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The Research University of the 21st Century: What Will it Look Like?

An Address to the 23rd Army Science Conference
Orlando, Florida

by Steven B. Sample
President, University of Southern California
December 2, 2002

I am honored to have been asked to be a keynote speaker at this 23rd Army Science Conference. It is a special honor to address key leaders from the army, civilian government, industry, and academe.

We live in an era of constant, rapid, and unpredictable change. People’s reactions to this simple reality vary widely. Some use words such as confounding, threatening, or frightening to describe it. I prefer words such as exhilarating, challenging, and exciting. Centuries from now, people will look back on this present age as one of the most fertile and dramatic in all of human history. It is our privilege to anticipate, to risk, and to witness the momentous changes that will occur in the early years of the 21st century.

In this regard America’s premier research universities, through innovation and discovery, can be powerful engines for change and transformation in the coming decades. Moreover, I believe that the military, civilian government, higher education, and private industry can be effective partners in helping the United States sustain and enhance its role as the world’s economic, military, and cultural leader for generations to come.

I was asked to address this afternoon the topic of “The Research University of the 21st Century.” Let’s begin by first asking, What is a research university? Put simply, it is a university in which original research and scholarship are an integral and major part of the university’s mission. The faculty in a research university are not simply teachers of the works of others, but rather are active contributors to what is taught, thought, and practiced around the world.

A Brief History of Research Universities
Let’s put this definition of a research university in perspective. There are about 4,000 colleges and universities in the United States, far more than any other nation; but fewer than 100 of these are really research universities. The 60 or so leading research universities in this country are members of the Association of American Universities (AAU). This special group of universities constitutes less than 2 percent of all academic institutions in the U.S. But these 60 AAU universities conduct most of America’s basic research, and in some fields most of the world’s basic research. They also produce most of the country’s Ph.D.’s, M.D.’s, and postdoctorates.

As it happens, the U.S. is ahead of all other nations in the number and quality of its research universities. Why? A momentous change occurred in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that is commonly referred to by historians today as the Academic Revolution. It witnessed the introduction of research as an end in itself into the American university and the emergence of the Ph.D. degree as the required terminal credential for university faculty.

Initially this revolution was led by Johns Hopkins University and the University of Chicago. The Johns Hopkins University married the English liberal undergraduate model to a Germanic model that trained graduate students in a research environment, and the American research university was born. Soon, many older and more established colleges in the U.S. began to adopt the German model. The Ph.D. became the appropriate academic credential for appointment to the faculty of a research university. Since then these research universities have been one of the United States’ strongest assets – a vast storehouse of intellectual capital, even a magnet for the rest of the world’s intellectual capital.

During World War II research universities played a vital role in producing scientific and technological knowledge that was very helpful to the war effort. After World War II the U.S. took a different path relative to other countries. The typical model for research was for the government to provide funding for research laboratories. The U.S., by contrast, expanded research in existing universities and created a partnership among research universities, civilian government, and the military.

The Future of Research Universities
Research universities are a special breed. They are the epicenter for creating new knowledge. But before I say more about the research university of the 21st century, let me paint a picture of the landscape of higher education in general.

I’m aware that many experts, and perhaps many of you here today, imagine higher education to be heading in a completely new direction – taking on a radically different appearance, dominated by fiber optics, video feeds, interactive computers, and artificial voices, and populated by faculty and students who never have actual face-to-face contact. We’ve all witnessed the recent boom in distance learning and the virtual classroom.

Certainly applications of high technology are flourishing and will continue to in academe. But most of what we now see at the leading universities will stay the same. Why? Because even though the context of our society can change radically, the content that makes us human does not change. As we look to the future, it is essential to distinguish between the things that change, such as economic and environmental factors and technology, and the things that don’t change, such as human nature and fundamental human needs.

For the most part universities have understood this reality better than many other sectors of society. That is why universities are both adaptable and enduring. It was once observed that since the year 1520, only 80 institutions have remained continuously in existence in recognizable forms. They include several Swiss cantons, the Roman Catholic Church and the parliaments of the Isle of Man, Iceland, and Great Britain. But some 70 of the 80 institutions that have survived continuously for the past half millennium are universities.

So, although universities, like governments, have never been accused of being quick to change, they can indeed respond to the forces of change while holding faithfully to their core values. If you enjoy walking across your alma mater’s campus on a crisp fall day, you’ll be happy to know that the campus is not going away. Futurists such as John Naisbitt and Alvin Toffler have observed that high-tech is always balanced out by “high-touch.” This means that whenever high-tech allows people new options, greater independence, and individually-customized experiences, we cry out for more high-touch ways to stay connected with other human beings. That is why stadiums, theaters, and university campuses are still being built. That’s why artistic and athletic events are tougher tickets than ever, even though their product can be delivered in much cheaper and more convenient forms to your home or office. We are human, and humans are fueled by authentic, face-to-face communal encounters. No matter how wired we get, this simple part of human nature will never change, and thus the university campus will never disappear.

The face-to-face relationships of professor-to-student, student-to-student, and professor-to-professor are not merely sentimental; they drive progress. The highest levels of excellence in an individual and in a community are usually brought forth through human encounter. So it is as well with universities. It has been shown that individuals who work independently do well at solving simple challenges. But interdependent communities of people are best at solving complex challenges. In the 21st century our biggest challenges will be extremely complex.

Some years ago, management expert Peter Drucker noted that the Industrial Revolution changed how we think about our world. Inventions such as the railroad helped us to diminish the limitations of time and space. But Drucker noted that the information revolution has diminished the limitations of human society even further. In some instances it has virtually eliminated such limitations altogether, so that the possibilities become almost endless. What’s more, Drucker observed that the possibilities are unpredictable. The most significant developments of the Industrial Revolution were not the ones that had been projected, nor will they be in the current Information Revolution. The overriding certainty is that we will be surprised. Our chief task will be to respond well to surprise. Thus, adaptability, flexibility, and training will be paramount.

I teach a leadership course at USC with Warren Bennis, the renowned leadership guru whose books on leadership are widely read throughout the world. When Warren Bennis talks about organizational change, he’s fond of quoting hockey great Wayne Gretzky, who said: “I don’t care about where the puck is, I care about where the puck is going to be.” Can I, like the Great Gretzky, sense where the research university puck is headed? I won’t overstate my powers of prophecy, but I will say that I’m fortunate to have a bit of an insider’s perspective. This perspective comes not only from my having been president of two major research universities for a combined total of more than 20 years, but also because I’m now serving a university that is at the center of a revolution which is affecting all of higher education.

I have the privilege of working with a faculty that has been setting the pace globally in communications and multimedia. A few years ago, when he was on a worldwide tour promoting his book on the communication revolution, Bill Gates spoke at the University of Southern California. As I walked him back to his car, a television reporter stopped us and asked, “Mr. Gates, why specifically did you choose USC as one of only two universities on your book tour?” Bill responded matter-of-factly, “Because USC is where the communication revolution is actually happening.” It was a wonderful tribute to our faculty, among them men and women who were instrumental in the development of the Internet, the personal computer, the compact disc, and many other basic tools of our life today. In fact, higher education’s elder statesman, former Cornell President Frank Rhodes, exhorted USC’s faculty a few years ago to realize they are uniquely suited to the essential task of what he called “reinventing the American research university.”

Another reason I consider myself an insider to the communication revolution is due to something they talk about in real estate: location, location, location. The late Walter Annenberg gave two historic hundred-million dollar gifts to USC after he became convinced that Southern California had become the communications capital of the world. This is the only region where technological innovations combine with great strength in creative content to produce the world’s most powerful and ubiquitous forms of communication: American motion pictures and American television. As the world’s cultural and commercial crossroads, Southern California serves as a living laboratory for USC’s faculty and students.

Major Changes in Research Universities
Let me now comment on a few of the changes that are already taking place in research universities. The first major change has occurred in the duration of a person’s education. Education certainly does not end with high school, and now it does not end with college. Students who are enrolled in college today, especially at highly selective universities such as USC, will have four or five different careers in their lifetime – not merely jobs, but careers. We’ll see more of these present-day undergraduates returning to the university for advanced degrees and continuing education.

The second major change in higher education is related to the first. It involves “distance learning” – education delivered via computer or satellite or the web – across town or across continents. Physical campuses will always be the beating heart of research universities, but technology will permit these hearts to extend their arteries ever outward. Distance education is essential because too few university campuses exist to serve the world’s exploding population.

The third major change at research universities relates to the first two. Given the proliferation of distance learning and profit-seeking universities such as the University of Phoenix, research universities may need to create for-profit subsidiaries in order to stay competitive.

Change number four involves what is called interdisciplinarity. It’s not the most euphonious word, but it helps to define the bridging of the chasms that now separate the different academic disciplines in a university. Interdisciplinarity is fast becoming the sine qua non of the research university of the 21st century. Interdisciplinary research and teaching is where the sparks of invention are generated and where they burst into full flame.

But here’s the problem. Many universities talk about interdisciplinary teaching and research, but few actually practice it. At USC we don’t do it perfectly, but we do it better than most. A good example is USC’s training simulation research center, whose formal name is the Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT) and which is sponsored by the army. Professor Bill Swartout, who is director of technology research at ICT, told me that at a recent conference one researcher told him, “The weird thing about you USC people is that you actually work together.” The research university that can actually practice interdisciplinarity will be a leader institution in the 21st century.

Interdisciplinarity is the reason the faculty of USC have spearheaded the concept of “breadth with depth” among our undergraduates. During the past century and a half we saw increasing specialization and compartmentalization of knowledge. Today specialization at the undergraduate level in highly selective universities makes almost no sense at all. As recently as 50 years ago, a B.A. was a terminal credential for most students, even at elite universities. Today a B.A. is simply preparatory for students, almost all of whom will go on to graduate study. At USC, students may major wherever they choose, but are encouraged to minor in a field widely disparate from their major. This is the opposite of what I was encouraged to do. As an undergraduate engineering major, I wanted to take courses in French, and I was willing to take heavy course loads to do it. But the engineering dean told me they really didn’t want engineering students studying things like French. To soften his resistance, I had to resort to a little fabrication. I came up with the story that I wanted to practice engineering in the old French-speaking colonies because my family had financial interests there. Only after hearing that did he relent.

This brings me to our fifth major change: the emergence of postdoctoral education as the de facto terminal credential in many fields, especially physics, chemistry, the life sciences, psychology, and some fields of engineering. Just as the Ph.D. emerged as the terminal academic credential a century ago, the postdoctoral appointment is now the true terminal credential in an increasing number of fields. We are at the point where truly original research is being done more at the postdoctoral level, not at the Ph.D. level. Research done by postdocs is increasingly innovative and cross-disciplinary. For example, at USC we have a young neurosurgeon who is doing postdoctoral research in computer simulation at the Institute for Creative Technologies. We have an electrical engineer who is doing a postdoc in physiology. Postdoctoral education is a wonderful development both for American research universities and for this nation’s research enterprise as a whole.

I’ve already mentioned one of the very best examples of interdisciplinary research involving a partnership among three dramatically different cultures – the military, the entertainment industry, and academe. Just over three years ago, USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies was established by a $50 million contract from the Department of the Army. Combining the storytelling and special effects power of Hollywood, the computer games industry expertise of Silicon Valley, the pedagogical know-how of USC’s education faculty, and USC’s research prowess in digital graphics, electrical and computer engineering and artificial intelligence, we are now developing virtual reality training that will effectively prepare army personnel for challenging leadership roles.

I’d like to commend the United States Army for its prescience in seeing the need for such an institute. As you know, the Office of Naval Research has traditionally been the pioneer in commissioning and benefiting from university research. Now we’re seeing the army mount a challenge to the navy, moving into the forefront, not just in basic research, but in this critical area of cross-disciplinary research. The army has begun a great experiment that sets a new standard for creativity and risk-taking which I believe will yield large dividends. So I salute the army as the avant-garde branch of the United States military.

Another area in which universities, governments, and businesses must work together is technology transfer. This is the process of taking research done at universities into the marketplace. It’s an endeavor which will have enormous impact on our world in this new century.

Technology transfer is a sophisticated and often complex process. It needs significant resources and infrastructure to make it work well. I’ve lobbied my peers in the academy to refine and enhance the entire process whereby technology is transferred from universities to the commercial sector. We need to set up a technology-transfer infrastructure in our universities that recognizes the realities of the business world. We too often assume that a new technology in and of itself will provide the necessary push to market. Nothing could be further from the truth. As a practicing inventor myself, I agree with Thomas Edison: “Invention is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.” Much of technology transfer involves working at the application stage – finding applications unforeseen by the researchers who originally developed the technology.

What we need to create more than a “push” is a strong “pull” for our technologies from industry. This pull can be fostered through building closer relationships with industry and government partners. This is how we will efficiently and effectively transition these technologies into the marketplace to solve real problems and compete in real-world markets. For example, researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory invented a circuit board for space applications with unique properties – it could be subjected to high temperatures on one side and freezing temperatures on the other and still function electrically. The researchers tried to market this circuit board on the basis of its thermal properties, but could find no takers. But the people at the USC Technology Transfer Center, which is also a regional commercialization center for NASA, discovered the fact that there was something else about this circuit board that could lead to commercial interest – it was the lightest circuit board ever made. The researchers initially didn’t care about weight, but the marketplace did.

As this conference is focused on the urgent aspect of our need for transformational science and technology, I should tell you about a radical new technology transfer center – the Alfred Mann Institute for Biomedical Engineering at USC. The institute was established four years ago through a $113-million gift to USC from biomedical entrepreneur Alfred Mann. We believe the Alfred Mann Institute (AMI) is a unique model for the way technology transfer should be done. It provides a real bridge between university research and industry. It truly recognizes and understands the needs of business. It works to add value to the technology produced by researchers at USC. AMI focuses not only on research, but on product development as well. AMI staff can cover everything from specific research to product testing. They can build a high-quality prototype, do the initial trials, and find a commercial partner. They can make whatever arrangement with business they choose in order to more quickly get a product to market. AMI has the option of tapping resources throughout USC, as well as outside USC, whenever doing so will help it achieve its basic mission of technology transfer. In order for it to be most effective in fostering technology transfer at USC, AMI has a unique status within the university. It is a separate, nonprofit corporation affiliated with USC and operating on our campus. USC faculty and administrators form half of AMI’s board of directors, while Mr. Mann’s Foundation names the other half.

You may be wondering whether there are pitfalls to such an approach. When universities get involved in technology transfer, doesn’t this get us away from the classic concept of the academy? Might we lose something essential to our mission? Certainly, the values and goals of a university are fundamentally different from those of a profit-seeking business, as well they should be. I do harbor concerns about universities giving up their academic integrity in an effort to court businesses, or even the government, and to capitalize on university research. The more a university acts like a profit-seeking business, the bigger the risk that its core relationship, the teacher-student relationship, becomes compromised. And chasing profits from tech transfer is potentially very corrosive ethically. We need to have strong conflict-of-interest safeguards in place, and we must constantly guard against undermining the basic purpose of the academy. But at the same time we have to get beyond the idea that commercialization of university research is inherently inimical to the role of the university. The role and function of universities is evolving within an overall tradition. Innovation does not necessarily mean a break with tradition. Rather, it should mean incorporating new approaches within the academic tradition.

The simple fact is the notion of universities as detached ivory towers is no longer tenable. The notion that individual departments or disciplines are silos standing apart from each other on the academic landscape is also no longer tenable. Higher education is growing increasingly interconnected, and this trend is sometimes accompanied by great wailing and gnashing of teeth from academic traditionalists. But the inexorable movement of research universities to interdisciplinarity, to education at a distance, to greater emphasis on postdoctoral education, to the commercialization of university research, is, in my opinion, both healthy and necessary.

At the same time we must remember that while many aspects of our universities are changing, many aspects are enduring and timeless. The enduring mission of great universities is the development of human beings and society as a whole through the cultivation and enrichment of the human mind and spirit. This central mission will not change. The university of yesterday, today, and tomorrow is in the people-building business, and that central mission will endure. Societies also look to universities to help young people acquire wisdom and insight, love of truth and beauty, moral discernment, understanding of self, and respect and appreciation for others. These values will not change. Indeed, in times of uncertainty, a clear and lofty mission is all the more necessary.

In this country, perhaps the most diverse society that has ever existed in history, we also look to universities to be forums in which ideas can be articulated, explored, and tested – ideas that are sometimes controversial. This too will not change. The research universities of the 21st century will continue to ensure that they are places where original thinking can flourish, and where the exchange of knowledge and ideas is truly unfettered.

Government, the military, industry, and universities are called to the task of keeping our nation and our world strong, free, and just. Universities must continue to be especially dedicated to preparing citizens to embrace the values of democracy, which include civility and mutual respect.

Together we can and will advance this nation – this Great American Experiment – at a time when it faces daunting challenges from many quarters. As I said at the outset, let us face these challenges with a sense, not of confusion or fear, but with exhilaration and with the knowledge that we are living in one of the most fertile and exciting eras in history. Let us celebrate our partnership in service to a great, worthy, and timeless cause.