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A Quiet Crisis: Enhancing Intellictual Stock at Local Colleges

Thursday, April 4, 2002 at 12:45 PM

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Northeast Ohio's economy is at a critical juncture, according to some analysts. Traditional manufacturing - historically the region's bread and butter - has been in decline for years, and policy-makers have been at odds over what to do about it. Many say Ohio's best hope lies in setting a better stage for a 21st century knowledge economy to take root and grow here, and that enhancing the intellectual stock at colleges and universities is an essential first step. As part of our on-going series A Quiet Crisis, 90.3 WCPN®'s Bill Rice examines the endowed chair - a distinguished appointment reserved for the best and brightest academia has to offer.

Dr. Mauro Ferrari covets his position at Ohio State University. A professor of both internal medicine and mechanical engineering, Ferrari occupies the Edgar J. Hendrickson endowed chair in biomedical engineering at OSU. Ferrari is honored by the appointment - it’s a tribute to his accomplishments as a scientist and researcher. And, he readily admits, It’s also a coup for the university.

Mauro Ferrari: I was brought here, was recruited to this place with the objective of launching a major world class biomedical engineering program that would have as a signature the kind of research activities I am interested in - biomedical, micro and nano-technology in particular.

So what’s that got to do with growing the local economy? Plenty, says Dennis Eckart, President of the Greater Cleveland Growth Association. Eckart is one of several business development advocates pushing to establish more endowed chairs, or endowed professorships, especially in the areas of science and technology. The idea, he says, is to attract a superstar, indeed, a supernova - someone at the top of their field who will attract several times his or her salary in research dollars.

Dennis Eckart: That superconstellation, if you will, goes beyond a single star and tends to bring in additional researchers, students wanting to study under particular professors, and it creates frequently a critical mass.

In other words, it creates enough intellectual capital in a particular field to establish the region as a world leader in that field. That, in theory, attracts investors and entrepreneurs who can channel the research into the development of commercial products, creating the kinds of high skill, high wage jobs Ohio needs to revitalize the economy. But would it work? Paul Gottlieb, Interim Director at the Center for Regional and Economic Issues at Case Western Reserve University, doesn’t know. All he can say is: it has worked. He cites the city of Austin Texas, where a burgeoning IT industry has grown up around computer chips. Much of the research leading to that came out of the University of Texas.

Paul Gottlieb: In the early 1980s they were trying to get a consortium of firms to make silicon chips. In order to get that consortium the University system decided to create a number of endowed professorships.

The strategy worked well - so well, Gottlieb says - that Austin became a poster child for the successful transfer of university research to practical commercial application. The university brought in top talent, attracted by both the financial rewards and the prestige associated with endowed chairs. The business community quickly gathered around them.

Paul Gottlieb: The endowed professorships were viewed by the companies that would join the consortium and by the federal govt which partially funded it as a carrot to get those companies to go there. So in fact they were used as a very direct location tool, the way you would use a tax abatement to attract a company. The companies are actually demanding it.

The result, Gottlieb says, is a thriving local economy centered around a specialized technology.

Paul Gottlieb: By concentrating that kind of academic firepower on Austin - in the 1990s the city jumped over 31 other cities in per capita income growth. This is unprecedented in the data we’ve looked at on metro areas.

So the question local leaders and academics are asking is: can the tactic work here? Gottlieb says it could - but it would take a substantial inflow of funding to create enough endowed chairs to have a dramatic impact. The University of Texas got the ball rolling primarily with state money, he says, but such expenditures are a tough sell to lawmakers.in Ohio. Harry Andrist, Director of Research and Graduate Programs for the Ohio Board of Regents, agrees.

Harry Andrist: Conservative fiscal policy would dictate that one not make investments in yough economic times, but there are others of us who would argue that that’s exactly when you have to make those investments. Otherwise you enter what called a death spiral - you continually spiral down to a lower level of economic activity. And other states will be eating our lunch, effectively.

But many say hopes are dim for substantial funding from the statehouse. Ohio’s Eminent Scholars Program, a state-funded endowment program started in the early 1980s, has received no funding this biennium due to budget woes, and was dormant through most of the 90s as well. The Growth Association’s Dennis Eckart advises counting the state out and looking to developing the region’s existing assets.

Dennis Eckart: In this case that might be NASA Glenn, Akron and CWRU on fuel cells. There you don’t have the supernova, the single monster name that the whole world would gravitate to, but you have a prominent federal research entity and two universities that have independent test beds of already proven success. They just now need to be married and collaborated.

Still, endowed chairs hold a certain fascination for Eckart and others looking at ways to jump-start a new economy - not just for their direct economic potential, but also for their symbolic value. Successful, highly skilled professionals and entrepreneurs are drawn to intellectual centers, the thinking goes, and while Northeast Ohio can take pride in the brain power it has, more would be better. In Cleveland, Bill Rice, 90.3 WCPN News.

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