MSU President Looks to the Future

Dr. Lou Anna K. Simon is a perfect example of the benefits of promoting from within. She earned her doctorate from Michigan State University in 1974 and has taught and administered there ever since, assuming the presidency in 2005.

She, along with other higher education officials in the state, has had to deal with decreased funding from the state, students facing their own financial crises, and an almost moral obligation to provide the best guidance possible to help Michigan emerge from its current problems as a smarter, stronger and more diverse state. Simon says she, and her university, are up to the task.

“When MSU was founded in 1855,” Simon points out, “we were to use cutting-edge knowledge to change the trajectory of society both in terms of education and in economic development, so that’s very much a part of our DNA. What we’ve been doing is taking the basic values that guided the development of Michigan in 1855 and during the boom of the post-World War II era, and translating those into the 21st century ideals that still mean we must be very connected to the economic and societal futures of Michigan.”

When Lou Anna Simon was inaugurated as MSU’s 20th president in 2005, she was also the first woman to hold the post. Photo by Kurt Stepnitz

One of the ways Simon and MSU are fulfilling their 154-year-old original charge is participation in the University Research Corridor (URC). Founded initially in 1999 as the Life Sciences Corridor, the URC’s three members-”Wayne State University, University of Michigan and Michigan State University-”affect the state’s economy by $14.5 billion at last count.

“What we’ve tried to do with the University Research Corridor,” Simon explains, “is align better the work of the state’s internationally recognized universities in order to offer more possibilities and options for the people of Michigan. We also act as an agent of good news for the state because we believe collectively we are competitive with other regions of the country that have been singled out as great places for business.”

The URC benchmarked itself against such notable business clusters as North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park, southern California universities and Boston’s I-28 corridor, all considered critical to economic development in their areas and pointed to as bright spots by the media. “We’re right up there with them,” says Simon. “The benchmark report is important for public accountability.”

For every dollar invested in the URC, the state garners $16 in return. The URC members are third in the nation in patents granted, fourth in technology licenses and are producing more than one new company in the state each month over the past five years. The group also aids state policy leadership.

“The three research universities prepared a very extensive volume of policy papers called Michigan at the Millennium,” says Simon. “It covered a variety of topics that would serve as guideposts, based on the best research available, that would guide public policy for Michigan as it moved into the 21st century. That book became more of doorstop than a guidebook for action,” she says with an ironic chuckle. “We then followed up with what we called the ‘Cliff Notes Version’ in paperback that tried to distill some of the key policy points. Our faculty is now redoing the Cliff Notes version into what amounts to talking points so that some of this research can help guide decision-making in the context of a vision for Michigan’s future.”

MSU President Lou Anna Simon and Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm tour labs during the opening of the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center in 2008. Photo by G.L. Kohuth

Simon explains the research university’s role is to provide the best information possible in the context of globally emerging trends affecting Michigan families, although she acknowledges “ultimately, we’re not the policy makers.”

Non-governmental policy organizations are paying attention, among them Business Leaders for Michigan, a combination of Detroit Renaissance and west Michigan business leaders, to which Simon belongs. “They found both the long and shorter versions useful and were surprised that so much work has been done and collated in a way that put it all in one place,” says Simon. “We will continue to listen to them and others and to try to be sure that we make the research available for public discussion.”

Michigan State’s original role was agricultural -”one that still exists today. “Agriculture is an extraordinary part of Michigan’s economy,” she says. “It’s $74 billion and growing-”and we need to be very concerned that public policy continues to keep Michigan in the forefront. While not as visible as the automotive industry, it still affects the economy of Michigan dramatically, so we need to work with them to make sure we have the right public policy framework.”

One challenge facing the state is the decline of family farms. Around almost every metropolitan area there are reminders of former farmland, often found in residential development names like Berrygrove, indicating a farm where blueberry bushes once flourished.

Here, too, Michigan State is doing research to help policy makers understand the issues.

“Through the support of the Kellogg Foundation and many others, we have looked at land policy issues from both an economic as well as environmental perspective,” Simon explains. “If one thinks of a world of carbon credits or carbon tax, how could Michigan benefit from that new world?”

MSU is also looking at organic farming and the potential of urban farming at a larger scale (equivalent to the old family farm in the rural areas). The expansion of small urban farms, Simon says, “would bolster the local economy and also make available fresh fruits and vegetables in settings where it has been difficult to do at a good price point.”

Making an international name for itself is part of Michigan State University’s vision, one example being this facility in Dubai. Photo by Jim Peck

Simon puts agriculture in perspective: “I think there are a lot of positive things to do in agriculture, in agribusiness, so we continue to push on those areas while we work on the rebuilding of high-tech manufacturing. It’s not an either/or-”it’s a matter of getting the team aligned in all aspects of economic competitiveness so that Michigan can flourish.”

A critical concern in Michigan is jobs-” whether in agriculture or manufacturing. How does a modern university prepare its students for jobs that may not yet exist?

“Part of the genius of the founders of Michigan State was to give an elite education across a broad spectrum of socio-economic classes,” Simon says. “It’s our responsibility to grow prosperity and to keep the democratic ideals of the country moving forward by filling a strategic role for students from the middle class and helping them be successful in their careers.”

One way MSU does that, according to Simon, is to provide, “a blend of current knowledge as well as the skills necessary to be a lifelong learner as they move and migrate across jobs. Our goal is to produce students who employers want on day one and also to keep in their company because they’re creative and corporate entrepreneurs who can help move the company in new and different ways as the environment changes.”

MSU President Lou Anna Simon and U.S. Senator Carl Levin address members of the MSU community, political leaders and economy leaders during a meeting for MSU’s bid to obtain funding for the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams in 2008. Photo by G.L. Kohuth

Expanding beyond the East Lansing campus is one way Michigan State reaches students, most recently at the MSU Detroit Center. It’s not an entirely new venture, Simon, points out. “We’ve been in Detroit a long time, not very visibly from the community’s perspective, but in lots of neighborhoods, doing lots of things. The Detroit Center is a statement that we will be in Detroit, we are committed to the future of Detroit and there’s a single place where you can find us.”

The center’s location on Woodward is symbolic. “The University of Michigan has a presence there and, with Wayne State not far away, our being there now symbolizes the research corridor presence in Detroit. It’s the hub for all of the neighborhood connections we’ve already established in the area.”

As important as research is to Simon, it’s not the only thing on her plate: outreach and community engagement are also on her list of priorities. “We work on Science Olympiad, for instance, because, first of all, I think students need to experience science and technology, not simply read about it,” Simon says. “The FIRST Lego competition is another good example of that. We’ve been running those types of activities through the youth programs in our extension service for a long time, sort of under the radar. The second thing you need to do to engage future college students is make the university campus more accessible to them. That’s why we’re very pleased that we bring so many students to campus and have them experience some of the wonders of science firsthand. The third thing is that, through nationally-ranked programs like our College of Education, you have to worry about curriculum and the preparation of teachers to have more in the classroom who also inspire and engage.”

Clearly passionate about learning, Lou Anna Simon sits in on a lecture at MSU.
Photo by Kurt Stepnitz

Sending out students and faculty into elementary and high school classrooms is another outreach strategy, including a Detroit program where MSU students work on summer school programs while they’re undergraduates. MSU’s College of Education also takes an unusual approach to engage prospective students, particularly in the study of science, math and engineering.

“We’re one of the very few colleges of education that requires a subject matter content area for all of our students-”and it’s not just ‘math for teachers,'” Simon says. “It’s why we have a six-year program, an urban cohort program, and a two-year follow-up program to ensure the students we place continue to have a subject matter area. That’s a commitment the university made 15 years ago, before the ‘educational crisis’ was identified. It was roundly criticized at the time because it did add some time to teacher preparation in order to stay current in their subject area-”particularly science and math-”but I think it’s proving to be an extraordinary asset for the schools that have our teachers.”

Preparing future educators is not the only concern on Simon’s mind. As with other public institutions in the state, MSU has been affected by Michigan’s budget woes. Simon questions, however, whether the state’s priorities are in order. “If you look at the last five to seven years of state funding, if we had received the same percentage increases from the state as the Department of Corrections received, our tuition would be 25 percent less.”

Simon continues, “It’s very disheartening when you look around at other countries in the world and at other states that have prioritized education, not simply K-12, but higher education and research, as the key to their future. The proportion of folks with four-year degrees is one of the measures that CEOs have found to be an important indicator for economic prosperity-”we’re 49th in our one, five and 10-year models for percent increases to higher education. I recognize the difficulty that state is in with the aftermath of this recession. It’s easy to point to the challenges of today, but you have to look at the support universities have received in the period leading up to this. We have to invest in the future and education is the future.”

National competitiveness is not the only thing that concerns Simon, there’s also global competition.

“Just as the university corridor members are benchmarking themselves against the best, the state has to do that as well,” she says, “particularly on the areas that will make it competitive for the future-”science and math. I find it interesting that we’re working in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, and they’re engaged in the same kind of testing of their students as we’re doing in Michigan because they believe that in order for them to become competitive in the future they have to rise in science and mathematics rankings. They discovered they needed to adjust their entire approach and expectations to succeed in those areas if they’re going to be successful in the future as a country. The same is true in Qatar and Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region that have increased resources because of oil-”and we have to have that same tenacity about competitiveness.”

Staying competitive at the global level is serious business for MSU and the state, according to Simon. “The question is how to achieve that tenacity and help children succeed while at the same time keeping your goals high for national competitiveness or, quite frankly, we’re going to be having a different conversation between your magazine and the university president in the years ahead about why we’re losing other kinds of jobs.”

MSU President Lou Anna Simon helps Monica Winkley move her belongings into Emmons Hall on the first day of student move-in.
Photo by G.L. Kohuth

Returning to agriculture, and placing it in the context of needing to achieve technological competence, Simon relates that she was attending a national conference, serving on a panel that included the president of John Deere. “He told me that on their high-end tractors there’s more technology than there was initially on the space shuttle and in order to understand and work as a farmer and run this kind of equipment to get the kind of yield that you needed to compete in the marketplace-”you had to know how to program and operate these highly complex machines.”

As the president of a research university, Simon decided to do her own investigation by way of taking a ride on a new Deere tractor. “It’s true. There’s a sense of high-level mathematics applied-”and it’s as much on the farm today as it is in the factory. People need to understand it’s not just in a laboratory in the middle of a university campus.”

She forecasts that this level of technology will filter down to smaller farms, which would explain why MSU is participating in a robotics and pasture-based dairy experiment at the Kellogg biological station. “We want to see how smaller dairy operations can be profitable in the future. That involves robotic milking and a whole range of technology that you have to understand. Part of our role is to demonstrate how the new technology can work and then develop innovative ways to make it available across the board.”

Given her schedule as a nationally recognized expert as well as a state resource, it’s hard to understand how Simon maintains any kind of successful work-life balance and keeps the job-associated stress under control.

“Depending on who you talk to, I don’t do it very well,” she laughs. “Part of it is you have to have a passion, a love for what you’re doing, and believe in the overall purposes of what you’re trying to accomplish at a very fundamental level. That gives you the energy to get over all the potholes and hassles. For me, I’m very fortunate that I believe in education and in the kind of institution Michigan State has been, and will become, on behalf of the people of Michigan and the people of the world.”

Simon says that she gets inspiration and energy from students. “When I eat in residence halls I have a lot of casual conversations. I talk to our student leaders and their optimism and enthusiasm for the future energizes me. I have an extraordinarily supportive spouse who also feels passionately about Michigan State. That reduces a lot of potential scheduling conflicts. And, we’ve got a good team around us. I like walking around campus because it gives me a chance to reflect. I read a lot of mystery novels and do Sudoku, things that get my mind on a different intellectual path that I find de-stressing.”

She also tries to end each day “knowing that I did the best I could that day and I’ll pick up where I left off tomorrow.”

Sounds like good advice for any business executive.