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President Stanley’s November 2021 Spartan Community Letter

White, Stanley (photo taken when masks weren't required)

I'm Russ White. This is MSU Today. I’m back in the company of Michigan State University President Samuel L. Stanley Jr., M.D. to talk about some of the topics he covered in his November 2021 Spartan Community Letter. Happy Holidays President Stanley.

Samuel L. Stanley Jr., M.D.

“Well, thank you so much, Russ. Happy holidays to you and everybody listening out there. And I hope it's a very restful and peaceful one for all of us.”

The most important thing we do at this university is educate our students. And Michigan State University's graduation rate is up for the seventh straight year. The rate for first time, full-time students entering MSU in 2015 increased from 81.3% last year to 82.1% this year. What's significant about that, and what does that six-year graduation rate indicate?

“It's very significant and something we really should celebrate on campus. It really represents the work of an extraordinary number of people who are very dedicated to seeing that number increase. And just to put it in perspective, even though that's 0.8% increase, that's about 53 students. That means there are 53 more students who graduated from MSU who wouldn't have graduated if they'd entered at another point in time who are going to get that MSU degree, go out into the world and make a difference and have lifetime earnings that are about a million dollars higher than students who don't complete a college degree.

“So, from the state's point of view and from a human endeavor and potential point of view, it's wonderful to get students through and help them graduate. We've had a very steady ascent on this. We do much better than would be anticipated in terms of our graduation rates. They’re higher than one might predict based on the GPAs and SATs and ACTs of students coming in. We make a point of really helping students get through. And I'm very excited about it. I think that's the good news. And we are seeing those increases for all students. So all of our students showed an increase in graduation rates. No students have been left behind.

“The one challenge we still have, and we talk about it a lot in our strategic plan, is to narrow gaps between groups. Because we still have groups, for example Pell eligible students, who are graduating at lower rates than non-Pell eligible students. So, we are now laser focused as an institution on narrowing those gaps while at the same time elevating everybody's success. But it just makes a huge difference. And I'm very grateful to all the people who put the hard work in, including the students, of course, who did that great work of continuing and succeeding.”

And sir, we're in the middle of a very enjoyable football season. Tom Izzo's got his group started. But there are some other things happening in our athletic department. The men's water polo club team won the men's collegiate club national championship.

“It's always busy over there and there are always exciting things happening. I'm proud that not only have we been competing, but we've been competing safely. And I just want to give a little shout out to the fans who've been coming to the football and basketball games and thank them for wearing their masks and really following our rules. We have not seen outbreaks of COVID associated with our sporting events. We want to keep that. So I encourage everybody to keep those masks on indoors. Those are our rules on campus. CDC now is advising people do that around the state. So I really appreciate people sticking with the safety. Because we want to be able to enjoy Tom Izzo. We want to be able to enjoy Suzy Merchant's team on the court. And of course we've had some amazing success in football. And I'm very excited about this game coming up on Saturday against Penn State, which will say a lot about our season and our bowl opportunities.

One of the fun parts of everybody coming back to campus is we've been able to experience Michigan State sports. And I do thank you again for reminding me of the tremendous success of our cross country team. Our women's soccer team has had a very good season. There's been a lot of success on the field and on the court. And as we just heard, in the classroom for MSU.”

And there is more support coming from our donors. You recently had the chance to thank Greg and Dawn Williams, who made a generous $10 million commitment for expansion and renovations to the Tom Izzo Football Building.

“And how fun it is to say that: the Tom Izzo Football Building? Everyone knows Coach Izzo is such an incredible fan of football. And of course, he's had great success in the basketball program, which other people have supported very much as well. Yeah, I really thank our donors. They've really been stepping up. I think we're going to set some records or come close to it in terms of athletic donations for this year. And again, I think people are really recognizing that sports are something that really unites the university and can bring us together in some very important ways.”

And to get a little bit more serious for a minute, sir, the October 29th campus disappearance of visiting student Brandan Santo gained widespread notice and led to questions and concerns from students and others in our community. MSU Vice President for Public Safety and Chief of Police Marlon Lynch and Senior Vice President for Student Life and Engagement Vennie Gore held a town hall recently, which can be viewed on the MSU Student Affairs and Services YouTube page. What came out of the town hall? And what would you like people to know right now about campus safety?

“My heart goes out to the family of Brandan and their efforts to return him. And our efforts to return him to the family have been paramount in our mind from the beginning. This is something where tremendous resources have been devoted both by the police on our campus and external support from other agencies like the FBI. People from Grand Valley have been coming to help. Citizens have been coming on weekends to look. There's been a concerted effort to find Brandan and return him. I think at this point in time, I want people to know that we believe the campus to be safe. There's no evidence that this was foul play and the law authorities have been very clear on this. We want to focus on returning him to his family right now but also be aware of ways in which we make campus more secure.

“One of the things that's brought up is the fact that we did have a camera that wasn't working at Yakeley Hall at the time. That's been reported. We wanted to make sure that we now have spares available and can really deal with the cameras that are out of service in a more rapid way. As everyone has learned, we're adding 300 additional cameras to the campus to help improve security there. But overall, I believe it is a safe campus. There are things we should do and continue to work for continuous improvement in that area. It's very important to us going forward.”

President Stanley, what are the plans related to COVID for next semester?

“It would be nice if I could tell you that COVID was going away, and I thought we'd have no cases coming into spring. But this is a disease that continues to be resilient, if you will, in terms of its ability to stay among us. Part of that is based on vaccination. Part of it is based on some of the characteristics in the variants that have made it more difficult to control spread. Having said that, I think the things we've been doing on campus have been very successful. We've had a slight uptick in cases that took place that began about a month ago, but they have leveled off. While at the same time, the state of Michigan and Ingham County have really shot up significantly. Because of our high vaccination rates, about 90 percent of our population now is vaccinated - students and faculty and staff.

“Because of these vaccination rates, we've had fewer outbreaks and less spread. And so fewer cases per population than we're seeing in Ingham County or the state. That's no reason for us to celebrate because any cases we have, we're still concerned about. But it means the things we've been doing like the mandatory vaccination and mask wearing have made a difference.

“The state Department of Health and Human Services is now recommending people wear a mask indoors in the state of Michigan. And I would encourage listeners to do that. I think that's one way to keep yourself safer is to wear a mask when you enter stores or enter public businesses, restaurants, and so on, unless you're eating. These are all ways in which we can stop the spread.

“I'm concerned about this recent spread. We plan to continue the same measures we've been doing now into the spring. That's our plan right now. If things change and numbers were to get better, we're always ready to adjust. And it's easier to adjust, though, to loosen some of these restrictions than it is to continuously start and stop and restart them. And so, we'll be looking very carefully at what's happening. We'll want to make sure that everybody who comes in as a student is vaccinated. So the vaccine mandate applies to new students who come in the spring. So we want to make sure they're vaccinated and we will be asking them to attest to that. Employees will probably be dealing with the rules that have come down from the White House, in terms of requiring employees and staff to be vaccinated as part of the vaccine mandate there. So we'll want to make sure everybody's in compliance with that. But I'm looking forward to a great spring. I think we've had a very successful fall so far. And I think it's because people have been doing what is necessary to keep us here.”

You recently participated in a campus symposium framing an exciting new initiative to integrate ethical consideration more thoroughly into MSU's curriculum, research, and character of the university community. What's striking you about this? What's important here?

“It's really critical. And I think as we look at our country and we look at our world right now, ethics become increasingly important. There are so many challenges for behavior that were faced every day. Times when integrity becomes important, because there are so many ways in which one can go down paths of lesser integrity or make easy choices, as opposed to sometimes what's more difficult in principle. So having students educated on this idea of ethics is important, whether they're in our College of Law, College of Business, our College of Arts and Letters, or any of our colleges. And I point out those three because those three deans have been actively involved in putting this program together. But whatever college we're in, we want people to behave ethically and understand what that means and what the responsibilities are of citizenship. This is important for us.

“We've been very fortunate to have some donors who share that vision of having ethics more incorporated. We talk in our strategic plan about our students learning experientially coupled with ethics. We think is a way in which we can really have students who are not only ready to face the world, but ready to do it in an ethical way. So we're excited about this. We appreciate the donors who've stepped in to help us do this. That symposium was very exciting. We're working towards forming an institute. And this is going to be, I think, an important role for my office as well as for the provost and those deans. I mentioned faculty who've been very involved in this in putting this all together as an academic enterprise, but one that will also go into our administrative units, as well, as we think about the ethics involved in compliance and things we need to do on campus every day.”

This month, we introduced an exciting new component to our connected campus mobility infrastructure, a 22-passenger electric autonomous bus now undergoing rigorous safety and operational testing. It's one of the largest electronic autonomous transit vehicles on United States roads. Not only will the electric bus add to the ways we're reducing MSU's environmental impact and meeting our sustainability goals, but it will also allow MSU researchers to develop a variety of real-world data to advance our already impressive, advanced mobility capabilities. The new bus is expected to enter service sometime next year. It will connect the MSU Auditorium to MSU commuter lot number 89 at Farm Lane and Mount Hope, where you can also find part of the largest solar carport array in North America. The bus must be fun. I'm sure you've had a ride in it. Talk about this program.

“What a great way to tie it together to our commitment to sustainability and the solar array that we have in the parking lot. And then of course this wonderful bus that really is autonomous in terms of its ability to get from that parking area to the auditorium site and to navigate on our regular roads. I did have a chance to ride it. It's tremendously amazing to see this thing turn, stop, detect pedestrians, and detect cars in front of it. It’s still got a few things to work through. And I saw that when I went on the ride. It's not perfect, but it is making great progress. They're working through it on these roads at nighttime when there's very little density of students and other traffic. They're working to make sure it's going to work perfectly at the time we put it in service. And that's what we expect of it. Of course, there's a driver there who can override the system and take control if necessary, and that's important as well.

“It's really a look at the future. I think autonomous vehicles, particularly for this sort of thing, are going to be very important, whether they're this size or larger or smaller. I'm not sure. The market will determine that, but this is a nice size to practice on, if you will, with about a 22-passenger capacity. It’s good enough to make a difference in terms of transportation needs, but not so large that it becomes more cumbersome to manage and take care of. It's a great starting point and I really appreciate the opportunity to work with our partners in this and to work with many colleges on campus who have interest in this because the autonomous vehicle issue is complicated.

“Now, obviously you need the technology. You need the LIDAR and radar, the infrared that allows you to detect and drive safely, and the artificial intelligence that allows it to learn a route and change how it behaves on the route. Those are critical components, as well. The sensors that are necessary to get data on its performance are critical, too. And that all comes from stars in engineering and computer sciences who do a lot of work there.

“At the same time, though, there are a lot of social issues as well. How do you utilize this best? What are the parts in terms of city planning? Where are the places where it makes the most sense to use it? And liability issues. Who's liable for this vehicle if it's running? Is it the manufacturer? Is it the person who's operating it? Who's liable if there are accidents involving it? Getting our legal scholars involved in this area and understanding this is important as well. So it's exciting, but it also raises some questions that I think people need to answer and understand. It’s wonderful to be at the cutting edge of this.”

Talking with President Stanley on MSU Today. And sir, you attended the recent Grand Awards gala that annually honors Spartans whose contributions to their communities, companies, and the university have been especially impactful. It's kind of like student success leads to alumni success, doesn't it? Almost a circle of life kind of thing.

“Again, Russ, you've really hit the nail on the head. You've phrased it really well. It's really nice for us to think about this in terms of these amazing students we graduate. But that's just the beginning, obviously. And then the potential ahead of them and the lives they live turn out to reflect on MSU in very positive ways. It was a remarkable evening for me to have a chance to listen to these incredibly accomplished alums. And some were not alums but have given back so much to Michigan State University. It was great to hear their stories and what they've done and what they've accomplished. And again, their modesty notwithstanding, these are some amazing people who've done some incredible things. And I'm not going to single any one person out because it wouldn't be fair to the others I heard. But it was just an array of talent and accomplishment and a wonderful evening where we had a chance to celebrate them and their accomplishments and to think about, again, what great things our students are going to do in the future.”

You again recently witnessed how much MSU faculty and staff love and support MSU at the annual Thanks for Giving Lunch. 5,259 faculty, staff, and retiree donors collectively contributed $21 million to the university and students in the last fiscal year. These truly impressive figures put MSU second in the Big Ten and seventh among the 66 members of the prestigious Association of American Universities in employee and retiree giving.

“It's incredible. The people who work at MSU really give so much beyond the hours they put in every day in the office. They really are committed to this institution and what it stands for. Nothing speaks more to a donor, in my view, than people who work at the institution, who are paid by the institution, who then want to give back to the institution. Because here you are working every day giving your all, and then you still are giving part of that treasure you've earned back to the institution because you care about it and what it's doing.

“When I talk to donors, they’re always very impressed when I cite these numbers. Because again, it means they're investing in something that the people who work at MSU are willing to invest in as well. So I'm very grateful to what the faculty and staff have given. I thank them for their contributions to the university and I hope they continue to support those elements at the university they believe make a difference. So, whether it's student success, scholarships, faculty doing their amazing work, infrastructure to build support for many - whatever the gift is - it makes a direct difference in someone's life. And we very much appreciate it.”

Tuesday, November 30th is Giving Tuesday. Should anyone want to give to this great place, givingto.msu.edu is the place. And sir as we wrap up do you have some holiday thoughts for Spartans, or do you care to share how the Stanley family will enjoy the next few weeks?

“The Stanleys will be meeting at the location of one of my daughters. We will have everybody in the family together except for my oldest daughter, who will be celebrating with her fiancé’s family. But everybody else will be there together. And we're looking forward to a very restful and relaxing Thanksgiving and a chance to get together again and see each other. It's been a while since we had the whole group together. And it's such an important holiday in terms of getting together. And I hope everyone has a chance to experience it and experience it safely.”

As you look ahead to 2022, what are you thinking about?

“Well, FRIB opening is going to be extraordinary. And I think the chance to get this user facility, which is already in demand by hundreds of scientists around the world, actually running and doing experiments is going to be, I think, transformative. I also look forward to continuing our work in student success. We've made some progress in this. Now that we have the strategic plan, we will begin to implement that plan and begin the hard work of taking these exciting ideas we have and turn them into faculty recruitment programs. There will be work in DEI that will change the composition of our faculty and staff and students. There is hard work ahead for us, but I see much more opportunity to implement coming in 2022.”

That's Michigan State University president, Samuel L. Stanley Jr., M.D. All he's working on for us is available at president.msu.edu. And you can follow along on Instagram @msupresstanley.

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