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“Spartans care deeply” about stewarding resources and a sustainable MSU campus


Michigan State University's new strategic plan articulates a shared vision for the university through the end of the decade. MSU's Strategic Plan 2030: Empowering Excellence, Advancing Equity, and Expanding Impact received the unanimous endorsement of the MSU Board of Trustees.

MSU's Strategic Plan 2030 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 diversity, equity, and inclusion.

On this edition of MSU Today, we'll be focusing on the stewardship and sustainability theme of the plan with its executive sponsors: Executive Vice President for Administration and Chief Information Officer Melissa Woo and Senior Vice President, Chief Financial Officer and Treasurer Lisa Frace.

Michigan State University President Samuel L. Stanley Jr., M.D. says Spartans care deeply about Planet Earth and about MSU's financial sustainability.

“Stewardship and Sustainability is the fifth pillar of the strategic plan and one of the most important,” says Stanley. “Our students, faculty, and staff care deeply about the planet and climate change. This is incredibly important to them, and the concept of sustainability and being stewards of our environment and our financial situation here at MSU is important to everyone on the campus. We're a leader in this area. We're among the top-ranked college campuses in what we're doing, and the goal of the strategic plan is to continue that leadership and put us in the forefront of people who are making a difference in this area.

Samuel L. Stanley, Jr., MSU President
Derrick L. Turner
Samuel L. Stanley, Jr., MSU President

“We've already been making changes in our financial stewardship. Our financial situation has improved significantly over the past couple years. Despite COVID, we've been able to improve our balance sheets, and we're going to continue to work to make sure that our budget is aligned with our strategic goals to make sure that we're using the dollars we have at MSU in a way that furthers the strategic goals and the strategic plan and makes a difference.”

Michigan State is working toward climate neutrality by mid-century. Why is it critical MSU take this step, and what are some of our key action plans?

“It's just one of the pieces of a total holistic institutional sustainability and climate action plan, which is going to be based on a four-pillar framework focused on four C's: campus, curriculum, community, and culture,” says Woo.

“As we continue to move forward in meeting energy goals and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, we'll also be looking at taking systemic, sustainable actions and adopting a culture that enables the institution to reach those goals. Some of the other things that we're working on will be to foster resource stewardship through application of leadership and environmental design. We’re organically managing land and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, increasing sustainable source purchases, increasing campus-grown and locally sourced food, and reducing the transportation carbon footprint.

“Another place we're really focusing on is expanding sustainability teaching and learning opportunities through formal courses and co-curricular activities. And of course, we can't forget research. We also want to expand sustainability research and innovation through inter- and intra-institutional partnerships to address climate solutions. And finally, because we also can't forget outreach, we want to make sure we enhance sustainability outreach and engagement by expanding volunteer opportunities for our faculty, staff, and students in support of local, state, regional, national, and global partnerships.”

Melissa Woo

“Sustainability also refers to a sustainable model for financial and other types of resources. We are looking at transforming the university's budgeting process as part of that,” adds Frace.

Are there some other plans for us to be a greener campus?

“We want to achieve platinum ranking in what's known as the Sustainability Tracking Assessment and Rating System, STARS for short, by 2030 if we can,” continues Woo. “We also really want to achieve the Top 100 Times Higher Education global impact ranking by 2030.

“Another thing we're looking at is reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent from our 2010 baseline. And ultimately, we want to ensure that faculty, staff, and students can live, work, and learn in buildings and spaces that promote health and wellness, have access to proximal green space, and enjoy pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly design.”

Sustainability also refers to sustainability of financial and other types of resources. MSU will be adapting a new long-term, comprehensive financial model and budget process to align with and support strategic priorities. Can you talk about this model and the process to develop it and the timeline?

“When we talk about the university budget process, the first thing we'll start to do is to develop an all-funds budget approach to provide a holistic financial management framework that will allow us to better address strategic priorities,” Frace says. “We're laying the groundwork this year through developing budget and forecasting systems so that we have the tools and processes in place to be able to support a change in budget model and allow all units to be successful when we get to that.

“Once we have developed those tools, we will engage the campus in a comprehensive redesign, but that won't likely be for at least another 18 months because we really do need to develop the systems, tools, processes, and reports to enable that success. And it's going to be critically important that we take the time to get it right so that we understand and can address any unintended consequences before we actually launch into a new model.

Lisa Frace
Lisa Frace

“We have proposed and sold century bonds that are repayable in 100 years. And those proceeds from those bonds will help us to create a revolving fund that will allow us to invest in perpetuity in projects that support the strategic plan, and that's critically important. It creates a stewardship tool for not only this generation but for generations to come.”

The university master plan is referenced in this section of the strategic plan. I understand that planning work has begun and that it has an emphasis on embedding priorities like diversity, equity, and inclusion; faculty, staff, and student success; and sustainable health in the physical and space planning. Talk about how that's done and how it will strengthen outcomes at MSU. What's the goal of the plan?

“This is really exciting,” Woo says. “In the past, this has been known as the Land Use Master Plan, which really only focused on the East Lansing campus. However, we have so many activities all over the state. We have great things happening in Flint and Detroit and Grand Rapids and a presence in every county in the state because of MSU Extension. How this plan differs from the old land use master plans is it really looks at all 26,000 acres of land that we hold and the facilities on them. The way we're going through this is that we're really looking at a comprehensive and strategic framework for guiding future decisions regarding land use, which is why we want to be all inclusive. It should support the institution's three mutually reinforcing strategic plans and the academic strategic plan implementation.

“Our goal is to complete this plan by the end of 2022, and we are going to be incorporating multiple perspectives into the planning process, including consideration of the history of the land MSU occupies, tribal consultation around archeological sites, and environmental impact reviews. We want to have a very broad group of stakeholders, including our surrounding communities, to make sure that we are truly inclusive of people's concerns and their thoughts and brainstorm around how we can best utilize our land, our buildings, and our facilities.

“What we're really hoping to do is to incorporate campus district plans to encourage collaboration and innovation. We’re also planning for construction and renovation of high priority facilities that support MSU-articulated priorities and values. So for example, I think you've heard about the Multicultural Center. We're also improving our recreational sports facilities, and we have goals for improving our greenhouses and an engineering facility.

“We also want to make sure we ensure wayfinding is accessible for all users. And what's really exciting is that we want to enhance public art on the campus and ensure it includes multiple modalities and diverse perspectives.”

Let's talk about the reference to developing a sustainable information technology strategic plan to power the academic enterprise. What will be some of the key things that plan addresses, and what are some of the challenges and opportunities?

“We have four key things that the plan addresses,” Woo continues. “The first is to improve and enhance IT services and infrastructure to improve access and reliability and enable greater avenues for innovation in teaching, research, and scholarly activity.

“Another key thing that the plan will address is to expand access to technology such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, and augmented and virtual reality to enhance learning, research, community engagement, and MSU's reach throughout our communities. Another key thing is to provide operational excellence by leveraging technology to provide informed decision-making, reduce operating costs, and optimize the capabilities of our teams. And finally, another key thing that the plan will address is to ensure faculty, staff, and students have the tools and network connectivity needed to succeed in remote, virtual, and hybrid modalities.

“As far as challenges and opportunities go, this is an excellent opportunity to ensure that technology services are delivered in alignment with supporting MSU's research, education, and outreach mission. Technology should support and enable people’s excellent work in support of our mission.

“In being able to truly understand stakeholder goals and needs in order to deliver technologies that support their work in alignment with MSU's mission, we're really going to be looking across the board for a lot of stakeholder input.”

“I agree with Melissa's evaluation that this is really going to be transformative, but I also think that in terms of the operational savings that she mentioned, it's not only about operational savings,” Frace says. “It's about providing better data for better decision-making so that we can continue to innovate not only on the academic and research side but really on the operational side of the house, too.”

Engaged alumni, donors, and friends are vital to MSU's long-term sustainability. MSU is fortunate. We have more than 1 million alumni, friends, corporations, foundations, and organizations connected with the institution. How does their engagement play a role in the success of achievement of key initiatives within this theme, and how can they best engage?

“Their engagement is vital to staying at the forefront of excellence, and it's really crucial in advancing Michigan State University's reputation for excellence and innovation,” Frace continues. “There are a few ways that we can think about engaging with them. Public-private partnerships is one. And the role of a private-public partnership is that there are opportunities for corporations, foundations, and others to engage with MSU to bring certain sorts of financial structures to the table. That might be building buildings for us or doing a ground lease or working with them on research innovation.

“What it allows us to do is to attract other types of activity to the campus. Think about Grand Rapids, where we have the medical innovation happening. Think of the Apple Academy. Those are really good examples of activities we've already undertaken. And there are other really good examples of institutions that have gone down this path. The University of Illinois has a really good tech innovation campus. Georgia Tech has a well-known one. Arizona State has a well-known set of P3 activities. All of those are good exemplars for us to be able then to choose the best and build our own design.

“We also look to establish reciprocal opportunities for partnering with businesses and community organizations, like the work we've done with McLaren on the hospital that's been built adjacent to our campus. They work very collaboratively with our colleges of medicine in terms of providing residencies and other opportunities for learning.

“We also have the TechSmith project being built on our campus, a fundamental project that the MSU Foundation has brought forward. Melissa's the president of the MSU Foundation, and it has really been a critical set of work that she's done.”

“The MSU Foundation exists to support MSU,” says Woo. “Something that's fantastic about the foundation is the foundation board has incredible talent. It includes alumni and friends of MSU, and this is a pool of talent that we absolutely need to engage. We have so many talented alumni with great business acumen and talents and knowledge and connections that MSU should and can focus on and engage with. Alumni are so important to us.”

“As executive sponsors of this theme of the plan, Melissa and I work very closely together,” Frace says. “We will engage with one another, our teams, and with the campus community to really allow this to move forward and evolve. And as those things evolve, we'll develop ways to consistently communicate the progress with the campus community and to update the whole strategic plan implementation.”

“The way I look at stewardship is that we have to be good stewards of university resources,” Woo says. “This doesn't necessarily mean we have to be cheap. We do need to look at value versus cost of resources because what we really want to do is to make sure we provide sufficient value to the university. And sometimes, being the most efficient is not the best or high value way to do that. So, what we really want to look at is effectiveness and weigh that value versus cost. That is part of being a good steward of university resources.”

“I agree with that,” concludes Frace. “The way I would characterize it is we need to take all of the information that we have available to us and bring that all together to make the best decisions that support the long-term viability of the institution from an academic, research, and operational standpoint so that as students come to MSU and ultimately graduate, they see that the value of the degree that they've earned continues to increase.”

On this edition of MSU Today, we've been talking about the stewardship and sustainability theme of MSU's Strategic Plan 2030: Empowering Excellence, Advancing Equity, and Expanding Impact with the executive sponsors of the theme: Executive Vice President for Administration and Chief Information Officer Melissa Woo and Senior Vice President, Chief Financial Officer and Treasurer Lisa Frace.

Read and learn more about MSU's Strategic Plan 2030 at strategicplan.msu.edu.

MSU Today airs Sunday mornings at 9:00 on WKAR News/Talk and Sunday nights 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. Please share this conversation if you’re so inclined.