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Public research universities and the global knowledge economy

National Seminar on Education, Innovation and Society: Indian Institute of Information Technology—Allahabad, India

Delivered July 10, 2011

“Our excellence, reach, relevance, and competitiveness in the 21st century all depend upon our ability to contribute to the global marketplace of ideas. ”
Satish K. Tripathi, President

Good morning, and thank you for the opportunity to address the National Seminar on Education, Innovation and Society. It is a pleasure to be in such distinguished company. 

I am pleased to say that my institution, the University at Buffalo, has been a partner of IIIT—Allahabad since 2006, and I am grateful to Dr. Tiwari and his colleagues for inviting me to participate in this event as the guest of honor.

UB and the distinguished Indian universities represented here may be physically across the globe from one another.  But we are closely connected in terms of the shared aspirations and challenges we face as internationalized, innovative institutions of higher education striving for excellence and meaningful societal impact in today’s global world. 

Our excellence, reach, relevance, and competitiveness in the 21st century all depend upon our ability to contribute to the global marketplace of ideas, and to prepare our students, faculty, and broader communities to compete successfully and contribute meaningfully to the global knowledge economy.  And for public research universities in particular—such as the University at Buffalo and IIIT Allahabad, and many of our international peer institutions represented here today—the 21st century globalized world has challenged us to redefine the very ways in which we think about the “publics” we serve. 

In an increasingly interconnected world, our reach and impact extend far beyond our immediate host city or region—we serve a truly global community. The greatly expanded role and reach of the research university in the 21st century represents tremendously exciting opportunities for collaboration and partnership in scholarship, research, and education.  At the same time, within this global context, public research universities are challenged as never before to respond to an increasingly complex set of societal needs: Our students—both international and domestic—increasingly demand an internationalized higher education that will prepare them for success in today’s globalized employment and working environment.  

Our host regions depend upon us to serve as economic engines—recognizing the vital role that research universities play in driving innovation and helping to build thriving knowledge-based economies.  And well beyond their local and immediate economic impact, research universities have indirect effects on economic development within a global context as well: As a magnet for global talent, as an incubator for global businesses, as a nexus for creative synergies between overseas partners and the local business community.

As the world has moved from a manufacturing to a knowledge-based economy, we are increasingly asked to fulfill not only our time-honored duty to educate a citizenry and advance critical research—we are also needed to create the economic engines of the future. 

Now more than ever, developing new opportunities based on research and innovation is essential to ensuring competitiveness in the 21st century knowledge economy.  Knowledge and innovation have replaced manufacturing and industry as the new paradigm for prosperity.  Research universities the world over are ideally positioned to lead the way in this effort.  They are our chief source of innovation, discovery, and intellectual capital—the precious resources that are key to any region’s success today.

A Comparative Look at National Investment in Higher Education: U.S. and Asia

Here in India, our partner institutions like IIIT-Allahabad demonstrate the powerful impact that successful research universities have in the development of their host regions. 

Allahabad, Bangalore, and Hyderabad are all shining examples of the vital role that strong, thriving research universities play in building a thriving knowledge-based economy.  In the United States, we also have several examples of research universities driving the economic prosperity of their host regions.  Silicon Valley in California, the Seattle, Washington area, and the Research Triangle in North Carolina are all well-known examples.  This is exactly the kind of innovation economy that my institution, the University at Buffalo, is committed to creating. 

Our region—the Buffalo Niagara area of New York State—has been particularly impacted by the global economic crisis.  Western New York was built on a manufacturing and industry foundation that vanished long ago.  Our region and state are slowly but steadily recognizing that our path forward in the 21st century depends on our ability to forge a thriving knowledge-based economy, fueled by the research and innovation generated by research universities like UB.  But we face significant challenges in this effort, and we have much to learn from the example of many of our counterparts here in India and throughout Asia, which have long recognized the vital importance of higher education to ensuring social and economic prosperity. 

In general, there is a critical difference in how our nations recognize and invest in the vital role their higher education systems play in driving innovation economies and ensuring competitiveness. 

Here in India, as well as in Singapore, China, and elsewhere in Asia, these nations are increasingly competitive in the global marketplace because they understand the key relevance of higher education in fostering their nations’ economic and social development and growth.  They have subsequently made a long-term investment in the build-out of their higher education systems, and these investments are already showing clear returns. 

In the United States, by contrast, state support for public higher education has been decreasing—even as public demand for access to higher education increases.  U.S. higher education—and public higher education in particular—thus faces an interesting paradox.  On the one hand, state investment in higher education is steadily diminishing.  At the same time, public higher education is faced with increasing demands placed upon it, as well as a growing call to conform to accountability and performance standards better suited to a corporate model rather than to the academy.  As a result, we have an increasing need to defend our societal relevance and make the case for public support for higher education.  Ironically, this comes at a time when the innovation and discovery provided by research universities have never been more critically needed to address societal needs.

Defining Our Reach and Relevance: Economic Engagement and the Public Higher Education Mission

Thus, many U.S. higher education institutions, particularly public research universities like the University at Buffalo, are responding to these challenges through an expanded focus on our role in building the 21st century knowledge economy.  While education, research, and service have traditionally been the three core elements of the mission of U.S. public higher education, economic development has become a fourth dimension of our mission.  This fourth arm of our mission is vitally connected to each of the other three—our economic impact is an outgrowth of our excellence in research and education, and it is a vital extension of our contributions to the broader communities we serve.  For example, UB has a longstanding partnership with our business community, and we have a major impact on industry and technology development in the region. 

In the past decade, biomedical research at UB has contributed to the launch of 40 life sciences companies in WNY, and to the creation or retention of 5,000 jobs.  Our Technology Incubator has helped to create more than 1,000 new jobs through partnerships with nearly 100 companies.  Through our office of technology transfer, we contribute substantially to the growth of the private sector: 60 companies launched in the region, many run by UB graduates, but we have a commitment to build further on this impact, and we need a long-range plan for doing so.

Investing in the STEM Fields: The U.S. in Global Context

The United States is increasingly recognizing—as many of our international counterparts have long done—that competing successfully in the 21st century knowledge economy requires strategic investment in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.  Although we still lag significantly behind our international peers, there is growing recognition in the U.S. that these fields are critical to national competitiveness in the 21st century global economy.  And these fields are increasingly targeted for federal and state investment.

Accordingly, public research universities like UB are mapping our own long-range planning to these strategic investments.  Faculty hiring and student enrollment in these key areas is a priority for our long-term strategic planning. 

Like other major U.S. research universities, UB depends on the enrollment of the best and brightest students from other countries—this is particularly the case in graduate programs that do not currently attract enough American students, including the STEM fields.  Indeed, UB is a leader in international enrollment, with more than 5,000 students from 115 countries, making up more than 17 percent of our overall enrollment—the highest such proportion of any comprehensive public research university in the U.S.  Of these, international enrollments in graduate programs at UB in the STEM fields represent between 50 and 75 % of the total.  Many of these students are from India.  In other words, the majority of our graduate students in our programs in physics, chemistry, math, and engineering come from other countries, and without these students the programs themselves and the research endeavors they support could not be maintained.

The situation is generally the same at other leading public research universities in the U.S.  While we don’t have the time today to discuss the full scope of this issue, it remains a very significant and longstanding problem for our country that there simply are not enough American students in the STEM fields.  It is in light of this reality that UB and its peer institutions around the country are determined to be successful in attracting top talent from overseas in the STEM fields, and many international students go on to careers in academe in the U.S.  For a regular faculty search at my university it is not uncommon these days in some fields for half of the applications to come from foreign nationals. 

We can no longer look to the U.S. alone in hiring the best professors and researchers, or in recruiting outstanding students.  The talent pool has expanded far beyond our own borders. 

In other cases, our international alumni go on to successful careers in the private sector.  For example, earlier this year, I had the honor of presenting our highest alumni award to Dr. John Kapoor, who came to UB to earn his Ph.D. in Pharmacy in the late 1960s.  Since achieving remarkable success in the pharmaceutical industry in the U.S. Dr. Kapoor has become one of our strongest supporters.  Only last year, he gave UB a multi-million dollar gift to support the building of a new home for our pharmacy school.  This example represents the promise of the global talent that we seek to attract to the STEM fields and across the disciplines.  This talent not only makes our graduate and research programs successful, but also drives the new knowledge-based economy and helps our region to stay competitive in the 21st century.

At the same time, it’s also important to note that in the United States university structure, unlike in many other nations, strategic investment in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields is coupled with investment in the historically rich tradition of the liberal arts.  While the sciences are typically heralded as more economically impactful, we believe that investment in the humanities is fundamental to our vision for economic prosperity and the kind of social progress we value most.  In the U.S., for example, we see a statistically large percentage of CEO’s of major corporations have a background in the liberal arts.  Thus, while much of what I discuss here today is focused on scientific growth and development, at my university, and within a U.S. context, this is always balanced with a foundation of liberal arts excellence.

UB 2020 and the 21st Century Knowledge Economy

With this context in mind, I’d like to briefly share how we at UB are responding locally—and globally—to the challenges facing us in the 21st century. 

As a public research university, our mission is to make the world a better place through the knowledge we create and share.  Extending and deepening this impact is the goal behind our long-range strategic plan, which we call UB 2020.  

UB is New York State’s largest and most comprehensive public research university, with nearly 29,000 students and over 300 degree programs. We are also a member of the prestigious Association of American Universities—one of 59 top research institutions in the U.S. 

We currently have approximately $350 million in annual research expenditures.  The estimated total economic impact of UB on the region and the state is now $1.7 billion annually. Compared with most other elements of our regional economy, that’s already quite significant. 

But the better the university, the greater its impact.  Our plan is focused on building an even better, stronger university that will build a vital 21st century knowledge economy—and all the outcomes that come with this: Greater educational opportunities, job creation, innovation, technology transfer and commercialization, Economic revitalization of our surrounding neighborhoods.

In order to realize our mission of enduring academic and research excellence, we are investing in the 21st century facilities and infrastructure to support teaching, student learning, and research for a rapidly changing, dynamic world.  We are continuing to build faculty strength in key strategic areas of high demand and impact, including the STEM fields of Health, Biomedical engineering, Energy, Nanotechnology, and the Environment and Sustainability.  These fields represent the highest-demand educational areas requested by our students, who understand they need to prepare for careers in today’s knowledge-based economy.  And they are the key fields shaping business and industry in this century.

As a critical aspect of this long-range investment, we plan to build a world-class integrated academic medical center in downtown Buffalo. 

I’m pleased to report that our New York State legislature recently passed key legislation that will enable us to move forward with these critical plans—a development that we see as very encouraging indication of the growing state commitment to investing in public higher education, and particularly in the vital role of public research universities like UB in driving the 21st century knowledge economy.  We project that bringing the school of medicine downtown will result in: 100 new medical faculty, $25 million in new research income per annum, and $100 million in patient income growth. 

This development will have a major impact on UB’s ability to recruit the best faculty, clinicians, and researchers.  And with this growth, we will be able to reinvest in the core elements of our academic mission: Enabling a world-class education for our students, and providing the necessary environment for research breakthroughs that save lives. We will train 160 new UB physicians and we will create 1125 new health care jobs.

When this next phase is realized, UB will have strengthened its economic and human impact in our community through:

·         Creating more than 3,000 new jobs – from construction and health care delivery, to commercialization of new technologies;

·         Creating a half billion dollars in annual revenue for Western New York; and

·         Creating a stronger, healthier community through life-saving research and clinical care.

Finally, through the opportunities creating by UB 2020, faculty research will have generated more spin-off companies and help existing businesses to grow and prosper. 

With these milestones achieved, UB’s impact in Buffalo and the world will be even greater.

An evolving mission

In the fast pace of the 21st century, it is difficult to predict what the future holds. But, I venture to say, one thing is certain: as we seek to address the challenges of the 21st century, the public research university will be at the center of the process.  Our research, development, and commercialization in health sciences, engineering, computing, nanotechnology and other fields, will create the jobs and the industries – some of which we can hardly foresee – that will bring prosperity and new energy to communities locally and globally. 

At the same time our continued commitment to the foundation of a liberal arts education will ensure that UB’s future scholars and scientists in all fields are prepared to communicate effectively, and reason critically in the complex, global world that is our reality. That’s what great public research universities exist to do. 

We have much to learn from our international peers in this regard, and I am very pleased to have this opportunity to participate in this seminar featuring distinguished colleagues from across India and around the world. I know I have much to learn from you.  I look forward to addressing any questions you may have for me.