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by Richard B. Brown

Way To Grow

Utah shows what can happen when universities, government, and the private sector pull together.

While running for his third term in 2000, then Utah Gov. Michael O. Leavitt spoke with John Warnock, co-founder and chairman of Adobe Software and a University of Utah alumnus, about how to create more high-paying jobs in the state. If you want to build a high-tech economy, Warnock told him, you'd better invest in engineering education. Leavitt, who went on to head the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Health and Human Services, took the advice. He challenged the higher education community in Utah to double and then triple the number of engineering and computer science graduates.

Thus began Utah's Engineering Initiative, a nine-year expansion that shows what can happen when government, the private sector, and colleges and universities work together. As the state legislature directed money annually to support engineering education, a Technology Initiative Advisory Board from industry oversaw progress and recommended how funds should be apportioned among the state system's nine engineering and pre-engineering programs. Universities were required to demonstrate the same commitment to engineering education by matching the new state funds dollar for dollar.

At the University of Utah College of Engineering, the state support has brought a 46 percent increase in faculty, new and renovated buildings, and expanded and improved laboratories. Private donors took up the challenge, funding scholarships and new buildings: the John and Marva Warnock Engineering Building; the Floyd and Jeri Meldrum Civil and Environmental Engineering Building; and the $130 million James L. Sorenson Molecular Biotechnology USTAR Building now under construction. The number of donors to the college has grown by 37 percent,and the dollar value of donations has nearly tripled.

Investment in engineering education has paid off

In 2006, with strong backing from the chamber of commerce and then Gov. Jon Huntsman, now ambassador to China, the state legislature established the Utah Science, Technology, and Research Initiative. Aimed at strengthening the economy, USTAR provides salaries and start-up packages for star senior and mid-career faculty members whose research is marketable. The college of engineering, part of 10 USTAR "clusters," has hired 18 USTAR faculty members and gained improved equipment.

These initiatives have been accompanied by strong outreach. Backed by $2 million from the National Science Foundation, students, faculty, staff, and alumni met face to face last year with more than 33,000 K-12 students.

The number of engineering degrees granted from the University of Utah is up 76 percent over the past decade, and about 80 percent of B.S. recipients take engineering jobs in Utah. As these numbers have grown, so has student quality, as shown by all metrics. The U of U has the nation's second-highest percentage of domestic graduate students, according to ASEE. Engineering research expenditures have grown over seven years from $25 million to $57 million. The number of patent disclosures from the college has grown steadily. The college of engineering has spun off 35 companies in the past three years. The university as a whole tied with MIT last year for the most spin-off companies.

The increase in engineering graduates statewide has been an important contributor to a doubling - to more than 5,500 - in the number of Utah high-tech and bio-tech companies in the past eight years. Now seen as having the most dynamic economy in the nation, Utah ranks in the top five states for a pro-business climate. Microsoft has just opened a development group here. IM Flash Technologies (an Intel-Micron joint venture) started production of NAND FLASH memory two years ago and recently started shipping its 8GB 25-nanometer parts. L-3 Communications claims to have hired an engineer per day for the past five years. Fusion IO, identified by the Wall Street Journal as the second-hottest new company in the United States, is located in Salt Lake City.

The government's investment has paid for itself several times over. The strength of an economy is determined by many factors, but one of them is having a workforce educated in disciplines that create jobs and products. I encourage my colleagues throughout the country to make the economic case for engineering education to their government representatives. Producing more well-educated engineers will be good for your local economy and good for the United States.

Richard B. Brown is dean of the college of engineering at the University of Utah.




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