Oct. 27, 2023: Remarks to the MSU Board of Trustees

Good morning, everyone. 

This morning, as every morning I come into Hannah, I wave to the registrar. Steve Shablin serves as university registrar with a great group of folks, many of whom have been at the university for 15 or 20 years. And the good news is, that Steve waves back. 

The report of the university since our last Board of Trustees meeting has been eventful. World and local events have seemed endless and sometimes collisional. But the work of the university, as exemplified by the work of our registrar, continues. Steve waves to me from his office and then goes back to his duties of ensuring registration, class changes, and enrollment in spring classes, which — reminder — begins on Monday!  

Even as some days seem long, the academic season has moved forward. Our students are learning, and earlier this week the provost and I celebrated faculty promotion and tenure.

Yesterday, the trustees and senior administrators toured the campus. We saw the places and spaces that we are building and the places we are planning. And we fed a newborn calf at the dairy barn. Students and staff met us at the greenhouse and told us of their projects and their aspirations. It was a good day.

So much of the news of the university is good, yet it can feel that there are weighty anchors on our upward ascent. Spartans, today we are holding these two truths. That there is good that is happening – but there are also matters arising that create pain and harm. I have hope for tomorrow because of our faculty, staff and students and their daily good work and striving and our university mission of education, research and outreach with impact. 

Financial Update 

Supporting MSU’s work is the financial position of the university. Senior Vice President, Chief Financial Officer and Treasurer Lisa Frace and her team have prepared audited financial reports for the Board’s review. 

And while we enjoy a strong balance sheet and bond credit rating primarily because of the value of the endowment, our operating margins are thin, depending, as they do, primarily on tuition and enrollment. The administration and board scrutinize every project to ensure the priorities align to the needs of the campus.

Among our priorities are a series of building projects making this among the most ambitious times in the university’s history. 

Rising from the ground this morning are our multicultural center and the student health and wellness center. Each have been designed with student voices and interests and map onto our strategic priority of student success.

In addition, the board will be voting on our capital outlay five-year plan including recommendations to the state regarding an Engineering Digital Innovation Center, which will provide opportunity for 1,000 new undergraduates and 400 new graduate students. And they have considered plans to proceed on our state-of-the-art dairy facility that is funded in part by the state of Michigan on behalf of a dairy industry representing 900 dairy farms, 97% of which are family-owned and new greenhouses to support our world-class plant sciences. 

These buildings and our aspirations are vacant, however, if we do not work to enable our community to feel safe and welcomed across our campus. Toward our shared goal of a safe community, last week we released an after-action review by the independent consulting firm, SRMC, regarding the response of the university to the violence on our campus Feb 13. The university will continue to put safety and educational measures into place as recommended in that report and through community feedback. 

Safety has seemed elusive to members on our campus who have been touched directly by the escalating war in the Middle East. I thank Yael Aronoff and Mohammad Khalil for gathering the university together in the teaching and learning series “Conversations on Antisemitism and Islamophobia.” MSU is a diverse community that embraces the possibility for change because of our engagement with others.

Part of that change is envisioned by the recent Summit on Black Equity by 2030 and the work we do as a consequence of these gatherings. 

The work of our campus physical and individual psychological safety is ongoing, knowing that a university can never ensure but rather do all we can to best enable individual growth and understanding. And in so doing, enable student, staff and employee success. 

Tuition-Free Program

Transformational buildings and intentional work on the diverse university as a place of belonging opens opportunities for incoming students, as does the newly announced Spartan Tuition Advantage. MSU was one of the first to offer tuition-free scholarships to Michigan residents and once again we are redefining college access with this expanded new program.   

The Spartan Tuition Advantage program reduces the financial barriers that can stand between students and their future success through a world-class higher education degree. And the university is grateful to Provost Jeitschko and his office for leadership on this matter.    

MSU Outreach and Engagement 

Since the Board last met, I had the opportunity to tour MSU and stakeholder facilities around Midland and Bay City. So many students, families and businesses are being served by our 4H and MSU Extension folks in these communities.

And I am so impressed by the research happening at places like the Axia Institute in Midland, which focuses on value chain solutions, and the Saginaw Valley Research and Extension Center in Frankenmuth, with its focus on dry beans, sugar beets and wheat. 

MSU Excellence 

Before I close, I want to congratulate our women’s soccer team, for earning their second consecutive Big Ten title. 

Congratulations, too, to our volleyball team, which continues to build excitement for their program and recently set a crowd attendance record. 

And speaking of athletic feats, I want to thank all the ROTC members from both MSU and the University of Michigan who ran the game ball between Ann Arbor and MSU in Alex’s Great State Race last Friday.

Finally, I want to thank two influential members of our university community. 

First, Dr. Linda Greene for her service as dean of the MSU College of Law. Dean Greene is the inaugural dean following the college’s full integration into MSU and has decided to step down from her role to focus on her scholarship and writing at the start of next year, including finishing her upcoming book on Thurgood Marshall. 

Dean Greene, thank you for your service to the college and the university. And, on behalf of a grateful university, I thank Kathy Wilbur, senior vice president for government relations, who after an accomplished and extensive 45-year career with more than 22 years in higher education administration, announced she will be retiring in January.  

Kathy has provided guidance and legislative strategy for many of our key initiatives, including dairy facilities, greenhouses, the Engineering and Digital Innovation Center, FRIB and the Center to Prevent Mass Violence. Kathy also served on the Board of Trustees and is a loyal Spartan with three degrees from MSU. 

Thank you, Kathy, for your contributions to your beloved alma mater. 

Let me end by saying thank you again to Steve Shablin, for the work that he does and for waving back. Thank you for exemplifying the daily work of individual Spartans who continue to do the good work of the university in the face of challenging circumstances. Thank you to our student and faculty leaders, and our incredible staff.

The university endures because individually and collectively we come together around that which is necessary to change the world we found and make it better for those who come in our footsteps.