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The Challenge of Change: The Opportunity for Transformative Engagement

  • Date: 11/03/2008
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: State of the University Address
  • That we live in interesting times is the understatement of our modern age.

    The fact is . . . shift happens; change happens!

    And, as we have just seen, with change there is always opportunity, and that is a good thing because we human beings are - at our very core - explorers, discoverers, innovators . . .

    Think of the people who developed America's western frontier, who were the first to fly, who were the first to the moon. They led the way, choosing optimism over fear, thereby shaping the world in which we now live.

    Yet, for most of us, change remains an equal opportunity enemy. And what we hear most often is a fear of change. But the fact is . . . shift happens. The fact is . . . the world moves on. The fact is . . . we best enable ourselves with skills to seek the new opportunities now being created.

    Not so long ago, business focused its energies on improving the quality and efficiency of our enterprises. But re-engineering is no longer sufficient, and new tools are needed because "where we once optimized our organizations around efficiency and quality, today we must optimize our entire society around innovation." 1

    Think about it . . . "where we once optimized our organizations around efficiency and quality, today we must optimize our entire society around innovation." 1

    And therein lies a great opportunity for our university because I suggest to you that there are few universities better positioned to lead that shift than The University of Akron. And I say this because we have built the foundations by which every one of our graduating students will know how new knowledge is both created and applied.

    And so, what I want to do in this State of the University Address is to share with you some perspectives of what has brought us to this point in our history and what our opportunities are. I will begin with some highlights of the recent accomplishments that have so well positioned The University of Akron. Then I will look back on our history to capture the fact that this is an institution deeply rooted in this community; that this is the university in, of and for Akron. Finally (and in keeping with the spirit of tomorrow's election), I will look ahead to the next four years and, with your help, project our university into the future.

    At the outset, let me remind you that we already are engaged in the process of creating a New Gold Standard for a great American university; a new model of university excellence

    As a metropolitan-sited institution, The University of Akron aligns itself with its city and regional community to build economic, social and physical health. We seek to differentiate ourselves as the public research university for Northern Ohio, the university dedicated to the education and success of its students and to the production, integration and dissemination of knowledge for the public good. And we seek to define success by new performance standards, not by the traditional model in which institutional "excellence" is defined largely by selectivity and expense - by how many students were excluded and by how much money was spent per student, regardless of outcomes.

    • Unlike others, we shall be measured by how much value we add in enabling the success of our students, not by how many students we exclude
    • Unlike others, we shall be measured by the collaborative impact that we create for each other and for our common future, not by the barriers we erect between ourselves and our communities.
    • Unlike others, we shall be measured by the integration of our disciplines as applied in solving the problems of today, not by their isolation.

    And I believe that one of the best examples of those values, our longtime strengths, and how we have advanced them in the past 10 years is the recently announced BioInnovation Institute in Akron.

    The BioInnovation Institute began as a conversation between Tom Strauss and me, building on Mayor Plusquellic's concept of a biomedical district and a biomedical corridor. We then called upon the leaders of Akron Children's Hospital, Akron General Health System, Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine, Summa Health System, The University of Akron, The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the city of Akron, Summit County and the state of Ohio. And the result is an initial five-year investment of $80 million to launch this unique collaboration that will pioneer the next generation of life-saving biomaterials and medical technologies.

    The Institute will meld the region's traditional strengths in polymers, advanced manufacturing and health care to create transformational new technologies in orthopaedics, wound care and biopolymers. It will position Akron as a national and international leader in biomaterials and advance its reputation for excellence in biomedical research, education, clinical services and commercialization.

    Already, our research at The University of Akron has led to several health care breakthroughs. Let me give you just a few examples-

    • an artificial pancreas that could "cure" diabetes (which was invented by Distinguished Professor Joseph Kennedy, who has just received his 100th patent),
    • the replacement of damaged heart and lung tissue, and the rebuilding of blood vessels,
    • wound-care devices currently in clinical trials,
    • glucose-monitoring contact lenses and
    • drug-delivery mechanisms at the nano scale, as well as
    • the technology that led to therapeutic coronary stent coatings, which I bet several of you in this audience have benefited from without even knowing that it came from your university.

    But that is not all, because within The University of Akron we have seen growing collaboration among health-profession programs that will provide additional strength to the BioInnovation Institute. And we will see improved medical care for the underserved, strengthening of health care professional education through simulations and other technologies, and clinical trials for devices and therapies.

    While today this kind of collaboration and engagement is not unique to Akron, we are exceptional for having routinely worked in this manner or almost 140 years.

    The University's responsiveness to the region's educational and technological needs has been its hallmark since 1870. From the outset, the college and the surrounding community were closely tied, with the college addressing the needs of the region and seeing local entrepreneurs assisting the fledgling institution time and again.

    In 1913, Buchtel College trustees and President Parke R. Kolbe transferred the institution and its assets to the city of Akron - thus triggering what has become known as the University's First Cycle of Expansion. For the next 50-plus years, The Municipal University of Akron and its hometown brought college education within the reach of many more young people, and enrollment swelled from 198 to about 10,000.

    The University's growth paralleled the remarkable expansion of Akron. People were drawn to the city, already a major manufacturing center, by the promise of jobs.

    Companies such as Goodyear, Firestone, General and Goodrich were headquartered in Akron so it was only natural that the world's first courses in rubber chemistry would be offered at the University, beginning in 1909. With the formation of the Rubber Technical Institute in 1942, University researchers and students were well prepared to contribute to the development of synthetic rubber in support of the Allied war efforts.

    A long era of growth followed World War II, and overseeing that Second Cycle of Expansion for the University was its 10th president, Dr. Norman P. Auburn. Under his leadership, the institution made the transition in 1967 from a municipal to a state university, enabling tremendous growth in enrollment and campus facilities.

    In the years that followed, as tire production left the Akron area, the University's pioneering research was instrumental in helping the once-undisputed Rubber Capital of the United States to re-invent itself as the Polymer Center of the World.

    Of course, you've heard this story many times before. Why take time to repeat it once more?

    Because it is vital to remember that, throughout its history, the University has served as a transformational agent. And it has done so by building on strong ties with its sponsoring society and well-established strengths in highly relevant innovation.

    In fact, in the strategic plan that we created at the start of my tenure here, a document titled Charting the Course, we stated that our only long-term basis for comparative and competitive advantage is our engagement with our community and the ability to identify and serve its needs. We have held true to that tenet, to our benefit and that of Greater Akron and Northeast Ohio.

    Today, The University of Akron participates in more than 600 collaborative ventures. We have broadened and formalized our associations to collaborate in initiatives that benefit our community, our partners . . . and our university.

    Beyond the BioInnovation Institute I mentioned earlier, there are several other fine milestones of collaboration that we achieved in the last year. Among them are-

    • The opening of the Medina County Higher Education Center;
    • Obtaining the largest Choose Ohio First grant in the inaugural round of awards, as recognition of strength in engineering and co-ops with three partner institutions;
    • Participating in three collaborative STEM/critical languages institutes this past summer; and
    • Being awarded funding for one of only five STEM schools in Ohio, for our joint program that will open next fall in the National Inventors Hall of Fame building.

    In addition, by engaging with our local and regional community to identify and serve its needs together, we have spurred progress toward important institutional and state goals:

    • We have grown annual sponsored research funding from just over $20 million in 1999 to more than $34 million in the last fiscal year, with more than half of that record total being comprised of federal dollars. We saw licensing revenue increase from $270,000 in 2001 to $6.3 million last year. And our seven-year-old University of Akron Research Foundation now manages our ever-expanding portfolio of 344 issued and pending patents, has spawned 28 start-up companies and has returned in excess of $14 million for the benefit of our University.
    • In less than 10 years, our fall student full-time-equivalent enrollment has risen by almost 22 percent, and our student headcount now stands at nearly 26,000. In addition, retention and graduation rates have increased, as has the quality of our incoming students . . . though we have maintained our commitment to inclusive excellence. In addition, we are receiving a record number of freshmen applications.
    • In the past year alone, freshmen applications increased by 18 percent, new freshmen enrollment increased to 4,537, including a 9 percent increase in new honors students. And, from fall 2005 to fall 2008, the number of new freshmen enrollees rose by 26 percent!
    • In less than 10 years - we have grown yearly fund raising from a high of $15 million to last year's new record exceeding $41 million;
      • we have launched a $500 million comprehensive campaign that already has garnered $365 million in gifts and pledges; 
      • we have transformed our campus, adding 14 new facilities - with Infocision Stadium and Summa Field well on the way - and more on the drawing board, and we made major additions and renovations to 17 other structures; and
      • Along the way, we have changed our University from a $270-million operation into an enterprise with over $435 million in annual revenues.

    In short, much like our forbearers, we too are leading a historic institutional transformation; by continuing to engage with our local and regional community to identify and serve its needs together, we are driving the Third Cycle of Expansion. And that focus, as always, remains the basis for our future - our "next four years."

    Let us now start getting to the future . . .

    Over the last few years, your university has played a lead role in developing a new national agenda focusing on the role of metropolitan universities. So imagine our delight when the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution unveiled their Blueprint for Prosperity: America a Metro Nation. And Brookings has now brought this initiative to Ohio, noting that "Ohio's best chance to alter its trajectory is to leverage its assets where they are found - in metropolitan regions.  It is metropolitan areas - networks of urban/metropolitan, suburban, and rural areas inextricably linked by social and economic ties - that concentrate the assets that drive prosperity: Innovation, Human Capital, Infrastructure and the Quality of Place." 2

    And the fulcrum for leveraging such assets is the metropolitan university.

    Thus, for the past three summers my colleague, Nancy Zimpher, president of the University of Cincinnati, and I have convened workshops designed to create a national metropolitan university agenda. Our work has led us to propose three principal strands of activity, and these are:

    1. Talent development;

    2. Strengthening community; and

    3. Health services.

    Earlier, in talking about the BioInnovation Institute, I touched on the health services strand, so for now, let me just focus on the other two strands - talent development and strengthening community.

    As you know, talent development in our inner cities is one of the most pressing national problems,, and workforce development is the most often-cited priority for business and industry. Our agenda would seek to address this issue through the special roles of our metropolitan universities.

    Let me suggest an analogy that I think can lead us to a productive new approach in regard to talent development. All of us know of the great strides that industry has made by relentlessly focusing on and refining its materials and component supply chains. Yet, although everyone in business will tell you that their most important challenge is that of a skilled workforce, I know of few companies that have discovered the supply chain parallel of human capital, in which talent development and recruitment is managed with supply-chain discipline.

    Think of it:  It is estimated that 95 percent of all technology transfer happens when people move from one place to another - when the material of human capital arrives at a company!

    Indeed, in a new book titled Who, the authors "claim that more than 50 percent of business success is attributable to talent," based on their interviews of investors and corporate executives. They say, "Execution is the next most important factor, at just 20 percent."3

    I call upon all of our community partners, you, to help us develop a serious and pragmatic approach to the concept of talent supply chain management - one that continually expands and upgrades tightly coupled career opportunities through education, internships, externships and job training. An excellent first step in this direction would be for us to support the Mayor's scholarship initiative, Issue 8.

    As to the strengthening community strand of our agenda, we have devised a new version of the 3 Rs to describe the activities of the new metropolitan university -Regionalism, Relevance and Revitalization. 

    The first "R", regionalism, simply refers to the fact that economies are no longer local; they are regional in scope and often transcend state and even national boundaries, with problems that require state and federal partnerships. 

    The second "R", relevance, acknowledges that the complexities of the modern world require that every academic discipline be engaged with the relevant questions of the day. Thus, we must go beyond traditional university paradigms and toward the application of all disciplinary knowledge for the public good - a fundamental requirement of our 21st Century knowledge and conceptual economy.

    The third "R", revitalization, reminds us that the competitive and comparative advantages of our campuses are inextricably linked to the vitality and sustainability of our surrounding communities.

    Our own innovative revitalization program is the University Park Alliance, which has garnered some $13 million in grants from Knight Foundation and already leveraged more than $200 million from other investors, creating a place to attract and keep innovative talent that we - and Akron - need. In the next few years, we hope that those investments will reach upwards of $1 billion in the 1,000 acres surrounding our campus.

    The vision we share with the neighborhoods, the city of Akron and our many other essential partners such as the new BioInnovation Institute is to create a vibrant mixed-use environment that blurs the boundaries between the university and the community, is pedestrian friendly, and in which everything that happens is somehow about learning and health and wellness.

    So, as a metropolitan university, how shall we move forward in this time of economic, political and demographic shift? How do we advance in light of the Chancellor's strategic plan for the University System of Ohio calling for its institutions to enhance significantly their access, affordability and efficiency, economic leadership, and quality? 

    I assert that we will do so by extending our legacy, building upon our current momentum and enhancing our transformative power. Let me tell you how.

    In the next few weeks, we will begin a broadly collaborative and very essential conversation to create a formal 10-year strategic plan that will "chart the course" to our new destination. That process will be inclusive, involving our faculty staff and students as well as alumni, citizens and our corporate partners - and that means you! I will ask that the process be completed by the end of next year and hope to have enough of the work completed so that next year's State of the University Address can begin to provide some details. And I will ask that the process move us toward six specific goals, guided by this strategic vision:

    As a Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine (or STEMM) intensive institution, The University of Akron shall drive economic competitiveness of the region and shall have a unique mission as a center of excellence for the development, protection, marketing and commercialization of new technologies. It shall do so through purposeful integration of basic and applied research in chemical sciences and engineering, intellectual property law and technology transfer expertise.  The University shall provide competitive and innovative "Access to Excellence" educational, co-operative and cultural experiences, designed in conjunction with business and community partners to engage and prepare graduates for success in the 21st Century global economy. Prime among the innovative educational experiences will be the embedding of entrepreneurial education within a comprehensive undergraduate curriculum.

    From this powerful statement of our vision come six specific and ambitious goals:

    1. Attain $200 million in annual sponsored research activities;

    2. Achieve world-class recognition in distinctive technologies in fields such as advanced energy technologies, bio-innovation, advanced materials and health care, and other areas of strategic concern for the region and state;

    3. Move to the top 10 percent in U. S. annual Ph.D. production in the chemical sciences, which at The University of Akron are distributed across several of our colleges, schools and departments;

    4. Build on our unique mission as a center of excellence for the development, protection, marketing and commercialization of new technologies - to become a nationally distinguished technology transfer and commercialization enterprise that consistently outperforms national productivity benchmarks for start-up company formation and new company attraction;

    5. Become a regional economic driver for Northeast Ohio that also is linked with other Ohio universities and community colleges, and engaged in regional industry clusters; and

    6. Achieve regional recognition for implementing a unique enriched and engaged undergraduate curriculum in which entrepreneurship and 21st Century global competitiveness skills are embedded comprehensively, alongside our valued classical education underpinnings in the humanities, arts and culture.

    Each of those goals is so vital and far-reaching that it will take all of our best thinking to generate the kinds of transformational ideas that will bring the most benefits to the greatest number of students in a manner that is timely and thoughtful.

    As I stated near the start of my remarks today, every student should leave The University of Akron knowing how new knowledge is created and applied. And each should have become more of an entrepreneurial, innovative, disciplined and well-rounded thinker. In this conceptual -knowledge economy, those abilities - as well as a global awareness and emotional resiliency - are the fundamental new skills for the 21st Century.

    "Where we once optimized our organizations around efficiency and quality, today we must optimize our entire society (our community, region, state, nation, even world) around innovation."1

    This afternoon, I have reviewed some of your university's recent accomplishments and told you how The University of Akron is particularly well prepared to lead the shift . . . due to its nearly 140 years of maintaining and enhancing strong ties with its sponsoring society and extending its strengths in highly relevant innovation, as most recently exemplified by the founding of the BioInnovation Institute in Akron.

    I explained how, by engaging with our local and regional community to identify and serve its needs together, we are driving the University's Third Cycle of Expansion. And we are doing so at the time when the fulcrum for leveraging vital and concentrated community assets is the metropolitan university.

    And, finally, I introduced a vision for our future with six ambitious goals that we will work on together to further refine and then begin implementing in 2010 . . . all based upon our legacy of becoming more and more collaborative, engaged, innovative and relevant for our sponsoring society

    With tomorrow's national election there will be much excitement. But when cheering and balloons end, this political season will give way to new beginnings. Regardless of which party leads the White House or the Congress, America will return to earnestly doing the business of the country.

    And so, I conclude with just one final thought:

    The essential nature of our humanity is curiosity, examination and creativity. And I submit that the future always has been predicted by the technologies that created it. We thrive when we rise to the opportunity to direct or respond to change; we flourish when we invent the future. As thinking beings, we value life for being interesting, and we thrive on challenge.

    And so . . .

    May we live in interesting times,

    May we share in the challenges and rewards of opportunity, and . . .

    May we come together and be the shift that happens.

    I thank you for your attention and for your ongoing, steadfast support of your university.

    Thank you!

    * * *


    1. Council on Competitiveness, "Innovate America," National Innovation Initiative Summit and Report, 2005

    2. Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings Institution, "Restoring Prosperity: The State Role in Revitalizing Ohio's Core Communities," 2008

    3. Philip Delves Broughton, "The Hard Work Of Getting Ahead," a review of Who by Geoff Smart and Randy Street (Ballantine), The Wall Street Journal, October 29, 2008, p. A15

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