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Detroit — The presidents of the state's Big Three universities lamented a drop in financial support from the Michigan Legislature, but no one is talking about the issue in the gubernatorial race.

University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel said that the state appropriation to the university is about the same level it was in 1997.

"Think about that. What were your salaries like in 1997?" said Schlissel at the Detroit Economic Club on Wednesday. "We're bigger than we were 20-plus years ago. The state has not kept up with its commitments. There are good intentions ... At the end game, when they are trying to balance the budgets and everyone is trying to prove how frugal they are, unfortunately higher ed is usually the component of the aspirational budget that gets thrown under the bus. And it's kicking the can down the road in a way that our state is going to continue to suffer from." 

Michigan State University Interim President John Engler added that candidates for governor — former Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, and Attorney General Bill Schuette, a Republican — aren't discussing it.

"What is their vision? The importance of higher education as an economic strategy for the state?" said Engler, who served as Michigan's governor between 1991 to 2003. "The importance of the K12 system bringing to the university, students who are ready to do university work?"

Schlissel said there are discussions frequently with lawmakers about their support and lobbying by the Michigan Association of State Universities.

"It's really going to require the public, when we vote and when we challenge our elected representatives about what's important," Schlissel said. "How can you have a governor's race without discussing higher ed?"

Schlissel, Engler and Wayne State University President M. Roy Wilson were guests at the economic club, and discussed a range of other topics including college affordability and accessibility, and holding down tuition. Schlissel even touched on criticism of UM Football Coach Jim Harbaugh when asked about the first loss of the season to Notre Dame.

Much of the discussion focused on the universities' responsibility to create upward mobility for the state's next generation.

"Keeping college affordable is a shared responsibility," said Wilson, adding in addition to the university, that mission is having the state as a partner.

Engler said the Legislature has asked all of the universities to keep tuition in check, and it's time for lawmakers to recognize universities' efforts to keep college costs down.

"We've shown restraint," Engler said. "My challenge now to the Legislature is we've done what you asked, now it is your chance to stand up and reward (us)."

Schlissel said that UM has  the Go Blue Guarantee program that guarantees free tuition for students whose families earn up to $65,000.

"Several other states are now matching this Go Blue Gurantee ... and their state legislatures are stepping up and paying for it," said Schlissel. "Wouldn't it be interesting to challenge our gubernatorial candidates to come up with some kind of college guarantee? If you work hard, you get accepted, we'll help you pay. Wouldn't that be a nice gift to give to the next generation?"

The three university leaders presented a report at the Economic Club that indicated UM, MSU and WSU have contributed $18.7 billion to the state economy last year. 

The report reflects the impact of the University Research Corridor, an alliance to boost the state's economy through education, innovation and technology. The 2018 report, in its 11th edition, found the corridor generated 78,845 jobs in 2017. The three universities represent 4 percent of Michigan's economy. 

In the report, conducted by the Anderson Economic group, economic impact is defined by university operations and building, student spending and incremental earnings by alumni of the three universities.

“The economic impact of Michigan’s leading research universities has increased by more than 40 percent in just over a decade,” said URC executive director Britany Affolter-Caine.

“The URC’s steady uptick in economic impact is more than a simple dollar figure, it’s indicative of an intentional investment in educating students, undertaking research and improving quality of life for residents across the state.”

kkozlowski@detroitnews.com

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