with inadequate or no action by Ann Arbor.  She said she and six other former high level administrators have repeatedly requested meetings with Ono and the Regents, but have been ignored.  A lengthy letter enlarging on Gano Phillips’ Regents comments was sent to Ono this week.

The ongoing turmoil around Dutta’s approach, which some in contact with EVM have characterized as “authoritarian,”  “volatile” and “intolerant of disagreement,”  has led one UMF campus leader — one sympathetic to the Strategic Transformation process —  to declare anonymously, “Maybe this is right for UM – Flint, but with the wrong leaders.”

Political science professor Jason Kosnoski , who has called on UM to “fire Huron Consultants,” described the Nov. 7 preliminary report as “a cut and paste mad libs report that they fill in the blanks with.”

And like many others, Kosnoski stated he worries “Faculty will have next to no influence in this process, especially if Huron has any say.  Although the administration says that they are just collecting information, the original charge letter from Mary Sue Coleman says Huron will collect data and make ‘evidence based suggestions’ on what transformational plan we should implement.  We are all incredibly worried.

“Another worrying aspect of this,” Kosnoski said, “is that although the Chancellor is having ‘listening sessions’  around town, none of this input was in the Huron draft report.  Furthermore, these listening sessions are invitation only,” he stated.

To try to  counteract that, three faculty-based organizations and others have put together an independent community listening session set for 5 p.m. Nov. 29 in the Happenings Room at University Center.  Kosnoski said he hopes it will draw  “people who really care about equal educational opportunities and making sure that students from Flint get the same options as the students get in Ann Arbor.”

So, with the deadline for completion of the plan fast approaching, c0nstituents at the downtown campus are trying to figure out the degree to which they will have a say in what happens, how they will benefit or lose from what some think was decided long ago in Ann Arbor,  and what the changes, if they occur, will do for students, potential students, and the whole Flint community that has been home to UM’s northernmost campus since 1956.

“I haven’t heard or understood any conversations against transformation,”  James Schirmer said in summarizing his sense of the campus efforts. “There is broad agreement that the way things are going, we do need to change.

UM-Flint Professor James Shirmer. (Photo source:

“We want this to be a welcoming place, a good place,”  he said. “Nobody on ITAC is against transformation — but how is it all going to look?  Even for those that are skeptical about Huron’s influence —  they’re still participating. We want a better future for the campus.”

On request, Chancellor Dutta has agreed to an interview with EVM, and the outcome of that meeting will be reported.   Requests to UM Regent Chair Paul Brown and recently re-elected Regent Mike Behm, who lives in Grand Blanc and practices law in Flint, have not yielded a response. The UM – Flint stories are complex  — no one piece can cover all of them — and we will continue our reporting as the Strategic Transformation process evolves. 

EVM Consulting Editor Jan Worth-Nelson can be reached at  Worth-Nelson worked for UM – Flint from 1987-2013, most of those years as writing faculty in the English Department, and retiring as director of the Thompson Center for Learning and Teaching.

Author: East Village Magazine

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