Phil Power: Officials Can be Worlds Apart on education priorities

Phil Power: Officials Can be Worlds Apart on education priorities
March 22, 2012/ 

By Phil Power

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 U-M up a slot, to the 12th-best university in the world.

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

What's more, the same survey found U-M was the third-highest-ranked public university, trailing only the University of California at Berkley and University of California, Los Angeles. 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-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 U-M amounted to about 75 percent of total revenue; by the time 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. Things haven't improved.

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

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 (research and development) and the eventual commercialization of that research; and, finally, 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.

That clearly means that a public policy that for a decade now has kept cutting support for higher education is shortsighted 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 Education Subcommittee on Appropriations. At the hearing, 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, held in storage and the number of research projects using them.

The university 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 Coleman. Rep. Bob Genetski, R-Saugatuck, the chairman of the committee, threatened to cut appropriations for U-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 this week in the 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 experience as a U-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 lying at the core of our future prosperity.

In the other, ideologically based 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.

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. He is also on the board of the center's Business Leaders for Early Education. The opinions expressed here are Power's own and do not represent the official views of the center. He welcomes your comments at