Ypsilanti Area Chamber of Commerce Annual Dinner
May 10, 2007
I want to thank Keith Peters and the members of the Ypsilanti Area Chamber of Commerce for inviting me to be part of this special evening.
We all owe a huge debt to Keith and his wife, Betty, for his years of service as the president of the Chamber, and his tireless efforts to improve the business community and our quality of life.
When I was named president five years ago, one of my first speaking engagements was at the Chamber’s First Tuesday Breakfast. It’s nice to be back for dinner!
Not only are we marking the Chamber’s 89th annual dinner, but I think it’s safe to say all of us are celebrating the feeling that comes with the end of the academic year and the exodus of students—if only for a few months.
Of course, Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti would be far different communities without our universities and all that come with them. And the University of Michigan would be a poorer institution without the great partnerships we have with the Ypsilanti community.
This is a community that values partnerships, at all levels. I know that as the City of Ypsilanti deals with difficult budget cuts, your neighborhood organizations have stepped up to support Rutherford Pool and Parkridge Community Center. Next weekend, residents from throughout the community will roll up their sleeves—as they do every spring—for Ypsi Pride Day. And in the upcoming months, the city and its neighboring townships will look at ways to provide combined municipal services.
Partnerships like these have never been more important for two reasons. First, support from the state, whether it is for municipal government, public schools or higher education, continues to shrink. And secondly, the challenges faced by all of our institutions can best be solved if we come together to develop the best and most effective solutions for our combined future.
I want to take a few minutes this evening to talk about two areas of focus for the University of Michigan in the greater Ypsilanti community.
The first, not surprisingly, is academic, because that it what we do best at U-M. The second, which is becoming increasingly important, is economic, because the University of Michigan—and all of our state’s universities—plays a critical role in our state’s future.
When I received your invitation to speak this evening, I asked a member of my staff to look into how and where the U-M is engaged in the Ypsilanti area. It’s only natural that we have strong ties, given that our communities are home to two state universities, scores of students and faculty, and a beautiful river that connects us. So I knew U-M’s schools and colleges were involved throughout the local schools and neighborhoods. I knew we were engaged at Lincoln, Willow Run and Ypsi schools, as well as at EMU and Washtenaw Community College.
But I honestly did not expect to be handed 17 pages detailing these partnerships.
The depth and breadth of this engagement is fantastic, because this outreach benefits all of us as residents of the finest region in the state.
There are numerous classroom initiatives, such as U-M students working in Willow Run and Ypsilanti elementary schools with children who need extra help with reading and writing. This school year, 45 Michigan students with the America Reads Tutoring Corps sat down with 135 children. Each of those children received 84 hours of one-on-one tutoring, and each child went home with several new books to read.
We have an array of partnerships aimed at healthier living. Our School of Dentistry sees more than 2,300 patients a year at the Hope Dental Clinic on South Adams Street. At U-M Hospitals, our information technology gurus work with EMU students in special education to develop computer programs for pediatric patients with special needs. I assure you, the children at Mott Children’s Hospital get as much out of this as do the Eastern students.
Our School of Nursing collaborates with students at East Middle School to put on a health fair focusing on topics determined by the students. That covers anything from healthy snacks to how to be protect oneself when online.
We can’t forget the role of the arts, whether it is the University Musical Society collaborating with WEMU on fantastic live concerts; the School of Music, Theatre and Dance working at West Middle School to help teen-aged girls improve their creativity and self-confidence through music technology; or the Ross School of Business providing MBA-level interns for the Riverside Arts Center.
Our latest partnership is one that I am particularly excited about, because it will expose Ypsilanti Public Schools students to the many opportunities that await them in the worlds of engineering, science and technology.
As a scientist and a university president, I am deeply concerned about our nation’s need for more engineers and scientists. The U-M, and universities across the country, absolutely must increase the number of students, particularly underrepresented students, who are pursuing careers in math, science, and engineering.
Our country’s stature as a global leader has been built upon our strength in science and innovation, and we simply must do more to encourage and support talented young people like the ones in Ypsilanti’s schools.
This partnership came about because of Superintendent James Hawkins, who embraced an inquiry from our College of Engineering to get involved with Ypsilanti students.
I’m going to brag for a moment about our engineering program. Our alumni include the creator of Photoshop, the co-founder of Google, and the creator of the iPod. Our student chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers has been named the best in the country, and for a number of years those students have been mentoring students at Ypsi High.
We’re now expanding that. When the College of Engineering asked Ypsilanti teachers how we could help, their answer came back loud and clear: mentors and tutors for our students.
And so U-M graduate students in Engineering are going to work with both students and teachers at Ypsi High, helping them with coursework and lesson plans, working on lab experiments, and coordinating visits to our campus.
Where we currently have about five Michigan engineering students volunteering at the high school, we now have more than 30 who say they want to be part of this partnership. And they represent all disciplines in engineering, from civil and chemical to nanotechnology and biomedical engineering.
We’re also going to work with parents, because the more engaged they are in the educational process, the more they will see their children as successful college students. That may mean working with parents to see that they continue their own educations, or helping them understand and explore all that is available on the Internet.
We want to send a very loud message that a college education should be in the future for every student. I can think of nothing more discouraging than having the bright young people of Ypsilanti turn their backs on the exceptional educational opportunities available in their own backyard. That would be a loss for all of us.
A second overarching area where the University of Michigan is fully engaged is the regional economy.
Universities are terrific economic engines. It is no coincidence that Washtenaw County, home to two state universities, traditionally has the lowest unemployment rate in the state.
But even Washtenaw County is about to experience a bit of an economic downturn.
Pfizer Corporation stunned us earlier this year with the announcement it was closing its R&D headquarters and eliminating 2,100 jobs. With Pfizer being our community’s largest private employer, this initially seemed like a major blow. But we are prepared because of some thoughtful planning.
Two years ago this month, the University of Michigan helped create and fund a regional economic development agency that already is making a huge impact.
Many of you are familiar with Ann Arbor SPARK, which brings together a host of powerful institutions, including EMU, Washtenaw County government, local banks, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, WCC and, of course, the Ypsilanti Area Chamber of Commerce.
SPARK got it first real test with Pfizer. Within hours of the Pfizer announcement, leaders from throughout our community and state, including Governor Granholm, gathered to say: We will work together to overcome this loss.
Led by SPARK, we have since formed several teams focused on issues such as redeveloping the Pfizer site, creating new jobs for displaced employees, and identifying new funding for non-profit agencies at risk because of a drop in charitable giving by Pfizer. And we have the first set of tenants—all biotech start-ups—ready to move into space that Pfizer is vacating.
Our community has some difficult days ahead of it because of the Pfizer pullout. Yet I also believe we are looking at a once-in-a-generation opportunity for our community and our state. The opportunity is only ours to lose by inaction—and we are very active. As a university and as a community, we can look at the void left by Pfizer as an opening for broadening our entrepreneurial base and drawing more technologies out from our universities. I really don’t see how we can lose.
A century ago, industries grew up around natural resources such as water, timber and minerals. In the 21st century, industry wants to be near intellectual resources—the faculty, graduates and spin-offs of research universities.
We all know that the Internet giant Google is establishing an office and some 1,000 jobs in our community. They came to Washtenaw County for two reasons: First, the U-M and Google have an intensive partnership to digitize the 7 million volumes of our university library. Second, Google said it wanted access to an educated workforce, and we provided it.
We—and by we, I mean our larger community, from Ann Arbor’s coffee shops and bookstores to Ypsilanti’s diverse neighborhoods and historic homes—we provide Google and its new employees with one of those intangible spinoffs of university life: a high, vibrant quality of life.
Your work as a chamber plays a vital role in this activity. You promote our region, you work tirelessly to recruit and retain businesses, and you strengthen our economy.
That we have attracted a major corporation like Google—one accustomed to the trappings of Silicon Valley—speaks well to the power of university communities, particularly those in the Midwest, to fuel much-needed economic development.
Working together makes this possible.
From educating our young people—whether first-graders at Holmes Elementary or post-docs at Michigan—to creating a region that is economically healthy and attractive, the University of Michigan is committed to making Ypsilanti, Washtenaw County, and the state of Michigan more viable than ever.
Thank you again.