EAST LANSING – The presidents of the state’s three research universities reiterated their need for state funding before a state Senate appropriation subcommittee yesterday afternoon.

The University of Michigan, Michigan State University and Wayne State University make up the University Research Corridor, a coalition formed in 2006 by the three schools. The coalition pushed to have funding allocated to the three schools in a different bill than the one used to allocate money to the state’s 12 other public universities.

On Feb. 7, Gov. Jennifer Granholm proposed a 3 percent increase for higher education in her budget for the 2009 fiscal year.

State funding is 25 percent of the University’s budget.

Granholm originally proposed a similar higher education appropriations increase of 2.5 percent for the 2008 fiscal year. State legislators grappled with how to balance the 2008 budget, leading to tuition increases and a four-hour government shut down in October before a continuation budget was passed, extending the budget deadline to Nov. 1. Colleges and universities received a 1 percent increase.

Yesterday’s meeting was likely the first of many negotiations that will determine how much funding colleges and universities will ultimately receive.

The three presidents from the URC were the only administrators to testify together. The presidents of Lake Superior State University and Eastern Michigan University also addressed the committee yesterday.

Michigan State University President Lou Anna Simon began the testimony by explaining how the coalition puts the three universities in the “unique” position to bolster the state’s economy through each university’s individual research and their collaborative efforts that allow them to remain competitive with universities in other states.

Simon presented a report by Anderson Economics Group and paid for by the URC that measured the coalition’s impact. The report compared the URC to similar groups of universities in North Carolina, Massachusetts, California, Texas, Illinois and Pennsylvania.

The report found that the URC has the largest combined student enrollment. It also showed that URC brought in federal funds for 60 percent of its research expenditures. Those expenditures were shown to be more effective in all of the other coalitions except for Massachusetts and Northern California.

Simon also presented a new URC initiative that will provide $900,000 for collaborative research on alternative energy sources.

Wayne State University President Irvin Reid followed Simon’s remarks by outlining the plan for the URC: encouraging collaboration between the three universities, promoting interdisciplinary research and increasing partnerships between the universities and businesses.

Reid mentioned Ann Arbor Spark, Lansing’s Prima Civitas and Detroit’s TechTown as three programs already in place that work with the universities to help create jobs.

University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman went on to explain why increased funding for higher education would help universities increase financial aid for needy students. The University of Michigan, Michigan State University and Wayne State University all offer different financial aid programs that often rely on outside donors.

After Coleman’s testimony, Sen. Tom George (R-Kalamazoo) questioned the URC’s emphasis on collaboration, asking why the universities don’t just merge to form one large university. Reid and Coleman explained that they think the separate universities will only be stronger by staying separate and working through collaboration because it will still allow for competition between them.

George went on to explain that part of the problem in allocating funds is that a large portion of the state’s budget goes toward health care.

He asked Coleman specifically if she would ever prohibit the hiring of smokers, similar to a policy a community college in Kalamazoo adopted.

Coleman said she would not consider a policy prohibiting smokers from working for the University, but that there are policies restricting smoking in certain areas on campus.

Sen. Bill Hardiman (R-Kentwood) -echoed George’s concerns about health care costs. He said there should be an effort to promote healthy lifestyles in order to save money in the long run.

Coleman agreed.

“It’s one of the biggest challenges the nation faces,” she said.

She said the university has programs in place to train medical students to prevent disease instead of just focusing on treatment.

Reid suggested cutting other costs, like prisons. Sen. Liz Brater (D-Ann Arbor) quickly agreed.

In an interview, Brater said more money is being spent on prison facilities than on higher education. She said that needs to change.

Brater asked the three university presidents about what they’re planning to do now that the Michigan Alternative Loan program has been suspended.

Coleman said one possible solution is the replacement of student loans with grants.

Brater said she is hopeful that the URC will receive all of the funding Granholm proposed.

“I think it’s a very good collaborative effort,” she said.

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