Michigan State University President Lou Anna K. Simon delivered her annual State of the University address on February 14, 2012 during the MSU Awards Convocation.
Today is a day of celebration. Today we honor the extraordinary work of our faculty, staff, and students and how they inspire one another and others to be great. Their impact is known and experienced around the world as a positive force for advancing the common good.This is also a time to reflect on our land-grant heritage, and the tension that heritage bestows upon us to provide opportunity for people from humble backgrounds who aspire to be great, while striving every day to advance our position as great public research university—a university that is good enough to compete successfully with the proudest and best academic institutions in the world.As a land-grant university, our heritage bestows upon us another tension. We are called upon to provide classical education—to be an insightful voice for the human spirit—while at the same rolling up our sleeves to provide practical solutions to the problems the world faced from our founding to the present. Additionally, we have been expected to focus on advancing Michigan, while also having a global reach.In these tensions, we found our greatness. Today, we are moving steadily forward through what are still some pretty rocky times in an economy that remains very, very uncertain. We need more than ever to take advantage of these tensions to make sure we that we remain true to our heritage&mdsh;exceptional and great.
Viewing Today through John Hannah’s Eyes
As I thought about today and the challenges facing public higher education, I wondered about what John Hannah would think about today.He would be a bit concerned about the commercialization of athletics—even though he put Michigan State in the Big Ten. He saw that as a way to advance our academic stature, particularly in respect to research, at a time when research was growing dramatically. He worked to put us in the AAU, even as he traveled around Michigan, talking about its current issues. I think he would be really pleased with our competitive position in research—the growth of our research dollars, the fact we have moved from 65th to 50th in our federal research dollars. That growth must continue.However, I think he would be disappointed that the public’s covenant with its public institutions, like Michigan State University has been stretched, if not broken, in part. As a public land-grant institution, we were founded to do something special as a uniquely American institution. In the 1950s and 1960s, when John Hannah was really growing this place, there was unprecedented support for public universities as well as growth in research dollars.Now we seem to have lost the sense that a university education and the work that we do is a public good. Our society seems no longer to appreciate that the benefits of university education and research rebound not only to the people who pay directly to participate in them, but that the benefits of education and research rebound to all of us, strengthening our state and nation’s international competitiveness and capacity to prosper in these very, very uncertain times. I think he would be very worried about a political system where cost has become the big issue with diminished regard for benefits and the public good.On the other hand, I think he would have been really pleased with:
- The big increases we’ve made in financial aid.
- How we’ve been able to keep 75 percent of our students from families with $125,000 or less.
- Our out-of-state enrollment holding at about what it was in the 1960s, although it has meant we’ve unfortunately had to turn away many Michigan students who really want to be here because we’ve grown almost to capacity.
John Hannah never liked the idea of having to raise private dollars. However it is very much part of our existence today, and we have been excelling at it, raising over $94 million in the past six months. We’re going to continue to push at raising private support because it is now part of the public trust in 21st Century higher education in America.Most of all, I think John Hannah would be really worried about what’s happening in Michigan and how we’ve had to deal with it at Michigan State University.
- The state has cut our budget by about 26 percent in actual dollars over the past 10 years.
- When that number is adjusted for the number of students and inflation, without that cut, we would have had $150 million more in our budget.
- We have taken $110 million in reductions to address that issue.
- We’ve been able to forgo salary increases, thanks to the cooperation of our community.
- We’ve also been able to add $28 million more to that by readjusting our healthcare plan.
- The sum of our adjustments exceeds the $150 we have been cut.
But our students’ families still feel the pressure because they have to absorb the inflationary increase not only in their budgets, but on our budget, because that tends to mean increases in tuition.
A Tangle of Dilemmas
This is not just a Michigan issue but a federal issue. Other public institutions across the country have been solving the same problems by raising tuition. They have also been taking more and more out-of-state students. We have not done that. We’ve taken more, but we’re about to the level we have at been since John Hannah’s years. Meanwhile, our peers are at 30-40 percent out-of-state students and growing. If we were to do the same and were at the current average of out-of-state students of the Big Ten, we would have $100 million more in our budget. Think of what that would have done for reducing tuition in-state students. So, this is another tension we are experiencing.Thus, the disinvestment by states, not just Michigan, in public higher education presents a moral dilemma. You know you can hold down tuition for in-state students if you simply get more out-of-state students. That’s the incentive, but is it the right thing to do? Is that the right thing to do to grow Michigan? Is that the right thing to do to grow the country?All students deserve the special kind of world-class education we’ve developed over time. They deserve that chance to experience:
- An education grounded in the unique land-grant, world-grant philosophy and one of the top-100-ranked universities in the world.
- Development of their knowledge, talent, skills, leadership, and worldview at the university ranked by employers as 2nd in the nation (behind Northwestern) as the best place to recruit students.
These rankings validate the achievements of what our faculty, staff, and students have done in these very, very difficult times, and we thank them enormously. We are very transparent about numbers and metrics, scorecards or benchmarks of all kinds, and you will find the supporting information associated with these comments on the web at msu.edu.There’s yet another dilemma related to cost. I’ve now talked with you about the issue of whether the states and federal government will come through with their part. But what can we do to deal with this issue of cost of education? What we know right now is:
- Of our class of 2010, about 45 percent of those students left here with what I call educational debt—that does not count credit card debt or other debts that may have accrued along the way—just direct educational debt.
- The average debt of that 45 percent is about one year’s worth of cost, including housing.
So we are asking ourselves, how can we be more innovative and creative and still have our students graduate with the knowledge, talent, skills, and passion it takes for them to be in such demand by all those employers as well as be life-long learners that will make a difference in their communities, companies and industries across many years of work? This is the objective we must never lose.
- How can we do some things differently that will make it easier for students to complete their undergraduate education in four years?
- How can we make it easier to complete their baccalaureate requirements earlier and take some master’s other advanced courses so they have more value in the workplace?
- How can we give them the chance to leave here with a bit less debt, even as costs may continue to rise?
- How can we grow our graduation rates? If students don’t graduate, it costs them even more, because they never get the return on the investment that they made including the debt they may be carrying.
Going forward this will be a centerpiece of our thinking and curricular innovations. We are already taking on these challenges because, if we can do that, it’s going to create a big difference in how we think about the cost of education against the value of the degree we provide.
Commanding Our Destiny and Forging Ahead
I’ve also talked with you about research and how important it was for John Hannah to grow our research profile and dollars, and how doubly important&mdsh;given other changes in funding—it is for us to keep them growing.As I speak, the news about the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams isn’t as positive as any of us expected. But then again, FRIB has been a struggle from the moment the Big Idea occurred. FRIB represents a budget for the federal government in an area where research dollars, and particularly for basic research, is under great scrutiny. The fact we are in the budget is good news. The fact that our piece of the budget is not big enough is bad news. Yet I remain confident that, with the support of our congressional delegation, the local FRIB advisory committee, and all of you, we will get a good hearing in due time on a project as important as FRIB.One cannot overestimate the importance of basic research in the mission of a great university like Michigan State. Think about all the things in our daily lives that benefitted from research that nobody thought was important at the time. Some idea that had its genesis in a faculty member working in a lab. Some idea like what became cisplatin and carboplatin—the world-leading cancer treatment drugs developed at Michigan State.Universities never know at the time what’s going to be an earth-shattering discovery, but you do know as an institution you have to keep putting money and resources behind basic research work because that’s the responsibility of a research-intensive university like Michigan State.We are currently having discussions with our faculty—our young faculty, our early faculty, our distinguished faculty like some of those whom we are honoring today&mdsh;about things we need to do today to ensure we’re planting the seeds that will grow into signature programs for the future. Programs like nuclear physics, hospitality business, packaging, and the Residential College for Arts and Humanities—programs that were not always there, but today are widely recognized as among Michigan State’s pillars of excellence. This list could go on and on.We need your support to have the capacity to plant those seeds today, knowing that not every seed is going to grow strong. That’s the greatness of a university, and I am really glad to see faculty, staff, and students across campus currently engaging in conversations about potential new priorities. You will be hearing more about those conversations in the next three to four months as we bring them to a close and move to refreshing our priorities under Boldness by Design.But let me assure you that, no matter how difficult the circumstances, or whether our luck is good or bad in the sense of Jim Collins’s Great by Choice
, we are going to take responsibility to work as hard as we can to make things that look like bad luck—you might consider the current situation with FRIB in that category—and try to turn it into an opportunity. We’ll do that by taking advantage of all the good luck given to us in the quality of all of our faculty and staff and not take it for granted.Instead, we will try to move in a new direction to make sure this university remains strong in the years ahead, so that 10, 20, and 30 years from now, the young people who are currently part of our faculty, who will be sitting behind some future president at this celebration, can proudly say that they were part of Michigan State University and, together with all of you, made a difference. Not simply in East Lansing, but around the world.Thank you for all you do on behalf of Michigan State University.