Leadership Q&A: Regent Paul Brown on his ‘Up North’ Upbringing & U-M’s Northern Michigan Impact

Paul Brown, chair of the Board of Regents, recently shared his excitement for the upcoming Regents meeting in St. Ignace, an unprecedented event designed to elevate the University of Michigan’s impact across northern Michigan and longstanding commitment to the region from which he hails. A native of Petoskey, Brown received his B.A. and M.B.A. from the University of Michigan and his J.D. from Wayne State University. He was elected to the Board of Regents in 2018.

You have been instrumental in bringing the Board of Regents to northern Michigan for its first-ever meeting in the state’s Upper Peninsula. Why has this been so important to you, and to all the Regents?

I recognize that the University of Michigan is an institution that is, in essence, owned by all citizens of the state, no matter if they are in Ann Arbor, Muskegon, Monroe, Marquette or anywhere in between and beyond. It is the obligation of the Board and the university administration to ensure that we are providing value—not just to our students and their families, but also to the taxpayers and citizens of the state. One way to make sure we are doing that is to reach out to other areas of the state and present the value of the institution to them, and listen to the concerns they have and the things they need. I’m really excited about creating a meeting that does that in the Upper Peninsula.

As the only U-M Regent who grew up in northern Michigan, what experiences or perspectives do you bring to this work that are unique?

It’s probably not all that different from the experience of anyone who grew up in a small Michigan town, but I really focus on what I know coming from a small town — like how important it is to make sure the University of Michigan is a safe, attractive and valuable place for students from any background to come to and learn in. And that we have to not only think about what we are teaching students, but how we are meeting needs in towns across the state through health care, research and other mechanisms as well.

How is the University of Michigan making an impact in northern Michigan — and how do you view the importance of U-M’s impact on your statewide constituency?

There are a million ways we are making an impact throughout Michigan, including in the northern parts of the state. In the area where I grew up, around the Straits of Mackinac, we have the University of Michigan Biological Station on Douglas Lake (I actually spent much of my youth sneaking onto the property, so I was very thankful for the well-maintained natural environment there). But on a more serious note, the jobs at facilities like the Biological Station are critical to individuals and their families living in those areas. The research that we conduct, not just at the Biological Station but in a wide array of projects spanned out across the state, brings forward findings that people and industries can take advantage of for their families and communities. Additionally, our health care system continues to grow its physical locations and partnerships throughout the state.

Of course, the most obvious way we have an impact is that we like to take the brightest and best students from each community and educate them in a way that hopefully, if they so choose, allows them to return to their communities and develop a career that not only gives them financial independence and success, but also gives back to the economic strength of their community and communities throughout the state.

What do you love most about northern Michigan? What is it that keeps drawing you back to this part of our state?

Besides most of my friends and family still living there, it’s the natural environment — fishing, hunting, skiing, just about any activity you can do in the water. I enjoy it most when I’m in northern Michigan; I live for it.

What are the challenges facing northern Michigan specifically? What opportunities exist? And how can U-M make a difference?

There are of course always great challenges, but I think that in many ways there are now the most opportunities I’ve seen in decades. The challenge to find good, high-paying jobs in certain communities after graduation has always been a difficulty, but I think within the IT sector and considering the increase of remote work that the pandemic has accelerated, young adults have a chance to make a career in almost any field they want in any town, regardless of where the company is based.

Another challenge the University of Michigan is addressing is making sure families and students are familiar enough with our institution to see it as a potential goal. I think there are a lot of students in the state from small towns who don’t realize how attainable the University of Michigan is for them. We have great financial aid programs, highlighted by the Go Blue Guarantee, that everyone in the state should know about because it can make a big difference. If you are accepted to the University of Michigan, we have a program that can make it affordable for you.

What message would you like to share with students and their families living in northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula?

I would like to emphasize that the University of Michigan campuses are all safe, welcoming, wonderful places to learn. I can tell you firsthand coming from a small town that the transition is not that difficult — in fact, it is so welcoming that I’m positive they would enjoy it.

And, as I mentioned in my previous response, I hope that students and families throughout the state know that the University of Michigan is a place for them, and if students want to attend, we have programs to help with the financial aspects of their education. I would also like to say to families, and to the taxpayers of the state of Michigan, that taxpayer investment in education—particularly for research institutions like the University of Michigan, Michigan State University and Wayne State University—gives back, I believe, the best return to the taxpayers of any government expense. Part of the programming at our Board of Regents meeting in St. Ignace this week is to lay out what some of those returns on investments for taxpayers are, so I encourage everyone to attend.