#HigherEdThursdays: The Unique Nature of the American Research University
To understand the unique nature of the American Research University, public or private, it is important to have some historical context of the Academic Research Enterprise.
As America pursued economic growth and other national goals, its research universities emerged as a major national asset — perhaps even its most potent one. This did not happen by accident; it is the result of forward-looking and deliberate federal and state policies. These began with the Morrill Act of 1862, which established a partnership between the federal government and the states to build universities that would address the challenges of creating a modern agricultural and industrial economy for the 20th century.
The government–university partnership was expanded in the 1950s and 1960s to contribute to national security, public health, and economic growth. Through this expanded partnership, basic research — the source of new ideas for the long term — would be increasingly funded by the federal government and largely concentrated in the nation’s research universities. (AAU; 2013)
Over the past few decades as we moved into the 21st Century, the value provided to the US by the research university system’s distributed concept has been the foundation for much of the country’s economic success. This success has resulted from the best and the brightest researcher, faculty, and student minds working together on experimentation, and net-new novel discoveries leading to innovative creations that subsequently result in new companies, new jobs, and increased economic prosperity. The core fundamental values enabling such work are grounded in academic freedom and institutional autonomy.
But, since the 1980s, there has been a steady erosion of government funding. And as tax revenues were reduced and calls for smaller government increased, the American Research Universities have been headed toward transforming the business of the institution without compromising the core fundamental values.
The foundational framework that made the university environment the success it is to-date is the precise framework that is being challenged today. Financial and public pressure along with technology advancements has created the need and the opportunity for transformation of the institution. Whether the debate is around transforming the business models that govern the institution, transformation of the education delivery models that allow knowledge to be shared and scaled like never before in history, or the transformation of the research environments that enable enormous opportunities presented by digital disruption that is unleashing the next wave of innovation, one thing that is certain is that the landscape of a major national asset continues to evolve.
According to the Congressional Research Service’s 2012 report, “Federal Support for Academic Research,” “approximately 80 percent of leading industries have resulted from research conducted at colleges and universities.
I will be joining the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia with Virginia’s Center for Innovative Technology, Business Higher Education Council, Chamber of Commerce, Economic Development Partnership and the Center for Excellence in Education as we address the challenges of substantially increasing opportunities for academic research at a summit in Richmond on June 9.
How do you see research universities being impacted in the next decade?
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