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by Beryl Lieff Benderly

Outside the Ivory Tower

A corporate chief examines U.S. research universities.


Chad Holliday says an improved system can help recharge the economy.When the National Academies got a request from Congress for a serious look at the state of America’s research universities, they might have turned to an academic to lead it. Instead, they tapped a professional engineer – a former high school football captain who became a captain of industry and banking.

Charles O. Holliday’s problem-solving and leadership skills may well be essential to achieving a consensus among the distinguished but diverse Academies panel. Its 22 members include leaders from public and private universities, scientists, engineers and economists, corporate heads, a high-level Clinton administration appointee, and former Senate Republican leader Bill Frist. The question posed by Congress is a difficult one: What is needed to “maintain the excellence in research and doctoral education...to help the United States compete, prosper, and achieve national goals for health, energy, the environment, and security in the global community of the 21st century”? The answer is bound up with how universities are run; the competition for federal research dollars; the financial plight of many public and land-grant institutions; and the tension between long-term basic research, which can yield transformative breakthroughs, and applied research, which can have a quicker economic impact.

Innovation, international competitiveness, and the environment are long-standing interests for “Chad” Holliday, formerly president, CEO, and board chairman of DuPont and now chairman of the board of Bank of America. A member of the National Academy of Engineering, he served on the Academies committee that produced the highly influential 2005 report Rising Above the Gathering Storm and also chaired the Council on Competitiveness, a nonpartisan national organization of business, university, and labor leaders. Currently, he also serves on the National Research Council Committee on America’s Climate Choices.

The Nashville native started with DuPont as a summer intern, joining the firm’s Old Hickory plastics plant in 1970 as a full-time engineer after finishing his bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering at the University of Tennessee. After moving into business analysis, management, and marketing of fibers and pigments, Holliday headed to Japan in 1990 as head of DuPont’s Asia Pacific division. While helping to double the firm’s Asian business in eight years, he made a point of learning how American and Asian methods and approaches differ. “How do other countries see our system?” asks Holliday. “So often, if you can take somebody from outside a system to look into it, you can see things that we can’t see because we’re so much a part of it.”

Named president and CEO in 1999 and chairman soon afterward, Holliday followed a strategy of shifting DuPont’s focus from fibers and other petroleum-based products to science-based products in such fields as biotechnology. He simultaneously aimed to reduce both DuPont’s environmental impact and its dependence on fossil fuels in favor of sustainable materials. Before retiring in 2008, he also formed a number of new university alliances for DuPont, including one with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology aimed at identifying promising new technologies that could become business opportunities.
Holliday considers the nation’s great academic research institutions to be “absolutely critical to the future of our country. “He points out that “there’s almost been no major breakthrough [in] technology that at least one research university hasn’t touched…in some important way.” The academic research model “has been very successful, so it seems very logical to me that we build on those strengths,” he adds.

Yet even a system with so stellar a record of achievement as America’s research universities can be made to work better, he says. Because labs are part of a larger system of innovation reaching beyond the campus, the committee can be expected to look at how “research actually get[s] applied to help the nation.” Improvement of the research university system “can be part of how we recharge the U.S. economy,” says Holliday.

Beryl Lieff Benderly is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.

 

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