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President Stanley Reflects on Two Years in Office and Looks Ahead to MSU’s Vibrant Future

campus scene: Beaumont Tower
Scott Wasserman

August 1, 2021, is the second anniversary of Michigan State University President Samuel L. Stanley Jr., M.D. taking office as president of America's premier land grant institution. It’s a great time to catch up with him to look back a little bit, but more importantly, look ahead to MSU's vibrant future.

“It's been a remarkable two years, Russ, and I'm so glad that as we look towards the fall to be a part of MSU and the important work that's going on here,” he says. “I think what still stands out the most since I've come is the people - the students, faculty, and staff, and the alums. The commitment and love they show for Michigan State University has been impressive and it's really helped us pull through this past year and a half or so together in a very positive way.

“I've had a chance now recently that we're gathering again to talk to alumni and to talk to students. I'm impressed by the fact that, away from campus, they talk about how they have stuck with MSU. They're excited about MSU and they're excited about coming back. I think that's a testament, again, to the hard work of our faculty and staff and the resiliency of our students during what were really remarkably difficult times.”
Are there some things that have surprised you along the way or some lessons learned in your first couple of years?

“I am impressed by how much students care about the college experience and being in East Lansing. I think when we made that first decision to go remote, I expected more students would return home than did. That's a testament to how much they want to be with their fellow classmates and how much they want to stay in the college environment.”

As you look forward to the fall and the next couple of months, what are you thinking about?

“I'm really excited. We are paying close attention to what's happening with the Delta variant and what's happening in cases in around the United States, but particularly, in our region, because that dictates a lot of what we are able to do or not do. And I think one of the things I want to say just to reassure the campus is that we are still going to continue this policy of safety first. We are going to be monitoring what's happening in the community. We're not going to be doing things that run counter to what's coming down from the CDC, from DHHS, and from Ingham County Health.

“Our vaccination rate for this region appears to be high, and which is great. I applaud the people of East Lansing to continue, everybody to continue, to get vaccinated if they have not been. And that's the message, of course, that we're giving to our students, faculty, and staff that the key to opening this fall is to have as many people vaccinated as possible. I would love to see 100 percent of people vaccinated here. I think that makes a lot of sense. We'll continue to emphasize that; we'll continue to show people how it's easy to get a vaccine.

Russ White, left, with President Stanley

“There are still some people who may have hesitation or concern, and so we've got to continue to outreach to them and educate them because it's so important going forward. We're going to continue to monitor this. If the situation changes and we see a growth in cases, we'll be prepared to deal with it. And that could be a resumption of masking. That could be an expansion of a testing program. There are a number of things we can do. And, of course, continued education and providing optimal access to vaccines would be a huge part of that issue as well. So I'm excited about going forward, but we're going in with eyes wide open. We know that people have some concerns and we want to make sure we're listening to them and understanding what those concerns are.

“But the best way, Russ, and you said it to begin with, the best way to take care of this problem is for as many people as possible to get vaccinated. And I look forward to the moment when the FDA approves the vaccine for children under 12 because I think that's going to help some parents get more confidence and have fewer concerns going forward. I think students need to go back to school. I think it's very important, but I think many families will be more comfortable when they know their children have been vaccinated, even though the risk of disease for children as we know overall is very low. It's still a concern. If I was a parent of a younger child, I'd certainly have concerns.”

What are some of the challenges and opportunities facing MSU and higher education?

“We’ve just gone through another hopefully very brief but significant economic upheaval. And, of course, we had 2009-10 when, again, the economy was troubled. And I think what you saw during that time was a college education was extraordinarily valuable. The difference for many people between employment and unemployment was a college education. Getting that message across about the importance of going to college and completing college is important. We need to continue to speak more about the access we're providing for students. There used to be a philosophy as one looked at higher education of selectivity and how elite you were was the most important thing.

“That was the wrong focus, and I think we've changed the focus now to how we make sure that the students we accept a Michigan State University, and we want to accept as many as we can, succeed at Michigan State University and go on to the productive life that a college degree helps people achieve. That, to me, is of continued importance. Student success is going to be a high priority for us as we go forward in the strategic plan. And then how do we eliminate the gaps in graduation rates? That's something that troubles me and others. We need to make sure that the students coming here graduate from Michigan State University.

“One of our major focuses over the next few years under my leadership is going to be to work to abolish those gaps. And that's a tall order, but it's doable, and that's something we'll focus on. The other thing is, again, we've recognized how important research is. Biomedical research has certainly come to the fore of this miraculous ability to turn out this vaccine, to see how well these mRNA vaccines work. That shows again the power of research and innovation and how it can really change people's lives in a very concrete manner.

“Climate change remains a major challenge. What is Michigan State doing and what expertise is being applied to make a difference in this area?

“What are we doing to help the economic development of the state? How do we make Michigan a better place where people want to live? How do we create a society where people want to stay or a community where people want to stay in Michigan and see this as a place? Working remotely is more and more possible. There will be more of a premium on states that really provide quality of life than I think there's ever been before.”

MSU Today airs Sunday mornings at 9:00 on 105.1 FM and AM 870 and WKAR.org. Find “MSU Today with Russ White” on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and wherever you get your shows.

Russ White is producer and host of "MSU Today," a lively look at MSU people, places, events and attitudes.
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