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Our Heritage and Responsibility to Build Regional Strength and Capacity: 2010 State of the University Address

  • Date: 10/26/2010
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: The University of Akron Student Union
  • Thank you, Harvey (Dr. Harvey Sterns, Chair of Faculty Senate), for your kind introduction.  I deeply value what you do on behalf of our faculty, students and the University, and I thank you for your thoughtful and steadfast leadership.

    Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you for being here today for the 2010 State of the University Address.  I especially hope you had an opportunity to visit the exhibits, which will enable you to see the state of The University of Akron up close and personal.  I offer a special note of gratitude to the exhibitors.

    Please join me in thanking them.

    We have a number of special guests with us today, but before I introduce them, I think we should pause to remember two prominent figures in University of Akron history who passed away during the past year—former president Dr. Dominic J. Guzzetta, and one of the most loyal and involved alumni any university ever had, Dr. Paul E. Martin.

    At this time I would like to recognize special guests in the audience today.  Will you please stand when I call your name?

    From The University of Akron’s Board of Trustees:

    • Chair Ann Amer Brennan;
    • Vice Chair Richard W. Pogue;
    • Vice Chair Edward L. Bittle;
    • Trustees Ralph J. Palmisano,
    • Kevin O. Thompson,
    • Warren L. Woolford and
    • Nicholas C. York; and
    • Student Trustee Joseph T. Rich;


    • State Senator Tom Sawyer;
    • Summit County Executive Russ Pry and Director of Communications Jill Skapin;
    • At-Large Members of Akron City Council Linda Omobien and Michael Williams;
    • Akron Public Schools Superintendent David James;
    • Former University of Akron Foundation Director Frances Buchholzer;
    • Senior Program Officer of the G.A.R. Foundation Kirstin Toth;
    • and our Deans, Chairs, Vice Presidents and other members of the University’s Leadership Team.

    And I thank Paul Herold, Paula Neugebauer and Andrea Hinton for planning and organizing this afternoon's event.

    Finally, I ask that the faculty and students who participated in providing today’s exhibits please stand so that we can again recognize them.

    All of us truly appreciate the time that each of you took to prepare and present these exhibits and, through your work, also to represent our entire faculty and student body.  It is you and they     who create new knowledge and transformative opportunities by expressing the true value of The University of Akron.  We are deeply grateful.

    Indeed, let us remember the primacy of our academic purpose in everything we do.  Let us remember that it is our academic essence that must be maintained and enhanced, first and foremost.  That is why the Provost's Office has been reshaped into the Office of Academic Affairs, and that is why we now refer to our vice presidential and other administrative areas as academic support units.

    The change Dr. Sherman has suggested speaks to a broader and more inclusive approach, one of enabling and sustaining academic excellence within our schools and colleges.  Every unit throughout the University exists either to provide academic programs or to support those programs; and one of our early strategic objectives is to better align support units with academic units so as to achieve greater student success.  Mike, you have accomplished what many have sought, namely uniting the academic and service functions of the University under the single banner of academic purpose.  Thank you!

    This afternoon, I will address the state of the University in three parts.  First, I will share some remarks on the University’s achievements during the past year and provide a brief update on our strategic plan. Second, I will share some perspectives on where we are in this, our 140th year and review the Akron Model by way of a series of successes for which we are being nationally and internationally recognized. Finally, I will address some of the major challenges facing American higher education in general and our University in particular.

    As I begin, I have one request of you: please consider how you can help.  I invite comments and suggestions from everyone on our campus and in our communities.  Please work with our staff and me to explore how you can become an integral part of our future.  You may well hold the special solution for many of the challenges that we face.

    I. Achievements and Progress on Strategic Plan

    As you came into the room, you witnessed several exhibits by our faculty and students, and I hope you also noticed the items being projected on the screens.  Each represents some singular achievement of our University, added this year to an already long and impressive list.  All of these will be published in our soon-to-be-released Report to the Community and will be available there for detailed review, so I will not take the time to list them again—one word says it all – WOW!

    And surely, our Vision 2020 strategic plan will enable us to continue and extend this line of impressive successes.  The central theme of our plan is “Student success is our success!” precisely because so much of our demonstrable excellence reflects that which we enable students to achieve. 

    By now, I hope that all of you have heard about the plan, and I know that hundreds, if not thousands, of our colleagues and community members helped to author our plan.  So I expect you noticed that its title, Vision 2020, is a metaphor both to good vision and to our seeing well into our future, since 2020 will be the University’s 150th anniversary—our sesquicentennial.

    Together, we have reshaped our mission, restated our vision, and articulated six overarching institutional goals that now are being focused more and aligned across all of our units to guide specific, future activities.

     We believe that our purpose, our mission, is . . .

     “. . . to create a better common future for our students and society through educational activities that leverage the region’s unique strengths, foster economic and social vitality, and pursue innovative solutions to major challenges.”

    We aspire and intend to be . . .

    “ . . .  a leader in globally competitive clusters of innovation and entrepreneurship maximizing human potential in a dynamic environment of inclusive excellence.”

    And we will do so through a deep:

    1. Commitment to Student Success and Inclusive Excellence; and by Developing Dynamic and Globally Relevant Programs;
    2. Facilitating Faculty Development and Success in Clusters of Interdisciplinary Teaching and Research;
    3. Building and Sustaining Vital Relationships and Partnerships;
    4. Promoting a Vibrant and Engaging Landscape; and
    5. Achieving Measurable Success Through Integrated Planning.

    This plan helps us to tell our story, describes our purpose, expresses our aspirations, and inspires and guides us into strategic doing.

    II. Perspectives on our 140th Anniversary

    This year marks the 140th anniversary of our founding, and it finds us in challenging times. Indeed, as I suggested last year, “seismic rumbles of change” are upon us, and we must seriously ask what it is that universities have to do to remain fiscally viable and socially relevant. Just like industry has been forced to do, higher education also must innovate its way to a better future.

    In addition, all of us know that our state is facing an $8 billion deficit, and it is likely that state support will be eroded significantly in the coming biennium, as it will also in many other states. Thus, our choice is daunting: we can either shrink ourselves into oblivion, or we can think “out of the box” and innovate our way into continued prosperity.

    And innovating is exactly what we are doing. 

    We are forging a New Gold Standard of university performance, whereby we challenge the parochial, yet prevalent, assumptions that academic “excellence” is defined solely by how many students are excluded or by how much money is spent. 

    Instead, we shall be measured:

    • by how much value we add in enabling the success of each of our students, (from those in our Honors College to those who require assistance to be prepared for college-level studies),
    • by the integration of our disciplines as applied in solving the problems of today for our region and for the world, and
    • by the collaborative impact we create for each other and for our common future.

      Student success is our success!

      We also have developed an innovation framework for higher education that focuses on relevance, connectivity and productivity.  That framework was the basis for an invited address to a global audience at the Beijing Forum last November, for a paper published in the MIT journal, Innovations, and for an invited presentation to the Presidents’ Symposium on the Future of Higher Education in May of this year.

      Simply stated, that framework asserts that we optimize outcomes for our students and our communities by enhancing our institution’s relevance, connectivity and productivity.  Universities demonstrate their relevance by delivering tangible benefits to their communities across the full spectrum of our disciplines.  The relevance of an institution is expressed through its connectivity, namely its engagement with an increasingly broad range of partners in all sectors, thereby enhancing the larger “innovation ecosystem.”  Relevance and connectivity, in turn, lead to increased productivity, which results in greater efficiencies as well as improved outcomes.

      By enhancing these three aspects of the University, we leverage our region’s unique strengths and foster educational, economic, social, cultural and intellectual vitality.  Thus, in a climate acutely focused on accountability for results, this framework allows us to manifest higher education’s immediate and long-term value in ways that are impossible to ignore, because we earn it!  In other words, we succeed when our students and our communities succeed.

      Student success is our success!

      How are we implementing this framework for innovation?

      First, in order to better position The University of Akron for fiscal and programmatic success, we are taking action by focusing on “Three Rs,” the three key areas of – (1) Retention and Student Success; (2) Revenue Enhancement, Increasing Efficiency and Shared Services; and (3) Reorganization and Restructuring to become more academically centered, efficient and responsive; in other words, less bureaucratic and more agile. 

      I have charged Provost Sherman with moving with all due speed toward strategic approaches in each of those three key areas.  For example, it is clear that the “Akron Experience” must be constructed for student development, involvement and success in a way that will be distinctive and distinguishing – setting our university apart from others.  In addition, I suggest we examine our decades-old General Education core requirements with an eye toward refreshing them,  perhaps by incorporating experiential learning earlier, by addressing necessary competencies for the global, 21st-century society, and by ensuring that we are addressing health sciences and the human condition.  I also have asked the Provost to further the discussion we began after my letter of October 28, 2009, and to build on the process recommended by our Faculty Senate Ad-hoc Committee on Organizational Structure and Organizational Effectiveness, chaired by Professor Julia Beckett, so that we address the matters of our capabilities forthrightly and progressively.  Moreover, shared leadership through consultative decision-making will be enhanced via the formulation of a University Council in a manner that is broadly representative and linked to every area of institutional effectiveness.

      Second, we have made great strides in advancing the relevance, connectivity and productivity of the University through initiatives and partnerships such as:

      Notably, these collective initiatives already are being referred to as the “Akron Model” and are creating an upward trajectory of recognition for The University of Akron.  In just the last 12 months, we have been invited to more than a dozen prestigious forums to describe the Akron Model to national and international audiences, and we are increasingly being seen as a key player in regional economic development.

      Whether at the National Academy of Sciences International Conference on Science, Technology and Innovation, at the Brookings Institution select forum on the role of universities in older industrial cities held at Washington University in Saint Louis, at the Department of Commerce - National Academy of Sciences invitational conference on innovation and commercialization, or at The Council on Competitiveness, we now are asked repeatedly to share the Akron Model.

      Several other opportunities have come from our participation at those forums.  For example, we have been invited to share our model with several universities and organizations, both here and abroad.  The University of Le Mans in France and the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands have visited us, and we have gone to Le Mans to advise them and their community leaders.  In addition, the University Economic Development Association solicited a keynote address on the topic, awarded its Best Practice Award for Excellence in Technology Commercialization to a paper presented by our Vice President for Research, Dr. George Newkome, and elected Wayne Watkins, our Associate VP for Research, as the association’s president.  Dr. Watkins also was invited to testify before the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Research and Science Education, where he presented aspects of the Akron Model dealing with university-based technology transfer, commercialization and university-industry collaborations.

      Only a month ago, on September 23, we were the only university invited to a national panel that examined the role that regional innovation clusters can have on driving economic growth.  This public policy event was held in conjunction with The White House and hosted by the Brookings Institution, the Council on Competitiveness, the Center for American Progress and the National Association of Development Organizations.  Coincidentally, this also was the occasion chosen by Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke to announce six national awards from their i6 competition – one of which went to the proposal from our research foundation in partnership with the Austen BioInnovation Institute in Akron.  WOW!

      Just three days later, we again described the Akron Model at the 2010 Annual Conference of the International Economic Development Council, and in November and early December we will be represented in forums at the Coalition of Urban Serving Universities, the annual meeting of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, the annual meeting of the Council on Competitiveness, and at the Brookings Global Metro Summit in Chicago.

      Quite simply, as exemplified especially by the University of Akron Research Foundation, the Akron Model is being recognized as one of the most effective and highly robust platforms for economic development and new wealth creation anywhere.

      So, what is the message we offer at those impressive gatherings?

      I tell them that a changing economy or a changing technological underpinning requires institutions, themselves, to change.  I suggest that the Akron Model provides a useful framework for the transformation that American higher education must undergo to thrive in the 21st century.   And I tell them that, through our innovative collaborations, initiatives and interactions, we demonstrate the vital roles that metropolitan-sited institutions like The University of Akron can play in this global, knowledge-conceptual economy. 

      Those roles are simple: we increasingly act as conveners, as developers and as anchors for clusters of innovation.  We generate knowledge and creative capital, train human capital, build social capital, attract financial capital and preserve natural capital.

      Let me expand on those roles a bit.

      We are the source of scholarly and applied research and publications; we also are a repository and conduit for ideas internal and external to the university; we create technology and help to commercialize it for the public good; we help to develop community- and innovation-related systems; and we influence education, culture, economic systems and related policy.

      We design and provide formal accredited degrees, as well as continuing and corporate education, thereby developing talent and human capacity and producing the kind of professionals that are needed in today’s world. And we provide formal recognition, credentials and much, much more.

      We form, support and partner with innovation-fostering organizations — including our academic program in Entrepreneurship and the Center for Technology and Intellectual Property Law, as well as our Research Foundation, Austen BioInnovation Institute, Innovation Alliance and the University Park Alliance.

      We are partners in neighborhood redevelopment and in business creation and industry improvement. We span boundaries both within and between educational, research, clinical and industrial organizations; and, thus, we are a center of discovery and commercialization—not only for higher education—but also for industry, government and independent researchers and inventors.

      Of course, one can make the case that universities have been filling many of these roles for a long time . . . and so we have, but only in part.  In our new Akron Model, we expand upon and beyond traditional roles; we accept significant responsibility for the economic, social and cultural vitality of the communities and constituencies we serve; and we seek to assemble talent and resources optimally, and to become increasingly more effective, connective, productive and relevant.

      III. The Challenge and Opportunities

      If you examine our history, you will agree that it is our Heritage and Responsibility to Build Regional Strength and Capacity.  After all, through our legacy of community and industrial linkages that has been in the making for 140 years, The University of Akron always has been in, of and for Akron.

      And if you look at the University from this perspective, you also will agree that our accomplishments to date reflect just a fraction of our University’s transformative power. While surely we will continue to find common purposes amongst our city and regional communities, we are capable of so much more! For example, the arts and humanities can find new opportunities if we ensure optimal use of E.J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall to engage the community in discourse, discussion and exposure to issues of the human condition.

      So, how do we best shape and identify those opportunities?  How do we engage in a dynamic process that will enable us to draw on all parts of the University, and even on outside resources, alliances and partnerships in appropriate, novel and optimal combinations?  And how can we “institutionalize” these ideas and incorporate them into the Akron Model?

      I think there are eight interactive steps that are necessary, and they build on several things we have discussed this afternoon. These eight steps are:

      First, we need to understand and demonstrate that our universities are not limited in scope, but rather that they are capable of deploying broad-based “tool chests” that can be brought to bear on the world’s challenges.  The potential to do so already exists, but it is parceled and sheltered in silos of convention and restricted by artificial boundaries.  While our academic disciplines are, rightfully, the organizational basis of our universities, we must recognize that the human condition and the challenges of our times require a collaborative, interdisciplinary approach focused on the common good.  We need to value and empower the essence of what we do by broadening our perspective and recognizing the benefits of a fluid and agile organization acting with and through numerous, far-reaching networks.  In this regard, we can take pride in having the quintessential example of “silo busting” – our Quaker Square residence hall facility, whose builders literally broke through silos to create something that now serves as an architectural metaphor for the tasks ahead. And, of course, already there are the many partnerships that I mentioned earlier, such as the one with Summa Health System, the other hospitals and the Northeast Ohio Medical University.

      Second, we also should be prepared to function as a creative integrator of all of the world’s learning resources, particularly digital resources.  In addition, we also must develop expertise and tools by which to assess and appropriately credential learning and capabilities, regardless of how one’s knowledge and skills may have been acquired.  In other words, we must seek to be the very best integrator of education resources, the very best assessor of skills and knowledge and the very best educational environment, anywhere. Period! 

      Just listen to Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams who suggest in their latest book, Macrowikinomics: Rebooting Business and the World, that, “the 21st-century university should be a network and an ecosystem, not (an ivory) tower.  Indeed, there is an enormous opportunity to create an unparalleled educational experience for students globally by (embracing) collaborative learning and collaborative knowledge production.”

      Third, just as we value shared leadership, so, too, should we embrace collaborative knowledge production.  Open Innovation is a relatively novel approach through which a problem is “sourced” out beyond its organization to a world of interested parties—be they scholars, practitioners, retirees or hobbyists—and rewards are given to those who actually bring forward a solution.  The X-Prize, run by Peter Diamandis, is an example of Open Innovation.  Already, we are reaching out to our students to solicit their possible solutions to the challenges we face in higher education. And think about the other exciting implications of the Open Innovation approach for a moment; a person’s work is not valued for her or his experience, credentials or affiliations or for its imagined promise, but only for the actual results. What might happen if you and I could compete and/or collaborate with others to produce the best results to significant challenges?  WOW!

      Fourth, we must continue to create adequate incentives and other creative ways for everyone to have a tangible stake in our progress and success.  In this regard, we have recognized and have taken steps to increase faculty compensation to competitive levels amongst our peers, and we anticipate ratification of such a commitment in the very near future.  And, while committing to proactive compensation budgeting for our faculty, we also considered our responsibility to non-bargaining unit faculty, staff and contract professionals in our budget planning. 

      Fifth, we must identify new market opportunities, and not just for the traditional college student for whom we are becoming an increasingly attractive institution, but for working adults who constitute the other 70-plus percent of the market now seeking access to higher education.  As a step in that direction, I expect to receive in early 2011 an enrollment strategy that enhances market share by using available resources in new and innovative ways.

      Sixth, we must do what we can to drive economic development.  Doing so ensures that we are relevant, connected and productive…and doing so ensures that we will have students, clients and partners for added income streams (See visual model of cycle).  Our newly formulated corrosion program will do just that, finding solutions to an issue in today’s urban environment that is a $400-billion annual problem awaiting solutions.  And, we can explore further how our innovations in advanced materials and polymers might contribute in unique and innovative ways to the preservation and restoration of artistic and archival treasures of the world.

      Seven, we must pursue new business models, including innovations such as shared services, consolidation, alliances and partnerships—including public-private partnerships and alliances with “uncommon” partners—and perhaps even private-practice plans or partner-status plans to harness and incentivize talent.  Importantly, we either must actively accept or proactively reduce duplication within our University and amongst ourselves in aligning with and meeting the objectives of the University System of Ohio.

      Finally, we must continue to define and refine the New Gold Standard in higher education and demonstrate that excellence is based on outcomes and impact rather than exclusivity, isolation and expense.  And to do so, we must have a comprehensive, integrated and dynamic plan, aggressive goals to which we are committed completely, and a pervasive culture of strategic doing and academic purpose.

      These are challenging steps, but they are achievable, and I am convinced that they are absolutely necessary.

      In closing, this afternoon, on the occasion of our 140th anniversary, I have discussed the context and accomplishments of our university and the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.

      In the last decade, we have established the foundation for our future.  We have the momentum and the energy to carry us forward.  We now enjoy an enviable position within our state, in our nation and around the world.  And because I am confident in all of you, I also am convinced, as we say in Vision 2020, that we “will become a leader in globally competitive clusters of innovation and entrepreneurship, maximizing human potential in a dynamic environment of inclusive excellence.”

      So let us end where we began; Let us again assert the primacy of our academic purpose. Every unit exists to provide academic programs or to support academic purpose.

      Student success is our success!

      We can reshape our University by building on the traditions, expertise and culture that make The University of Akron great.

      As we look toward our 150th anniversary, I am excited at the prospect of a new decade of accomplishments, and I am delighted and energized by how far we have come on our 140th year!

      And so, let us conclude this event by celebrating our 140th birthday! 

      Ladies and gentlemen, please stay a little longer, have some cake and finish viewing the exhibits. 

      I appreciate your being here today and I thank you for being part of this great university.

      Good afternoon!

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