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Inauguration symposium explores future of America's public universities

Inauguration symposium explores future of America's public universities

(Jordan Allred, KSL File)

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SALT LAKE CITY — University of Utah research attracted almost $460 million last year, money which helped generate $176 million in wages and $22 million in state and local tax revenues.

That was just one of the facets discussed at a U. symposium Thursday which brought experts from around the country together to weigh in on the future of America's public universities.

And, while numerous challenges were recognized, the collective prognosis was overwhelmingly positive.

The event was part of a slate of U. activities this month aimed at recognizing and celebrating the Friday inauguration of the school's 16th president, Dr. Ruth Watkins.

Thursday's topics included access to higher education, pathways to on-time graduation, community engagement and innovation through cross-discipline collaborations.

University of Kansas professor Mabel Rice told symposium attendees that the old system of academics working within their own, discrete academic specialities no longer applied and it was contingent on schools to "innovate pathways for inter-disciplinary" collaborations.

"(We) need to engage in cutting-edge teaching and research that fosters inter- and trans-disciplinary innovation, creativity, entrepreneurship and knowledge and technology transfer," Rice said. "Those are fantastic goals and core values."

Keith Marmer, associate vice president and executive director of the U.'s Technology & Venture Commercialization program said the school has had great success in cultivating exactly the kind of cross-pollination Rice encouraged to help leverage research into commercial ventures. Marmer said the school is working to build closer connections with the state as well as the local investment community to improve the "developmental path from a commercialization standpoint."

In 2017, the U. was recognized by the Milken Institute as the top school in the country for technology transfer. The Milken report noted U. programs like its Center for Medical Innovation; Entrepreneurial Faculty Scholars program; Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute; and Center for Engineering Innovation all helped generate the $210 million in licensing income and 69 business startups generated from 2012 to 2015, the period studied for the findings.

Milken authors described the outcomes as a "remarkable accomplishment" in light the school's location in a smaller metropolitan area.

Natalie Gochnour, associate dean of the U.'s David Eccles School of Business and director of the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, said the research dollars are a huge ingredient, but the school's impacts emanate in an even wider pattern, including coming in as the state's second biggest employer.

"In this state if you count the number of employees, students and patients served by this institution, we are everywhere," Gochnour said.

Gochnour also underscored the importance of the U.'s academic community continuing the work to build relationships with the broader community.

"We have to be in the business of serving," Gochnour said. "Serving can be a product or it can be something else. We may talk too much about what we do and not enough about forming relationships."

In January, the Utah Board of Regents unanimously selected Dr. Ruth Watkins to become the U.'s 16th president and the first woman to head the school in its nearly 168-year history. Watkins has worked in U. administration since 2013, serving as vice president of academic affairs.

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