By Sam Gringlas, Daily News Editor
Published May 30, 2014
MACKINAC ISLAND, Mich. — After a spring inundated with the buzz of bankruptcy, midterms and minimum wage, the state’s power players spent a significant amount of time this week talking about a policy arena that’s often overshadowed.
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Over a four-day period inside the island’s Grand Hotel, a diverse spectrum of speakers touted various forms of educational advancement as key factors in shaping the state’s comeback.
The Mackinac Policy Conference — an annual gathering of some of the state's most influential leaders in business and government often known more for its networking opportunities than its policy sessions — concluded Friday.
The conference, which is sponsored by the Detroit Regional Chamber, aims to “create a more globally competitive and financially attractive business environment in Michigan” by promoting entrepreneurship, STEM education and economic transformation.
While buzzwords like reinvention, innovation and entrepreneurial spirit bounced freely around the hotel’s famed white porch and inside the venue’s main theater, a large number of keynote addresses and discussion sections centered on education or in some way tied the issue to the state’s fate.
STEM education, university-sponsored research and Detroit-based internships all garnered attention during the conference.
Though admittedly focused on promoting a strong business climate, many of the conference’s sessions underscored the revolving door between strengthening educational opportunities, expanding economic prospects and securing the state’s future.
At the front-end of the summit, University President Mary Sue Coleman, along with the presidents of Michigan State University and Wayne State University, unveiled an annual report detailing the economic impact of university-sponsored research endeavors.
Last year, the University Research Corridor — which is comprised of the University, Michigan State and Wayne State — generated $16.6 billion in economic stimuli for the state.
The report also focused in on the corridor’s water-related research efforts. Michigan ranks fourth in the country for percentage of jobs related to water resources.
Those findings were announced Thursday morning from the hotel’s porch overlooking Lake Huron. Between 2009 and 2013, the three universities received $300 million in funding for water-related research and outreach.
Keeping with the theme of universities as statewide economic drivers, Coleman delivered a 15-minute TED-style talk Wednesday evening focused on innovation.
In the talk, Coleman detailed the University’s efforts to spur entrepreneurial efforts in the state.
Her speech outlined a narrative that likely serves as the foundation for most of the policy challenges that have been discussed in the past few years on Mackinac and across the state. She described a state that was once a “hotbed” of creativity and innovation, but later succumbed to the status quo.
“We became too complacent and we lost our groove,” she said.
When the economic recession was just beginning to hit the state hard, Coleman said the state’s universities realized something had to be done differently.
“I took on the notion that we needed to partner or we were going to parish — that we had to get out of our silos that we had to do something completely different, that we had to look outside ourselves, that we had to find a way to be more permeable to the outside world to get new ideas in.”
In 2006, the University joined with Michigan State and Wayne State to form the URC.
“What we wanted to illustrate to the state was the assets the state had in the university research community and let people understand that this is something that can be built on in the future,” Coleman said in an interview with The Michigan Daily.
Earlier in the morning, New York Times bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell, whose books such as “Tipping Point” and “Blink” wield anecdotes and everyday occurrences to explain broader phenomena, narrowed in on the necessary elements for big transformations, much like the one Detroit is attempting to undergo.
A key factor, he said, is reframing the approach to a problem. Though Gladwell was largely appealing to the transformation of Detroit as it attempts to reemerge from the ashes, many keynote speakers were quick to adopt the mindset for an array of the Michigan's most pressing challenges.
Coleman said opening the University's vast research enterprise to businesses was transformative for the state.
“That’s a game changer,” she said. “That wasn't happening when I first came to the University of Michigan. We were seen as a very impermeable place so now we have a have a one-stop shop. We can have more of this interchange. We want companies to come in and ask us to help them solve their problems.”
While the state’s public universities generated significant economic energy for Michigan, the institutions have experienced multiple state funding cuts in recent years.
Governor Rick Snyder (R), who is up for re-election in November, has drawn sharp criticism for cuts to higher education funding early in his term.
In his administration’s first budget, he cut allocations to the state’s institutions of higher education by 15 percent.
Though the past two years have seen moderate increases in state funding for higher education, Michigan's public colleges have still scrambled to ramp up development efforts in an effort to make up the difference.
Coleman said the University must leverage its multi-billion dollar economic impact in Michigan to convince lawmakers that reinvestment in higher education is necessary.
“Fortunately we are now continuing this modest reinvestment in higher education in the state, but it has to continue for many years — it can't stop — because we have a long way to go before we make it all up. We've just got to keep making that argument about what a good investment it is for the state.”
Mitch Daniels, the president of Purdue University and former governor of Indiana, also touched on higher-education funding during the question and answer portion of his keynote address.
Daniels, who was appointed Purdue's president last year, lauded his school's efforts to enact a freeze on tuition rates. He characterized the multi-year freeze as a critical move to make the institution more accessible.
“We have to take seriously the job of being accessible and affordable for (students at) whatever income level (that) can meet our standards,” Daniels said.
The University, in contrast, has consistently hiked tuition and instead focused on expanding need-based financial aid to ensure accessibility.
Though last year the University's Board of Regents approved the lowest tuition increase in 29 years, rates have steadily increased during that period. Between academic years 2004-05 and 2013-14, LSA in-state tuition increased by 60 percent.
In a heavily attended keynote address, Gov. Rick Snyder accentuated the state’s “massive” skills gap — a term for the disconnect between jobs demanded by employers and the skills the state's worker's wield. He said thousands of good-paying, skilled jobs are sitting unfilled because there aren’t applicants qualified to fill them.
“Let’s make it a leadership opportunity for Michigan to solve this gap better than anybody else,” he said.
Snyder billed collaboration between the state's private and education sectors as the most effective method to alleviate the disconnect.
He said vocational training has been lost to the notion that everyone should aspire to attaining a college degree. Calling for a new emphasis on skilled trades and technical education, Snyder cited programs that partner community colleges and employers as examples of productive collaborations.
“This is our future, folks,” he said.
In an interview with the Daily before the speech, Snyder said the conference’s focus on STEM education also plays into building a workforce suited to the needs of the next century.
“It’s one of the key opportunities for the future in terms of great careers and so we want to encourage people to go into that field,” he said.
Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan (D) also wielded the conference’s pulpit to highlight his own vision for reimaging the pathways between education and employment.
Wednesday, the recently inaugurated mayor announced plans to connect 5,000 area students with summer employment in the city of Detroit.
In an interview with the Daily, Duggan said keeping graduates in Michigan is crucial to the future of the state and the city of Detroit.
Duggan, like many of the keynote speakers, used conference face time to emphasize the interdependent nature of education, economic rejuvenation and the city of Detroit and the state of Michigan’s next chapter.
“I think that’s the key,” he said. “Your generation wants to live in urban settings and be connected to people. So the question is where are you going? Are you going to Chicago? Are you going to LA? Or are you going to Detroit?”
He also noted his admiration for programs in Chicago that link area institutions of higher education with internship opportunities in the city.
“A lot of students in Ann Arbor have never been in Detroit in their lives and we want to get them to Detroit to see what it’s like,” he said.
Coleman echoed similar sentiments. The future of Michigan, conference organizers and speakers kept reminding their audiences, is deeply linked to an educated population eager to establish roots in The Wolverine State.
“Recruit them to stay in Michigan,” Coleman said. “They’re really going to help us get our groove back.”