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Updated 10:00 AM March 5, 2007




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U-M, WSU, MSU presidents to lawmakers:
Higher education key to economic turnaround

Michigan's three research universities are economic investments producing a more than 20-fold return at a time when Michigan needs economic stimulus, their presidents told lawmakers Feb. 28.
President Mary Sue Coleman and Wayne State University (WSU) President Irvin Reid listen as Michigan State University President Lou Anna Simon gives her testimony at WSU before members of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Higher Education. The three presidents and a number of economic development leaders told lawmakers that higher education is critical to solving the state's economic crisis. (Photo by Mary Jane Murawka, Wayne State University)

"We prepare the people who solve the problems of Michigan and the world,'' said U-M President Mary Sue Coleman. "We excel at creating solutions for our state's future, and I believe that by drawing upon our vast and unique strengths, our universities will continue to be innovation leaders."

Coleman and the presidents of Wayne State University (WSU) and Michigan State University sat side-by-side and delivered joint testimony before the state House Appropriations Subcommittee on Higher Education at a hearing at WSU. They were joined by economic development experts who described the University Research Corridor (URC), an alliance between the three institutions, as a magnet for new jobs and industries.

"The era of a one-industry economy in Michigan is over forever,'' said Wayne State University President Irvin Reid. "The three state research universities are responding to the state's economic crisis. If Michigan is going to return to prosperity, it must act now.''

MSU President Lou Anna Simon noted the three URC institutions bring in more than $1.3 billion in research dollars every year, 95 percent of all academic research and development grants. She said for every research dollar brought in, there is a "multiplier effect'' of another $26 pumped into the state's economy.

"At the University of Michigan alone, our scientists have discovered the genes for cystic fibrosis and Huntington's disease, and our alumni are responsible for the iPod and Google,'' Coleman said. "But our state and our nation have a problem. The best minds in our country are profoundly concerned that we are at risk if we do not commit to more innovation, more math and science, and more basic research.''

With the state facing continuing deficits, Gov. Jennifer Granholm has proposed what she called "an inflationary 2.5 percent budget increase" for higher education, saying, "Economists and experts across the country agree that education is the single most effective strategy for stoking a state's economic growth. That means we all must create a culture of learning that is unprecedented in Michigan's history."

Also speaking at the hearing was Ann Arbor SPARK President and CEO Mike Finney, who told lawmakers how his 20-month-old economic development organization established by U-M and community leaders had helped bring $600 million in new investment to the Ann Arbor region, creating 2,700 new jobs and facilitating 23 start-ups, businesses all interested in being near and working with U-M.

He noted that after Pfizer decided to close its Ann Arbor operations, it took less than 24 hours for SPARK, U-M and other state and community leaders to start assembling action teams to respond. Over the past month, Finney said he's already had more than 60 inquiries from businesses interested in the site or its talent pool, including 20 proposals for spinoff companies based on Pfizer research.

David Hollister, a former state lawmaker and Lansing mayor, told how he gave up a job as director of the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Growth with its 4,200 employees to start the nonprofit Prima Civitas Foundation with MSU, calling his new role "the most important work I've done in my career.''

He outlined efforts to make the universities leaders in the post-petroleum economy, detailing efforts to help scientists create new businesses and jobs.

Randal Charlton, the new director of Wayne State's Tech Town effort and CEO of Asterand, described how he brought his company from Great Britain to Detroit. He detailed how Wayne took a large of tract of Detroit's New Center that had no inhabitants other than four-legged creatures a few years ago and turned it into a bustling area with 33 businesses, coffee shops and other business activity.

Detroit Renaissance President Doug Rothwell, a former president and chief executive officer of the Michigan Economic Development Corp., said the research universities are critical to his organization's goals for the region.

One lawmaker asked the presidents what they would do if money were no object. Each said he or she first would make up for state appropriation cuts between 2002-06. Coleman said it would take $100 million to return U-M to 2002 appropriation levels, factoring in inflation. The presidents cautioned that the state's investment in research and development must be consistent and made with a long-term view.

Coleman recalled her experiences at the University of North Carolina, describing how a poor state spent decades developing the Research Triangle and making the state an educational and economic leader. In contrast, Michigan has slipped from prosperity and large investments in education to a current climate of economic upheaval and cuts.

"Today, because of staggering achievements in technology, it is the individual—not a nation or a corporation—who has the power to single-handedly effect change," Coleman said. "Obviously, the more educated those individuals, the more competitive and successful they will be. Michigan's research universities are the critical link in producing those competitive, innovative individuals."

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