top of page

March 3, 2022

April 23, 2024

NMC Needs Room to Grow:
A Critique of NMC’s New Master Plan

Tadd Kaiser
Staff writer

Northwestern Michigan College (NMC) is in trouble. “What kind?”, you may ask. Economic? Yes. Academic? Definitely. Social? Certainly. Existential…? Perhaps.


In a prior February issue of the White Pine Press, I reported on Northwestern Michigan College’s ongoing effort to create a new master plan for the school. That article focused on discussions that had been held with the community for plans that Northwestern Michigan College (NMC) has been exploring over the past year to renovate and expand its facilities through a redesign of its campus under the Master Plan. These proposals—the construction of a brand new dormitory and apartments, total renovation of the Osterlin building, the consolidation of University Center partner programs onto the main campus, and other potential changes—should not to be taken lightly, as they have real implications for the future of the campus with regard to its logistical function, economic sustainability, and collegiate identity. 

In this staggering economy, finances are an important question that remains at the forefront of any proposal for new construction projects or redesigns under a new master plan. According to some students, these projects may well be in the college’s best interests. Ethan Novak, a student at NMC, said he agrees that NMC probably does have a need for creating new housing infrastructure. “People come here from all over,” he says, “I met someone that came here all the way from Louisiana because we are the only school in the country that offers both Freshwater and Saltwater certifications in the Maritime Academy.”


Novak attends NMC as an out-of-district student from Lake Ann, a Benzie county community that does not pay taxes to NMC. Novak spoke about a well-known initiative NMC has been exploring with Benzie County to include his county in NMC’s tax plan. According to an NMC memo by President Nissley, he has undertaken a discussion with an organized group from that community that seeks to introduce a millage proposal on their next ballot. While a millage hasn’t yet been proposed, Novak hopes it would pass. He says it’s rumored that NMC would like to offer the same for Antrim county.

Housing and parking: two sides of the same coin


An important objection raised at the community workshop in December was the issue of parking. The creation of a new dormitory and the potential migration of University Center partners onto the main campus both necessitate sufficient parking to accommodate these changes—a matter that has been a real problem in the past. If all these things were to come to pass, the main campus may become much more crowded with students. When asked whether he thought either of these decisions were likely to impact parking on campus, Novak said it was likely they would. When asked whether he would support the development of the college’s undeveloped acreage across campus drive for parking, Novak said he would.


A major hurdle students face in attending school here is the cost of living in Traverse City. Emma Blach works in Traverse City and attends a class at NMC. Asked whether she has looked for an apartment here, Blach replied that she has been and emphasized “I am still looking”. She says that both the cost and lack of availability of housing here prohibits her from attending college and living in the city where she works. On the subject of parking, Blach seemed indifferent and said she always finds parking here, somewhere. Yet, that could change in the coming years if the use of classrooms and buildings on main campus increases under the restructuring being outlined. Offering her opinion on the proposed renovation of the Osterlin building, Blach replied that she considers those things “a want more than a need”, at present, and views housing as a greater priority.


It seems like a paradox to suggest that there is a need for more student housing on campus when enrollment numbers are at their lowest, although this may be an intelligent investment. Many students are discouraged from attending school at NMC because the price of housing in Traverse City makes living in the same city in which they’re attending school unaffordable. Still, the accuracy of the information that there is a definite need for more student housing is questionable. Again, the school has conducted no study on the availability of housing at NMC.


Jacob Dodson is a current resident of East Hall. He says there are actually many empty rooms in his dormitory. Additionally, he feels the housing system that’s in place is rather insecure. It is April, and the application process for housing for the summer term that begins early next month has not even begun. “It doesn’t open until mid-April, and if I don’t get approved for housing for next month, I’d be homeless”, he said. That leaves students just a few short weeks to find housing on campus, he says. This is the economic reality facing students, and no strategic initiative for increasing enrollment can be an effective one without understanding the essential needs of students that attend.


Melina Sanchez is another aspiring second year student graduating this Spring. She doesn’t know where she’ll go yet, but she is looking elsewhere to attend a 4-year degree program to dual-major in Philosophy and Religion. A native of the Ann Arbor area, she came all the way from Washtenaw to attend NMC. “NMC is beautiful,” she says, and “the dorms were attractive. You can’t find a better education for a better price point than NMC.” East Hall, she agrees, is desperately in need of renovations. Melina lived there during her first year, she told. Built several decades ago, the building lacks air conditioning. “We call it East Hell,” she mused. Asked whether the lack of program offerings had influenced her determination to leave school for elsewhere, Sanchez said only that she wouldn’t stay. As a graduate of Washtenaw International, an International Baccalaureate School in Ann Arbor, whose students are mainly children of first-generation immigrants, including Sanchez, who is partly of Mexican heritage, Melina said she can’t help but feel that Traverse City is “small-minded” because “there is a lack of diversity”. It’s another poignant opinion; interestingly, increasing student diversity is one of President Nissley’s goals enumerated under NMC Next, his strategic plan outlined for the college’s growth. “Learning how to get a handle on things was interesting, however,” she remarked, having met with the challenge of moving to an unfamiliar city on her own. Sanchez agreed that plans to overtake the adjacent parking lot would be likely to strain the availability of parking at NMC.


One use proposed by TowerPinkster for the 55-acre campus drive property is a parking structure. To some students, like Emma Blach, this land seems more valuable for its walking trails and fresh air. It is a view wholeheartedly shared by NMC Fellow Ann Rogers. Although Ann thinks the land is inherently valuable as an outdoor recreation area for the community, she thinks the campus drive property could also be put to use for outdoor education. “There is a huge need for more education in building resilience­­—subjects like renewable energy training, and environmental science training. I would love to see NMC be the leader, the shining light, if you will, for this NW corner of MI”, Ann wrote in an email. She is a part of a neighborhood organization working to protect the acreage. They call themselves the “Base of Old Mission”. When Ann grew up, the land NMC occupies was still a dense forest. She thinks clearing part of the land for use as a parking lot or other facilities is unwise. “The climate Crisis is accelerating with temperatures the highest ever”, she said, “mitigation is needed locally with trees providing the cooling needed.”

More athletics on campus?


One may wonder whether NMC has any other outdoor recreational or athletic areas available to the student body. It does, but these are very limited—a short disc-golf course, a small basketball court, and a large field next to a decrepit baseball diamond known around campus as 'the green space', located just behind North Hall. None of the proposals presented by TowerPinkster at the December workshop for improvements to the campus include any plans for the development of 'the green space', despite the fact that the college aims to create a “more vibrant” main campus. All in all, proper space for outdoor athletic field programs is a weak, and otherwise nonexistent, part of NMC’s offerings that could be left entirely excluded from the new master plan. NMC has not one single intramural sports team, probably, because we have no real athletic field or stadium. Even TC Central High across the street has one, though no arrangement exists for sharing its use, nor is such really feasible or practical, as the two campuses are both organizationally and physically segregated.


When prospective students think about where they will attend college, many are attracted by the strength of athletic programs and facilities a college offers. Athletes are a major constituent of the best colleges and universities across the country. So, why not ours? As interests in NMC’s diverse and exceptionally unique programs grow, as also these programs’ degree offerings, so, too, will students’ interest in our campus. Yet, a campus entirely devoid of sports teams is, to put it bluntly, rather boring, and no student athletes attract to a school where there are no opportunities for them to continue their athletic careers, primarily or secondarily to their academic pursuits. These factors are on many student’s minds when they make a decision whether to attend our local college, or go elsewhere for an education. Its not just athletes, but students, as a whole. Students like the attend athletic events. They add excitement and a profound joy for many that touches the heart of what, in their minds, the college experience should be. Would the University of Michigan be attractive to a great many, if not for their famous football, basketball, and hockey programs? Certainly not. Neither will NMC, if it remains this way.


While NMC pays more attention to its main campus housing in the interest of meeting student’s needs, less issue has been made of the infrastructural problems these changes could eventually create and these pre-existing athletic deficits. If the college decides to prioritize its space and budget for housing and other redesigns that could potentially encroach on 'the green space', the ability the college may have to adjust to demand for parking may become limited. Despite assurances by Brandon List of TowerPinkster that there are no present plans for development of the ‘green space’, the college may be forced to eye it for development of new parking structures in the future. The suggestion that the new dormitory be built on the site on the existing Dogwood parking lot is an indication that NMC may be acting only with a mind to increase enrollment numbers that are down at present, without due regard to how the need for parking may dramatically increase over the course of the next 5, 10, or 15 years, and the crowding that may result. The college needs to do more to make sure 'the green space' is reserved for athletics in the master plan.

Enrollment at an all-time low


According to remarks President Nissley expressed at the December Master Plan community workshop, enrollment numbers are at a record low, funding through state appropriation is declining, and the University Center may be in peril. The school, he says, is facing the challenge of growing its revenue streams, both by increasing its existing ones, i.e. enrollment, and creating new ones (International Affairs Forum events, Gala to Give, other School Fundraisers, etc.). The initiative to annex Benzie County ought to be understood as a plan for this purpose. With regard to the master plan, his strategy seems straightforward: enrollment numbers are down, so the school needs to undertake plans that will increase enrollment. It may be fair logic to build more student housing on campus and renovate facilities here to attract students.


Indeed, a vibrant college campus teeming with bright, motivated undergraduates is a goal for every undergraduate school endeavors. The new redesign of the Timothy J. Nelson Innovation Center (IC) was a much needed step forward for the school. It brought life into a building whose structure was decades outdated, and created a new, spacious central meeting ground for students. 


It’s so spacious, in fact, that the lack of enrollment on many evenings throughout the semester is palpable. See for yourself—have a stroll through the innovation center on any given Friday evening after 6 or 7pm, and you will find but a few students doing work among the many dozens of tables in various rooms on the main floor and basement of the IC. This is not only so for Fridays and weekends, when students would expectedly be doing other things, but is often the case on weeknights and weekdays, as well. The Innovation Center is often a rather empty place during the evenings, and the larger classrooms on the main floor seem to regularly go unused by instructors. Unfortunately, this isn’t just the case for the Innovation Center; it’s the same for the Aero Park Campus on Parsons-Stulen drive. On any given day, at any given hour, several of the building’s many classrooms are unoccupied, and that grand, enormous building feels like a ghost-town. On most weeknights when a friend and I take a computer-aided drafting and design (CADD) course, it is one.


This emptiness on main campus may be a reason behind Nissley’s proposal under the Master Plan to migrate the University Center partners out of that building and over to the main campus. There are, according to the study conducted by TowerPinkster, unused classrooms on the main campus that could meet the needs of University Center partners.


So, at face value, consolidating the University Center partners over to the main campus seems like another intelligent decision, one with the intention of fostering a close-knit “academic core,” as Brandon List of TowerPinkster put it. That is, until one really thinks about why NMC is encouraging this move. Ask oneself: sure, building new dormitories on campus would meet the immediate needs of some students, but, when the school is facing the problem of declining enrollment, i.e. funding, where is the money for this project and others (like the redesign of the Osterlin building into a ‘one-stop student services center’) going to come from?


The answer? Why, the University Center, itself, of course. NMC may intend to sell off the University Center property to pay for these projects. Real estate developers would buy the property at the drop of a hat, if made available for purchase. That real estate—lakeside waterfront on the Boardman—is the kind of deal outside real estate holding companies dream of. They see the commercial value behind the property, but with an educational building there already, why does NMC not? Yes, the additional taxes on that property are expensive for the school, but this turns out to be a bigger question, and a much more real one, at that.

Music only after 5 pm

To provide some insight into this question, I decided to interview the coordinator of a program whose entire basis of operation used to be the University Center, Brady Corcoran of the Audio Technology department. Audio Tech, for several years, occupied half the basement of the University Center, until they separated from the building in 2020. Their program, while a native NMC program, was significantly limited in their ability to practice their studies because their sharing of the space with Grand Valley State University (GVSU) would not allow them to play music before 5pm, when GVSU had concluded their business for the day. GVSU now leases the entire lower level of the University Center, and the classrooms the Audio Tech program previously occupied now go entirely unused and vacant. It looks, simply, as if NMC’s program was just made to vacate the building. It was, though, an unworkable arrangement, and when asked whose decision it was to leave the University Center, Brady respectfully stated that “it was a mutual decision; our students could not use musical equipment before 5pm, and it was disruptive to Grand Valley.”


No doubt, this was a major hinderance for NMC’s audio technology program. During COVID, Corcoran migrated the program’s operations into the Founder’s Hall on main campus and seems complacent with the move that was made. When asked about whether his program feels at all constrained by the limited availability of space in Founder’s Hall when compared with the much larger space afforded to them by the University Center, Brady said, “not really, though, we have already had some issues with availability of rooms.” For the most part, he thinks the space suits his needs, and he feels satisfied with it. “We’re happy to be on main campus,” Corcoran said. For it’s part, NMC’s audio tech program is a growing program, and it has grown even more since COVID-19. “This year was the first year we’ve ever had three full sections of first-year students. It’s the most we’ve ever had,” Corcoran says. “Retention from first to second year has also been much better,” he claimed.


If anyone asks me as an individual, I tell them my personal opinion is quite different. As a prospective student who had first been introduced to the audio technology program by some acquaintances when it occupied the lower level of the University Center, I was very much taken in by the large, quiet space they had there. It was expansive enough for a group of people to get together and play music in, and it felt nice to be there. It was an attractive feature of NMC’s program that made me consider going back to school after having left off from a degree program elsewhere at the University of Michigan. When I learned that the audio program was housed in that building no longer, my heart sank.


So, take a step back and consider how NMC prioritized an external organization’s needs (GVSU’s) over those of one of its own established programs. There is no good reason for this, yet, NMC’s institutional policy concerning the scheduling of courses at the University center, Staff Policy D-505.05, seems to incorrectly condone this hierarchy, as there are inherent inconsistencies with the University Center facility use policy. Consider the following passages from it: “Northwestern Michigan College’s property, buildings, parking lots and grounds are designed and reserved for supporting the purposes of the institution. Northwestern Michigan College (NMC) also makes its physical facilities available to responsible groups and organizations on a rental basis, after meeting College needs.” Most of these ‘responsible groups and organizations’ are none other than the University Center partners, and they lease space at the University Center on a rental basis. This clause is what enables the University Center to operate. It is the leading paragraph of NMC’s facilities use procedure, and it’s also codified in the University Center use policy, with the institutional effectiveness criterion being, namely, ‘operations’. Despite this fact, the scheduling order at the University Center is outlined as follows: “a. University Center Partner Academic courses, b. NMC non-credit courses, c. NMC Academic courses…”, in that order. (As a side note, if one wonders why NMC would ever prioritize NMC non-credit courses over NMC credit courses, it’s a baffling question that seems to demonstrate the erroneous ordering here.)

University partners consider pulling out


Now, the University Center partners are all thinking about pulling out, not long after NMC displaced one of its own programs. Some partners have already done so. The University of Michigan used to offer a Masters degree there. They no longer contract with the University Center. The fact is, the University Center partners may not really have NMC’s best intentions at heart. Despite the intent behind the University Center, the fact is that the school really doesn’t profit much from the endeavor. Many people, including myself, would say that the collapse of the University Center because of a premature withdrawal of its tenants would be a definitively bad result for the college and the community that had started to demand it back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, nonetheless. All the same, it is a likely one, unless the school considers these proposals carefully.


You see, the problem of record low enrollment at NMC is an even greater problem that requires us to look at the bigger picture. If enrollment is down, but we are attracting students, for example, in the growing audio technology program, then, what is happening to them, otherwise, that is turning them away from school?


In part, sheer economic necessity is forcing many students to work instead of attend school. Victor Olvera was a student at NMC this Spring before he dropped all his studies this semester and quit his job at the school cafeteria. When asked why, he said his family’s mounting bills meant that he needed to get a better job and work, rather than attend school. “I’ll be taking classes again next semester,” he hopes.


But, this points to an even more apparent and unfortunate trend going on at the college. Students are leaving, but not just for work; they’re leaving NMC to go… elsewhere. Emma Hansen, a second year student, will be graduating this Spring with her Associate’s in Liberal Arts and Sciences. She is leaving for Northern Michigan University (NMU) to pursue a degree in Environmental Studies because NMC doesn’t offer a bachelor’s in Environmental Studies that suits her interests and goals. NMU, like a host of other four-year colleges in Michigan, does. Understandably, Hansen is rather conflicted about that decision; “I love it here,” she says. “I do not want to leave NMC,” but, “I am leaving for [NMU] because [NMC] doesn’t have my major“, Emma wrote in an email after sitting with me one day and describing her plans for her future. “I support them in wanting to keep the price low”, she added. Indeed, the affordability of an education is something that attracts many students to NMC.


However, that low tuition cost, of which each of these students well take advantage, comes at a tremendous cost to the school. As inflation has risen prices dramatically over the past few years and funding has declined, the school has struggled to maintain this status quo. Some of the decisions being made are rather harmful. A major choice made by President Nissley last year determined that adjunct faculty would no longer be employees of the school; rather, they will be employees of a downstate educational staffing firm, Edustaff. Doing so would mean the school would not have to pay pension benefits for its educators because they are not considered employees of the school, according to a White Pine Press article published in September of last year on the issue. That amounts to approximately $1.2 million dollars a year. This article speaks to how NMC is driving valuable members of its educational community away or “has left some adjust feeling alienated” as a way to offset costs, and that affects the relationship educators have with the school in a very negative way. Chavarria’s article said that out of 290 NMC instructors, 179 are adjuncts who will not see pension benefits. So, why would educators want to build a lasting relationship with the school and teach here?


If you examine the school’s strategy as a whole, it is obvious that the the direction the school is taking is uncertain, its plans lacks distant foresight, and its practical actions may not be orienting the school towards a sustainable future in which academic programs will flourish; plans to sell off existing infrastructure to pay for constructions that won’t necessarily generate revenue for the school are, quite frankly, ill-conceived. A new dormitory might fit the immediate needs of some students for housing, but its capacity is limited. Banking on the notion that new dorms will attract new students is only going to go so far as the capacity of the buildings and the duration of the students to live there, which is, again, limited by NMC’s degree offerings. It’s the equivalent of cutting off the arm to save the leg, as the proverb goes.


So, what is a better strategy that the school could use to turn things around? Well, in all honesty, we need look to no further than President Nissley’s NMC Next strategy, which is actually a rather good one—it’s right there, under its “Strategic Goals, Objectives, and Progress trackers” section, where the first step is: “Enhance offerings…”.

Baccalaureate Four-Year Degrees, The Only Answer


Ultimately, the whole of the problems that NMC is facing can be boiled down to this one shortcoming: NMC just isn’t enhancing its fundamental offerings. Yea, we’re offering some new associate degree programs, like the new Water Quality Environmental Technology degree, but associate programs aren’t the issue. We’ve got a lot of those. It’s Bachelor’s degree programs we lack. If you look at what is happening at NMC with an open eye, if you talk to the students here, it becomes apparent that NMC is hemorrhaging students to other four-year institutions mainly because it isn’t offering a range of its own bachelor’s degrees. There are a couple, okay, the Bachelor’s of Science in Maritime Technology and Nursing.


Now, as a matter of fact, NMC does offer another Bachelor’s degree: the Bachelor’s of Science in Marine Technology through its Great Lakes Water Studies Institute, and this is actually very important. The Great Lakes Water Studies Institute is a very unique program, and it offers the only Bachelor’s degree in Marine Technology in the country, in which the school is investing heavily to boost future enrollment. Yet, under the Community College Act of 1966, a community college is specifically defined as “an educational institution providing collegiate and noncollegiate level education… the term does not include an educational institution or program that grants baccalaureate or higher degrees other than a baccalaureate degree in cement technology, maritime technology, energy production technology, or culinary arts.” A Bachelor’s of Science in Marine Technology is not included in these select few exceptions, and it cannot be misconstrued with the Maritime Technology degree that it offers, otherwise. Therefore, NMC may no longer legally consider itself a community college while it seeks to offers this baccalaureate degree.


Let’s talk about some simple math. A student that stays for four years is worth twice as much to the school as a student that only stays for two. If NMC were able to expand outside of the mindset that it needs to remain a two year college, then it could realize that it has the potential to be every bit as competitive as the schools that it hosts at its University Center campus. It could earn far more in enrollment revenue by offering four-year baccalaureate degrees than it gains by staying set as a two-year college. And, we’ve already got a lot of the infrastructure to do so. Why not, say, make the University Center campus a place for NMC’s own bachelor programs and other growing programs, like audio technology, environmental studies and sustainability, philosophy, religion, etc., that could better use them to benefit the school directly, and not transfer our students—the very life of the college—off to other institutions? I mean, that’s the major source of revenue for thriving college campuses across Michigan. It should be ours, as well. So, what’s holding NMC back?


For one, NMC relies on the limited arrangements it offers through the University Center partners to fill the demand for four year degrees in past decades. The main reason, though, seems to be the way NMC has decided to financially structure itself under the tax code to remain a community college. NMC wants to maintain its status as a community college, so that it pays less in taxes than a four-year institution. For every county that NMC may include, it could levy added taxes to help pay for the school. This is where President Nissley’s interest in annexing Benzie County comes in. It also helps them to keep the cost of tuition down because students can take advantage of certain loans and grants for associate degrees that are mainly awarded to students at community colleges, like Governor Whitmer’s Michigan Reconnect program. Funding for that program, though, will most likely expire when Whitmer leaves office.


Our unique academic programs like the Water Studies Institute, which is poised to experience rapid growth in the coming years as they build a new Freshwater Research and Innovation Center, could enable us to grow quickly. Nissley’s NMC Next strategies are well-intended, properly structured, and fundamentally solid, but the present thoughts and actions of the administration are being constrained by a longstanding, institutional-wide mindset that we need to remain within the boundaries of being a 2-year community college, rather than change and grow where we are, just as our students would like to do. In this respect, we are failing.


As a final thought, consider this: the name of our school is Northwestern Michigan College; not Northwestern Michigan Community College. NMC already has the potential to be just as great and competitive, if not more so, than other colleges in this state, but we need to realize it by understanding that the integrity of our campus will only ever be as strong as the educational degrees it offers. The decisions that we make under the Master Plan should demonstrate prescience of the challenges that NMC may face in the future, which should make us seriously question whether any master plan can meet the college’s objectives under NMC Next without understanding our present shortcomings. Planning construction projects that do otherwise by spending precious funding unwisely or potentially over-allocating our limited space may just harm us in the long term. The bonds students make here are being broken every couple years when they leave NMC. Many here simply opt not to get to know one another too closely. That doesn’t foster a creative and rewarding academic experience. Our own academic programs have conflicted with 3rd party educational institutes, whose interests are not those of the college. The accreditation of the Marine Technology Bachelor’s degree remains a mystery, and that could potentially compromise both trust and the name of the institution. Incidentally, if we drive out our educators by turning them into disposable assets that operate under a third-party because our operations are unsustainable, then, many valuable educators may want nothing to do with NMC, outside of the business arrangement they make. When has “It’s just business,” ever sounded good?


However, the truth is, we are a community, and we’ve got some critical decisions to make. The way we plan for them may make all the difference.


Note: The author declares potential conflicts of interest: the author is a student taking some of his current classes in the Audio Technology program. In addition, the author has recently applied to create a new student group for students interested in playing outdoor Field Lacrosse.

bottom of page