NOTE: Gwen Norrell is referred to as a "path-breaker" by new Michigan State University President Lou Anna Simon in the final question (last four paragraphs) of the article below.

MSU's new president has a lot on her plate...
and an appetite for opportunity

July 2, 2004 - Maryanne George, Detroit Free Press

With state funding down, Lou Anna Simon faces an obvious challenge when she takes the helm of Michigan State University in January as the university's 20th president.

But where some see only dreaded cuts, Simon sees opportunity -- to streamline MSU's liberal arts programs and help the university pump up the state economy by partnering with other universities and business leaders.

As MSU's first female president, Simon, 57, also sees a chance to serve as a role model for other women.

Simon sat down with the Free Press this week to discuss MSU's future.

An Indiana native who became the first in her family to attend college, Simon has deep roots on the 45,000-student campus. She earned her doctorate there and has spent her entire professional academic career in East Lansing. She has been MSU provost since 1993. Her husband is MSU's director of telecommunications systems and transportation. MSU's massive cogeneration power plant is named for her father-in-law, Ted Simon, a former assistant vice president for 38 years.

Simon will inherit a budget made tighter by the loss of $43 million in state aid, cuts made in the past two years. MSU was forced to trim $60 million and 400 jobs during that time, while raising tuition more than 12 percent.

When she takes charge, Simon will preside over a reorganization of liberal arts programs that will create a new residential college, a $1.2-billion fund-raising campaign and a plan to expand the medical school in Grand Rapids. MSU also wants to snare the federal rare isotope accelerator project, which could bring an estimated $1.9 billion to the state over 20 years.

QUESTION: What is the most important issue you will face? ANSWER: The most pressing is to try to find ways to build quality and at the same time deal with what are projected to be very tight finances. The intention is to keep Michigan State a high-value place, which means we have to grow quality and keep costs down.

Q: Since 1972, state support for the 15 public universities has fallen from about 75 percent to less than 45 percent. What do you think of the disinvestment in higher education?

A: When you look at higher education as a commodity -- buy a set of courses or give us money to do a project -- you miss the multiplier effect of the investment for an institution like Michigan State.

Part of the reason there are a lot of companies around Boston is because Boston has great research that had no practical purpose at the moment it was conceived. But because it was left to grow, it became an attractor for the kind of economic development I think Michigan needs. For that type of investment to have fruit you have to have a longer term perspective on the return on the investment.

Q: Are the federal rare isotope accelerator project (RIA) and the Life Sciences Corridor, of which MSU is a part, those type of investments? A: RIA is an instant infusion of jobs. You can't have a $1-billion construction budget and not have jobs. It also brings to the state the professional workforce that would come to the accelerator and has the potential of spinning off additional work. If you ask me today what specific company would come out of this, I really don't know.

In some ways, it's accepting the ambiguity of not knowing the precise company that might be created but recognizing that kind of project will produce long-term economic gain as well as short infusion of construction jobs.

The same thing is true for the Life Sciences Corridor. We're showing some shorter-term results on company creation because of the way it was set up. You have to be in these things for the long haul, and you have to continue to invest in order to have the big returns.

Q: How can universities reverse the trend of disinvestment by the state? A: If you look around the country, not just in Michigan, the returns for education are long term. But there's a tendency in budget circumstances to deal with today's problem. Part of the solution is getting a partnership with the governor, the universities, the Legislature and key noneducation leaders to find the right balance between long-term and short-term investments. It's a delicate balance, and there are day-to-day things. If you don't fix them, you're in real trouble in the long term.

So I end up fixing elevators and roofs because they have to be done, but in the long-term interest we need to invest in academic programs.

We have to figure out a plan to be more accountable in real ways. We have to continue to be a value so it's not about how much you give us in tuition or how much we get from the state, but what kind of value we can produce in the long run.

I think (the University of) Michigan, Michigan State and Wayne State have proven to be a long-term value. I'm looking forward to conversations with President (Mary Sue) Coleman and President (Irvin) Reid About doing more things collaboratively.

Q: Are you concerned about the 6.6-percent drop in minority applications at MSU this year? A: What worries me is that people think they don't have a chance and use it as a reason for not applying.

I know that finances limit people's choices because it limited where I applied to. I also know the system can limit your choices by word of mouth. We don't want people's aspirations limited because of what they think might happen.

We added an essay to the application to try to get additional information about the diamonds in the rough, to find some other ways to pick up leadership, passion for community engagement and give more kids a chance at Michigan State. We are working aggressively with high school counselors to get them over the hump. And I think we're going to have a really large freshman class. We were targeting 6,850, but we could be nearer 7,000 depending on what happens.

Q: How does it feel to be named the first female MSU president? A: It was poignant for me that Gwen Norrell's memorial service was being held about the same time the board was voting on my appointment. She was much more of a pioneering woman at MSU than I ever will be.

(Norrell, a former professor and pioneer of the MSU Counseling Center, leader of outreach efforts in Detroit and the first woman vice president of the NCAA, died June 15 at age 84.)

Gwen was a path-breaker for me, breaking down stereotypes, working in areas in athletics that got her enormous recognition. She did it with a sense of grace, humility and tenacity that has always been a role model for me.

Each of us has a responsibility to the next generation, and Gwen was very inclusive for women, people of color and kids from poor backgrounds. I hope I carry that philosophy and continue to be a path-breaker for other women.

Contact MARYANNE GEORGE at 734-665-5600 or mageorge@freepress.com.

Site Design Copyright © 2004, Michael Cossey. All Rights Reserved.
Content displayed is the property of the party attributed. - Hosted by ArkansasFire.Net