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Economic development mission for higher ed as old as creation of land-grant colleges

(Editor's NoteThis is the second of two articles exploring the challenges faced by higher education in coming to grips with the role of four-year colleges and universities in serving the economic development needs of their regions and states.)

  

The concept of an economic development mission for higher education is as old as the creation of land grant colleges more than 150 years ago. And Elson Floyd understood that from the time he arrived at Washington State University in 2007 as president of this state's first land grant university.

 

"As a land-grant university, economic development is a core part of our mission," Floyd said, noting that one of his first acts upon arriving in Pullman from Missouri, where he had been president of the University of Missouri, was creating an office of economic development.

Elson Floyd.

                                                           

When Congress created land-grant universities, their educational mission was is to focus on the teaching of "practical studies like agriculture, science, military science and engineering."

 

And those constituted the educational focus of what was Washington Agricultural College and School of Science from its founding in 1890 until 1905 when it became Washington State College.

 

That land grant status is an important historical asterisk as Floyd's four-campus university is among the colleges and universities around the country challenged by the emerging effort to press higher education to play larger roles in the economic development initiatives in their states.

 

That linkage between higher ed and economic development has been under scrutiny around the country as various states have been exploring what role colleges and universities should play in helping grow the economies of their states.

 

The issue was brought to the fore in this state in recent weeks with a report to the board of regents of the University of Washington by the Washington Future Committee, headed by former regent William Gates Sr., which suggested UW could do more despite itsobvious and significant economic impact.

 

The group of business and civic leaders Gates chaired urged UW to increase the number of in-state students, keep tuition affordableand increase the number of STEM degrees and do a better job of telling its story to key stakeholders.

 

UW President Michael Young and the regents will now have to digest the report and weigh its relevance to how the state's major research university charts its future.

 

For the state's other major research institution across the state, Floyd says "Our economic development activities are many," pointing to "research and its translation through commercialization," the small-business development centers WSU operates around the state as well as extension activities in every county in the state.

 

"From the beginning of my tenure here, I knew we could have a tremendous regional economic impact by leveraging our institutional strengths through our array of programs," Floyd said in an exchange of emails for this column. "The power of the research university is tremendous in helping to drive economic impact."

 

But Floyd noted "WSU cannot be all things to all people. In our ongoing effort to continue to refine our mission and ensure we are aligned with the state's needs, our institution is continually asking our stakeholder how we can better serve them."

 

"We have listened to our communities and, as a result, have made 

changes to what we do and where we do it," he added, noting the health sciences focus in Spokane, the bio and alternative fuels focus in the Tri-Cities with PNNL and aerospace programs in Everett in cooperation with the local community college

  

The economic-development look is also under way at the state's regional universities, including Central Washington University in Ellensburg.

James Gaudino

 

CWU President James Gaudino, who spent 15 years looking at higher education from the outside as executive director of National Communication Association, says "It would be irresponsible for a public institution to ignore the economic-development need" of its state or region.

  

Gaudino, an Air Force Academy grad who came to Central as president on January 1, 2009, says all of the state's universities, in looking at programs in the wake of increasing budget restrictions, used workforce demand for students in the various programs as a key factor in the belt tightening.

 

"While we have a growing awareness of how a major fits the industry needs, we retain a strong commitment to liberal arts," said Gaudino, who was the founding dean of the College of Communication and Information at Kent State University before coming to Ellensburg as president of one of the three regional universities.

 

Gaudino, who drew praise for turning the Kent State program into a center of innovation in the new information age, notes all the universities have advisory groups from industry for each of their schools to "keep an ongoing dialogue about industry needs and how we can best satisfy them."

 

But, in an observation that would be echoed by presidents of all six universities in the state, Gaudino said: "We don't want to live in a society that doesn't have artists and humanists or where people have no knowledge of or appreciation for history. And no one would want to move their company to such a place."

 

Gaudino has launched a Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship and it is the focus on innovation that the University of Washington, in particular, would say is a key contribution it has made to economic development.

 

Yet ironically, what's called tech transfer is an area where the efforts by the state's universities have drawn criticism for a lack of focus or commitment.

Len Jessup, former dean of the business school at WSU and now dean of the Eller College of Management at University of Arizona in Tucson, concedes that many research universities across the country just haven't been able to deliver on the tech transfer and commercialization front.

 

"For some it just hasn't been a priority, for others it just wasn't accepted by their campus cultures, and for others 'wanting' to do more of it just wasn't enough to overcome their inexperience in this area," Jessup told me in an email exchange. 

 

 

"On the other hand, I would say that nationally the collective of all the research universities has gotten better at this as more and more universities improve on metrics like faculty invention disclosures, patent filings, licensing, start-ups, start-ups that get to revenue, and jobs created as a result," Jessup added. "Things are clearly getting better and they are leading to new jobs."

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