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  Reaching Farther and Higher

Up front

What We Do at the U

By Jason Matthew Smith, editor

You may have heard the term “research university” bandied about on campus, or at least read it in the pages of Continuum. But what exactly is a research university, and what sets it apart from a garden-variety college? And perhaps most important, where does the U fit into the equation, and is it doing an adequate job?

Those are just a few of the questions U of U Brain Institute Scientific Director Erik Jorgensen and writer Julie Kiefer tackle. Jorgensen and Kiefer trace the evolution of the research university and situate the U in the pantheon of research institutions striving to carry on a tradition that began in the Renaissance.

Loosely defined, a “research university” invests and engages in considerable research activity. That may be self-evident, but the best research universities are more than ground zero for scientific innovation, or even economic stimulus. Yes, they are these things, but for students, a research university provides the opportunity to work among the movers and shakers of their respective fields. Students are not memorizing material from textbooks—they’re rubbing shoulders with the men and women who write the textbooks, and who, in some cases, have established entire fields of study. Students learn to test their limits, push the boundaries of their disciplines, and in so doing, often find ways to make human existence better. And sometimes, I think, we forget about the powerful exchange of ideas between researchers and students at institutions with levels of “very high research activity” (a label applied to the U and others by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education) because we become wowed by the numbers: The billions in grants, the millions plowed back into the local economy, and so on. These are important, to be sure, but what happens at the individual level—between grad student and professor, for example—is difficult to quantify.

Among the benefits of a research university is the opportunity it provides for researchers to pursue concepts and creations that may, at first blush, seem impossible or unattainable. Writer John Blodgett introduces three innovations conceived and developed at the U that were once deemed pure science fiction. However, the researchers in Blodgett’s story have ushered their inventions from fantasy to reality, thanks in part to the facilities and resources that a research university offers. All three inventions are in the earliest stages of development, but each is a fine example of an idea that may one day be successfully transferred from sketchpad to assembly line, made possible by support from the U.

Susan Vogel explores the role of the Women’s Resource Center in helping under-served communities (focusing on women, but including others) achieve what may seem unattainable to them: a degree from the U. For nearly 40 years, the WRC has provided support and encouragement to those who need it most. Without the guiding hand of campus organizations such as the WRC, dozens of bright, young scholars might be forced to shelve their academic aspirations. And we all suffer when that occurs.

This issue also features the inspiring tale of Sudanese “Lost Boys” August Mayai, a U of U alum, and his cousin Gabe Majok. And it celebrates the work of Professor Dave Richerson in materials science, a field that has helped mold civilization). Last but not least, we bid a fond farewell to the U’s golf course.


A caption in the Spring 2009 Continuum feature “Opening Pathways to Access” misidentified one of the individuals pictured. Aretha Minor, program director of the Utah College Advising Corps, is at left in the photograph.

The Spring issue’s Through the Years section misstated the accomplishments of former Mormon Tabernacle Choir Music Director Jerold Ottley MFA’67. While the choir has attained five Gold records in all, only three were received during Ottley’s tenure, and those (along with the other two Golds) were actually for recordings completed by former music director Richard P. Condie, also previously a faculty member in the University of Utah’s School of Music. During Ottley’s tenure, the choir received numerous honors, including two Emmy Awards and two Platinum records.

We regret both errors.

We’re eager to hear from you. Please send letters to editor Jason Matthew Smith,, or to 201 Presidents Circle, Room 308, Salt Lake City, UT 84112.

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