Day two of the West Michigan Regional Policy Summit began with a panel discussion with representatives from colleges and universities (Read about day 1). Participating on the panel were Thomas Haas, president of Grand Valley State University (GVSU), David Eisler, president of Ferris State/Kendall College, Timothy Nelson, president of Northwestern Michigan College, and Eileen Wilson-Oyelaran, president of Kalamazoo College. The panel was presented with a series of questions with no time allotted for audience questions.
The first question posed to the panel asked what role higher education plays in contributing to the future and changing economy of Michigan? Some of the panelists said that their schools actively recruit international students so that they can diversify their student body to provide greater global opportunities for their economic partner. David Eisler with Ferris State said their students are “learning video gaming design, online identity protection, and health care education as their main contributors to the new global economy.” Timothy Nelson with Northwestern Michigan College said that their tech center contributes greatly to the global economy. Their campus is also the founder of the economic development corporation in Traverse City and that he will chair their area Chamber of Commerce beginning this January. Thomas Haas with GVSU said that he sees his role as being one of a facilitator of training for people to be prepared for the new economy. He went on to say that there needs to be more of an investment in higher education if we are to provide skilled workers for the future economy.
Next, the panel addressed ways to get business more connected to students. Eisler stressed more internships, even paid internships that could lead to ongoing employment. Nelson said that Northwestern has internship dynamics built into their curriculum; particularly in the healthcare area and that all their departments have a business advisory board to better interact with the business community. Haas believes that business and higher education have to work hard to attract and retain students to stay and work in West Michigan. Wilson-Oyelaran shared a story about a previous position she held in North Carolina. When the economy was hit hard, they invited the business community and foundation community to solicit input on future educational programs, which resulted in creating a biotech department. She emphasized the needs for constant partnering between business and higher education.
The panelists also addressed the issue of diversifying their student bodies and whether that was relevant to the future work force. The president of Northwestern Michigan said they do a great deal of international recruiting and hosting programs to inform the student body on global diversity. GVSU president Haas said, “diversity is an intellectual and business asset.” Wilson-Oyelaran said that the higher education community needs to make their schools more affordable for people who are not able to find financial support for college, which is a reality for many minority students. She suggested that corporate scholarships are also key to creating opportunities for minority students but did not cite any examples of companies that currently do this. Again, the emphasis was on the business/university partnership, but did not honestly address the racial disparities in college enrollment, an issue that made the news for GVSU recently.
The second morning session focused on healthcare’s role in the new Michigan economy. Dan Loepp, President and CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan facilitated the discussion around healthcare and the economy. It is relevant to note that in terms of influencing public policy, which was woven into the entire summit, Blue Cross Blue Shield is the 8th largest lobbyist group in Michigan according to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. It has spent over $400,00 in the past two years. Blue Cross Blue Shield is also the third largest contributor to candidates at the state level in Michigan, with a total $272,670 so far. Loepp made it clear that healthcare is central to the economic vitality for the future of West Michigan.
The panelists consisted of CEOs from Spectrum Health, Metro Health, Mercy Health Partners, and the VanAndel Institute. Rick Breon with Spectrum Health said that they have added more than 2,500 employees over the past 5 years. He said that one of their concerns is the underfunding of Medicaid and that the other major policy issue is term limits for state legislators, which has been a roadblock to changing Medicaid policy. Roger Spoelman with Mercy Health Partners said that training and funding for training future workers is their key concern, which he believes is a policy issue. David VanAndel with the VanAndel Institute spoke next and said that the FDA is a huge barrier to their ability to bring new drugs to the market. “We could deliver new medicines in months, but the regulatory system sometimes makes it a year or more and costs millions of dollars before we are able to bring them to the market.” At the state level, VanAndel said, the tax structure will play a key role in the future of healthcare.
Next the panelists were asked if they were “Czar for a day” what would they like to see happen? Metro Health CEO Mike Faas said that he would like to see more emphasis on training in primary care instead of specialized training. The Spectrum CEO said that we need to increase the supply of healthcare staff. David VanAndel said that about half of their staff are foreign nationals and he feels that we need to do more to train our own. “We are decades away from that, so we need some immigration reform, since our Institute is having difficulty in getting and retaining foreign nationals.”
When asked whether or not the healthcare system is broken, some responded with the need to put more emphasis on prevention and keeping people out of emergency rooms. One of the panelists actually suggested that “we might need a single payer system,” but that was quickly attacked by the Spectrum CEO who said, “we can’t turn it over to the government. The country is not ready for a Clinton-style change. It doesn’t matter which candidate you support, we simply can not make an easy transition to such a system.” This was an interesting comment on two levels. First, the Clinton healthcare proposal of the 1990s was nothing near a single payer plan, since Clinton did not want to take on the HMOs. Second, the two major party candidates are not advocating any significant changes to the current business managed healthcare system. Only the Green Party candidate supports a serious structural change to the current healthcare system.
Several other questions focused on training and retaining health care professionals; so some of the conversation was focused on specific approaches that the healthcare entites take, which had little impact on policy. VanAndel compared the healthcare sector to the lumber barons of years ago. He said, “the infrastructure that is now being put in place will bring the economic growth we want. It is definitely defining the region.”
The last question posed to the group had to do with what they thought about the insurance industry and whether or not it needs to change. Some of the panelists had mildly critical comments about the health insurance industry, but Rick Breon with Spectrum simply said, “Insurance companies are just middle men who move money around.” Others said that instead of criticizing the insurance companies we need to promote healthier lifestyles and get people to take responsibility of their own health. Unfortunately, this kind of comment does not take into account the role that the foods systems work. If one looks at the role that junk food marketers play in targeting kids (http://www.commercialalert.org/issues/education/junk-food/commercial-alert-responds-to-ftc-study-on-junk-food-marketing-to-kids) with their unhealthy products, it would shed light on external forces that contribute significantly to poor health in this country.
The luncheon talk featured Awmay co-founder Richard DeVos. DeVos was introduced by the head of the philanthropy department at GVSU, (http://www.gvsu.edu/jcp/) Dorothy Johnson. DeVos was asked to address the issue of leadership. He began by saying he didn’t think of himself as a leader, just someone who was trying to make a difference. Then DeVos discussed what he thought were characteristics of a good leader and used Michael Gorbachov as an example of someone who “had the courage to move from communism to capitalism.”
The number one thing, DeVos said, was for a leader to “set the tone, no matter where they are.” He then went on to slam Governor Granholm for not attending the summit. He also criticized the governor for “never acknowledging Amway as contributing positively to the state.” DeVos then went on to say that “growth will come from us, not from some outside business that will bring us jobs.” He also said that we have to get our teachers to start telling our students that starting and running businesses are an honorable thing.” He also felt that universities need to teach more students how to create businesses, since the jobs will come from those who live here. He only mentioned business leaders from Michigan, but not the role that workers played in Michigan’s history.
Next DeVos spoke about the importance of being a good communicator. At Amway, they hold employee meeting every month so that “employees would know what was going on.” Those who attend are rotated so that everyone would have an opportunity to speak, even though DeVos omitted the fact that workers at Amway do not have the right to organize. He said that workers who come to work for 13 weeks without missing a day, they get rewarded one day off. Amway doesn’t pay people on days they are sick, since “how could they know people were really sick.”
DeVos also said that leaders are also builders that find ways to make things better. “Leaders don’t sit around bitching all the time.” He then talked about the construction that Amway has done in downtown Grand Rapids. DeVos also acknowledged the medical and furniture companies in this town, particularly the creation of Spectrum. Lastly, DeVos said that leaders figure out how to “enrich the lives of others.” “You wouldn’t have Millennium Park without Peter Sechia… The young people in the community need to learn from these leaders… I learned from Bill Siedman when he went off to the Ford Administration who said that it is important to get involved in politics. So ever since I have been involved in politics, both Jay and I.” DeVos did not provide any details of that political involvement, which has been significant and is worth investigating.
The last part of the day consisted of a short video that featured Ford CEO William Ford and David Brandon, CEO of Domino’s Pizza on the importance East/West collaboration. William Ford summed up the importance of the statewide effort by saying “Michigan is open for business.” Once the video was shown the summit organizers facilitated an electronic voting process where participants voted on sever major policy issues, with the top five being the ones that will be sent to policy makers. The seven topics being voted on were Governance, Future of Michigan’s Work Force, Education, Healthcare, Attraction and Retention of Talent, and Manufacturing and Design for the Future.
The voting showed that the majority people were in favor of restructuring state government by eliminating term limits, making Michigan a “Right to Work” state, aligning Michigan’s educational curriculum to the needs of the business community, reducing healthcare costs, providing incentives for medical research and development, enhancing the state’s investment in a transportation system, and streamlining the state regulatory environment. Of these priorities, the two that received the highest percentage of votes were eliminating the Michigan Business tax and creating a “Right to Work” policy for the state.
It will be useful for readers to pay attention over the next several months to see what kind of impact this policy summit will have in Lansing. MediaMouse.org will try to keep you up to date as these policy proposals unfold.