Students in MSU’s Master of Public Policy program and undergraduates majoring in Political Science took part in an intimate conversation last week with James J. Blanchard, a former U.S. Congressman, two-term Governor of Michigan, and U.S. Ambassador to Canada during the Clinton administration. Blanchard and his wife, Janet, recently donated $1 million to Michigan State University to create the Spartan Statesmanship Award for Distinguished Public Service and a related lecture series that bears his name. Both the award and the lecture series will be administered by the Department of Political Science. Blanchard earned a bachelor’s degree in social science at MSU in 1965 before going on to law school at the University of Minnesota and a remarkable career in politics.
In his conversation with MPP and PoliSci students, Blanchard challenged his fellow Spartans to “think big.” “Politics is the art of the possible,” he said. “It can be a science [when dealing with voter behavior and policymaking details], but it still takes some sort of vision and big thinking.” Blanchard answered students’ questions with an insider’s perspective on a wide range of policy areas—from student loans to U.S. policy towards Cuba to emergency managers, gubernatorial powers, and term limits in Michigan. He also shared personal insights on politicians including president Barack Obama, former president Bill Clinton, Michigan governor Rick Snyder, and Detroit politicians Kwame Kilpatrick (former mayor, currently serving a 28-year sentence on federal corruption charges), Kevyn Orr (former state-appointed emergency manager), and Mike Duggan (current mayor).
Blanchard also told students about Michigan’s role in the development of the modern Internet—and how that became an issue in the presidential campaign in 2000. When Blanchard was governor of Michigan, he recalled, one of his advisors came to him with “this cool idea to create a grid to tie together the computer networks at the US’s major research universities.” The governor’s office ended up contributing “a couple million dollars” to get MSU, the University of Michigan, and Wayne State University connected to what was then called NSFNet. “I never dreamed that we would be providing seed money to one of the stops along the way to creating the Internet” said Blanchard. He noted the power of the political process to change and distort information, as Al Gore, who sponsored the legislation for NSFnet, had his statements on that issue transformed into a national talking point during the campaign.
Blanchard was especially interested in the Political Science department’s partnership with the City of Detroit. Three MPP students interned with the city’s Income Tax Division this past summer, and Blanchard listened intently as they told him about their experiences. “I believe the future of Detroit is brighter today than it’s been in 30 or 35 years,” Blanchard said. He compared Detroit’s recent declaration of bankruptcy to the city to New York, which experienced severe financial stress in the 1970s, but has now emerged as one of the world’s premier cities. Blanchard said Detroit still has a long way to go, but that the amount of reinvestment and innovation going on, plans for a new bridge to Canada (“the U.S.’s biggest trading partner”), the leadership of a competent mayor, and improving perceptions of Detroit among investors from outside of Michigan all make the city’s future look brighter than it has in decades.
Blanchard concluded the conversation on an inspirational note. “I’m an optimist,” he said. “I was raised by a single mom, and look how far I came. But even my optimism wasn’t so great” to think that things like the election of America’s first black president, a turnaround in Detroit, and many other developments around the world, in the U.S., and at home in Michigan could happen in his lifetime, he said.
For their part, MSU students and faculty interested in politics and public policy are also feeling optimistic about Blanchard’s increased involvement with the university and about the increased opportunities for interaction with policymakers that the endowed lecture series and award will bring.