Innovate or perish

UW's Innovation Fund is supposed to keep the beleaguered university on the cutting edge. Is it too little, too late?

LIKE THE OLD SOVIET HOUSE ORGAN Pravda,theUniversity of Washington's University Week hardly gives the straight skinny on what top administrators are thinking. But a glance at its front page lets you know what the nomenclature on the third floor of Gerberding Hall want you to think they're thinking.

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By that standard, something called the University Innovation Fund (UIF) looms particularly large just now; it's rated seven lengthy articles in just three months. Clearly the powers that be think the UIF is important—but why, when it's a mere $8 million droplet in a budget expected to top $700 million this biennium?

In fact, the Innovation Fund was designed more to boost the faculty's battered morale than to encourage academic innovation. Washingtonians have seen their U-dub rated among the top 10 universities in America for so long that they take its eminence for granted, forgetting that distinction must be paid for somehow. And so Washington now stands dead last among states in support for higher education, behind Alabama, Guam, and Puerto Rico. After many years of financial attrition, veteran university hands have come to see Washington's voters and politicians as at best indifferent, at worst actively hostile to the U's aspiration to remain among the nation's leading research institutions. The word "innovation" is meant to suggest progress, advancement, and new beginnings, but the University Innovation Fund in fact sprang from pessimism.

The idea was born in 1996, when the U's school and division deans agreed to contribute 1 percent of their program revenues to a university-wide fund to support academic and administrative innovation of all kinds. Dollars, qua dollars, are not the U's main problem. Its overall budget has risen steadily over the years, driven by higher salaries for faculty and staff ,and higher enrollments mandated by the Legislature, to constructing new buildings for whatever discipline is currently fashionably fundable.

What has not risen—what has steadily fallen for more than two decades—is the proportion of the U's operations budget devoted to supporting instruction, and the share of its capital budget that goes to maintaining the crumbling buildings we already have. If anything was going to be done to maintain UW's preeminence, the initiative would have to come from within the university itself.

"Our critics keep telling us the institution needs renewing," says UW vice provost for research Alvin Kwiram. "But how do we get the resources to renew the institution if we're always cutting back? We have to try to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, make some of our own across-the-board cuts to release some dollars to make some of the most urgent changes."

THE U'S NEW PRESIDENT, Richard McCormick, backed the program from the start, and kicked it off with a February 1996 letter outlining its rationale. The first round of awards was announced in June 1997: six for interdisciplinary academic initiatives and two to improve "support services." The range of objectives covered in the eight proposals McCormick and provost Lee Huntsman selected for funding afford much insight into the views and motivations of the program's proponents, and into the political limitations of their freedom of action.

The most loudly promoted initiative was $1 million to create a Center for Nanotechnology, which will coordinate a dozen UW departments' "research and education in nano-scale science and engineering." But this is an institution devoted to the study of a nonexistent or not-yet-existent subject. The "nano-" refers to the quasi-Greek scientific prefix meaning "billionth," as in "nanometer," the approximate diameter of a hydrogen atom. It's not at all clear that the physical and biological realms will have anything useful to say to each other about phenomena on that supersubmicroscopic scale. On the other hand, "nanotechnology" is a hot-sounding term, a sizzle that UW powers-that-be hope will attract a steak in the form of additional public and/or private cash.

Another $700,000 of the UIF went to set up an undergraduate degree program in neurobiology, beginning next winter quarter. "Over 100 students out of 200," opined University Week, "responded in a recent poll that they would be interested in a neurobiology major if it was offered." The collaboration required of neurologists, pharmacologists, anatomists, and psychologists to create the syllabus may do as much to advance the field as the classes themselves.

Other UIF-awarded programs range from the patently valuable—a Harborview Medical Center­based program to sorely needed interdisciplinary approaches to health care—to the more-or-less mandated and politically desirable. Since support services as well as academic programs were docked 1 percent to fund UIF, they were promised that at least a third of the fund would go to improvements, such as a current UIF grant to update the U's archaic and ill-coordinated payroll and personnel systems.

If the UIF was to get off the ground without a vicious internecine fight, the humanities deans had to be brought on board. The result is the squashiest of the current initiatives, $800,000 to "support and foster projects that place the humanities at the center of a larger intellectual and cultural conversation and to encourage institutional renewal that recognizes the force and vitality of ideas." Uh... yes, of course.

IN THEIR ENTHUSIASM for large, flashy interdisciplinary packages, McCormick and his associates completely excluded smaller projects proposed by individual schools or departments from the first round of UIF grants. The anguish was audible even off campus. As a result, the guidelines for the second round of awards, which went out to the deans concerned at the end of April, try to balance realism and multidisciplinary muscle, reserving a third of the $4 million still available for more modest and precisely targeted programs. Already, the flexibility for which the initiatives program was created is, for better or worse, being hemmed in by the institutional realities of the collegial system of governance.

In theory, the UIF plan is intended to run for four more full biennia, through the academic year 2005-06. But unless something changes soon in the state's support for higher education, any hope of maintaining the status quo, let alone innovating beyond it, will be moot.

UW's eminence in research stands squarely and solely upon its teachers' and graduate students' ability to fund their programs from other sources. When these breadwinners begin to depart for greener pastures—and the process is already well under way—there will be no one left to innovate, and a program like the Innovation Fund will be as powerless to revive UW as a dipperful of water on a drought-parched farm.

Related Links:

An assessment of education at UW

University Initiative Fund page

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