What Makes a University 'Useful'?

As a growing center of tech education, Washington state’s flagship school provides an example of the tension between commercial success and support for basic research.

Researchers in a lab at the University of Washington that faced cuts to its funding from the National Institutes of Health in 2011 (Reuters)

“We receive more research funding than almost any other university in the world,” Michael K. Young, the president of the University of Washington, crowed during his annual address to the school’s community in October. His enthusiasm seems justified: Research money has become a main source of lifeblood in higher education, especially at science- and technology-focused schools like the University of Washington. While donation dollars contribute to many aspects of university life, including student scholarships, government grants and private fellowships exist to support professors’ intellectual pursuits.

As schools pursue this kind of funding, they face a fundamental question: Should universities strive to produce research that has real-world applications, like the anti-aging drug development process that became the core of a start-up called GenetikSignal? Or should universities focus on basic research, like investigations into the neurological damage that can be caused by pesticides? Although these two ideas aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, they are at tension, especially when funding is limited (which is always). If one lab’s work might lead to the creation of new start-up while another only hopes to solve a theoretical problem, which deserves to get money?

The way a university president answers this kind of big-picture question usually defines the research community at his or her school. Young, who will talk with The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal in an interview in Seattle on Thursday, seems to be steering the UW toward even stronger partnerships with the growing tech community in the Northwest. Last year, the school worked with private donors to create the W Fund, which has pledged to invest $20 million over four years in companies that grow out of the university's research. The school also has a Center for Commercialization, which argues in its mission statement, “Innovation is important. Commercially relevant innovation is vital.” According to Young, this work is central to the mission of a “great university.”

“Last year, I announced an ambitious goal,” said Young during his October address. “I said that over the next three years, we would double the number of companies that we would start out of UW research and innovation. Well, in less than one year, we exceeded that goal: 17 startup companies. That puts us among the very best universities in the nation for moving our ideas, our technology, our medical inventions, out of the University into the lives of real people.”

This attentiveness to “real people” may grow out of a self-awareness that the University of Washington is partially funded by tax dollars. “As a public university we are deeply committed to serving all our citizens,” promises the school’s mission statement. This translates to an overall posture within the university community, which Young described using the language of start-up culture: experimentation and failure. “We need to instill that concept into every classroom, residence hall, laboratory, and campus facility, and in faculty, staff, and students,” he said. “We must not be afraid to fail. Failure is required for transformation to occur. Indeed, failure is often the prelude to succeeding, but we must be ambitious.”

All of this makes sense at a time when youth unemployment is high, and the government is leading an agenda to grow America’s technology and manufacturing sector. The UW, in particular, has already gotten attention for training many of the talented entrepreneurs and engineers who go on to work at companies like Microsoft and Amazon. As the school struggles with state-level funding cuts, this desire to demonstrate a “value proposition” is a savvy survival strategy—and one that seems to be working.

“Despite the sequestration and all the federal budget cuts, we received more research money this year than last year,” Young said in October. As the UW and other public schools continue lobbying for more state and federal funding, it’s unclear how this tension between basic research and more commercially oriented projects will take shape. If other schools adopt Young's strategy, framing the university as another part of economic life, it seems clear that the latter will make for a much better pitch.

Beneath this lies a deeper question: What is the point of the university? In practice, the UW community seems to have taken a both/and approach: A university can be both commercially productive and a hub for pursuing basic knowledge. Rhetoric matters a great deal, though, and the language surrounding the UW has made its position clear: The future of the university will be defined by how economically productive it can prove itself to be.