Aug. 28 2013 12:00 AM

Michigan State University enriches the heartland and goes global

Michigan State University almost got plowed under shortly after sending out its first tender shoots in 1855. In a near-fatal turnip scandal, an early alumnus of Michigan Agricultural College overplanted and spoiled his crop in a highly visible spot along Grand River Avenue. Farmers across the state snorted at the evils of book-larnin’ and tried to cut the college’s funds off in the state’s Legislature.

Now weighing in with an enrollment just shy of 50,000 students, MSU is the snorting Holstein bull in greater Lansing’s pen of higher education and the ninth largest university in the United States, but size is only part of the story. After a century of growth, MSU is focusing like a laser on high-end programs with a global reach.

It would singe the sideburns of Theophilus Abbot, MSU’s president in the 1860s and 1870s, to behold wonders like the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams, an atom-smashing research tool for one of the world’s top programs in nuclear physics, now going up on the south side of campus. Or the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum, a stainless steel shark of a building cruising Grand River Avenue, designed by ultra-chic architect Zaha Hadid.

The quarks in the cyclotron and the cutting-edge art share a venerable campus dotted with century-old oaks and sycamores. As new buildings like the glassy Wells Hall addition go up every year, it’s easy to forget how much history is here. None of the school’s first graduates in 1861 got their degree in person because they were off fighting the Civil War. MSU horticulture pioneer William Beal got pointers from Charles Darwin. Some of Beal’s handiwork is still in flower at Beal Gardens, centerpiece of a sprawling, gorgeously landscaped campus.

Since its salad days, MSU has gone way beyond turnips to offer more than 200 academic programs. The most popular are in social science, business, natural science, engineering and education, each with thousands of majors.

Several programs have an international reputation. These include the arcane (to many) supply chain management program and its parent unit, the Eli Broad College of Business. Packaging and hospitality business also get a lot of international recognition. Graduate-level elementary and secondary education programs have been ranked first in the nation by U.S. News and World Report for 19 years in a row.

The world is seeded with high-profile MSU graduates, from “Evil Dead” director Sam Raimi to the school’s most renowned ambassador, basketball great Earvin “Magic” Johnson. A lot of MSU grads stick around to make a big mark in Michigan, like lusty author Jim Harrison, gritty baseball great Kirk Gibson, Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert, U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow and former Michigan governors Jim Blanchard and John Engler.

MSU’s medical colleges — the College of Human Medicine and the College of Osteopathic Medicine — have a presence throughout the state. MSU has 10 campuses, from Detroit to the Upper Peninsula, and extension offices in every county in Michigan.

MSU interns, volunteers and researchers fan out into Lansing and the surrounding area via dozens of programs and partnerships. This month, MSU sent 51 MBA students to Old Town to do 150 service hours of community cleanup.

Sports culture is dominant at MSU, to be sure, but even Dr. Beal would tell you that a monoculture isn’t healthy. There are plenty of cultural gems to go along with the Broad Art Museum, including the College of Music, with a growing roster of world-class jazz and classical profs. Concerts and recitals at MSU have become a major point of pride for the university and a source of pleasure for local music lovers.

Nineteenth-century haters who wanted to pull the turf from under the agricultural college would be particularly shocked at MSU’s growing international reach. More students study abroad as part of their MSU career than at any other U.S. university. In all, MSU hosts about 7,000 international students from 130 countries.

This year, for the first time, MSU will have someone at Detroit Metro Airport to greet international students as they arrive. Also new this year is an on-campus hostel for international students that charges $16 a day until they get residence hall assignments.

The residence halls themselves, one by one, are being renovated and festooned with major works of public art. The latest halls to get the deluxe treatment are in the Brody complex. Brody Hall, with its ultramodern orange atrium, is among MSU’s newest emblems of modernity, but the venerable West Circle dorms, among the oldest buildings on campus, are scheduled for a careful restoration this fall. As it happens, turnips and quarks go together just fine.