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President's Perspective

  • Author:
    Lou Anna K. Simon, Ph. D.
  • Published:
    Summer 2011

I'm sure you're well aware by now that public universities in Michigan face unprecedented cuts in state appropriations on top of a decade of decline and steep reductions last year in state-supported student financial aid.

A new analysis by the Presidents Council of State Universities of Michigan found Michigan's per-student taxpayer support dropped 19.3 percent since 2005, putting us among the bottom 10 states. If the cuts proposed for the coming fiscal year are enacted, we will be among the bottom five. Other states are proposing draconian cuts to higher education, but Michigan's universities have confronted this challenge longer than most.

Times like these always prompt hard questions inside and outside of the academy about value and priorities. In at least one state, public officials have called on their universities to cut costs by focusing more on teaching and less on research. It is reassuring that not only did university officials and faculty respond with alarm but so did students and donors.

Michigan at this moment continues to be blessed with a diverse mix of higher education assets that are, collectively, world-class. Some institutions are more locally oriented and focused on associate or bachelor's degrees. Others of us off er PhDs and world leading research opportunities, which not surprisingly cost more but at the same time serve as invaluable portals to the world's top talent and markets. Yet some would apply public funding formulas that ignore such crucial distinctions in the name of economy or an ill-considered notion of equivalence.

When I testified before state appropriators earlier this year, I went back to the basics and talked about our research and what it means to be Michigan's land-grant institution. As the nation's pioneer land-grant university, Michigan State spearheaded a movement that led to a totally new educational tradition-a visionary idea that higher education should embrace practical knowledge as well as traditional scientific and classical studies and that it should be open to all who wished to become citizen leaders.

That bold experiment in higher education begun in 1855 in the young state of Michigan turned into a national priority when seven years later President Abraham Lincoln signed Congressman Justin Morrill's land-grant act amid the national upheaval that was the Civil War. The Morrill Act validated our prototype and through the years new federal initiatives have given further impetus to our three pronged mission of teaching, research and outreach.

Though more than a century and a half has passed since Michigan State's founding, our type of institution is more relevant than ever. It is still a model positioned to compete with the traditional elite educational institutions while connecting citizens across the state to cutting-edge knowledge of the sort that is necessary in a global economy. Our lines of business-talent development, knowledge discovery and innovation-align perfectly with what I think we all agree will be key drivers for Michigan's prosperity in the 21st century.

If anybody doubts the value of research universities, we need only point to the previous issue of the MSU Alumni Magazine, which told the story of the development of the world's most important cancer drug in our labs. If you or a family member is a cancer survivor, you can probably thank Barney Rosenberg and his team, as well as the administrators, trustees, alumni, students and, yes, taxpayers, who supported their work here.

Maintaining our position among the world's top 100 research universities matters in part to maintain and enhance the value of MSU to the people of Michigan and to those who earn its degrees.

More broadly, it is necessary to nurture the innovation that this nation requires as a matter of international competitiveness and that the world needs to address the very complicated problems that now confront humanity. It is the understanding that problems we face in our own backyards are oft en entwined with those faced around the globe-and that solving them in one place can benefit all-that helps transform our land-grant mission in the 21st century to what I call the World Grant Ideal.

So it's worth reflecting on the value-and the values-of research universities as we struggle with today's challenges. The budget squeeze constitutes a difficult reality we all confront, but at Michigan State we saw it coming and planned for it. Our faculty and staff have demonstrated their commitment to being part of the solution as well. With Team MSU pulling together, we'll get through it as a more resilient institution that remains focused on connecting our students and stakeholders to leading-edge knowledge- and to its discovery.

This is an inflection point for higher education and something in which our alumni can and must play a vital part. I hope you consider the ways you might engage in the months and years ahead to support your university and advocate for its mission, for this is the challenge of our time.


Lou Anna K. Simon, Ph.D.
President, Michigan State University