Detroit higher education leaders and state elected officials bowed their heads in prayer yesterday in Detroit’s Cobo Hall to ask God to help them improve Michigan’s universities.

Sarah Royce
University President Mary Sue Coleman discusses higher education at a round table forum with former Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer, chairman of the Bing Group Dave Bing, Lt Gov. John Cherry and moderator Nolan Finley. (SHUBRA OHRI/ Daily)

The opening prayer, led by a member of the Detroit Economic Club’s board of directors, kicked off a roundtable discussion featuring influential voices on higher education, including University President Mary Sue Coleman and Lt. Gov. John Cherry.

The event, titled Growing Minds, Growing the Economy: Forging Higher Expectations about Higher Education, delved into universities’ role in propelling the state into the knowledge-based economy of the future.

Although speakers agreed that an educated workforce will lay the foundations for Michigan’s bid to compete in a globalized economy, some panelists expressed concern that state leaders fail to provide universities with adequate funding to keep pace with the rising demand for education, despite vocal commitment to the cause.

“Across the state the quality that exists (in higher education) is really quite astounding,” Coleman said. But as the state revamps its industries, she added that decisions made now about higher education will steer Michigan’s transition into the information age.

“We’re at a critical time here in our history,” Coleman said.

The event highlighted the findings of Cherry’s Commission on Higher Education and Economic Growth, on which Coleman served. The creation of the commission was part of Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s broader effort to bolster the state’s economy by developing a strategy to double the number of college graduates in the state in 10 years. After six months’ work, the commission made 19 recommendations earlier this year to the state on how it can improve Michigan’s higher education system.

The recommendations included proposals to expand degree programs, strengthen high schools and make college more accessible. Coleman said that though the suggestions were ambitious, she believed that Michigan schools have the capacity to achieve the commission’s goals. She added that despite the University’s record enrollment numbers, there is still under utilized space at the Flint and Dearborn campuses.

Lou Anna Simon, president of Michigan State University, added that increased cooperation between universities and community colleges could be another way to boost total state enrollment in higher education.

“Doubling the number in 10 years is a very aggressive goal, and I’m not against setting aggressive goals,” Coleman said. But if the state wants universities to increase productivity, she said it will have to dedicate more resources to higher education.

“I do not believe that we can stay with level and declining funding and meet our goal,” she said. “It’s just not realistic.”

But Beth Chappell, president of Detroit Economic Club, said the general public remains apathetic toward higher education.

“We have people saying this is so important to our very survival, our children’s survival, but the reality is the public, whoever the public is, doesn’t see it that way,” she said. As a result, higher education funding has dwindled, but Chappell added that many of the attendees are in a position to make meaningful changes.

“We’ve got the right people in the room to be having this discussion. -We’ve got a lot of education leaders, lots of elected officials – this is the group,” she said in her opening address.

Despite resounding verbal commitments to higher education by state officials, Michigan lawmakers continue to back away from funding universities. Over the last five years, state appropriations to higher education have witnessed a 25 percent cut; today, the state is responsible for only 7 percent of the operating budget of Michigan universities.

“Words are easy to speak,” said Dave Bing, chairman of the Bing Group, a manufacturing company based in Detroit. “Too many people give a lot of lip service and talk about what should happen, but they’re not willing to get up and do anything.”

“To turn (public opinion) around very quickly, (education leaders) are going to have to be very visceral in their approach,” said pollster Ed Sarpolus. He added that although elected officials often say they support higher education to get elected, to stay in office, they have to shy away from politically unpopular tax hikes.

Cherry said many of the commission’s recommendations will not actually require significant funding to enact. He added that cutting taxes might actually be beneficial to higher education, explaining that if lower taxes were successful in attracting businesses and boosting the economy, higher education would actually see a portion of higher tax revenue in the long run.

But Rep. Alma Wheeler Smith (D-Ypsilanti) said that the state will need to increase taxes to sustain a high quality higher education system. She added that Republican-proposed tax cuts yield relatively little benefit to the individual at the cost of billions in state revenue.

“You can’t keep cutting taxes and spending and achieve what you said you needed to do,” Sarpolus said. “(Michigan’s elected officials) don’t back up their commitments.”

“(Legislators) have to be less concerned about getting re-elected and more concerned about doing their job,” Sarupolus added. “Pretty much everything that was said today was said for naught because nothing is being done in Washington or in (Lansing).”

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