NOVI (WWJ) – The presidents of Michigan’s three biggest research universities and the Michigan Economic Development Corp. lauded themselves for the schools’ research-based economic development — but said they must do more of it, more quickly, and learn to do more with less state money.

Around 125 people attended the WWJ Newsradio 950 business breakfast featuring a discussion among the three University Research Corridor presidents — Wayne State University’s Allan Gilmour, the University of Michigan’s Mary Sue Coleman and Michigan State University’s Lou Anna Simon — and MEDC president Mike Finney.

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The presidents said the schools’ huge research budgets — an aggregate $1.6 billion in 2009, the most recent year for which figures are available — support hundreds of direct jobs in faculty, researchers and assistants, and indirect jobs, in construction, for instance.

They said their institutions have spun out literally hundreds of new companies over the past decade, employing thousands of people in Michigan.

But Finney said the challenge is to scale up that effort even further — in the face of dwindling state support.

Gov. Rick Snyder is proposing to cut state support for higher education as much as 21 percent next year, a proposal ripped by Eastern Michigan University president Susan Martin in testimony last week before state House and state Senate committees.

The three URC presidents are in a tougher position to criticize — indeed, as members of Business Leaders for Michigan, the statewide economic development successor to Detroit Renaissance, they’ve already indirectly endorsed Snyder’s budget plans, because BLM has.

Gilmour was the most critical of the three URC presidents, saying the state’s rhetoric doesn’t match its actions when it came to deeming higher education important, and saying that the proposed level of support for higher education “should be changed.”

Simon and Coleman, meanwhile, sounded glumly resigned, and said state support for higher education has been dwindling for decades under governors of both parties. All three presidents pledged that the cuts wouldn’t make them compromise on educational quality, but Coleman said they will be “brutal and difficult.”

Gilmour said that Wayne State’s state appropriation is being cut back to its 1989 level — when that supported two-thirds of the cost of a Wayne State education. Today the supports only one-third of that cost. Simon and Coleman offered similar figures. So at least with state support a much smaller portion of revenue than it used to be, the cuts won’t sting as badly.

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The presidents also all said that construction at the universities will slow down this year.  Coleman said construction will continue but not at the same pace as before, since UM’s purchase of the 2-million-square-foot former Pfizer Inc. reserach complex on Ann Arbor’s northwest side means the university can expand without having to build. MSU’s Simon also foresees a slowdown in construction, partly due to rising prices for the commodities involved in it, such as steel.

WSU’s Gilmour said his school has much “deferred maintenance” to complete, and it has a major, $200 million construction project with Henry Ford health system planned, but the university is still trying to come up with the money. 

Mike Finney from MEDC said the state is not disarming in its efforts to attract and retain business and still giving incentives.  He reiterated the governor’s formula for state government: simple, fair, efficient.

He added the MEDC is taking a three prong approach to business. 1) gardening, 2) entrepreneurship, 3) hunting or looking for new business and jobs to bring to Michigan. 

All three presidents also complained about the quality of their raw material — incoming high school graduates. Coleman said it is “shocking how many students are not competent” in basics like writing and simple math and added she’s “petrified” about what that means to education in 20 years.
Gilmour said student lack the three r’s.  Reading, writing and arithmetic.  nd he said team work will be key for future students. 

All three presidents said they were much more open to commercializing technology than they used to be, as well as much more interested in sharing their research expertise with business. All three have opened business engagement centers to better reach out to businesses large and small. Coleman said it was a matter of drawing together in one office a wide variety of resources to assist businesses that were already scattered around different offices in the school, all in the name of making it easier on business owners.

All three also said they were interested in encouraging more risk-taking and entrepreneurism among students in the name of building businesses and jobs in Michigan.

Listen to the Conference:

Part 1:

Part: 2:

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Part 3: