I’ve just come from a chat with the University of Michigan’s president, Mary Sue Coleman, and was tempted to headline this blog “Michigan’s Only Bright Light.” But I decided that would be unfair and inaccurate – in addition to U Mich, there are certainly other things going well there, just not all that many due to the Detroit auto industry’s collapse and wretched unemployment.
As Coleman puts it, the University of Michigan has been in austerity-budget mode for several years; it was fairly obvious shortly after she arrived on the scene, in 2002, that the U.S. auto industry was in decline and public funding for the university was heading downhill. The economic crisis sealed the deal, and along with state money, alumni giving dropped. So did the university’s endowment, which took a 21% hit.
Coleman is dynamism personified, despite a broken hand wrapped in a cast: when she says she actually likes the fund-raising chores that plague college presidents, one believes it. Of course, extracting money from alums’ wallets has been rather difficult since the economy tanked, but Coleman sees signs alumni interest may be picking up.
During a wide-ranging chat which also included a passionate discourse about Michigan football, I discerned a few areas she’s primarily focusing on: 1) Continuing Michigan’s expansion as a research university fueled by external government and private grants and thereby offsetting the inexorable decline in Michigan state funding while attracting top-flight staff and students. She notes that fully 38% of the student body hails from outside Michigan, and suggests this will only increase as the state’s college-age population cohort declines. 2) A good-citizen campaign to position the university as one-third – and the most significant piece – of a nascent Michigan “research corridor” also comprising Michigan State University in Lansing and Wayne State University in Detroit. “We need to help the state in this economic turnaround,” she says. And 3) inevitably, performing a budgetary juggling act by hiring in high-priority areas while cutting in others. Michigan, she says, has been cutting costs for the past seven years. “This isn’t new for us,” she says of this drab routine. “We’re going to make ourselves self-sufficient.”
I came away from the meeting feeling both that the university appears to be in prudent and enthusiastic hands – and yet also that there’s not all that much the university can do to revive Michigan’s economy. In and of itself, the University of Michigan is well-placed to thrive as a public university with private-school qualities – and, in Ann Arbor, it enjoys a warm, creative community. But as hard as Coleman might try, Michigan’s economy, so long dependent on a large (if inefficient) auto industry, will take many years to rediscover its purpose.