The Global Public University: global reach, local impact

uwmadison.jpgOn 11 March, William Brustein (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) and Susan Jeffords (University of Washington), two experts on the internationalization of higher education, held a candid discussion at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (pictured to the right) about how communities and regions benefit from the global efforts of their public universities.

Topics in this two hour-long event included knowledge hubs and economic development, strategic university-community partnerships, and institutional cooperation, among others.

A webcast of the forum can now be viewed online. PowerPoint presentations are also available for download.

A webcast of the previous Global Public University forum, featuring a dialogue between Stephen Toope (President, University of British Columbia) and David Ward (President, American Council on Education), can be viewed at this link, as well. It took place on 9 October 2007.

The Global Public University Series promotes discussion about the trends, challenges, and opportunities that impact public universities throughout the world and how these institutions can learn from and work with one another, and their communities. The event was co-sponsored by UW-Madison Division of International Studies, WISCAPE, and the Worldwide Universities Network (WUN), and reflects a desire to enhance strategic thinking about how to more effectively craft institutional strategies in a rapidly changing multi-scalar context. For example, the local/regional/provincial/state responsibilities of public universities, including the University of Wisconsin-Madison, creates some interesting challenges for crafting (and legitimizing) an international/global strategy, though in a manner that is supportive of making a “difference in the lives of Wisconsin citizens“. Events like this are designed to to spur on (re)thinking so as to enable institutions to better face these challenges; challenges that public universities around the world will increasingly face, regardless of available resources.

Kris Olds and Masarah Van Eyck

Foundations, endowments and higher education: Europe ruminates while the USA stratifies

The role of university endowment funds in supporting higher education institutions varies significantly across space and time. Some higher education systems make no use of them, nor do they plan on doing so, while others are grappling with the socio-cultural, legal and political hurdles preventing their emergence as tangible material forces.

uwfound.jpgOver the course of the last six years, following a move to the United States (I’m based at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, est., 1848) I’ve had a crash course on the socio-cultural foundations of endowment funds. It is this dimension that is amongst the most significant yet intangible force facilitating the development of endowments. I’ve acquired insights on this issue via guiding some visitors from Europe (including people involved in the Bologna Process, as well as from the European Commission) to the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Foundation (pictured above), and simply by living and working in this context (an unplanned ethnography, if you will). The UW Foundation, which is the 46th largest in the US, has an endowment worth $1,645,250,000 (at the end of 2007). Note, though, that it is a separate endowment from the University’s autonomous technology transfer office (WARF) which has its own $1.5 billion endowment, and the UW Trust Funds (worth $450 million) that support all 26 campuses in the UW System.

During tours through the UW Foundation offices at 1848 University Avenue, which employs approximately 130 people, we witnessed a veritable machine in motion: counselors guiding dialogue between prospective donors and options for targeted initiatives; strategists working out the aggregate demographics of alumni base transformations; analysts working with integrated data bases that can identify thousands of data points including the occupations (including employers) of individual alumni, the value of their houses, and the ideal time (in terms of career and generational transition) to court them for large-scale donations; and a large room with computers and headsets where an additional 110 students (paid on an hourly basis, with free pizza on Friday nights) work from approximately 3:00 pm on so as to call alumni spread across the country while they are home at the end of the working day, but before they start winding down for bedtime.

Institutionalization aside, I’ve also witnessed the construction of a family-like university-alumni relationship such that the university, via the provision of a high quality (usually) education, generates a lasting social relationship with individuals. Apart from in the classroom, this also occurs via the establishment and maintenance of carefully crafted places where lasting memories of a positive nature can be created (such as the lake-side student union and Bascom Hill), events (including sporting events) which are often associated with planned spectacles (e.g., see the 49 second video clip below) that spark memorable experiences,

and the saturation of students’ senses with visual icons – in Madison’s case numerous trademarked logos, and the beloved starburst chairs that are placed on the lake-side student union. These places, events, and icons are seared into the memories of all alumni, with subtle but equally effective reinforcement provided by their inclusion in the free alumni magazines that get mailed out on a regular basis.

uwchair.jpgUpon reflection, the Canadians on campus, and visiting Europeans, view the construction of such a propulsive system with both fascination and a touch of unease. The brazenness of the effort to construct ‘family’, and then the application of advanced data bases to mine these relations to acquire financial gifts, can seem a touch too strategic and material in orientation. But when I meet alumni while parking cars at my son’s school playing field (a fundraiser that takes advantage of the fact that the 82,000 seat university football stadium is a mere three blocks away), I engage in direct conversations regarding, and observations of, that intangible alumni feeling. To be sure it is overtly strategic in some ways, but these people also feel like they are ‘giving back’: they are, in their minds, honouring the institution that played such a fundamental role in reshaping their lives, in connecting them to lasting friends (and often romantic partners), and marking their transition to adulthood. Of course they are also, via their donations, supporting subsequent cohorts of students. And the effects on the university are striking, with the John and Tashia Morgridge-funded Institutes of Discovery but one of the more striking examples. Indeed one group of alumni even donated $85 million in 2007 to ensure that the Business School is not named after any one person for the next 20 years; a surreal donation, in some ways, given the present logic of the system. In short, while the structural context is clearly a factor, it is the intangible socio-cultural dimensions that play a fundamentally important role in facilitating this development process.

nytendowment.jpgWhile universities in many parts of the world begin to grapple with socio-cultural, legal, and ideological dimensions of foundations, and endowment bases, it is also worth taking into account the emerging effects these endowments have in aggregate. Recently released data by the National Association of College and Business Officers (NACUBO) in the US identifies a clear private/public schism, and it is this schism that is the topic of discussion in today’s New York Times. As the NYT article notes:

The result is that America’s already stratified system of higher education is becoming ever more so, and the chasm is creating all sorts of tensions as the less wealthy colleges try to compete. Even state universities are going into fund-raising overdrive and trying to increase endowments to catch up.

The wealthiest colleges can tap their endowments to give substantial financial aid to families earning $180,000 or more. They can lure star professors with high salaries and hard-to-get apartments. They are starting sophisticated new research laboratories, expanding their campuses and putting up architecturally notable buildings….

Higher education has always been stratified, but the disparities were never as large as today. In the early 1990s, endowment income represented a small part of revenues at most colleges and universities. In 1990 Harvard’s endowment was $4.4 billion.

The last decade brought a sea change, as sophisticated money managers hired by the universities moved their portfolios into hedge funds, private equities and other high-performing investments, and endowments skyrocketed.

Some of the effects of the hastening stratification are evident even in my own relatively well-endowed university, where high quality departments (e.g., Political Science) have been raided by private Ivy League universities, leading to the departure of about ¼ of all of the professors in the last three years. Business Week also has two related stories (‘The dangerous wealth of the Ivy League‘ and ‘Educational excellence, without Ivy‘) regarding the effects of this stratification process.

Many European universities are in the early stages of establishing foundations and building up endowments, though most really have no idea how to do so. This said one emerging trend is to acquire gifts via firms (i.e., not high ‘net worth’ individuals), which will inevitably fuel the relative growth of business schools (unless these monies are taxed for the benefit of all assuming the business school is not stand-alone). Yet the development process is fraught with unresolved debates: is this a good idea?; is this a workable idea?; how does one overcome the socio-cultural barriers to the idea of donating money when ‘already’ paying via the tax system?; how can the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) compete (assuming it wants to) with the US without endowments, or at least substantially enhanced and concentrated funding of select universities?; etc. It is also noteworthy that key institutions, including the European University Association (EUA) and the European Commission, have yet to acquire accurate and systematic data about what endowments (if any) exist within individual European universities (though not for lack of trying). And at a broader scale the OECD has not conducted any serious research on this issue; a somewhat surprising fact given the policy relevance of the phenomenon.

So as Europe ruminates (or perhaps equivocates), it does make me wonder if this not too significant of an issue, and a debate, to be left to individual European countries (with the UK the most active), European universities, and European politicians, to grapple with. In short, why is there no systematic analysis and coordinated discussion?

Kris Olds

Institutions, innovations, and the facilitation of stem cell research breakthroughs

Thousands of media and blog stories are now being produced, circulated and consumed regarding news that two teams of scientists in Japan and the United States have genetically reprogrammed human skin cells into cells “indistinguishable” from embryonic stem cells. As Science notes:

Scientists have managed to reprogram human skin cells directly into cells that look and act like embryonic stem (ES) cells. The technique makes it possible to generate patient-specific stem cells to study or treat disease without using embryos or oocytes–and therefore could bypass the ethical debates that have plagued the field. “This is like an earthquake for both the science and politics of stem cell research,” says Jesse Reynolds, policy analyst for the Center for Genetics and Society in Oakland, California.

The news frenzy is, of course, spurred on by ethical cum political debates about human embryonic stem cell research, especially in the United States. The lead-up to this research breakthrough is captured in this informative New York Times graphic.


The research was concurrently conducted in the laboratories of James Thomson, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Shinya Yamanaka at Kyoto University. The results were respectively published in Science and Cell. A summary of the research findings, with a media interview audio clip, is also available here at the UW-Madison news site.

One of the factors underlying the emergence of James Thomson’s work, apart from sheer hard work and intellect, is the array of institutions that support his laboratory and research team (including lead author Junying Yu, pictured here).junyingyu.jpg These include national US institutions such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH), foundations such as the Charlotte Geyer Foundation, the State of Wisconsin, and UW-Madison. But if you unpack the term “UW-Madison” what you see that this work actually supported, both directly and indirectly, by a complex of departments (e.g., Anatomy), administrative offices (the Graduate School), schools (the School of Medicine and Public Health), centers and institutes (esp., the Waisman Center and the WiCell Research Institute), intra-university foundations (the UW Foundation), and technology transfer offices (the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF)).

Over the last five years the European Commission, various architects of the European Higher Education Area, and innovation experts from select countries in Europe, have toured the United States seeking to acquire insights on the nature of how American universities have facilitated innovation and development processes at a range of scales (from the urban to the national to the regional). They are particularly interested in acquiring ideas (‘best practives’) about how higher education systems and universities are governed, and how they can better engage with other development stakeholders. Guided by enlightened and scientifically-informed officials in the Delegation of the European Commission to the USA, they have managed to repress the all too common tendency in many countries to glorify the elite private universities (e.g., Harvard, MIT, Stanford) that too many governance reformers set up as icons and models, and unrealistically so. Thus when they visit UW-Madison in the ‘fly over zone’ (between the two coasts) they discover not a perfect institution, but one (given its public nature and broad principles/objectives) that is a much more appropriate American model for the reform of aspects of governance systems at a range of scales in Europe. Like it or not reform is on the agenda, and ideas in the US are being sought out. The issue is what lessons can and should be learned for eventual translation.

One institution that visiting European officials find of particular interest is WARF.


WARF has played a critically important role in supporting the research endeavors of scientists like James Thomson, and enabling breakthroughs like those profiled in the media frenzy right now.

This blog is hardly the place for summarizing how a large and complex institution like WARF works. Suffice it to say that WARF seeks to facilitate the transfer of ‘technology’ (broadly defined) from the thousands of researchers working at UW-Madison to society (including but not always through private firms). As WARF puts it:

The official mission of this private, non-profit organization is to support scientific research at the UW-Madison. WARF accomplishes this by patenting inventions arising from university research, licensing the technologies to companies for commercialization, and returning the licensing income to the UW-Madison to support further scientific endeavor. Since making its first grant of $1,200 in 1928, WARF has contributed more than $915 million dollars to the UW-Madison, including monies to fund research, build facilities, purchase lands and equipment, and support a bevy of faculty and graduate student fellowships each year.

WARF plays no role in determining how these dollars are distributed, however; that decision is left solely with university officials. The purpose of this policy is to allow the commercial use of UW-Madison discoveries while avoiding a situation where commercial interests directly influence the research being conducted on campus. The university refers to WARF’s annual grant as its “margin of excellence” funding, since the grant can be used to support highly innovative, early-stage research for which no other funding sources are available.

Much has been written about technology transfer in general, but the themes that always emerge when engaging in discussions between European visitors and WARF staff are:

  • The autonomy of WARF from UW-Madison, thus enabling WARF to set its own priorities, salary structure (in other words, free of State of Wisconsin regulations that apply to full time faculty), and so on.
  • The size and scale of WARF, both with respect to the size of its endowment, its knowledge base, and its networks.
  • The small number of ‘successes’ WARF has achieved despite supporting thousands of ventures, thus normalizing the idea that most initiatives will fail, but willingness to fail enables periodic ‘home runs’ (to use an American sporting metaphor).
  • The presence of scientists, engineers, lawyers and business people at WARF who have ample experience working on the ‘other side’ of technology transfer.
  • The commitment of WARF to supporting a wide array of intellectual life and scholarship at UW-Madison, such that revenue streams from technology transfer and endowment returns are dispersed throughout the entire university community. For example the start-up and retention packages of faculty in fields as diverse as Japanese history, chemistry, geography, speech therapy and pathology are all beneficiaries of WARF’s support, as are graduate students who continue to live in student housing that WARF funded. This approach then generates an overall atmosphere of commitment and support for WARF’s activities on campus, even in fields of study rarely associated with ‘tech transfer’.

WARF is hardly a easy model to replicate. As the WARFers like to say, replication for similar achievement means starting 80 years ago, having access to a $1.3 billion endowment, and being directly attached to a funnel that connects a tech transfer office to over 2,000 research active faculty and over 10,000 graduate and professional level students! But still, many lessons can be learned via the case of WARF.

There remain unresolved debates about technology transfer, and the impacts and value of encouraging university-industry relations and the commercialization of research. But if universities in other countries are seeking to derive ‘best practices’ in the US it is the US’ public universities that are much more realistic and appropriate models for societies (in this case Europe) that seek to emphasize the public good when transforming universities such that more and better quality innovation occurs. The advancements in stem cell research that are being profiled today reflect the emphasis on institutional innovation for the public good, and are an outcome of a strategic and ever changing institutionalization process.

Kris Olds

Forum today on the Global Public University: Canada vs the USA

Today’s event at the University of Wisconsin-Madison featured a relatively open and freewheeling dialogue between Stephen Toope (President, University of British Columbia) and David Ward (President, American Council on Education) about the challenges and opportunities associated with creating “global public universities” on both sides of the Canada-US border. The session can be viewed as a streaming webcast here even though it is now finished. Happy viewing…

Kris Olds