Academia at a Crossroads -- Can Our Great Universities Lead in a Time of Need

Pulitzer Prize winner David Rohde's recent article on our efforts at UNC to turn our university into an engine of innovation argues that America's research universities can make a profound difference in the battle to rebuild the country's economy and its middle class. With over 250 billion in endowment, research universities are the crown jewels of our society. Rhode's plea that these magnificent institutions do more to generate economic activity while attacking society's biggest problems mirror arguments my co-author Holden Thorp and I make in our book. As Rhode reports, at UNC we are attempting to create a campus culture that focuses on solving important problems and in so doing generate economic activity and new jobs. Who could be against this? It sounds like motherhood and apple pie. Believe it or not the nay-sayers are ubiquitous and the Rohde article will flush them out of the woodwork and into the public forum.

Criticism comes from two directions. Politicians have joined the fray in a big way, primarily by drastically reducing public support. Universities are easy targets for cash strapped state legislatures anxious to spread the pain to college professors who can easily be characterized as overpaid, and institutions that can clearly operate more efficiently. The subtext is a suggestion that what goes on at universities is largely irrelevant research of interest only to a liberal intellectual elite that is divorced from the realities of everyday life. Dig even deeper and you find an anti-intellectual bias that distrusts especially for universities that have used the adversity of the past several years to clean up their act by improving return on investment.

Successfully responding to internal criticism of efforts to increase the impact of universities requires a more nuanced approach. At UNC we have begun to demonstrate that academic excellence and societal impact is not a "zero-sum" proposition. Our colleague Professor Joseph DeSimone expressed it best when he said, "my science is better because of my relationship to my private company not because it provides me with the right answers but because it helps me ask the right questions." Ultimately the internal debate centers on culture. Those institutions that embrace big problems and attack them relentlessly without regard to traditional academic boundaries will produce results that rebut the concerns of both external and internal critics.

David Rohde's article provides a clear suggestion for increasing the impact of a relatively small number of great American institutions. For those who choose to follow it, the journey ahead will be an exciting one.