EYE ON THE PIE: Unsolicited advice for IU's next president

March 12, 2007

Congratulations, Dr. McRobbie, on being selected as Indiana University's next president.

I've read that you are committed to helping IU become more active in the state's economic development. I've heard that from every IU president since I arrived in 1970. To be successful, it will take major changes.

It is not sufficient to appoint a committee of administrators who then request each part of the university to submit a list of its "economic development activities" for ultimate inclusion in a three-ring binder. Economic development is not advanced by appointing an unqualified faculty member or administrator to reign as czar over an empty realm. Nor will it aid the cause to require some economic development clause in each department's mission statement.

If IU is to become an integral part of and a leader in Indiana's economic development, the commitment must be deeper. Foremost, the faculty must be involved. This is not a case of trying to get faculty in the life sciences to develop patentable products in emulation of Purdue University. IU is an institution where intellect is still valued and, in some areas, still active.

Thus, IU should be the world's foremost academic institution on economic development. Our anthropologists and sociologists must be renowned for their studies of the process of change and the resistance to change.

Some history, literature and philosophy courses could focus on economic and social change as a theme. Undoubtedly, political science professors think they have something to contribute to the subject. In particular, the economics department and business program on each campus have major roles to play in this effort.

The School of Education, a fallow field, should be a major factor in improving the performance of the state's education programs. But, without useful input from our sociologists and anthropologists, I do not see how this can happen. The Kelley School of Business should be the primary source of assistance to existing and newly formed Hoosier firms. The School of Public and Environmental Affairs has a critical role to play in developing public-sector leadership and monitoring environmental issues.

None of this works unless those recruited to the faculty have a proclivity and a preference for such involvement. Faculty must be recognized and rewarded for their economic development efforts, even if these do not result in high-octane journal articles. Thus, existing promotion and tenure policies must be revamped.

IU in the past few years has jumped on the life sciences/biotech bandwagon. It fits with IU's strengths. It fits with the strengths of certain business interests in the state. But is this bandwagon consistent with Indiana's reality today and tomorrow's potential? Here the university must be ready to offer alternatives, based on innovative research, careful analysis and diverse thought that might prove unpopular.

Therein lies the greatest weakness of IU over the past few decades. We have had no stomach to tell truth to the powerful. Our vision has been compromised by the university's fawning obeisance to the governor-of-the-moment and the powerful in the General Assembly. When the president's office does not command the respect of the faculty, and service to the state is unrewarded, faculty members turn to more personal goals.

Finally, the state's economic wellbeing requires earnest and full support from the IU president for each campus. The vision of IU statewide must be robust and funding of regional programs needs to be aggressive. It is time to make the regional campuses full partners in the university or cut them loose from the mother campus's apron strings.

IU presidents have wandered Indiana long enough bemoaning the relative decline of state support. Perhaps if we did more for the state, our efforts would be rewarded.

My best wishes, Dr. McRobbie, for your sanity, the progress of Indiana and the glory of old IU.

Marcus taught economics for more than 30 years at Indiana University and is the former director of IU's Business Research Center. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, send e-mail to mortonjmarcus@yahoo.com.
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