Office of the Vice President for Global Communications

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

URC presidents testify before House subcommittee

Presidents from the University Research Corridor testified Tuesday to a state House subcommittee about the job-creating value of investing in research universities.

The URC is a collaboration among U-M, Michigan State University and Wayne State University aimed at helping to revitalize Michigan’s economy.

In their testimony to the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Higher Education, the presidents outlined the economic value of a number of recent URC initiatives including U-M’s decision to buy Pfizer’s 174 acre research campus as MSU took over a Pfizer facility in Holland, the U.S. Energy Department’s decision to build a $550 million research facility at MSU, and Wayne State’s continuing efforts to attract new businesses and R&D programs to its Tech Town research park.

President Mary Sue Coleman recalled her surprise when she learned that 10 percent of entering U-M freshmen, about 600 students, already had started businesses of their own while in high school. U-M encouraged this entrepreneurial drive with its recent 1,000 Pitches contest that attracted 1,044 business proposals from students.

MSU President Lou Anna Simon noted how Google’s decision to locate a major division in Ann Arbor, near U-M, was a factor that encouraged IBM’s recent decision to locate a major computing center on MSU’s campus. She also outlined URC efforts creating businesses in all parts of the state.

“Niowave was founded by a faculty member from MSU’s Cyclotron, Terry Grimm,” Simon said. “Lansing has the perfect labor force to make his business successful: Niowave has hired and retrained experienced machinists who lost their jobs in the auto industry; recent grads in Computer Numerically Controlled — or CNC — machining from Lansing Community College; and grad students and nuclear engineers from MSU.”

Wayne State University President Jay Noren stressed that the URC, which brings more than $1.38 billion in research dollars into the state each year, surpasses or holds its own against a small number of comparable innovation clusters across the nation. He stressed the URC is the only one with all three types of public research universities: the massive, broad-based U-M, the world’s first and pre-eminent land-grant university and an urban research university.

“U-M is always in the top five for research,” Noren said. “MSU is not only the first land-grant but it is preeminent, No. 1, and among the urban research universities, we have roughly 20 competitors and Wayne State is at or near the top.”

The three presidents appeared together just weeks after Gov. Jennifer Granholm called for a 3-percent cut in state support for higher education and asked universities to freeze tuition as the state and nation weather a major economic downturn. However, the recent stimulus legislation passed by Congress calls on states to maintain education support.

Coleman also described U-M engineering professor Ann Marie Sastry’s work to develop new plug-in cars of the future, to develop a new graduate-level program to develop energy systems engineers and her launching of her own company and partnership with General Motors Corp. to build the advanced batteries of tomorrow.

Rep. Lee Gonzolez, D-Flint Township, said he had just talked with Sastry the day before, praising her as “a real problem solver” and she’d told him Michigan really has just five years to maintain its advantage over other states.

Gonzolez also asked the presidents how they would respond to New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, a frequent critic of the Detroit Three automakers whose latest book is a major call for spurring the development of green technologies.

The presidents said they had in fact, personally met with Friedman Sept. 17 when the URC hosted him during a visit to Ypsilanti.

“We had a very lively conversation with him about the URC and he was very intrigued with the way we have all come together,” Coleman said. “He was quite interested in what each of us is doing.”

Rep. Alma Wheeler-Smith, D-Salem, said it has been five years since the Cherry Commission called for doubling college enrollment in Michigan and asked if they could achieve that goal within another five years.

Coleman said the state’s 15 public universities already had made progress toward that goal and that U-M’s Flint and Dearborn campuses clearly have the capacity to greatly expand their enrollments. Noren said Wayne, as primarily a commuter campus, was “more flexible,” and had a great deal of ability to expand while Simon said MSU’s needed more science education facilities to accommodate major expansion.

The presidents also focused on affordability, laying out the major number of financial aid programs they offer.

“We know that families are concerned about the bottom line and so are we,” Coleman said. “U-M pledges that if you are admitted and you demonstrate financial need, we will find a way. We will not turn you away.”

Coleman said nearly 80 percent of U-of-M undergraduates who are Michigan residents receive some type of financial aid, an average of $13,400. Noren added that 80 percent of WSU students receive financial aid with an average aid package of more than $9,000.

“Just over 7,000 MSU students received $21 million in federal Pell Grants last year, an increase of 796 over 10 years,” Simon said. “The stimulus package raises the maximum award for 2009-10 to $5,350 and the eligibility cutoff increases to $4,617. This should add an additional 352 MSU students to the eligible pool, for an expected increase of $4.2 million in federal aid dollars.”