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The Challenge of Change in a Change-Resistant Environment

  • Date: 03/29/2007
  • Author: Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: Materials Forum 2007
  • It is a pleasure to again be at the Keck Center, whether on behalf of the Academy or in conjunction with my other national responsibilities for PCAST or the Council on Competitiveness.

    I first joined the Academies as a staff member back in 1977, when I served as Study Director for the Committee on Vision, one of the very few long-standing committees at the NRC. It was then housed in the Joseph Henry Building at 21st and Pennsylvania and my tenure there proved to be transformational - for one thing, I was soon appointed a member of the Committee itself and became one of very few NRC staffers to move into a direct role as a member of a standing committee.

    Moreover, that was to be the experience that called me to broader university service. It was to be the formative experience from whence my career in university administration began, and from whence my deep interest in national science and technology policy issues arose. I could hardly expect then that 30 years later I would lead a significant university and serve on our nation's highest policy advisory panel for science and technology, PCAST.

    Thank you for inviting me to share some thoughts on the challenges involved in creating new curricular opportunities in our nation's colleges and universities.

    I want to begin, however, with a very brief summary of the competitiveness themes that are now so familiar to us. They have been articulated by the Council on Competitiveness in its "Innovate America report", by the Academies in the "Rising Above the Gathering Storm" report, and by the President's American Competitiveness Initiative, among many others which you can readily find at the Innovate America.org web site.

    If for some reason you have missed any of these, I urge you to make them a part of your review because they make a compelling case for the changes we must make as a nation and as universities to better address the challenges which America now faces.

    Also, if you don't know, we all should be particularly grateful to Chuck Vest, former president of MIT, and to Norm Augustine, former Chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin, for carrying our water and making the case to the Congress and to the business community and the public. I cannot think of any other two individuals from those respective sectors who could have done a better job on our behalf - indeed on behalf of the nation.

    Therefore, let me begin by using a phrase coined more than a decade ago by MIT's Chuck Vest. The phrase was "Seismic rumbles of change," and I think that seismic rumbles of change are plunging industries and universities into cross-currents and rapids that already are transforming traditional paradigms - to say nothing about the interrelationships among academia, industry and government.1

    Indeed, the principal finding from the Innovate America report of the Council on Competitiveness, which led to the public information ad seen on this slide, is this . . .

    Where we once optimized our companies around efficiency and quality, today we must optimize our entire society around innovation.

    Of course "The United States has long been the acknowledged world leader in innovation, a strength that is the foundation of America's national security and future job growth".2

    However, the primacy that America has long enjoyed around the world is increasingly being challenged by the very same forces of technological innovation that America itself unleashed. 

    For example, only 6 of the world's 25 most competitive Information Technology companies are based in the U.S...14 are based in Asia; and China overtook the United States in 2003 as the top global recipient of foreign direct investment.3

    Thirty years ago, the Untied States could lay claim to having 30 percent of the world's population of college students.  Today, that proportion has fallen to 14 percent and is continuing to fall.4

    And we know that only 10% of U.S. students are pursuing degrees in STEM, whereas comparable numbers in other countries are much higher, 60% of students in China and India are pursuing STEM degrees.

    What is more, like our industry counterparts, universities are themselves facing increasing challenges of global competition and an environment where flexibility, adaptability and just-in-time delivery of our "products" are imperative.

    What is more, "Other countries are building world-class research and educational institutions and are graduating increasingly qualified science and engineering students at a faster pace than ever before."5

    Thus, universities are being challenged to re-examine their role as innovators and to look beyond the traditional emphasis on technological innovation. They are now being called upon to explore opportunities that will create innovative new educational processes and campus cultures that are congruent with the new realities.

    Yet, as early as 1995, Raymond Gilmartin, the former chairman, president and CEO of Merck & Company, Inc., wrote about "the Challenge of Change" in higher education, when he cautioned his colleagues at his alma matter that he saw higher education making many of the same mistakes that health care had made in the decade before - in the hope that we could learn from their experience!6

    As you know, however, change seldom comes without resistance.  Those with the most invested in the status quo are the last or the least likely to adjust. And so invested in the in the status quo are they, that they pursue the status quo until "there is no further status in the quo."7

    University innovation, of course, will not occur in a vacuum.  It requires a close and deep collaboration between universities and industry and it requires a willingness to experiment with new models and new alliances.

    Let me suggest an analogy that I think is lead us to explore an almost entirely untapped area. All of us know of the great strides that industry has made by relentlessly focusing on and refining its materials supply chain. 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 parallel of the human capital supply chain. And I know of even fewer universities that are exploring this obvious opportunity.

    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! It is further estimated that companies spend an average of $1,000 per year per person in enhancing the skills of their workers. So what would happen if industry gave as much attention to the human capital side of their supply chain?  Quite simply, our economy could save about $150 billion dollars and increase its return on investment by as much as an order of magnitude.

    In fact, at The University of Akron we have a saying: that "our expertise creates the new materials for the new economy" meant to have the double meaning of materials and human capital - and we take both meanings most seriously.

    Because in today's knowledge-based economy, staying close to the sources of knowledge creation is not just a good idea; it has become a business necessity.

    How do we optimize this?

    First, let's look at the new economic realities. The Council on Competitiveness, in its report "Clusters of Innovation: The Regional Basis of US Competitiveness" notes that today's economies are not defined by traditional geographic boundaries, such as cities, counties or even states or nations. Rather, they are regional in nature, transcending political boundaries set decades and centuries ago.

    "The success of the clusters process underscores the importance of community - wide collaboration (among) industry firms, cross industries, and with academia and economic development entities."8

    This approach, fortunately, is not new to The University of Akron. It is "in our genes", so to speak, because our institution and its corporate community literally grew up together and they now continue to work together to enhance the region's economic vitality and to improve the quality of life in Northeast Ohio.

    The decade of 1870 saw the establishment of The University of Akron as well as of the four major rubber companies that were to dominate the tire industry for much of the 20th Century.

    And research at The University of Akron provided the intellectual property that served to fuel and diversify the industrial bases of our city, of our region and of our state.

    In the early 1900s, the University's Charles M. Knight taught the world's first college course in rubber science.

    "Akron's rubber industry was just emerging." "Its captains and lieutenants took scientific questions to (Charles) Knight, who, in turn, encouraged his students to get out of the university lab and apply their knowledge in the city's industrial setting."9

    Thus, "The university's initiatives complemented the polymer research conducted by Akron's Big Four tire companies since the industry's infancy" and, indeed, the infancy of the University.10

    And so it continues today in the much larger setting of the 2,800 companies that comprise Ohio's $500-billion polymer industry, 1,800 companies in NE Ohio alone, making Ohio the number one polymer employer in the nation.

    And I hasten to add that our economic impact, as a university, extends well beyond the rubber and the polymer industries, as we have extended this core competency to other areas of industry and of our community.

    For example, this tradition of public-private innovation now also is taking shape in Northeast Ohio's long and storied history in metalworking - everything from automobiles to aerospace, a major industrial cluster dating back to the 19th century.

    Metalworking is one of Northeast Ohio's five "driver clusters," along with Plastic Products and Chemicals, Health Care, Motor Vehicles and Equipment, and Financial Services.

    Collectively, the metalworking cluster consists of more than 550 metalworking firms and accounts for 14.4% of all NE Ohio exports. Ninety-two percent of the metalworking cluster is made up of small- to medium-sized companies with 100 or fewer employees. In fact, one in six U.S. jobs in the iron and steel industries is located in Ohio. In just the past few years, 29 metalworking companies have announced investments totaling $700 million.11

    This year alone, "Timken Company announced that it will pump $60 million into its Canton rolling operations ...and Charter Steel in Cuyahoga Heights, the bar producer is looking forward to the first full year with its new $130 million melt shop." 12

    And I am pleased to report that the U.S. Army has chosen to partner with The University of Akron and Stark State College to establish "The Defense Metal Technology Center" - a new center of excellence - to be located just south of Akron in North Canton.  The Army wanted to be in the heart of metalworking country so it could glean the expertise of an established workforce.

    What is more, we just received word that our partner, Lorain County Community College will establish a National Center for Welding Education and Training, thanks to a multi-million dollar grant!

    In the last few years, as state support of public higher education has declined, when I am asked how I am, I have come to respond -- and those of you in public universities will readily understand - I respond, "Nothing the state couldn't help, but surely won't!"

    I respond in that way, because states have rarely developed the tools to provide investment capital with which our universities can initiate program of major economic importance. On the other hand, and in fairness to the concerns of our legislators, universities have only occasionally linked themselves effectively to the economic drivers of a state - whether existing or emerging.

    At The University of Akron, we are fortunate in having found an exceptional set of industry collaborators, among which none is better than RPM, Inc., a $3.3 billion conglomerate of family owned entrepreneurial companies representing some of the world's best brands involved in every aspect of the construction industry.

    Over the past several years, The University of Akron and RPM have been engaged in mutual efforts to leverage the combined resources of a world-class polymer research institution and a global, integrated products company.

    Thus, it is out of this history of responding to industry-driven program development, and the synergies that build from our centers of excellence in polymers and metalworking, that The University of Akron has embraced this newest request from industry and the Department of Defense. 

    This project aims to create corrosion-specific, ABET accredited engineering degrees at both the associate and baccalaureate levels as well as to partner with NACE International to deliver industry-accredited workforce development certification courses. 

    Knowing that my colleague, Dr. Mark Soucek, will provide you with specific details of this project in the next panel, I would like to spend only a few moments explaining why The University of Akron views this initiative as an opportunity and what it is about our institutional culture that enables us to be responsive to this unique market opportunity.


    The University of Akron is fully committed to maintaining strong industry partnerships and the vision of universities as a catalyst for economic development.

    Because this project was launched in response to industry requests, a number of corporate representatives have already committed their support for this initiative and are actively engaged in program planning efforts.

    Three local companies (RPM International, Inc., Corrpro Companies, and Northern Technologies International) are among the first corporations to be involved in program planning activities with our staff. 

    We are also pleased to be engaging in conversations with regional industry leaders such as Dr. Thompson and his colleagues at CC Technologies.  Furthermore, we are pleased by the initial responses to our approaches to companies on a national level.

    I also want to acknowledge the openness with which we have been embraced by Dan Dunmire and his staff.  It has been a pleasure for us to work with Dan and his staff to understand the issues facing the DoD and its service project offices and to attempt to integrate their needs into this initiative.


    Of course as we increasingly work with partners who are accustomed to aggressive delivery schedules and products that rapidly evolve or disappear according to market demands, the very core of our academic processes are challenged, and flexibility and adaptability has yet to become a fully integral part of our institutional culture. But progress is being made!

    Indeed, while we have not achieved universal acceptance of these necessities among our faculty, we believe that we have made incredible progress in this direction.

    At the foundation is a leadership team that encourages innovation and entrepreneurial activities and accepts an associated level of risk.

    We recently launched Economic Development and Innovation Advisory Councils.  While the first is tasked with the mission of identifying opportunities for internal and external economic development initiatives, the later is tasked with outlining ways to engage additional members of our campus community in this vision of innovation and entrepreneurship.

    Our investment in the Medina County University Center, which Sue Lousher heads, as an "innovation center" where we are piloting the concept of just-in-time academic delivery is another important step and joins us to the corporate community across a wide geographical corridor.

    We also launched a revenue sharing plan that is structured to encourage the academic units to pursue entrepreneurial program development.

    Finally, earlier this week we announced the formation of a new Innovation Alliance where, together with Lorain County Community College, we are taking the practice of true partnership to a new level - calling for the alignment of all of our innovation resources across both institutions.  From looking at ways of reducing costs by leveraging joint business operations . . . to developing new collaborative degree programs, and to the full dimensions of discovery to application, this alliance will demonstrate a model of alignment of institutional resources and collaboration that can be model for others to emulate.  In fact, we would welcome such collaboration with some of you on this corrosion project.

    We joined with a community college for a very simple reason - they are far better than any university at serving the needs of business and industry and at doing so "just-in-time."

    Indeed, we believe that The University of Akron and our partners are only just beginning to tap into this new culture of adaptability.

    Continuing to rise to the challenge of change in a rapidly evolving, global market will not be easy for our nation, and even less for our universities.  But the 21st Century is demanding nothing less than relentless innovation. Thus, I am pleased to report that the Council on Competitiveness will soon launch a university innovation initiative.

    To meet the challenges of global competitiveness, I think that we must continually redefine the nature of our universities.  Although this is happening all too slowly, I am happy to report that a few of us, including Arizona State University under Michael Crow and my own University of Akron are in the process of creating a new "gold standard" of university performance.

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

    In all candor, this will not be something that is easy to do.  But if necessity is the mother of invention, then let us begin. 

    Thank you!




    1.       Massachusetts Institute of Technology News Office, "Vest Urges Continued Support for US Science," February 15, 1995

    2.       Innovate America advertisement, The Wall Street Journal

    3.       "Innovate America," Council on Competitiveness National Innovation Initiative Summit and Report, 2005, p. 38

    4.       The Report of the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, Tough Choices-Tough Times, National Center on Education and the Economy, Executive Summary, P.4

    5.       "Innovate America," Council on Competitiveness National Innovation Initiative Summit and Report, 2005, p. 38

    6.       Gilmartin, Raymond V., "The Challenge of Change for the Liberal Arts College - Some Parallels from the Health Care Industry," Union College, October 16, 1995

    7.       Paul Harvey

    8.       Northeast Oho Regional Economic Development Strategies Initiative, Clusters Project, "Accelerating Regional Growth," November 1999 Update

    9.       Steve Love and David Giffels, Wheels of Fortune, The University of Akron Press, 1999, p. 303

    10.   Steve Love and David Giffels, Wheels of Fortune, The University of Akron Press, 1999, p. 300

    11.   Greater Akron Chamber of Commerce, 3/28/07

    12.   Krouse, Peter, "Steel Industry on the Mend, The Plain Dealer, January 18. 2007


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