Reflections on the 2008–09 academic year

05-06-2009

As the academic year draws to a close, it’s a natural point to pause and reflect on the past year’s accomplishments and some of the challenges we faced.

Every year, of course, brings challenges. Some are anticipated, such as persistent budget challenges—albeit not the severity—within the context of a worldwide recession. Fortunately, we have been exceptionally good stewards of our resources, and we have planned well and consistently over many years. This year, as in years past, we are determined to weather the storm as we continue to protect the core quality of this university so that it remains of high value to our students and to the citizens of this state.

Some challenges emerge rapidly, such as the H1N1 (swine flu) outbreak, but again, good planning and a commitment to data- and expertise-based decision making are ensuring that we take the appropriate steps. Our action has ranged from cutting short spring semester study abroad programs in Mexico, to organizing extensive communication about ways to stay Spartan safe, to embarking on handshake-free graduation ceremonies this weekend.

But despite challenges for Michigan and around the globe, MSU continues to be a driver of greater prosperity and improved quality of life for the state, the nation, and the world.

In December, MSU was selected by the U.S. Department of Energy to design and establish the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams (FRIB). The proposed $550 million facility will bring together an international community of top scientists to advance the understanding of rare nuclear isotopes. FRIB also is expected to bring significant economic activity to Michigan.

On the heels of the FRIB announcement, IBM in January selected MSU to host a global application development center on its campus—the first operation of its kind for the company in the United States—that will leverage the university’s business, technical, and international resources.

Something that never changes from year to year is the fact that MSU researchers drive discovery at the frontiers of knowledge—knowledge often at the center of better understanding and addressing some of the world’s most pressing problems. This year was certainly no exception.

Some of this year’s highlights included the receipt of a $12.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to further MSU’s research into the thermoelectric energy conversion process; the development of a vaccine for a strain of E. coli that kills as many as three million children per year in the developing world; and the recent publication of work revealing that microscopic algae at the bottom of the food chain that absorb nearly a quarter of the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide could become less able to sequester that greenhouse gas as the climate warms, thereby exacerbating global warming.

MSU’s growing prowess in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or STEM, disciplines was underscored this year with the naming of seven faculty members—five in the College of Natural Science and two in the College of Engineering—as recipients of National Science Foundation (NSF) Early Career Development awards totaling $3.6 million. In addition, NSF has provided MSU with $2 million over four years to training up to 200 postdoctoral researchers to teach science more effectively, helping ensure a robust pipeline for outstanding future science talent that will support American competitiveness.

Arts and culture continue to thrive at MSU and to play a key role in providing a rich environment for the cultural entrepreneurialism that will make Michigan’s Capital Region more vital and attractive. Kresge Art Museum kicked off a yearlong 50th anniversary celebration in January with an exhibit featuring 130 works, including some that are rarely on display. The groundbreaking for MSU’s Broad Art Museum is set for March 2010. After diligent work to ensure the architectural, programmatic, and financial viability of this stunning new facility, it is exciting to be moving forward.

On the global front, a collaborative team from the MSU Museum and the Nelson Mandela Museum in South Africa created a one-of-a-kind interactive exhibit that is inspiring young people around the world with its message of “ubuntu,” a Zulu word that means literally “humanity to others.” Response to the exhibit has been profound and so positive that additional versions are planned. One will open at the MSU Museum in 2010 before touring the United States.

The past year also brought many opportunities to honor student academic achievement. A total of 15 bachelor’s degree recipients received Board of Trustees GPA awards for earning perfect 4.0s. In March we learned that Nada Zohdy, a junior from Rochester Hills, Michigan, had become MSU’s 16th Truman Scholar. This scholarship, worth $30,000 to be used for graduate study, is given to students who have extensive records of public and community service.

We also had three Goldwater Scholarship recipients this year. This award is granted to students who show outstanding academic merit in a field of 1,097 mathematics, science, and engineering students nominated by the faculties of colleges and universities nationwide. We also were pleased to announce in April that Katie Perz, a third-year student in MSU’s College of Osteopathic Medicine, had been named the top osteopathic student in the nation by the Association of American Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine.

The hard work and determination exhibited by these winning students are mirrored in MSU’s student-athletes, coaches, and staff, who have made it a year of celebration for Spartan fans. Football led MSU to postseason play with participation in the Capital One Bowl. The women’s basketball team made its ninth NCAA Tournament appearance and competed in its third Sweet 16. The men’s basketball team made an impressive run through the NCAA Tournament to compete for the national title. We are extremely proud of how well our athletes juggle both team and academic commitments without compromising performance in either area. These incredible achievements not only showcase Spartan athletics but also spotlight the programs and people that make MSU a world-class university.

We conclude this academic year with the high point of every academic year—the awarding of thousands of undergraduate and graduate degrees to the future leaders of our global society. We also mark the close of another year by bestowing honorary degrees on Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nobel Peace Prize winner and South African activist; Dan Rather, journalist and former CBS Evening News anchor; and Wallace Jefferson, chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court and MSU alumnus. These individuals serve as exemplars of commitment and service for the betterment and empowerment of society and individuals.

As we contemplate all we have achieved, it also is important to look ahead to the coming transitions and opportunities. A graduating class of more than 6,500 will cross the stage during commencement ceremonies as undergraduate and graduate degrees are conferred. Just as MSU does, they will face opportunities and challenges, celebrate successes, and make the best of tough times.

In the words of Marian Wright Edelman, “Education is for improving the lives of others and for leaving your community and world better than you found it.” These words reflect MSU’s land-grant tradition, its values, and its impact in an increasingly complex world. During these challenging times, I urge each of our graduates to be bold and seize opportunities but also to value the legacy of service of which they are a part.

Enjoy a healthy, safe, and productive summer. And take great pride in our collective accomplishments as Team MSU delivers on the promise to make tomorrow better than today.

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