Paycheck envy aside, I'm glad I'm not a university president. Long hours, too many constituencies bringing too many competing priorities, little chance of establishing consensus criteria for success (crisis situations aside), and employees who are unmanageable and (often) proud of it.
From time to time, though, university presidents do get a chance to say something important. Larry Edward Penley, president of Colorado State, recently did so in these pages.
Penley calls on US universities research to obsolete current environmentally and socially problematic technologies by researching, developing, and facilitating the exploitation of sustainable alternatives. He characterizes initiatives like the Presidents Climate Commitment as worthy, but largely symbolic. While many on-campus efforts focus on exchanging light bulbs (incandescent to fluorescent, or fluorescent to LED) in an effort to reduce energy consumption, his view is that "we should be focused instead on engineering a better light bulb -- and educating the knowledge leaders who will invent a replacement for the light bulb." Penley sees current efforts as missing a major opportunity -- and abdicating a major responsibility -- to lead society to a more sustainable framework.
The challenges in such a call are obvious and acknowledged. Penley's statement is that:
The real challenge is to organize universities more effectively such that their potential for promoting quality of life and economic prosperity is substantially enhanced. Except in a few instances, traditional technology transfer has not yielded the results in new products that one might have hoped for given the investment, and the costs of technology transfer, given the large number of universities with transfer offices, are fairly high for the limited yield. The problem may well be the paradigm used by universities in technology transfer efforts. In traditional technology transfer, a patent or a license is viewed as an acceptable, if passive, outcome. A paradigm that does not fuse research and development, where market-based solutions are not fully integrated into the research process, seems more like the 1940s than the 21st century. Thus, solutions to global challenges like climate change may well be hindered by the approach that universities are taking with traditional research programs and traditional technology transfer offices.
The current approach of research programs on one side of a divide, product developers on the other, and technology transfer offices trying to build bridges is clearly an acknowledgment of a structural problem, -- an inherent design inefficiency. I'm not certain of the solution Penley is envisioning, but his second paragraph speaks of "ground-breaking research solutions deployed through market-based enterprises." To some ears, that might sound like a call for greater corporate influence on academic research -- arguably, a threat to academic freedom and independence. (Certain corporate/academic and political/academic partnerships recently in the news come immediately to mind.)
However, the real-world examples Penley cites fit better into a different mold. The research-leads-to-financial-gain successes of MIT and CalTech retain much control and independence in the university, which maintains significant interest (equity and/or licensing) in a large portion of companies spun off. Envirofit International, a Colorado State spinoff, seems to fall into the same pattern.
Rather than academe becoming the servant of industry, this sort of approach can lead to academe becoming both the leader and a major beneficiary of a reshaped industry. The upside potential is enormous -- commercial income contributing to larger endowments which yield greater returns to allow more students to be taught at lower tuitions.
For institutions which truly internalize this sort of approach, of course, there will be costs. Probably the biggest one is inherent in the need to break down structural divisions ("silos") which inhibit cross-disciplinary cooperation. Successful market products must incorporate the best thinking on a wide range of subjects, not just those subjects which fall conveniently into the realm of a single academic department or school.
But the real long-term benefit to universities is more than just improved finances and the ability to educate larger numbers of students. The real benefit lies in the fact that the education those students receive -- if it's conducted in an environment which expects research to yield practical improvements as well as pure knowledge -- will be better connected to "the real world" than is much of what we teach today. Not only can income from licensing and equity in spin-offs change the financial equation, a focus on leading the real world -- in all areas, not just sustainability -- can reshape the relationship between higher education and society in general, to the benefit of both.