Part 2 – Response to John William Pope Center Commentary

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Thank you for acknowledging my earlier response to Mr. Saffron’s article on ‘universities as economic saviors.’ As with his ‘factoids’ (statements repeated often enough that people come to believe they really are factual) about the attractiveness of Greenville and the growth of its surrounding region, Saffron’s argument about the proper role of universities and the performance of millennial campuses is filled with hyperbole, carefully carved content, and misplaced arguments.

July 8, 2015

Ms. Jenna Robinson, President
The John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy
353 E. Six Forks Road
Suite 200
Raleigh, NC 27609

Re: Part 2: Rebuttal of Saffron article “Universities Are Not Economic Saviors, So Let’s Stop Pretending That They Are” – June 29, 2015

Dear Ms. Robinson,

Thank you for acknowledging my earlier response to Mr. Saffron’s article on ‘universities as economic saviors.’  As with his ‘factoids’ (statements repeated often enough that people come to believe they really are factual) about the attractiveness of Greenville and the growth of its surrounding region, Saffron’s argument about the proper role of universities and the performance of millennial campuses is filled with hyperbole, carefully carved content, and misplaced arguments. 

First, I don’t recall anyone ever stating an expectation that universities should be ‘economic saviors,’ however they should be expected to engage in partnerships and assist in supporting economic growth.  Major universities in North Carolina have been doing exactly that since the late ‘50s in the formation of Research Triangle Park (that ‘notable exception’ to otherwise failed attempts), the creation of Research Triangle Institute (now RTI International) and the Triangle Universities Computation Center (TUCC).  RTP was developed because Triangle universities were losing their best and brightest graduates to other states, a bit like what Greenville is still experiencing with ECU graduates today, but not at the same rate as two decades ago.  And why go outside the state to cite failed examples of research and innovation parks when there are examples of successful, albeit very different, parks in our state? One is NCSU’s Centennial Campus and the other is Wake Forest University’s Innovation Quarter in downtown Winston-Salem (a collection of vacant industrial buildings at the beginning).  Success didn’t come overnight for RTP or these other parks so we cannot expect things to be any different at ECU.  Universities in NC do have some of the better track records in developing a research campus.  Perhaps this is partly attributable to a more favorable business climate, state tax policies that encouraged corporate R&D spending and individuals investing in start-ups, state investments in capacity-building entities like the NC Biotechnology Center, private not-for-profit organizations such as the Council for Entrepreneurial Development (CED) and excellent partnerships between governments, businesses, and universities.

Second, Saffron states that successful innovation and commercialization doesn’t just happen by university or government fiat, choosing to quote Shalin “High-tech clusters are difficult if not impossible to create by government policies alone, tending to occur somewhat naturally because of favorable conditions in a particular area.” But then he rolls on to criticize the effort at ECU because ‘partnerships with Patheon, Metrics, the advanced manufacturing company Hospira, and IBM’ existed before the millennial status was approved.  This is only one incredible example of doublespeak in his ‘treatise’ on higher education policy regarding the formation of millennial campuses.

Finally, does Saffron know anything about the research and commercialization activity that has already taken place at ECU, a Research II university under the Carnegie classification system?  Seems he is a bit like the fellow that arrived from Houston to speak at a technology conference in the Triangle lamenting North Carolina did not play any role in the development of the daVinci surgical robot, only to find out later the state actually played a major role.  It was Dr. Randolph Chitwood and his team (which included homegrown talent from eastern NC) at ECU Brody School of Medicine who were at the forefront of developing the daVinci for use in minimally invasive mitral valve heart surgery.  Dr. Chitwood holds numerous patents associated with improved performance of the robot and now, nearly every doctor in the world comes to Greenville to receive training on the daVinci robot for this surgical procedure (yes, even those at Harvard and Johns Hopkins) [After distributing this letter, it was brought to my attention that I misstated a couple facts – Dr. Chitwood did all of the FDA trials that led to FDA approval for using the daVinci robot for cardiac surgery in the US and, with Dr. Nifong, helped in developing a number of instruments for daVinci, however, Intuitive Surgical holds those patents.]. A team of engineers from the California company that designed and manufactured the robot has effectively set up residency in Greenville to work with the ECU team.  One of the leading gastric bypass surgical techniques (the ‘Greenville Bypass) was also developed at ECU By Dr. Walter Pories and his team.  They also discovered that over 90% of diabetic patients that had this surgical procedure were also cured of diabetes (now validated by surgical teams in Canada and Europe).  These research activities could be considered ‘mission creep’ unless you consider improved health care delivery to eastern NC residents who have among the highest incident rates of heart disease and obesity/diabetes (one of the three explicitly stated reasons for the creation of Brody). ECU has also been ranked as having the second most efficient technology transfer program in NC, measured by the ratio of research dollars translated into patents.  ECU has had several spin-outs as well: including Janus Development, EpiGenisis, Entegrion, and Reading Comprehensive Solutions; some have stayed and succeeded, others migrated elsewhere and failed, while others are a bit better than ‘zombies’ and still breaking new ground.  ECU faculty/staff have also provided considerable assistance to other tech start-ups such as Shure Foods, Kerdea and others.

We do not know the future of the ECU millennial campuses, but we know the result if we do not try; very little will change.  Success requires vision, action, effort, commitment and teamwork and I believe we have all of those characteristics in eastern North Carolina.  We have to because of people that would rather denigrate our region, our universities, and our communities.  Mr. Saffron makes it difficult for us to succeed because some readers will actually believe these factoids.

So, please ask your writers to do the requisite work to check facts before writing the next higher education policy statement.  It would serve our state well if you would do so.

Sincerely,
John D Chaffee's Signature.jpg
John D. Chaffee
President & CEO