MACKINAC ISLAND — Republican Gov. Rick Snyder and Fareed Zakaria, CNN foreign affairs host and Time magazine editor-at-large, agreed with University President Mary Sue Coleman and Bill Ford Jr., chairman of Ford Motor Company.

At the 2012 Mackinac Policy Conference, they all said higher education is crucial to turning Michigan’s economic fortunes around. Snyder said there are nearly 80,000 open jobs in the state that employers are having trouble filling because they can’t find enough educated people to hire.

Coleman, along with other University officials who attended the three-day conference at the posh Grand Hotel, said the annual event hosted by the Detroit Regional Chamber was an apt opportunity for them to discuss ways to make higher education more accessible and to build relationships with the business and political leaders gathered on the island.

“The time up here is a way that we can talk even more about (the University’s accomplishments) and celebrate what’s happening in the state,” Coleman said.

But noticeably absent from the conference were state lawmakers who stayed in Lansing to wrap up the state budget by the June 1 deadline Snyder imposed. One of the major sticking points that the Michigan Legislature was working to iron out was the state’s higher education appropriation.

The state House ultimately passed its version of the budget Friday, allocating $1.4 billion to the state’s 15 public universities, including an additional $36 million that will be distributed based on the Carnegie Classification, a comprehensive system of metrics that measures the universities’ performance.

The metrics included in the House bill are different than those initially proposed by Snyder. In an interview Wednesday, before the House passed its budget, Republican Lt. Gov. Brian Calley said the first allocation formula, which would reward schools for things such as low tuition costs and a high graduation rate, allowed the state to incentivize the schools in order to help the economy.

“We’re trying to … take the growing resources that we have today — it’s great to be in a position where we can make strategic investments — and use it to encourage the sorts of things that we need to happen in order to meet all the demands of the economy today,” Calley said.

Numerous speakers from throughout the conference pointed out that Michigan needs more college graduates of all kinds — two-year degrees, four-year degrees and advanced degrees — to fill the 80,000 jobs Snyder referenced.

However, higher education leaders at the conference noted that they were already making contributions to the economy. On Wednesday, the University Research Corridor released a study that reported the three URC schools — the University of Michigan, Michigan State University and Wayne State University — have graduated 3,600 students who took jobs in the auto industry over the past five years.

Coleman said the number of students the universities graduated, along with the more than $300 million in auto-related research at the universities, show how important the schools are to the state’s economy.

“Even though the auto industry is changing dramatically, it’s still a very important part of the Michigan economy, and the innovation in the auto industry is something that fits very well with the research agendas of the universities,” Coleman said.

Stephen Forrest, the University’s vice president for research who also attended the conference, said the auto-related research and graduates coming from the URC schools could help create a Silicon Valley-like atmosphere in southeast Michigan surrounding the auto industry.

Forrest added that he hoped his time in Mackinac would allow the University to make additional connections in the business world so it can continue to commercialize its research findings.

“Some of the talks have been fascinating to get a sense of where Michigan industry and the economy are right now, and this is crucial for the University of Michigan’s planning and research sphere … because we’re engaged with them; we need to know where they’re going,” Forrest said.

Forrest added that he found the conference useful because it brought together all the various aspects of the University and allowed leaders to analyze its impact on the state.

“The University of Michigan is a very public-spirited institution, and we’re very woven into the fabric of the state — that’s research, that’s education and that’s healthcare — and they all come together at this conference,” he said.

Similarly, Douglas Strong, CEO of the University’s Hospitals and Health Centers, also attended the conference and explained in an interview with The Michigan Daily that the conference helps him stay up-to-date on happenings in the health community and how health care costs are affecting other businesses.

“I come here, and I meet hospital people from around the state,” Strong said. “It’s part of important networking, and it’s also important to participate in hearing what other businesses are saying about the impact of health care costs about what they’re doing.”

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