By Aaron Hedge and J. David McSwane
As Colorado ranks dead last in funding for higher education, and after public disagreements with Gov. Bill Ritter and legislators on how to best increase the school’s budget, CSU President Larry Penley has turned to marketing the university as a world-class research institute to bring money — and attention — to the school.
And as the push continues, CSU’s research expenditures surpass that of peer institutions by 27 percent — a notable accomplishment considering three years ago the university was at the bottom of the list. But CSU now falls about 6 percent behind in instructional spending, according to university officials.
Expensive TV commercials, magazine ads and billboards brand the university as leading the way in environmental problem-solving, and Penley looks to feature articles in Newsweek, the Wall Street Journal and other major media outlets as evidence of CSU’s prominence. And the highly marketed Superclusters are at the crux of the school’s newfound notoriety.
The Superclusters concept, intensely focused categories for research on key subjects like cancer and infectious disease, were adopted in 2006 with the help of a $900,000 gift from the CSU Board of Governors reserve fund and were established as a university priority the next year when the Board approved $2 million for the concepts from the school’s budget.
Superclusters are promoted as bringing valuable research to the market to challenge global issues like sustainability and clean energy while kicking back royalties for patents to the school, sometimes resulting in start-up companies like MicroRx, which works to commercialize results from the Infectious Disease Supercluster.
But a report of royalties received over the last 10 years from technology transfer initiatives like Superclusters shows the university has only seen about $9.4 million in returns — a figure dwarfed by the billions of dollars poured into research projects.
Tony Frank, provost and executive vice president, said the return on innovations from research is expected to increase over time but said royalties are only an ancillary benefit of the research.
“When we invest in technology transfer, if your only point is to make money, you’re doomed,” Frank said.
As to the effectiveness of programs like Superclusters, Jim Hearn, a higher education finance expert with the Institute of Higher Education in Georgia, said it’s a gamble, adding that universities typically sell off start-up companies instead of “enduring a long wait for profitability.”
“It is difficult to profit from these kinds of investments,” he said.
“â€¦ For every great success, there appear to be corresponding stories of disappointment. There are no guarantees in that business.”
John Straayer, a CSU political science professor, said that while research spending has its benefits, “It can’t do a whole lot for the instructional side â€¦ even if you bring in research dollars in the train loads.”
“Basically what you’re doing is using students’ money as venture capital,” Straayer said.
“For millions of years, the market has pushed good ideas to the market. Why are you spending millions of dollars of students’ money?”
Frank, who researched and introduced the Superclusters concept to the president, admits the research being conducted under the Superclusters model isn’t dissimilar from lofty research projects that were already being conducted at CSU.
But the branded models, he said, help bring in grants for those specific research areas.
“We tried to put our bets on areas that not only benefit (CSU), but also bring a return to the university — those with the greatest chance of being profitable,” he said, adding that a majority of the university’s general fund investment is a reflection of grant-matching contracts with research financiers.
But Straayer is critical of the Superclusters concept, saying the research already existed and that the concepts are just “very expensive public relations.”
Research dollars, whether they fall under Superclusters or not, are a benefit for students and faculty working on the project, Frank said.
And peripherally, the rising research expenditures increase the school’s visibility, he said.
Adding that the focus on research can “ultimately be a losing game for some institutions,” Hearn, the finance expert from the Institute of Higher Education, echoed a similar statement.
“Done right, research work on campuses does benefit students,” he said.
“Faculty learn more to inform their teaching, students become involved in the research process, revenues are used to provide superior learning experiences in labs, etc.”
News Managing Editor Aaron Hedge and Enterprise Editor J. David McSwane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.