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Kalamazoo Downtown Rotary Club
20 January 1996
Timothy Light
Western Michigan University

My title today: "An Insider's Outside View of Kalamazoo" was chosen in order to take the privilege of being a native--an insider, if you will--to reflect for a few minutes with you on a few of the things that I have learned from a career that has kept me focused outside the United States. In the era of the much vaunted "Global Village", I have come to believe that these lessons are critical to the happy future of all communities. Since returning to live in Kalamazoo over a decade ago, I have also come to believe that our common habits here are devoted to ignoring those lessons.

I claim to be an insider not through being on the inside of Kalamazoo's business and politics. By both profession and limited ability, I am clearly at the farthest edge of either. My "insideness" is inherited. My forebears came to Barry County in the 1830's and had migrated via Richland to Kalamazoo within the next couple of decades. Both my parents, two of my grandparents, and more great- great-great- and great-great-great- grandparents, aunts and uncles than I can possibly know or recall were born and lived within thirty miles of this place.

Growing up in an environment dominated by the proliferation of one's kin taught Rule # I of Extended Families, which my brothers and myriad cousins and I mastered before we could walk or talk: Be careful. The person who sees what you are doing is most likely a relative, and they are sure to tell your mother. You may decide after a few minutes that I have forgotten that rule.

Like most Kalamazooans, native or not, I feel blessed to live here. Kalamazoo--by which, of course, I mean the whole county-- is a very good place. It is prosperous. Our unemployment rate continues year after year to be lower than that of the State and the nation. We have more institutions of high culture per capita than anywhere I know of. On any given weekend, there is more good live theatre than anyone could possible attend. Our musical opportunities seem almost limitless. We have a superb art institute. With our three colleges and large university, we are an educationally intensive place..

Kalamazooans are people of spontaneous generosity of spirit. Newcomers and visitors regularly tell oldtimers how warm they find this region--that is, warm people , not the weather! And Kalamazooans of all walks of life and levels of income are legendary in their reputation for philanthropic support. We are a truly volunteering community to the degree that many of our cherished institutions would be strapped if it were not for tens of thousands of people giving their own time every year to make it all work

Kalamazoo is indeed a good place to live.

Why, then, would three decades of living in, and travelling around, other places (mostly Asia) give a devoted native the foolish thought that it is probably time for some talk that is franker than usual?

Put very simply, when I travel abroad, particularly to Asia, I am repeatedly awestruck by a dynamism which epitomizes not only the present, but seems certain to presage the future as well. When I return to Kalamazoo, what I hear and see mostly concerns the past. That is not the past of two or three generations ago when the foundation of the current structure, prosperity and cultural life of our community was actually being laid through the concerted hard work, imagination, and courage of our predecessors, but a crippling nostalgia for a pretty recent time well after the achievements which have made Kalamazoo the great place that it is were already accomplished and comfort had started to be our governing habit.

Lest you imagine that what might be going on in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong, Cochin, or Bangalore has little relevance to Kalamazoo and its high quality of life, let me tell you about one pursuit that a few of my colleagues and I have been engaged in on behalf of Western over the past several years. Around eight of have annually logged an estimated 300,000 miles recruiting foreign students. We do that to help pay the bills. The total of international students' tuition and fees now equals approximately an eighth of the State's subsidy to the University. That means, very bluntly, that our university--the alma mater of many of you here and the school of many of your children--is now to some degree economically dependent upon decisions made by eighteen and nineteen year olds from places that many in this room could neither pronounce nor find on a map. It means that the quality and extent of what the University offers your children are substantially enhanced by those foreign students. At one point within my own lifetime, the United States (very much including Kalamazoo) offered its educational opportunities basically as charity to students brought here from impoverished countries entirely at our choice. Today, we need as many of those students as we can get and their home countries are no longer poor. This dependence on international students also means that we are no longer the only intellectual or academic center of standards and quality for the world. For on the whole--despite expected problems in English for some students from abroad--the foreign students who come to us meet or exceed standards set by many of our own Michiganders. That is particularly true when it comes to the subjects that require the most effort and discipline, namely mathematics, science, and foreign language.

[Just in case employees of the media rush out and manufacture a scandal out of a single context-free fact that I have just mentioned, let me quickly add that our recruitment of foreign students is a very fair bargain for all concerned. The University as it now exists is the result of eight decades of investment by Michigan citizens and state governments. What we charge foreign students is exactly what we charge Americans from states other than Michigan, and for all of them it is a bargain, which it is even more for those from within our state.]

The countries from which we recruit most of these students are marked by high economic growth rates, very high educational standards, an admirable work ethic, a remarkable number of people who possess the skills needed to be participants in a global marketplace, a media establishment which, while they too have their own quota of tawdry scandal-mongering, relish in their responsibility for ensuring that their people are genuinely informed on the major issues of the world, and by a national flexibility and readiness to respond to change. Today, it is not just the four little tigers of Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore which are the among the world's economic pacesetters. Malaysia is already a full member of that group. Huge Indonesia is rapidly approaching take off, and once war-torn Vietnam already shows clear signs of leading the next generation of little tigers. Even those huge unwieldly behemoths, China and India, now support respective economic growth rates of ten and six percent annually. And, despite sharing between them a third of the world's population, the burden of carrying the world's longest cultural histories, and being the inventors of bureaucracy, at least significant parts of those two countries have developed flexible and adaptable mindsets that are carrying them into a future prosperity and economic power that would have seemed unbelievable even ten years ago. Moreover, already certain Latin American countries seem poised to join this group.

The contrast between what one experiences in the dynamic and forward-thinking regions of the world and what one finds on return to Kalamazoo was partly summarized in the Gazette's year-end editorial of December 29th. The writer cited the extended problems with the Mall, a dispute between Vicksburg and Brady Township, the suits between Portage and Kalamazoo over water and sewage, and between two parts of Kalamazoo over zoning, and the continued irresolution of the District Court consolidation.

That unhappy list could be stated another way. The problem is not which side you take on any of these issues. The problem is that it is these issues and ones like them which perennially dominate our collective agenda in Kalamazoo County. Looked at from the outside, we in Kalamazoo appear to be so in love with the problems that we have with each other that it is difficult not to think that the high value we assign to these problems results from their unparalleled usefulness in shielding our vision from attending to what happens anywhere outside of ourselves.

If we want to find nearby entities that look at least partially like the dynamos of Asia, we need go only as far as Battle Creek and Grand Rapids. Two or three decades ago, both of those cities faced difficulties far worse than anything we have had to deal with. They solved their problems and in so doing developed a mindset of flexibility and an outward orientation that has brought astonishing renewals to both Calhoun and Kent Counties. Last week, a Kalamazoo economic developer told me that when a prospective investor or company owner inquires anywhere in the Battle Creek region, he finds a co-ordinated city, township, and county instantly ready to be of service, but when an inquiry is made here, it is sometimes only random chance that determines whether the needed services that belong to the twenty-some governments we have in the county will come together to give a co-ordinated response to ensure bringing the investment or business here rather than elsewhere.

We in Kalamazoo County talk as though each of our twenty-some separate jurisdictions actually means something by itself, and we foolishly perpetuate a tax structure which isolates each of us in our tiny unit from sharing obligations that ought to be common to all of us. Let's be honest. The Richland area where I live and of course our other suburbs would now be long dead former farming villages if there were no city here. And the city would be pretty unviable if there weren't so many coming to work everyday from outside the city limits.

Let's be honest about the terribly ambiguous relationship between the city and its suburbs. Sure, there is something of a story about what happened thirty years ago between Kalamazoo and Portage. And I bet that even some folks in this room continue to treasure the grudges resulting from that incident. But the larger context is that most Midwestern cities have suffered a combination of departure for lower tax areas and white flight. On this Martin Luther King Day of all days we must acknowledge the truth of the latter. Those who read yesterday's Gazette will recall that now half of the Kalamazoo Public Schools District pupils are black, confirming how much flight there has been. But we should also recall that the same article pointed out that the elementary school leading the MEAP scores this year is a largely black school. Both of those facts are important for a discussion about a community that is too complacent.

That too many people are still pleased to take sides between Portage and Kalamazoo tells us how unwilling we are to forego our local history of spats and acknowledge that we are merely a small part of national trend that is leaving unhealthy tensions between cities and suburbs in every place that does not consciously set about to repair the damage and move forward into a better future for all.

Let's be honest. We talk a grand ideology of free enterprise. But our economy is heavily dependent upon the health care industry, and health care is heavily subsidized by government. The University and the Community College are of course governmental entities, and even the private colleges and vocational schools are partly supported through public student scholarships and loans. If you add in public education and all other government entities (including the new and much welcomed post office facility), the primary or secondary role that government plays in our economy is very substantial.

Let's be honest about our history. When the merger of Pharmacia and Upjohn was announced two years ago, the reaction was like a county-wide wake. For over a week, the Gazette replayed the same story, rearranging the same quotes from the same people, just as used to be the case with reports on the demise of elderly leaders in former Eastern Europe. When did we become that dependent on a single company? Kalamazoo was once "Celery City" and then "Paper City". In its years of real greatness Kalamazoo's economy was buoyed up by a host of hard-working and growing businesses. Neither a single company nor governmentally supported enterprises dominated.

By merely mourning the end of our era as an international headquarters community, we failed to tell ourselves the real stories of what has been happening to us and what it all means in a wider context. There are at least two such stories that should have been front page. Locally, the story was that we fooled ourselves into thinking that we could be comfortably safe with increasing dependence upon one company and governmental entities or heavily governmentally supported entities, and therefore we did not need to do the hard thinking that would result in our making ourselves attractive to potential investors and owners. Internationally, the real story was told by Jan Eckberg, Board Chairman of Pharmacia and Upjohn, when he explained that the business plan for the merged companies required that sales to Asia would have to jump within five years from minuscule proportions to a substantial share of the company's overall marketing. (It is no accident that Eckberg's list of countries who must provide the new customer base for P & U is virtually the same list from which Western recruits foreign students.)

Let's be really aware of who we are.. Not only was our historical base a plethora of businesses, but present-day Kalamazoo is also far more beholden to a large number of medium and small businesses than we often tell ourselves publicly. National statistics have told us for over a decade that the bulk of job creation has come from small businesses, while the vast majority of layoffs has come from the older larger ones. Again, our most publicly shared understanding of who we are and what our future understates this reality.

Let's be aware of our context. National leaders tell us that the global market place is already here. Communities and individuals who want a future must expect to find it through international trade. In the future-oriented dynamic countries it is accepted by everyone that communities which will participate in that global market place are defined by a populace which is multilingual and broadly educated in the geography, history, and economics of a world whose parts increasingly influence each other. Are we preparing to join the global market in which our competitors and partners are so educated? Frankly, I doubt it.

Yes, there are a few glimmers of formal awareness of what has already come elsewhere. The shape of the Lincoln International School is one, though it is hard to tell what ripple effect that institution has. And last spring I attended a foreign language day at Gull Lake High School that demonstrated an astonishingly high standard of French and Spanish.

But generally, our mindset continues to be remarkably that of yesterday. Consider the languages which we teach at all levels of education in Kalamazoo County. They are entirely European plus a tiny bit of Chinese and Japanese at Western and K-. Now consider one fact. For the first time since the industrial revolution began two hundred and fifty years ago, it is now the countries and regions with the largest populations which either already have or soon will have the world's fastest economic growth rates. Those countries either already are or soon will be the major producers of the largest numbers of goods and services for as long in the future as anyone can imagine. (China, for example, recently became the largest producer of crude steel, replacing declining Japan.) Short of a global catastrophe, it is those countries and regions which will define the economy and structure of the world for the next century.

Those regions and countries naturally include Latin America, and the young Kalamazooans who are preparing themselves in Spanish and an understanding of that immensely complex area will find real need for what they know.

The other major places are China in East Asia, Indonesia in Southeast Asia, India and Pakistan in South Asia. That means that in rough order of immediate need, the Americans who wish to be part of the global world of tomorrow will need many among their numbers who know Chinese, Bahasa (the language of Indonesia and Malaysia with a combined population of two hundred million), Hindi-Urdu, the language group of Pakistan and Northern India, and sooner or later probably one or two other languages of India. Well before the coming century is very old, Arabic, the world's third largest language, will be numbered amongst those that international players will need to know.

It is now some of these languages which predominate in both the pre-collegiate and university curricula of some of the states of Australia.. Where are we in Kalamazoo on this matter? That question could probably be answered simply by considering how many people in Kalamazoo know what Bahasa is.

The answer to our too frequently meeting a demand for flexibility and a global orientation with self-absorption and rigidity is definitely not to start pointing fingers and blaming. It is the problem of all of us. All of us contribute to the maintenance of our current situation. It will require a major change in all of us to remedy it.

There are, of course, far too many specific remedies that we need to undertake for me to list them now--to say nothing of my pretending to know what they all should be. There are a few general steps that we must take. Those are easily stated. Must of the rest of what we need follows from those.

First, we need individually and collectively to recognize our common interdependence throughout the county. We should privately and collectively praise and reward collaborative efforts and shame divisiveness.

Second, in conversation as well as in public speaking about ourselves, we should insist on the full context in the stories that we tell about ourselves. Let us be sure that our histories are told in their fullness and not in mere nostalgia. Recall the adage that nostalgia is to memory as diet soda is to a fine wine. And let us not permit anyone even to imply the destructive myth that Kalamazoo's long-term prosperity will be founded on ignorance of the world, to say nothing of isolation from our near neighbors.

Third, let us begin to demand from each other much higher levels of performance in our proper roles.

--Demand of us in education that we really begin to prepare today's young for their global future. We are not doing nearly enough of that now. If even one tenth of the verbal energy and spilt ink that are devoted to the Friday evening and Saturday afternoon athletic entertainment sponsored by our schools and colleges were directed towards what we really are supposed to be about, why, then, we would very quickly start trying to catch up with the Australians.

--Demand of our governmental entities--all of them together--that they collectively show how they are bettering the lives of all of us in Kalamazoo. Insist that they show how they together are preparing us for the next century.

--Demand of our media that our local stories are told with their full histories and complexities. And demand that they broadly inform us on those trends in the world--especially the cultural and economic trends--which will affect our lives in decades to come.

--Demand of our public speakers' programs that they increase their attention to that world outside of Kalamazoo which is already setting the pace for the world and which will either set Kalamazoo's pace or pass us by.

As I said, this is the merest start on a list of what we need to do together. What I have tried to say today can be summed up in a brief story about Sri Lanka, --formerly called Ceylon. Sri Lanka should have been the fifth little tiger alongside of Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore. In the 1950's and 60's--about the same time that Grand Rapids looked the worst--Sri Lanka had an excellent university system, the highest overall education rate amongst its populace, the highest standard of living, low unemployment and a successful economy. In the early 1960's Lee Kwan Yew, the leader of Singapore, used to campaign by pointing out Sri Lanka to his countrymen and promising that with hard work they could catch up with that successful country. Then Sri Lanka turned inward. Satisfied with its own capacities and proud of its high standard of living and demonstrable cultural achievements, Sri Lanka discouraged investment and participation in the economic development all around it. Over twenty years, it fell to becoming the poorest of those nations that initially had a chance at rapid development.

Sri Lanka has spent the past decade in a crippling civil war instigated by its ethnic minority which sees itself as particularly disadvantaged in a society where even the best off are stagnant. Malaysia, by contrast, also had disastrous racial problems in the last 1960's, and decided that a deliberate drive for prosperity for all would be the only thing that would keep the country together.

Singapore's Lee Kwan Yew continues to use Sri Lanka in his speeches, telling his compatriots that if Singaporeans don't keep on working hard and adapting, they will end up like Sri Lanka.

I do not believe that this will happen to Kalamazoo. We have too many people with too much devotion to the place and far too much intelligence to wish it to happen. But we must not take a happy future for granted. We will have to work at changing our habits of mind and work, and we will have to do that together. The sign of our success will come in a decade or two when someone stands up in front of a future Rotary and gives a talk in which his inside and outside views of Kalamazoo are the same.
1.Having been arranged months in advance, this talk was given on the day celebrated both for the Presidential Inauguration and Martin Luther King, jr. Day. Because it was intended that I speak on Kalamazoo's state in the world, I did not make much overt reference to King Day. However, I feel that much of what I have tried to say here is a logical extension for the next generation for those of us were present to hear Dr. King in August of 1963.