06/20/2012 12:18 pm ET Updated Aug 21, 2012

The University As A Driver Of Economic Growth


Recently, I spent a few days on Mackinac Island in northern Michigan attending the Detroit Regional Chamber's Mackinac Policy Conference. The annual event brings together business, political and community leaders to talk about ways to grow Michigan's economy.

As a former (now twice-retired) Ford Motor Company vice chairman, such gatherings were a natural setting to talk about business and innovation. But when I became President of Wayne State University in the summer of 2010, I didn't think my attendance at the conference would be necessary.

But I also knew that universities -- especially research-intensive universities -- play an important role in the economy. Not just as participants, because universities certainly have a large economic footprint. But also as drivers of economic growth. So, off to Mackinac I went. At this year's conference I joined my colleagues from the University Research Corridor (URC) -- a consortium of Wayne State University, the University of Michigan and Michigan State University -- to share information about our combined economic impact and our role in the resurgent U.S. automotive industry.

As you would expect, much of our economic impact is due to our primary purpose -- the education of talent. Of the seven research consortia in the U.S. (the oldest and most famous being the North Carolina Research Triangle), the URC ranks number one in student enrollment and degrees granted -- with a high percentage of these high-tech/high-demand degrees. But research universities -- and the URC in particular -- also contribute mightily to the economy through research and development, inventions and patents, technology transfer and business startups.

Each year on the island, the URC shares an independently produced report on our institutions' contributions to a particular industry sector. This year, the report produced by the Anderson Economic Group focused on the automobile industry. In the past, we have demonstrated significant contributions in such important sectors as life sciences, advanced manufacturing, alternative energy and information technology.

The auto sector report shows that the URC universities are both an important resource for basic and applied research, and a pipeline for the educated talent that the auto industry needs. Between 2007 and 2011, the three URC universities spent $300 million on more than 1,400 auto projects. Private industry provided 28 percent of auto research funding, which is nine times more than the average share of industry support for all research and development at these universities. This investment underscores the importance of research universities to for-profit companies.

The economic impact of public universities is undeniable. They employ thousands of people. They develop and contribute to their communities. They introduce new technologies, some of which result in new business opportunities. They attract talent from around the world. They even help start and nurture new businesses, a direct source of new jobs and economic growth. For example, TechTown, Wayne State's research and technology park -- located on our campus in Midtown Detroit -- has trained more than 2,200 potential entrepreneurs and supported more than 600 independent businesses, which have created more than 1,000 new jobs. If universities were businesses, we'd be begging them to locate in our state.

Still, here in Michigan, and around the country, there is a debate regarding the value of higher education. Is higher education a good investment of state dollars, or not?

I spent most of my career in business, and when we faced challenging questions, or had differing views, we tried as much as possible to rely on numbers, and facts. As a "recovering" financial executive, I find facts and numbers very helpful. They tell me if we're up or down, gaining or losing. Michigan is gaining, thanks in part to its research universities. We do make a difference. We are a great investment.