|How Many More Wake-Up Calls?
There has been much wringing of hands in our community recently after Pharmacia & Upjohn decided to move over 600 management jobs from Kalamazoo to the east coast. Some consider it a "wake-up call," and hectic activities are underfoot to avert the move and to bring about a reconsideration of this fateful decision by the company's top leadership. One must applaud these heroic efforts and wish them success, but one must still ask several questions.
How unexpected was this decision by Pharmacia & Upjohn really? And how safe is the assumption that other much larger segments of Pharmacia & Upjohn that are currently housed in Kalamazoo/Portage will stay here forever? How many companies in the last ten years have been bought by "outsiders," have left the community, have been downsized or "rightsized" already? Did we not hear earlier wake-up calls? And, looking into the long-term future, are we indeed safe from further takeovers, mergers, relocations of critical other large businesses that are currently our major employers and the economic backbone of our community? Anyone who is reasonably realistic must ask these questions and should seriously worry about the answers.
Most of us love this fine community and want it to prosper. We want to live here, and we want to maintain the quality of life that attracted us to Kalamazoo and that keeps us here. For this to happen, the economic life of the community has to be sound and forward looking. Without a solid economic base there will be no good schools, no attractive neighborhoods, no flourishing cultural life and, yes, no well maintained roads. There must be well paying jobs for our young people if we want them to stay here; there must be excellent employment prospects and hope for constant economic improvement in a community, or else the brightest of our young ones will move on, leaving behind a community of self-satisfied and complacent retirees, indecisive and procrastinating leadership, worshippers of yesterday and a set of complex social problems that defy solutions. None of us can possibly want that to happen.
If the threatened latest departure of a major portion of one of the oldest companies in town was indeed the latest wake-up call, then let us stay awake this time and take stock of our situation and our prospects. I am proposing that we use one of the most underutilized community resources as a major engine to drive economic development in our region. I am speaking of Western Michigan University. I am doing so as I am preparing to leave the office of president of that institution, having observed for many years the flourishing of the university and the constant and often frustrating attempts of the community to improve its chances for economic development and to solidify its tax base. The advancement of the university and the progress of the community could often have gone hand in hand. It is one of my major disappointments that it could not happen.
But it need not be too late for that. Already one of the area's largest employers, WMU will definitely not be bought out by a larger competitor. It will not merge with another similar business. It will not move its headquarters to another region of the country. Its leadership will remain part and parcel of this community's development efforts, no matter who sits in the CEO chair. WMU is, to the best of my knowledge, the only large employer in the region who has not downsized in more than a decade but has grown its number of employees steadily and continuously. Together with stable employment, WMU provides outstanding employee benefits for people from this region. Every year it raises more private money than any other fund drive in town. It attracts research funds at twice the level of private fund drives, year after year.
The university spends over $1 million each year from its general fund as a public service to maintain Miller Auditorium as a community cultural resource. It houses for the community the great touring companies for opera, ballet, and symphonic music that enrich our lives. The College of Fine Arts with its School of Music, and its Dance, Art and Theater departments attracts more than 300,000 people to its more than 1,000 performances, recitals and exhibits. In the recently opened Campus Cinema, art films and films in foreign languages are accessible to WMU and community members alike. Cultural life in this region would be very different without the presence of WMU.
The university provides sports entertainment for many in our community by fielding a great number of Division I sports teams. The football games in its renovated 30,000 seat stadium, the night games and the CommUniverCity events draw more people than any other event in town, including US presidential visits.
Over the last decade the university has invested about $320 million in its campus and provided steady business for many local contractors. This trend will continue. Its total economic impact on the county is estimated to approach half a billion dollars per year.
The greatest assets of the university are, however, its academic programs and the people who work in them. The full time academic staff now exceeds 1,000-three to four times more than all other higher education institutions in town combined. Most of them have been carefully recruited in recent years from the best academic institutions in the nation; all of them are assisting in WMU's advancement to the status of a Carnegie Research University which is within reach. Doctoral programs have continuously expanded, from 9 to 23 in a short decade with a total graduate student population of close to 6,000. On the undergraduate level, the university has just been granted a charter by Phi Beta Kappa in view of its balanced and high quality programs campus wide - which makes WMU one of only four public universities in Michigan to have this recognition (U of M, MSU, Wayne State and Western). Its very selective Lee Honors College equals in size most small liberal arts colleges in the Midwest.
The school attracts year after year more than 26,000 students, most of them from outside this region. Close to 40% of them come from the Detroit tri-county area (Wayne, Macomb, Oakland), but every county in Michigan is usually represented in addition to large population centers like Chicago. Most of the students spend up to four years in this town taking with them impressions of the cultural and business life in our community. Over 2,500 of them are involved in volunteer services in our community and beyond. Distributed within the student body are close to 2,000 international students who this year represent over 90 foreign countries. More than 80 foreign tongues can be heard on campus. Most of the international students return to their home countries to become leaders of their social, cultural, political and economic institutions and will from there engage in relationships with our country throughout their professional lives. Their memories of Kalamazoo are vivid as anyone who has ever attended the enthusiastic alumni meetings in Kuala Lumpur or Tokyo can confirm. The education of students, many on the graduate level, is one of the major export activities in this town.
Already in place and steadily growing are several colleges and areas that have strong linkages to economic development. A superbly housed and academically strong business school under new and energetic leadership can be found in the Haworth College of Business. In the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences, the Paper and Printing area is unique in the nation. Excellent faculty research efforts are ongoing in Computer Science, Mathematics, Physics, Biochemistry and Electrical Engineering, to name just a few. A significant new science facility approaches completion and will house, among others, a new and sharply focused chemistry department under strong and research oriented leadership. One of the next facilities to be constructed is a new engineering research building. The College of Engineering and Applied Sciences will add new doctoral programs and will expand through the addition of a Civil Engineering department bringing the engineering disciplines to full strength. A truly world-class facility has just been opened for the new School of Aviation Sciences which will in due course attract pilots in training from all over the world. Similar advances are being made in the College of Health and Human Services and in the College of Arts and Sciences where research activities abound.
How can these enormous resources in our community be husbanded for the advancement of our community? It would have to start with a broad recognition of the value of the university for our regional economic development. Anyone who has traveled to Detroit in recent years and has observed the many new industries and businesses that have developed along the expressway connecting Ann Arbor and Oakland County will realize that this boom was spawned off by the great university in that region. Our neighbors in Grand Rapids have also clearly recognized that a city on the march into the future needs to have within its walls a great university, and consequently double digit state allocations together with millions in private dollars are being expended for the building of a new campus in that second largest city in our state. While our university learns of plans by Kalamazoo groups and a luckily small number of politicians to re-establish a prairie within the corporate limits of the city (and on WMU owned property, I might add), our neighbors farsightedly are creating their economic future in tandem with their universities.
Our university is not by far at the research level of a Big Ten institution, as I know exactly from my own long years of membership in that club. But there is no reason why WMU cannot, in the next decade, be developed to a level of excellence in focused research and service areas that will have very direct and immediate impact on this region's economic health. WMU has enormous untapped resources. It is already acknowledged as a national, not regional, university and it is only a few steps away from being a truly important university with significant research programs. For these last steps to happen, the leadership of this region has to focus on the very real potential of the university, understand its impact on economic development, and throw its full support behind it - just as this happens in our neighbor cities.
For the university to grow in strength, substantial additional funding is needed. The State of Michigan woefully underfunds the university of this region by at least $25 to $40 million a year. We need to jointly work, in our own regional self-interest, to get this inequity corrected. By all measures of fairness in funding, WMU needs to and deserves this increased funding level so that it can become the engine for economic development our region desperately needs. The university's pleadings in Lansing are understood, but without political response because nobody but the university argues WMU's and the region's case. The entire community needs to recognize that the development of the university goes hand in hand with the development of the region. Only a concerted effort by the university and the region's political, social, cultural and economic leaders will bring about a change in this highly disadvantageous situation for our region. We must demand, with one voice, our fair share for our region's development because we cannot afford to rely solely on the existing businesses for our economic future. We must create new beginnings, find new ways, try new approaches. Our neighbors understand that and are successful. Why not we?
What could be done with increased funding? Increased state allocations could be used to further strengthen the sciences and engineering, two of the most likely areas to spawn new industry and business development. Increased and focused (and costly) research in many areas, but specifically in paper and printing, chemical engineering, electrical engineering, biochemistry, chemistry, healthcare related fields, computer science, etc. lead without fail to discoveries, innovations, improvements that give impetus to new business ventures. The expertise in starting up businesses and general entrepreneurship that the Haworth College of Business provides would complement the engineering and science research. Similarly, in all service areas the Haworth College could lend the necessary assistance new small businesses need.
The outstanding new School of Aviation Sciences is underfunded by the state by about $1 million per year. Without operating funds from the state, all efforts to build the facilities and to attract the best faculty will fall short of maximum return.
The new science facility and the new engineering research facility will be of little use for our economic development if we can't develop in those facilities, for lack of state funding, the best research of which our faculty is capable.
The university has prepared itself well for taking steps towards economic development by building and upgrading its facilities and by hiring a highly talented and ambitious professoriat. However, WMU now needs to equip its new labs with costly cutting edge equipment, bring in extremely talented research assistants and build its research edge so that in a few years the fruits of these efforts can be harvested.
With additional funds from the state, we must also reconsider the development of a local research park to which we can attract new suitable businesses and where we can start new university related ventures. We have at our disposal a talent pool of thousands of graduates each year who can provide the highly skilled labor such new businesses will need.
We also need to build a modern international village for the thousands of students we host each year from all over the world. Such a village, which should provide good housing for international students and appropriate venues for their cultural and religious activities, could become a place of friendly international encounter for our entire community. Our community connections with sister cities could also be tied into this village. We must cultivate our international guests who should become intimately familiar with our region's economic potential before they leave the university. Currently, too many of these foreign students leave us without having established strong personal ties to the local citizenry.
New funds would also allow us to direct our students' interest more toward our downtown business area which appears empty and underutilized. With 26,000 students close to downtown, one must create travel routes between campus and downtown that make trips from the campus by bike, roller skate, shuttle bus or on foot easy and pleasurable. Specialty shopping and entertainment areas must be created downtown to create a more pulsating life in an area that will otherwise become uninteresting and desolate.
Faculty, staff, and students of WMU can assist enormously in building a prosperous future for this city and this region. The already created assets in the university have great potential. Research is being conducted at a highly advanced level. The university is ready to go and only awaits to be tapped. All around us communities are vigorously developing their local research and educational resources. At this moment we are still ahead. Assessing our current situation of wake up calls, potential further outmigration of jobs and potential changes in the existing business community, we must look at our most stable and most promising assets. Those assets are embodied in the university. We need to take action before the next disasters strike. How long can we afford to wait?
Diether H. Haenicke