Growing an emerging research university.

Author:Birx, Donald L.


When the first author was at New Mexico State University (NMSU), the president often stated that three types of universities would exist in the future: 1) those that have the resources to do everything and be great at everything, 2) those that are leaders in selected areas of teaching and research (often leveraging regional resources), and 3) those that focus solely on teaching. Given the need for economic development and revitalization and increasing global competitiveness, the authors believe that, contrary to prevailing thinking, many more universities and colleges across the country can, and should be of the second type; such universities should pursue increased involvement in research and development with their local communities. Through such outreach, they will become engines of economic opportunity and innovation in a way that enlivens the educational process and builds entrepreneurial leaders. Employers expect that graduates, no matter what their discipline, will have the experience and skill sets to function on the cutting edge of technology. This, then, is a set of papers that explores some of the most efficient and rewarding processes to achieve the goal of becoming a partnered research university or college. The authors will explore challenge- or theme-based interdisciplinary research cluster development, strategic hiring, open laboratories, and technology transfer--issues that are of most value to emerging research universities that want to become great research and educational partners; furthermore, the authors describe methods of implementing this change efficiently and in a timely manner.

The cluster-based approaches detailed in this paper are for those who have the desire to focus on developing points of excellence that raise the stature of their campuses and increase the capabilities of the surrounding community. Although this strategy can and should be highly inclusive, it involves a decision to emphasize some areas and not others. This approach is based on the experience that investing where the greatest synergistic strength exists within the surrounding community will best increase the support, funding, stature, and economic competitiveness of all partners. University leadership (i.e., board and president) must share the vision and show the determination and support necessary to pursue this strategy, culminating in the targeted dedication of resources. The potential results are remarkable if leadership is willing to take the risk. The authors of this article contend that emerging research universities are vital to developing partnerships with industry that not only enhance the discovery process, but also help to translate those discoveries quickly and efficiently (with real job creation) into creating and making things again (Grove, 2010).


Rationale for Research Clusters and Becoming an Emerging Research University

A research cluster is a flexible and inclusive, team-based, multidisciplinary research structure that encompasses faculty, centers and departments, as well as outside partners in the community (including other universities) and is defined by a common theme or broad focus area inspired by a major 21st century challenge. These groups span across multiple academic departments and colleges within a university in a way that builds strategic areas of excellence around core competencies in research. In 2007, the National Academies released Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future, a report that describes a "disturbing mosaic" of negative indicators spanning the nation's education, research, and economic sectors that, together, demonstrate the United States' lack of preparedness to compete effectively in the emerging global marketplace (p. 25). The U.S. has enjoyed a position of global economic leadership since World War II, but as Vest (2009), president of the National Academy of Engineering, noted, "[t]he time really has come to slay the dragon of complacency. There is little slack left. Other nations are not biding their time." The U.S. faces ever-expanding international competition for talented students and faculty, as well as scientists, engineers, and innovative industry entrepreneurs--the human capital that drives economic growth and national security. The National Academies' committee that developed the 2007 report argues that science and technology research and development hold the greatest promise for ensuring the United States' competitive advantage.

The follow-up report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm, Two Fears Later (2009), laments that talk has not materialized into action. In the report, past National Science Foundation (NSF) Director Arden Bement bemoans the fact that, at such a crucial time, the "nation's colleges and universities have been particularly hard hit" (p. 10). Although it may be difficult for many to imagine the U.S. as no longer a leader in science and engineering innovation, as C. D. Mote, Jr., former president of the University of Maryland warns, "It]he world is running away from us" (p. 13). The only sure means of enhancing U.S. leadership in an increasingly competitive global marketplace is a national educational strategy that produces a workforce capable of adapting to and thriving in an interdisciplinary environment of accelerated technological change and a relationship with industry that assures international competitiveness.

The American research university is the key to a sustainable national climate of innovation that will attract new industries and create new jobs, supply quality education to its citizens, attract top international talent, and lead the international community in the research and development necessary to address issues of global importance. As a core of knowledge-based resources, the American university functions as a site of collaboration for what Etzkowitz (2003) terms the "triple helix" of university-industry-government relations, which has become a proven method to leverage investments in research (p. 119). As Mintrom (2008) adeptly argues, the "general advancement of knowledge comes through research-based acts of discovery. This is why the research function of the university matters. It is through research that universities add to the shared stock of human knowledge" (p. 232). The team and challenged-based approach is one of the most effective ways to conduct research.

One medical research, team-based initiative has been compared to making a movie, in which producers bring together experts in different disciplines who are all focused on a common objective. Here, teams "[disrupt] the normal course of business across the medical research community" (Saporito, 2013, p. 32). In an effort to more quickly solve the complex interdisciplinary aspects of curing cancer, Stand Up to Cancer (SU2C) with Nobel laureate Phillip Sharp, is founding challenge-based teams that are aligned with Dr. Francis Collins' thinking. Collins, director of NIH, refers to himself as "strongly anti-silo, strongly pro-breaking down barriers, bringing disciplines together, building collaborations and building dream teams" (p. 33).

Research Clusters as a Foundational Construct for the Emerging Research University

A challenge for any emerging research university is how best to use the limited resources it has available to address the region's and nation's current gaps in education while undertaking a comprehensive effort to transform the collective research and development enterprise in a manner that increases its competitiveness and innovation capability. Fortunately there is considerable flexibility if one focuses on programs and research that cut across disciplinary and organizational boundaries. The greatest potential for new discoveries and the ability to craft a partnership with the local community exist here. This partnership thereby creates a unique outcome that is tailored to regional needs and capabilities, which can collectively be grown to an international competitive advantage. Crow (2007), president of Arizona State University, argues that such differentiation is key for emerging universities and is a competitive strategy that underpins his entrepreneurial vision of "the university as an enterprise" (p. 27). An approach that spans boundaries has the added benefit of leveling the playing field, to some extent, for new entrants and provides rich research and development opportunities for undergraduates and graduate students who have an orientation toward multitasking and synthesis.

Taking cues from successful academic/industry endeavors (such as Silicon Valley, Research Triangle Park, and Boston Tech Corridor) a cluster model groups education and research around broad, but relevant issues, such as energy and the environment, and helps to focus a university's discipline-based enterprise on global and multidisciplinary challenges. (See Appendix A.) Cluster models leverage local and regional strengths and resources to benefit the university and surrounding community. The model has strong support from the National Academy of Engineering and the Brookings Institute who recommend deep collaboration with new and various partners, such as those that might occur through regional clusters of innovation centers. How would this work? What is the benefit for faculty and students? How are research clusters defined in a way that is flexible, adaptive, and most effective?

For students, clusters represent education and training opportunities to work with faculty mentors on today's pressing issues: learning to work in teams; developing communication and critical thinking skills; and gaining hands-on experience working in the lab or field. For faculty, clusters represent an opportunity to learn and apply new concepts and theories across boundaries, to expand and refine current disciplinary knowledge, and to benefit from shared resources and networks of experts while...

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