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Dec. 10, 2009 Volume 31, No. 15

Town-gown opportunities for economic development, new media

'Economic gardening'

Mizzou Advantage seeks links with outside collaborators

A Dec. 4 forum at MU explored opportunities for community organizations and businesses to partner with the university’s new media experts on projects that enhance local economic development.

It also offered an interesting initial look at how the university might use its Mizzou Advantage initiative to build interdisciplinary teams of campus researchers and outside collaborators to tackle some of society’s most pressing issues.

New media is one of the five areas on which Mizzou Advantage will focus. The others are: food for the future; one health, one medicine; sustainable energy; and disruptive and transformational technologies.

The half-day forum, titled “Economic Gardening and the New Media,” was co-sponsored by MU’s Reynolds Journalism Institute and Boone County-based Regional Economic Development Inc. It was billed as an attempt to identify local assets that give the university and mid-Missouri a competitive advantage in the area of new media.

Finding competitive advantages is what underlies the entire Mizzou Advantage initative, Provost Brian Foster told the gathering. The idea, he said, is to “identify areas where MU is uniquely positioned in the world of higher education, where we’re positioned to do things hardly anyone else can do.”

Given the international stature of the School of Journalism, the area of new media is a logical one in which MU can flex its academic muscle while it offers new opportunities to its students. Brian Brooks, associate dean of journalism, described some of the current collaborations that expand options for faculty, students and the media industry.

Brooks said he routinely gives tours of the school to prospective students and their families. It’s not uncommon for parents to wonder aloud about their child’s career choice, he said. “Fathers have asked me, ‘Why should I send my daughter to journalism school? Isn’t that a dying field?’ Well, no it’s not.”

He pointed out that while some areas of traditional media are stumbling, others are going gangbusters. For example, some journalism students are sitting in the same MU programming classes as computer engineering students. The J-School faculty includes the world’s leading expert in Internet advertising, he said.

Dale Musser, assistant professor of computer science, underscored Brooks’ point. Musser, who leads the information technology program in computer science, is team-teaching a course for both computer science and journalism students on collaborative software development for iPhone applications. His fellow instructors in that course are Mike McKean, associate professor of journalism, and Keith Politte, manager of the Reynolds Institute’s technology testing center.

Their experience working together on the course is outside the typical faculty experience of working strictly within one’s own academic discipline. “We are built to operate in silos,” Musser said, with tenure decisions and credit for teaching courses apportioned to individual academic departments.

“So let’s stop thinking in silos; let’s start thinking in collaborations,” Musser said. “Silos need to go away or become something else.”

During a question-and-answer session following the presentation, Provost Foster updated participants on campus efforts to roll out the Mizzou Advantage administrative infrastructure. He said the advisory group has been appointed that will steer the initiative.

Foster said he has been working with the advisory group to identify individuals who could be considered for the “facilitator” positions that will guide each of the five initiative areas. In addition, Foster said, he has queried all faculty and retirees for suggestions on possible candidates. The facilitator positions should be filled by early spring 2010, he said.

In addition, he said, the provost’s office will shortly be sending out two requests for proposals related to the Mizzou Advantage initiative. The first will be for projects to bring together new interdisciplinary networks of faculty, centers and academic departments in each of the five initiative areas. These projects are not meant to provide additional funding for existing activities, but should bring together multiple campus and outside partners that do not normally work together.

The second proposal will be to identify a limited number of faculty fellowships for Mizzou Advantage initiatives. These fellowship awards are not intended to be research grants, per se, Foster said. Rather, they are intended to provide seed money to prepare for major upcoming opportunities or perhaps to conduct preliminary research that could lead to significant grants in the future.