University of Akron President Luis M. Proenza could have been talking to us.

Speaking to the convocation of Florida International University late last year, he talked about “how urban universities create a competitive advantage,” and it seems a perfect follow-up to our last post about the importance of maximizing the University of Memphis’ economic impact.

Concerned that other countries are building world-class research and educational institutions and that only 10% of U.S. students are pursuing degrees in science, technology, engineering and math while it is 60% in China and India, he urged that higher education become “academic venture capitalists.”

Academic V.C.

To begin, this new breed of academic venture capitalists must answer questions like how to advance the science of education to spur reform; how to apply the keys of competitive strategies, focus and differentiation; and how to sort out the academic equivalent of mergers and acquisitions.

The answers to these questions, he said, are key to development of an “innovation ecosystem, that system of loosely interrelating elements, of which universities are a part, that has enabled us to make new discoveries, capture their value in the marketplace, enhance productivity and thereby increase our standard of living…Where we once optimized our organizations around efficiency and quality, today, we must optimize our society around innovation.”

It’s a call to action for Memphis to conceive of a future that is more than just an extension of the present. More to the point, the future must have an ecosystem for creativity and innovation, and it’s inescapable that it requires greater collaboration between educators and business leaders.

Goal: Leap Frogging Innovation

“Since universities are arguably are barely getting into the efficiency and quality bandwagons now, how can we leap frog into the innovation agenda?” Dr. Proenza asked. “University innovation will not occur in a vacuum. It requires a close and deep collaboration between universities and industry, and it requires a willingness to experiment with new models and new alliances.”

In particular, the symbiotic relationships between urban universities and the cities they serve are especially important, he said, emphasizing that 83% of all students are attending colleges and universities in the urban core and fringe areas.

“There are thousands of universities employing hundreds of thousands of people, educating millions of students and spending billions of dollars, all in the urban core and fringe.”

UM As Anchor

More to the point, urban universities give cities competitive advantage by:

• Creating new knowledge and economic value through research and tech transfer

• Developing highly skilled talent

• Creating environments on and near campus that help attract and retain highly skilled talent

Citing a white paper by CEOs for Cities, he said that universities are an “anchor institution” that represents “sticky capital,” because they cannot easily pick up and move out of the city. “So they have special importance to the re-making of the city and its future, and they have special reason to want to be instrumental in shaping their city’s future,” he said.

No Substitute For Talent

There is no greater priority than talent development, and he urged urban universities like ours to develop an academic approach to the concept of talent supply chain management.

In addition, an urban university should adopt “a new version of the three R’s to describe the activities of the new metropolitan university – revitalization, relevance and regionalism.” The good news is that University of Memphis is already addressing the first “R” with plans to create a new front door on Highland and an active partner in revitalizing Highland between Central and Southern.

In Akron, The University Park Alliance has garnered more than $200 million from investors with a goal of $500 million to $1 billion in five years to execute place-based strategies that make the area around the university a place that attracts and keeps innovative talent that Akron needs.

Boundary Blurring

“Our vision is to create a vibrant mixed use environment that blurs the boundaries between the university and the community, is pedestrian-friendly and in which everything that happens is somehow about learning and health and wellness,” he said, using a description that could just as easily have been said by University of Memphis President Shirley Raines.

Quoting the ubiquitous Richard Florida, Dr. Proenza said that colleges and universities are today “a basic infrastructure component…and far more important than traditional infrastructures such as canals, railroads and freeway systems of past epochs.”

The end game for urban universities is to “engage in relentless innovation, in education generally and higher education in particular. We must do so because in today’s knowledge-based economy, education is society’s infrastructure. Education unleashes the power of innovation by creating the human capital – the talent supply chain – that shapes our industries and our society. And I think that to meet the challenges of global competitiveness, we must continually redefine the nature of our universities.”

Step By Step

The first step for all of us is about redefining our expectations for University of Memphis and committing ourselves to being part of a plan to move it onto the list of the best universities in the U.S.

It’s also about making noise, noise that is heard 210 miles away, sending the clear, unmistakable message that University of Memphis is too important to the future of our region to leave decisions about its future to the 18-member Tennessee Board of Regents that manages to include a grand total of three Memphians, one being a student representative from University of Memphis.