September 2, 2014 at 1:00 am

Daniel Howes

MSU president Simon: 'We're making progress'

President Lou Anna Simon and MSU are on a good run. (Dale G. Young / The Detroit News)

East Lansing

The dean of Big Ten university presidents is showing no signs of slowing down, stepping aside or coasting.

No, Lou Anna Simon says she’s ready for another year of growing the value of a Michigan State University education and building on the remarkable success of Spartan football, which began with Friday’s season-opening victory over Jacksonville State.

“Our responsibility is to be better than we are today,” she said in a recent interview in a studio of the campus radio station. “We’re probably not as good at tooting our horn as we maybe should be. There’s more than one way to be the best. We’re in a good space. We’re not in a perfect space.”

Nearly a decade into her tenure as State’s president, the 67-year-old Simon exudes the confidence of a CEO whose company is delivering despite a distinct tinge of paranoia. She knows now is no time to become complacent — on the field, on the court or in classrooms constantly challenged to meet the evolving demands of a global market — and to believe the hard work is over.

It’s not. Still, there’s little denying the president and the university she leads are on a good run. They claim one of the largest international studies programs in the country, and will house a ground-breaking Facility for Rare Isotope Beams. They are blessed with not one, but two, nationally competitive programs in Mark Dantonio’s football team and Tom Izzo’s basketball team.

How many other major colleges can say that? Not many, in the Big Ten or anywhere else.

That’s an asset Simon and her athletic director, Mark Hollis, have no intention of squandering. They meet three or four times a year with the two coaches to discuss institutional pressures and relevant NCAA issues that Simon, chair of the NCAA’s executive committee, may be in a position to help address.

“We try to engage them in those broader, directional issues,” she said, crediting Hollis for a management style that aims to treat all his head coaches, from football to field hockey, as equal members of the team. “That’s very different than telling people who to hire and what to do.

“Everybody’s part of Team MSU,” Simon continued, “whether you’re in the chemistry department or the athletic department.”

Challenges? She has a few, starting with the undeniable fact that MSU, despite its recent athletic successes and academic accolades, lags its Big Ten peers in athletic budget, university endowment and endowed scholarships and faculty positions.

Like it or not (and public universities ’round here are routinely pilloried for appearing to whine about receiving too little money to spend), those cash deficits can negatively impact efforts to recruit top students and promising faculty members weighing other offers.

Set aside Northwestern and arch-rival University of Michigan, both far ahead of the rest of the Big Ten, she says, and the numbers make the case: The conference average for endowed faculty positions is 400; MSU claims 100, Simon says. MSU offers $20 million per year in endowed scholarships, dead last among the Big Ten.

MSU ranks near the bottom among Big Ten schools in spending on students. Its $85 million annual athletic budget is roughly half the $160 million Ohio State allocates for its athletic program, generally considered the nation’s largest measured by expenditure.

And MSU’s development efforts — a critically necessary function to help cover the total cost of running a university, to augment staff and faculty pay, and to support capital improvements — badly lags rivals. The deficit is exacerbated by strong market returns, as larger overall funds can produce larger gains.

MSU’s university endowment is roughly $1.6 billion, according to the National Association of College and University Business Officers. That’s a fraction of Michigan’s $8.3 billion or Ohio State’s $3.15 billion or Penn State’s $2.9 billion.

“We’re OK,” Simon says. “We’re making progress.” MSU is “two generations behind in thinking about capital campaigns,” in part a legacy of legendary President John Hannah, who generally didn’t raise money because he didn’t think it was necessary.

But it is — and more. Simon and the university’s academic leadership also must balance MSU’s heritage of producing students equipped with practical skills overlaying what essentially is a liberal arts education. That carries more value in a fast-changing world because it prepares students to adapt to change.

It isn’t an easy formula to get right, much less to persuade perspective employers that MSU is producing the kind of raw human material they’ll need today and tomorrow. Simon doesn’t shrink from the challenge.

How much longer is she likely to do the president gig?

“I don’t know,” she says. “Part of it is health. Part of it is being able to make a difference. It takes a lot of energy to do this, and a lot of passion. And it needs to be sustained.”
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Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.