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Why MSU is what every university should be like

Jack Lessenberry

There was a time when it wasn’t unusual for university presidents to stay in their jobs for twenty years or more. These days, however, that seldom happens. The average college or university president lasts barely seven years.

It actually may be a wonder that any last that long, given the intensity of issues from rising costs to affirmative action to athletics. Not to mention that everything happens these days in the pressure cooker and under the microscope of the 24-hour news cycle.

Two of Michigan’s three major universities have new presidents; Wayne State’s Roy Wilson has been on the job less than a year. The University of Michigan’s Mark Schlissel takes office this summer. But in January, Lou Anna Simon will celebrate ten years as president of Michigan State University.

In fact, to say she’s been on the job for a decade severely understates her involvement with the institution. She’s been there ever since she arrived as a graduate student in 1970.

Since then, she has held a wide variety of academic and administrative jobs, which is not to say she is set in her ways. I had a chance to have a long conversation with her this week.

She told me tradition is important, but added, “If you don’t have leadership committed to change, but only to defending the status quo, you have the wrong leadership.”

Michigan State is often referred to as the nation’s pioneer land grant university, and that is more than a piece of historical trivia. The school was founded with the idea that it would study and seek out knowledge and find a way of making it practical and relevant for the people of Michigan. They still take that mission seriously.

Originally, that meant agriculture; MSU was once officially “the state college of agriculture and applied sciences.” Today, however, that means pretty much everything of relevance.

Students face a tough Catch-22 today. Higher education of some kind is now absolutely essential to anyone who wants to live anything like a middle-class life. But it is becoming less and less affordable, thanks to what President Simon accurately calls “a systematic disinvestment by the state in higher education,” over the last few years.

Today, the cost of a four-year degree at MSU is just about what it is at the U of M. For a Michigan resident, that’s about $100,000. Simon acknowledged that there was always a temptation to let in a flood of what she called “full-freight” students, essentially, rich kids who can self-finance.

Those from out of state or other countries are especially tempting, because they pay about twice as much.

But MSU hasn’t done much of that. They do have more students than ever – 49,000. Yet nearly 4/5 are from Michigan. And a remarkable 75% are from families making less than $125,000 a year.

Simon told me with a tiny grin, “If Michigan set out to invent a university today, they would invent us.”

This is a place with a clear sense of its mission. My sense is that in a state groping to find a new model for prosperity, what they are doing in East Lansing may be more important now than ever.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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