The University Record, April 12, 1999

LS&A faculty query president, provost on life sciences

By Jane R. Elgass
President Lee C. Bollinger and Provost Nancy Cantor assured LS&A faculty last week that non-life sciences disciplines will not suffer because of the attention being paid to that initiative. Bollinger indicated that internal funding is available for the initiative that cannot be used for other purposes. Photo by Bob Kalmbach

The intellectual vitality and excitement that will engage the campus as a result of the creation of a life sciences institute is what a university in general, and the U-M in particular, is all about, President Lee C. Bollinger told LS&A faculty members at a meeting last week.

Bollinger and Provost Nancy Cantor held a conversation with about 100 faculty, sharing their views on the Report of the Life Sciences Commission that was released in February and responding to questions and comments from the audience.

Bollinger stated that the life sciences initiative grows out of two basic premises:

  • "I hold that, as a university, we aspire to be at the very top of every major area of teaching and research that we engage in."

  • "There is a tremendous set of discoveries and potential discoveries in the vast area described as the life sciences. I believe you can sense in an academic community the excitement that is generated in an area that is ripe for new knowledge."

    "This is very serious," he said. "It is extremely important for the University. We must do this at the very top levels if we want to be a truly great University. We have to do it and do it well."

    While the specific initiatives recommended in the report generally relate to the sciences, Bollinger emphasized that the initiative also will bear on the social sciences, law, business and humanities, as the "discoveries will affect our imagination."

    Bollinger and Cantor also noted that while the initiatives transcend traditional disciplinary boundaries, they will be linked to existing departments and the educational responsibilities of those units.

    Bollinger said that the initiative might well involve a single major institute (the Commission recommended five smaller institutes), with institute faculty linked to departments. Recalling his early comments about a "bridge to Palmer Field," he said there should be a substantial physical facility whose location could provide a much-needed link between Central Campus and the Medical Center.

    Although the numbers are still being refined, Bollinger estimated that $200 million of University funds would be needed to launch the project and that funds were being identified that the University would not be able to use in other areas. The University also is hoping to share, along with Michigan State and Wayne State universities, in tobacco funds coming to the state starting next year, and has made a proposal to the governor for that funding.

    The state is slated to receive $100 million per year for three years and $300 million thereafter for 22 years. Gov. Engler already has indicated he wants to commit $50 million of the first year's allotment to scholarships. The proposal from the three institutions calls for $25 million to be split among them, with the other $25 million awarded competitively to projects in which at least two of them are involved. Leaders of the universities envision the creation of a life sciences "corridor" across the state, similar to Silicon Valley in California.

    Cantor noted that one of the things that most reassured her about the Commission's report was that "everything in the report has come before my office in smaller projects. They all relate to things that have come from faculty, in LS&A in particular, from the ground up.

    "We don't want to do this unless we have a core of people to jump-start it from the beginning," she stated. "We need to make connections very quickly."

    She also noted that the initiative will provide opportunities to "vertically integrate the undergraduate and graduate curriculums" in many areas. "It's important to structure the program in the departments and in the curriculum," she said. "We don't want to create an isolated institute."

    Cantor emphasized that "the role of [department] chairs is absolutely critical. We will have to figure out a process, particularly with respect to curriculum. The fields are rooted in departments but infused with interdisciplinarity. I envision a seamless process of faculty recruiting in which the institute says, 'We need X, do you want to go in on this?' Likewise, a department may not have funding for a new position for a couple of years, but has an opportunity to get just the person it needs. It's possible the institute could provide bridging funds."

    She also hopes to see some sort of mechanism, similar to the Michigan Society of Fellows, developed for post-doctoral students who will need teaching experience in the life sciences area.

    While the desire is there, getting there is going to be a bit difficult, Cantor noted. "It's not easy to figure out how to do this." The Institute for Social Research "provides a good model for joint faculty appointments, but sharing of overhead, for example, will require the development of new models."

    Asked whether the recommendations were subject to modification, Bollinger stated, "I think I've bought into it. I think an institute and director are the way to go. I'm not so sure about five [institutes].

    "We need a leader who is a first-class scientist with the academic qualities to build an institute and bring in young people. We want the energy and excitement that fresh young minds will bring," Bollinger said.

    Several faculty expressed concern that support for the initiative might draw funds and/or interest from other types of current and future innovative projects.

    Cantor noted that while the life sciences initiative "is a big commitment, one we're prepared to do, I'll be unhappy if we commit to progress only in this venture and not in areas that don't relate to this."

    She also has been struck by "ideas in combat" that have come her way since the release of the report. The Commission's recommendations "staked out territory and others have come forth with claims of their own. That might be the best thing about the initiative. It has invigorated dialogue and discussion."

    Bollinger added that "we see the need for this and have the resources internally to start without harming other areas. This is a moment we have to act on as a University." The funds available for the initiative are "ready to be deployed," and not available for other uses, the president noted, adding that he and the provost will "do everything we can to support other areas of importance and high quality. We will think very carefully about where we can get resources for the things we love that are not part of the life sciences."

    Several other universities have launched similar initiatives and the U-M will be competing with them for top scholars. Responding to comments on this, Bollinger noted that first and foremost among its values is a culture at the U-M that demands quality that is produced within a nurturing environment. "We don't have oceans or mountains. We have special academic excellence."

    Bollinger plans to take a proposal to the Regents in May. (They will be briefed on the Commission's report and the state of the life sciences at their April 15 session.) If approved, the University will begin the process of forming an institute and launch a search for a director, who the president hopes to have on board within six to 12 months.

    Bollinger to discuss life sciences on WUOM call-in program

    President Lee C. Bollinger will participate in a call-in program on the life sciences 2-3 p.m. April 14 on Michigan Radio, WUOM, 91.7 FM Ann Arbor, WFUM, 91.1 Flint, and WVGR, 104.1 Grand Rapids.

    His April 14 appearance is the first in a series, according to Michigan Radio Assistant Manager Joan Siefert Rose. The next program is scheduled for 2-3 p.m. May 24.

    Calls to the one-hour show should be made to (888) 258-9866.