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The Eastern Echo Saturday, June 22, 2024 | Print Archive
The Eastern Echo

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EMU's President James Smith sits down with The Eastern Echo

Gives update on Parking Structure, renovations and more

The Eastern Echo sat down with University President James Smith on Tuesday, Nov. 28 to reflect on his eight years as president, the EMU Federation of Teachers' (EMUFT) contract negotiations, the handling of the pandemic, and more. The Echo provided President Smith with questions prior to the interview. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Eastern Echo:

A big event this year was the EMUFT contract negotiations. How do you feel those negotiations went? 

James Smith:

Obviously, lecturers are a very important part of what we do here. We were able to do, in a relatively short period of time, a five-year-agreement. Which is almost unheard of in today's world. So I think it speaks well to their [EMUFT] negotiating team and the university’s negotiating team. We look forward to five good years of success with the lecturers, working with students and doing what they do best, which is teaching.

EE:

You have been the president of the university since 2016. What has been the most exciting thing for you as president since then?

JS:

Commencement is the most exciting thing I do. I get robed early, and then I walk around all the robing rooms. So I see the undergraduates, and that is a big long set of lines, I try to walk down the lines and talk to as many students as I can. Then I'll go over and do the master's robing room, and then I go over for the doctoral students. It's fun if I get a chance to walk out afterward to see their families. Sometimes it's husband, wife, little kids, sometimes it's mom, grandma, grandpa. It is just the most exciting thing we do.

EE:

Is there a certain commencement that sticks out to you?

JS:

Well, when we first came back from the pandemic was pretty important, because people hadn't been together. We had done the virtual graduation, which we are proud of, we worked hard at it, but it was not the same. Many people wanted to wear masks and wanted as much precaution as they could take, but they really wanted to be in person. I think one of the great things we do is every student's name is called and every student's picture is on the Jumbotron. So the students really wanted that. They wanted the experience of having someone announce their name and then go across the stage. So I think that one was kind of extra special.

EE:

Speaking of the pandemic, the university is coming back to how it used to be. How do you feel the university handled the pandemic?

JS:

Well, I will say it was the biggest challenge. I started public school teaching in 1978. So I've been doing this work for a long, long time. The pandemic was the most challenging thing that I had ever done as an administrator because there was no playbook. We did not know what we did not know. So it was very important that we bring our team together, we talked about all the information that was out there. Then Walter [Kraft], his team and I, and several other members of our senior cabinet would edit a letter that went out every day, and that was for several weeks. Then we went several times a week and then eventually we went to once a week. I think that communication really was beneficial for us. I heard from parents, as the pandemic became less and less, I ran into people at the grocery store and they say I love that letter that you put out every day. I wasn't getting much information from my employer, so I was getting information from my son’s or daughter's account at Eastern.

Then also the work that we did with Chartwell's for students who had to be isolated. Chartwell's not only took food to them, they had teddy bears that they ordered because they were isolated, you know something to break up the monotony. I think that went really well. Then the testing clinic. We were able to use our medical lab science students to actually run the testing clinic with a faculty member, instead of sending people off to a mini-clinic, you were able to do it right here. I think that was a big, big plus.

Are there other things that we would like to have done differently or better? Sure. But we know now what we know by experience, and we did not have that experience before. So I think given what we knew and how we proceeded and who we worked with. County Health, for example, was a wonderful supporter. They would send us information. They would even come on to our calls a few times. So I think we did really well compared to what I hear from other colleagues around the state. I think we were ahead of the game.

EE:

The university has been making plenty of plans regarding the renovation of its campus. Renovations like Westview and Lakeview Apartments. What are some other upcoming plans you want students and staff to know about?

JS:

The biggest one just announced is that we were the recipient of capital outlay dollars for Roosevelt. Roosevelt is a beautiful building, but it's old and it needs to be remodeled. Our goal and the state's vision of our goal is that we will bring cybersecurity and aviation and the newest of things into one of the oldest buildings. So it is kind of the blend of the new and the old. That's going to be a little over $40 million. $30 million of it will come from the state, and then about $12 million will come from us, so $42 million total. That will be a huge addition to having Sill Hall now done and then having Roosevelt, then of course Strong being done. That gives you a really nice array of buildings that were in need.

Read more: Michigan Legislature approves Roosevelt Hall Renovation

I'm excited about the 3D Art Center. A lot of students who aren't in art don't know a lot about the 3D Art Center. But if you look almost directly west from DPS [Department of Public Safety], you can see what is now the makings of a building. We are going to have a sculpture in with all of the three-dimensional art pieces. We have the Windgate Foundation to thank for that because they were a significant contributor.

The Halle Foundation gave us more money to remodel the first floor of the library. So we're going to do that. Libraries are becoming more and more about audio, visual, and telling of histories and telling of stories than just cataloging books. So the Halle Foundation wanted to see that come about, as did we.

So those are all things that I'm excited about. Just the continuation of the green space. We're going to bring down Jones-Goddard and put green space there. Mental health is a big issue with students, undergraduate and graduate. Green space is a big plus for students to say, look, I just need a park to kind of hang out in. If I'm going to do my homework, I'd rather do it at a park bench than do it in a residence hall. So we want to give that opportunity too. I think it's going to be beautiful. Jones-Goddard was a great building in its day. It's lived a good life, we will bring it down and we'll have a lot of green space in that area and people can recreate, lay out in the sun, take a nap or do whatever they want to do. Maybe go walking and take a walking path and really enjoy that green space in that part of campus.

EE:

Speaking of that, what is your favorite part of campus? 

JS:

That's hard to say a favorite part because I'm going to offend someone. I think because students are there so often and I'm there a lot, the Student Center is really hard not to be a favorite. It is beautiful, it's very well designed. Long before I came, it was designed with that glass look, straight out onto the ponds and the fountains. But just the buzz that goes on in there. It is fun when we have students that are here for like Digital Divas and you see young kids in there. Then we'll have Transfer Days and you'll see older students in there and then we'll have Explore Eastern days and you have parents, grandparents, and students. It's just a fun place to be and Starbucks is popular and that's important to students and faculty as well. 

Read More: EMU's Digital Divas program to host 13th annual STEM conference

EE:

An issue this year that students and staff have been talking about has been the parking structure over by the Halle Library. Can you tell us any updates or information?

JS:

Provident, who is the concessionaire for the parking agreement, has chosen to go through the legal process related to the parking structure. We're disappointed by that. We did extensive engineering analysis before they purchased it. We told them what the issues were with the parking structure. I guess the courts will determine whether they understood that or didn't understand it. But we're disappointed that they think closing the structure is the answer. We hope the court will give us clarity and say this floor should be open, that floor should be open, whatever it might be. I don't ever try to predict the courts. But I think what we've done is be as detailed and as fair as we can be. I think that always carries the tried and true, do what you know is the right thing, which is what we believe we did.

It's not going to be a fast process. I want students to know that. I have heard students say, by spring we're going to have the parking garage up. I said, the legal process is slow. I would be delighted if that was true, but I don't know that it will be true I will say, and students won't particularly like this. But even if we never open it again, that's only 8% of the parking spots on campus. We have ample parking now, obviously, the Green Lot is pretty distant and the parking structure is not so distant, so I get it. But, there is ample parking and the scooters have become pretty popular. You've probably seen that people park at Green Lot, pick up a scooter and ride over to Ford Hall. Our new Vice President for Enrollment Management, Katie Condon, rides a scooter around campus. You will not see me riding a scooter on campus, I just don't want to see people watch me crash, that would be a bad video. 

Read More: EMU's Spin e-scooters seen as a success a year after launch

EE:

A big part of Eastern is the Ypsilanti community. What does the university intend to do to interact with the community?

JS:

There is a lot that we do as a community-engaged campus. But the one that's most recent in my mind, and Melissa [Thrasher] was fundamental in this, and Walter [Kraft] was very active, the Thankful Giving Day where we gave out turkeys and we gave out full meals. I don't know that all the students will know this, but we started that morning at 11:30. There was a woman that was there at 7:30 a.m., and we asked her why are you here so early? She said, because I definitely need this. That makes you feel good. We know at least in that family and there were a lot more than one, where this was a make-it-or-break-it for their Thanksgiving. We couldn't do it without Chartwell's. We couldn't do it without the Hundley Foundation. We couldn't do it without people like Melissa who put in hundreds of hours to make this thing work. The cars were snaked all around the George Gervin [GameAbove] Center. So you have to feel good about what you do. Then we brought people in for dinner that night and families came and they did an interview on Channel 4. A young lady said 'Well, what do you think of this?’ and a woman said it was like eating at a five-star restaurant. I thought maybe that was a stretch, but the food was really good. We did put out tablecloths so it didn't look like you were in a basketball arena. We had a lot of fun, and I think that's an important part of your engagement.

Read More: E|Dining set to host Second Annual Thankful Event

I love what we do with all the things in schools where we help a lot of Ypsi Public Schools, our College of Education has students that do their clinical experiences there. But we do many things that the community might not know as outreach. Our nursing clinicals are largely at Saint Joe, two blocks from our campus.

So there are so many things we do. The early childhood collaborative, where we bring childcare to folks that would not have it probably otherwise. Early College Alliance high school kids that get dual credit. I've met a number of students in the eight years I've been here. That said, I got 60 college credits when I was in high school. At age 20 I was going to graduate with a bachelor's degree. Then they start talking about maybe I should stay and just do a master's. That's the advantage of those kinds of community outreaches.

EE:

Most universities in the nation took a step back on DEI efforts while Eastern went the opposite. You hired a new chief diversity officer and new coordinators. Why was there an effort to make these changes?

JS:

Well, the simple answer is because we are an incredibly diverse place. I think the more we think about who we are as a university, we serve folks from all over the globe. We have students here from South Korea, we have students from Saudi Arabia. We have students from really small, remote, almost villages in Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana. It is important to say not only do we recognize this, we applaud it. We want to be a center for not only just diversity, but equity and inclusion. Eastern is not for everybody, I understand that, but if you choose to be here, I want you to feel like, 'Boy, this is a place where I'm included. This is a place where I've got opportunities to do things.'

By the way, I've seen more students at student activities this semester than I've seen in years. I think it's people coming back from the pandemic saying, look, if there's a student activity, I want to go to it. And that's fun to see. That's part of the inclusion process, they feel included, they feel like it's something that they want to be part of. I think our choice of a new chief diversity officer has been a very good one. He's very knowledgeable, he's very experienced. We're going to continue to push the envelope for being a really diverse place that applauds diversity. We have students that come to us with a great deal of wealth, and we have students who come to us with very little wealth and we all come together and we live as a community and that's a pretty special thing.

EE:

Any upcoming news that you want students or staff to know about?

JS:

I kind of leaked the Halle Library, I got ahead of myself, but that's going to be a big change. The library will still be a library. You still get books there. But I think the look and the feel of the library will be quite different. We've spent a lot of time in the eight years I've been here and a couple of years prior to my coming in the last 10 years just making campus look like a place you want to be. Whether you like the boulevard or you don't like the boulevard in front of Alexander. It has a specific look. We want all of the residence halls to be modern, and that's why we're doing Welcome Home 2025. We know students want apartment-style living, so that's why we're doing Lakeview and West View. So that is going to be competitive because there are students that really want to overlook the water. They love the Student Center, the library is just a block away, so those are really important. Beyond that, I think we're going to keep looking for good opportunities there. The disciplines are changing every day. The high-end technology is changing every day. People often think that's just engineering and cybersecurity. Technology, biochemistry, chemistry and virtually all the hard sciences are changing every day. So we'll look to be a leader in getting the very best equipment and supplies in front of our students.

EE:

What improvements are you still looking to make?

JS:

We are really hyper-focused on improving our graduation rate. We think some student dropouts have nothing to do with academics. They can clearly graduate. We need to find out what that is, why it is, and how we can help them, because there's nothing worse than having college debt and no degree. You got three years of college debt and you need 32 more credit hours to graduate. Let's find a way to get those 32 credit hours. They just need a few more courses to graduate. We don't want them to be on the non-completing list. We want them to finish their degree and we're going to figure it out. Provost Longworth and I were talking about it yesterday and Vice President [of Communications] Kraft and I were talking about it today. There's probably not a secret sauce but we want to find what are some techniques that we can help students and is it monetary? Then if it is, then we've got to do some fundraising around and look at some other opportunities. But we want students to succeed. I know students come back. I have met many students that say I came back at 27 and finished my degree, but wouldn't it have been easier if you finished it at 22 and if we could help you finish at 22, let's do that.

So that's one that we think a lot about. I think because I like these things, I think how do we get more people to see our drama performances? How do we get more people to see the recitals that we do in Pease Auditorium? When we do a really good play in Legacy Theatre how do we pack the house? Those are things that I think about and we all talk about it. For example, I wonder if you are elderly and you don't have a lot of activity going on in your life, is there a way that we get you to come see some of these things? How do we get another hundred in there and then do something good for the community at the same time, back to your earlier question. That's a community engagement strategy. How do we get folks that would really like to do this, but they don't drive or they don't drive anymore and can we put something together? Those are things that we're talking about and thinking about all the time.

EE:

Anything else you want to mention that might have not been brought up that you want students to and the community to know about?

JS:

It's not a piece of advice, but it's something I hope students would think about. Do something that you wouldn't normally do, like go see a BFA show. If you have no interest in art whatsoever, go see a BFA show. You have no interest in theater. Go see a theater performance. If you don't know anything about basketball, go see a women's or men's basketball game. I think what happens with students sometimes is we get into our own rut. I love football, so I go to all the football games a student might say. Another student might say, I don't even know the rules of football. Well, come to the game and people can explain it to you. Or someone might say, I've never seen a live theater performance. With your student ID, you can get in to see it and take the opportunity to do that. I think sometimes people after they graduate say, I should have done that.

Carpe diem, seize the moment, take the chance to do it while you're here and you have the opportunity to do it right.