Legislature yaps at critical part of state's recovery

For years, physicists and science-fiction writers have speculated about whether parallel universes might exist alongside our own. I’m certainly not qualified to get into the domain of theoretical physics, but I can testify that when it comes to higher education, there are parallel universes existing right here in Michigan:

Universe One has to do with the worldwide ranking of the University of Michigan. Sure, we all know it’s a wonderful place -- but we may not realize exactly how wonderful.

Last week the respected Times Higher Education World Reputation Rankings report moved the U of M up a slot, to the 12th best university in the world.

Ann Arbor trailed only a few schools, including Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in this country, and Oxford and Cambridge in Great Britain. That's hardly shabby company.

What’s more, the same survey found the U of M was the third-highest ranked public university, trailing only the University of California at Berkeley and UCLA. Pointing to the deterioration of public support for public universities, Phil Baty, editor of the Times Higher Education report, said “It is worth nothing that any rise for a state university in the U.S. bucks a clear trend.”

This comes even as the state has been slashing aid to higher education -- making the third most drastic cuts of any state in the country. U of M President Mary Sue Coleman is committed to doing what she can about this.

She testified before the state House higher education subcommittee on appropriations, and said she is committed to raising private funds to help offset the loss of public funding. Here’s one quick measure of how drastic this loss as been:

During the 1970s, public support for the U of M amounted to  about 75 percent of total revenue; when I served on the school’s Board of Regents in the 1990s, the ratio had been reversed.  By that time, three-quarters of all revenue then came from tuition and other private support. And things haven’t improved since.

Universe Two was on display last Thursday at the Business Leaders for Michigan CEO Summit, held in Detroit. Speaking to a packed room at the Westin Book Cadillac, Michigan speakers repeatedly talked about our universities -- most notably, the U of M -- being a core of BLM’s Michigan turnaround.

They named six things as “distinctive assets that can grow a New Michigan,” and three stood out as relevant to our public universities: A) The “Global Engineering Village,” where Michigan leads the nation in per capita engineers; B) Growth in industry and university funded R&D and the eventual commercialization of that research; and, C) Michigan as a national hub for bio-pharmaceutical R&D.

The Michigan business community knows that our universities are critical parts of the effort to make Michigan a prosperous state.

And that clearly means that a public policy that has long kept reducing support for higher education is short-sighted and hurts the elements most important to our economic future.

Universe Three came to light last week at the hearing of the state House higher ed panel. At the hearing, U of M President Coleman did not respond directly to the committee’s demand for reports on various aspects of the university’s stem-cell research, including the number of donated human embryos and stem-cell lines it has received, the numbers used in research, the number held in storage and the number of research projects using them.

U of M gave the subcommittee a large number of reports and press clippings concerning these matters, but what the committee wants “cannot be distilled into a simple format,” according to President Coleman. Rep. Bob Genetski, R-Saugatuck and the chair of the committee, threatened to cut appropriations for the U of M if it didn’t produce the accounting. Majority Republican committee members complained that universities are hiding behind their constitutional autonomy and continued refusal to supply what legislators are asking for would be “a thumb in our eye.”

There is no reason legislators ought to be asking whether or not universities should conduct research based on stem cells, whether from embryos or not. In 2008, Michigan voters by a solid margin chose to permit embryonic stem-cell research.

Instead, these lawmakers look like they’re conducting a rear-guard attempt to get around the public’s vote.

Indeed, an editorial in Sunday’s usually conservative Detroit News pointed out that “lawmakers consider none of the hundreds of other forms of research being performed at state universities to be controversial enough to merit similar reporting mandates.”

For their part, university officials worry that responding to such demands would risk sliding down a slope of ever-more intrusive demands from variously motivated lawmakers. My own experience as a U of M regent suggests that protecting universities from politically motivated intrusions is highly important to ensure their quality.

Three parallel universes, all operating at the same time right here in Michigan. In two, the excellence of our universities is seen as at the core of our future prosperity.

In the other, ideologically driven fussing over counting embryos and stem cell lines appears to take priority over all else.

If we are truly trying to build a competitive economy for this century, that’s something our state and our citizens can ill afford.

Editor’s note: Former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent Phil Power is a longtime observer of Michigan politics and economics. He is also the founder and chairman of the Center for Michigan, a nonprofit, bipartisan centrist think–and–do tank, designed to cure Michigan’s dysfunctional political culture; the Center also publishes Bridge Magazine. The opinions expressed here are Power’s own and do not represent the official views of the Center. He welcomes your comments via email.

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Sam Hagar
Thu, 03/22/2012 - 10:22am
As strongly as I support UM, if the voters in this state are unintelligent enough to elect such ideologically blinded legislatures, then we deserve what we get. Unless, we can enact an emergency financial manager law at the state level and remove these know-nothings from positions of power...
C. Skinner
Thu, 03/22/2012 - 10:37am
This article is very misleading in the sense that public support for UM and education in particular has not been reduced; in fact it has been increased substantially over the past 20 yrs. But educational costs have been going up at an unsustainable rate every since the unions began controlling the cost structure of our schools and government. An unmentioned problem for the UM and MSU is that 70 - 80 % of their students leave the State of Michigan after graduation so the State does not really get a lot of benefit from the public's investment, certainly not a benefit that is at all proportionate. A second issue is that the public should have a say in what is going on at a school that receives so much support from the public. The social, political and economic teachings and research are of direct concern to many of the residents of this State. I realize that all of these unfortunate realities are troubling for the educators and administrators of public universities. There is a solution to all of this. The university should go private like most of the others in the Top Ten universities of the World. I have no doubt that UM could be even more successful as a private university than as a public university and given the ultimate location of their graduates and the number of applications that they receive vs the ones that they can accept from out of state, there would be a much better balance between the source of funding and the ultimate benefits of the graduates
Donald Patterson
Thu, 03/22/2012 - 12:31pm
Mr. Power has done an excellent job of stating the obvious. But, he has missed how carefully our state House higher ed panel has studied literature. They were certainly most impressed with George Orwell's slogan from from "1984", "Ignorance is strength". If Michigan does not want to become the Mississippi of the north, we must work to vote these troglodytes out of office.
Ned Zimmerman
Thu, 03/22/2012 - 12:50pm
At a hearing purporting to analyze funding for the State's universities, the panel's obsession with stem cell research shows the total lack of seriousness of our legislators. What in the world does that research subject, one among hundreds of others, have to do with the financing of our public universities? Sad!
Frank Saad
Thu, 03/22/2012 - 4:22pm
Phil - I strongly agree with your comments on being proud of a world class institution and that social conservatism should not impede world class research. But I strongly disagree with your comment that the State needs to keep pouring money into generic "higher education" for a more prosperous Michigan. I know of 5 brilliant kids that recently graduated from U of M. All but 1 have left the State to pursue career opportunities. Funding generic higher education does not benefit the State of Michigan. And we do not have the money to keep pouring into universities to hope that some kids stick. The Business Leaders have it right, determine the business opportunities within Michigan and then align resources accordingly. We are all very proud to have world class universities led by U of M. But with the current and future fiscal restraints of the State of Michigan, the universities will have to be held financially accountable to help make Michigan prosperous.
Thu, 03/22/2012 - 9:28pm
"“cannot be distilled into a simple format,” according to President Coleman", am I wrong or does that sound like she doesn't feel that the people she is talking to are smart enough to understand what they do or could it be that she doesn't understand it well enough to answer the question? "did not respond directly to the committee’s demand " does that suggest she doesn't feel that a State univeristy should be accountable to the State governing body? "university officials worry that responding to such demands would risk sliding down a slope of ever-more intrusive demands from variously motivated lawmakers", does that suggest that the Univerity official feel they are above governemnt scrutiny? They are the Uof M. I would if there are employers in the State that have the academic credencials (Phds, engineers, scieintists) on par with U fo M and whether Mr. Power, the News, and others believe that should jsutify their hodling themselevs above governement scrutiny? I surely won't. "Detroit News pointed out that “lawmakers consider none of the hundreds of other forms of research being performed at state universities to be controversial enough to merit similar reporting mandates.”" I wonder if this means that the News feels every such program should recieve this scrutiny and that selection of a few would be a valid indicator of the University's practices? Maybe the scrutiny of the University's management programs related to embyros could tell a lot about a University's ethics. I have to say seeing a person that taught legal ethics at an Ivy League school who then lied underoathe to protect himself from embarassment told me a lot about the ehtics of that Univeristy. I quess Mr. Power and others such as the head of UofM believes that their are those in our State that should be held above those who write the laws, that they should be excempted from the incovenience of responding to out elected officials. I must admit that Mr. Power has identified those who should be exempt from such scrutiny he might share the criteria we all shold use so others could do things that would exempted them from such scrutiny. I must admit I have met alumni from UofM and other State schools and found that it is more the individual and what they do with the education than the school they were educated at. But, but I did not go to UofM, though I have sent a few bucks, so probably can't be a fair judge of why UofM's standing in some subjective evaluation process should hold them about our elected official functioning in the roles that perform similar oversight of other orgainzations.
Donald Patterson
Thu, 03/22/2012 - 9:32pm
Those who claim that the state of Michigan cannot afford to properly support higher education and the rest of public education ignore the past. Until the 1990s we could keep the tuition costs low because the government collected sufficient revenue to pay 75% of university expenses. A succession of tax cuts passed during the boom of the 1990s ignored the fact that conditions change. When the economy did cool off the tax cuts prevented the state from collecting needed revenue. We need to stop giving away public funds like the $1.7 billion gift to business for which no benefit to the state has yet been shown. It could be called a faith based tax cut for creating jobs. It is time for the grownups to run the government again and make sure we eat our vegetables before desert is served,
Mon, 03/26/2012 - 2:55pm
Higher education is very important but we must first do a better job of k-12 to establish the ground work for furthering there education.