Published: Feb. 12, 2002


Contact: Deb Pozega Osburn at (517) 355-2281 or Complete text of speech


EAST LANSING, Mich. - Universities nationwide must heed the wake-up call of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks by becoming more involved internationally, particularly in developing countries struggling with poverty, Michigan State University President Peter McPherson said today.

In his ninth State of the University address to the campus community, McPherson challenged not only his own university, but all public universities, to make long-term commitments to solving global problems that universities are uniquely qualified to address.

"At the end of the Cold War some people felt we no longer needed to be internationally involved," McPherson said. "In the aftermath of Sept. 11, it is clear that we have to be internationally involved.

"We know that we cannot continue to live in comfort and security while ignoring developing countries," he said. "We give in to isolationist tendencies at our peril and at the sacrifice of our institutional values and our humanity."

He noted that Alpha Oumar Konare, the president of Mali, who has received an honorary degree from MSU, has said that those who are "reduced by hunger to the instinct of survival" are deprived of their right to dream - the very act of creativity that defines the human condition. Universities, with their expertise in economics, agriculture and education, must dedicate those resources to improving the human condition, McPherson said.

"While it is certainly no excuse or justification for terrorism, a great international issue at this time is the inequity in quality of life between the 'haves' and the 'have-nots,'" he said. "If there is any single problem that demands our attention following Sept. 11, it is our need to deal with poverty in developing countries.

"In the past, this nation's higher education institutions made a great impact in developing countries, and they must do so in the future," McPherson said. "Our universities are uniquely qualified for this role."

McPherson noted several projects that exemplify MSU's history of international engagement in developing areas, including:

  • John Staatz and Mike Weber, MSU professors of agricultural economics, along with other MSU and African colleagues, work in Mali and other areas of Africa to improve food system performance. Their work has led to a marked improvement in the agricultural economy there. In one project, citizens of the area, using solar-powered laptop computers and e-mail technology, gather information on prices for grains, crops and livestock, and then compile, sort and distribute that information throughout the region - helping farmers make decisions about when, where and for what price to sell their products.

  • Christopher Wheeler, professor of teacher education, and his colleagues help teachers and students in Thailand study forest management problems - a project that not only has helped address environmental concerns, but has improved student learning and school-community relations.

  • Terrie Taylor, professor of internal medicine, spends six months each year in the African nation of Malawi treating and studying malaria.

  • Mark Kornbluh, associate professor of history, and his colleagues have established a number of projects involving Internet connectivity that are helping bridge the digital divide for Africans.

McPherson also promised that MSU would continue its long-term commitment to increasing quality and cost control, tying that commitment, too, to changes forced by the Sept. 11 attacks. The economic downturn that was exacerbated by the attacks, he said, has increased the challenge for MSU, but has not kept it from continuing to make extraordinary progress, particularly in areas defined by academic excellence.

In particular, he noted, MSU has strengthened programs in music, plant sciences, nuclear physics, engineering and other academic areas through reallocation of current funds as well as through new funding, which increasingly has come from private donors and outside agencies.

McPherson also noted that MSU's continued accomplishments have been noticed: The number of nationally ranked programs at the university has risen from five to 24 over the last seven years, and U.S. News and World Report now recognizes MSU as one of the nation's best values in higher education and the best value among all public institutions in the Big Ten.

"MSU's great challenge is continuing to increase academic excellence while keeping costs under control," he said. "Because MSU has been financially well-managed over the long term, we can weather economically uncertain times."

McPherson said the university takes pride in its achievements, and that the balancing of the objectives of increased quality and cost containment, particularly in a time of economic uncertainty, is a job that is never done.

"In these challenging times, beyond Sept. 11," he said, "we are grateful that through the test of adversity, our country and our university are stronger than ever."