Is the Campus an Oasis or Not: WSJ Unclear

The WSJ offers Cuts Reach Campus Oasis, by Joel Millman today, and provides an interesting view on a region (the Idaho/Washington border where two major land-grant schools, Washington State University and the University of Idaho, sit 8 miles from one another) dependent on higher education and it’s success, yet just beginning to really integrate the benefits of the campus ecosystem with the broader region and private economy. The traditional campus oasis.

Millman explains that the recession has meant a 20% decrease in funding for both schools and for the first ever time at WSU, revenue from tuition is greater than state appropriations.

Later in the piece,  Millman highlights some of the interesting start ups that have come out of the region and provided jobs and growth. That said, there are not nearly enough start ups to support the region and its clear that entrepreneurship and innovation are not yet fully part of the institutional ecosystem of the region.

“We’re definitely entering a new frontier,” said Elson S. Floyd, president of the area’s largest employer, Washington State University, which is eight miles from the region’s second-largest employer, the University of Idaho.

Nowhere else in the U.S. do two such large land-grant universities abut each other in neighboring states. The schools’ students and employees account for nearly 38,000 of the 78,000 inhabitants of the two neighboring counties—Latah, in Idaho, and Whitman, in Washington—and generate two-thirds of all economic activity, according to local consultants, EMSI, Economics Modeling Specialists Inc.

Public-sector jobs account for 36% of all employment and 42% of salaries in the region, known as the Palouse, according to EMSI. This is a bigger government footprint, proportionally, than in Virginia’s Fairfax and Arlington counties, long considered ground zero for Washington, D.C., bureaucracy, the consultants say.

Later in the piece the article describes to goal of using federal research to generate commercial activities.

Besides its state-funded salaries, WSU received more than $360 million in federal research grants in fiscal 2009, on top of $352 million in fiscal 2008. Added to the University of Idaho’s haul of about $170 million over that same period, nearly $900 million in federal cash gushed in to the twin campuses, plus millions more in state grants and fees paid by private businesses contracting their own research projects.

Such funding is crucial to the region’s emergence as a high-tech hub, which residents say will help maintain their quality of life in a future of dwindling government resources. The two universities are touting a consortium called The Palouse Knowledge Corridor to match researchers and their discoveries to engineering, bio-tech and energy firms to jump-start commercial ventures.

GoNano Technologies Inc. rose out of laboratories at WSU and UI and is currently raising capital to develop silica “Nano” springs coated with titanium dioxide that can be used to extract feedstock chemicals by catalyzing the carbon dioxide in waste products. The idea is to turn harmful gases into more benign chemicals.

Another Moscow company, Biketronics Inc., taps UI engineering students for help developing its line of motorcycle accessories.

Millman’s piece encapsulates reality for many major research universities that have not fully engaged their research funding, but more importantly, the massive, diverse, intelligent collection of human capital on campus. The core components for creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship are all there. The tech strength is important, but its the people who must embrace innovation and entrepreneurship.  Can that culture arise? Are there leaders (academic, entrepreneurial, business, and political) that can change their institutional messages to the community on and off of campus?

The idea of a campus oasis, drunk on a cocktail of federal research cash and state legislators largesse, is antiquated. Schools and leaders choosing that route and the collegiate ‘ideal’ of cloistering are dooming themselves to failure and ignoring the practical and exceptional history of American higher education.

Check out the Palouse Knowledge Corridor. See what they have to say about themselves to the world.

via Cuts Reach Campus Oasis – WSJ.com.

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