What Matters in Buicktown

Mott Community College, located in Flint, Mich., got an earful over its plan to shutter a struggling auto body repair program.
September 8, 2011

Cars are a big deal in Flint, Mich., the birthplace of General Motors. So people noticed when Flint’s Mott Community College recently announced a plan to close its auto body repair and painting program.

The program, which includes both a certificate and associate degree track, has been struggling. Enrollment had dwindled, with only four graduates over a recent five-year period. But protesters showed up two weeks ago when college officials made the case to shutter the program at a meeting of the Board of Trustees.

Roger Tyyska was one of the protesters. A retired manufacturing engineer who worked in the automotive industry for 43 years, Tyyska is a member of an antique car club that has sponsored internships for Mott students in the auto body repair program.

“Our community college is closing the gate and some students are going to forfeit their opportunities,” he says.

College officials did their homework before the board meeting, having examined both the program and the job market. They found few job options for degree-holders -- only six to eight opportunities at local auto body shops per year. In addition, most of those jobs do not require associate degrees, officials said, and few students in the program were even seeking degrees.

Amy Fugate, Mott’s vice president for academic affairs, says many of the program’s students are senior citizens and auto enthusiasts who do not intend to work in the industry.

She says the college is largely focused on helping students earn a “degree that should lead to a job,” which has not been typical for the auto body repair and painting program.

“A lot of people were taking it for the opportunity to work on their own cars,” says Fugate.

Mott has hardly abandoned the auto industry. Among its thriving academic offerings, like the health sciences and graphic design programs, which have seen large enrollment gains, is an associate in applied science degree in automotive technology. This track can include training in growth fields, such as work with hybrid vehicles.

Yet Flint’s history is a heavy burden.

“Anytime you cut programs, there are people with emotional ties to them,” Fugate says. “This was the auto town. We’re all having to rethink the auto town idea.”

Tough Choices

Mott’s publicity challenge is a familiar, if extreme, example of the deep ties community colleges have with their hometown economies. More than ever, community colleges need to be responsive to changing job markets. But sometimes outdated or waning fields remain politically important. And public two-year colleges face pressure to be respectful of a region’s heritage, much more so than their competitors among for-profit colleges.

Program cuts are often a painful process, says Byron McClenney, a project director and senior lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin’s Community College Leadership Program. As a result, community colleges should have in place a “systematic, substantive program review process,” ideally conducted on an annual basis.

The key question, says McClenney, who was a community college chief for 32 years, is, “How are we going to ensure that things that are most important have the resources that they need?”

Mott makes a strong case for its proposed cut, as even some of the program’s supporters concede. The college has been hammered by Michigan’s economy, and is under heavy pressure to be efficient. State and local funding sources have not kept pace with enrollment growth, and the college has increased tuition by roughly 10 percent each of the last two years to cover large budget gaps.

The Flint Journal, which first covered the protest, recently published an editorial in support of the cut.

“MCC’s board must base its decision on what is best for students and the college’s bottom line rather than on mere sentiment. Car lovers, hobbyists and the rest of the community must respect that,” the editorial said.

The program’s two full-time faculty members recently retired. It would be difficult and expensive to replace them, Fugate says, and faculty hires should be for high-demand courses.

Students who are over 60 can take classes for free at Mott. That can get expensive for classes attended by retiree car enthusiasts. Fugate says the college is considering noncredit, continuing education offerings in auto body repair and painting, which wouldn’t be free.

Some auto body programs are doing well in Michigan. Gary Sobbry Jr., chairman of the automotive body repair department at Washtenaw Community College, in Ann Arbor, says his department is one of the college’s most successful, and recently received a $17 million facility upgrade.

Running an auto body program is expensive, Sobbry says, and many colleges don’t want to make the investment to make theirs viable. But there are plenty of jobs for graduates of good programs.

“Everybody is looking for qualified technicians,” he says.

Mott’s program, however, appears destined to close. While Tyyska, of the Buicktown Chapter of the Buick Club of America, is disappointed by the proposed cut, he says he can’t disagree with most of the logic behind the arguments of Mott officials.

The Buicktown Chapter has funded seven scholarships for students in the program, who work on historic car renovation in Flint’s Alfred P. Sloan Museum. The car club’s $14,000 gift to the program included roughly $6,500 for body shop tools.

Tyyska is pleased with the scholarship’s impact: “We’ve mentored those students.” However, his club does not approve of the rest of their gift being used for noncredit classes.

“That isn’t the intent of the Buick Club,” he says. “We want our tools back.”


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