Morrill at 150: Creating American Manufacturing Universities

By Robert Atkinson

Editor’s Note: NEJHE devotes special attention in 2012 to the changing roles of land-grant institutions on this 150th anniversary of the Morrill Land-Grant College Act. Here, Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, proposes a new kind of research university …

In the 2000s, American manufacturing suffered its worst decade since at least World War II. One-third of manufacturing jobs disappeared and manufacturing output declined by over 10% as U.S. manufacturing became less competitive internationally. If the U.S. is to regain manufacturing jobs and, with it, overall economic vitality, the federal government will need to focus more on supporting manufacturing innovation. One way to do this is to enlist U.S. research universities.

Toward that end, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) has proposed that the federal government support the designation of a core of approximately 20 leading “manufacturing universities.” As part of this designation, these universities would do several things. First, they would revamp their engineering programs much more around manufacturing engineering and, in particular, work that is more relevant to industry. This would include more joint industry-university research projects; more training of students that incorporates manufacturing experiences through co-ops or other programs; and a Ph.D. education program focused on turning out more Ph.D. engineering grads who would work in industry. These universities would view Ph.D.s as akin to high-level apprenticeships (as they often are in Germany), where one can’t get a Ph.D. unless one has done some work in industry. Likewise, criteria for faculty tenure would consider professors’ work with and/or in industry as much as their number of publications. In addition, their business schools would focus on manufacturing issues, including management of production, and integrate closely with engineering.

One, but not the only model, is the Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts, which re-imagined engineering education and curriculum to prepare students “to become exemplary engineering innovators who recognize needs, design solutions, and engage in creative enterprises for the good of the world.”

As part of this designation, academic institutions would receive an annual award from the National Science Foundation (NSF), ideally at least $25 million a year, plus prioritization of their projects in the awarding of NSF grants. One can imagine a number of leading engineering universities that might embrace this designation.

In 1862, Congress passed the Morrill Act that established land-grant colleges whose mission was to promote learning in agriculture and mechanic arts. These colleges played a key role in enabling the U.S. to later lead in the mechanization of agriculture and the industrialization of the economy. Today, the challenge is even greater as America is competing against a wide array of nations seeking to win the race for global innovation advantage, including in manufacturing. A new cadre of “manufacturing universities” can be part of the solution.

Robert Atkinson is president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.





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