University of Toledo President Lloyd Jacobs says “the world is calling” on institutions of higher education such as his “to spend more time, effort, and commitment building the civic infrastructure of the communities in which they find themselves.” That activity must be balanced appropriately with the centuries-old mission of higher learning.
Universities endeavor to provide economic stimulus to the communities that surround them, through employment and local spending. University research leads to profitable new products and processes. In recent years, universities have sought actively to “monetize” faculty research by forming business incubators, acting as venture capitalists, and redefining their role as job creators.
UT has established its own incubator. It also has invested millions of dollars in an economic development unit — University of Toledo Innovation Enterprises (UTIE) — which in turn has invested in for-profit biomedical, pharmaceutical, solar, and other companies.
Rick Stansley, Jr., the former UT board chairman tapped by Dr. Jacobs in 2009 to run UT’s economic development arm, also is board chairman of Rocket Ventures LLC, a $22.5 million venture-capital fund that forged a partnership with UTIE in 2011.
The Blade has reported that UT employs Mr. Stansley at a rate of $1,200 a day — more than $307,000 last year — despite his apparent lack of broad qualifications or experience in economic development. Several of the companies in which UTIE has invested have lost money, while just one has turned a profit so far.
Dr. Jacobs notes that many other universities, including Ohio State and Ohio University, are following the same path. Commercializing university research and technology, he says, “is a sweeping trend,” and people who oppose it are “longing for the Middle Ages.” He concedes that selling the new model won’t be easy, because “the cultural divide is extremely deep, very wide, and will be crossed only with great difficulty.”
The trick for Ohio public universities such as UT is to apply their intellectual assets for the benefit of all residents of the state without losing sight of their basic mission. Under the standard model of higher education, the primary function of colleges and universities was to train young people for careers, to equip them to be members of civil society, and to enable them to realize their full potential as human beings. That is a traditional notion, but hardly a medieval one.
Proponents of the commercialization of education insist universities can fulfill both roles. The danger lies in the potential for a diminishing emphasis on philosophy, history, English, and the other liberal arts in favor of areas that are more readily monetized, such as science and technology. That would be a mistake.
In surveys of employers, communication skills — reading, writing, listening — and the ability to analyze data and conduct research top the list of sought-after talents among job seekers. These skills, as well as a broad knowledge base, also are of fundamental importance to a thriving democracy. And they are the products of a liberal arts education.
Colleges and universities are big businesses, but the business they’re in is educating students. They have made a less persuasive case so far that economic development and job creation should form an equivalent priority. UT’s leaders and trustees will properly be held to account for the way they balance these roles.