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Water management is challenge of a generation, Lt. Gov. tells UMSI students

Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II stands at a podium adorned with the University of Michigan logo

Friday, 10/06/2023

Information professionals will be essential to solving our generation’s greatest challenges, Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II told an audience of over 400 during his keynote talk at the University of Michigan on Thursday, Sept. 28. Gilchrist’s much-anticipated visit came as part of the School of Information’s theme year on water conservation and access

“I think this school has a unique and important mission when it’s compared to its sister schools within the university,” he said. “This notion of preparing socially-engaged information professionals to create people-centered knowledge, systems and institutions for the Information Age — that’s something that really is critical.” 

Gilchrist studied computer engineering and computer science at U-M before pursuing a successful career as a software engineer. In 2018, he served as the founding executive director of UMSI’s Center for Social Media Responsibility

He said a course he took at UMSI as an undergraduate first introduced him to the concept of information asymmetry — “the notion that different people, different entities, have … different access to information” — which has fundamentally shaped how he thinks about the world and approaches problem solving. 

“When you equip a person with information, you inspire and empower them,” he told the audience.

Gilchrist spoke in depth about water-related issues in Michigan, which have been central to his work as lieutenant governor. “Even in this Great Lakes state … we still have some communities that struggle with significant challenges when it comes to water quality, water access and water affordability,” he said.  

When he and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer took office in 2019, many communities across Michigan were facing issues with aging water infrastructure, including lead service lines that needed to be replaced. The state has since invested over $4 billion in water infrastructure through the 2020 MI Clean Water Plan and the 2022 Building Michigan Together Plan.

He and Whitmer created the Office of the Clean Water Public Advocate, which operates within the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, to serve as a resource for the public, ensuring that drinking water concerns like suspected lead contamination can be reported and investigated. After attending a talk by Kris Donaldson, clean water public advocate, students in SI 501 are working to investigate problems related to drinking water and make actionable recommendations.  

Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II delivers theme year keynote

Elizabeth Yakel, Cliff Lampe and Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II smile on stage in front of a screen projecting "UMSI theme year 2023-24: Water conservation and access"
Interim dean Elizabeth Yakel, professor and associate dean for academic affairs Cliff Lampe and Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II
Audience members listen to the Lt. Gov. speak in Rackham Auditorium
Audience members listen to the Lt. Gov. speak in Rackham Auditorium
People sit in Rackham Auditorium, facing the stage
Audience members listen to the Lt. Gov. speak in Rackham Auditorium

“Water management will be one of the challenges of our generation,” Gilchrist told students. “In order to understand how we can meet that challenge, we need smart, we need bold, we need connected information professionals to be part of the process.” 

Other water-related issues in Michigan include invasive species that wreak havoc in the Great Lakes and historic, climate change-induced rainfall that leads to flooding. Particularly in the face of climate change, Gilchrist said improving water systems is urgent work.

He encouraged students to consider careers in the public sector. He said there is currently no other elected official in the U.S. who shares his background “as an information professional who actually wrote code.” 

Charlotte Parent, a student in SI 305, was in attendance. This semester, she and her classmates are analyzing data related to rainfall, water quality and water main breaks in order to inform policy decisions. 

“As a native Michigander, the importance of the Great Lakes and water conservation in general is something I'm passionate about,” she said. “Using information science to start addressing these issues is a big step in the right direction to both preserving our water and improving accessibility.” 

Abigail McFee, marketing and communications writer

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View upcoming theme year events here