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Commencement Addresses

Education as Infrastructure: Strategic Intent In Building Ohio's Future

  • Date: 12/16/1999
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: The Akron Roundtable
  • Thank you, Rube, for your kind words of introduction. It has been a pleasure following in your footsteps and I appreciate your help in getting me started.

    Ladies and Gentlemen, I am honored by your invitation to speak to the Akron Roundtable, and

    I thank each of you for joining me this afternoon.

    My wife Theresa and I thank you, and indeed all of the members of the Akron community - for the warm welcome and enthusiastic support you have shown us.

    We have found Akron to be an exceptionally welcoming and beautiful place in which to live.

    A place that will be even more beautiful and productive, as both the university and the city continue to invest in their collaborative futures.

    I want to preface my formal remarks with two comments.


    First, I want to acknowledge members of the University of Akron's Board of Trustees - and I would ask that both current and former members of the Board please stand.

    . . . I want to recognize our Board, for their earnestness in discharging their duly appointed responsibilities . . .

    . . . for their deep and unanimous commitment to this fine university, and

    . . . for the due diligence and creative vision that they have exercised in bringing the University of Akron to this point in its history . . .

    Ladies and Gentlemen, please join me in acknowledging the University of Akron's Board of Trustees!


    Let me also acknowledge the fine leadership of Don Plusquellic, Mayor of Akron.

    I want to thank you, Don, for the exceptional partnership that is rapidly emerging between the two of us.

    Over the past several weeks, the Mayor and I have met together with our respective staffs to outline the collaborative steps needed to bring about the initial temporary closing of portions of Carroll and Brown/Union streets on our campus, the restructuring of traffic flow around campus, and the eventual permanent closure of both streets as we move further into reshaping and enhancing the campus.

    Such collaboration has enabled us to work closely toward a common vision; removing unnecessary barriers toward these projects and minimizing delays and misunderstandings, and is typical of the community spirit that I have found also in working with other groups in Akron.

    Thank you, all.

    Collaboration may not always be easy - since any worthwhile relationship, personal or professional, can be complex and demanding - especially when it involves large organizations, thousands of people, and perspectives that are bound to differ despite the best of intentions.

    But more on the subject of perspectives in a few moments.


    Speaking with you today, I am reminded of the story of a Rotarian who at the end of the day arrives home and is greeted by his wife who asks:

    "Who spoke at Rotary today?"

    "The University President," the Rotarian replies.

    "And what did he speak about?" asks his wife . . .

    "Well, I don't know; he didn't say!"

    Now, I am sure that you do not want to be speechless when you get home tonight, so let me tell you right up front that today I will be speaking about three themes:

    First, I want to talk about perspectives; about how we sometimes need to be jolted into seeing our surroundings as if for the first time. I call this the strangeness of the familiar.

    Because I am new here, and truly seeing Akron for the first time, I can share some things about Akron and about The University of Akron, and let you see them from my perspective.

    Second, I want to arouse your sense of WOW! . . . I want to tell you some very special things about how your university relates to Akron and to Ohio.

    Things you are not likely to know, and things which should make you proud.

    Things that should make you go, WOW!

    Finally, I want to tell you about what we can yet become, and - as you will see - that is an exciting proposition!

    So first, let me focus on perspectives.

    It is commonly understood that each of us sees things differently. At the same time, it is uncommon for any of us to reflect on the limitations that our perspectives impose on how we see things.

    Indeed, our perspectives are sometimes like blinders: They restrict our field of vision, allowing us to see only selected aspects of our environment and, simultaneously, keeping us from seeing other things that may be very close to us.

    This idea, which I call the "strangeness of the familiar," is something we have all experienced.

    Think about it. As the driver of a car, you know the streets you use to get home or to work. But if you ride as a passenger down those same streets, or if you walk, you suddenly see things you never saw when you were the driver.. . . It is, indeed, as if you are seeing things for the first time.

    A similar idea is beautifully described by O.B. Hardison, Jr. in his book Disappearing through the Skylight: Culture and Technology in the Twentieth Century (1989).

    He talks about how we tend to take established technologies for granted, and how, in doing so, we actually lose sight of them.

    "If an innovation is basic," Hardison writes, "simply because it is so, a generation after it has been introduced, it becomes part of the world as given - part of the shape of consciousness, you might say, rather than the content of consciousness." (p. xii)

    Even though new technology is usually seen as intrusive and sometimes even threatening - once it has been accepted, the technology recedes into background.

    For example, we only take notice of electricity, the telephone, or any of a number of relatively recent innovations when they break or malfunction!

    Hardison tells us that the lack of consciousness of the familiar actually changes our culture - making those earlier innovations "transparent to thought," rather than part of our daily considerations.

    In essence, he says, "It is as though progress were making the real world invisible." And this is what he means by his title, Disappearing through the Skylight.

    I happen to think that this applies not only to technologies that become accepted, but also to those things that are closest to home.

    Because it seems that those things that are closest to home, are the least noticed -- and the least respected, understood, celebrated, cherished, safeguarded.

    And that is precisely what I mean by the strangeness of the familiar.

    But why do I tell you this?

    Because the most salient experience during my first year in Akron is the surprise in learning how little anyone seems to know about or truly notice what we have here.

    This region is brimming with wonderful treasures that should be celebrated by all - yet it seems that few are celebrated and too many are taken for granted.

    In keeping with human nature, we tend to ignore or even criticize our familiar treasures. And this is unfortunate, because by ignoring that which we should cherish, we create for outsiders a less than favorable impression.

    To paraphrase Rabbi Hillel, if we are not for ourselves, then who will be for us?

    Of course, I cannot change human nature. But what I can do, and want to do this afternoon is to arouse your sense of WOW!

    Particularly, as you can well imagine, I want to arouse your sense of WOW about your University of Akron! I want you to see the University as if for the first time.


    One hundred years ago, almost to the day, Buchtel College was destroyed by fire, only to rise again like the phoenix that is now one of the University's proud symbols.

    Eighty years into this century (on November 16, 1980), the Beacon's Sunday Magazine told the story of a very fine University in service to Akron.

    And while much is new and different in 1999, what has not changed is the sentiment expressed on the magazine's cover - "The People Consider It Theirs."

    The University of Akron continues to be in, of, and for Akron and the greater Akron region.

    Indeed, the character of the institution represents nearly 130 years of partnership with every facet of this community, as well as with other institutions throughout Ohio and across the world - all aimed at improving the quality of life and the economic vitality of northern Ohio.

    In my experience, to find such a strong relationship between the community and the University is actually quite rare. Rather, the norm is for there to be a split between town and gown.

    So, our University's close relationship with you represents a vital asset to our city and our region, one that I fully intend to safeguard and enhance during my tenure as president.


    But for too long the University of Akron has been an undercelebrated resource.

    It has just been there, quietly serving you . . . receding into the background of your thoughts . . . almost disappearing through the skylight.

    Yet, along the way, it created the success stories that are the legends of this city . . .

    People like Ray Bliss, Russell DeYoung, Mario DiFederico, and Glenn Meadows;

    and made it possible for Pete Burg and Tony Alexander to rise to the highest echelons of First Energy,

    and it allowed for Tim Oschenhirt, Jim Morrison, Jr., and Bob Linton to become the managing partners of their respective law firms.

    It enabled Sandra Pianalto to rise to First Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of the Cleveland Federal Reserve Bank;

    And Bill Considine to be President and CEO of Children's Hospital Medical Center here in Akron;

    And propelled Judge Alice Batchelder to service on the U.S. Court of Appeals;

    And Justices Deborah Cook and Evelyn Lundberg Stratton to service on the Ohio Supreme Court;

    It nurtured Congressman Tom Sawyer, Senator Roy Ray, Mayor Don Plusquellic, and Akron Public School Superintendent Brian Williams . . .

    . . . and these are but a few of the thousands of fine examples, including most of you in this room - and more than 150 school superintendents, principals and school administrators in northeast Ohio, and 117 judges -. . . all examples of lives transformed by the University of Akron.

    Think about it! WOW!

    . . .

    Yes, the University has provided the teachers, lawyers, artists, musicians, nurses, business executives, politicians, technicians, and countless other professionals - forged from individual personalities and the elements of a comprehensive education.

    And along the way, the University's research also provided the intellectual property that served to fuel and diversify the industrial base of Akron, transforming it from the rubber capital into the polymer capital of the world.

    The University also served as a stabilizing and energizing force for Akron . . . a growing and vital enterprise that would not be moving out of state or sold to absentee owners. The University of Akron provided a sense of permanence, while simultaneously helping to reinvent our region through its discoveries in polymer research.

    And because of that research, the University of Akron today has the second-largest intellectual property portfolio among public universities in Ohio, and relative to its inputs, the most productive by far . . . WOW!

    I am not sure that any of you knew that, or that many of you know that the University has so much excellence in so many other areas . . . well beyond polymer science and polymer engineering . . .

    . . . with nationally recognized expertise in sales and marketing; dance; music; entrepreneurship; gerontological nursing; intellectual property law; global business; educational technology; applied politics; speech pathology and audiology; applied behavioral and social sciences; surface and materials sciences; the fine and performing arts . . .

    . . . and the list goes on in many other programs -exhibiting depth, breadth, and quality in service to our sponsoring society . . . WOW!

    So it is time to tell the story, because the University of Akron has, indeed, been undervalued and under-celebrated.

    . . . And, now more than ever, you need to know this, and all of us need to focus on, and to cherish the University of Akron.

    We need to and must do so because universities located in metropolitan settings, like the University of Akron, are today fulfilling even more critical needs for their communities.

    Let me tell you how.. . .


    In a recent issue of Forbes magazine, Tim Ferguson wrote,


    "In Cleveland's heyday (during the Industrial Revolution), proximity to water or rail mattered a lot. Today proximity to a university campus matters a lot."


    Why this is so, can best be appreciated by noting that Donald Alstadt, the chairman and C.E.O. of the Lord Corporation, for many years maintained an office at each of 10 or 15 universities so that he could be the first to "mine" new knowledge and technology; . . . So that his company could gain a competitive edge.


    And that is because in today's knowledge-based economy, intellectual capital is business capital. And staying close to the source of knowledge creation is not just a good idea; it is a business necessity.



    That is why many times during this year you have heard me say that the university is an engine for economic development . . . .

    The University is an engine for economic development through research and the production of new knowledge.

    Indeed, economists agree that creation of new technological knowledge through research is our most direct economic avenue 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; that new jobs are created;

    It is from research that the economy expands and new wealth is created.

    And that is why many times during this year you also have heard me say that in a knowledge economy, education is infrastructure.

    And perhaps you still puzzle at that strange sounding word, infrastructure, so let me explain.

    If you open your watch, you find the "stuff" that keeps time. The gears and sprockets - or the microchips - of a watch make up the infrastructure of a time-keeping system.

    Infrastructure, in other words, refers to those things that enable a particular system to accomplish its purpose.

    In a transportation system, for example, infrastructure includes the roads, vehicles, fueling stations, repair garages and all of those other things that keep things moving.

    Thus, when I say that in a knowledge economy education is infrastructure, I mean for you to understand that education has become the basis for everything we do to make our society work and for progress to take place.

    Education is infrastructure, because through the engagement of students, it creates knowledgeable individuals that can apply analytical and problem solving skills to shape our industries and our societies.

    Education is infrastructure, because through research, it creates the ideas and technologies that shape the industries of the future.

    Education is infrastructure because it enables both personal and economic progress.

    And lest you think that this is nothing more than academic rhetoric, let me cite just a few historical examples to prove my point:

    At the turn of the last century, our nation's move from an agrarian to an industrial economy was catalyzed by the establishment of land-grant colleges and state universities focused on the task of advancing "agriculture and the mechanical arts" in service to America.

    During World War II, university research developments that were initially vital to the Allied war effort laid the groundwork for technological leaps in medicine, aviation, energy, electronics - developments which today affect virtually every realm of our human endeavors.

    Shortly after the war, the era of microelectronics began - with the 1947 development of the transistor at Bell Laboratories.

    As a result, federal funds were channeled into universities for further research, for training of electrical engineers · and through them, the first seeds of the Silicon Valley were sown, and from such modest beginnings we are now immersed in the information age, as all of you know all too well.

    Another example of education as infrastructure is the Space Race and the impact it had on technological growth.

    Challenged by the unexpected launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik in 1957, the United States made a commitment to an ambitious program of manned space flight.

    Once again, the engine powering this historical effort was American higher education, as it was engaged to do the research and train the people needed for success.

    That investment not only resulted in Americans walking on the moon, . . . but it gave rise to the Space Industry, and enabled new technologies in medicine, satellite communications, computer science, and also gave birth to robotics and miniaturization along the way.

    And as recently as 1970, a single discovery in molecular biology initiated the new industry of biotechnology, an industry from which we are now seeing dramatic advances in medical science and the introduction of effective new technologies such as the production of human insulin by factories of microorganisms. And right here at the University of Akron, we are producing an artificial pancreas out of "intelligent" polymers.

    These are just a few examples of education as infrastructure. Each effectively demonstrates that new knowledge builds new capacities just as surely as materials build new structures . . .

    . . . And each demonstrates that our nation's investments in education and research have built very real assets that have yielded very real returns on those investments.

    Indeed, the social return on research and education investments has been estimated to be consistently at between 30 and 50% per year.

    Now, it so happens that a few weeks ago, while meeting with a group of polymer industry executives, I was suddenly struck by a certain irony in my experience.

    The irony was this: Twenty years ago I was telling Georgia to emulate Ohio (because Ohio had then just put in place some innovative approaches to spur its economic development), and now I find myself telling Ohio to emulate Georgia!

    Let me explain the essence of this irony, because it has two important components which we should all appreciate and understand.

    First, it seems that we in Ohio have not fully grasped the investment value of education.

    Any cursory review of legislative language will tell you that this is so, because Ohio's appropriations for higher education are characterized as "subsidies" and not "investments."

    And that is a difference not only in semantics, it is a difference of fact. Because the fact is that the state recoups nearly $2 dollars for each dollar appropriated for higher education, and recouping twice the expense, by any account or measure, is a superb return on investment.

    So here is the irony: Since subsidy is not a "good thing" in today's competitive marketplace, why would our state choose to think pejoratively when in doing so, Ohio not only conveys its ignorance of the facts, but, what is worse, it perpetuates an approach that will doom Ohio to economic mediocrity.

    Second, over the last twenty years, Ohio and other states in the Midwest have lagged in innovation and lost market share in Research & Development.

    As I have noted elsewhere, The University of Akron is the only university in all of Ohio, public or private, to have a basic science graduate program ranked among the top five nationally. WOW!

    And it is a program that serves an industrial cluster which accounts for nearly one quarter of Ohio's manufacturing output. WOW!

    Neither Ohio State, nor Case Western Reserve University, nor any other Ohio university can lay claim to such a highly rated research program that serves such a large component of the state's economy - not one!

    This singular national ranking speaks volumes about the strength of our university's polymer program, but it also sends a powerful message about how much Ohio must do to gain leadership in other areas.. . .

    Even in the $20+ billion polymer sector, Ohio's investment to sustain competitiveness seems paltry.. . . For example, Ohio currently provides just $1.4 million to the Edison Polymer Innovation Corporation, but the state easily spends $100 million to support the coal industry.


    And meanwhile, other Midwestern states are showing signs of competitive awakening.

    This year, Indiana created a 21st Century Research and Technology Fund and is prepared to spend $50 million per year in areas of strategic opportunity. Two years ago, Illinois established funding mechanisms to enhance university-based R&D.

    Ohio could learn from many of these approaches, or from many of the other ideas that were discussed at the pubic policy forum we held at The University of Akron in October.

    If Ohio is to become the leader in science and technology that Governor Taft has called for, our state must once again invest in its future.

    It must invest in higher education, and it must signal strategic intent. And it must do so boldly! Now! Before another twenty years creates yet other ironies of neglect.

    It must do so because success in the new economy belongs to those regions that create and nurture the human resources of intellectual capital . . . the people that create new knowledge and new technologies and quickly translate research discoveries into marketable products and services.


    To succeed, universities, area business, industry, and government must work in partnership to support clusters of brainpower. And, we must work hand-in-hand with our elementary and secondary school systems to create a strong and consistent flow of brainpower.


    All of us must join together, just as the Summit Education Initiative is asking us to do, and develop high standards for both curriculum and performance in our schools.

    We must take an active role in creating for our children and for all of our citizens the conditions under which learning can and will take place.


    To do any less is unconscionable!

    The success that I see every day in our University of Akron students gives me great hope for our collective futures.

    Let me give just a few examples:

    In 1999, a student in our College of Business Administration earned the highest student score in the world on the Certified Management Accountant exam. WOW!

    Our student chapter of the Society of Automotive Engineers, a chapter that is barely 10 years old, has captured more national awards than any other chapter EVER, and more than all other Ohio universities combined - a success that is unprecedented in the organization's 94-year history. WOW!

    In three of the past four years the College of Business Administration team entry in the Arthur Andersen National Tax Challenge has finished among the top 20 teams in the nation. WOW!

    The University's chapter of the national professional fraternity in marketing, sales management, and selling, has ranked in the top 10 nationally every year since 1987. WOW!

    Our campus radio station, WZIP, is the highest rated student-run college radio station in Ohio and among the top five in the country. WOW!

    And undoubtedly you have read of the success of our students in Law, Nursing, Education, Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology, dietetics, counseling psychology, . . .. . . all of whom have performed well above the national average on their respective professional certification exams.

    WOW stories about our students are plentiful, and give us hope that Ohio might yet wish to invest in the future success of the many others that must follow if Ohio is to close its education deficit.

    . . . But lest you think we already have enough WOW stories, let me assure you that we are not about to rest on our laurels.

    So let me turn to what we can yet become:

    We are investing $200 million dollars in your future . . .

    . . . $200 million dollars in the future of the University of Akron - - in the future of downtown Akron.

    We are making this investment because we are "bullish" on Akron, and because we know that the University can pay even greater returns to this state and to this community.

    We are creating "a new landscape for learning", with six new buildings, and major expansions or renovations of fourteen other structures.

    We are creating courtyards and walkways, plazas and terraces, and we are adding more than 30 new acres of green space with 30,000 new trees and 20,000 other new plantings.

    . . . And this is about far more than just bricks and mortar.

    It is about creating a new campus and a new community.

    It is about creating a new landscape for learning in all of the things we do at the University and in all of the other ways in which the University touches Akron and Ohio.

    It is about creating an environment where you can DREAM, DARE, and DO the things that it takes to change the world.

    And it is also about fulfilling a destiny.


    In my first year as president of the university - as I visited every college, school and department - I found genuine excellence in every corner.

    Far more excellence than any university president even has a right to expect - and far more excellence than any of us seem to know about.

    I found a level of excellence that must be celebrated, both because it is a story of untold benefits to Akron and to Ohio, and because it represents such an outstanding level of excellence that it signals a very clear destiny for our University.

    It is a destiny for the University of Akron to achieve in northern Ohio a prominence comparable to that long enjoyed by Ohio State University in the central part of the state, and to what the University of Cincinnati has more recently achieved in southern Ohio.

    A destiny to be nothing less than a full community partner, a partner that continues to define the economic vitality and resurgence of an exceptional city and region.

    A destiny to lead the world, and I do mean lead the world, in key areas of research such as polymer science and polymer engineering, and to do so in strategic alliances with its corporate colleagues and sister institutions.

    A destiny to be best in all of those things that it chooses to be!

    Before us lies the exciting opportunity of fulfilling that destiny!

    To this end, our responsibility is to create the context and direction wherein the University can productively focus its energies.

    Let us become engaged intellectually and emotionally in the quest for building one of the best universities in the nation.

    Let us generate ideas so bold and so powerful so as to generate passionate commitment to a common vision.

    Let us be driven and disciplined by ambitious goals.

    And - to paraphrase Goethe - whatever we do, or dream we can, let us begin it!

    "Boldness has genius, power, and magic to it."

    This is our commitment to you!

    Join us in the new millennium, and together we will shape the future.


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