Sunday, November 15, 2009

MSC and U of M

Or Mary Sue Coleman, as those of us who are close buddies call her (close buddies referring to people who have never been closer than sitting somewhere in the Big House during commencement) was named the 3rd best university president in Los Estados Unidos. I apologize that I have become somewhat list focused over the past few months. What makes the matter even worse is that they're not even lists that I'm inventing. It's more like I'm list-reference intensive of late. Is it a sign of laziness or lack of creativity? I would like to think not, it's just that I have come across lots and lots of Michigan-related lists over the past couple months.

The write up of MSC focuses on her fund raising prowess, specifically her leadership in guiding and mostly finishing a massive fund raising campaign for U of M prior to the economic crisis in Michigan and the rest of the states. Mary Sue and company raised approximately $3.2B to fund university activities between 2000 and 2008. That's a lot of cashola (that looks like another inappropriate word) and an impressive feat to be sure, so maybe she deserves her very high ranking in the world of university presidents (painfully, the guy from Ohio State was declared #1).

The one thing that kind of bugs me near the end of the article is this quote:

Coleman also wants to help prop up nearby Detroit, where the school has just launched a "semester abroad" for students. "We have a responsibility," she says, "to use our strengths and our economic muscle to help with Detroit's recovery and resurgence."

This, too, is a good sentiment, but from my experiences at U of M, it really feels like too little, maybe too late. Feel free to disagree with me on this subject and I would like to hear your thoughts if you do, but I can only speak from my own experiences and feelings on this subject. Michigan was a great school and I will forever fondly remember my experiences there, but it always seemed like U of M collectively felt better, separated, and above the rest of the state and Detroit in particular. Sure, the school would annually sponsor some sort of "Project: Detroit" day where people would go and paint depressing walls in Detroit with less depressing colors, but aside from individually or other group-motivated service projects, U of M stood alone in the economically and socially isolated pseudo utopia of Ann Arbor.

There are likely many reasons for this - Michigan has a very broad national and international draw beyond some of the other state schools so students from elsewhere go back to elsewhere when they are done, local students who go to Michigan seem to have more wanderlust than other local students (again, my feeling) and therefore care less about the long-term viability of Michigan and Detroit, or people in and around Ann Arbor believe that Ann Arbor can remain infinitely successful independent of what is happening around them. That's the joy of the university economic system, right? To get a good job, people have to get college degrees, so colleges can, in lock step, continue to increase their tuition, and students have no choice but to pay whatever is required for their education. Universities can continue to grow and fund research because students have to keep paying and paying and paying, and university towns can theoretically flourish indefinitely, so who cares about the neighbors?

In all of the time I spent in and around the various Michigan campuses, I heard many speeches about social responsibility, but I never felt like the University of Michigan felt like it was part of the state of Michigan and had any responsibility to the well-being of its home state. There were no "we give you a scholarship, you try to find a job here or pay us back" programs, though I do know several people who had their educations paid for by the state or the University and felt no obligation to even consider sticking around. Much of this is on the individuals, but the University has an obligation to at least try to make a case. I also would disagree with the argument "well, look at the local job market. Why would anyone agree to look for a job here." Right now, sure, but there was a time not very long ago when Michigan had the lowest unemployment rate in the nation and was top 10 in average personal income. If some of the brains had stuck around or even been encouraged to stick around, just maybe efforts would have already been in place to moderate the bad times before the bad times were upon us; intelligent people working on creating new businesses, industries, whatever creates and maintains jobs.

Maybe I'm wrong and U of M has always cared deeply about Detroit and Michigan, or maybe now U of M realizes the error of insufficient local concern and will use its intellectual and financial muscle to craft a new future. Maybe (somewhat) publicly funded universities have no responsibility to the public funding them and my entire thinking here is out of whack. It seems that Mary Sue agrees, now, that U of M does have a broader responsibility, but it is upsetting that historically, one place that I love seemed to care so little about another place that I love.

1 comment:

beth said...

Agreed. It breaks my heart every time a U of M student says "Why would I ever want to stay in MI?" (which seemed to be a majority of my pharmacy classmates). Sad.