“Our University has performed remarkably well given this economic downturn.”
That was the message from University President Mary Sue Coleman during her State of the University address yesterday.
Speaking before a crowd of approximately 100 people in the Ross School of Business’s Blau Auditorium and with a live stream of the speech on the University’s website, Coleman discussed a wide range of University affairs, outlined new programs and initiatives and laid out her vision for the future of the University.
Coleman outlined two main initiatives in her speech. The first was a major push to strengthen the University’s efforts toward environmental sustainability, and the second was an investment in infrastructure to better connect Central and North Campus.
Outlining the University’s new sustainability initiative, Coleman said she will chair a board of University leaders and executives who will oversee the endeavor by setting University-wide goals and reviewing proposals for central funding.
As part of the effort, Donald Scavia, director of the Graham Environmental Sustainability Institute, has been appointed to the position of special counsel to the president for sustainability. In addition to serving in this new role, Scavia will maintain his current duties with the GESI.
As special counsel to the president for sustainability, Scavia will be responsible for advising Coleman and the University’s team of executive officers on sustainability efforts, working on student-driven sustainability efforts and also planning and coordinating a plethora of sustainability programs and activities on campus.
In her speech, Coleman also announced the creation of the Office of Campus Sustainability. Terry Alexander, who currently serves as the executive director of the Department of Occupational Safety and Environmental Health at the University, will lead the new office, which was created by restructuring the OSEH department.
In his role as OCS Director, Alexander will be responsible for coordinating sustainability efforts with existing groups on campus — like Planet Blue and Climate Savers.
In an interview after her speech, Coleman said that though the sustainability initiative will help the University become more environmentally focused, she has no plans to sign the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment.
The agreement, which has been signed by the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, The University of Illinois and Ohio State University, as well as many other colleges, is a commitment by the signatories to reduce green house gases and develop a “comprehensive plan” to achieve climate neutrality.
“We are absolutely committed to doing something positive about climate change, but I do not believe the approach that they suggest is realistic,” Coleman said. “I’ve never agreed with it, and I don’t think our experts here have agreed with it. I just think it’s unrealistic.”
The second major initiative unveiled in Coleman’s address was the formation of a committee to explore how to improve transportation between North Campus and Central Campus.
Coleman said improved transportation between the campuses will become increasingly important with the establishment of the North Campus Research Complex.
“One of the exciting parts of getting the North Campus Research Complex, the NCRC, is that all of sudden, we’re going have a much greater density of people on North Campus,” Coleman said. “What we’re going to do in the winter term is put together a technology transportation forum.”
A few years ago, discussion of a possible monorail system to link North and Central Campus circulated, though no official action was taken.
Coleman also discussed the University’s recent research boom. She said a record 350 inventions were created last year and that University research expenditures exceeded $1 billion over the last year.
“Two years ago, I told campus that I hoped we would reach this achievement by 2012, and our faculty took less than half that time to distinguish themselves once again,” Coleman said. “Steve Forrest, our vice president for research, points out that while it took the University 192 years to achieve $1 billion in research spending, we could achieve $2 billion by our bicentennial in 2017.”
During the speech, Coleman also gave an update on the President’s 100 New Faculty Initiative, a hiring program Coleman established in her 2007 State of the University address. The initiative focuses on hiring 100 inter-disciplinary junior faculty members to work in complex research areas, including climate change and HIV/AIDS.
“We’re making good progress,” Coleman said of the 49 individuals who have been hired through the program. “The hiring process is somewhat more time-consuming than with a single scholar, because we are building teams and the faculty on those teams must complement each other.”
The initiative is planned to be fully implemented by 2012 and is expected to cost $30 million.
Coleman also announced that a search process will soon commence for a full-time executive director for the North Campus Research Complex. The new director will provide overall strategic leadership and general oversight to the NCRC.
“The North Campus Research Complex is a once-in-a-century opportunity to redefine academic research in critical areas,” Coleman said. “The world looks to research universities for answers to such dilemmas as climate change, global pandemics and medical innovation.”
Though Coleman discussed many new initiatives during her speech, she didn’t sugarcoat the hard financial situation the University is in.
“We have not gone unscathed and should not pretend otherwise,” she said. “The numbers are there in black and white.”
The University’s endowment has fallen more than 20 percent, something Coleman said has obviously affected the University’s operations.
“No organization can absorb a 20-percent loss in investments and not feel it,” she said. “But we are slowly recovering because of an investment strategy that is conservative and yet focused on long-term performance.”
Coleman said that while University officials have taken many steps to cut costs, faculty and staff need to continue to find more fat to trim.
“Now we must double our intensity. Double it.” Coleman said sternly.
Despite the sobering news, Coleman said she is confident the University will emerge from these tough economic times stronger than when it went into them.
“We are on the cusp of 200 years of leadership as the University of Michigan,” Coleman said. “And through our creativity and collegiality, we will be stronger in 2017 than we are today.”