Thursday, February 23, 2012

Towards a Competitive Texas

By Keith McDowell

The recent decision by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board to cut the number of undergraduate physics programs putatively underperforming with respect to the number of graduates is symbolic of the plight facing our State when one implements an ideology to achieve austerity under the guise of efficiency. Driven by the excessive use of one-dimensional, data-based accountability on steroids, it is symptomatic of balkanized bureaucracies that never communicate to obtain a balanced approach to governing and thereby collectively fail to achieve the greater good for Texas and its inhabitants.  

And when such accountability is overlaid by a mishmash of rhetoric couched in language designed to obscure its true purpose while appealing to our baser instincts, such as that which emanates from the Texas Public Policy Foundation and its minions, we have a schizophrenic Texas that heralds the need for research universities as innovation engines through its emerging research university incentive programs, but closes part of the pipeline that feeds in new and diverse STEM talent – not to mention the continuing denigration of university faculty by some or the movement toward state-assisted rather than state-funded universities. It’s a failure to properly communicate and govern writ large!

Many such examples of the schizophrenic behavior pattern exist in Texas, the crassest epitome being the fact that the University of Texas in Austin and Texas A&M University are in separate football conferences. How crazy is that?

The potential to be “the best that we can be” is enormous in Texas and stems from our diversity in people, geography, communities that range from big city to rural crossroads, social networks, and natural resources – solar and wind energy being the most prominent for the future. But how do we harness all that potential, especially as regards our university, research, innovation, and entrepreneurial communities? It’s actually rather simple, but difficult to do in a polarized society: we communicate and work together in common cause. And what are some steps that Texas should take to achieve that goal? Here are five suggestions.

  • Intra- system research collaborations: We must first face the fact that even universities within a given Texas university system tend to compete rather than collaborate. The University of Texas System studied the problem and produced an excellent report entitled Research Collaboration Initiative on how to achieve research collaboration across multiple campuses in 2008. I defer to that report for system specific suggestions.
  • Texas university systems research working group: Texas needs to form immediately a working group of its chief research officers (CRO) at the university system level independent of political pressures as occurred during abortive efforts from the Innovate Texas Foundation directed by David Nance. Two meetings by the system CROs to form such a group were held at the University of Houston in February 2010 and at the University of North Texas in October 2010, but the continuation of the working group is currently in limbo.
  • National presence: Texas university systems both singularly and collectively need to create a much stronger national presence in Washington with respect to national research and innovation agendas. Compared to competitors such as the University of California System, the SUNY System, and the University of Maryland System, Texas is mostly missing in action and not a leader. We are too state centric – a notion explored fully in James A. Michener’s famous novel Texas. Initial discussions to form a national university-systems CRO working group under the aegis of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities were held in early 2010 but terminated following the restructuring of the research office at UT System.
  • University Energy Leadership Council: Beginning in the late fall of 2009 and continuing into the summer of 2010, UT System created an Energy Leadership Council comprised of the top energy researchers and administrators at the nine academic institutions. The council hosted an enormously successful meeting at UT Dallas in May of 2010 bringing together university researchers from across a broad spectrum of disciplines as well as entrepreneurs and community leaders in the energy sector. The intent of the council was to host subsequent meetings with the energy industry in Texas and to expand to include all university systems in Texas. Sad to say, that council died a quick death due to lack of follow-up leadership. It should be immediately reconstituted as a statewide entity. There is simply no excuse for Texas universities and university systems to plow the fertile ground of the energy sector using a mule to pull a nineteenth century plough. When are Texans going to learn to work together using 21st century networking and stop working against each other? Furthermore, a successful statewide Energy Leadership Council will serve as the paradigm for attacking other sectors where Texas enjoys a potential competitive advantage including the defense-industry sector and the medical/health sector.
  • Research parks: So tell me again why many of the regional innovation ecosystems in Texas don’t have the very essential component of a research park? To date, only Houston with its nascent UT Research Park – Science for Life and San Antonio with its more established Texas Research Park have research parks. It’s particularly curious that the Austin community doesn’t have a research park. And why is that? Inquiring minds would like to know. The Texas Foundation for Innovative Communities has as one of its major goals the creation of a working group of leaders from each of our regional innovation ecosystems to press forward on the issue of research parks in Texas. I applaud that effort.

Cooperation through communication and working towards common goals is essential for Texas to be competitive in the global arena. These five suggestions and recommendations are only the beginning in proceeding along that pathway. We live in a complex world in which highly-organized, highly-evolved, multiply-connected, and multi-layered entities have the competitive advantage. Balkanized bureaucracies that shut down undergraduate physics programs to maximize a single metric, or disconnected university systems and institutions that compete against each other are not the answer for Texas. 

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