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Saturday, November 22, 2014

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Imran Syed: The accidental boom?

BY IMRAN SYED

Published October 10, 2010

Feeling drunk, tired, sleepy and jilted, a young college student decided to blog about it.

He was immature and said some silly things about the girl who broke his heart (“All B-U girls are bitches.”). But from that mad moment, Mark Zuckerberg was well on his way to founding Facebook, the $25-billion company that we can’t imagine being without. (I understand that this story, as told in the film “The Social Network,” is fictionalized at every turn. But that makes no difference at the moment.)

When a friend ventured that the Facebook idea could be worth big money, Zuckerberg simply shrugged it off, saying he was content with building something cool. From Zuckerberg’s timeless accident, we can gather that even big, world-changing things don’t always announce their arrival. Faith is essential on the road to accomplishment.

Innovation for innovation’s sake isn’t only a good idea, but in some cases, it’s also the only way forward. We won’t always see how our efforts today will pay off in the future, but we can rest assured that progress today is better than sitting idly by and waiting for a miracle.

This is something Michigan’s lawmakers seem to have forgotten.

Four years ago, Michigan’s three largest research universities — the University of Michigan, Michigan State University and Wayne State University — united to create the University Research Corridor. From the outset, the URC was more of an idea than anything tangible. The three universities always have and always will conduct world-class research on a vast array of subjects, but this union allowed them to officially stand together.

The bargaining advantage that unity brings matters because the three universities of the URC want more money from the state. As University President Mary Sue Coleman told the state House Appropriations Subcommittee on Higher Education earlier this year: “If we had more resources, we could do more and do it faster.” State lawmakers remain skeptical though, and that’s no surprise, given Michigan’s rich heritage of under-funding its public universities.

To the average state lawmaker, increasing funding to state universities in a time of such financial hardship would take an immense leap of faith. The URC universities have continued to provide world-class educations to thousands of students and conduct cutting-edge research, but can the state really afford to invest more?

It’s a dilemma not unlike the one early investors in the Facebook idea struggled with. The social networking site was taking off and seemed to have a good following on Ivy-League campuses, but was it really an Earth-shattering event waiting to happen?

Could Facebook really go from a fun distraction for college nerds to something the world would embrace as an essential part of personal interaction? They simply couldn’t have known. Investors just had to look at the 20-year-old Harvard dropout across the table from them and trust that he was building the next big thing — a thing their old minds would never understand.

With political diatribes and misinformation swirling in the lead-up to the November election, there is plenty of talk about cutting costs. Like always, certain lawmakers find it easy to score a point with the base by contending that universities are wasteful and train mostly students who bolt from Michigan the moment they graduate. But this type of talk is useless.

Clearly something is broken in Michigan, and years of siphoning funds away from universities hasn’t exactly turned things around. Michigan lawmakers failed to take the leap of faith at every turn in recent decades, and the innovation boom came instead to places like California and Massachusetts, while Michigan fell into ruin. But it’s not too late.

As stated in an economic report released last week, the URC three have contributed $14.8 billion to the state’s economy since 2007. At a time when so many of the state’s other, desperate attempts at revival are failing, the three research universities have brought money and activity to this state and that has begun the turnaround even while state lawmakers sit on their hands.

Investing in this fledgling thing called the URC is almost a no-brainer at this point, given that we’ve already begun to see results. Business people in the know (California venture capitalist Tom Baruch, for example) are already talking: Michigan is a place to watch. We don’t feel it yet, but efforts like the one research universities have made alone for the past few decades are about to pay off.

We’ve built something here and don’t even know it: With any luck, Michigan could emerge from its hangover smarter, stronger and wealthier. The sooner state lawmakers jump on board, the better.

Imran Syed can be reached at galad@umich.edu.


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