GRAND RAPIDS — MSU opened its $88.1 million Grand Rapids Research Center Wednesday morning, completing a years-long process to bring a state of the art research facility to the area’s Medical Mile.
The ribbon-cutting ceremony has been politicized in recent weeks by the decision to invite U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to speak at the ceremony, drawing criticism and a petition from the researchers associated with the building.
Dr. Caryl Sortwell, associate chair of the Department of Translational Science and Molecular Medicine, was stunned to learn of her invitation in late August, saying DeVos was the antithesis of what the building and the university stood for. Sortwell created the aforementioned petition and called on the university to rescind DeVos’ invitation.
A smattering of protesters and counter-protesters lined the street outside the building but didn't disrupt the proceedings, which largely focused on the building.
DeVos noted the protesters during her brief remarks, joking they must be there because of her relatives who attended the University of Michigan.
But DeVos didn't dwell, instead noting MSU’s advancement in medical research.
“This new medical research center is a testament to the importance of research in a university's pursuit of truth,” DeVos said. “It’s about the process of testing ideas and questions and preparing students to tackle real world challenges.”
While DeVos’ speech primarily praised MSU, she also remarked on her possible plans as secretary of education. DeVos noted the importance of teaching science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, fields early and the role of science in early education.
“This research center will expand important opportunities for students with STEM dreams,” DeVos said. “As secretary, my goal is to ensure all students can find an educational path that helps meet their needs and prepares them for successful lives and careers.”
Sortwell's petition had gathered 3,558 signatures as of this morning.
“I think it was really clear by the size and the loudness of the protests and the people that it was a controversial decision,” Sortwell said. “I’m really grateful for the philanthropy in this community, but I don’t think donations make you immune to criticism for what the Trump administration is doing and what Secretary DeVos is supporting in her policies.”
At the ceremony, Sortwell said she had the same mixed emotions she’s had since they found out DeVos was speaking. While the invitation was not rescinded, Sortwell said she was proud of the efforts put forth by the protesters.
“I’m still very proud of this building, I’m still very excited about what we’re going to be able to accomplish here,” Sortwell said.
Other speakers gathered to speak at the ribbon cutting included former U.S. Ambassador to Italy Peter Secchia and Michigan Lt. Governor Brian Calley, both of whom attended MSU.
Secchia, who donated $5 million to the research center in May, began his remarks with a politically charged statement, saying he was proud of DeVos for “making the tough decision to bring due process back to the system.”
The statement references DeVos’ plans to reform the handling of sexual assault cases on college campuses.
Lt. Gov. Calley spoke to the research being done in the Grand Rapids area, saying MSU was adding its name further to the advancements happening there.
“I couldn’t overstate what is happening right now,” Calley said. “I’m so excited for Grand Rapids, I’m so excited for Michigan State University, I’m so excited for the state of Michigan and I could not overstate this, I’m excited for the human race for what’s happening right here.”
MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon noted DeVos’s presence, thanking her for being there and saying they have a shared vision.
"It’s about having children who are healthy and children who are well educated and children whose dreams are always bigger tomorrow than they are today," Simon said.
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Simon noted MSU’s connections to the Grand Rapids and the world wide MSU connections all drawing together at this building to make it “the most health science ecosystem in the world.”
“Making a difference in ways that reflect the values of this community,” Simon said. “That’s what people think about while walking through this building.”
DeVos' appearance at the opening, or that of the other speakers, was never officially announced by MSU, though officials have made statements and confirmations to the media.
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