Sunday Commentary II: How the Changing Face of Universities Can Change the World

agtechThere was a comment made at the JumpStart Davis event on Wednesday that jumped out to me. Niki Peterson of the Child Family Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, housed in the Graduate School of Management at UC Davis, made the comment that instead of simply having people do research and enter academia, “We actually want this stuff out into the marketplace to change the world for the better,” she explained.  “Especially because UC Davis, our core competencies touch humanity on very basic level.”

This is a very different perspective, she said, “because most scientists are not involved in business, but we actually need them to get involved.”

That reminded me a bit of a comment that Linda Katehi made in a column/story by Sacramento Bee columnist Marcos Breton, where he wrote, “She doesn’t want UCD to be known as a campus of scholars anymore – that implies arrogance. She wants a campus of learners, branching out beyond university borders.”

What is very clear is that Chancellor Katehi sees the mission of the university shifting. Instead of merely focusing on scholarships and academic achievement, the university is focusing on taking academic research and transferring it into the private sector. We call this technology transfer.

As the chancellor wrote this week in her Vanguard column, much of UC Davis’ success can be traced “back to an obscure 1980 law signed with little fanfare by then-President Jimmy Carter. It’s known as the Bayh-Dole Act, named for the senators who sponsored it.”

“Bayh-Dole allows universities and faculty researchers to own and license the intellectual property they develop with federally funded research. The law also gave research universities like UC Davis the responsibility for making sure intellectual property was developed for the public good,” she writes. “Before Bayh-Dole, research supported by government agencies belonged solely to the federal government, which didn’t have the wherewithal or expertise to turn lab breakthroughs into commercial products.”

She argues, “Government-funded research and the universities’ ability to own intellectual property they created has laid the foundation for astonishing economic growth in the U.S.”

She added, “Perhaps the most significant impact of Bayh-Dole was that it fostered development of an innovation ecosystem that has led to breakthroughs that have benefited not only every American, but countless millions around the world.”

Indeed, part of the mission of UC Davis right now is to develop a World Food Center which would allow food science, policy and innovation to drive an understanding of issues like food safety, health, and wellness. UC Davis sees the potential of this technology and research to help feed populations in the world that are undernourished.

Some undoubtedly see this movement as a threat. Student protesters lamented that this was tantamount to the privatization of the university. And that is indeed a concern. While the core potential of technology transfer offers a lot of promise, allowing universities to become the driving force of a new economy is an exciting prospect.

There are dangers. Not all academic research is likely to lead to new breakthrough technologies. It would be a mistake to tie research emphasis to profitability – that is the antithesis of what university education and research is supposed to be about.

Moreover, while finding ways to partner with private enterprise is a way to bridge the funding gap at the university, having university research incentivized by private industry can open doors that we would wish not be opened.

The university’s strength is its independence. The ability for faculty to research to develop new technologies in ag-tech, med-tech, bio-tech, and other technologies has the ability to save large numbers of people. At the same time, the university can be a check on the excesses of private industry.

We want researchers to be able to have the freedom to discover whether new technologies are harmful to the environment or public health.

We also worry that the university has a tendency to turn its back on whistleblowers. We recently covered the case of Janet Keyzer, who was retaliated against and ultimately lost her job for whistleblowing a study of prison inmates that did not have IRB approval.

That is hardly the only case. Amy Block Joy was retaliated against for reporting what she believed were fraudulent activities within the UC Food Stamp Nutrition Education Program, at that time administered through the UC Davis Department of Nutrition.

The university needs better safeguards and enforcement for workers and those who act as whistleblowers.

The university needs to be mindful that new technology and innovation has the potential to improve the human condition – but changes may mean upheaval and abuse. There was no greater improvement of the human condition than the industrial revolution, which ultimately greatly lifted the standard of living of humanity.

However, those changes came with a cost and required new laws to protect the rights of workers – 40 hour work weeks, minimum wage, workplace safety laws, and more.

This week, we discussed eco-modernism. One of the central tenets of that is the “conviction that knowledge and technology, applied with wisdom, might allow for a good, or even great, Anthropocene.”

They believe that technology can be a solution, not a culprit, in the battle over climate change. They write, “Transitioning to a world powered by zero-carbon energy sources will require energy technologies that are power dense and capable of scaling to many tens of terawatts to power a growing human economy.”

Developing new technologies can reduce the footprint of agriculture, allowing for a greater concentration of native land. They write, “Thanks to technological improvements in agriculture, during the half-century starting in the mid-1960s, the amount of land required for growing crops and animal feed for the average person declined by one-half.”

These are areas where UC Davis and the World Food Center can help lead the way into the 21st Century.

At the same time, we must remain mindful of the drawbacks of new technologies and guard against over-zealousness and unintended consequences.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Frankly

    Here is the way I see it.

    Everything that we enjoy in life today, if fact just the fact that enjoy life at all, should pay homage to the economy.  Now, before the arguments start to fly, I certainly agree that people can live off the grid, grow all their own food and reject all aspects of modernity derived from economic activity.   But what size of a population would this type of society support?  The answer is “very small”.   So if that is your utopian dream… that we kill capitalism and industrialism and somehow get everyone to live of sunlight, wind and only that food you can grow and raise yourself… well then you can kiss goodby 90% of your family and friends.

    Without an economy most of are not born and those that are tend not to survive.

    So an economy is a necessary source of our survival.  And the healthier the economy is the better should be our lives.

    But the economy changes.  It changes because of the natural economic forces of competition to build a better mouse trap.

    And today, building a better mouse trap is orders of magnitude more complicated than it has been.

    All efforts to build a better mouse trap start with an idea.  Then that idea needs to be seeded and fertilized with human capital, monetary capital and then plant and equipment.  And if the idea takes root and grows into a marketable new mouse trap, it needs additional human capital, monetary capital and plant and equipment to make that a reality.

    I see the role of universities changing to be more involved in the economy: basically leveraging their excess of human capital (the academic and research idea factory) and taking it to the next steps in getting new mouse traps to the market.

    I see this happening for two reasons:

    1. The cost of high learning is moving beyond the means of people to afford it.  The cost-benefit is becoming unsustainable.  Something has to change to make education more affordable.  One thing that can change is that universities can develop new revenue streams by leveraging their supply of human capital to help get products to the market, and to share in the profits derived.

    2. The complexity of new product development has skyrocketed.  Universities have a continuous idea distillation infrastructure.  Large companies that invest in R & D have the same, but generally more constrained by the culture of the company and it’s existing business model.

    With these changes, I think universities are going to be challenged in how their are structured and how they are managed.  The conflict will be with the culture of academics and the culture of business… with a required tilt to the latter without disrupting the former too much.

    But the change are also going to impact the communities where the universities reside.  This is where Davis find’s itself.  Lucky to have a world-class successful research university that helps to enhance the culture and amenities of the city; but also tied to the business strategy of the university as it adopts to a changing economy.

    Resistance to these changes will only damage the economy, and consequently reduce the contribution to the good life we all enjoy.

  2. tribeUSA

    Re: “She doesn’t want UCD to be known as a campus of scholars anymore – that implies arrogance. She wants a campus of learners, branching out beyond university borders.”

    Since when is scholarship a form of arrogance? Is she referring to the ‘ivory tower’ metaphor? (there is very little ‘ivory tower’ left in modern universities, due to funding constraints nearly all modern research has to have a practical endpoint, or at least the possibility of generating some practical result).

    The university system is already corporatized to a large degree; since about 2000 beyond the extent that I would consider healthy for a place of non-beholden education. Katehi and the other technocrats installed to steer the ship are gung ho on shifting de facto ownership of university operations over to business interests–this has some benefits, however the costs (in terms of the education of young minds as contrasted with training (largely of computer jockeys fast with the button pushes), pure research endeavors without a distinct $ endpoint, loss of long-term benefits in favor of short-term payoffs, etc.) tend to be neglected by those steering the conversation.

    1. Miwok

      The Chancellor is expanding the income of the Campus by adding what she is allowed, and this is one way

      The other is the addition of international and out of state admissions, now on track for over five years, at the expense of local or in state students. You don’t hear about it or see it, but changing the mix, just as in the 80’s when lots of Iranian students were here, brings more income to the campus.

      They claim on the web site 40-50% of students are subsidized or paid tuition, but that is not for the fees which are exorbitant. Bringing in foreign students eliminates lots of that overhead and brings premium paying customers.

  3. Tia Will


    Everything that we enjoy in life today, if fact just the fact that enjoy life at all, should pay homage to the economy.  Now, before the arguments start to fly, I certainly agree that people can live off the grid, grow all their own food and reject all aspects of modernity derived from economic activity.   But what size of a population would this type of society support?  The answer is “very small”. 

    Once again, you choose to pose this as a false dichotomy. Either we embrace a more is always better brand of consumption based capitalism, or we accept a subsistence based hunter/farmer/gatherer model. For you their is no possibility of anything between. But we are well beyond this in the industrialized west. Everywhere you look are products that are advertised to get people to think that they need them, but which have no functional value in improving our lives. We are sold on the idea that we need ever more goodies in order to have a “good” life. However, we have chosen to define “good” as ever more material goods.

    But what if we didn’t define “good” that way. What if we were to define “good” as the amount of contribution the individual made to the society ?  Or what if we were to define it as the amount that one could learn and develop in their lifetime at our “free” state educational institutions ? Or what if we were to define it on a “happiness” scale rather than a scale of possession ?

    Desire for more material goods is not a human given. There are large groups of people whose highest value is not more material goods. This is a matter of what we teach our children. It is a matter of choice, not human nature. As humans, we are unique in our ability to choose which aspects of our nature will take precedence. Will we go with a dog eat dog model in which success is measured by how many superfluous goodies we can accumulate, or will we choose a collaborative model of ensuring that all have enough to live a sustainable life. So far, on the educational front, we appear to be pricing ourselves into the former model and pretending that it is necessary merely because that is the choice that we have made so far.

    We no longer have a truly public eduction system here at UCD and I am wondering if this is really the path that we want to pursue.

    1. hpierce

      “Will we go with a dog eat dog model in which success is measured by how many superfluous goodies we can accumulate, or will we choose a collaborative model of ensuring that all have enough to live a sustainable life. ”  Talk about ‘false dichotomy’.

    2. Frankly

      Some points…

      1. Do you agree that “good”, “material goods” and “goodies” are all defined individually with personal preference?   Don’t you agree that everyone pursues what they value and what makes them individually happy?  And with this, you pursue a lifestyle that you claim is low materiality.

      2. And how to you reconcile this in relative terms?  Your lifestyle is much more material than is 90+ percent of the rest of the global population.  Do you only acquire and use 100% of what you absolutely need from an extreme minimalist perspective.? How many homes do you own?  How many square feet is your primary residence and how big is your yard?  Do you own a car and more than two sets of clothing?  Do you have any appliances or jewelry?  I assume you were typing your post on a computer or some smart device… do you really need those things?  If so then why?

      Your perspective seems to be analogous to a passenger on the top-end luxury train complaining about those that strive to be seated in first class.  Why are you not riding a horse?

      Or better yet, why don’t you just mind you own business and stop passing judgement on people that pursue values and happiness different from what you pursue? (note, I ask this question rhetorically… “you” being a mythical Davis liberal and environmentalist.)

      It isn’t the differences that cause the fight… it is one forcing their personal preferences on another.  If a person works hard and makes a good living and likes certain material things, why would another feel justified in denigrating that lifestyle?

      If I were to use the same playbook in passing judgement on others based on my chosen lifestyle and worldview, I could easily point out first the hypocrisy of those that claim they are low-consumption when they in fact still live high on the hog, and then denigrate their pursuits as selfish and less helpful to humankind because they don’t result in more economic activity that keeps people employed so they too can afford a good life.

      But I would not do that because I think we should all mind our own business and celebrate freedom and diversity of individual chosen pursuits of happiness.

  4. Davis Progressive

    i think this piece is a good balance that some of the commenters miss.  we have a shift in the economy as well as the university, and the shift has the potential to be beneficial is we are mindful of the downsides.  i read someone like frankly on these issues and they often miss the downsides of policies they prefer – and while i think we are all guilty of that – we have to guard against seeing only part of the story.

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