Michigan’s research universities and economic development

03-24-2005

You could feel spring in the air Wednesday, when I headed down to the Capitol.

The House appropriations subcommittee on higher education had invited the presidents of Michigan’s three research universities—Mary Sue Coleman from UM, Irv Reid from Wayne State and myself—to come downtown and essentially tell our story, to make the case for why these institutions are such tremendous assets for our state, and to discuss the value we offer—individually and collectively—for fueling economic development and shaping Michigan’s future.

As we drove down Michigan Avenue, the article and photos I saw on the front page of the Lansing State Journal under the headline, “Government looks to Spartan researcher for help,” really underscored that point. It highlighted the work of MSU chemistry professor John Frost and his team at MSU’s Center for Plant Products and Technologies aimed at developing the first over-the-counter flu medicine and agriculture-based (as opposed to petroleum-based) chemicals, exactly the kind of forward-thinking work I planned to talk about that both contributes to the public good and creates economic opportunities in Michigan.

In a final bit of synergy, the Michigan Undergraduate Research Forum was taking place in the Capitol rotunda that morning, allowing both the legislators and members of the media to see firsthand some of the exciting work being done by undergraduates in our research universities, as well as to meet some of the students who are doing it. I was pleased to be the speaker for this event on behalf of Michigan’s research universities.

Testifying to the committee was an interesting experience. Bringing the three research universities in together provided us with an opportunity to talk about the ways we have similar strengths, as well as how our unique individual characteristics complement one another on behalf of the state. I joined with the others to affirm that a brighter future for Michigan will require a bigger investment in higher education, particularly in the state’s research universities.

I had the chance in my comments to make the case for why a bigger investment in MSU would return enormous value, not only here in East Lansing and mid-Michigan, but to every corner of the state through the strength of our research programs and the contributions we make to communities through our outreach programs.

I waved the MSU flag a bit, pointing out that we stack up favorably alongside our peers in the Big Ten and AAU, and how, as Michigan’s land-grant university, MSU really is “Michigan-centric” with the largest number of in-state students of any institution in the state (graduate and undergraduate), and how so many of our graduates stay and work in Michigan. I reminded them of the efficiencies we’ve implemented and that we at MSU really have been good stewards of state resources.

The committee also invited U.S. Rep. Joe Schwartz, a graduate of Wayne State’s medical school and long recognized as a leader in higher education policy in Michigan, and Phil Power, founder and owner of HomeTown Communications, a former UM regent and a member of the Cherry Commission, to talk about the importance of research universities to economic development and the creation of jobs. They acknowledged the hard decisions that will have to be made in order to support research universities when the state budget is in the red, as well as their value in building talent centers around the state. Our own exemplar, MSU trustee emeritus and former director of MSU’s placement office Jack Shingleton, who built MSU’s placement services into one of the best operations in the nation, is expected to testify at a later session.

After the session, I did a handful of media interviews then met briefly with Dave Hollister, the head of Michigan’s Department of Labor and Economic Growth, and with Lt. Gov. John Cherry regarding how to structure further investment in higher education. During the last week I’ve talked to some 15 legislators, and over the next few months I plan to continue my personal meetings with every member of the appropriations committee, other policy-makers and key leaders to carry the message that as Michigan’s land-grant university, MSU along with the state’s other research universities, will play a vital role shaping tomorrow’s Michigan.

We’re all concerned about the budget pressures and what they could mean for higher education, but we were disappointed with the initial executive order earlier this year, agreed upon by the governor and legislature, that included cuts to higher education.

We’ve made some progress since then, and the final executive order issued on Wednesday was a hopeful sign, signaling an increased probability that the money for higher education could be restored. It was also a good sign that MSU Extension and the Agriculture Experiment Station were excluded from cuts and that MSU was one of 10 universities that would receive a capital outlay allocation to address deferred maintenance and improve teaching facilities. This will enable us to go forward without having to take any actions that could disrupt student programs or other university work during the remaining weeks of this semester.

That said, I urge all of our stakeholders and members of the university community to become actively engaged in reinforcing the need for more money for higher education, particularly to address some of MSU’s long-standing needs.

We still face enormous challenges given the state of the economy, but we are encouraged by the recent recognition of the Cherry Commission that higher education will play a vital role in addressing those challenges and must therefore be near the top of the list of priorities for Michigan’s future success. So I’m pleased that we’re engaging in this collaborative process and optimistic about the eventual outcome, both for our universities and for the people of Michigan whom they serve.

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