2020: Focus on the Future
We should not be satisfied with simply reaching our expected student retention and graduation rates but rather exceed those rates by at least 5%. This can be accomplished through our continued efforts in enhancing student success—we are on the right course.
Enhancing the success of our students is one of our highest campus priorities and we have made great strides over the last few years on this priority. Much of our efforts have concentrated on our undergraduate students. Our most recent data show that our first- to second-year retention rate is at an all-time high, as is our 4th, 5th and 6th year graduation rates. Perhaps most notably, over the last three years we have reduced the difference between our expected and actual 6-year graduate rates from 8% to 1%. This improvement is in large part due to the great work being done across campus in our individual academic units. New central programs have also been created to address the five major areas that shape student success: college readiness, the transition from high school to college, retention and persistence of students, timely graduation, and the transition from the university to the next phase of our students’ lives. We also intend to work hard to enhance the success of our graduate and professional students by developing and designing programs that specifically address their unique needs. All of these efforts are a direct reflection of our “one student at a time” philosophy.
The creation of a small student success center on Garland Ave to pilot some of the programs has helped us make progress on student success. Additionally, we’ve taken perhaps the biggest step toward attaining even higher retention and graduation rates by breaking ground on a 71,000-square-foot student success center in the heart of campus. Scheduled to be completed in 2022, this center will be a hub of services and resources to support students from the time they are admitted through graduation and the beginning of their careers. This center will allow us to more effectively coordinate a campus-wide network of student success efforts in a way that is bigger, better, and more efficient. The goal is to help the whole student, which includes academic, physical, mental and emotional health issues, as well as issues related to cultural and social adjustment.
As with the interim student success center on Garland Avenue, the new center will also serve as a laboratory for new ideas and pilot programs that promote K-12 college readiness, student recruitment, transition, retention, and graduation. As a member of the APLU’s southern cluster, we also have a platform for sharing data, ideas, and best practices with our peers, particularly through the Powered by Publics: Scaling Student Success initiative. The goal of this initiative is to work collaboratively “to increase college access, eliminate the achievement gap, and award hundreds of thousands more degrees by 2025.” We are serving as the lead institution for this effort. We also hope to hire tenure-track faculty in relevant departments whose research and scholarship are in the areas of student success, including the use of predictive data analytics and formal modeling to identify factors that promote student success.
In light of anticipated declines in the number of students graduating from Arkansas high schools over the next decade, we will also need to create a comprehensive and long-term plan for more strategic recruitment and enrollment of students. Our goal should be to create a 5-year plan that identifies factors like: academic areas we expect to either grow or retract, the balance we want to strike between undergraduate and graduate/professional students, the number of on-campus versus 100% online students, and the balance of first-year and transfer student admits. Needless to say, this will necessitate that we direct resources to support the enrollment plan we create.
We also have to make a stronger case for the importance of a college education. Even though demographic data show a future decline in available high school graduates here in Arkansas, data also show that our state has one of the lowest rates of high school students who attend college. If we increase this rate, more students will be available for recruitment to our campus. Thus, our recruitment strategy will necessarily mean targeting and encouraging students from areas of the state who have been underserved in past years. To do this, we will need to reevaluate our strategy for distributing financial aid to find ways to promote strategic recruitment and retention. And we will need to design retention programs and assistance targeting students most likely to struggle, including first-generation, transfer and underserved students.
Additionally, we must find ways to reduce the overall cost of education. A recent example of this is the Arkansas Transfer Achievement Scholarship, which enables students who graduated from a UA System two-year college with an associate’s degree to transfer to our campus and continue to pay the same tuition they paid at their two-year school. We need to find other innovative ways to alleviate the financial burden on our students and this means controlling the entire cost of education, including the cost of tuition, housing, textbooks, and fees.
Both students and the university benefit when students are employed on campus. As such, we should promote on-campus employment opportunities for students wherever we can. The data is straightforward: students who work on campus graduate at higher rates. The student success center is expected to provide upwards of 300 jobs, so this is a good step in the right direction. We just need to keep looking for opportunities to create student jobs in other areas of our operation, such as IT services, UREC, student affairs, and in our academic units.
Finding as much external funding as possible to support our students is important. For example, we should apply for and secure more federal grants, such as those offered by the National Science Foundation’s Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation to support student success initiatives, as well as find private foundation support. We also need to continue actively raising more private funds for new scholarships after the conclusion of Campaign Arkansas. While we expect to reach our funding goal of $10 million for the Advance Arkansas scholarship program, we still have a long way to go in meeting the overall needs of our students.
In the end, I do believe that we can be a national leader in promoting and enhancing the success of our students. More University of Arkansas degrees, at all levels, will help our students, the region, the state and our nation to prosper.
We should be the premier resource in the state of Arkansas for delivering timely and relevant education and skills needed by industry and workforce in public and private sectors here in the state of Arkansas, through the creation of innovative academic programs for our students. This includes new and relevant programs at the undergraduate and graduate levels as well as post-baccalaureate certificates that provide additional education needed in areas like data science to healthcare law.
I have been in higher education for more than 35 years and our colleges and universities are currently facing the most volatile period of time that I can remember during that period. Many have begun to question our value and many stakeholders have growing and changing expectations about who we are, what we do, and how we do it. It is becoming increasingly clear that to stay relevant in this dynamic and rapidly changing world we need to evolve and adapt if we are to reaffirm our value to society and address the changing expectations of others. Corporations, businesses and whole industries disappear if they don’t remain relevant, and it seems clear that this relevancy is strongly tied to having a well-educated and modern workforce. That’s where we come in: our university must continue to provide the private and public sectors with well-educated graduates who make a difference in the world, in addition to the cutting edge research done on our campus every day.
Some things we have taught for many years will always have value: critical thinking, creative problem solving, the ability to organize and elucidate complex ideas clearly, and the ability to deal with change in a very dynamic world. Many of these important skills come from the solid exposure we provide our students through the liberal arts. Indeed, a solid foundation in the liberal arts is the cornerstone of a college education and is still important and sought after by those who employ our students after graduation. Therefore, it is important that this foundation be retained as we evolve and adapt to our rapidly changing world. And has always been the case, other skills needed by our students will be replaced by newer, more pressing needs and critical advancements in the workplace. Much of this revolves around advances in technology and the definition of what constitutes a particular job and a particular career. The challenge we face is to create curricula and programs that retain the best features of our existing foundational education while at the same time prepare our students for the realities of an ever-changing workplace.
Given the above, it seems imperative that we work closely and more directly with business and industry to modify existing degrees to meet current workforce needs, as well as develop innovative degree programs that respond to a changing world. This was the vision behind the recent establishment of a B.S. in Data Science here at the U of A. In response to a report released by Governor Hutchinson’s Blue-Ribbon Commission on the Economic Competitiveness of Data Analytics and Computing in Arkansas, three U of A colleges—Fulbright, Engineering and Walton—came together in consultation with industry, philanthropic and government partners to create a new, multidisciplinary, multi-pathway degree that will serve our students and private sector partners well. The establishment of this degree provides a great template for future collaboration and coordination between our academic colleges and industry partners, especially when clear state leadership has been shown. We need to constantly look for other opportunities such as this through better communication with our external partners and stakeholders. To this end, we plan to hire one or more private sector liaisons who will work closely with existing and potential private (and public) sector partners on how the university can design and offer a variety of post-baccalaureate educational opportunities that are innovative and timely. These liaisons will also play a key role in making sure that our private sector partners know more about the high quality graduates we produce while assisting businesses and industries in finding the talent they need from our pool of very talented graduates.
Earning a bachelor’s degree has traditionally been thought of as the end of most people’s formal education. However, given how rapidly people change jobs and sometimes whole careers as well as the rapidly changing demands people encounter in the workforce, lifelong learning and educational opportunities are needed now more than ever. It seems clear that in the future the initial degree won’t provide all of the skills needed for the rest of an individual’s working life. Indeed, perhaps one of the biggest changes we are seeing in higher education is the realization that baccalaureate degrees are increasingly becoming springboards into lifelong learning—the first step, not the last one. We need to be more involved in the lifelong learning process that is emerging. A big thing we can do is to create more post-baccalaureate certificate programs that provide additional education for Arkansans already in the workforce. Post-baccalaureate certificate programs typically include 4-6 courses that provide a great way to supplement your initial degree with new methods, ideas, and skills that can help you advance your career or simply stay abreast of the latest workforce trends.
Creation of post-baccalaureate certificate programs that provide additional education for Arkansans already in the workforce will continue to be important. We already offer a few of these programs, including the Cybersecurity Graduate Certificate (approved in 2018), Lean Six Sigma Graduate Certificate (approved in 2019), and the Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages Graduate Certificate (approved in 2019). I believe that we are positioned well to become a leader in providing additional post-baccalaureate education. We can be more responsive to private sector needs by asking what is needed and not waiting to be approached by our potential private and public sector partners. We can be more responsive by creating methods for launching these educational programs as rapidly as possible. And, developing these kinds of programs and opportunities addresses another fundamental issue we are facing—creating new markets for the outstanding educational experiences we offer at the U of A as we face a declining number of high school students available for recruitment to campus.
Distance education is a way to make some of these post-baccalaureate education opportunities, as well as full degree programs, more accessible to people who are already in the workforce. One out of every 10 U of A students in academic year 2018-19 studied exclusively online. Over the same timeframe, four out of every 10 U of A students took at least one online course. Continued development of innovative distance programs will provide access, opportunity, and value. Indeed, we are making rapid progress. The university added 4 new master’s and bachelor’s degree programs and 6 new graduate certificate programs last year alone. Plans are also underway to develop between 9 to 12 new online programs in the near future. We’re taking a more strategic approach based on data that can identify viable, market-driven online programs that directly meet our constituents’ needs. This includes the creation of more professional master’s degree programs, as well as more bachelor’s degrees. And, to incentivize the development of new offerings, we will create a robust revenue sharing model that returns as much of the revenue as possible back to colleges where the programs originate. This revenue stream should be useful for supporting a range of activities in our academic units.
We also need to create additional 2+2 and 3+1 programs with other universities and community colleges around the state. Currently, the Bumpers College has a 3+1 in Poultry Science program with Arkansas State University and University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, whereby students can attend those colleges for three years before transferring to the UA campus to complete their final year. This enables our institutions to be mutually supporting rather than competing, while also creating cost efficiencies. In recent years, the Walton College has developed several 2+2 programs, including with NorthWest Arkansas Community College, University of Arkansas, Pulaski Technical College, and North Arkansas College. The College of Engineering also has a 2+2 with UA Fort Smith for Electrical Engineering and Mechanical Engineering. These programs improve and expedite the transfer process, create opportunities, and help to ensure students aren’t taking classes that don’t transfer. It may also allow students to stay closer to home initially, save money, and make a commitment to earning their degree before transferring to the U of A for their final years.
I believe that it is also important that we bring the U of A experience to more off-campus locations instead of expecting students to come on campus for classes and programs. The executive education center in Little Rock that was created by the Sam M. Walton College of Business is an example. To this end, we should examine the possibility of creating a satellite campus to our north in Benton County to deliver courses and programs, especially post-baccalaureate opportunities, to employees of local businesses and industries. Many of these classes would necessarily be in the evening, and I believe we would find widespread interest if these classes came without an additional 30-minute drive to Fayetteville (and back) after a full day of work. In describing our student success efforts, we have always said that we want to meet our students where they are. In this case, we need to consider the viability of meeting them literally where many of them are: Benton County. And to ensure cost efficiencies, perhaps co-locating the Rogers Global Campus facility at the same site would make sense.
In summary, the ultimate message here is that we need to be flexible, adaptive, collaborative, and efficient in the creation and delivery of courses and programs if we want to increase our value and relevance to students – wherever they reside, and at whichever point they are in their lives and careers.
We should be the graduate school of choice for students seeking to diversify and amplify their educational outcomes by providing graduate students with a background and opportunities to pursue a variety of career paths in addition to traditional academic careers
Our conception of student success has never been limited to the confines of campus nor to specific kinds of students. It’s my belief that the more we can prepare students to be successful before they get here, the more they’ll be able to take advantage of the opportunities they find here, and the better off they’ll be when they transition to the workforce or further education - the ultimate test of their education. There’s little virtue in awarding degrees to graduates who find their education and skills don’t match their career goals or the current job market. We think this is equally true for graduate students as well as undergraduates, and that’s why we’ve been giving more thought to the larger needs of our graduate students, including how we recruit them, support them, and prepare them for what’s next.
We know that not every graduate wants to pursue careers in academia, nor can academia absorb every graduate, so an attractive alternative is enabling our graduate students to pursue other pathways in their area of expertise - perhaps enabling them to be creators of their own jobs as well as job creators in turn. This means we should provide more opportunities to students who have interests in entrepreneurship, commercialization of intellectual property, grant writing, idea-pitching, and career exploration outside of the academy, either through formal course work or career advising. This also means providing educational and experiential opportunities in leadership, policy, management, finances and other areas that might be helpful in assisting our graduate students along whatever career paths they choose. Our graduate students are extremely bright and hardworking — they can have a great impact on our society in a variety of areas. That’s good for everyone.
One thing we want to do is restructure the 2002 gift from the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation to create more opportunities for graduate students with special interests in careers outside the academy. This includes students interested in public policy and public service, not-for-profits, and government agencies, as well as those interested in commercialization and entrepreneurism. In this last area, we’ve already had some real success. Dr. Carol Reeves, through her New Venture Development class in the Walton College, has been adept at turning graduate students into CEOs and CTOs of companies based on their research by pairing them with M.B.A. students who can help create a business plan. These plans are then honed through competitions. Over the years many have resulted in new startup companies. We should look for other ways to support students and offer them incentives to commercialize their research when it is desired, as well as help them use their outstanding research skills to become successful in any career path they choose.
We could best provide this help by creating a career center focused on graduate students. Perhaps because they are older and more experienced, we tend to assume they don’t need the same level of career counseling as undergraduates. While this may be true for many graduate students, others may be earning an advanced degree simply because they love the field. They may not have weighed their job prospects wholly or investigated whether there are enough jobs in their field to absorb the number of graduates. A career center focused on graduate students could help them strategize and better prepare for what’s next, whether it’s in academia or somewhere else where their education and research skills may be applicable and appreciated.
We should also strive to create professional master’s degree programs that are innovative and relevant. The impetus behind these programs is to provide students with new professional opportunities or to help facilitate the career advancement of working professionals. Unlike traditional Master of Science/Arts programs, where students are expected to conduct research, professional programs emphasize curriculum more focused on the everyday needs and realities of their profession. The Walton College has done an excellent job of developing these kinds of master’s programs. For example, a Master of Science in Economic Analytics was recently approved by the Arkansas Higher Education Coordinating Board. Currently pending approval are a Master of Professional Accounting, a Master of Science in Finance, and a Master of Science in Supply Chain Management.
At the same time, we need to build non-academic career tracks into as many graduate programs as possible. We need to educate both traditional and non-traditional graduate students along a spectrum of residential programs, online programs, master’s-level, doctoral-level, graduate certificates, or micro-credentialing. This will ensure their education is right-sized for their needs. And as we get more of these pieces in place, we need to extensively market ourselves as an institution with multiple career path opportunities. I believe this would make us unique and distinctive, an innovative leader in graduate education.
Finally, we need to create a comprehensive recruitment strategy for graduate students. Elements of this plan have already been identified by the Graduate School and International Education. They include addressing diversity by building partnerships with minority serving institutions and international partners. To facilitate increased access, we would also adopt a more holistic admissions review process that better balances things like GPA, writing samples, resumes/CVs, letters of recommendation, interviews and standardized tests. We also need to help graduate programs and their faculty to not just attract high-quality graduate students, but also ensure they thrive. This means properly resourcing initiatives like a graduate student success office. And we need to build more attractive graduate student financial packages to include competitive stipends, tuition, benefits and fellowship opportunities. We are now working on a comprehensive overhaul of our graduate tuition structure, especially as it relates to increasing our competitiveness for recruiting students from other states. And, retaining highly educated students here in Arkansas once they have completed their U of A degree is a major goal. This is good for the state of Arkansas.
In sum, we need to expand and reframe our understanding of what graduate education is, who it serves, and what it prepares our students to do. Too often we presume our doctoral students are headed to careers in academia when there may be other equally attractive alternatives. Above all, we should encourage and not discourage our students to pursue their passions and interests even if they are outside our traditional academic world. After all, society needs these great minds in many different areas. We also need to be attentive to working professionals who may need anything from a freshening up of their skills through micro-credentialing to a full doctoral program that could lead to a complete career change. In doing so, we would be positioning ourselves to become a much desired destination for students pursuing traditional academic careers as well as a variety of other careers.
We should strive to be a top-caliber research institution, among the very best, one that attracts increased funding from federal and private industry sources.
Since I arrived on this campus nearly four years ago, we’ve given great thought to how we can grow our research volume, increase our competitiveness for external grants and awards, and better distinguish ourselves as a research university. And in the intervening years we’ve made great strides together: increasing research expenditures by nearly $30 million, making roughly $3 million a year in grants available to our faculty for collaborative research, scholarship, and creative activity, and securing a $23.7 million gift from the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation to bolster research and economic development efforts, to name just a few accomplishments. Why is this important? Because in its purest practice, research and discovery seek to increase and spread knowledge, improve health and safety, reduce work or costs, and stimulate innovation. In other words, research makes the world a better place. And by extension, as a public research university, so do we. It’s a critical part of our mission as the state’s flagship and land-grant university.
So, what are some next steps we need to take to raise our research profile still higher, and in the process distinguish ourselves further as a great research university?
The key for us, I believe, is to create a more collaborative campus research environment that facilitates innovative research and pushes the boundaries of discovery. Indeed, we have identified building a collaborative and innovative campus as one of our guiding priorities—many, including myself, believe collaboration is the future of research and scholarship. As a significant step to advance this priority I propose that we create the University of Arkansas Institute for Integrative and Innovative Research or, the I3R, for the sake of brevity. So what do I mean by integrative research? To me, it’s when two or more researchers combine ideas, creative thinking, methodologies and approaches to tackle research problems, creating a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. These researchers can be from the same field or from different ones, so long as they recognize the power of collaboration in research and discovery. Integrative work may include research that is truly at the intersection of traditional disciplinary areas or simply fields that lead to innovative discoveries and new directions that could not have been imagined or obtained had the investigators been working independently. New fields often emerge because of these collaborative and innovative synergies.
To promote integrative research and discovery, it is important to put innovative and creative researchers in close proximity to one another. And, in creating the I3R, we have the opportunity to address a major issue that is significantly slowing our development as a powerhouse research institution: we need more high-quality research space for both existing and, equally important, future faculty and students. As I announced at the State of the University address in October, we have begun planning for a new research building. This building will be unique—it will be the home of the I3R and be designed with collaboration and integrative research in mind. Our very early estimate is that there will be research space for 60-80 members of our faculty, depending on the exact research activity. This concept requires the construction of a research facility designed from the ground up to maximize integrative work and, more importantly, bring together faculty, students, and staff excited to work in this kind of environment. Some of these faculty are already right here at the U of A. And I believe others seeking this kind of fertile, innovative and interdisciplinary experience would be excited to come here because of the opportunities this unique environment would afford them. And, moving faculty into this building from existing spaces will free up badly needed space in our colleges and departments — space that can be renovated and modernized.
I envision the I3R as an umbrella research organization. It will provide programming that encourages and promotes integrative thinking and opportunities across campus to move in new directions of discovery previously unexplored or impossible to achieve. That’s why the I3R will need to be a university-wide institute and not owned or administered by an existing academic unit. As such, faculty, students and staff would have appointments in both the institute and in traditional colleges and schools, perhaps with salaries shared by the central institute and our existing academic units. I believe this is also an opportunity to recruit faculty with diverse research backgrounds, such as research productive individuals from industry, government laboratories and the business and entrepreneurial world.
I also think the four major areas of research we are focusing on for potential centers of excellence will provide a solid foundation to start. These are areas that are already strong but could gain a more prominent national and international reputation with additional investment. These areas include Bioscience and Bioengineering Research in Metabolism, Data Science, Food Systems and Technology, and Materials Research. We propose creating campus-wide Centers of Excellence in these areas using a hub-and-spoke model with all or some of the hubs located in the I3R Building under the I3R umbrella organization. Other areas could be added in the future as the research profile of the campus grows in stature. Critical to the I3R would be the commercialization potential that goes hand-in-hand with the innovative and integrative research. Thus, a portion of the I3R Building and programming would be dedicated to this function.
Needless to say, recruiting established researchers in our signature research areas will be crucial to our success. A good example of a recent hire in a signature research area is Dr. Justin Zhan, an Arkansas Research Alliance Scholar and professor of data science. His research interests include big data, information assurance, social computing, biomedical computing and health informatics. His work has been extensively funded by federal agencies like the National Science Foundation, Department of Defense and National Institute of Health. Zhan has also authored more than 200 articles in peer-reviewed journals and conferences and he also has experience working with the public and private sectors. In short, adding faculty like Dr. Zhan is how you build on existing strengths to increase capacity, as well as attract others of similar stature. It’s incumbent on us to target, recruit, and retain more faculty who can build on our signature research areas.
Another way to get the most of our research dollars is to pool resources, especially with institutions that have complementary strengths. That’s why I think we need to strengthen our collaboration with our sister institution, UAMS. Currently, we’re focusing on the development of an Institute of Health Sciences Research and Innovation. This partnership would include collaborative research space and labs to facilitate innovative, high-impact research that advances discovery and brings in critical dollars to our region and state, and perhaps intellectual property appropriate for further development. We think by pooling our talent, expertise, and resources, we can have a much bigger impact on the health and wellbeing of the state while at the same time raising the research profile of both our universities. With strategic investment, we could accomplish much more for research, health care and related education, with ancillary benefits related to innovation, commercialization, and the overall wellness of Northwest Arkansas. This is a huge opportunity, and we would be remiss if we did not do everything possible to make it happen.
Finally, we need to significantly increase the number of grant applications that go out to federal agencies as well as industry partners. The $23.7 million grant I mentioned above will be an asset in this. Among the goals outlined in the grant was not just increasing the size of our research awards, but the proportion of faculty receiving external funding. Our target is ambitious: 25% growth in external funding for faculty. We also hope to increase our industry awards from our current level of less than 4% of externally sponsored research to 10%. Fortunately, one of the provisions of the grant was the addition of grant development and support staff who, in addition to helping teams of faculty be more competitive for large, collaborative grants, can also help new faculty put together stronger applications for funding. This should help ensure that more and stronger applications are being submitted. At the same, the Chancellor’s Fund, which now has four separate tracks, is helping faculty develop and strengthen their research projects through smaller grants. Ideally, this will give their applications firmer footing if and when the time comes to pursue external support. The upshot is we think more and stronger grant applications will inevitably result.
As I mentioned, we’ve made great strides in growing our research enterprise over the last several years. This has convinced me that we can and will do much, much more. We have everything to gain by dreaming bigger, being bolder and pushing forward. Simply put, the work we do makes Arkansas, and the world, a better place. So let’s make the most of the opportunity.
We need to generate more success for students and faculty in commercializing their research when that is desired and possible. To do this we must create a campus environment where opportunities are abundant, encouraged, and known, and this activity is recognized and rewarded.
Last year, we commissioned an economic impact study that found the University of Arkansas had an impact in excess of $2.2 billion on the state of Arkansas. This figure is calculated by looking at things like the university’s payroll, construction expenditures, and spending by students and visitors, among many other things. A significant portion of this is number, relative to previous years, was due to our enrollment growth and one-time construction costs needed to support more students. We now expect to have a stable enrollment of around 27,500 to 28,000 students. So if we want to continue to drive economic activity in the state, which is just one of the ways we serve Arkansas, we need to maximize other opportunities. One area in which we have the capacity to do more is the commercialization of research. We can create better and more efficient pathways from discovery to the marketplace for our researchers. While we believe research and scholarship are ends in themselves, when there are commercial applications and faculty or students interested in taking discovery to market, we want to ensure we are an asset and ally in facilitating and expediting that process. It’s good for our faculty, it’s good for the state, and it can provide needed revenue for the university.
The first step in creating new knowledge and developing new technologies that can lead to commercialization is building a strong research engine. Simply stated, the higher your research volume, or expenditures, the more likely you are to generate intellectual property with commercial applications. Research volume is a function of the number of faculty who conduct funded research; the productivity and quality of those faculty; the infrastructure available to support them, including research space and instrumentation; laboratory support personnel; graduate students; and institutional support for developing research proposals and managing research grants.
The $23.7 million research and commercialization grant we received in fall 2018 from the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation was a means of addressing some of these factors. This grant is being used to invest in signature research areas, outstanding faculty, and support staff needed to drive research and discovery. For instance, in the last year we’ve been able to address some of the issues related to institutional support for research. We have added a research and sponsored programs grant development specialist, a research development support specialist, and an industry relations staff position. In support of enhancing our commercialization capacity we have also hired a Technology Ventures director, associate director, and other key positions. All of these hires are designed to help our faculty and students be more successful at finding funding for their research, facilitating their work once the funding is found, and then commercializing their research if that is possible and desired.
We also established the chancellor’s commercialization fund to nurture technologies with strong market potential. This is a new track that’s been added to the Chancellor’s Fund, established in 2016. The commercialization fund prioritizes mature projects with real-world applications. In its first year, we awarded nearly half a million dollars to 14 projects. Because five of the first 10 recipients of the original Chancellor’s Fund successfully have since secured large external awards, we have every reason to believe this new fund will prove to be an effective and strategic investment in faculty commercialization efforts. Simply put, investing in our faculty pays dividends.
This first year of the grant was also an auspicious one: three startups licensed university inventions, two of which were faculty-led. Even better, the pipeline for new inventions grew considerably. We had a record-breaking year in terms of the number of invention disclosures, which is the first step toward patent filings. In fact, we went from 93 to 130 disclosures — an increase of 40%.
So, these are some important steps we’ve taken to help increase the productivity of faculty and students. As our research expenditures have increased 40% in the last five years, it’s clear these steps are having the anticipated impact. Unfortunately, with enrollment and tuition growth flattening, growing the size of the University of Arkansas faculty, without external support for new hires, will be limited. That means we need to keep finding new and innovative ways to build our infrastructure to promote commercialization on campus. In action item #4, I outlined some ideas that would be effective ways to attract top researchers, including prioritizing hires in signature research areas and the creation of the Institute for Integrative and Innovative Research (I3R), so I won’t recapitulate those points here.
I would, though, like to mention a few other things we can do to address faculty productivity. First, we should make sure our faculty hiring is focused on areas where faculty research productivity is strong, particularly where those areas also align with enrollment. This may mean the reallocation of some of our faculty positions from one area to another. We should also be recruiting and retaining faculty with stronger research portfolios than those who leave the university (or at least higher than the average current faculty member). Years ago, when I was a department chair, I used to tell my colleagues that we should always strive to hire faculty who are better than we are — this strategy will strengthen our university. The fact that we have had 14 NSF CAREER Award winners in the last two years suggests that we are already doing a pretty good job of recruiting stronger young faculty. We were also able to recruit a new ARA scholar this year and the start-up packages in the Walton gift should help us recruit other strong faculty into open positions. Finally, we need to recruit faculty who have a variety of backgrounds, including private sector experience.
This means we also need to be thinking about how we incentivize faculty, particularly when awarding tenure and promotion. Deans and department heads increasingly are advocating to include commercialization of discoveries, inventions, and innovations as a positive influencing factor in tenure and promotion review. And when we hire faculty, particularly those in the signature research areas, we should give weight to those who desire to bring their discoveries to the market and have had some success doing so. We need to be careful we aren’t saying one thing about valuing commercializing research but then not considering commercialization activity when it comes to tenure and promotion. After all, we should be assessing a faculty member’s overall impact when we conduct promotion and tenure reviews. I would argue that successfully moving a discovery to market has the potential to have a huge impact on society.
Ultimately, the correlation between research volume and commercialization is clear. We must increase the former to increase the latter. The $23.7 million gift has enabled us to do some of the initial heavy lifting, but future progress will depend on our ability to recruit productive faculty, possibly through opportunities to work in signature research areas or the I3R. It will also require us to be more strategic in who we hire, and even reexamine the criteria for promotion and tenure. If we can reach a consensus on what this looks like, we will be able to free up an entrepreneurial energy and capacity that has been otherwise limited. And as I said at the outset, finding ways to fuel and harness this energy will be good for our faculty, our university, and our state’s economy.
We should be a catalyst and significant resource for driving entrepreneurism in the region and in the state through our faculty and our programs by aggressively forging stronger partnerships with the private sector whenever and wherever we can.
In our last action item, I discussed how we can increase our economic impact on the state by increasing our research volume and capacity to commercialize research. Invention disclosures and patent applications, however, are just part of our larger economic landscape. Most researchers have neither the time, inclination, nor expertise to also be CEOs of a startup resulting from their research. Chief Technology Officer? Sure. But building a company, staffing it, finding funding, learning about markets, and putting together a business plan is often better left to people with a passion for those challenges. So that’s where inculcating a culture of entrepreneurism on campus, in the region, and around the state comes in. Some great things are already happening here on this front.
For years, Dr. Carol Reeves’ New Venture Development class in the Sam M. Walton College of Business has been the gold standard for driving student entrepreneurism. This class has helped show how work done in our labs and research centers can be moved to the market. Reeves has been particularly successful pairing students with university research - sometimes in the form of researchers themselves, sometimes not - who have then won national business plan competitions. Since 2002, our graduate students have won more than $3.2 million in cash prizes, and have gone on to launch more than 50 companies and raise more than $85 million in funding since 2009. We have become a national leader in this kind of student engagement in the world of entrepreneurism.
And we’ve continued to build on this success. In 2017, the university opened the Brewer Family Entrepreneurship Hub to provide co-working space for people at the U of A with an interest in entrepreneurship, including technology-based startups, small businesses, and social ventures. Some of the things the Hub provides are access to mentors, workshops and seminars, as well as commercialization and social innovation training programs. Even more recently, in fall of 2019, we established the U of A Startup Village to provide seed-stage entrepreneurial teams with badly needed office, meeting and storage space. The Startup Village is open to the U of A community from any discipline with incorporated and operational businesses, as well as companies that have licensed university-owned intellectual property from Technology Ventures. Basically, the Brewer Hub helps position entrepreneurs to develop ideas into viable ventures and the Startup Village provides fledgling companies with a launching pad and proximity to resources like the Arkansas Small Business Development and Technology Center and the Brewer Hub. Further, the Arkansas Research and Technology Park is a place where young and established businesses can call home.
Concurrently, the Office of Entrepreneurship and Innovation (OEI) has been developing even closer ties with the entrepreneurial community: locally, regionally and state-wide. Two years ago, the OEI began hosting monthly informational meetings with Entrepreneurship Support Organizations (ESOs) from Northwest Arkansas. This meeting has since grown to include dozens of attendees calling in from across the state. The purpose of this meeting is to reduce duplicative efforts and to promote the entrepreneurial support offered by these organizations, private accelerator programs, and other universities. As the OEI is the hub of this activity, it can apprise our students and faculty of training, acceleration and mentoring opportunities offered by these various partners.
But, of course, there are more paths to the marketplace than the startup route. Business and industry are often in need of new technologies to improve their operations or competitive edge. An issue, however, we often face here is that our potential external partners may not be aware of recent developments on the research front while researchers may not know who might best utilize their inventions. That’s why we want to improve the university’s interface with our private sector partners. Toward that end, we’re looking to hire two to three liaisons who can provide information on services and opportunities at the university, communicate private sector wants and needs to relevant parties inside the university, and help the private sector connect with faculty and staff expertise within the university. This should increase the number of mutually beneficial partnerships we develop with the private sector.
A number of other steps are also underway or under consideration. First, this spring we’ll be expanding the existing entrepreneurship mentor program, which up to now has been focused on weekend and one-off events where U of A entrepreneurs can meet with industry experts. Now they will have year-round access to mentoring through a program that’s been modeled after the MIT Venture Mentoring Service. Another step is the development of an incubator program for faculty and students who have viable business ideas and who need sustained, structured support. Lastly, we’d like to develop fellowship programs that allow faculty, postdoctoral researchers, and graduate students to pursue entrepreneurial training and customer discovery with local industry. We also need to increase the opportunities for our undergraduate students to develop entrepreneurial skills that could help them launch their future careers. For example, we are looking into how we might use the Honors College to provide valuable experiences for our students as part of their honors education. These steps, and others too preliminary to discuss, will help increase our capacity as a catalyst and connector in entrepreneurial activity.
At the same time, our role as an innovator and educator remains critical. This means continuing to develop formal curriculum and programs in entrepreneurism - and perhaps even a Center of Excellence in Entrepreneurism someday. In fact¸ we took a big step forward this semester when the Walton College launched the department of Strategy, Entrepreneurship, and Venture Innovation (SEVI), which has been charged with generating innovative and interdisciplinary curriculum. SEVI will emphasize agile course development and hands-on learning. Faculty will also be cross-appointed in SEVI and other departments, such as the School of Nursing or the School of Art. Under the leadership of Dr. Jon Johnson, the department’s mission is to:
- Educate a diverse population of students in bachelors, masters and doctoral programs to be tomorrow’s business, community and academic leaders in innovation and entrepreneurship.
- Discover and disseminate innovation and entrepreneurship knowledge through research.
- Share our innovation and entrepreneurship knowledge to support our state, profession and the academic community.
We’re also developing proposals for a new Innovation & Entrepreneurship minor and a Master of Science in Technology Commercialization. This last would be intended for recent graduates and professionals in STEM fields working in areas of emerging technology. Additionally, in partnership with the Heartland Summit, the university is hosting its first international graduate student startup competition this spring. Clearly, our Walton College of Business is positioned well to provide new and innovative education and research that helps build a stronger entrepreneurial ecosystem here in the region and across the state.
Needless to say, this is all very exciting and trending in the right direction. We’ve made huge strides in recent years when it comes to advancing entrepreneurism. It’s a natural for us. After all, we are located in one of the most vibrant, entrepreneurial regions of the country. Consequently, I envision much more progress in the years ahead as we aggressively seek to drive and catalyze entrepreneurism, as well as increase our capacity to be both an important resource and hub of activity. More importantly, we’re creating a culture of entrepreneurism on campus in which new ventures are welcomed, nurtured, mentored and strengthened through every phase of development. This will only further our case that we’re an engine of economic growth for the state. At the same time, we’re fulfilling the dreams of faculty and students aspiring to have their inventions ushered into the marketplace. Once again, that’s good for the university and that’s good for Arkansas.