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Research University

The Research University: Dimming the Lights?

The spirit of discovery lives on at the University of Utah. Will it continue to light the way into the future?

By Erik Jorgensen and Julie Kiefer

On January 14, 1506, workers digging in a vineyard in southern Italy unexpectedly unearthed an ancient Roman relic, a copy of a Greek sculpture depicting the death of Laocoön, a figure in Virgil’s Aeneid. In the story, Laocoön tries to convince the Trojans that the wooden horse they’ve been given is hollow. Minerva, allied with the Greeks, sends a serpent to devour Laocoön and his two sons. The sculpture depicts the contorted bodies of the three victims as they try to escape the coiling snake. The figures embody at once an anatomy lesson and a dazzling display of artistic ability. Even Michelangelo confessed that he was not skilled enough to create such a masterpiece. The discovery triggered the unsettling impression that 16th-century Europe, by comparison, was a fallen civilization. Pope Julius II installed the pagan statue in his new Vatican museum and declared that it was of the utmost importance to preserve and study ancient Greek works.

And a light switched on across Europe.

The Renaissance: Preserving Western Civilization

Park Building

The rediscovery of classical culture during the Renaissance resulted in the establishment of universities across Europe that focused on classical learning. That tradition remains. The central function of the university is to preserve the knowledge of scholars that came before—and to teach this canon to the next generation.

How well is the University of Utah carrying on that legacy today? An imprecise indicator is how it stacks up against other universities. Arguably the best-known university rankings are “America’s Best Colleges,” compiled annually by U.S. News & World Report. The rankings came under a storm of criticism last year for their superficial and arbitrary criteria, which include peer assessment, financial resources, and alumni gifts. By these criteria, undergraduate education at the U has sometimes fallen in the unranked third tier between the 51st and 75th percentiles (although it was ranked in the first tier in both 2008 and 2009). Adding insult to injury, rival Brigham Young University is consistently ranked among first-tier schools, yet it is doubtful that instruction in genetics and evolution (the authors’ area of expertise) is better at BYU than at the U, but content of the educational program is not considered a criterion of excellence.

Whether one agrees with U.S. News’ methodologies and conclusions or not, it is a reflection of the U’s reputation and visibility. Remedying this misperception will be neither quick nor easy. The administration is working hard to deepen the University’s endowment and improve student-to-professor ratios. It has identified its areas of excellence—such as dance and computer science, among many others—and continues to promote them. The University has also initiated the “Universe Project” to enrich the student environment in the university district. These improvements will encourage Utah students to remain in state for college and potentially attract the highest-achieving students from around the world. As selectivity of the institution rises, so will its rankings, its funding, and, as a consequence, its educational value.

But there is more to a modern university than the size of its endowment.

After the Renaissance, the university was mutated and refined by historical events. The most important of these were the Enlightenment, the American Revolution, and the Second World War. The mandate of the research university evolved under the influence of these watershed moments—and here is where the University of Utah shines.

The Age of Reason/Enlightenment: A catalyst for discovery

Isaac Newton

Prior to the Age of Reason (what some term the earliest part of the Enlightenment), challenging dogma was not encouraged—scholars stuck to reciting outdated theories from the classical age. Then, in the 17th century, the appearance of one of the greatest thinkers of all time, Isaac Newton, changed the course of academic investigation. Finding the ancient texts limiting, Newton instead focused his attentions on the properties of light, mechanics, and gravity. His seminal work, published in 1687 as Principia Mathematica, emboldened other scholars to question classical works and pursue knowledge by experimentation. Thus, the research university was born.

At the University of Utah, the spirit of scientific discovery lives on. The National Research Council ranks graduate programs about every 10 years based on qualities that measure their impact on the research community, including peer review, faculty grant support, and faculty publications. In the last report, from 1995 (a long-delayed update is expected soon), the U was highly rated in four of the five “main areas”: 21st in biological sciences, 37th in physical sciences and math, 42nd in engineering, and 86th in social and behavioral sciences. (By comparison, BYU was ranked 97th in biological sciences and remained unranked in the other four areas.) It would be a lofty goal for the University to achieve top-tier rankings in all five areas, but that is unrealistic. A state university does not have the resources to achieve top ranks in every field, so battles must be chosen carefully. Efforts should be made to sustain excellence in our current areas of strength and to boost a few programs that are poised for national ranking into the top tier.

Martha Bradley

Dean of the Honors College Martha Bradley

But just how does one nudge a research program toward excellence? Most would answer, “By hiring top-notch faculty.” But because faculty turnover is slow, the administration is for the most part playing with a fixed set of chess pieces. The alternative is to inspire novel ideas from current faculty, which could be accomplished by simply stirring the pot. In this spirit, Ray Gesteland, former vice president for research, conceived of the Synergy Program, designed to facilitate interdisciplinary research by providing seed grants of up to $100,000 to interdepartmental groups. “The key is to get people together who didn’t think they had anything in common, and watch the magic happen,” explains Gesteland.

Synergy, which ran in 2006 and 2007 and may be offered intermittently in the future, succeeded in pulling off some surprises. With grant support from the program, Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering Ajay Nahata and Distinguished Professor of Physics Valy Vardeny have demonstrated that far-infrared light can transmit communications 1,000 times faster than fiber-optic lines and 10,000 times faster than microwave signals used by cell phones. The project has resulted in multiple publications and a patent application, meaning Synergy’s investment will surely pay off.

Another way to break down traditional departmental barriers and bring diverse disciplines together is to create institutes. An example is the University’s Brain Institute, established in 2005. “By thrusting people together [who] are going to look at life and the world quite differently, [we can expect] exchanges that lead to surprising discoveries,” notes Nobel Laureate Mario Capecchi, a founding member of the Brain Institute. The institute has lured 10 new faculty to Utah, all respected leaders in their fields. These faculty will occupy common space amid the hopes that the frisson will inspire new directions of research in brain function and disease. Yet it remains to be seen if the experiment will succeed.

The American Revolution: Encouraging critical thinking

American Revolution

Our country’s forefathers recognized that in order for a democracy to function, citizens must be capable of making responsible decisions that could ultimately impact the entire nation. Therefore a university education, which would emphasize critical thinking across a broad range of fields, was to be made widely available. In light of today’s declining economy, there is pressure to abandon a liberal education in favor of teaching practical skills that students can immediately bring to the job market. But it is important for the University to resist the temptation to become a vocational school. In the long run, flexible minds are more important than fixed skills. For this reason, a responsible university will teach process as well as content. The University of Utah has begun to implement this strategy in ingenious ways.

University of Utah researcher at work

A University of Utah researcher at work in 2008

The Honors Think Tank, which began in 2004, brings together about a dozen Honors students from eclectic majors to focus on a single issue with both universal and practical aspects. Over the course of an academic year, in collaboration with faculty mentors and community partners, students devise and carry out a research project that serves society. In 2007, the Think Tank researched and wrote “Immigration in Context: a Resource Guide for Utah.” The booklet contains information ranging from the history and economic impact of immigration, to the media’s portrayal of immigrants. “I don’t know of any other universities that are doing anything like this with undergraduates,” says Martha Bradley BFA’74 PhD’87, dean of the Honors College. “Rather than the hypothetical assignments more typically assigned to assess a student’s work, Think Tank research has an application and produces new knowledge.”

The Honors Think Tank is just one example of how innovative programs that emphasize critical thinking can be effective educational tools. Rather than being available to a small minority, ideas like these should be woven into the core undergraduate curriculum. The result can only be a generation of savvy and independent thinkers.

The Second World War: An engine for the economy

World War II

World War II was a turning point for academic research in America. Academics were central to the war effort, and research universities became essential both for national security and for the economy. On these grounds, the federal government made a commitment to fund academic research. In 1945, the first extramural grant from the National Institute of Health (NIH) was awarded to University of Utah scientist Max Wintrobe, to study inherited muscular dystrophy. Today, federal research dollars account for $204 million from a total of $307 million research funds awarded to the U. Utah scientists seem better equipped than others to bring in such grants: A 2004 study by the Association of American Medical Colleges noted that the University of Utah obtained the highest NIH funding per investigator, edging out Stanford University for first place.

After the war, state governments followed the federal government’s lead and invested heavily in their university systems. They understood that universities harbor innovators and an educated workforce who develop new technologies and transform them into successful businesses. The State of Utah provides the University with $264 million annually to finance day-to-day operations, a particularly wise investment. University researchers started 18 new companies in 2007, second only to MIT (which receives more than four times as much research funding) for the second year in a row.

Nevertheless, these financial resources have become unreliable in recent years. “We are at a crisis point in higher education,” says Robert D. Newman, dean of the College of Humanities. “The nation’s social contract is dependent upon public funding of public education. The social contract has been broken.” Contributions to U research from Utah state coffers in FY 2008 were slashed in half compared to FY 2002, from $8.6 million to $4.3 million. At the same time, NIH awards to the U in FY 2002 and 2007 dropped from approximately $128 million to $116 million. Adjusting for inflation, awards decreased by 25 percent, an even worse outlook. If the U wants to maintain and improve its research and teaching programs, researchers and university administrators will need to find alternative sources of funding.

In the wake of this grim reality, in 2006 the Legislature passed an initiative to create the Utah Science Technology and Research (USTAR) initiative. USTAR invests in focused areas of science and technology research that its board views as having the potential to spawn products and services. Resulting spin-off businesses and industries are expected to create high-paying jobs for the state. The initiative has already drawn to the U world-class faculty whose research ranges from developing biosensor technology for early disease detection to testing Geologic Carbon Sequestration, a potential means of reducing greenhouse gases by storing carbon dioxide deep beneath the earth’s surface. These efforts should make the University more competitive for limited federal funds.

USTAR has been a boon to science and technology research at the University, but other areas are struggling financially. Although the University was the spawning ground for such arts success stories as Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company and Ballet West, the continued contributions of the colleges of Fine Arts and Humanities to the state of Utah are harder to quantify than a head count of new companies. What dollar value can be placed on critical thinking, artistic expression, or civic leadership?


Yet the future of Utah will rely increasingly on our intellectual rather than on our natural resources. And the University’s place in the world might depend on its ability to recruit the best and the brightest globally.

However, achieving international distinction is not completely in the hands of the University or the State. Such efforts will only be successful if the United States is able to maintain and enhance its reputation for intellectual excellence. Although President Obama’s 2009 economic stimulus package supports short-term investment in infrastructure in the hope of reversing the previous administration’s inaction, it does not yet provide a long-term vision for the role of higher education in economic health—something our State government fully understands. Research universities can incubate new or risky ideas that commercial research and development teams cannot pursue—and these are the innovations that will fuel our economy for the next 50 years.

The worst-case scenario is that forward momentum will be lost, particularly because of today’s deteriorating economy. If so, perhaps 400 years from now, anthropologists will dig up the Jeff Koons sculpture “Michael Jackson and Bubbles” and marvel at the culture that produced such a work.

—Erik Jorgensen, scientific director of the Brain Institute, is a professor of biology at the University of Utah and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator. Julie Kiefer, formerly a postdoctoral fellow at the Huntsman Cancer Institute, University of Utah, is now a Salt Lake City-based freelance writer.

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