University Day address at UNC-Chapel Hill

Speech delivered by Professor Heather Munroe-Blum
At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
October 12, 2010

Thank you, Professor Coble, for that generous introduction. And thank you, Chancellor Thorp, for the welcome invitation to come back to Chapel Hill to participate in this special day. Returning to Chapel Hill evokes warm memories, and transports me back to a transformative time in my life.

I was on an airplane in March of 1979, coming from a frozen Canadian winter for my first visit to Chapel Hill. A 28-year-old social worker at the time, I was working in the psychiatric outpatient clinic of an academic health sciences centre. I had a strong desire to master how psychiatric treatments could be rigorously evaluated so as to know which treatments made a positive difference in peoples’ lives, and which did not. UNC’s School of Public Health had been described by a valued mentor as having the best epidemiology and biostatistics programs in the world.

As the plane took off, I sat uncertainly in my seat, my husband by my side. I had never been south of New York State, was about to make my first visit to North Carolina – and the American South. I was contemplating committing myself to several years of study in this foreign place.

“What do you think it will be like?”, I asked my husband, who was reading a magazine. “Well,” he said, holding up the cover of his magazine, “it is 78 degrees in Chapel Hill, the sun is shining and the basketball team is on the cover of Sports Illustrated. It must be a pretty good place...” And it sure was.

Of course, we each have our personal memories that make this place special to us. But beyond that, as we come together on University Day to celebrate the laying of the cornerstone of UNC’s first building, we should remember that UNC-Chapel Hill is, historically, one of the world’s first great “innovation universities.”

When construction on the first building began 217 years ago, it was to be the nation’s first state university, built by the people, for the people. This idea – the public university – was something of a radical innovation, because for the first time on this continent, education, and its prime resource – information – were not defined as restricted commodities. The radical thinking here was that the public had an innate intelligence, and it would be of great benefit to the state if that intelligence could be unlocked and shared broadly. And the way to unlock that intelligence was to build a great public university. This indeed was innovation – and it may have been the most profound innovation of 1793.

Looking back, we can see the construction of the first building of this university as one of the earliest seeds of what we now call the “Information Age” – an age wherein it is accepted that the broad unlocking of intelligence, and the sharing of information among diverse minds is a benefit to the people of the world.

A second great innovation, co-founded by this university, is the creation of one of the world’s first innovation clusters – the Research Triangle Park – a model that has become the archetype for economic development around the world. The brilliance of this model was that it took diverse minds, whose common ground was the desire to generate new, useful knowledge, and put these minds in physical proximity to each other. Even though the project may have had Industrial Age goals, it succeeded in creating an environment of intellectual cross–pollination. And the success of this model pushed the world ever closer to the Information Age in which we live today. The Carolina Covenant, which helps low-income students to join, and to enrich, the UNC-Chapel Hill community, is spawning imitators as well, because it is also an innovation that works.

Now, more than ever, the United States needs innovative universities like UNC-Chapel Hill, because the electronic mobility of the Information Age and the unprecedented mobility of people around the world are redrawing the map of global influence, and innovation will define its contours. It is possible now for any nation of reasonable economic means to play on the world stage – so long as it possesses the ambition, the vision, and the commitment to harness the creative and intellectual talents of all of its citizens, and to build a knowledge- and innovation-based society.

Although this trend is a welcome one, it serves as a call to action for more established nations like the United States that hope to maintain their influence. At a time when other countries are racing ahead, innovation is imperative.

Let’s take a quick glance at the global landscape. Singapore, which is renowned for its national commitment to research and development, has emerged to become the number one country in the 2010 IMD World Competitiveness Score Board, bumping the United States out of its number one ranking into third place. China has also made a massive commitment to education and research. In just nine years, the number of people obtaining a university degree in China grew by almost 400 percent, and it is now the number two country in the world for volume of research articles published. Finland and Switzerland are just two of the many other countries that have recently seen impressive growth in their university graduation rates.

Contrast this with the U.S. Notwithstanding its legendary higher-education system: the university graduation rate here is 35 percent, which puts the U.S. only 15th of 24 OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries – below the OECD average of 39 percent. Perhaps more tellingly, U.S. graduation rates have remained relatively flat for years.

Someone might ask, “Well, how many university graduates do we need? Isn’t 35 percent enough?” Back in the Industrial Age, the answer would have been “yes.” But not today, when economic growth depends almost entirely on education and innovation. Despite the stories you sometimes hear about big-name innovators who never completed college, high levels of education are the key enabling factor for most 21st-century innovations.

The U.S.’s worrisome performance overall in primary and secondary school is a sign of the great trouble to come, if it is not effectively addressed. In tests of overall performance of 15-year-olds by the OECD, the U.S., ranked 18th in science and only 27th in mathematics out of 39 countries. So where does this leave those of us with a passionate commitment to education? It leaves us with a mandate to animate better our universities to foster and enable education, innovation and entrepreneurship.

The words “innovation” and “entrepreneurship” sometimes sit uncomfortably with academics, because they can sound corporate – and universities are not the private-sector, nor should they be. But innovation shouldn’t scare us. It is fundamentally about ideas, and change, and as such, it lies at the heart of academic life. Innovation is not a new idea.

Joseph Schumpeter is credited with introducing the concept of innovation, in the earlier half of the last century. He noted that competition drives innovation and innovation drives progress. He understood that progress, by its nature, is unsettling. Academics, committed to new ideas and to building the expertise to change the world for the better, are innovators at heart. Becoming a more innovative and entrepreneurial university means making one’s already profound commitment to service – indeed, to a new, stable economy and a healthy, globally-positioned society – more present in everything we do, consistent with our academic mission.

In their most welcome book, Engines of Innovation, Chancellor Thorp and Professor Goldstein say that innovation begins with a problem. Entrepreneurs, broadly speaking, are people who can identify new problems and crystallize the benefits of solving them. They see problems as concrete opportunities. I agree.

Innovation is, at its core, a creative endeavour. And there is no step-by-step handbook for creating breakthroughs. But, as unpredictable as the process of creation is, we can take steps to enhance the probability of a breakthrough.

Innovation starts with defining a societal problem or a need. But to understand fully that need, innovators must connect with the people who are “living” that need.

We used to think of “knowledge and technology transfer” as a linear process, from the “creator” of an idea (a university researcher or scholar) to the “user” (the organization that would then apply and develop that idea into a product or process). But now, we are realizing that we need to encourage “iterative loops” – ongoing open exchange and feedback among all partners in the development process. The most successful form of knowledge exchange is often informal, through conversations or connections, if you will.

And while “applied” research is valuable in our increasingly utilitarian world, we also need more investment in basic, curiosity-driven research. Historically, the very research that ends up addressing some of our biggest problems down the road will be the research that creates those unanticipated benefits to prevent or cure a disease, to create devices that enhance our quality of life, and to connect us with our collaborators and family, now often spread out literally around the world. In addition, connections across sectors – universities, governments, industry and communities – are critical, and so are links across disciplines. We face complex problems – unemployment, obesity and starvation, the challenge of achieving higher participation in education for all Americans, including a focussed effort to get boys through high school and university, and, complex, highly transmittable diseases. No one discipline holds the key. And as any artist, writer, designer or scientist will tell you, the surest way to get the creative juices flowing is to experience something different, to look at a problem from a new perspective. And that’s precisely what multidisciplinary research and learning allow us to do: to connect in order to be creative.

And in our “flat” or globalized world, we need the ability to connect across cultures. To build what John Kao, the author of Innovation Nation, calls “cultural intelligence” – or the ability to span cultural differences. I urge you to embrace every opportunity you have to build your cultural and international experience and knowledge, and at the same time, to experience different aspects of your own community, different members of your own community than you normally would. This need to cross culture, to experience diversity, is just one of the reasons why the arts, the humanities and the social sciences must be equal partners to science and engineering in an innovation system.

Perhaps the most crucial element in creating the fields in which innovation can grow is building “global connectedness.” In the last few decades, the development of regional clusters, modeled after the successes of the Research Triangle and Silicon Valley, has become a cornerstone of innovation policy. The “dynamics of clusters” are particularly important to high-tech industries and innovation-dependent sectors. The “dynamics of clusters?” This just means understanding what happens in successful research and innovation clusters – how they operate, interact and feed each other.

The most effective clusters have seen government, industry, and universities working on shared goals in a three-way partnership – what Henry Etzkowitz calls the “triple helix” model – and then applying this on the world stage.

These days, building local strength in priority areas in not enough. Only clusters that are competitive and connected on the world stage will achieve sustained local benefit. Without global connectedness, there is no “recession-proofing” of our local communities.

Top research universities are already in the core business of connecting people – through high-profile international collaborations, global alumni networks and globe-trotting students. We use our connections every day to morph small clusters into innovation hubs at the centre of global networks.

For example, at my other university, McGill, we’ve been working with key partners in Canada and California to pioneer a new type of large-scale entrepreneurial collaboration – one that networks the government, industry, and university triad across two large innovation-intensive regions, a double triple helix, if you will.

This is not the old model of researcher-to-researcher collaboration. The Canada-California partnership creates a new model of cooperation focussing on innovation-intensive fields, such as sustainable energy and bio-imaging technology, which are strengths in both jurisdictions. This new model of partnership takes a successful regional strategy, and globalizes it. It uses shared priorities and strengths to quickly identify, and act upon, promising research that aligns with industry and community needs. And perhaps most importantly, it establishes a network of key players – the organizations and people that, when brought together, are most likely to jumpstart innovation.

I am enormously proud to be a graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill because I believe that great public universities are a most profound force for good in our world. But that doesn’t mean that we have maxed out on our potential. Today we are being asked to examine how we can all do more to make our world a safer, more equitable, healthier and more prosperous place. We are being challenged to do good, better.

UNC-Chapel Hill has a distinguished past. On this University Day, we celebrate this past, we embrace this challenging present time, and we look with confidence to the future. And as we do, I wish to thank you for the opportunity to share this very special day with you, to thank Chancellor Thorp for engaging me, as he has you, in his powerful vision for this great university, and to express my appreciation to Dr. Berton Kaplan, and through him, to the other remarkable professors and mentors and classmates who have shaped my own foundations here at Chapel Hill, as you will appreciate those who have shaped yours. I am especially proud, on this day, to call myself a Tar Heel.

Thank you.

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