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Education as Infrastructure

  • Date: 01/19/1999
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: Akron Rotary Club
  • Thank you Mark, for your kind introduction.

    As a long-time Rotarian, I am delighted to be in the company of you, the members of this club, and I appreciate your thoughtful invitation

    I am especially pleased to be introduced by one of my new university colleagues, who also happens to be the son of one of the University's most dedicated builders . . .

    . . . Mark's father, President Emeritus Norman P. Auburn, led the University for 20 years -- between 1951 and 1971 -- engineering its transition from a municipal institution to a state university and enabling tremendous growth in enrollment and campus facilities.

    Norm Auburn led this transformation by building upon the university's historical strengths and ties to its sponsoring society.

    And just as he did, we must recognize that we continue to build upon the shoulders of those who have come before us. And this is as true for the university as it is for our community.

    Indeed, the histories and futures of the University and of our community are intertwined. And that is because the continuous building of new knowledge is the one true transformational agent in our society.

    As done at our colleges and universities, that cumulative enterprise of knowledge creation serves as the building blocks of progress . . . that is, it serves as infrastructure.

    It serves as infrastructure just as surely as bricks and mortar build the facilities of our great cities and of our most notable enterprises.

    So I want to talk with you this afternoon about how education is infrastructure!

    Be assured that this is not wishful thinking on my part.

    It is demonstrably history itself; and I shall state the case by giving you several "real world" examples of education as infrastructure.

    Perhaps you will even want to remember some.

    Which reminds me of the story of the Rotarian who arrived home one Tuesday evening and was asked by his wife as to who spoke at the luncheon that day.

    "The University president!" he said.

    Whereupon his wife then asked, "And what did he talk about?"

    The Rotarian paused, thought for a moment, then replied, "I don't know; he didn't say!"

    Well, let me tell you that today I will be talking about "Education as Infrastructure."

    This theme of education as infrastructure is so important, that you will hear me speak about it time and again.

    The central ideas of education as infrastructure are simple, so let me tell you . . .

    . . . that education is infrastructure, because through research, it creates the ideas and technologies that shape the industries of the future.

    . . . that education is infrastructure, because through the engagement of students, it creates knowledgeable individuals that shape our industries and our societies.

    . . . that education is infrastructure because it enables both personal and economic progress.

    If time allowed, we could trace this concept of education as infrastructure back through the ages.

    But suffice it for me to first state the general case and then to provide you just a few prominent examples from only the latter part of this century.

    So first, the general case:

    Fundamentally, education is infrastructure through its "value adding" benefit -- as the fruits of knowledge begin to impact our quality of life.

    Indeed, economists agree that creation of technological knowledge through basic research is our most direct economic avenue for acquiring added value.

    When that new knowledge is quantified in a market environment -- it creates fuller employment, capital formation, growing profits, and surpluses for reinvestment.

    In other words, It is from research that new companies are born; that new jobs are created;

    It is from research that the economy expands and new wealth is created.

    And at the University of Akron, research activity feeds the educational process by giving students first hand experience in creating new knowledge and new technologies.

    Research provides students the tools with which to evaluate new ideas; to think critically; and to enable them to separate fact from fiction and information from mere opinion.

    Today, more than ever, The University of Akron equips your sons and daughters with the tools they need to shape a productive economy and a vibrant society.

    Indeed, higher education in the United States has served as infrastructure throughout history.

    Our country's transition from an agrarian-based economy to an industrial economy was catalyzed by the Morrill Act of 1862 which established our land-grant colleges and public universities -- focusing them to the task of advancing "agriculture and the mechanical arts" in service to America.

    By developing and sharing the latest knowledge, universities enabled the agricultural and industrial revolutions that marked the beginning of this century.

    But perhaps the most striking examples of higher education as infrastructure began during World War II.

    Throughout the nation, industry/university partnerships brought together unique and powerful combinations of talent, creativity, and intellect to ensure the success of the Allied war effort.

    And developments that were initially vital to the war effort, then laid the groundwork for technological leaps in medicine, aviation, energy, electronics -- developments which today affect virtually every realm of our human endeavors.

    Indeed, the success of these wartime efforts convinced our nation of the importance of human capital;

    And based on that recognition, the "GI Bill" then extended educational opportunities across the land to such an unprecedented level that they have yet to be equaled by any other nation.

    And shortly after the war, in 1947, the era of microelectronics began - with Bell Laboratories' development of the transistor.

    As a result, federal funds were channeled into universities for for further research, for training of electrical engineers ... and through them, the first seeds of the Silicon Valley were sown, from which we have now entered the information age. As all of you know.

    As a second historical example of education as infrastructure, the same can be said for the success of the Space Race of the 1950s and ‘60s.

    Challenged by the unexpected launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik in 1957, the United States made a commitment to an ambitious program of manned space flight.

    Once again, the engine powering this historical effort was American higher education, as it was engaged to do the research and train the people needed for success.

    That investment not only resulted in Americans walking on the moon in 1969 . . .

    It also developed new technologies in medicine, communications, computer science, and many other fields - giving birth to robotics and miniaturization in the process.

    So, from these two catalysts -- the 1947 discovery of the transistor and the 1957 insult to our national pride when Sputnik was launched -- were born the microelectronics and space ages.

    And yet the promise of both is just beginning, and so, too, is that of biotechnology, which has come even more recently.

    Perhaps you already know about the new industry of biotechnology;

    Or perhaps you have had a chance to examine the January 11th issue of Time magazine; an issue tracing the evolution of knowledge in biotechnology.

    Humanity's use of biotechnology dates back to the first makings of wine and bread, and became more systematic after Gregor Mendel's basic observations on heredity in the second half of the last century. (1866)

    But the landmark discovery that served to build a new industry did not come until 1953, and then it was so simply and elegantly reported that many might not have foreseen its tremendous importance.

    James Watson and James Crick, in an elegant and short paper describing the double-helix structure of DNA, the material that genes are made of, were the first to glimpse the informational power of DNA molecules - they were the first to see the language of the genetic code.

    Another piece of the biotechnology infrastructure was laid in the 1970s, when the first demonstration of "genetic engineering" was made by Cohen and Boyer.

    And so powerful were the possibilities of these technologies, that it led our government to enable genetically engineered organisms to be patented, because they could serve as factories.

    And, recognizing that applications of new knowledge were spurring economic expansion at an increasingly rapid pace and in many other fields;

    Congress in 1980 enacted the Bayh-Dole Act, Public Law 96-517, to enable universities and industries to hold title to intellectual properties created under federal sponsorship, thereby facilitating the rate of technology transfer from discovery to application.

    And, from such modest beginnings, a brand new industry was born ...

    ... an industry through which human insulin can now be produced in "factories" ...

    ... an industry that has enabled genetic "fingerprinting" and a genetically engineered vaccines.
    And, in the last decade, an industry that has:

    identified illness-related genes,
    produced a rough map of all 23 pairs of human chromosomes, and . . . in the genetic equivalent of the space race, the human genome project,
    has made significant progress toward identifying all 100,000 genes and their specific functions.
    So, you see, in less than 30 years, biotechnology has become a multi-billion dollar industry, which may well exceed the impact that information technology has had upon this century.

    What we have learned is again infrastructure.

    As our knowledge has created the new industry of biotechnology.

    But we have only just begun.

    The late Howard Schneiderman, Senior Vice President and Chief Researcher at Monsanto some ten years ago, had this to say as he thought about the likely impact of biotechnology:

    "Imagine the Earth as it may be a thousand years from now . . . He said,

    ". . . Steam power, electric power generation, nuclear power, fusion power, transistors, microprocessors - all these will long have become historical novelties . .

    ". . . Remaining, however, as an indelible part of that future society a millennium hence, will be the application and processes of biotechnology,"

    ". . . Humanity, using nature's own methods, will have learned to persuade nature to be a full partner in humanity's major enterprise - civilization."

    The microelectronics, space, and biotechnology industries, serve as just three examples of education as infrastructure.

    New knowledge builds new capacities just as surely as materials build new structures.

    And public investments in education, research, and infrastructure build public assets . . .

    . . . real assets that create public returns on those investments.

    As we now move into the 21st Century -

    Our area, including The University of Akron, has significant expertise in biotechnology.

    But there are many other examples and countless other ways in which this university is building the infrastructure for this community.

    Polymer science and engineering and educational technology are two of the ways in which we are now advancing tomorrow's technologies. And there are others . . . where,

    Indeed, the histories and futures of this community and The University of Akron have been, are, and will continue to be inextricably interwoven ...

    ... Not only in our economic development, but in enhancing the quality of our lives through the arts ...

    ... Through the ongoing activities of our College of Fine and Applied Arts and through organizations such as our resident dance company, the Ohio Ballet, and the University's E. J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall.

    And so you see, in all aspects of life, education is infrastructure ...

    Governor Taft himself argued in his inaugural address last week,

    " . . . our frontier is knowledge and technology - a place where Ohio must be a leader among states and nations," he said,

    " . . . we must make sure all of our citizens are prepared to succeed in the high-tech, global economy of the 21st Century."

    And we can do so, he said, if "we invest in people"

    Metropolitan universities, such as the University of Akron, are ideally positioned to respond to the vast, vital, and changing educational needs of our times.

    We intend to be fully energized in service to our sponsoring society ... to offer a full range of disciplines in a learning environment that is "on-line" with the life and work of this community.

    But to do so, The University of Akron must have your help, your input.

    And to do my job well, I need to learn from you; to hear your thoughts and ideas; your needs and your aspirations.

    We must work together, hand-in-hand, to shape the best possible educational infrastructure for the long-term, continuing development of Ohio and its citizens.

    By advancing education, we shape the future.

    We have the tools, we have the capacity to build a bright future.

    And, together, we shall indeed do so!

    Thank you!

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