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Powering the Third Frontier

  • Date: 10/21/2003
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: The Newcomen Society of the United States of America
  • Good evening ladies and gentlemen, and thank you Jack Timken for your very thoughtful introduction.

    My task tonight is made much easier, because in 1970, on the 100th anniversary of The University of Akron, the Newcomen Society invited Dr. Norman Auburn, then-president of The University of Akron, to speak about the University's many accomplishments during its first century.

    Dr. Auburn passed away just a few months ago at age 98, and he was without question The University of Akron's most significant president of the 20th century.

    Under his leadership, The University of Akron embarked on its "second cycle" expansion, which resulted in the construction and renovation of nearly two dozen facilities.

    When he retired in 1971, the campus had experienced profound academic changes, as well as tremendous physical growth. It had moved from its original founding as a private institution, through its role as a municipal university to that of a comprehensive state-supported institution.

    And just as he did, we are today embarked on our "third cycle," what I would like to call the "third frontier" of our University's history, and it is certainly a frontier of technological innovation that is so much in keeping with the Newcomen Society's purpose.

    That is why I have titled my remarks this evening, "Powering the Third Frontier," and as you will immediately recognize, this title also is fitting in light of Governor Taft's exciting initiative of the same name, because it is our universities that are the power behind the next generation of economic competitiveness for the state of Ohio and, indeed, the rest of America.

    What I want to do this evening is first to bring us up to date since Dr. Auburn's 1970 Newcomen Society presentation, and I will do so by giving you a broad-strokes outline of The University of Akron's own third frontier; second, I briefly will explain how Akron has powered, and continues to power, innovation and new wealth creation in Northeast Ohio; and finally, I will share some thoughts on the nature and purpose of universities.

    So, let us begin with some highlights about The University of Akron's Third Frontier, because just as Dr. Auburn was responsible for our University's second cycle of expansion, we are today again building and investing for the future.

    Akron's demonstrable and documentable excellence already makes it the public research university for northern Ohio. That is no small claim, but what you need to know is that we have set our sights on nothing less than becoming as renowned in northern Ohio as Ohio State has long been in central Ohio and Cincinnati certainly is becoming in southern Ohio.

    And we thank The Newcomen Society for recognizing our progress toward that ambitious goal. Your recognition is testament to the fact that this Society knows that, in the knowledge economy, every world-class region deserves no less than one world-class public research university.

    Akron's third cycle of expansion, or "third frontier" as I have called it, has three principal components: a New Landscape for Learning, a New Landscape for Living and what I have begun to call New Mindscapes for Learning.

    Our New Landscape for Learning began in 1999 under the leadership of our Board of Trustees with an initial $200-million plan to construct 6 entirely new buildings and to make major expansions or renovations to 14 other structures. It has now expanded to a $300-million, 8-new-building campaign - all of which will be completed during 2004, with 2 additional facilities already in the wings for a total of 10.

    And if that were not enough, we are closing two streets, adding more than 30 acres of green space, planting 30,000 trees and landscaping the campus with walkways, terraces, plazas and gardens that will create the most exciting metropolitan campus that I know of anywhere in the country.

    Simply put, the physical transformation of our campus is awesome! It truly stimulates your sense of WOW!

    But that is not all, because with the help of the Knight Foundation, we have launched a New Landscape for Living - a project whereby we are revitalizing a 40-block area that surrounds our University campus - and this is not only about revitalizing structures, it is about re-energizing a community.

    In partnership with the city of Akron and Summa Health System, we have formed the University Park Alliance, a project that will catalyze additional investments of somewhere between $200-$400 million to create a vibrant commercial and living environment that will ensure the success of families and enterprises related to the University and our sister institution, Summa.

    Our New Landscape for Living and New Landscape for Learning are, of course, highly visible, physical transformations. They are what you see when you visit our campus and explore our neighborhoods.

    But just as impressive, though perhaps less visible, is the third component of our third frontier.

    This third component refers to the University's ongoing commitment to enhance and modernize what goes on inside our many new and renovated buildings and, indeed, elsewhere and everywhere around the campus.

    It is an effort whereby we are planting the new programmatic seeds from which the future generations of leadership and innovation will blossom, and I expect that this ultimately will have the most profound impact and greatest return on our investments.

    I have begun to call this our "New Mindscapes for Learning" initiative - innovative, effective models and practices of teaching and scholarship - a new kind of 21st Century academic infrastructure that is needed to promote broader and deeper learning and still greater student success.

    This focus on the other aspects of our academic infrastructure has three principal elements:

    First, our Carnegie Teaching Academy initiatives, recently recognized nationally by our designation as a university Carnegie Cluster Leader, one of only 12 institutions so designated across the nation.

    What does this mean? It means that Akron is nationally recognized for its leadership in teaching excellence - the kind that creates measurable student success and so many other things that we can documentably say about the excellence of our programs.

    Second, the creation of a comprehensive, student activities environment that complements the classroom and empowers learning outside the classroom. What this means is that we are putting into practice what Benjamin Barber has long called the principle of "educating the public in the public."

    And third, our leadership in, and enhancements of, our information technology environment, including our "technology without boundaries" initiatives such as our lawn-to-lawn, wired-for-wireless environment.

    What this means is that we have a ubiquitous information technology environment - that is, one that is appropriate to the expectation of students that today are born with a "mouse" in their hands.

    So that, ladies and gentlemen, is our New Mindscapes for Learning - teaching excellence in and outside the classroom enabling students to know how new knowledge is created and applied, all supported by ubiquitous, cutting-edge information technology resources.

    Let me now turn to examining how universities like Akron power innovation and new wealth creation.

    Of course, I don't have to spend much of your evening on this topic. In any case, many of you know that this was the topic of an entire speech that I delivered at The City Club of Cleveland in 2002.
    ("The Role of Higher Education in Economic Development," The City Club of Cleveland, Cleveland, Ohio, July 24, 2002) (www.cityclub.org)

    So let me focus briefly on only two aspects of universities and economic development: (1) their product lines, and (2) the creation and transfer of new technology.

    When I spoke to The City Club of Cleveland, I listed four topics. However, as Ned Hill tells us in a recent paper, there are seven distinct product lines offered by universities, and I will list them:

    1. Educational services that expand the base of human talent and qualify individuals for professional work;
    2. Research and Development services contracted by the state, federal agencies, and private companies;
    3. Regional cultural products that add the quality of life and create opportunities to attract income and extend the universities' talents to the community in dance, music, art, theatre and the humanities;
    4. Trained labor that contributes to workforce development and skill renewal;
    5. Regional technology diffusion through the output of students and from contract research interactions;
    6. New knowledge creation; and
    7. New products, licensed technology and start-up firm(Edward W. "Ned" Hill and Iryna Lendel, "The Impact of the Reputation of Bio-Life Science and Engineering Doctoral Programs on Regional Economic Development," manuscript submitted to the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, September, 2003)
      Suffice it to say that, fundamentally, everything that universities do today adds and contributes to economic development.

    Indeed, economists agree that it is the creation of new technological knowledge through research that provides our most direct economic avenue as a society 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 and that new jobs are created; it is from research that new wealth is created and the economy expands. That is the birds-and-bees version of economic well-being.

    This is why research at our universities is a fundamental driver for a state's economic development. And this is why some states have made higher education, quite literally, the infrastructure of their new economies, because universities excel at the creation of new knowledge, through research.

    Just as the genius of inventor/engineer Thomas Newcomen, through the success of his steam engine, was deemed to be the most important innovation to power the Industrial Revolution, so also today innovations pouring forth from our laboratories across the nation and across Ohio are transforming the economic landscape of the 21st Century.

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

    Akron and its corporate community 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.

    At Akron, for example, our research provided the intellectual property that served to fuel and diversify the industrial bases of our city, of our region and of our state.

    Authors Steve Love and David Giffels talked about these partnerships in their recently published book, Wheels of Fortune.

    They wrote that in the early 1900s - in fact, shortly after the establishment of The University of Akron - the University's "Charles M. Knight taught the world's first college course in rubber science."
    (Steve Love and David Giffels, Wheels of Fortune, The University of Akron Press, 1999, p. 303)

    "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."
    (Ibid., p. 303)

    Love and Giffels go on to note that "The university 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.
    (Ibid., p. 300)

    And so it continues today in the much larger setting of the 2800 companies that comprise Ohio's $50-billion polymer industry, the largest industry in Ohio. But I hasten to add that our economic impact, as a university, extends well beyond the rubber and the polymer industries.

    For example, one of the University's earliest collaborations occurred in the early 1880s, when the city contracted to illuminate Akron's business district using arc lamps atop what was then called Buchtel College, soon to be called The University of Akron.

    This event earned Akron the title, "The Electric Light City," and set in motion The Akron Electric Light and Power Company - a predecessor to FirstEnergy Corp.

    And today, Akron collaborates with FirstEnergy in a multitude of projects and provides a stream of talent that today is more than 400 in number and includes its chairman and CEO, Pete Burg, and its president, Tony Alexander.

    Then in 1931, the University established the Guggenheim Airship Institute in Akron. The research institute was formed to work with Goodyear-Zeppelin Corporation to investigate issues with lighter-than-air craft.

    To this day, Akron remains the center for lighter-than-air technology and the University now is collaborating with Lockheed-Martin on ways to improve buoyant flight and other opportunities.

    As you are no doubt aware, Lockheed-Martin, just a couple of weeks ago, received a $40-million contract from the U.S. Missile Defense Agency to construct the first of a series of new blimps that will form part of the Department of Homeland Security's drive to make America safe.

    Lockheed and FirstEnergy are just two examples of the many, many...indeed, more than 600 technology and other partnerships that Akron continues to grow with companies such as IBM, Cisco, WebCT; and of the expanding collaborative research projects with PolyOne, Goodyear, OMNOVA, and dozens more polymer companies in Ohio and around the world.

    In short, university research powers economic development.

    Yet, one of the most misunderstood aspects of the role of universities in economic development is that of technology transfer, such as in the licensing of intellectual property - patents, copyrights, process know-how and the start-up of new businesses.

    Today, as a result of the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980, more than 3000 patents are issued per year to academic institutions. Concomitantly, there are now more than 7500 revenue-generating licenses across the country, and the annual rate of new company formation out of technology commercialization is now approaching 400 and rapidly growing.

    The Association of University Technology Managers (AUTM) estimates that in 1999 alone, academic technology transfer added $40 billion to the U.S. economy and 260,000 new jobs!

    But the point I want you to understand tonight is this: The game of technology transfer - which is a contact sport by the way - presupposes that there is something to transfer!

    What this means is that the rate of technology transfer is quite literally proportional to the size and the magnitude of the research and development engine. If you don't have a research and development engine, you cannot perform miracles.

    Yet, our state has long had the mistaken belief and expectation that if we would just create the right intermediary to pull technology out of our campuses, then economic miracles would suddenly materialize. As a result, Ohio has failed to build the research base on which technology transfer depends, inside our universities or elsewhere, and it failed to recognize that some of the very best intermediaries can exist therein, as they have at Wisconsin and Purdue, and Stanford and MIT. Thus, we now have the add-on alphabet soup that our state created without ever asking if the requisite R&D capacity was in place!

    No research base, no miracles of economic growth. Period!

    My third and final theme deals with the nature and purpose of universities - not a simple subject considering that as institutions, universities are as impenetrable as the law. And, according to the American Council on Education, they are undoubtedly the least well-understood consumer service in America. In a word, universities are strange.

    Many of you know that I have thought much about this subject as it pertains to the condition of higher education in Ohio, but it also seems fitting that we touch on this subject, because of the role that my colleague Dick Pogue is now playing in our state, namely as Chairman of the Governor's Commission on Higher Education and the Economy. And I can tell you that if his success on that commission is anything like his success in leading the Northeast Ohio Council on Higher Education, we are in for good things.

    In the spirit of full disclosure, I must tell you that my decision to focus on this subject as my final topic this evening was prompted by an editorial in last week's Wall Street Journal titled "The Idea of a University."

    Now some of you in the audience will know that this title is the same title as that of a well-known 1852 treatise by John Henry Cardinal Newman, and one which to this day has been evocative of much thought and commentary.

    In the editorial, Lee Bollinger, now president of Columbia University, asks two fundamental questions: "What accounts for the extraordinary longevity and successful evolution over time of American colleges and universities? And where are we headed in the future?"
    (Lee C. Bollinger, The Idea of a University, The Wall Street Journal, October 15, 2003)

    The first question presumes that colleges and universities have, in fact, successfully evolved; however, this is an assumption that is not widely shared outside of academia today.

    Just last week, for example, someone observed that it is perhaps easier to change the course of history than to change a history course.

    Then there is the academic version of the question: How many academics does it take to change a light bulb? . . . . Change?

    But to raise this question of longevity and evolution is also to assume that American higher education may be in a period of transition, and that there also is something worthy of permanence in the nature and purpose of universities.

    So let us focus on the two aspects of those questions - transition and permanence.

    Mr. Bollinger's own crystal ball sees internationalization as the dominant emerging theme of the coming decades. And he may well be right. Certainly, internationalization of our universities has been underway for many years. In fact, international education has been the fifth largest sector of our service economy for many years - and certainly, the trends toward globalization make internationalization an undeniable reality for every segment of our civilization.

    But my personal wager as to where universities are headed goes to relevance. Let me explain.

    You see, I believe that what America began in 1862 with the Morrill Act has never been implemented fully. The land-grant universities that were created by that landmark legislation were asked to focus on agriculture and the mechanical arts, and so they have to this day. And, the Smith-Lever Act of 1914, which called for the extension of university knowledge in those areas of expertise into our then largely agrarian economy and society, has been equally successful, but just in two areas.

    What I mean to suggest is that I see universities increasingly working to ensure that every area of existing and emerging knowledge, not just agriculture and the mechanical arts, is more and more rapidly disseminated and applied in our society.

    What I see in my crystal ball are faculty of every discipline supporting that original 1862 land-grant mission. I see an English professor working to improve language usage in politics, in business, in journalism and wherever better discourse could help us as a society or as individuals.

    I see an economist becoming more "hands-on" than "on the one hand, or on the other," as is being demonstrated already by the growing importance of game theory, experimental economics, and financial modeling.

    I see biologists becoming biotechnologists, as so many already have in the last 30 years. And I see physicists, chemists and engineers creating nanotechnologies, as the National Nanotechnology Initiative begins to make possible engineering products at the nanoscale. And so on for every other area of our universities.

    In short, I see each and every discipline becoming more and more relevant to our society, because I think that the test of knowledge - beyond that of the ability of our colleagues to replicate it - increasingly will become its ability to be quantified - to be applied in a market environment.

    Many see great danger in this; some see the corruption of academic freedom and of pure science. They see the commercialization of the academy.

    But academic freedom and pure science have always been ambiguous concepts, much like so many others, and many already defend these concepts by stating that new knowledge must literally be vetted in the "marketplace of ideas."

    And I think that open markets for new knowledge will increasingly make for the evolution of universities toward greater and greater relevance as tested in the open marketplace of ideas.

    So relevance, as I have just defined it, is my choice for how universities are evolving.

    But what about permanence? What are those aspects of universities that define their nature and purpose for all time?

    Columbia's President Bollinger is eloquent on that subject, and I recommend his editorial for your reading. But let me come at this from another perspective by paraphrasing Ada Louise Huxtable, whose recent reflections and commentary on the meaning of great structures to our society serves to remind us that, just like great buildings, great institutions can be powerful symbols in our society.

    Indeed, applying one of her recent commentaries to the world of universities we might say this:

    "...we are more comfortable with strangeness; the (universities) become admired symbols that give us a lasting sense of (who we are and what we know). It is through these extraordinary (institutions) that we identify with the beautiful and the exceptional, that we understand ourselves and our aspirations."
    (Ada Louise Huxtable, The Wall Street Journal, October 2, 2003)

    (But) "If those who don't know history are condemned to repeat it; those who lack the understanding of the uncommon, and the eternal need for its existence, are sure to sabotage it, over and over again."
    (Huxtable, Ibid.)

    "The one certainty is that politics, power plays and personality conflicts will always endanger the dream."
    (Huxtable, Ibid.)

    You see, I think that universities are magical places - places of discovery and places of transformation. That is why I often say that Akron is a place where you can dream and dare and do the things that it takes to change the world.

    Just listen to these words written by Nobel Laureate George Wald and you, too, can sense some of that magic:

    "Surely this is a great part of our dignity . . . "he begins.

    "Surely this is a great part of our dignity . . . that we can know, and that through us matter can know itself; that beginning with protons and electrons, out of the womb of time and the vastness of space, we can begin to understand; that organized as in us, the hydrogen, the carbon, the nitrogen, the oxygen, those 16 to 21 elements, the water, the sunlight - all, having become us, can begin to understand what they are, and how they came to be."
    (George Wald, quoted in: Philip Ball, Life's Matrix: A Biography of Water, June 2000, p. 3)

    There, in a few short sentences, lies the magic of universities.

    It lies in the relentless pursuit of truth, in the progressive discovery of knowledge, in the connectedness of life, in the sense that we can and we must advance our common future.

    Ladies and gentlemen, that is what is worth preserving; that is what is worth supporting; that is what is worth celebrating.

    As for me, I am glad that Dick Pogue is at the helm!

    Thank you!

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