Editorials, detail

"Strategic Intent In Building Ohio's Future"

by Luis M. Proenza, President
The University of Akron

Opinion Editorial
Akron Beacon Journal - June 26, 1999
Columbus Dispatch - July 6, 1999
Cleveland Plain Dealer - July 20, 1999

It is not easy for governments to deliver on ideals. Although peace and prosperity are goals for every government, history shows that they are fragile commodities. Indeed, even after this remarkable century of progress, world news tells us about ethnic warfare in Eastern Europe, starvation and sickness in many third world countries, and economic upheavals in various world markets. Societies, it seems, are slow to learn that prosperity is often a prerequisite to peace, and that knowledge and its dissemination are the common elements that drive economic and societal progress.

For half a century, the United States has enjoyed tremendous economic growth. In the last few years alone, unprecedented economic expansion has seen the Dow go beyond 10,000 and budget deficits turn into surpluses. Accordingly, the public debate has rapidly shifted from the "politics of austerity" to the "politics of prosperity."

In the Midwest, it is only recently that our industries began the climb out of the so-called "rust belt" economy. Industrial investments modernized factories, updated manufacturing processes, and enhanced productivity. The result was competitiveness in world markets and a revitalization of profitability. For Ohio, it meant becoming the seventh largest state economy in the nation, and no slouch by international standards. If Ohio were an independent country, it would be the 17th largest economy in the world.

However, seldom are things only what they seem to be. Size alone is no guarantee of an economy's continued success. Periods of prosperity can often breed complacency and, in the short term, positive economic returns are sometimes outright deceiving.

In fact, just as Ohio and the Midwest were rebuilding and experiencing an economic rebirth, states that were previously non-competitive surged ahead. Leaders in Georgia and North Carolina, for example, realized that they had to leapfrog, not simply play catch-up. These states, whose economies had relied on cotton and tobacco, discovered that the key to their economic futures would lie in emerging industries and innovation. So they took bold and aggressive steps to attract and to create new industries, to enhance their infrastructure, and to make their systems of higher education second to none. What is more, in selected areas of opportunity, they also built Research & Development capacity of exceptional quality within their universities.

Why? Because by that step alone, they could leverage federal and industrial investments and have a wellspring of innovation that could be capitalized in their own economies. In short, these states built an engine for sustainable economic growth when they made higher education the infrastructure for their new economy.

By comparison, Ohio and other states in the Midwest have lagged in innovation and lost market share in R&D. Many still proud and exceptionally strong universities among the Big 10 have simply been overtaken by academic "upstarts," some in Georgia and North Carolina. In the most recent U.S. News and World Report rankings, none of Ohio's public universities figure among the top 25% of the 228 so-called "national" universities, and only three are above the top half.

Notably, The University of Akron is the only university in Ohio to have a basic science graduate program ranked among the top five nationally. Indeed, UA's program in polymer science is ranked second in the nation, and serves an industrial cluster which accounts for nearly one quarter of Ohio's manufacturing output.

This singular national ranking speaks volumes about the strength of UA's polymer program, but it also sends a powerful message about how much Ohio must do to gain leadership in other areas. Even in the $20+ billion polymer sector, Ohio's investment to sustain competitiveness seems paltry. For example, Ohio currently provides just $1.7 million to the Edison Polymer Innovation Corporation. So what is Ohio to do?

Other Midwestern states are showing signs of competitive awakening. This year, Indiana created a 21st Century Research and Technology Fund and is prepared to spend $50 million per year in areas of strategic opportunity. Two years ago, Illinois established funding mechanisms to enhance university-based R&D. Outside of the Midwest, many other examples exist of science and technology initiatives also funded to jump-start state economies. Ohio could learn from many of these approaches.

If Ohio is to become the leader in science and technology that Governor Bob Taft has called for, our state must once again invest in its future. It can begin by creating an investment account from available surpluses or the anticipated tobacco settlement monies. It must then invest in R&D related to key areas of economic opportunity and research strength. Thus, the most rational first investment would secure the future of Ohio's polymer industry by at least doubling the R&D capacity at The University of Akron. So what is next? . . . A commitment so bold as to signal strategic intent from our state.

"Boldness has genius, power, and magic to it. Begin it now." (Goethe)

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