Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The University of Michigan and Its State

The University of Michigan is great because of two important aspects: 1) it’s public; 2) it strives for excellence.
An excellent education, available to the public, has a tremendous impact on its region. I have therefore always loved that I work at a public university – I want to make a difference in the State and the world! The University of Michigan gives me an opportunity to do both.

In the past 10 years, excellence in education has become even more important. The U-M of today isn’t the U-M of a decade ago. A decade ago, the University had similar objectives and desires for excellence, but I never felt that making a local impact was the University’s central value.

Meanwhile, the University and the State of Michigan have had to weather a perfect storm that impeded progress. But those struggles have brought a new way of thinking to the surface – the State of Michigan’s universities had to become a major force in the State’s economic recovery. Everyone – in and outside of the University – shares Michigan’s deep troubles. So everyone cares about solutions. We have to!

I actually think that the University of Michigan can grow in stature and influence the State by doing the right thing – just like Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, just like the University of North-Carolina in its environment; just like Stanford and Silicon Valley. Global and local approaches aren’t mutually exclusive – they go together!

Right now, Michigan universities are much better equipped than any others to develop the transportation systems of the next century. But it will require a big plan and commitment from the State, the universities and the companies. And implementation of the plan has to happen quickly for it to succeed – a gradual and organic transition is too slow, and we can’t afford that.

Leadership for this has to come from the government! Unfortunately, the recent State of the State address left me disappointed. It sounded a lot like more of the same, instead of a leap forward. But I remain convinced that we’re looking at an unprecedented opportunity for re-invention – not just the University of Michigan’s but the state it’s in.

Thomas Zurbuchen is director of the Center for Entrepreneurship and a professor of Space Science and Aerospace Engineering at the University of Michigan College of Engineering.

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