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Published: 1/30/2009

Hope for Michigan's future is in University Research Corridor

ANN ARBOR, Mich. - University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman may be a biochemist by training, but she knows exactly how stricken her adopted state's economy is.

Nevertheless, she thinks there is hope for the Michigan's future, hope you can outline with a series of short lines on a map.

Draw one connecting Ann Arbor to Michigan State University in East Lansing, and another connecting the University of Michigan to Wayne State University in Detroit. Then draw another, connecting Detroit to East Lansing, and the irregular triangle is complete.

Welcome to the University Research Corridor, a concept the state's three largest universities put together less than three years ago to "transform, strengthen and diversify Michigan's economy."

"The idea was to put together the strengths of the three universities - which really are quite complimentary - and let our faculty know that we really want to work together," she said.

Her enthusiasm is shared by Wayne State's new president, Jay Noren, who arrived this summer from the University of Nebraska. "I don't know of a case anywhere in the country where you have three major universities that are so powerful and so diverse so close to each other," he told me soon after he arrived.

The idea is to create a synergy of power and talent, and research potential that will hopefully help attract major grants, get some of the state's most talented experts to work together and find ways to turn Michigan and its economy around.

"We have many things going on," Ms. Coleman said, in a soft accent that still has traces of Kentucky, where she was born, and the University of North Carolina, where she earned a doctorate, served as vice president for research, and encountered the model for multi-university cooperation, North Carolina's "Research Triangle," a half-century old cooperative arrangement between UNC, North Carolina State University, and Duke University.

President Coleman freely admits the Research Triangle was an inspiration, but insists what Michigan has is already better. "We created almost 70,000 jobs last year, and added $13.3 billion to the state's economy," she says. True, some, maybe most, of those jobs would have existed anyway. But it is clear that the more the three universities act as a consortium, the more attractive the area will be.

Especially, that is, to precisely the kind of high-tech and international businesses Michigan needs to attract, if it hopes to rebuild prosperity in the wake of the shrinking auto industry.

The URC has scored some early successes. The consortium's Web site (www.urcmich.org.) touts Aernnova, a Spanish aerospace company which is bringing an engineering center to Ann Arbor.

Executives of the firm are quoted as saying the talent pool in Southeast Michigan was 10 times larger than anywhere else they looked in the nation.

The main thing the University Research Corridor has going for it is geography - and the unique political structure of Michigan's university system. While there are more than a dozen state universities in Michigan, the Big Three have special, "constitutional" status. Additionally, they have very different strengths.

The University of Michigan is by far the state's richest school, a public institution with somewhat of an Ivy League clientele. Michigan State University, the nation's first land-grant school, was specifically created in 1855 as a college of applied science, charged with improving agriculture and manufacturing in the state.

Wayne State University in Detroit, the youngest of the big three, has high-ranked medical and law schools, a vast and highly diverse undergraduate population, and a special "urban mission," to the stricken city that surrounds it.

That is a formidable array of assets. But the downside is that the University Research Corridor is more an idea than an organization. Nobody is centrally directing or even suggesting a division of research labor. If MSU was doing a major study of seat belt safety, would anybody wave off the other schools?

"Absolutely not," Ms. Coleman said, adding that she wouldn't presume to tell faculty what research to pursue. She hopes, however, that with time, researchers themselves will think of cooperative and complimentary ventures. That may be a little optimistic.

Research scientists tend to have tunnel vision. University of Michigan officials also seem to believe the University Research Corridor is far more widely known than it is.

In fact, even some state legislators have never heard of it. The hidden hand may be a nice principle in economics, but given Michigan's economy today, it may need a little guidance.

***

Help on the way? Michigan is facing a frightening state budget deficit of $1.5 billion - or more - for the fiscal year that starts in October. But will any of the coming federal stimulus package be available to help bail the state out?

Afraid not, according to newly elected U.S. Rep. Gary Peters (D., Bloomfield Hills) who has a background in law and finance. Virtually all the money will be designated for various programs, such as Medicaid or infrastructure improvements.

That will help in other ways, but closing the budget gap will be, as always, up to the legislature and the governor.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade's ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

Contact him at: omblade@aol.com



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