Universities Offer International Resources to Help Economy at Home

November 15, 2009

Universities, with their global reach and increasingly international missions, can use their overseas connections and expertise to improve their state and local economies.

That was the argument made by speakers at a panel discussion Sunday on global partnerships and economic development, one of the sessions held on the first day of the annual meeting here of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, formerly the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges.

In Wisconsin, the president of the state-university system, Kevin P. Reilly, recently appointed a group of educators, business leaders, and economic-development officials to explore how academic know-how could be used to help attract overseas investment to Wisconsin and expand the state's presence in global markets.

"In a truly global economy, we need to build bridges between our international efforts and our economic-development efforts," said Gilles Bousquet, one of the Wisconsin commission's co-chairmen and a speaker at Sunday's session. "International work and economic development," continued Mr. Bousquet, who is dean of international studies at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, "are intrinsically linked."

The session also included presentations from officials at Michigan State and Portland State Universities and the University at Buffalo. All spoke of initiatives on their campuses that would marry the global to the local.

Wisconsin's university system brings strengths to the table: academic and research partnerships with universities overseas, a worldwide alumni network, and faculty expertise. The Madison campus alone teaches some 65 foreign languages, noted Tom Still, president of the Wisconsin Technology Council and a commission member.

Mutual Advantages

But state universities also could benefit by playing a part in the growing internationalization of Wisconsin's economy, said David J. Ward, chief executive of NorthStar Economics, an economic consulting firm, and Mr. Bousquet's co-chairman. If successful, the commission's efforts could provide faculty members with real-world research possibilities and engage those on the campus—such as experts in culture or language—who typically do not have a role in economic-development work. Through internships, students could gain skills to help them succeed in a global economy.

"Those opportunities may, in fact, outweigh the economic benefits," Mr. Ward, a former senior vice president for academic affairs for the university system, said in an interview.

The idea for the panel originated in a chance conversation this year between Mr. Bousquet and Mr. Ward, who was then serving as interim chancellor of the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay. Both men were intrigued by the news that an Italian company, Fincantieri, had purchased three shipyards in northeastern Wisconsin, near Green Bay. Did the university system have resources, they wondered, that would assist the company and perhaps encourage it to expand beyond its initial $100-million investment in the state?

Tapping Expertise

The Fincantieri case will be a pilot project for the commission. Already, they have made connections: The Madison campus has experts in Italian culture, who can help smooth over differences in business customs, as well as in engine research. The company is in talks to become a tenant in a university-owned research park and may encourage some of its suppliers to relocate to Wisconsin. And the state's technical-college system, whose president is a commission member, could provide critical work-force training through its center of excellence in shipbuilding.

The group is examining where else university strengths might dovetail with economic opportunities. One possibility is in water-related technologies. The University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee has research expertise that could benefit private companies nearby that want to expand into international markets, like China and Israel, or international businesses that hope to open offices in Wisconsin, Mr. Bousquet said. Other universities across the system may have overseas relationships that could aid those efforts.

Other roles for the university could include providing continuing education and executive training, fostering business connections with alumni in key industries or countries, and preparing globally competent graduates to work in critical fields.

Both Mr. Ward and Mr. Bousquet emphasize that the commission, which is expected to last two years, will not try to cover every industrial sector or region of the world. Instead, they say, the panel can be most helpful by creating a "targeted inventory" of university resources and by talking up the relevance of global connections to economic development. "It will be somewhat imperfect," Mr. Ward said.

Mr. Reilly, the university-system president, said such work was crucial, for the university and the state.

"We all talk all the time about being in a global knowledge economy," Mr. Reilly said in an interview. "If we're not thinking of the university in this way, we're probably missing out at the UW, and the state is probably missing out."

The university, he said, "really is a competitive advantage that Wisconsin has."