Where We Are, Where We're Headed
by Marcia Goodrich
One hundred and twenty-five years after the state chartered the Michigan College of Mines, nearly everything is different. In 1885, four students studied mining engineering in the old Houghton Fire Hall. Now, over seven thousand students are enrolled in over a hundred degree programs on a nine-hundred-plus-acre main campus, and Michigan Tech is a $300 million enterprise.
The University faces a different set of challenges during its second 125 years, says Michigan Tech President Glenn Mroz. Research is flourishing. The state of Michigan is shouldering less and less of the cost of public higher education. Student demographics have shifted. And technology has made it possible to earn a degree without ever sitting in a classroom. For a residential campus like Tech, that might bode ill, but Mroz thinks it's premature to draft an obituary for the traditional university.
"You can do a lot of things from a distance—we have some great distance learning programs—but distance learning is nothing new," he says. "Ever since the invention of the printing press, you could always just sit down and read the textbook." Yet students keep on coming to college, for reasons that date back to Socrates.
"There's something about the interaction between students and their teacher that's irreplaceable," Mroz says. "What we gain from that interaction is not just facts but values, a sense of what is important in life. When our values align with our teachers', then those teachers become our role models, even our heroes. We can't wait to get to class, and we're sad when the course is over."
Those gifted and inspiring faculty are the heart of a great university, and attracting and retaining them has been Michigan Tech's priority, says Mroz. "We have always had talented people," he says. "Our top priority the past several years has been to put people first. We want to attract the best. Universities with the top faculty attract the top students, and you need both to provide an excellent education."
Hiring the best people costs money, however, "and every state in the nation except for Wyoming has seen cuts to higher education," Mroz says. As most schools retrench, Tech has made a conscious choice to dip into a growing pool of newly available, exceptional faculty candidates. That hiring opportunity won't last, he predicts. "Once the other states realize that they aren't going to get anywhere without an educated workforce, the competition will heat up."
Those new faculty members bring with them a passion for discovery. And while many think research is a new development at Michigan Tech, the push to build a strong research program goes back more than forty years. "There were some wise moves made in the 1960s," says Mroz. "When [then-president] Ray Smith took the reins, research was growing, but we only had about six hundred thousand dollars in external funding. Ray had foresight and knew that for Michigan Tech to be viable at the turn of the century, we needed a greater component of research innovation and development."
Successive presidents Dale Stein and Curt Tompkins also drove the research program forward, says Mroz, "so by the time I came along, the flywheel was moving pretty well." Research expenditures for 2009 totaled over $60 million, more than double the figure from six years ago.
As research grows, so does the push to commercialize new discoveries. "Efforts being made now will propel Michigan Tech forward in the next few decades," says Mroz. In addition to patenting and licensing technologies and ferreting out venture capital, the University is providing programs in basic entrepreneurial skills for those who might normally feel more comfortable in a lab than in a boardroom.
Those business and leadership skills are equally important for students, and that's another change that is affecting university education. "The US economy is transforming itself, and that means that more of our alums will be headed toward entrepreneurial careers," says Mroz. The Enterprise Program, in which student teams develop and market their inventions, is a case in point. "It's been great to see how students respond to Enterprise in all its forms across campus," he says. "And there's been an explosion in all types student organizations. Students are creating all kinds of opportunities to enrich themselves in many ways, and it's been fascinating to watch that happen."
Tech's degree programs are expanding to meet the needs of the marketplace, a reflexive response for a university established to educate engineers for industry. "In particular, we're developing certificate programs, since they can be initiated more quickly and tailored for a specific skill set," he says. "They are also more interdisciplinary." As for Tech's mining engineering degree, which was suspended a few years ago, Mroz offers a nugget of hope. As mining becomes more technologically complex and demand for engineers increases, the University has been in talks with mining companies on their needs for the future.
The face of the student body will continue to change, Mroz believes. The number of international students coming to the US will grow despite efforts by India and China to expand their higher education systems. There are simply a lot of people around the world, and the United States has a unique draw for foreign students: "Many American corporations have a strong international presence, and it's a benefit to them to hire international students who have studied in the US," he says. "In addition, when you are one in a million in China, there are a thousand people just like you. We're fortunate in that some of those people choose to come to study with us." They have a profound effect on the quality and diversity of the entire student body and also on the local economy.
"When Houghton County did a study on our local airport, they found that the most popular international connection for people flying in or out of here is Shanghai," Mroz says.
The face of Tech has changed in other ways. "We have more women on campus, and that's been great," he says. "We're at 26 percent, and if we can get to fifty-fifty, we'll almost match most other universities and be way ahead of most technological universities." Women are bringing more than gender balance to the University, he notes. "Their grade point averages are really good—the average GPA of the women's basketball team is phenomenal. And if you were to attend a meeting of student leaders on campus, you'd think the student body was 80 percent female."
Perhaps the most wrenching shift facing all state universities, including Michigan Tech, strikes at their very nature as public institutions. "When I was a student here back in 1970, the state provided about 47 percent of Tech's total revenue," says Mroz. "Last year, it was about 21 percent."
Over the years, Michigan has cut higher education support to fund other projects such as prisons. The result is higher tuition bills. "It's getting harder and harder for students," Mroz says. "There was a time you could earn your tuition with a summer job, and that's almost impossible anymore. When we poll our freshmen, the biggest thing on their minds is paying for their education. They're very concerned about the sacrifices their families are making for them."
Certainly, higher education is expensive, but nowhere near as expensive as the alternative, he adds. And it continues to offer the best hope, not only for a trained workforce, but also for a healthy, productive society. "Dale Stein used to say if you don't like the high price of education, you surely won't like the high price of ignorance."
Declining state support may stem from a shift in how the American public views higher education. "In the post-war years, we saw an educated workforce as critical to building our economy. Now, I think people view college as a private benefit to the individual rather than a public good. That's a dangerous proposition in a hyper-competitive global economy. We need those college graduates to go on to develop products that change our lives for the better, from greener vehicles to cures for diseases, if the US is to hold its place in the world.
"Education is an investment, and I think the public looks at higher education as a cost," says Mroz. "They forget: These are our kids. Our future depends on them."
As state dollars wane, universities are relying more and more on private philanthropy. "I don't think you can overstate the importance of development," says Mroz. "For Michigan Tech to keep its edge, it needs the support of alums who not only love this place but also understand that education is key to our success as a society. That's as true today as it was 125 years ago."