Dollars for Research, Buildings, Basketball

UM regents OK sports project, get research update
Denise Illitch, the newest member of UM board of regents.

Denise Illitch, the newest member of UM's Board of Regents, attended her first board meeting on Thursday.

University of Michigan Board of Regents (Jan. 22, 2009): The bulk of Thursday’s hour-long meeting of the UM Board of Regents was devoted to a presentation on the university’s research efforts, but the board also approved a multimillion-dollar building project for its basketball program, granted an honorary degree for Google’s co-founder, paid tribute to a former regent who passed away late last year, and plowed through a list of other agenda items with minimal discussion.

New basketball center

The biggest ticket item on Thursday’s agenda was approval of a $23.2 million Basketball Player Development Center, to be built next to Crisler Arena. The 50,000-square-foot facility will provide training and practice space for both the men’s and women’s teams, and will be funded from athletic department resources and gifts. Thursday’s action authorized the project and the hiring of Jickling Lyman Powell Associates, a Troy-based firm, as architects.

Ken Magee

Ken Magee, new director of UM's Department of Public Safety, endured some ribbing by athletic director Bill Martin.

Athletic director Bill Martin was on hand to answer questions about the project, but the regents had none. After unanimous approval, regent Larry Deitch joked, “Nice presentation, Bill!” which drew some laughs.

Martin then stood and held up a copy of Thursday’s Michigan Daily newspaper, and pointed to a front-page photo that, he said, showed a “shaggy haired boy” shaking hands with former UM running back Ron Johnson. The photo was taken in 1968, but the boy was in the room today – and no longer shaggy haired. He pointed to Ken Magee, the new director of UM’s Department of Public Safety.

State funding request

Every year, the university submits a funding request to the state for capital projects. For fiscal 2010, UM has asked the state to fund one project on each of its campuses. For Ann Arbor, the request is for $110 million to renovate and expand the Department of Mechanical Engineering’s G.G. Brown Laboratory Building on North Campus. The university cast its request in the context of providing research and education in areas vital to the state’s economy, like bio- and nanotechnology.

Much smaller requests – for $41 million and $22 million – were made for science-related buildings on the Dearborn and Flint campuses, respectively. Regents approved the submission of all these requests to the state.

Stephen Forrest

Stephen Forrest, UM's vice president for research.

Research report

Stephen Forrest, UM’s vice president for research, gave an annual update on research activities at the university. For fiscal year 2008, UM brought in a record $876 million in research dollars, up 6.4% from the previous year. And “believe it or not,” he said, FY09 is likely to be even higher, with major opportunities in the field of energy. (After his presentation, UM president Mary Sue Coleman joked that she’s looking forward to crossing the $1 billion threshold. “Two years – two years,” Forrest said.)

The university’s research portfolio provides stability during turbulent times, Forrest said, “taking the bottoms off the dips.” Noting that he was an electrical engineer, Forrest likened it to a half-wave rectifier.

As part of that, UM is also strengthening its partnerships with industry. For FY08, the university helped create 13 spin-off companies, earned $25 million in licensing income, and opened its Business Engagement Center to help connect industry with university research. UM also spearheaded the Michigan Initiative for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, a partnership of all 15 public universities aimed at boosting the state’s economy. And Forrest said they’re trying to change the academic culture by rewarding and recognizing faculty who work with industry. He said Farnam Jahanian is a terrific example of that – the UM professor and chair of the computer science and engineering department co-founded Arbor Networks, one of the world’s largest computer security firms. Jahanian, who attended Thursday’s meeting, received the university’s 2008 Distinguished University Innovator Award.

Forrest cited a couple of areas that need to be strengthened. He said that the reputation of the university’s faculty strongly influences rankings, and that rankings in turn influence the quality of faculty and students who come to UM. Although UM brings in more research funding than its peers, it has far fewer faculty in the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering and Institute of Medicine – which reflects on UM’s reputation and which Forrest attributed in part of the modesty of Midwesterners. UM needs to significantly increase the recognition of its faculty, he said.

Another area that needs improvement is UM’s high-performance, large-scale computing capacity, Forrest said. It’s a university of “computational villages” that aren’t well connected, which leads to inefficiencies and high costs. And the situation makes UM less attractive to many researchers because they can’t get the kind of computational tools they need. Dan Atkins, associate vice president/cyberinfrastructure, is leading the effort to address this problem.

Finally, Forrest said the new Obama administration sees a priority in building the nation’s energy infrastructure, and UM is well-positioned to contribute to that effort. He showed a slide of himself testifying before Congress last year to push for more energy research funding, and commented that the photo proved he’d lost his Midwestern modesty. UM has the ability to help set the national agenda, he said.

Accolades, honors, tributes

At the beginning of the meeting, UM president Mary Sue Coleman congratulated David Kuhl, a professor of radiology at the Medical School, for winning the Japan Prize, an award given by the Science and Technology Foundation of Japan for integrating medical science and engineering. He is the first UM winner of the award.

Regents paid tribute to Tom Roach, who died late last year. Roach, an attorney and Democratic Party leader, served as regent from 1975-1990. Regent Olivia Maynard said, “If anyone knew Tom, you knew of his passion for the university.” She said he read every word of the materials he received as regent and took copious notes – “which sometimes got him into trouble,” she said, referring to a lawsuit filed against the university by The Ann Arbor News in which he refused to turn over his notes until ordered to do so by the court. Regent Larry Deitch described Roach as his mentor. “In terms of loves of his life, it was his family and this university.”

The regents also granted an honorary doctor of engineering degree to UM graduate Larry Page, Google’s co-founder and the 2009 spring commencement speaker. Coleman said the event would be held at Michigan Stadium, saying “Right, Bill?” – a quip directed to athletic director Bill Martin. Last year’s commencement caused a stir when it could not be held at the Big House because of the massive expansion project there.

Public comment

Jim Mogensen was the only person who signed up for public comment at the end of the meeting. He spoke about the need to make public transportation a priority for all members of the public – not just people affiliated with UM – and he urged regents to be aware that they are setting public policy when they allocate the university’s public dollars.

Present: Mary Sue Coleman (ex officio), Julia Darlow, Larry Deitch, Denise Illitch, Olivia Maynard, Andrea Fischer Newman, Andrew Richner, Kathy White

Absent: Martin Taylor

Next meeting: Thursday, Feb. 19, 3 p.m. in the Fleming Administration Building, 503 Thompson St. [confirm date]

One Comment

  1. By Mark
    January 23, 2009 at 1:04 pm | permalink

    The next time UM says it’s hurting for funds I will laugh. Amazing how employee salaries are below cost of living raises (except for high level administrators, athletic department and so forth). Yep, UM has turned into a corporate behemoth. Please, parents send your kids somewhere else.