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Feb. 28, 2022

Podcast: Excellence and equity in research and teaching

Michigan State University's new strategic plan articulates a shared vision for the university through the end of the decade.

MSU Strategic Plan 2030: Empowering Excellence, Advancing Equity and Expanding Impact identifies goals within six key themes: student success, staff and faculty success, discovery; creativity, and innovation for excellence and global impact; sustainable health; stewardship and sustainability; and diverse, equity, and inclusion.

On this edition of MSU Today, we'll be focusing on the discovery, creativity, and innovation for excellence and global impact theme of the plan with its executive sponsors: Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs Teresa Woodruff, Executive Vice President for Health Sciences Norman J. Beauchamp Jr., and Vice President for Research and Innovation Douglas Gage.

“MSU has extraordinary people and an extraordinary capacity to really make a difference, and our job is to help them succeed and find ways to reach their full potential in their research work and have the full impact it should,” says Michigan State University President Samuel L. Stanley Jr., M.D. “That involves reducing the barriers for them to submit grants and making it easier for them to work within their grants and facilitate the valuable work they’re doing.

“That involves exciting new facilities like FRIB and collaboration with scientists around the world. It’s about having impact. Extension helps us to be good at applied research. We have an ambitious goal of $1 billion in research expenditures. That will take a lot of work, but I’m excited about the pathway to get there. This is an area where we really change people’s lives and make a difference, not just on our campus and in our state and the country, but in the world. MSU is doing that every day, and this is an opportunity to do it on an even larger scale and have greater impact.”

At Michigan State, we pursue excellence in service to the common good, generating new knowledge and applying it to address complex societal problems. When we say discovery, creativity, and innovation for excellence and global impact, what do we mean and how will growth and annual research expenditures to $1 billion help us have more local and global impact?

“Excellence in the service of the common good is a phrase that I just really gravitate toward,” says Woodruff. “And I think our tripartite mission of teaching, research, and outreach and engagement really represents the different ways in which that excellence in service to the common good is lived out. If you did a word cloud of what I just said, we've got a lot of ands, not ors. We interdigitate in each of these areas. Our faculty teach and do research, and then they apply that work to help solve real-life problems in real communities that affect real people.

“And I like to think of MSU as having research and scholarship reach. As we continue to grow our research expenditures, I think we'll be able to accelerate what we're able to learn as we think about the grand challenges that our world faces. I'm really excited about our global impact initiative. It really is going to support the growth and accelerate the pace of discovery by recruiting new faculty in some of the most exciting areas of research. And by growing this annual firepower within research and scholarship, I think we're going to go deeper and broader in what we do. We're going to be able to act locally and globally in solving the world's most pressing needs.”

“Growing our research expenditures to $1 billion means that our research activities are going to expand by more than $250 million annually,” adds Gage. “And so, we'll be conducting more research, which means we'll be making more discoveries and ultimately educating more students and bringing more solutions forward. And we're going to be working to expand our research programs across the board and increasing activities in some critical areas, such as equitable healthcare, climate change, mobility, international development, and many other programs which are critical both globally and specifically to Michigan and the United States. We're going to be working across the entire campus to try to build on these new programs. And many of them will be interdisciplinary. We're going to have a lot of interactions over the next few years, and we're really looking forward to that.”

“This effort really looks at improving health by promoting treatment and prevention,” Beauchamp says. “It contributes to society by driving economic growth and productivity and by helping to address social determinants of health through access to education and job creation. And it expands biomedical knowledge by funding cutting edge research and cultivating the future biomedical workforce of today and tomorrow. I’m excited about what this means in terms of MSU's land grant mission and this essential arm and what's needed to bring health, hope, and healing to all people.”

What are the key areas that will be part of this push to $1 billion?

“That $1 billion is a big number, a huge number,” Woodruff continues. “It feels big, and it feels ambitious. And I think that's really exciting. We have enormous strengths that really rise out of our roots of this land-grant university. Our plan is to bring together disciplines in new ways and to think about how we can intersect between new ideas and state-of-the-art equipment and the ways in which problems emerge that we can uniquely solve. An example is the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams.  We have an incredible facility, and that's going to allow us to play a vital role in the next generation of scientific leaders and innovators.

“This is a great example because it's coupled with our number one-ranked graduate program in nuclear physics. You combine superb faculty, outstanding facilities, and a number one graduate program. We can create what I call a spiral of excellence. A second area is in improving agricultural practices and food crop yields and food security, something that remarkably is on our horizon and something that MSU can uniquely work in. And then the last one is in educational research and preparing teachers and educational leaders and change-makers. We have a top-ranked College of Education, and the more we educate, the better the world is, and it is something that we're proud of. And it's in that educational domain that we're going to lean into with many other domains to reach that $1 billion.”

“The key is that it's not a single investment that's going to get us to that $1 billion,” says Gage. “It's really about building on a whole variety of things. There are areas of strength we can build upon, and we are also going to have an opportunity to go into new areas that are going to give us the chance to expand what we do at Michigan State University. That involves bringing in new faculty, new partners, and commercial entities and funding agencies who might work with us to develop some of these new ideas. If we had to reach the $1 billion number on one strategy, we wouldn't get there. We really must bring everything we have to bear on this. A lot of it is going to be interdisciplinary and developing new areas which MSU is positioned to really develop and take advantage of.”

“As we think about this effort in health, it really will take a convergence of strengths across the university,” adds Beauchamp. “You can look, for example, at the Pediatric Public Health Initiative. To be successful there in trying to improve the health of the community, it required expertise from education, communications, geography, toxicology, nutrition, epidemiology, psychology, child development, pediatrics, and more. The point is that as we think about how we'll move the dial on health disparities, it will be a chance for us to mobilize the entire university. One of the things that the strategic plan calls out is this no silos approach to advancing research and connecting strengths and finding ways to foster that.”

Say more about how these spirals of excellence cross all our missions and enrich our educational outreach and research excellence.

“These spirals of excellence that we're building are predicated on foundations of strength,” continues Woodruff. “And then we build upward towards what we think are going to be beacons, both so people can light the way to coming towards MSU, and to provide assets that the world desperately needs. We're really in a changing time. There's an evolving nature of work and different ways in which we experience health and the workplace. All these changes necessitate new ways of thinking and doing research. Rapid technological advances and artificial intelligence or automation are reshaping education and all our skill sets. So, what we're doing at MSU is really part of a fourth industrial revolution that's changing education systems and labor markets. We're advancing this through our research and helping society to adapt to all these changes.

“We believe these spirals can be really catalytic, sparking curiosity and innovation and discovery across the community that now can see each other. And this creates a multiplier effect so that each point of contact becomes new knowledge, new value, and new positive outcomes. And this is because our research is not in isolation. We mentor. We teach. It's all interoperable. And that's what allows MSU to have the biggest, broadest, baddest, best impact.

“Our MSU arts strategy integrates arts into all of the ways we think and work. It is research. It is scholarship itself. And it also is a predicate for some of the most creative endeavors. By designing a deliberate environment that understands the world that we found two years ago is no longer the same, our community can walk into this challenge and work effectively and ethically in this world.”

“Research and scholarship are really integral to everything we do,” Gage says. “Creating new knowledge and then transmitting that to the next generation of scholars is really essential for an institution of our type. And we extend that knowledge then not just to our students, but to communities we serve through outreach efforts and partnerships. Involving undergraduates in research and scholarship is something we've had a long history of at Michigan State University. I think many of us who ended up in the STEM fields, we started out working in a laboratory or working with a scholar. I started my own career as a dishwasher in a laboratory. That's how you get the exposure to what science and scholarship are all about. That's something we really take great pride in. We don't say research and education are separate. That's not at all the case at this university. We are entirely integrated and synergistic.”

“A key part of what our students have asked is how do they learn how to think about discovery,” asks Beauchamp. “Giving our students access to being involved with research is one of the things that can happen at a place like MSU where there are those breadths of opportunity. You can't have that unless there is a depth and a breadth of research happening in the institution. Our goal is to train that next generation of practitioners who help redefine what healthcare can be.”

Tell me about the geographic reach of our discovery and innovation work and talk about the importance of our impact in Michigan and our global footprint.

“Its reach is one of the things that's so amazing about MSU,” Woodruff continues. “That’s one of the reasons I was so attracted to MSU. It's research within reach. It's not research in some mythical ivory tower. We have a commitment at MSU that's remarkable across the entire state of Michigan and to the global community. It's central to our mission and our values. As a top global university, we continue to push the boundaries to make the world better. True to our land-grant mission, we reach into all 83 Michigan counties through Extension and through our healthcare community. Extension is such an important part of what we do across the state.

“That means that the entire state is Michigan State University. We are all part of this great community. That is quite exciting. We're a top 40 research university according to the Washington Monthly 2021 rankings. That should make everyone in Michigan proud of us. We've had about $5.8 billion in economic impact in the state and about 80 percent of our undergraduates are from here in Michigan and 65 percent of them stay in Michigan. That's exciting. That says we're really having an impact.

“I'm a globalist. I think about the entire circumference of the world. And we have Spartans literally everywhere in the world. And our research is making a difference, about $82 million in annual funding for international work. We're the number one top-ranked public university for education abroad. And we have about 1,400 of our faculty and academic staff members who are engaged in international research and teaching. And in our International Studies and Programs, we have just over 30, I think, internationally-focused centers. Michigan State has made a commitment to being available to everyone who has need for education and for learning something new and for building across the globe and across the great state of Michigan. It's an exciting place to be.”

“It’s important to emphasize that we take our mission to serve the public good very seriously,” continues Gage. “Michigan State University has a reach that goes from the smallest rural counties to the biggest urban centers. And even if we leave the United States, one can wear a baseball cap with a helmet on it and go into Zambia or somewhere like that and someone will say to you, ‘Go Green!” We are there and they know who we are. We serve not just our own interests, but the interests of the world. When we look at international partnerships that really is a key to our service. It's a partnership model; we don't come in with solutions to deliver. We come in to build those solutions together.

“And we have a very strong history of that that goes back many decades. If we look at the U.S. Agency for International Development and international foundations, we are very well represented and often a key partner for those agencies and funders. We are very proud of that legacy, and we want to continue it and build upon it. During the pandemic, travel and outreach were certainly impacted, and we're very anxious to get back to work with our international partners and develop capacity for food production, for example, and other things. Particularly, climate change is not just an issue for us. It's a global issue. We can envision that we're going to have a role to play to help develop solutions around the world to assist our partners.”

“We are in every county in the state, and we're really proud of how we have pathway programs that are connections from where people are growing up to where we can help them train so that they can serve their communities,” says Beauchamp. “Another component of the work that's being done is recognizing that we live in a knowledge economy. And as we look at partnerships between academia and industry, one of the things that happens is these new ideas of innovation, technology, machines, and decision support can connect into opportunities to connect with industry, which brings both technology and human capability resources to partnerships on campus. It also gives us a global distribution. Education, research, and clinical care and our partnerships make the reach of Michigan State global.”

Why is it so important that we do this important research?

“One can look at research in a very applied way,” says Gage. “And we do quite a significant amount of applied work, particularly in areas of agriculture, education, and other areas where an outcome is really desired in the short-term. But there's also curiosity-driven research, which will have outcomes which aren't always predictable and are sometimes vastly undervalued when they're initiated. And often, even the developers of some research may not even initially have realized the value of it. In the early days of computer science, it was the dabblings of some mathematicians. Now it's really transformed the world. There are a lot of things like that that happen in very unpredictable ways.

“We have to have a place where that can happen. Universities are positioned for that. Companies can't afford to take the long view like that and hope something good comes out of it. Those days where that sort of opportunity was present in the corporate sector have really diminished. When fundamental research looks promising, we partner with commercial entities to help to develop it into something practical. That happens many times. There are a lot of opportunities for us to do that. Some things are practical from the very beginning and some things are unpredictable.

“And, of course, there's failure along the way. Investment will happen. There's always value in it in terms of education and in terms of learning from our mistakes or learning what didn't work. We are good stewards of the funds that we are given by the state and by the federal government for research. We don't take that lightly. We don't take it as play money. It's something that we have to do our very best to deliver what we promise as we begin to conduct research.”

“Many of the great advances over the past century such as computers, radars, lasers, x-rays, nuclear energy, and even mRNA vaccines are traceable to basic science discoveries, some made decades before their application,” adds Beauchamp. “And the practical use may not be seen by the researchers who first made those discoveries. But if you look at industry, they often aren't going to invest in that work. They need a limited time to which they can bring things to market in order to meet the imperatives of their shareholders. But for us in higher education, we can have a longer view. And then one of the strengths of the breadth that the university brings is you can bring together these cohorts of people who do applied and basic research and individuals whose focus is clinical care. This is a milieu where they will connect. And I think that's also where some of that magic happens that brings the return for basic science research.”

“At MSU, we do structured and unstructured work,” says Woodruff. “In some cases, we're trying to get to a cure. In other cases, we're just trying to learn something new. And it's something extraordinary about MSU faculty because they run the gamut from creation to invention to discovery to expression to revealing elements about ourselves and our world and our place in that world. And that's really quite the gamut. And some of our faculty work examines the minutia of a bacteria or a plant cell or a chloroplast, and others look at the complex significance of artistic performance. I was at the MSU Wind [Symphony] performance yesterday, which just was an extraordinary level of expression. The nature of this work helps us to understand, it helps us to contextualize, and it can help to improve the human condition. In fact, it may be completely abstracted from utility and exist solely as revealed knowledge.

“That's what's special about Michigan State University. We value and celebrate the ephemeral, from the half-life of the shortest FRIB discovery to a single note played by a bass bassoon to new knowledge about how we can engineer a chloroplast to have plant resilience. In the end, all these diverse products of the work of MSU can be lauded by many. They might be known by a few, or they might be appreciated for their extraordinary audacity or cited for their wisdom, or they may just be something that's talked about in a classroom setting.

“That's the nature of work within a university. It is the most extraordinary place that doesn't exist anywhere else. And the fact that MSU takes this work and makes it unified and interoperable with teaching is what makes this one of the most special places for discovery, for research on our way to those billion dollars, and for all those students along the way who both participate in that basic or translational or clinical work or that performance and the rest of us whose lives are made better because of all of it.”

“There's a real sense of excitement at what lies ahead right now,” adds Gage. “We see FRIB coming online. New opportunities for research across all areas have captured the imagination of the folks at MSU. Research and the culture that we create are going to outlive all of us. And that's really our goal is to create the next generation and position the institution for a continued ability to deliver for decades to come. Our challenge and our responsibility are to really put our full effort into doing that. It's all about what comes next, not what we do or what happens today when we're around. That's the exciting part. All of us are really looking forward to how that's going to develop and how we're going to be able to make those contributions.”

“One of our goals is to be inclusive in the research that we do in terms of clinical trials,” Beauchamp adds. “Participation in research should reflect the diversity of our culture and conditions and consider race, ethnicity, gender, and age. That lack of diversity among researchers and research participants has both ethical and research consequences. And one of the wonderful things about Michigan State by virtue of the breadth of the people who are compelled to be a part of the work that we do is I that we're well positioned to be a place where people of all backgrounds can participate in research and we can help train the next generation of a more diverse group of scientists at Michigan State.”

“Excellence and equity in research and teaching is really what we're all about,” says Woodruff. “We’re here to advance the institution and the future, but we're also creating new possibilities for its future. And this strategic plan that we're all working on contemplates our 175th year in 2030. Work towards our 175th year is not the destination. That's what we create now. We're really creating the predicate for a long future because that's what higher education does. We'll be here for the long run. Our values of bringing as many people as possible into this way of thinking and working is something that I think is just so exciting and so uniquely done at Michigan State. I can't think of a better place to put my own research and scholarship than with the partners that I have in Norm and Doug and everyone who's here. It's a very exciting time for all of us.”

On this edition of MSU Today, we've been talking about the discovery, creativity, and innovation for excellence and global impact theme of MSU's Strategic Plan 2030, Empowering Excellence, Advancing Equity and Expanding Impact with the executive sponsors of the theme, Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs Teresa Woodruff, Executive Vice President for Health Sciences Norman J. Beauchamp Jr., and Vice President for Research and Innovation Douglas Gage.

Read and learn more about the strategic plan at strategicplan.msu.edu.

MSU Today airs Sunday mornings at 9:00 on WKAR News/Talk and Sunday evenings at 8:00 on 760 WJR. Find, rate, and subscribe to “MSU Today with Russ White” on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and wherever you get your shows.

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