Presidents address Senate panel

Michigan's three research universities share an important role in creating the jobs that will help the state rebound from its economic distress, presidents of the schools that comprise the University Research Corridor told a state Senate panel Friday.

The presidents of U-M, Michigan State University and Wayne State University showcased URC-driven collaborations with businesses and resulting employment in testimony before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Higher Education.
President Mary Sue Coleman, above, with Wayne State University President Jay Noren, shares testimony about URC collaboration with businesses. (Photo by Austin Thomason/U-M Photo Services)

Economic development officials and students from the three universities joined the presidents for the hearing, chaired by Sen. Tony Stamas, R-Midland, at the Michigan League.

The collective efforts of the URC represent a "commitment by our research universities to strengthen Michigan's economy with innovations and inventions, talented graduates, and an entrepreneurial culture for attracting and growing new businesses," Coleman said.

One highlight is the soon-to-be-completed purchase of the Pfizer laboratories, which will allow U-M to "take a revolutionary new approach to research," she said. "We know it will build upon our research strengths in drug discovery, neuroscience and health outcomes."

This activity shows U-M is in a great position to contribute to the state's economic revitalization, Coleman said.

MSU President Lou Anna Simon offered senators a long list of examples illustrating how research universities are nurturing other 21st century industries in Michigan.

The URC is focusing on industries of tomorrow, such as alternative energy, biosciences and stem cell research, she said. This includes multiple projects ranging from recently announced Energy Frontier Research Centers at U-M and MSU, and the planned Facility for Rare Isotope Beams at MSU that will attract top scientists from around the world to make new discoveries about the universe.

"Michigan's research universities are applying their technologies to leverage Michigan's traditional — and still formidable — strengths in manufacturing and chemical industry innovation, and private investors are validating us, even in this troubled economy," she said.

To illustrate the presidents' point that the URC and its graduates play a pivotal role in rejuvenating Michigan's ailing economy, recent U-M graduate Jeff LeBrun spoke of Algal Scientific Corp., a combined wastewater treatment and bioenergy startup he co-founded with fellow U-M and MSU students.

"The resources on campus made the project impossible not to do," he said.

Mike Finney of Ann Arbor Spark said of the 100 new business startups he encounters each year, two-thirds have a U-M connection. "I'm frequently hearing of companies who want to locate their businesses in the area because of the top programs at U-M," he said.

WSU President Jay Noren spoke about the importance of making education financially accessible. When speaking with the parents of high school students, the most common question he receives is not about curriculum but if the family can afford college.

In a tight economy the answer increasingly is that families, even those that have achieved some economic success overall, cannot afford university costs on their own, he said. As a result, more universities are shouldering the costs themselves.

This is achieved through strong financial aid packages supporting middle- and low-income families, Noren said. This aid is made possible through private support and tuition dollars.

After the testimony, senators also asked questions about green chemistry, the cost of online classes and attracting non-traditional students.

Sen. Glenn Anderson, D-Westland, asked how the universities plan to provide a quality education with the prospect of less funding.

It is important to ensure a dynamic, intelligent environment that maintains programs that are recognized worldwide, to conduct internal budget reductions and maintain a commitment to financial aid, Simon and Coleman said.

"The long-term future of the state depends upon strong universities," Coleman said. "We are all in this together."