'Centers of excellence' key to economy: Fingerhut

Gov. Ted Strickland’s administration has placed higher education at the center of Ohio’s rebirth and future, and the excellence it demonstrates will retain and attract the kind of people and business that can revitalize the economy, Ohio Board of Regents Chancellor Eric Fingerhut told a gathering of university representatives from northwest Ohio June 17.

In a “community conversation,” held at the University of Toledo, a panel of state and local representatives, higher education officials, a UT student and a recent UT graduate discussed the governor’s 10-year Strategic Plan for Higher Education. The specific topic for the event, one of several Fingerhut is conducting across the state, was the centers of excellence called for in the plan.

While he did not provide significant guidance in how institutions are to determine their centers of excellence or how many should be expected from each, the chancellor said it is clear that universities must “all provide a comprehensive, quality education with all the disciplines,” noting that is a different mission from community colleges and regional campuses, and one which gives students exposure to all fields.

Each institution must also identify and build on its programs that have national and international ranking and can serve as magnets to attract talent and investment.

“What has the potential to be that type of center of excellence?” he asked. The report has set benchmarks by which institutions can judge their programs, he said.

The deadline for Ohio's four-year public universities to submit their recommendations for their Centers of Excellence is December 2009, noted Sandra MacNevin, associate vice president for governmental relations, following the meeting. BGSU faculty, staff, students, administrators and board members will thus have about a year to assess and identify proposed centers of excellence for BGSU, she said.

“These centers of excellence are a core element of the plan,” Fingerhut said. “We can no longer afford to compete against each other,” which by diluting resources can only result in a mediocre system. The legislature will invest in collaborative efforts, and the state’s greatest success will come from each institution focusing on its strengths, he said.

“Throughout history, excellence has always been the best seller,” commented panelist Robert Savage, founder of Savage and Associates, a Toledo financial planning and insurance firm, and former trustee of both BGSU and UT. Savage cited the development of alternative energy as a hallmark of the type of research that will attract jobs to northwest Ohio and bring attention to the area. “We need to keep putting together these incubators,” he said.

In response to discussion about technology and research, several audience members and one panelist, UT junior Betsy Yeary, expressed concern that the humanities would be overlooked and undervalued in the move toward the centers of excellence. “High quality education must prepare students for a lifetime of learning opportunities” by giving them a wide range of skills and expanding their creativity, said Yeary, a theatre major.

Ohio Rep. Peter Ujvagi responded that while he heartily agreed with her, he did not think that the sciences and humanities were mutually exclusive. Creative and critical thinking, he said, are hallmarks of American education envied by other countries that might produce more engineers and scientists but do not foster those kinds of intellectual skills. “We will never have centers of excellence in any discipline unless we have a strong basis in core courses,” he said, adding that the state now has a “unique opportunity,” after years of citizen dissatisfaction with legislative support for higher education, to move forward.

Fingerhut also commented that science is one of the most creative of endeavors, since it revolves around problem solving.

He also re-emphasized the importance of education’s role in job creation. “Support for state universities comes from tax-base dollars, and tax dollars come from people who are working, so we must grow the tax base of the state.”

Basis and philosophy of plan
At the heart of the strategic plan is raising the educational attainment of Ohio citizens, Fingerhut said. He noted that studies indicate this is the key predictor of a city, state, region or even country’s economic success. A report compiled by the Regents shows that the state is not competitive in educational attainment or preparation of its citizens for college, said OBOR member James Tuschman. Further, Ohio’s institutions should improve productivity and will need more state, federal and private investment to support the additional 230,000 students the plan calls for in the next 10 years. While Ohio has made progress, the study found, further investments are also needed in research and technology transfer.

The state education system has the potential to meet the needs of the 21st century, but Ohio institutions need to improve their focus on their core strengths, re-position themselves to serve more students and increase collaboration, Tuschman said.

Three major goals emerged from the study, Fingerhut said: Graduate more students, keep them in the state, and attract new people here. “We need to be a net importer of talent,” he said.

June 23, 2008