KEDA Tech Talk: New president offers his first impressions

Garrett Neese/Daily Mining Gazette Michigan Technological University President Richard Koubek speaks at Wednesday’s Keweenaw Economic Development Alliance meeting.

HANCOCK — As he begins to shed his outsider status, Michigan Technological University President Richard Koubek has been struck by how Tech’s location has shaped it.

“Students aren’t accidentally here just because they couldn’t decide and end up in Houghton, Michigan,” he said. “It’s a conscious decision, and if you look at the students, it’s remarkable. They have a quiet calmness about them. They have a self-confidence they don’t talk about.”

Koubek, who was named president in April, spoke about his outlook on the university’s future at the Keweenaw Economic Development Alliance meeting Wednesday.

The tenacity and community spirit will help the university persevere through upcoming hurdles, he said, such as the forecast drop in Michigan high school graduates and the continued lower levels of state funding after the 2009 economic crash.

“It’s actually an environment that our institution is embracing,” he said. “…We’re a tough place, and that gives us an opportunity to accelerate at a rate that perhaps we wouldn’t if all things were equal and all things were the way they’d always been.”

Enrollment dipped slightly in the fall, Koubek said. However, the university posted record highs in research expenditures and percentage of women and underrepresented domestic minority students.

Tech is doing a “very rigorous review” on how it will price tuition going forward, Koubek said. With student debt increasing, he said, “the willingness to pay for higher education is about at the limit.”

The university will also launch a “much more aggressive” national marketing campaign, he said.

While most universities in Tech’s peer group bill themsleves as an “institute of technology,” Koubek said, Tech is one of a handful with “technological university.” Rather than a quirk of nomenclature, it reflects Tech’s view of viewing technology in context, he said.

“What that means to us is that the social implications and the environmental implications of our technology really matter,” he said. “It’s not just about the widget. It’s about what the widget does to help our environment and our community.”

The Tech Forward initiative is gathering input from the campus and community to identify key initiatives for the next several year. Sometime between March and May, Koubek said, the conversations should yield five to seven key ideas.

“I wanted to get all the ideas out on the table — faculty’s input, community’s input,” he said. “Make the call, place our bets, and then invest and go for it.”

It will work towards one of the things that drew him to the area, he said — working closely with local industry to enhance the regional economy and well-being of residents.

Even nationally known universities won’t go it alone, he said.

“In fact, their value is going to be the degree to which those boundaries are completely permeable,” he said.