State of the University Address February 7, 2017

Michigan State University President Lou Anna K. Simon delivers the annual State of the University address and Founders' Day message at the 2017 MSU All-University Awards Convocation.


The University the World Would Create Today

It's a pleasure to be with you and to thank all of you for your commitment and contributions to Michigan State University.

Founders’ Day, as it was called initially, was a day to commemorate the vision of MSU's founders and to salute our brightest and best, most dedicated Spartans. Back in 2005, people asked me to reflect, and I stood before you here at Wharton Center and talked about our challenges and opportunities.

And I talked about the perfect storm, and believed that with the perfect storm, it would go away. But unfortunately it has not. The recession of 2008 lingers with us. The issues of global competitiveness remain very, very strong. And the demand for Michigan State University to be more relevant today than ever and to produce value for our society is still there.

But yet we are having a hard time talking to one another sometimes about what that value really means. We also have an opportunity at Michigan State and around higher education to deal with this new normal. A great university seizes that opportunity to really make a difference and now is our time to do that.

It's not just about financial footing—and I’ll talk about that in a minute—it's about how we engage with society, just like we were founded to do 160 years ago: to be relevant, to be an engineer of prosperity and quality of life, and to be a place that does really great scholarship in order to be able to achieve those objectives.

Things right now are being affected in interesting ways as we talk about international enrollment and travel, campus safety and security, how research will be funded, affordability and value, and the fundamental academic issues such as freedom of speech.

But these are not new to the academy. They've happened in the past, and we can learn from those lessons.

The land-grant mission

We talk about three major responsibilities of a land-grant university that's world-class in its research and its reputation: it's to be a catalyst for upward mobility for the American
Dream, as it's now always called; to respond to society's needs and shape a forward-leaning intellectual agenda; and to marshal our intellect and will and ensure that our value to society continues to appreciate no matter what happens to our funding.

Those elements really haven't changed. They're important now, more important than ever.

I often ask you to think with me, if you think about our being founded in the midst of strife and economic turmoil 160 years ago, or the great era of our growth into an international research university and AAU university in the 1950s and ‘60s, what kind of university would we be today, based on that experience and those values? How could we be that great place that is forward-leaning for the 21st century and remembers the lessons of the past?

If I think about it from the data perspective, which is always a part of these conversations, Michigan State's economic impact over the last 10 years has grown from $3 billion to $5.3 billion annually. That's really significant to this state. And much more is yet to come.

But our real value is our people, not just dollars. And what our people do to make a difference in cutting-edge scholarship, and I’ll talk about that in a minute—those behind me who are the exemplars today.

Despite a smaller pool of students, we're enrolling more Michigan students than any institution in the state. Total enrollment is now over 50,000 and we're now admitting only about two-thirds of those students who applied, another trend for academic reputation in a positive direction. We also are much more selective, but still socioeconomically diverse.

We believe that everyone who's admitted should graduate. I really commend the provost for her work and her team on the academic success initiative.

We already are graduating about 10 percent more students than predicted in socioeconomic class and other factors. And that aim is to have the graduation rates move from 78 percent to 82 percent by 2020, a very ambitious model, but one that really is essential to have the talent for the future. Because the biggest cost of education is not getting a degree, even though our loan rates and those numbers are lower than our peer institutions in Michigan and many across the nation. Getting a degree is a key element of finding a way to have a value for your education.

Our research and external funding is up, academic awards ranks and graduate programs are all up and those are really great things. But they're not enough. Because we're in competition, we have to be better tomorrow than we are today.

The capital campaign, which is near its goal, will help us do that—we're halfway to the number of new positions we need to endow. The Global Impact Initiative, led by vice president Hsu and Provost Youatt, will bring 100 new investigators to campus, with support from the board of trustees and this forward-leaning agenda for the future, while still replacing faculty lines in other areas.

And finally, we have to have new facilities. And the three new research facilities coming online or planned are critical to that future. The results of those, the people who will be recruited to those buildings, will pay dividends for the state of Michigan and for the world for many, many years to come.

Challenges before us

And there are some things we're really not happy with. This corresponds to the governor making his budget announcement today. Michigan State is one of five institutions still below 2011 levels when he made the significant appropriations reduction. Unfortunately the reductions were made across the board, but all the new money has been given back on the formula. And for an institution like Michigan State that is already performing at a very high level, or the University of Michigan, the formula produces about the average appropriation, which is about 2.5 percent.

Now what's really disconcerting if you are sitting with all of us, is that we're still, as I said, enrolling the largest number of Michigan students of any institution. But more importantly, we have more Michigan students here today than we did in 1992, in our total undergraduate enrollment. And the amount of dollars available per student in 1992, actual dollars, was $6,200. Today we have $5,900 if the governor's recommendation moves forward.

That is a challenge for all of us and we need to argue on behalf of funding. But more importantly, we need to argue about the value produced by Michigan State University, with our large number of students from Michigan staying in the state of Michigan.

We also have to think about, if we were created today, not just being a great academic institution in the traditional sense, but to help society around us grow greater prosperity and greater quality of life for all. And still we know that people in our society struggle with basic needs and they don't feel that they've realized the “American Dream,” and don't necessarily see Michigan State as a part of that.

I must comment that the demand for our work across the state is growing and it has never been higher for faculty, staff, and students to engage with communities about real world problems today. And Flint is just one example. It happens to be the example that's on the top of everybody's list, and we'll be in Flint after all the spotlights are off, just as we are making a difference today across the state and around the world.

We also have to worry enormously about K-12 education because it is not just a decline of numbers in Michigan—we are no longer as competitive as we were 20 years ago in terms of the way in which graduates stack up against global competition. And that list goes on and on.

But great universities, great land-grant universities, great World Grant universities worry about those issues every day. And we need to bring cutting-edge knowledge to people, because everybody deserves cutting-edge knowledge as we work through these societal issues.

I was thinking about what to say because it seems like all around the world and in our own communities, when somebody says one thing people sort of want to say the opposite and not always listen. So I went back to my touchstone, John Hannah (president of MSU from 1941-69). I also said 11 years ago that I was going to take a lot of pages out his playbook and figure out a way to make Michigan State great for the state and the world. And John Hannah had this quote in difficult times—if you think about the civil rights movement, post-World War II issues, immigration, the Sputnik era, all of those things that were challenging in terms of making America great at that period of time.

And he said this: “Partisan only to truth, passionate only in the pursuit of error, the university must be faithful to its own traditions and to its own ways of getting things done….”

And that is a necessary part that we play, which means we really have to produce that cutting-edge knowledge, that knowledge that's relevant for today, and to make it accessible. We have to create open and respectful dialogues. We have to be better listeners. We have to make people feel—liberals and conservatives, whatever group you believe you represent—we have to make those dialogues, though they're difficult and very challenging, open and respectful. And remembering, as I’ve said often, that ideas have rough edges, but people should not. And it's up to all of us to work on that. No one owns the franchise on that—no point of view, no group.

Our commitment

But we together can make that stronger and if we can do that, then we can be the model for society that helps to have these rough edges and this dialogue that we all need for these very difficult problems. Because we really all share the same goals. We want a better life for ourselves, for our families, for our communities. We want a better place in the world for our values. It's all the same, we just go at it differently. And maybe we can create that dialogue that we need that will help us be that great university, and that great university that really does make a difference in the land-grant tradition.

We have to push the boundaries of technology. But the other thing I would say is that part of the essence of land-grant, if you go back to the very beginning and back to the 1950s and ‘60s, it was that unique capacity to blend science and technology with humanities and social sciences for the betterment of society. Not one or the other, not creating a new acronym, but us together believing that all of that is important, wherever you sit in the university. And being an advocate for the part of the university that you don't belong to, because that knowledge may be really critical to be able to use your knowledge to make a difference in the world.

We have to use our values as our moral compass in this somewhat polarizing world. We need to give our students, our society, simply the best opportunities and the best knowledge available anywhere in the world. We need to remain committed to diversity and inclusiveness because they give us strength and also, in the long run, security.

We need to maintain Hannah's vision for world engagement, because in order for us to be strong, we have to be able to engage in this intellectual, international dialogue and debate. And, to stay true to our values of quality, the freedom of inquiry, and integrity of scholarship. Those are really core at any great university. And we must adhere to the standards of civility and respect that makes genuine dialogue on those difficult topics not only possible, but productive.

We also must be able to provide an environment where people feel intellectually challenged—those rough edges—but also feel like they're part of the community: Spartans helping Spartans, Spartans supporting Spartans. Universities are really one of the few places in the world that can do that.

Saluting Team MSU

We ourselves are a bit polarized, so can we come back together as Team M.S.U. and be that place that, if somebody wrote the history 50 or 60 years from now, and given this kind of turmoil, we would be the place that they would want us to be?

I want to thank you all because it's difficult work and we are sort of a microcosm of society's rough challenges. We're not always able to screen out bad things. We'd like to sometimes ignore them. But most of all, we have to face them. And we have to deal with them in a way that is fair and effective and consistent with our values, because that is the university society would create.

I want to come back for a minute to those people behind us. The people who we honor today are the ones who are preparing and mentoring the next 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're teachers and advocates, communicators, scholars and scientists. They demonstrate the continuing importance of our land-grant mission because they go beyond cutting-edge knowledge. They also offer society our example, to be the citizen-scholars that John Hannah said is our highest calling.

I want to thank you all for your work and have you join me in recognizing these people behind me who represent the best at Michigan State University. They represent our values, they represent our future, and most of all they represent Spartans Will.


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