Founders' Day 2017


Excerpts of President Simon's Founders' Day State of the University speech delivered at the 2017 All-University Awards Convocation February 7, 2017

Today we commemorate the vision of Michigan State’s founders and salute some of our brightest and most dedicated Spartans.

Back in 2005, as a newly appointed president, I stood before some of you here at Wharton Center to talk about our challenges and opportunities. I talked about the perfect storm in Michigan: about state and federal funding cuts, about global competition, and demographic changes.

Well, Michigan’s storm didn’t abate. It became the “new normal” for higher education across the country.
In the years since, more than our financial footing has moved. The social and political wind has shifted, too.

President Simon at All-University Awards Convocation 2017

That shift affects many things, including:
• international enrollment and travel;
• campus safety;
• funding for research;
• affordability and value;
• and fundamental academic issues such as freedom of speech.

In 2005 I talked about the special covenant MSU has with society:
“For a land-grant public research university,” I said, “this covenant entails special, unique responsibilities and special expectations.”

I said our three prime responsibilities are:
• to be a catalyst for upward mobility — the American dream;
• to respond to society’s needs and shape a forward-leaning intellectual agenda;
• and to marshal our intellect and will to assure that our value to society continues to appreciate, no matter what the circumstance.

Those elements of our mission haven’t changed. If anything, they’re even more important.

I often ask what kind of place the world would create today to confront its modern challenges. Would it be something like MSU?

We’re a community of scholars, so we can look at the data.

MSU’s economic impact has grown from $3 billion to $5.3 billion in 10 years, in spite of the headwinds. That’s real value added to our state’s economy, but that’s just dollars. We are about people and helping them achieve their potential.

Despite a smaller pool of state high school graduates, we still enroll more Michigan students than anyone.

We have more total applicants, and despite enrollment over 50,000 now, we can only admit two-thirds of them. In 2005, it was three-quarters.

We are more selective of whom we admit: GPAs, test scores, and academic standings are all higher. Our graduate placement rate is 92 percent, and more graduates are keeping their talent here in Michigan.

Our six-year graduation rate is higher, at 78 percent—about 10 percent more than would be predicted given our enrollment demographics.

But we believe that everyone we admit should succeed. We aim to increase our graduation rate to 82 percent by 2020. To do that, we’re creating a national model for student success through the Neighborhoods and other initiatives.
We have increased National Academy members and multiplied the number of significant award winners, and our research and external funding are up to $589 million, moving us up in the national rankings.

And we’ve boosted the proportion of women and people of color among our faculty, if not as much as we’d like.
Our capital campaign is near its overall goal and is more than halfway to endowing 100 new positions, but we need to keep up the momentum.

And the Global Impact Initiative is recruiting more than 100 new investigators. Finally, we have three new research buildings coming on line or in planning.

There are some trends we’re not happy with.
We’re still about $8 million below our state funding in 2011. Money was taken away across the board, but no new money was put back through the formula. We need to find new ways to deal with that.

Our most pressing challenges really aren’t that different from 160 years ago, let alone from those of the John Hannah era.
People still face barriers to economic and social advancement. Many still struggle with basic needs and wonder if the “American Dream” will ever be in reach. Public K-12 education in Michigan is even less competitive, and the list goes on.

Our role as a university is to promote prosperity and quality of life through understanding and by bringing cutting-edge knowledge to people.

Hannah once put it this way:
“Partisan only to truth, passionate only in pursuit of error, the university must be faithful to its own great traditions and to its own ways of getting things done…”

We need to produce the best scholarship, accessibility, and relevance, and create an open, respectful, and vigorous dialogue.

Land-grant universities were created in 1862, in a time of civil strife. Today there is also anxiety and division in our communities and on our campus.

People—international students, women, people of color, liberals, and conservatives—don’t feel heard or respected. As with the Hannah era, there are always rough edges and things that cause disagreements about the application of our values and cultural norms.

So our responses must always be principled, not reactive. We must be viewed across all segments of society as a relevant path to prosperity and social advancement. We need to push the boundaries of science and technology, but in the genius of land-grant, blend them with art and the humanities and social sciences.

As always, we will stand squarely on our land-grant values of quality, inclusiveness, and connectivity. These are our compass—our North Star—in a polarizing world.

We need to give our students—and society—the best opportunity and knowledge we can give them.
We need to remain committed to diversity and inclusiveness, which give us strength and security.

We need to maintain Hannah’s vision for global engagement, to develop knowledge and understanding of others.

We must stay true to our institutional values for the quality, freedom of inquiry, and integrity of scholarship that are core to any great academic institution. And we must adhere to the standards of civility and respect that make genuine dialogue about difficult topics possible.

Finally, we must provide an environment where people feel intellectually challenged, but welcome and safe. Universities are some of the few places in the world where society’s problems can be addressed in a scholarly and respectful way.
Ideas can have rough edges. People should not. We don’t create society’s bad behavior, we cannot always screen for it, but like every community, we sometimes witness it. We must deal fairly and effectively with it when we do. We need to work harder to build a culture where Spartans support Spartans.

This is a place that, while far from perfect, is committed to working to be better every day. That is how we should be judged.

I believe we are the university the world would create today.
Which brings us to the people we’re honoring today. They are preparing and mentoring a new generation of thinkers and doers. They are crossing disciplinary boundaries to answer the tough questions in human behavior, evolution and ethics, or delivering justice to victims, or protecting consumers.

They are teachers, advocates, communicators, scholars, and scientists. They demonstrate the continuing importance of our land-grant mission.

Because, beyond the knowledge we offer, society also needs our example—to be the citizen-scholars that John Hannah said is our highest calling.

I’ve been part of MSU for more than 40 years. I’m proud to be a Spartan and humbled to be entrusted as MSU’s president.

Let us all recommit ourselves to the founders’ vision and salute the people carrying it out every day.
Spartans Will.



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