Multifaceted Muth Impacts MSU, Industry

Q: What changes have you seen in the telecommunications industry?

A: When I came to East Lansing, there was no such field in law that was communications. Everyone referred to mass media policy. One of the things we tried to do at Michigan State, in our department—originally called Television, Radio, and the College of Communication Arts and Sciences and changed to Telecommunication in 1976 … was to integrate the new communication services, such as cable television; and we realized that the telephone industry was about to be broken up by 1981 and available for the advanced mobile enterprise phone system that we now call cellular telephones …. [We] realized that there was going to be a lot of growth in the telecommunications industry in the upcoming 20 to 30 years, and there has been. So as the various revolutions came along, from multi-channel to wireless communications, the dot-com developments, and video games, we’ve been in a good position to meet the challenge and to offer education and research that does two things: We have been able to study and teach about the infrastructure of telecommunication, while at the same time, not losing our focus on the need for substantial and high-quality content in those infrastructure networks that needs to be transmitted.

Q: How does MSU fit into the telecommunications market?

A: Michigan State is recognized by international organizations as a leader in the field … it is the oldest college of telecommunications in existence. In the 1950s, when this college started, there was an understanding of the potential for communications as a generalized field, so a lot of that has been developed right here at Michigan State …. If you look around the world, a large number of the leaders of the communications and telecommunications field have either graduated from Michigan State or have a clear tie to our college and department.

Q: How are telecommunications services developing in other parts of the world?

A: Many countries are moving ahead with wireless service … developing in various countries where the infrastructure [for telecommunications] has not ever been developed. We see that various systems work together.

Q: After earning your JD, you worked in theater in New York. How did that combine with your interest in telecommunications?

A: As I was learning about the theater, I got hooked up with Bell Laboratories, and, interestingly, we were involved with technological theater. There was a show in the late 1960s called the Armory Show and it duplicated a very avant garde art show that took place in the first part of the 20th century. It brought technology into art. It was very interesting how technology and art merged …. As I proceeded with my legal training, I said, “You’ve got to have rules, procedures and protocols,” and now we can see the degree to which we need to have a clear understanding of intellectual property. That created the spark that comes out of the intellectual property area … [so I combined] theater, law, economics and married it to education and ended up becoming a professor.

Q: How could intellectual property developments help Lansing’s economy?

A: We need new ideas that … allow for new industries and the diversity we’ve been seeking …. We simply have to have new industries … that engender a better internal economy in the state, particularly in the region … in the way of services or possibly software or hardware, value that can be transmitted or projected or distributed worldwide.

Our market today is predicated upon the strength of the United States. The stock market is global, so it is dependent on emerging and developing nations around the world. The United States and Michigan can contribute direction. Actual labor and output have already moved to more localized markets where labor is not as costly, so we have to focus on what we do well, which is invent, create and do enterprise.

Q: How does Lansing compare to similar markets?

A: I did a study on state capitals a few years ago, and I discovered that places like Columbus, Ohio do not have an inherent economy, do not have a large base such as we have had with the automobile industry. Former Mayor David Hollister often referred to the fact that around 1950 to 1954, Lansing and Columbus were the same size. Columbus is now a metropolitan area of four counties that is active and the economy is still very strong, whereas Lansing is still Lansing.

We need to regionalize in Lansing, and we need to draw capital. A city like Indianapolis, Indiana decided it would become a metropolitan community some years back. They took the entire county as the metropolitan city of Indianapolis, and it has been enormously successful because of the elimination of duplication of governmental units and consolidation of services. Jacksonville, Florida still controls the largest land mass … which has allowed it to grow. Like St. Louis and Cincinnati, we’re bounded by a lot of smaller communities that have self-interests, and there is a rivalry for state funds. The need for cooperation is imperative in the Lansing region and needs to be fostered to have success.

Q: How does intellectual property play into that?

A: This region has tremendous potential with being the state capital, having one of the major universities in the world here, and all the intellectual capital that that combination suggests …. We have an excellent university system in Michigan that generates intellectual property, meaning inventions, writing, design …. We  have lots of good design coming out of the furniture industry, but we need to spread that design concept around the state. There needs to be a better understanding of creative industrial design that is functional …. We have to implement the concepts that are generated by art and put those into design that has the potential of providing a beacon for other parts of the world.

Author: Christine Caswell
Photography: Terri Shaver


Thomas A. Muth, PhD, JD

Current Position: Professor, Department of Telecommunication,

Information Study & Media, Michigan State University

Education: BS/BA, University of Dayton; JD, Northern Kentucky University;

PhD, Ohio State University

Hometown: Dayton, Ohio

Resides: East Lansing

Family: Married, two children

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