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Relevance, Connectivity and Productivity: New Strategies for Success in Higher Education

  • Date: 11/08/2009
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: Beijing Forum, Peking University, Beijing, China
  • That we live in interesting times is the understatement of our modern age.

    I am told only Westerners believe that "may you live in interesting times" is an ancient Chinese curse, but perhaps it is fitting that we have come together here in China to explore some of the vexing questions that are challenging our most cherished traditions in higher education.

     "Seismic rumbles of change," to use Chuck Vest's phrase, are transforming traditional paradigms for research and higher education - to say nothing about the relationships among academia, industry, government and the public.

    The many sources of cataclysmic pressure include:

    • Competition among universities,
    • Shifting demographics and their accompanying shifts in priorities,
    • Resource constraints,
    • Public and government scrutiny of productivity and accountability in universities,
    • The evolution of a global economy and the innovation ecosystem, and, most recently,
    • The worldwide economic downturn.

    Today, I want to tell you about a model that we are developing at The University of Akron...a model that uses three strategies - relevance, connectivity and productivity - as the basis of a continuous process that seeks to create success by enhancing the relevance, connectivity and productivity of the university.

    I will discuss each one briefly.


    Sadly, the word "academic" has become a synonym for "irrelevant", as in the dismissive statement, "that is academic!"  and this pejorative attitude is something that universities must overcome if they are to be economically viable entities.

    Here is how U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander put it just a few days ago in (the October 26 issue of) Newsweek magazine: ". . . as with the auto industry in the 1960s, there are signs of peril within American higher education.  . . . in some ways, many colleges and universities are stuck in the past (and will need new) . . . innovations (to) stay competitive and relevant (and) . . . avoid the perils of success."

    Or listen to Gordon Gee, president of Ohio State University speaking to the American Council on Education: "At this defining moment-when our communities and our nation need us more than ever-we must fundamentally reinvent our institutions. We must become more agile, more responsive, less insular and less bureaucratic. In so doing, we will save ourselves from slouching into irrelevance."

    In my opinion, the strongest statement for academic relevance was made in 1862, when the Morrill Act said that land grant universities should focus on agriculture and the mechanical arts to advance the public good. And what powerfully relevant results it brought about -transforming agricultural productivity and the very nature of industry.

    Yet, the land grant model never fully transferred to other academic disciplines, which remained largely cloistered and isolated within the "Ivory Tower." Now, the complexities of the 21st Century knowledge economy demand that every academic discipline be collaboratively engaged with the relevant questions of the day in concert with other disciplines and partners, on and off campus.

    In other words, relevance requires the integrated application of all disciplinary knowledge for the public good and universities must find ways to facilitate their relevant engagement and application. 

    Two other aspects of relevance are worth mentioning: The role of universities as (1) economic anchors in their regions and (2) sources of educational knowledge.

    First, since universities are place-based institutions, they are "anchor institutions" whose competitive and comparative advantages are inextricably linked to the vitality and sustainability of their surrounding communities. Obviously, what this means is that to sustain their viability, universities must continuously demonstrate their relevance and deliver real benefits to their communities. Thus, I suggest that universities must act to optimize their impact upon the regions in which they reside, and they would be wise to extend their efforts collaboratively into similar regions internationally.

    Second, if they are to further their relevance, universities also must increasingly be able to demonstrate the effectiveness of education itself.

    The science of education has not advanced nearly enough for educators to practice evidence-based education. This is not surprising, given the fact that educational research and development (R&D) is an infinitesimally small fraction of educational expenditures. We can well imagine the power of any knowledge that can demonstrate what actually works in education! And if medicine, for example, increasingly focuses on evidence-based approaches, shouldn't universities seek to do the same for education?


    Our second strategy is connectivity, which is becoming an essential strategy when governments reduce their financial support, thereby increasingly requiring universities to generate their own financial revenue opportunities.

    Connectivity extends the relevance of what we do through partnerships, alliances and collaborations and the myriad of other forms of linkages and connections that are not limited by institutional, sector, geographic or disciplinary boundaries. That is to say, connectivity means relevant engagement among some combinations of other academic institutions, government, business and industry.

    Consider this: the principal finding from the "Innovate America" report of the U.S. Council on Competitiveness is this: "Where we once optimized our organizations around efficiency and quality, today we must optimize our entire society around innovation." (Council on Competitiveness, "Innovate America," National Innovation Initiative Summit and Report, 2005)

    The simple reality is that innovation happens within what many are calling an innovation ecosystem - that system of loosely inter-connected elements that has enabled our society to make new discoveries, capture their value in the marketplace, enhance productivity and increase our standard of living.

    To be sure, the innovation ecosystem is a complex and interactive one.  It is shaped not only by the quantity and sources of funds available to support research activities, but also by the talent pool and capabilities of the scientists and engineers who conduct research, and by the settings in which that research is conducted . . . that is, its "infrastructure" - in the sense of its facilities, its institutional cultures, and those other related attributes governed by geographical location and interrelating organizations and facilities, many of which are increasingly global and devoid of boundaries. 

    The innovation ecosystem also is shaped by prevailing public attitudes about the importance and usefulness of research in the broader context of societal pressures and economic opportunity. Quite simply, what this means is that innovation is impacted by complex regulatory and support environments that, in turn, interact with financial opportunities and challenges across the world.

    Indeed, a shortcoming in any piece of the innovation ecosystem is at best inefficient; at worst, it could be a debilitating disconnect that undermines our capacity for commercialization and economic growth.

    Universities now are being called upon to explore innovative processes and partnerships and to create campus cultures congruent with new realities. These realities require a close and deep collaboration with other public- and private- sector organizations, along with a willingness to experiment with new models and new alliances. As we increasingly work with partners accustomed to aggressive delivery schedules and product mixes that rapidly change according to market demands, our core of academic processes will be challenged, and adaptability must become integrated into our academic culture.

    What is more, beginning in the 1970s the more rapid pace by which new discoveries began to be quantified in the asset ledgers of corporations ensured that investment funds increasingly began to track the flows of intellectual property developments around the world, which demonstrates the growing interdependencies of the science and technology activities of nations.  Indeed, we are witnessing several new ways in which the globalization of markets is affecting both how science is funded and how it is practiced.

    The Wall Street Journal put it this way: "Open market innovation works for the same reason that free trade works: It enables the laws of comparative advantage to govern the allocation of R&D resources. In essence, a company gets lower cost, higher quality ideas from the best sources in the world, allowing it to refocus its own innovation resources where it has clear competitive advantages. With the right people in place to recognize beneficial trade-offs, the company is able to 'export' ideas that other businesses could put to better use." (Darrel Rigby and Christopher Zook, Manager's Column, The Wall Street Journal, p. B-2., December 3, 2002)

    Thus, today the global economy is an innovation economy driven by the discovery and application of new knowledge, which itself springs from R&D. Globally, the R&D marketplace is now approaching a trillion dollars, which is a sizable industry by any standard.

    We know, of course, that R&D is not evenly distributed across the world. Thus, for example, nearly 70% of R&D is performed by only 30 countries, those representing the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), of which 83% is dominated by only seven countries, including 45% (approximately $340 billion) by the United States alone. (National Science Board's 2008 Science and Engineering Indicators, p.4-35)

    If we examine R&D expenditures in the U.S., we see that 62% ($224 billion) are derived from industry, 30% ($94 billion) from the federal government and 7% ($23 billion) from foundations, states and our own research universities. The trend is similar here in China, where business invests nearly three times as much on R&D as does the government.

    In terms of traditional R&D, the U.S. performs about $60 billion of basic research (18%), $75 billion of applied research (22%) and $204 billion of development (60%). Colleges and universities perform the majority of the country's basic research, but only a nominal percentage of development.

    Within the U.S., academic performers receive about $47 billion of federally supported R&D, or 14% of the $340 billion U.S. total. Again, this is similar here in China where universities obtain 18.9% of government R&D funds.  (National Science Board 2008)

    Obviously, academic institutions do not have a particularly notable share of this market and they have an even smaller share of industrially supported R&D, which, for the U.S. is only about 5%. 

    Considering the growing international dimensions of R&D, there are significant opportunities to gain additional market share by engaging more broadly and strategically with other R&D performers and funders around the world. Moreover, the disjunction between government- and industry- supported university R&D makes it clear that enhancing the opportunities for universities to work collaboratively with industry not only can result in added financial support, but also is a necessary next step in enhancing the innovation process.

    Let me now address another connectivity disconnect that I believe can lead us to explore an almost entirely untapped area.

    At The University of Akron we say that "our expertise creates the new materials for the new economy", by which we intentionally convey a double meaning of physical materials and human capital. And connecting human capital productively is essential to the effectiveness of the innovation ecosystem.

    We all 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 parallel of the human capital supply chain, in which talent inventory is managed with a supply-chain-like discipline. 

    So what would happen if industry gave as much attention to the human capital side of their supply chain? 

    Companies could save substantial time and money by converting talent acquisition to a more proactive approach: forecasting demand for human capital and even matching up that capital with specific jobs. 

    So, I believe that we need to develop a serious academic approach to the concept of talent supply chain management.


    Finally, let me turn to the third strategy - productivity.

    Large sectors of the global economy - healthcare and education, for example - have yet to see major productivity changes, as they must if they are not to consume increasingly larger, and thus unsustainable, fractions of our economic resources.

    Often, this is difficult for us in education to comprehend and we are more likely to react defensively by noting that ours is a labor-intensive enterprise. Thus, in the spirit of putting the matter of productivity into its proper educational perspective, perhaps the following " artful analogies" will help (all are in reference to the rate of change in the computer).

    "What if the airplane had advanced as far and as fast as the computer? Today's jumbo jet would carry one hundred thousand passengers, and it would fly them to the moon and back for $12.50 at 23,400 miles per hour." (Washington Post National Weekly Edition. 1988, May 9-15. p. 6.)

    What if the automobile had advanced at the same rate as the computer?  "We could today buy a Rolls Royce for a dollar and drive around the world on a gallon of gas." (Washington Post National Weekly Edition. 1988, May 9-15. p. 6.)

    And, here is my favorite of all!  What if education also had advanced as far and as fast as the computer?

    ". . . a (U.S.) high school or college education - which still takes twelve and four years, respectively, to complete at an average cost for either of about $60,000 - could today be completed in less than 10 minutes for about 5 cents!"(Washington Post National Weekly Edition. 1989, Dec. 25-31. p. 24)

    Now that we have this somewhat humorous perspective in mind, what can we actually do to enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of our universities?

    I think there are two areas ripe for innovation: The first is what I will call educational attainment, and the second is the assessment of results - of outcomes rather than inputs.

    Educational attainment is important because today's college is tomorrow's high school! Today's tertiary education is tomorrow's secondary education!

    What I mean is college is to the 21st Century what high school was to the 20th Century, or what a primary education was to the 19th Century; college is now just the starting point; it gets you to the door, but it alone will not get you to the show.

    There are financial implications here, which now are being seen in many countries by way of early college and advanced placement programs. In my state of Ohio, for example, our governor has started what he calls a "senior to sophomores" program and we have had a 2+4 B.S.-M.D. program for many years. And anyone who has moved from Europe to the U.S., or vice versa, also knows that European education covers more advanced subjects earlier than the U.S. educational system.   American students moving to Europe find themselves challenged well beyond their level of preparation, while European students moving to the U.S. finds themselves well ahead of their American peers and, often, bored.

    Improving educational attainment by getting students through high school and into college with advanced placement is more cost effective and can enable human resources to be deployed sooner into the economy. But if college is now equivalent to high school, we also must redefine the nature of tertiary education; a challenge we barely have begun to discuss.

    Moving beyond attainment and redefining what a college education should be, we must recognize that probably the biggest impediment to understanding and advancing the productivity of universities lies in the fact that we presently define academic "excellence" largely by selectivity and expense: how many students are excluded and how much money is spent per student. If we are going to begin even talking about productivity, new performance and productivity-based metrics must be developed that reflect outcomes in enabling student success and achievements in solving "real-world" problems.

    Of course, it is not easy to characterize the wide range of universities, whether in America or across the world. Even among the limited number of research universities, institutional diversity is so broad that every approach to rank or even classify institutions has been rightly criticized. Most research rankings use only input measures, such as amount of federal funding or total expenditures for research, when funding agencies would be served better by information about outcomes - the research performance of universities.

    A particularly thorny question always has been how to create meaningful comparisons between large and smaller research universities, or even between specific research programs within universities.

    Quite simply, in the absence of output measures, the more-is-better logic is flawed. If research productivity is equal, why should a university that spends more money for research be ranked higher than one that spends less? 

    Some universities have much larger licensing revenues than those with comparable research budgets, and all surveys that measure licensing revenues compared to research income show no correlation, especially when scaled.

    Because there are no established frameworks to get at the various factors that are involved, I think a good beginning would be to characterize research competitiveness and productivity separately.

    No longer can we simply assert that adequate and comparable measurements are impossible, expecting the public to blindly trust that we in the academy know quality when we see it.  As scholars and researchers, we can and must do better. Otherwise, the predictable result will be public distrust that fails to sustain even the current levels of federal R&D investments.

    Beyond attainment and outcomes measures, there are still other opportunities to create greater productivity and foster efficient uses of resources:  Indeed, just as there is no single model or form that defines a research university, so also is there no single approach to gaining research strength. I believe there are opportunities for universities to create greater differentiation among themselves, either as individual institutions or through creative alliances that shape new dimensions of competitive and comparative advantages. Focus and differentiation are respected elements of competitive strategy, and no university can afford to be truly comprehensive in today's environment.

    Also, with so many universities across the world, we should not be afraid to ask what will be the academic equivalent of mergers and acquisitions, of managed "health care" plans, and of the emerging private practice corporations? What new and innovative forms of outsourcing will be considered? What alliances and coalitions will emerge to consolidate and expand market share? And what comparative and competitive advantages will be expressed as a new generation of research universities emerges in the years ahead, as indeed it surely will?

    Whether we like it or not, the call for accountability, affordability and accessibility, as well as the necessity for pervasive innovation require that we seek new performance standards for the excellence of our universities - standards that do not presume that only selectivity, size and expense define excellence - something that both Michael Crow at Arizona State University and we at The University of Akron are calling a new gold standard of university performance, a fresh and definitive standard appropriate to our times.

    These are its principles:

    • 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 integration of our disciplines as applied in solving the problems of today, not by their isolation.
    • Unlike others, we will be measured by the collaborative impact that we create for each other and for our common future, not by the barriers we erect between our communities and ourselves.

    Since antiquity, education has been the gauge of progress for any civilization. 

    Today, higher education is on the threshold of a revolution of its own, facing major and complex changes that must be directed to optimal outcomes if universities are to continue as major players in the rapidly evolving global economy.

    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!

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