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Partnerships and the Future of Research Universities in America

A Q&A with Freeman Hrabowski

"There are ways that we can leverage funds that we have from one sector to develop initiatives that can be broadly helpful to a variety of sectors and a variety of constituents."  — Freeman Hrabowski

At the recent Internet2 Global Summit conference in Washington, DC, University of Maryland Baltimore County President Freeman Hrabowski's keynote covered a range of points relative to the future of research institutions. Here, CT asked Hrabowski to comment on just one aspect of his talk: his thinking about the need research universities have to become more inclusive in terms of working with agencies and other partners at multiple, different levels.

Mary Grush: You've spoken about how higher education institutions might engage in and benefit from long-term, multi-level partnerships. When thinking about the potential of this, what's important for institutions to consider?

Freeman Hrabowski: We need to be thinking about culture change. 

Grush: What do you mean when you talk about culture change?

Hrabowski: We're talking about the values we hold, the questions that we ask, what is really important in an institution or sector and the way we go about doing business.

In universities we've been accustomed to going to the federal government for our funding. Some institutions have worked with companies, but I am suggesting that there are ways that we can leverage funds that we have from one sector to develop initiatives that can be broadly helpful to a variety of sectors and a variety of constituents.

And so, the idea of sustained, multi-level partnerships that bring institutions and different agencies — federal and state — and companies together with some broad goals will be more important than ever.

Grush: How can institutions approach doing this?

Hrabowski: Universities are going to need to learn to listen carefully. We're used to saying what we need, but if we are going to attract additional funds to build partnerships, we have to be able to understand the priorities of the other partners and the cultures of those places, and to make adjustments, whether it's about the training of grad students and having grad students working in companies; or if it's in the timeline — we at universities are used to a very structured approach to doing business and there is usually a timeline, which sometimes doesn't fit with the corporate world.

Whether we are talking about cloud services or partnerships involving grants in different sectors, we will have to be more adaptable, more flexible, more willing to change — more quickly than in the past. Or, the world will pass us by.

Grush: Why do you think the world might pass us by?

Hrabowski: All we need to do is to look at the training world, and the multi-billion dollar industry in training that is not necessarily tied to universities. And I would argue that much of that success outside of universities has come about because we were not flexible enough to meet the needs of a larger society.

Grush: Do you see a similar picture when you consider research?

Hrabowski: I am convinced that similarly, when it comes to research, simply preparing students to take our jobs [in academia] is 20th century thinking. The future will involve helping students to think through the kinds of careers that they want to have. The recent NIH report and the Council of Grad Schools report both talk about the responsibility that research universities should have for helping graduate students prepare for careers.

You can't talk about research without talking about preparation of the next level of researchers. They aren't necessarily going into research universities — there are only so many jobs there! So, these partnerships that I'm talking about are helpful for gaining resources, for connecting students, and most important for building the enterprise — not simply building the university or simply building one relationship, but rather levels of multi-layered relationships that will allow researchers and colleagues to continue asking good questions and have the resources they need to answer those questions.

Grush: You talk about universities building multi-layered partnerships and listening to other priorities. How do you do that and remain true to your institutional mission? Does this mean that the university should adjust its mission?

Hrabowski: I think the approach has to be one that people are constantly discussing: the mission of building the research, of training students, of helping the larger community in solving problems — these are things we all talk about all the time. We should be furthering the research enterprise and we should be thinking about how we make sure that the graduate students that we are preparing can find meaningful work. And in more and more disciplines, that will mean substantive relationships with partners.

We know that some of the best research going on in the world right now is beyond the university walls — in companies. And so, to the extent that our mission doesn't allow us to see what people are doing beyond our walls, I would say we are not getting a chance to understand the nature of the universe.

And each institution decides what it can be involved in. At UMBC we have found that our mission is very clear, and that colleagues really do appreciate opportunities to work with companies — agencies and companies collaboratively. It means more funding, more substantive research, greater opportunities to solve problems, and that our Ph.D. students and postdocs are getting great opportunities for employment.

In general, there is a need to think differently about how we generate revenues and support research — given that we are not going to see big increases in federal funding. We need to think about long-term partnerships across sectors and keep in mind that research universities have a very special role to play as thought leaders in developing a broad, representative nation of thinkers and researchers.

[Editor's note: Freeman Hrabowski's latest book, Holding Fast to Dreams: Empowering Youth from the Civil Rights Crusade to STEM Achievement was published this month by Beacon Press.]

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