During a recent trip to Washington State University (WSU), I had the privilege to spend time with faculty of the College of Engineering and Architecture, including some distinguished thought leaders and researchers from private institutions. I learned quite a bit about what innovative work WSU was doing in the fields of clean energy, green building, and smart agriculture, just to name a few. As a math and science geek, it was like going to Disney World -- just without the long lines. But what most impressed me was WSU's commitment to not just creating great new building products, sustainable energy and fuel technologies, and innovative agriculture practices. Their teams were charged with ensuring that the innovations they rolled out had a clear advantage to society and could fit within the marketplace.
Yes, you're reading that correctly. WSU faculty were focused on creating cool stuff that we can actually use today, not decades from now. I was further blown away by the emphasis on interdisciplinary collaboration within and outside the university. Architecture and engineering students work together to create new building materials and testing them in real-world projects. Such close collaboration was not encouraged when I attended architecture school just a 15 years ago. WSU undergraduate students participate in research projects and can see how their work impacts actual users. Their composite materials testing facility is available to innovators and businesses across the globe, not just WSU faculty and students.
Higher education is important to communities, as I discussed in my October 5, 2009 commentary. But bridging the funding gap is more than just finding more funds. It's about changing the perception about institutions of higher learning. A well-rounded college or university develops great students, creating contributing members to our society and workforce. But they do so much more when they work together with private enterprise, public institutions, government agencies, and global communities. Leadership within universities and colleges must be prepared to climb out of their elitist tower and walk among the masses to tell their stories. They will be charged to show how the next great innovation in exterior siding means better-quality building materials at lower prices that minimally impact natural resources. The solutions that they research for energy storage issues must clearly connect to how they will create new jobs for all workers in industries that are supported by integrated and thoughtful government policies.
When everyone understands that higher education about communities, not just students, better collaborations can be forged between private enterprise and higher education. Governments create inviolable policies that encourage that collaboration and look to integrated sources of revenue -- not just increasing tuition or taxpayer dollars. Private citizens see the direct results and benefits of institutional and private collaborations when the get their lower energy bills or on their next shopping trip to their local hardware and grocery store.
Washington State University has forged great alliances with regional businesses and institutions like Boeing and Pacific Northwest National Laboratories. I know that other institutions, including public universities, community colleges, and private institutes, are doing the same. It's time for these organizations to speak up and speak out about the resources and benefits that they offer all of our citizens, not just students. And for those who have not made collaboration among departments, disciplines, governments, and the business community, you're making it harder to get the resources you need to stay innovative. By clinging to your perch in the elitist tower, you're destroying relevancy.
Without relevancy, the funding gap for all institutions will grow deeper and wider. It is up to all of us to make the case and bridge the real gap -- the relevancy gap -- in supporting our institutions of higher learning. We need their innovations to serve as a catalyst for new industries, support businesses in developing industries, and prepare a competitive workforce that can excel in all industries. When institutions bridge the relevancy gap, everyone will work together to ensure that those institutions have the funds they need to continue to support our communities.
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