Higher Ed Critical To Economy

    GRAND RAPIDS — Higher education plays a critical role in Michigan’s ability to “burn off the gloomy economic fog,” University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman believes.

    “I have faith that our government, our universities and our businesses will work together to emerge stronger on the other side,” she told members of the Economic Club of Grand Rapids and the Rotary Club at a luncheon at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel Monday.

    Coleman said universities face a “particularly vexing” problem in an economic downturn in that just when jobs become scarce, people look to universities to make career shifts or obtain advanced degrees.

    “So the very moment that we must accommodate increased demand for what we do, we’re often looking at flatline or reduction in state funding.”

    Coleman, the university’s 13th president and its first female president, oversees more than 53,000 students and 5,000 faculty members.

    She said for an institution like U-M, the financial challenges go beyond the complexities of increased teaching loads and necessary classroom space.

    The oversight of a modern research university is similar to the management of a highly diversified corporation, Coleman said, adding that U-M’s research enterprise is, by most accounts, the largest in the nation.

    The university reported research expenditures of $656 million and research awards of $741 million in 2002. U-M faculty conducted some $9 million in research with Life Sciences Corridor funding last year, and the university saw a 12.4 percent increase in federal R&D funding.

    As part of its commitment to life sciences and biomedical research, the university is building a $100 million, 230,000-square-foot Life Sciences Institute that will house more than two dozen researchers from varying disciplines. It’s scheduled for completion in September.

    Given her research background in biological chemistry, she said, it’s especially meaningful to be leading the University of Michigan “at a moment of such potential” in the life sciences sector.

    “The state’s significant investment in the Life Sciences Corridor has dovetailed with the development of major initiatives in life sciences at the University of Michigan and increased our ability to collaborate with our sister institutions across the state.”

    The corridor supports applied research and is expected to be a driving force in the creation of new businesses in Michigan.

    U-M, Michigan State University, Wayne State University and the Van Andel Institute (VAI) established the Michigan Universities Commercialization Initiative with a grant from the Life Sciences Corridor.

    The initiative was designed to enhance the institutions’ existing technology transfer function in the life sciences arena and to ensure that projects achieve their commercial potential.

    When university research moves into the marketplace, it generates new products, new companies, new ventures and even new industry, Coleman observed.

    In the past three years U-M generated 25 new start-up companies, applied for 254 patents and was issued 222 licenses for its discoveries.

    Many of the commercial opportunities are being built on life sciences research, she noted. She credited the state’s investment in the Life Sciences Corridor and the universities’ combined efforts for generation of 40 new biotech companies and 2,000 new jobs statewide.

    “Our state and its research institutions saw the direction of future opportunity in the life sciences and decided to adapt to the anticipated future wave of bioscience,” Coleman said.

    “The discovery and innovations that will result from this enormous venture can scarcely be comprehended right now, but we know they will change our lives and those of our children.”

    Gov. Jennifer Granholm will cut $30 million in state aid to universities and $12.5 million to the Life Sciences Corridor as part of her attack on the state’s $1.8 billion budget deficit.

    Coleman said she doesn’t envy Granholm the difficult decisions she has to make regarding the budget deficit.

    “Other states are coping with even bigger budget deficits than Michigan,” Coleman remarked, “but they realize they need to invest even more in higher education and research to speed their recovery from the economic downturn.”

    She said U-M is doing its part by cutting costs and increasing efficiencies in major areas, such as energy costs and purchasing practices. But she expects U-M “will have to do more with less as the government has asked.”

    Coleman is front and center in the affirmative action debate over U-M’s use of race as a factor in admissions decisions. The schools’ admissions policies are being challenged in U.S. Supreme Court, which is slated to hear oral arguments April 1.

    One lawsuit challenges the university’s undergraduate admissions program and the other its law school admissions program.

    The university’s argument is that discrimination against white applicants is constitutionally justified as a means to achieve a diverse student body.

    It will mark the high court’s first review of racial preferences in student admissions since the landmark 1978 Bakke decision, which is the prevailing case law.

    “The outcome of these cases could affect every public and private university in the country and the debate is a critical one for this nation,” Coleman said.

    She said the admissions process at both U-M’s undergraduate and law schools “look at the whole student,” taking into consideration a broad range of factors, including special talents, alumni connections, socio-economic status, geographic location, and athletic or musical ability.

    “We do not have, nor have we ever had, quotas or numerical targets in the undergraduate or law school admissions systems,” Coleman said. “We do, in fact, consider race as one of many factors in an admissions decision.

    “I do believe that higher education’s ability to recruit a diverse student body is essential to our nation to produce a high-qualified, well educated and diverse workforce to power our economic future.”

    More than 35 major corporations have or will have filed friend of the court briefs on the university’s behalf by tomorrow’s deadline. Among those in support of U-M’s admissions policy is Steelcase Inc.

    The briefs maintain that racial and ethnic diversity in institutions of higher learning is vital to corporations’ efforts to hire and retain an effective workforce.

    Coleman personally thanked Steelcase CEO James Hackett for “understanding the value of diversity in the workforce.”

    Hackett said in an earlier brief that Steelcase’s success as a global company is dependent on its ability to hire people who have experience in and are knowledgeable about working in a diverse environment with people from all walks of life.

    “Without a strong commitment to diversity from the world’s leading academic institutions, it will become more and more difficult for multi-national corporations to compete at the global level,” he stated.

    Granholm was expected to file an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court in support of the admissions policy last week.  

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