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June 21, 2012 Volume 33, No. 33

National Academies report explores role of U.S. research universities


Universities need to innovate while controlling costs, report states

report issued June 14 by the National Research Council examines the relationship between public research universities and the U.S. economy. 

“Research Universities and the Future of America: Ten Breakthrough Actions Vital to Our Nation’s Prosperity and Security” was assembled by a 22-member council who, after two years of research, identified actions needed at federal and state levels and within American research universities.

Education leaders, including MU Chancellor Brady J. Deaton, have praised the report, which can be accessed online at the Association of American Universities site,

The report addressed three goals:

• Revitalizing partnership: Four of the 10 actions seek to strengthen relationships among research universities, federal and state governments, philanthropists and businesses.

• Strengthening institutions: Three actions address making research institutions more cost-effective.

• Building talent: Three actions address developing the sciences, engineering and other curricula that lead to research careers.

The brunt of the report explores how universities can be better positioned to take innovation to the marketplace. The report finds that colleges and universities need more federal and state money for research; need to become better collaborators with businesses on innovation projects; and need to change the public perception that they are not efficient with their finances. 

The council behind the investigation was formed in 2010 by the National Academies’ National Research Council. It’s made up of higher education and business leaders, including William Green, chair and CEO of Accenture; John Hennessy, president of Stanford University; Padmasree Warrior, chief technology officer of Cisco Systems; and James Duderstadt, president emeritus of the University of Michigan.

“This is a decade-long effort,” Duderstadt said. “We’ll continue to meet as a committee and hold major regional meetings around the country. We are developing a strategy and looking at legislation.”

Most American public colleges and universities have been impacted by the loss of federal and state dollars. MU, for instance, has endured a 14 percent decline in its state funding since 2001. Meanwhile, 70 percent of research and development in America occurs at public universities, Tom Skalak, vice president for research at the University of Virginia, said this month during a talk in Columbia. 

University leaders hope for a return to when the federal and state governments prioritized higher education. The Morrill Act of 1862 showed the federal government’s support by giving away, or giving the proceeds from selling, federal land to public colleges and universities. And until about a decade ago, many states were generous in their budget allocation to higher education. The committee asks state governments to “restore state appropriations for higher education, including graduate education and research, to levels that allow public research universities to operate at world-class levels.”

University research can lead to new companies, which lead to more jobs and a stronger economy. But at some point, lack of university funding and need for university research will collide, Duderstadt said. “This is a call to arms to a nation dependent on public universities for innovation.”

The council, however, encouraged universities to be cost-effective. 

“Demonstrate to the public that you can control costs,” Duderstadt said. “Maybe teach fewer courses and have fewer majors. Run [classes] full blast the whole year rather than three months of the year. You’re still paying for the air-conditioning of the building during those months.”

Deaton was impressed by the study. 

“MU accepts this call to arms from some of America’s most prominent thinkers and leaders and invites support from all those who share our vision for a greater university,” he said.