Instead of their monthly meeting in the Michigan Union’s Anderson Room, the University’s Board of Regents will trade the cold Michigan winter for the sunny warmth of California.

Beginning on Thursday, seven members of the board will join University President Mary Sue Coleman and other University officials for a two-day trip to Los Angeles. In place of the regularly scheduled, public Regents meeting, the delegation will engage donors as well as meet with California’s top academics to discuss the future of higher education.

In order to grapple with issues currently facing universities, the ensemble will meet with Robert Birgeneau, recently retired chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley; Stanford University President John Hennessy; Robert Berdahl, former president of the Association of American Universities; and Dan Russell, one of Google’s top research scientists.

Coleman said in a December interview the primary goal of the excursion is to learn about issues facing other universities across the nation and how these institutions have responded.

“We’re very interested in issues related to the future of education, particularly public higher education — the challenges, the opportunities — and we have an opportunity in meeting out there,” Coleman said. “They all have a perspective that is very interesting. There is no way I could get those people to come out here.”

In addition to Coleman, the group includes University Provost Philip Hanlon; Jerry May, the University’s vice president for development; and Sally Churchill, the vice president and secretary of the University. This trip will be the first semi-official board duty for newly inaugurated Regents Mark Bernstein (D-Ann Arbor) and Shauna Ryder Diggs (D-Detroit). Regent Katherine White (D-Ann Arbor) is the only regent not attending.

As part of the trip, University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said the board plans to take time to strategize and have broad conversations about the future of the University, a goal often overshadowed by the usual scripted agenda of monthly board meetings. He added that this experience will assist the University in staying at the forefront of higher education.

Regent Denise Ilitch (D-Bingham Farms) wrote in an e-mail interview that the regents plan to discuss issues such as affordability and access, the changing nature of how students learn, changes in health care at campus medical centers and the increasing competition for research dollars.

“I look forward to more meetings that allow us to learn, exchange ideas and promote the virtues of the University of Michigan,” Ilitch wrote. “It is vitally important to be an ‘ambassador’ of our great institution.”

University representatives also hope to glean insight into how UC administrators have coped with the economic catastrophe that has crippled the system over the past decade.

According to UC-Berkeley spokeswoman Dianne Klein, the state of California contributed only 37 percent of the cost required to educate a student for the current school year.

Nathan Brostrom, executive vice president of business operations for the UC system, told the New York Times in June that though the system is one of the most prestigious higher education systems in the nation, its campuses are facing one of the worst financial crises since the Great Depression.

May, Regents to solicit donors

While the conditions have been especially difficult in California, public universities across the nation, including the University, have faced formidable fiscal challenges. More than 40 states decreased their higher education budgets this past year, spending one-fifth less per student compared to a decade ago.

To buffer against future declines in funding from the state of Michigan, a primary goal of the board’s trip is to engage potential donors.

“Our University has increasingly become dependent on the generosity and support of donors to maintain our excellence so we will be cultivating these vitally important relationships,” Ilitch wrote. “We will be sharing the strengths of our University and why it is important and worthwhile to invest in the University of Michigan.”

California is fertile ground for reaching out to donors, as 40,000 University alumni reside in the state, said May, the University’s development officer. California has the second largest number of University alumni, second only to Michigan. It ranks second in terms of out-of-state financial contributions to the University.

“California is just a very big area for U of M,” May said. There are an unbelievable number of financially successful Michigan alums.”

May, as well as the two University development officers currently stationed in California, will not attend any of the actual meetings or seminars with the regents. Instead they will host two events to draw donors from across the state. The regents are scheduled to attend those events.

“This presents an opportunity to reach out to people who care about the University and want this institution to thrive well into our third century,” Fitzgerald said.

The trip, financed by non-general fund dollars from University donors, will cost between $30,000 and $50,000, according to Fitzgerald.

“This is a very small investment for a very high return,” May said.

Online education a focus of trip

The regents will also have the opportunity to learn more about massive open online courses, better known as MOOCs. The University’s MOOCs, currently available for free on the popular Coursera platform, provide the opportunity for anyone around the world with an Internet connection to take a class taught by University professors.

Russell, the Google researcher, is a leader in Google’s MOOC programs who will meet with the regents later this week. He said MOOCs are still very much in a start-up phase, which is currently characterized by extensive experimentation with different methods and revenue models.

“I’m going to recommend places like Michigan do an investment in (MOOCs) and sort of see where it takes them — kind of like an internal start-up — as a way of exploring what’s possible and then being able to move rapidly when they decide that they do or do not want to go farther with it,” Russell said.

At previous board meetings, some of the members have questioned whether or not MOOCs can yield financial benefit for the University. In September, Martha Pollack, vice provost for academic and budgetary affairs, gave a presentation to the regents about the University’s role in Coursera and eventual avenues for monetization by charging for continuing education and professional courses.

“Historically, once upon a time, universities were threatened by the introduction of low-cost printed books,” Russell said. “They survived that. That seems inconceivable now. When we look back at this time 20 years from now, universities, I predict, will still be around and we’ll have the same sort of ‘you’re kidding’ response. ‘How could they think this could destroy the university?’”

Russell added that MOOCs have the potential to create a competitive market for teaching in which each institution can market its most prominent programs. The result, he said, would be a general rise in teaching standards.

“The question is, ‘How much brand loyalty do you have to an institution that is doing a poor job?’” he said. “I think quality will be the great leveling effect. We will see the rise of people who are currently unknown but are excellent and inevitably will have a rising of the standard of teaching everywhere.”

The future of MOOCs is uncertain, and Russell acknowledged that he expects rapid change and advancement in the next decade as the field of MOOC providers and approaches is narrowed.

In the near term, Russell expects MOOCs to advance in both their ability to provide “community aspects of learning” and interactive models. He added that social media will play a vital role in determining the success or failure of MOOCs.

“You get this kind of community effect among people who have never met and never will meet,” Russell said. “In our MOOCs, that’s surprising more than anything else. You get students from Pakistan helping out students in South Africa, students in South Africa helping out students in Brazil, and students in Brazil helping out students in Ann Arbor. It goes in this virtuous circle.”

“The social media stuff is really important,” Russell added. “Without them, I think it will be a quiet, lonely place in this classroom. With them, it’s very interesting, very different.”

Amidst meetings with education leaders and donors, Fitzgerald said the regents will maintain a full schedule, despite the absence of an official January meeting.

“I don’t think that there’s really time to take a trip to Disneyland.”

The next regular meeting of the Board of Regents is scheduled for Feb. 21.

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