Finding ways to reverse a decades-long decline in state and federal funding for public research universities was the focus of discussion Monday by Michigan higher education and business leaders.
The panel discussion was part of an American Academy of Arts and Sciences meeting that featured members of the Lincoln Project, a three-year effort to assess the condition of the nation’s public research universities.
U-M President Emerita Mary Sue Coleman, co-chair of the Lincoln Project, moderated the session, which preceded the group’s planned release later this week of recommendations to develop new federal, corporate and philanthropic sources of support for public higher education in every state.
She said the group studied high-research-volume public universities that educate about 75 percent of the nation’s undergraduates and 60 percent of its doctoral students, which is “why keeping the intellectual infrastructure of the country strong is important.”
And while it has been interesting to see how different institutions have responded to the financial challenges of the last 10 years, Coleman said, “We also want to raise the alarm because we do think that we are in jeopardy of losing a very valuable resource for the country.”
Other panel members included Lou Anna K. Simon and M. Roy Wilson, presidents of Michigan State University and Wayne State University, respectively, and J. Patrick Doyle, president and CEO of Domino’s Pizza and chair of Business Leaders of Michigan.
Doyle said Michigan’s strong university system is something that has set the state apart for many years, but more recently it has suffered from declining state and federal funding, forcing an increased reliance on tuition that restricts access.
He said the BLM group’s main goal is to again make Michigan a top-10 state in terms of personal income and job growth, and higher education is key to that effort.
“There were only a handful of areas where we said we need to invest more as a state, to strengthen assets within the state, and our public research institutions or public universities — in total 15 universities — were at the top of the list,” Doyle said.
President Mark Schlissel touched on that same theme in his introduction of the panel, which spoke before an audience that filled the Michigan League’s Vandenberg Room.
“A better Michigan will mean a better future for all of us,” he said. “We can make Michigan once again a powerful global leader in economic prosperity.”
Wilson discussed some of the ways Wayne State has changed its engagement with the surrounding Midtown Detroit community in the past 10 years. He cited involvement with such projects as Midtown Inc., the M-1 light rail project, a public safety staff that has expanded beyond campus borders, and development plans for vacant property.
That reflects a change experienced by many universities, he said. “It seems like there’s more of a two-way street, in that there’s actually a deeper commitment of financial resources into the communities of which they’re a part.”
Simon related how various entities across the state, including other universities, helped MSU in its effort to land the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams, a major nuclear science facility funded by the U.S. Department of Energy.
“There’s a part of this in which we can imagine us pulling together for the really big things,” she said. “We’re still going to run a few of the same programs in the same places, but mostly we’re going to do it in a way that tries to collaborate and augment, not simply compete.”
During a question-and-answer session, Doyle said BLM has conducted a poll for several years asking residents to prioritize areas in which they would spend incremental state funding, if it were available. Higher education, he said, ranked below corrections when the poll started.
Year by year, as universities and business leaders have worked to emphasize higher education as a public and economic value, it has moved up on that list.
“We have made progress and it’s important that we continue to make that progress because at the end of the day the Legislature and the administration is going to listen to voters,” Doyle said. “And if we can continue to move the voting public on this issue, then I think we’re going to make progress on funding higher education.”