Realistic assessment, forward-thinking keys to shaping our future

03-02-2010

It wasn’t the kind of exchange you hear often when university presidents face the lawmakers who decide next year’s funding.

University Research Corridor presidents Jay Noren of Wayne State University, Mary Sue Coleman of University of Michigan, and I testified before the Senate Higher Education Subcommittee Monday at Madonna University in Livonia. Alongside URC Executive Director Jeff Mason, we focused on the efforts we’re making—individually and collectively—to foster research, technology transfer, and entrepreneurialism in Michigan.

As much as we in higher education are weary of presiding over continuous pullbacks in state funding, those who hold the strings to an ever-shrinking purse also are weary of the unremitting challenges. Senator Liz Brater of Ann Arbor graciously thanked us for not belaboring the issue, but we did make sure that we communicated the fact that students and our institutions acutely feel the pain. Michigan State certainly is seeing more Michigan students coming to us with more need for financial aid this year, I pointed out.

But as I reminded attendees at our 2010 Founders’ Day faculty awards convocation last month, Michigan State was underresourced from the first day of class in 1855. The small band of charter faculty included one professor who pulled double duty, teaching both English literature and farm economy––and the president served as farm manager! We called on students—sometimes literally—to help build the college.

Today we’re forced to make changes to operations and programs that extend beyond those we normally would make in the course of continuous prudent management of the university. As I have said from day one of the campuswide dialogue about shaping our future, these changes are not about simply cutting costs, because that won’t ensure our continued excellence in the 21st century.

We are thinking carefully about where we need to be as an institution, thinking as much about guaranteeing strength in the future as about managing the challenges of today. I’ve worked very hard to communicate this consistently throughout the year to our leaders, faculty, staff, students, and other stakeholders, and it continues to be a point of reference we need to think about daily.

The task today is to evaluate everything we do, not from the perspective of what can be cut, but from the perspective of what the university must do to remain a transformational force in the lives of our students and indeed in lives around the world.

I’ve shared more of my thoughts about shaping our future in the video that accompanies this post. As I mentioned on Founders’ Day, this year I opted to address the state of the university in video format. Using this method of communicating with Team MSU is something I plan to do periodically, addressing specific topics of interest or concern throughout the year.

The most resilient people—and institutions—face reality head-on, but with faith and confidence that their labors to shape their own future will bear fruit. And so I thank and applaud Team MSU for rising to the occasion and bravely confronting our challenges.

Let us reaffirm our values and strengthen our resolve to continue to produce groundbreaking knowledge, vision, and innovation for the 21st century.

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