The state universities needed strong allies like that, especially useful because they were outside of the higher-education world. "We needed to break down what were political barriers to advancing higher education," says Michigan State's Simon. "We had to be viewed as an asset, not a liability."
"Liability" was exactly how a lot of business types and state legislators saw the universities. "The public in Michigan historically has placed a pretty low value on higher education," says Doyle. For a long time, he says, Michigan kids have graduated from high school and gone straight to the factory floor and made "a pretty good living." The auto industry's demise hasn't altered the public's view of that trajectory, even if the economics show otherwise.
In fact, Doyle says the reason that BLM recruited the universities to be members was because an independent analysis it commissioned showed higher education to be a critical economic driver for the state. That surprised him. Michigan is a blue-collar state. His business is pizza. "I knew nothing about it other than the obvious, which is feeding higher education for many, many years," he jokes.
The universities had to convince executives like Doyle that they weren't spending student tuition dollars willy-nilly. They demonstrated, for example, that their employees paid upwards of 30 percent of their health care premiums and contributed to their own retirement funds. They don't have cushy pension plans. "We were burdened with old perceptions," Doyle says. "I didn't understand that the tuition increases were completely a factor of funding cuts, dollar for dollar."
The universities already were implementing system-wide cost-cutting practices and evaluating their progress with outside accountants, but BLM insisted that they make those efforts more transparent. The three University Research Corridor schools created websites and public reports. Then, using their membership in BLM, they cajoled the state's other 12 universities to do the same thing.
To convince a skeptical public, BLM's members put their marketing skills to work. They conducted public-opinion polling and then crafted public-service announcements around their findings to counteract negative attitudes toward the state schools. They held town halls and contacted every editorial board in the state.
And when it came time to convince the Legislature to increase the budget for state universities, BLM turned to students. They set up kiosks outside campus dining halls with cell phones and computers primed with lawmakers' email addresses and phone numbers so students could contact their legislators. Sometimes they gave away free coffee.
Everyone agrees these outreach efforts would have been for naught if the universities hadn't agreed to be measured and make their funding contingent on their scores. The Legislature wasn't just going to give the money away. Through painful negotiations and a lot of data analysis, the three research-corridor universities and their business partners came up with an evaluation system based on six metrics — critical-skill degrees, research and development, their six-year graduation rate, total degrees awarded, institutional support from donors, and the number of Pell grant students. It awards each school full points for each metric in which they are in the top quintile of comparable universities around the country, a lofty benchmark.