Many businesses are feeling the pinch in the current recession, but University President Mary Sue Coleman said the sour economy has actually presented opportunities to the University that may not have otherwise existed.
Speaking in an exclusive interview on Tuesday, Coleman said although the University has been negatively affected by the economic downturn, the dark economic situation has also contributed to a higher rate of research partnerships.
“I think this is an opportunity for us,” Coleman said of the recession. “As a consequence of this, we’re finding entities that want to partner with us that if we were in flush economic times wouldn’t.”
These programs like the GM/UM Advanced Battery Coalition for Drivetrains, a partnership between General Motors and the University to develop advanced batteries, bring more money and more opportunities for faculty and students to campus, she said.
According to an annual report given to the Board of Regents by Vice President for Research Stephen Forrest earlier this year, the University’s research funding has jumped to $876 million, an increase of 6.4 percent from last year.
Business contributions toward research have also seen an increase of 11 percent to a total of $43 million.
Coleman added that despite the recession, she plans to make the University better than it was before the recession.
“I think it’s changed for the positive because I intend to come out of this recession stronger than when we went in,” she said enthusiastically.
Vice President for Research Stephen Forrest said although research at the University is up, he’s not entirely certain that the down economy is the sole reason.
“I think there’s been a long-term shift of companies toward working with universities,” he said. “I’m not so sure that it’s economically driven.”
Forrest said while there used to be a large number of industrial labs, most have disappeared, leaving the University as an obvious choice for corporations that need research done.
“The University of Michigan has really played a leading role in working with industry, certainly in recent years,” he said.
Forrest said while he didn’t disagree with Coleman’s analysis, he thought it was too early to make any conclusions about the level of research activity.
“President Coleman may well be right, and I certainly don’t want to contradict her, because in a sense there’s no way of knowing right now how all that stands,” he said of the boost in research activity. “This is a big university, so you can’t keep track of what every professor is doing, what deals are getting made to do new research, but we’ll see those numbers and trends evolve over the next year.”
Forrest said the current economy could lead to increased or decreased research, depending on how companies respond.
“The current economic climate, I think, may actually create some dampening, not because they don’t want to (conduct research), but because everybody’s under economic stress,” he said. “(However) it is highly possible that they could come in greater abundance to the University of Michigan. Companies are very likely to take advantage of this period of crisis to get a jump on their future.”
Forrest added that the University’s Business Engagement Center has also played a major role in securing research partnerships with companies.
“They’re going like gangbusters,” he said of the center’s staff. “They’re connecting so many companies to professors here.”
Daryl Weinert, executive director of the BEC, also said he wasn’t sure if the center’s flurry of activity was tied to the economy, but he echoed Forrest’s comments about the high level of research activities.
“I would actually say that our level of inquiries from industry is way up,” he said. “I’m not sure it’s necessarily tied to the economic situation.”
Forrest said the stimulus package could also play a significant role in future research partnerships.
“If we think about companies that might team with universities due to the stimulus package, which is sort of a near-term burst of funding, that I suspect is going to be really strong,” he said.
Coleman said in addition to high levels of research activity, the University has also benefited from the current economic situation through its long-term investments, like the University’s intention to purchase the former Pfizer Inc. complex on North Campus.
The acquisition of the former Pfizer facility will attract new and highly qualified faculty and create many more research opportunities for faculty and students, Coleman said.
Despite such benefits, Coleman said the current economic situation is posing great challenges to the University but that she’s trying to make the most of it.
“There’s a silver lining to everything,” she said. “I don’t think it’s great we have this tough economic time, but I’m also not going to sit around and mope about it.”
Coleman said to take full advantage of the situation, she plans to make the University a source of good news for Michigan.
“I’m really energized to try to help and do something to really have the University be a beacon,” she said. “You go around the country and people think, ‘Well, Michigan is falling apart.’ It has troubles but it’s not falling apart as a state.”
Coleman said one of the reasons the University isn’t as negatively affected by the economy is because the University has experience coping with tough economic times.
“We’re kind of battle tested at this, because we’ve been having to do it for seven years,” she said. “I think that’s one of the things that distinguishes us a little bit from places in other states where they’re facing this shock for the first time.”
— Daily Staff Reporter Matt Aaronson and Managing News Editor Jacob Smilovitz contributed to this report.