Grasso calls UM-Dearborn a “gateway to better lives” in his state of the university address

February 14, 2022

The UM-Dearborn chancellor outlined why he thinks the university is well positioned to help students thrive in a rapidly changing world.

Chancellor Domenico Grasso gives his State of the University Address in the Engineering Lab Building atrium, February 10, 2022.
Chancellor Domenico Grasso gives his State of the University Address in the Engineering Lab Building atrium, February 10, 2022.

To make the most of an understatement, it’s been a challenging couple of years. But Chancellor Domenico Grasso began Thursday’s state of the university address by reminding us that the University of Michigan, in its 200-plus year history, has endured tough times before — including past pandemics and political divisions not dissimilar from today’s. Indeed, such moments often inspire us to deliver on our mission in new and interesting ways. “Our plans and our futures will adapt and evolve, but we look toward tomorrow with a sense of optimism and pride, knowing that one thing remains the same: the Dearborn branch of the Michigan family tree is as strong as it has ever been,” Grasso said during the opening of his speech. “We will always offer students an outstanding education that leads to personal transformations and growth and empowers them to be a force for good in the world.”

Grasso outlined a number of reasons for such optimism. As he often does, he praised the university’s COVID response as unrivaled, noting that we not only pivoted to remote and in-person classes at the right times, but skillfully and compassionionately addressed equity, access, technology and mental health challenges posed by the pandemic. And as we look ahead, he identified five key areas where the university is innovating in meaningful ways. First, he noted that the university is writing a dynamic new chapter in its history as an institution known for practice-based learning. For example, we’re continuing to expand our options for professionally oriented graduate programs, including a new degree type for UM-Dearborn called the Doctor of Engineering. In the fall, we’re also launching five new “scholar communities” that help students tightly integrate their practice-based studies with opportunities outside their classes. And across all four colleges, the university is leveraging its metropolitan location for partnerships with community-based organizations, enabling faculty and students to work directly on the complex array of problems facing cities today through our Urban Futures initiative.

When talking about a second key focus area, student success, Grasso defined the university as a “gateway to better lives” and referred back to an inclusive definition of higher education’s value he first outlined in his inaugural remarks. Grasso says a 21st-century college experience ideally provides three things: currency, luxury and legacy. That is, it must prepare students to make a living in their chosen profession; the work must be enriching in ways that go beyond financial wealth; and it must prepare them to make the world a better place. Grasso says he sees the university doing meaningful work in each of these areas, and pointed not only to our array of programs but some real-life graduates as evidence. Huda Kattan, an ‘07 COB graduate and founder of the influential beauty brand Huda Beauty, says her time at UM-Dearborn ignited her entrepreneurial spirit. “Her company is currently one of the fastest-growing beauty brands in the world because she combined what she learned at UM-Dearborn with her passion,” Grasso said. “Along with her company, Huda is building a legacy of care for others through her philanthropy. She has donated millions to various organizations, providing meals to those in need and fighting for human rights.” Another student, Sara Dokter, faced a choice between the Ann Arbor and Dearborn campus and was won over by our caring staff. Once she enrolled, her computer science professors helped her discover a new passion for cybersecurity, and she now dreams of working for the FBI. “Sara’s experience and trajectory, along with Huda Kattan’s entrepreneurial talent, epitomize our commitment to holistic student success. This is what makes our university so special.” 

Chancellor Domenico Grasso gives his 2022 State of the University address.
Chancellor Domenico Grasso gives his 2022 State of the University address.

Grasso also noted major initiatives focused on diversity, equity and inclusion — chief among them, several new strategies for making college more affordable. UM-Dearborn recently adopted a “need-first” financial aid strategy, so students with the greatest need pay the least. In summer 2021, we also launched the Go Blue Guarantee for the Dearborn campus, which was piloted for a year in advance of the announcement. The Go Blue Guarantee provides free tuition for high-need, high-achieving students. Another new program: the Dearborn Comeback, which grants $5,000 to students with at least 90 credits to help them finish their degrees. In addition, the university bolstered program offerings for the Office of Equity, Civil Rights and Title IX, which is currently conducting a campuswide climate survey. And the diversity, equity and inclusion strategic plan working group developed more than 60 recommendations, many of which are already being implemented, including notable changes to human resources practices and policy. To turn ideas into action, Grasso noted the university is investing an additional $1 million in efforts to improve campus culture on issues related to diversity, equity and inclusion. 

It’s also been a remarkable year for UM-Dearborn faculty. Indeed, Grasso noted he could “spend the entire day” sharing stories of faculty success, but he limited himself to a few examples. In 2021, Mathematics Professor Yunus Zeytuncu was named a Michigan Distinguished Professor of the Year by the Michigan Association of State Universities for his outstanding research, classroom teaching, and mentorship and for developing a tutoring program for middle and high school students. Also in CASL, Professors Joan Remski, Marilee Benore and Daniel Lawson won a $1.44 million National Science Foundation grant to create STEM Scholars, a program providing innovative supports for lower-income, first-year students to succeed in their math and science courses, which are common roadblocks to retention and graduation. Over in CECS, Professor DeLean Tolbert Smith received a prestigious National Science Foundation CAREER award to explore the role families and non-classroom experiences play in tackling STEM’s equity problems. And on the research front in general, UM-Dearborn faculty have been hauling in big national grants at a record pace: “Since 2018, external awards for research have increased by roughly 75 percent, with the federal component rising from 30 percent to 70 percent,” Grasso said.

Finally, Grasso shared his thoughts on the university’s financial health. Despite an unusual set of pandemic-related challenges, he described the university’s financial outlook as “solid” and “secure.” “The Higher Learning Commission utilizes a composite financial indicator consisting of debt, reserves, operating margin, and return on assets to measure the overall financial health of institutions. A score of 3 indicates a university is relatively healthy. In the fiscal year 2018, the university scored a 3.46. Through prudent financial decisions that reduced costs and strategically utilized financial resources in the face of the pandemic, the university has risen to a score of 5.91 for fiscal year 2021. When combined with our endowment, which has grown by over 50 percent to over $86 million since 2018, we can feel secure in our financial situation,” Grasso said. 

Grasso noted a number of policy changes and strategic initiatives that are in place to help us maintain our solid financial footing. The university is adopting a new responsibility-centered management budget model that’s designed to inspire entrepreneurial thinking and give colleges more autonomy in defining and funding strategic priorities. And we recently created the National Advisory Council, a group of accomplished and notable friends and alumni leaders who are providing strategic advice to university leadership. 2021 also saw UM-Dearborn receive an $8-million planned gift — the second largest in the university’s history.

“Our campus creates a means of entry to what has long been considered the American Dream, a belief that anyone, regardless of initial circumstances, can attain their own version of success,” Grasso said in his closing remarks. “We pledge to do all we can to help as many as we can achieve this ideal, empowering students to change the trajectory of their lives, build better prospects for their families, and make the communities we call home healthier, prosperous, and just. Although today may seem fraught, we should all take pride in knowing that our university is a starting point for a better tomorrow.”


You can watch Grasso’s full speech on the UM-Dearborn YouTube Channel.