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Published: Monday, 6/28/2010

UT report envisions solar industry, research recharging area economy

BY CHRISTOPHER D. KIRKPATRICK
BLADE STAFF WRITER

The glossy pages and colorful charts of the economic development manifesto speak of the region's future, one inspired and shepherded by the University of Toledo.

The report, The Relevant University: Making Community and Economic Engagement Matter, has been showing up this month in the mailboxes of elected officials and opinion leaders across northwest Ohio.

It charts an intertwined relationship among the university and the region's residents, major institutions, and industry.

Some have criticized the roughly 150-page report as sprawling, too general, and even pompous.

Others have praised it as an exhilarating blueprint for how a growing midlevel university must strive to increase the prosperity of everyone in the region.

To do this, the report says, the university must stay relevant by providing necessary research and training to grow and reinvigorate the regional economy.

UT President Lloyd Jacobs said the report outlines an updated model for the modern research university.

"Someone is going to say, this report is too thick or too thin, and has too many pictures. But it helps us think about it," said Dr. Jacobs, co-author of the report with consultant Eva Klein. "No one in the 21st century can afford a go-it-alone strategy. Our goal is to create spin-off companies, patents, and to hire people here … to make this a hot spot for solar, health care, [and other industries]."

UT President Lloyd Jacobs received mixed reviews on the report, which was sent to hundreds of people. UT President Lloyd Jacobs received mixed reviews on the report, which was sent to hundreds of people.
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Formatting and printing 2,500 copies of the report cost the university about $19,000.

But it's also part of a $254,000 consultant's contract to help Dr. Jacobs and his coterie think strategically about the university's place in a knowledge-based economy. That includes developing a comprehensive land-use and business plan with input from the community.

The report was the result of multiple meetings with economic and education leaders and elected officials, said Dean Monske, Toledo's deputy mayor for external affairs, who helped put it together.

He said it's potentially unwieldy to the layman because it grew in scope as more groups were consulted over time about how the university should boost the region.

For example, one excerpt from the report reads: "The university is society's primary nexus of knowledge generation and production of human capital in an intensely concentrated community of scholars. If knowledge drives prosperity, then the university is society's critical knowledge resource. In this context, the ivory tower is an idea our society no longer can afford."

But Mr. Monske said economic development professionals consider the newly released report to be a model publication.

He said the university has essentially opened itself up and announced to local government and economic development officials that UT is ready to help - even giving university tours to visiting corporate chief executives who want reassurance about the availability of high-tech training, for example.

"If you're an economic development person, you can look up your area of interest [in this report] and see what the university sees as its role," Mr. Monske said. "You might say sprawling, but someone else might say it's an all-encompassing piece of work."

A vascular surgeon by training, Dr. Jacobs has been charged by the Board of Trustees with transforming the university into an economically vital institution spurring the region's growth.

The report, an outgrowth of that effort, says universities are being asked to assume an unprecedented stewardship toward boosting local economies and quality of life.

In Toledo and the Midwest, a manufacturing-heavy region, it's about spurring innovation in making things, the report says. It says UT needs to help the region "capture and commercialize innovation."

The report predictably ties Toledo's future to solar energy. The university is also well positioned to improve and increase research into agriculture, Dr. Jacobs said.

It mentions plans to create practical master's degree programs in niche disciplines. And the report outlines the increasing importance of working with K-12 teachers for better training.

Pages are filled with general information and goals, such as emphasizing wellness and healthy living in health-care delivery.

The report devotes considerable space to the university's Health Science Campus, which was created nearly four years ago when UT merged with the former Medical College of Ohio. That merger created Ohio's third-largest university with a budget of more than $800 million.

Dr. Jacobs said a major goal is to spin off companies from focused university research. That, in turn, will prompt local hiring and the need for UT to educate those workers in the specialized disciplines.

That success might create business clusters with increasing national recognition that might spark even greater economic activity and more students for UT.

Toward that end, the university under Dr. Jacobs transferred $10 million to seed STI Enterprises, a new nonprofit arm of the university charged with fostering research and creating those local companies.

The money came from a growing university fund built from incidental revenues, such as money from vending machines and other service contracts. It did not come from student tuition and fees.

The initial plan for the report was much simpler as research for a land-use and business plan for the university. But it gained momentum and grew into a type of mission statement, an all-encompassing schematic for how the university should engage the community and region to be as useful and relevant as possible.

"We live in the shadow of huge universities, but we're more agile and flexible," Dr. Jacobs said. "The concept of technology corridors. The concept of creating a place is becoming passe. We don't want to talk about a place, we want to talk about partnerships."

Dr. Jacobs sits on the Third Frontier Advisory Board, which controls a state job-creation fund focused on attracting high-tech industries to the state. He also hosts an informal lunch of local economic development and education officials and business leaders at the Toledo Club. The members of the group, The Partners, keep each other apprised of local economic development issues.

The mixed reviews of the report are like those about Dr. Jacobs himself. The faculty gave him low marks this spring in a published performance review that criticized him as a poor communicator with an ineffective top-down management style.

The review, which also accused Dr. Jacobs of favoring the Health Science Campus over traditional academics, was published online this month in a national higher-education magazine.

In contrast, the UT board of trustees heaped praise on him at its regular meeting last week and in its annual review of his performance, specifically for his push to transform UT's role in boosting the economic fortunes of the region.

The board urged him to work on his communication skills with deans and faculty.

For the president, it's the comfort of an Oscar Wilde truism that it's better to be talked about than not. Those in the path of change may be feeling pressure and are speaking out, he said.

"We are on the move. We are elevating individuals, institutions, colleges, in a way that's innovative," he said. "It's no surprise at all that some good people are moved out of their comfort zones. I respect that. Not everyone is comfortable with a university that is as outgoing as we've become. We are making great strides in equipping people to live in the 21st century."

Dr. Jacobs' choice of deans has stoked controversy. But it also reflects his strategy of the university becoming more hands-on for the business community.

For interim dean of education, he chose Tom Brady, an engineer and entrepreneur who is the founder, chairman, and president of Plastic Technologies Inc., a local high-tech manufacturing company. He was also a UT trustee.

As dean, Mr. Brady attended a news conference recently at downtown's Imagination Station. He was there to unveil a university program to train public school teachers in alternative energy instruction.

As part of a National Science Foundation grant, the teachers would earn a master's degree from UT.

The program is designed, ultimately, to prepare students for careers in the alternative-energy industry, which has found a home in the Toledo area with the rise of First Solar Inc. and the development of specialized courses of study at UT and other area colleges and universities.

The program is mentioned in Dr. Jacobs' economic development report.

Mr. Brady said the report is unwieldy and difficult to get through, but serves as a necessary beacon.

It should be viewed as a starting gun, and signals to traditional university faculty and others that it's OK to change and expand the university's mission.

"It's about engagement," he said. "We can no longer afford to be that university on a hill."

Contact Christopher D.

Kirkpatrick at:

ckirkpatrick@theblade.com

or 419-724-6134.



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