State of the University Address 2015

Michigan State University President Lou Anna K. Simon delivered her annual State of the University address on February 10, 2015.

A Decade of Challenge and Growth: MSU Then (2005) and Now (2015)

Enrollment has risen 12 percent and applications by 32 percent. Out-of-state applications are booming.Incoming GPAs and ACT scores are higher, and our Honors College has grown by a third.Six-year graduation rates rose from 71 percent to 78 percent, keeping us well ahead of our predicted rate.Our endowment has nearly tripled (to $2.2 billion) and general fund financial aid has more than tripled (to $115 million).Sponsored program awards are up by three quarters (more than $500 million) and awards per tenure-stream faculty member up more than two-thirds.What hasn’t kept up is public support. Today we have just 3.5 percent more state funding per student than 10 years ago (adjusted for inflation).

Summary Briefing

Michigan State University’s charter calls for the president of the university to speak about the State of the University each year on the anniversary of its founding. This year, as we mark MSU’s 160th anniversary, I reflect on other milestone anniversaries, including the sesquicentennial in 2005 when  I gave my first State of the University address.

Society’s University

Whether we’re talking about the last decade or the last century, Michigan State’s growth and development has been possible because of our people—people like the recipients of this year’s All-University Awards.We honor these individuals as the best of Michigan State University, even as we recognize that we could fill the football stadium and basketball arena with the faculty and staff, past and present, who also represent the best of Michigan State University. Generations of the best have made Michigan State the proud and successful institution it is today.As a land-grant university, Michigan State was founded to make a difference in the world by spanning boundaries and combining things in new ways.We are both an academically top-quality traditional university and one deeply engaged with society. We compete with the very best while being dedicated to improving the quality of life for all in need of our special talents.That’s who we are. And our determination to maintain our extraordinary heritage and boldly continue to heighten its impact in the world is what we mean by Spartans Will.

Around the Curve

Ten years ago at Michigan State, we looked around the curve to anticipate the future and saw we were heading toward a “perfect storm.” To fortify us against whatever the storm might bring, we worked together to create and adopt the strategic framework Boldness by Design that refocused our attention on advancing our foundational values and first-principle imperatives.The perfect storm turned out to be the Great Recession. When it hit us, we worked together to shape the future, and we emerged stronger and more resilient than before. We weathered the recession so successfully, in part, because the challenges—largely financial—were familiar. Looking around the curve today, we see a new storm coming, and the challenges for higher education are less familiar: from macro issues like globalization, technology, demographic shifts, and the political economy to challenges in our sector including regulation, new competitors, public and media scrutiny, the need to respond to changing societal needs, and more. This storm is already pummeling higher education. We can’t imagine it away, and we can’t even imagine all the ways in which it will change us. All we know is that some of the ways we work and the work we do will be different.Our great challenge is to be imaginative in the way we respond to these pressures, identifying and pursuing the right responses for MSU and successfully implementing them, putting the pieces together in a way that positions us to capitalize on the new reality while steadfastly preserving our founding values and first principles.

Our Great Strength: Mastery of ANDs

I find it useful to ponder the following  question when trying to see around the curve and frame choices in transformational times. If we were starting over today, just as they did in 1855, seeking to create something really special: a university that would propel society forward but not lose the fundamental goals of being a university, what kind of university would society create?I firmly believe our start-up university would begin with a foundation of aspirations identical to the imperatives of Boldness by Design and our evolved strategic framework Bolder by Design. Just as Michigan State University was created to unite traditional scientific and classical studies and practical knowledge, our emerging new reality—our new normal—requires us to focus on the ands.Recognizing this, in 2012 I asked the MSU community to take Boldness by Design to a new level as Bolder by Design. I could see the challenges to higher education were coming faster and that they were only going to increase. In a university like MSU, calling for us to speed up can take us only so far. Much of our most important work takes time, deliberation, and patience. Where could we find another competitive advantage?Under Boldness by Design, we focused on five imperatives as essential places to focus our attention. As we began the conversations that led to the evolution of Boldness by Design to Bolder by Design, we saw new possibilities in emphasizing the imperatives’ connections—seeing them as ands—and deliberately seeking out pathways to leverage and expand their impacts. Connectivity and collaboration--our ability to work the ands—has long been one of our competitive advantages.To elevate this mastery to a Bolder level, we added a sixth imperative that applies to all the imperatives by directly addressing our people. It reminds all MSU people—students, faculty, staff, and administrators—that our job is to continually reach for new heights of performance. That is the only way we can strengthen and sustain the resources, pride, and well-being that rebounds to each of us and the society we serve. To our start-up university, society would add its current expectations that the university be:

  • Privately supported and publicly committed;
  • Campus rooted and internationally oriented;
  • Academically independent and constructively partnered;
  • Research driven and learning focused;
  • Technologically sophisticated and community dependent;
  • Quality focused and procedurally efficient
  • Professionally attuned and humanely informed;
  • Immediately engaged and long-term focused;
  • Innovation driven AND grounded in principles and obligations; and
  • Energized through individual passions and team-synergies.

High performance on our imperatives plus mastery of these ands will characterize us as one of the best public research universities in the new-reality world. And if we look around the curve at our new and future reality from this context, we will find the guidance we need to stay true to our values while creating the right responses for MSU to both anticipated and unanticipated disruptions and pressures for change.

Connecting the Dots

In the process of reformulating Bolder by Design, we spent a good deal of time collecting, sorting, debating, prioritizing, and thinking about how to implement what we called Big Ideas. In the past two years, Provost June Pierce Youatt and Executive Vice President for Administrative Services Satish Udpa have selected Big Idea priorities and are charging ahead. Summaries of their initiatives can be viewed at and Ideas take many forms. Few result from thinking way outside the box or receiving a major “Aha!” moment in which one discovers something that’s never before been discovered. Those discoveries require taking big risks to move from concept to form. Most Big Ideas at MSU actually are rooted in what we already are doing and build on the risks we already have taken. Their advancement is relevant and incremental.In the last decade, MSU has observed many 50th anniversaries, which celebrate the successful progression of Big Ideas, initiated during the university’s centennial, through a series of milestones in multiple disciplines and programs. Together they testify to MSU’s history of envisioning and implementing ideas that anticipated and provided solutions for society’s changing needs over time.An example: This year represents the 50th anniversary of the successful delivery of the first beam from MSU’s first cyclotron—the K50. Without that beam and the advancing generations of MSU cyclotrons that followed, we would not have the top-rated nuclear science program and faculty in the nation, and we would not be building the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams—FRIB—for the Department of Energy. Our people—the best in the world at their Big Idea.We have so many examples of Big Ideas that got bigger. There have been departments created, new disciplines founded, new ways of engaging—all because our people had the courage and capacity to look around the curve, imagine a different way, and see a different and better society ahead.When we begin connecting the dots between our Bolder imperatives and our Big Ideas—the true and the new—we can begin imagining a different and even better Michigan State University. Here are a few examples of some of the many exciting initiatives—in addition to those of Provost Youatt and Executive Vice President Udpa—that are moving forward expeditiously.Imperative: Enhancing the student experience in where, when, and how students learn—and increasing the value of an MSU degree. Much of the emphasis in this work is part of moving MSU’s Neighborhood movement to Neighborhood 2.0. From emphasis on access and opportunity, we will be heightening the theme of student success for both undergraduate and graduate students, both on campus and beyond. Big Idea initiatives, such as the Spartan Success Scholars already piloted in the Neighborhoods, explore new approaches to supporting students’ academic work; preparing them for successful employment and careers; and developing them to be future leaders as “T-shaped” professionals, individuals with deep disciplinary knowledge and skills coupled with the ability to navigate across social, cultural, and economic boundaries. Beyond the obvious benefits for students, this knowledge will develop the future workforce Michigan needs to attract new industry, create jobs, and heighten competitiveness in the global economy.Imperative: Enrich community, economic, and family life through research, outreach, engagement, entrepreneurship, innovation, diversity, and inclusiveness. Big Idea initiatives include improving the fiscal and other stressors in Michigan K-12 school districts and enhancing medical and public health research and services in six major urban areas throughout Michigan. These initiatives focus on building partnerships with community providers of a range of services to help restore hope, health, and quality of life throughout the state. As we continue to push forward our engagement mission, we find other institutions are now taking an interest in activities that look the same. But while what they are doing may look the same, and how they are doing it may be similar, the why is different. So, too, is the motivation and the criteria for success. We don’t look to enter new “markets” or seek new “customers” for existing healthcare services. Rather—in keeping with our time-honored mission—we seek partners in areas of need with whom to extend services, service effectiveness, and quality of life. Our goal is community empowerment, and we must expand and advance higher performance toward this goal.Imperative: Expand international reach through academic, research, and economic development initiatives and strategic alliances. Mobilizing to advance our position as land-grant to world-grant leader, new Big Idea initiatives focus on leveraging our legacy of international achievements in the areas of food and the environment to related fields and more geographic areas. As we look throughout the nation, we find other AAU universities now becoming connected to their communities and the global community in ways they never before would have considered. While they may not use the term “world-grant ideal,” they are becoming interested in global issues MSU has been working on for a long time, such as social justice, workers’ rights, and economic development. Part of this is driven by their interest in joining global networks; creating global experience opportunities for their domestic students; and improving their ability to serve students from abroad. MSU has long led the nation in study abroad and international engagement. We must regain our national and international leadership and strengthen our commitment to make the world-grant ideal a reality. Imperative: Increase research opportunities by expanding funding to support high-impact scholarship and research. MSU’s new Academic Competitiveness Fund—embodying the convergence of a number of Big Ideas on research—will help our colleges leap forward in their ability to compete for federal research funding and world-class tenure-system faculty. At present, continued constraints on federal funding for research mean intensifying competition. But we must continue work to align MSU’s proposal productivity with our ambitions, which are high. We cannot slack off. Those universities and researchers that are relentlessly productive—fiercely competitive yet highly collaborative—will be at the forefront in the new reality. MSU must be among them.Imperative: Strengthen stewardship by nurturing the university’s financial assets, campus environment, infrastructure, and people. Our resources are strong, but they need continual reinvestment to sustain quality and to create and advance Big Ideas. Our capital campaign—Empower Extraordinary—will enable MSU to reach the higher levels of excellence and competitive advantage we all envision. We have had many past successes in fundraising, including funding new facilities and supporting improvements to existing facilities to heighten our ability to attract and serve students and our community. But the new reality will require new kinds of buildings, new technologies, new energy resources—continual upgrading of the assets we need to provide high quality educational opportunities for our students and facilities for our research mission. The investment we need—and have always required from our founding—is significant and constant. We must always be focused on creating a better, sustainable tomorrow for Michigan State University and for Michigan. That is the trust our founders placed in us, the public places in us now, and on which future generations will rely.Imperative: Advance our culture of high performance by elevating the quality and effectiveness of every product and process. At the heart of all of our Big Ideas and our efforts to be the best is our ability to perform—internally and externally, individually and collaboratively—focused on optimizing skills, talents, efficiency, effectiveness, productivity, and mutual respect. Michigan State University is a large, complex place with a multidimensional infrastructure and organization. But our success depends on the performance of our people: imaginative, dedicated, and bold. 

Our Competitive Advantage

Ten years ago, I stood before you and spoke of the new reality I saw around the curve. It was the knowledge economy, and we would be required to prepare our students and the communities we serve for that new future—a world of changing jobs, changing industries, new industries, and a fragile, increasingly global economy. How far we have traveled! How long ago that seems!Today, as I look ahead, I see more change ahead, not only for Michigan State University, but for all of higher education—a new reality that may alter what we do and how we do it. But for Michigan State University, it will not change why we do it.  We work to create a better tomorrow—to live our land-grant values and advance the common good, improving the quality of life wherever we can for individuals and communities around the globe.At Michigan State, we face the future with a huge competitive advantage—our people and their extraordinary range of talent. Only a handful of universities in the world have the scale, the ambition, and the culture to sign up for the challenges ahead. Michigan State is one of them.Our people make up a vibrant community and workforce committed to being the best of the best. And MSU is committed to providing our faculty and staff with the environment, opportunities for growth and development, and empowerment they need to excel.Our transformative ingredient is our people’s talent—talent of all kinds that comes together to create solutions and to take action when challenges and opportunities arise. Talent that can tackle big initiatives, like making Michigan State a healthy campus, and that can appreciate that the success of even a singular, local effort like this will make us better and will create benefits beyond our campus borders. Talent that can handle disruption without losing focus.Now more than ever, our future success will take performance and purpose, evidence-based decision making and agility, the values of our past and the urgency of the future.Our expectations of ourselves are high—the highest. Looking around the curve, I see Michigan State in the years ahead becoming more vibrant, more valued, and not just bolder, but boldest. That’s who we are. Spartans Will.


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