The Michigan Daily sat down with Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II while he was in Ann Arbor Thursday afternoon to deliver the keynote speech at a School of Information event on using technology to strengthen water infrastructure. In the interview, Gilchrist discussed adapting to the effects of climate change, increasing employment opportunities for young people in the state and reducing the cost of higher education. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The Michigan Daily: Recently, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced the creation of the Growing Michigan Together Council. In addition to that, what initiatives are you working towards for young people in this state? What are the incentives for University of Michigan graduates to stay here?
Garlin Gilchrist: First of all, I think where you decide to go after college is a decision that has many factors. Some of it is personal, some of it is professional, some of it is familial — there’s a lot of things that weigh in. We do think that as a state and the state government, we can do things to make Michigan more attractive than other places. Especially this calendar year, we think we really put Michigan’s best foot forward — up to and including things like adding to our state’s civil rights law to have explicit protections for the LGBTQ+ community by expanding the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act. In an era where there are states that are literally doing everything they can every day to hurt, harm and threaten transgender people, Michigan is going in the opposite direction.
Also, the work that we did to build on the passage of the 2022 Reproductive Freedom For All act, which voters passed overwhelmingly to get rid of our abortion ban, and on the Reproductive Health Act right now so that these people who are pregnant know that they will have full access abortion care services or whatever your reproductive health calls for. We’re working right now to make sure that can happen without any anti-science, overtly political, misogynistic stuff. That matters because, again, we have states that are going in the exact opposite direction.
This is also about creating economic opportunity. The reason I left Michigan is because I wanted to be a software engineer in 2005 and I thought that I needed to go elsewhere to have the software career I wanted to have. We’ve worked to grow that industry here in Michigan. We have five Michigan companies that have reached unicorn-level status. Detroit is the number one emerging startup ecosystem in the country.
Really, this is about making sure that people know they can be their best, be safe, respected and protected, and they can connect with the kind of high-growth opportunities in an industry that for years has been associated with other parts of the country, but that is now absolutely part of Michigan’s identity going forward.
GG: Well, let’s talk about the different types of higher education. If you’re a person who is interested in going to a two-year college or getting a professional training certification, we have something called the Michigan Reconnect program that we established, which is a tuition-free pathway to community college and professional training. There are almost 200,000 people in the Michigan Reconnect program today, and we’re seeking to grow that aggressively. In this last budget year, we expanded the Michigan Reconnect eligibility age from 25 down to 21.
For those who are applying to any kind of college in Michigan and are high school seniors, we established the Michigan Achievement Scholarship last year. For that scholarship, all you have to do is fill out a FAFSA form and the state of Michigan will contribute to the cost of your higher education, whether that’s a two-year or four-year, public or private institution. Just in this first year of implementation — this fall was the first year people got the Michigan Achievement Scholarship — four out of five graduating high school seniors last year were eligible to get money from the Michigan Achievement Scholarship. Two out of three entering college freshmen in the state of Michigan were able to go to college tuition-free when that was compiled with Pell-eligible support. So we have aggressively looked at college affordability in the state of Michigan.
We have made the choice to make student loan debt forgiveness from the federal government available tax-free in Michigan. Only a few states have chosen to do that. That is again because, since you’re not putting the money into student loans, we want you to put that money into other investments that you choose or however you want to spend it and not have to suffer a tax burden because of this windfall that you got from the federal government.
We think that whether it’s the loan forgiveness — and we’re looking at things we can do at the state level on that — as well as just college affordability on the front end and tuition-free pathways to higher education, we think that we are truly making higher education more affordable and, therefore, more accessible to people.
TMD: The climate crisis is an urgent threat for everyone, but particularly for young people who are growing up experiencing its effects. What are your plans to help Michiganders adapt to the effects of climate change? And what does your government coordination look like, whether that be with other states or on the federal level?
GG: There are a lot of components to this. We announced something in 2020 called the MI Healthy Climate Plan. This plan consists of a series of policy changes, whether it’s to have Michigan be carbon neutral by or before 2050, to have the state government be carbon neutral by or before 2030, setting standards for water usage and making infrastructure investments in addressing climate change. The Michigan legislature is working on codifying that plan, and we hope to have a version of that completed by the end of the legislative session this calendar year.
In addition, this is connected to our work to electrify the automotive mobility sector here in the state of Michigan, which is why I’ve been aggressively pursuing things like battery electric vehicle plants, whether that’s assembly components or battery plants themselves. We have five battery plant projects actively in the pipeline here in the state of Michigan. In 2019, there were only two battery plants in America. Now there are five planned in the state of Michigan alone and 30 across the country. So Michigan is really leading the way in terms of that sort of mobility electrification, which is one of the leading contributors to our emissions nationally and globally, so we can have an outsized impact on changing the way that the mobility sector works from an electrification standpoint.
TMD: With Michigan’s position as an auto manufacturing center, the conversation around climate change and technology frequently revolves around electrifying vehicles, but what other areas or technologies do you think are important for addressing climate change? How are you and Gov. Whitmer supporting the development and implementation of these technologies?
GG: So I think about this in terms of mobility broadly. There’s some amazing research in the U-M College of Engineering right now to electrify aviation. There is also a lot of exciting tech in things like hydrogen. Just yesterday, for example, I announced, with a company that’s based in Norway called Nel Hydrogen, that they are constructing the first electrolyzer facility in North America here in Plymouth Township. This is a system that basically takes water and splits the atoms to generate hydrogen that can be used for an almost infinite resource for energy usage and consumption. Having this kind of world-leading facility here in the state of Michigan is one of the bedrocks of our growing clean energy sector. We have the number one clean energy sector in the country as far as job growth, and number one in the Midwest as far as output.
We also want to make sure that Michiganders are taking full advantage of the elements of the Inflation Reduction Act, which provides incentives for individual consumers to make changes to their homes for energy efficiency, to buy energy efficient stoves, to buy heat pumps, to buy for air conditioners — all these pieces of play a role in this as well.
TMD: We know you’re an alum of the University of Michigan. What is your favorite part about coming back to campus?
GG: My favorite part about coming to campus is seeing if I can still find my dorms. I lived on campus all five years, and it’s always interesting to see if I can. Not during this visit, but there were a couple of times when I came back, and I saw that the Central Campus Recreation Building was gone. I spent so much time there. It was jarring to see that.
This campus is a living organism, and it evolves to constantly be responsive to student needs. I worked on campus at the School of Information, and my office was where North Quad is now. North Quad wasn’t a thing when I was on campus, and now it’s a beautiful administrative facility and a dorm that is way better than the dorms were when I was on campus. Seeing that is pretty amazing, and so I try to — if I do have an extra second — at least take a lap around a different part of campus.