Presidential Address: Challenges Facing the American Research University

Friday, October 22, 2004

By Steadman Upham, President, The University of Tulsa

Delivered to TU Friends of Finance, Oct. 21, 2004

Thank you, and thanks to all of you for supporting the Friends of Finance and making it such a successful program. It was a pleasure to participate in last month’s meeting, as we introduced our J. Bradley Oxley Endowed Chair in Business Administration. I am honored to be able to speak with you again today, this time about challenges facing the American research university.

The research university as we know it grew from a charge that President Franklin D. Roosevelt made at the end of the Second World War to Vannevar Bush, director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development. Roosevelt asked Bush how wartime research “should be used in the days of peace ahead for the improvement of the national health, the creation of new enterprises bringing new jobs, and the betterment of the national standard of living.”

Bush responded with his now famous report, “Science: The Endless Frontier.” In that report, he outlined a vision for an ongoing dynamic partnership between academe and the federal government. Over the years, the implementation of this plan has defined universities as centers of basic research, has shaped the accessibility and the financing of U.S. graduate education, and has placed science and technology at the center of American life.

University researchers performed the first open heart surgery. They identified vitamins. They invented FM radio, devised no-till farming, created digital technology, and developed vaccines against polio, meningitis and salmonella. University researchers pioneered dialysis and radiation therapy, invented the child-proof safety cap, developed Carbon-14 dating, and invented Gatorade. They brought us Dick and Jane books and frozen orange juice concentrate. The list is practically inexhaustible.

As we move into the 21st century, the potential for discovery seems greater than ever. What we know today has allowed us to imagine an incredible tomorrow, with clean, plentiful energy sources; cures for cancer and Alzheimer’s and AIDS, and miraculous machines that can fit on the head of a pin.

But if the American research university enjoys unprecedented prospects, it also faces disturbing new challenges. These challenges come from changes abroad and at home, from new threats, and from our responses to those threats.

How we choose to meet these challenges today will set the long-term course not only for American higher education, but also for American business and industry and for the nation as a whole. It is imperative that we understand what is at stake, where change is leading us, and how we can continue to be part of a worldwide community of discovery and learning.

Today I will speak about some of the forces of change that threaten the American research university. Let me begin by talking about the new global market for higher education.


Globalization has become one of the most powerful forces today shaping the environment for business, higher education, and government. When we talk about globalization, we’re really talking about the convergence of several phenomena, especially the development of a worldwide investment environment and the integration of national capital markets. The forces of globalization are significantly affecting international trade, travel, patterns of immigration, financial systems, business standards, and higher education.

Two major recent driving forces of globalization are advances in telecommunications infrastructure and the rise of the Internet. Both of these are intimately interrelated to the worldwide development of higher education, and each has spawned a new entrepreneurialism among college and university administrators world wide.

The same conditions that allow a Fortune 500 company to outsource IT development and customer support also allow enterprising universities to deliver programs to untapped markets around the world.

Two years ago, the group IDP Education Australia predicted that worldwide demand for international education would increase from 1.8 million international students in 2000, to 7.2 million international students in 2025.

This opportunity is driving many university boards and administrators directly to the bottom line, and encouraging them to adopt a Madison Avenue mindset of a corporate marketer. For example, British Education Secretary Charles Clarke is expected to introduce a sweeping new strategy for Britain’s role in global education next month. The BBC recently reported that British university enrollments from outside the European Union have risen 60 percent over the past five years. And international student enrollments there are expected to triple by 2020.

The market is fickle, however. Earlier this year, investors put the failed UK e-University up for sale. The project was a high-profile and highly funded consortium meant to consolidate Britain’s players in global online education. Like many would-be e-market makers, however, UKeU had trouble intermediating itself. In the end, only about 900 students enrolled through UKeU, despite the government’s investment of 62 million pounds.

Even if the British are successful with their new efforts, they will hardly be first to market. Today’s competitors include Universitas 21, a consortium of universities from Singapore to Scotland. The group has partnered with Thomson Learning to develop an online MBA program.

Australia’s Monash University is another prominent example of a large-scale global player. Monash not only offers more than 100 online distance programs, it also has established branch campuses in Malaysia and South Africa.

But the globalization of higher education is about much more than capturing distance education markets. It is also about which countries will educate the best and brightest students from around the world. Historically, this has been the job of American universities, and historically America has been the overwhelming beneficiary of this near one-way flow of brain-power and talent into the country. But this situation is rapidly changing.

For much of the last two decades, Australia has worked to modify its system of higher education so that it reflects the degree structure and study sequence of the US system—that is, a sequence of bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral programs of study. Australian universities have also been aggressively recruiting and successfully capturing international students from Asia, Europe, and Latin America. Today, Australian universities have emerged as the US’s biggest competitor.

American universities would have enough on their hands simply addressing global demand in the face of this mounting international competition. But unfortunately, September 11 and its aftermath have complicated the question even more.

At the very time that we would have wanted to simplify and improve access to US higher education for international students, we have instead had to tighten visa requirements and dramatically lengthen the time it takes to gain permission to enter the US. Moreover, we have implemented onerous tracking requirements that require US universities to report on the academic status, personal conditions, and whereabouts of international students several times each year. While such changes have been implemented for reasons of national security, they have been done in a ham-handed manner and in ways that send a message to the rest of the world that it is not welcome in America. Many believe these new federal requirements are directly related to the recent enrollment drop of international students in US universities.

The Institute of International Education publishes a widely cited annual report titled “Open Doors.” The 2003 edition, which came out last October, shows a pronounced leveling off of international graduate student applications to U.S. colleges and universities. After three years of growth at five and six percent, applications for fall 2002 grew by only one-half percent. The next edition of “Open Doors” should appear this month, showing fall 2003 data.

In the meantime, the Council of Graduate Schools has reported sharp declines this year in international applications to U.S. graduate schools. The numbers are dramatic:

- China, down 45 percent.
- India, down 28 percent.
- Korea, down 14 percent.

The same study tracks declines by field of study:

- Engineering, down 36 percent.
- Business, down 24 percent.
- Life sciences, also down 24 percent.

At the same time we are experiencing these declines, the European Union has issued the Bologna Declaration, a sweeping agreement among EU nations to coordinate the varied terrain of higher education across Europe. The underlying purpose of the Bologna Declaration is to make European higher education look more like American higher education, again, by introducing a bachelor’s-master’s-doctoral degree track that mirrors the US model.

Of course, we can’t yet say that current enrollment declines signal the beginning of a long-term trend. But the numbers clearly show that we have entered a new era of global demand and competition for intellectual capital. In the future, we will have to be much more aggressive in recruiting international students to US universities.


Will the post 9/11 regulatory environment in the US permit such a strategy? Well, another force bearing directly on today’s American research university is the increasingly onerous burden of government regulation.

September 11, anthrax scares, and the ongoing threat of chemical and biological attacks within the US and abroad have prompted regulators to tighten restrictions on material, people, and knowledge. The two principal sources of change have been The USA PATRIOT Act and the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002.

The USA PATRIOT Act (Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism), which was passed in October 2001, expands the government’s ability to conduct searches, monitor communications, and obtain information such as phone logs and library records. The act also eases the government’s burden in obtaining judicial approval for investigations, and it imposes gag restrictions on organizations that have been served.

As the hosts of many international students and scholars, and as the venues for discussions on a wide variety of subjects, colleges and universities have been moving quickly to understand their obligations and their rights under the PATRIOT Act. Compliance with some aspects of the PATROIT Act results in conflicts over censorship and privacy rights as defined under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act or FERPA. These inconsistencies in policy have motivated substantial concerns on college campuses.

Administrators at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, got a crash course in federal procedures under the PATROIT Act last February when federal agents subpoenaed information on student members of the school’s National Lawyer’s Guild. The guild had recently sponsored a conference opposing the war in Iraq. The government also obtained a court order preventing the university from discussing the investigation. When the university informed prosecutors of its intention to contest the orders as a violation of First Amendment rights, the government withdrew the subpoena.

A 2002 survey by the Library Research Center at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, revealed that in the year after the 9/11 attacks, federal and local law enforcement officials visited at least 545 public and academic libraries to ask for information on patron borrowing or Internet use records. 178 of these visits were from the FBI. We are not sure how many of those queries were related to the investigation of terrorism under the PATRIOT Act, since the act itself bars such disclosures.

In addition to raising these privacy concerns, post 9/11 legislation has created a new matrix of restrictions and procedural requirements for university researchers. These new rules, given teeth by the prospect of 10-year prison terms and hefty fines, have created compliance anxieties in academia comparable to those that Sarbanes-Oxley has brought to the corporate sector. We don’t always know what compliance looks like, but it is clear that missteps can be punished.

Take, for example, former Texas Tech University Professor Thomas Butler. Last spring he was sentenced to two years in prison and assessed more than $50,000 in fines for research improprieties. These included exporting a sample of plague bacteria back to researchers in Tanzania from whom he had obtained the sample. During sentencing, the judge acknowledged the absence of malicious intent.

But, of course, the world at large is fraught with malicious intent, and it is fair to ask whether we can afford even honest mistakes – and what the consequences of those should be. Today’s compliance questions are many: What restricted biological agents – or “select agents” – do universities possess? Do “so-called “restricted persons” (as defined by post-9/11 law) have access to these agents?

Even “unrestricted persons” are liable if their access to select agents is not linked to a “bona fide” research interest. University of Connecticut graduate student Tomas Foral was caught on this point in 2002, when federal prosecutors charged that the anthrax in his lab freezer was not part of a bona fide project. Foral avoided trial by agreeing to a government-designed diversion program.

It’s worth emphasizing here that the government seems to have the first and last word in defining a “bona fide research interest.” This is, as you can imagine, a matter of concern for many in the academic community, which has always held fast to the notion of intellectual independence and free inquiry. As it is, current law does give the government a broad “veto power” over certain lines of study.

Select agent research has become such a hot-button issue that some universities have chosen simply to destroy their stocks. It’s the academic equivalent of the corporate shredding party, done in this case not to conceal evidence but to destroy potentially risky assets. The best-known example is Iowa State University, which in 2001 destroyed its entire anthrax collection.

It’s hard to know exactly how many labs have destroyed samples, but reports of this practice were widespread enough to prompt the White House Office on Science and Technology Policy to urge restraint. OSTP spokesperson Dr. Rachel Levinson was quoted in the New York Times, reminding scientists and the public that our biological repositories have research value for developing defenses against bioterrorism and natural outbreaks. “They’re valuable research tools,” she said, “And we would not like to see them destroyed.” Universities are our first and last line of defense in creating, preserving, and disseminating knowledge. It is therefore chilling to think of the potential loss of capacity in this area.

Stem cell research

Another area of enormous scientific potential is also one of our most ethically and politically charged subjects: embryonic stem cell research. Open pursuit of stem cell research is currently restricted by the federal government.

Embryonic stem cells, as you probably know, are those early cells in the embryo that have the ability to differentiate and become nerves, muscles, organs, and the like. Because of their unique potential and their ability to reproduce in the lab, stem cells could yield cures for everything from leukemia and Parkinson’s disease to paralysis.

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin first isolated human stem cells in 1998. Since then, many have debated the morality of using cells taken from human embryos. On August 9, 2001, President George W. Bush enacted policy to restrict federal funding to 22 existing stem cell lines, meaning that no new embryos would be destroyed to produce new stem cell lines.

The private sector and some states, however, are still free to fund new lines of stem cell research. In fact, next month, Californians will vote on Proposition 71, which would authorize $3 billion for stem cell research. The plan would create the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, which would oversee grants averaging $300 million a year for 10 years.

When California’s voters step into the booth, they will have to render a yes-or-no decision on a very complex topic. They will need to consider the morality of conducting stem cell research, as well as the morality of NOT conducting such work. They will need to think about the opportunity to become a global leader and a magnet for some of the best minds in science. And, yes, about the eventual economic return on their investment.

If Californians are thinking about these issues, we can be sure that others around the world are thinking about them, too. Having thought, some will choose to act. Two countries, in particular, are doing so aggressively: South Korea and England.

Scientists, government agencies, and private investors in these two countries and several others are engaged in an all out effort to expand stem cell research and advance the development of new gene therapies. Such investments and the likely successes of this research means that a new industry will develop around stem cell research, one that could deliver scientific leadership, advances in collateral scientific fields, corporate investment in science infrastructure, and potentially, huge profits. In short, stem cell science could be the next great intellectual land rush.

But will US research universities be prohibited from staking a claim on this vast new frontier of knowledge and application? More discussion is needed to define the morality and ethics of stem cell research and human cloning. But this we know for sure: Laws have never been successful in restraining creativity and the urge to know.

As the futurist and distinguished astrophysicist, Kip Thorne, has observed, “Just as laws in our time have not been able to stop abortion, laws in the future will not be able to stop cloning. Cloned animals today have serious abnormalities, but these problems will likely be solved in ten years; and with evidence that cloning can be safe, the pressure to clone may become irresistible.” Thorne asks provocatively, “If your daughter were killed in an automobile accident and you could recreate her by cloning, would you do so? Would any of your neighbors do so? How will society treat illegally cloned children? Will they suffer discrimination, or will they be loved and respected like any child should?”

Given the federal restrictions on stem cell research and the developing regulatory environment that stifles the free and creative expression of ideas today, we might also ask, “Will the American research university be a participant in the debate about these questions?”

And that brings me to my conclusion today on a very broad topic: the challenges facing the American research university. I continue to believe that our challenge today is to fulfill the original vision that Vannevar Bush presented so many years ago. That vision combined the thirst for discovery through unimpeded basic research with an overarching interest in the public good. It embodied a drive for robust intellectual inquiry on the leading edge of science and technology. It was predicated on a national spirit of leadership, and a link between education, government, and industry.

We can fulfill that vision today, but only by maintaining the spirit, structure, and initiatives that have brought us to this point in history. We must be wary of a federal bureaucracy that approaches the process of discovery and innovation with a “one-think” mentality. Regulation, when necessary, should preserve our security without isolating us from the rest of the world and foreclosing opportunities for a future that we cannot yet fully imagine.

Thank you.