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Jack Lessenberry


Michigan State’s agricultural roots bear modern fruit

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EAST LANSING, Mich. — When the Legislature created what would become Michigan State University, the idea was that it would provide relevant education to help the state grow.

That was before the Civil War. But the school and its remarkable president, Lou Anna Simon, still see things that way.

This vision may be more relevant than ever before. Today, some form of advanced learning is necessary for just about anyone who wants at least a middle-class lifestyle.

Yet getting a college degree has become increasingly expensive. The cost of a bachelor’s degree at the University of Michigan or Michigan State is now, roughly, a mind-blowing $100,000.

Nevertheless, Michigan State thinks of itself as the same institution it was back in the late 1850s, when the first class chopped down trees to build a dorm.

As Ms. Simon, MSU’s first female president, said during an interview last week: “If Michigan were to set out to invent a university today, they’d invent us.”

Michigan State, the nation’s pioneer land-grant university, still thinks it has a particular mission. Ms. Simon, who has been at the helm for more than nine years, may believe that especially strongly.




She has been on campus almost half a century. She arrived as a graduate student from Indiana in 1970, earned a doctorate, and worked her way through a series of academic and administrative jobs, including provost.

That’s unusual these days. The average university president is brought in from the outside and lasts no more than seven years. When UM hired Mark Schissel in January, he had never before set foot in Michigan.

Ms. Simon is not, however, typical. Given to wearing determinedly nonflashy clothes, she has been known to travel around the campus on the buses students use. For years, she has rejected pay increases, and donates much of her salary to MSU’s music school.

When MSU trustees insisted on giving her a $125,000 bonus last December, she gave it right back to the university.

Universities, as well as their students, face once-unimaginable economic pressures. That is the result of what Ms. Simon calls the state’s “systematic disinvestment in higher education.”

The numbers tell the tale. In the 1970s, state appropriations covered about 70 percent of public university costs statewide. Today, Michigan’s universities depend on tuition for that percentage of their revenue.

Also, a relatively low birthrate and Michigan’s shrinking population have meant that all state universities are competing for a smaller pool of high school students.

With money a constant issue, “there is always a temptation to take more ‘full-freight students,’” President Simon said, referring to students from rich families who can pay their own way.

There may be even a greater temptation to take more out-of-state and international students; they pay about twice the fee Michigan residents do. But Michigan State hasn’t done that.

“We are too middle-class for the Big Ten,” Ms. Simon said wryly. Three-quarters of MSU students come from families with annual incomes between $40,000 and $125,000. An even higher share — 79 percent — are Michigan residents.

“We’ve worked hard to put more resources into financial aid,” she said, indicating that had paid off for the school. More than two-thirds of full-time MSU students work. President Simon said only about half of MSU students leave with debt, and most of those who do owe less than the national average of $29,300 for a graduating senior.

Tradition is important at Michigan State. When Ms. Simon was young, her elders moved in a circle that included John Hannah, the legendary MSU president from 1942 to 1969. He took a small agricultural college and made it a megaversity.

President Simon now runs an institution with more students than ever before — 49,300 — and is wrestling with how to make MSU even more relevant to a state and economy in transition.

That doesn’t mean the old definition of MSU, the “state college of agriculture and applied sciences.” Ground was broken this spring for what MSU calls “F-Rib,” a federally funded, multimillion dollar Facility for Rare Isotope Beams, which is expected to draw nuclear scientists and research from around the world.

The University of Michigan may always get more national attention. But some Spartan alums refer to their school as “the university of Michigan.”

That’s not how Lou Anna Simon refers to her school. But I’d bet that is how she sees it.

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.

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