Mar 6th, 2006 @ 10:41 am | Author: By Ellen-Earle Chaffee
As you may know, Valley City State University is in the process of seeking $1 million in state Center of Excellence (COE) funds to establish an Institute for Customized Business Solutions. The Institute would enable us to expand customized curriculum services to match the needs of private enterprise. The legislature's Budget Section will make the final decision on our proposal this week.

COE is a new $20 million state program to partner higher education with the private sector to proactively build the state's economy through new ideas. In the first round of awards, UND, NDSU, Lake Region State College and Bismarck State College received funding. In this round UND, NDSU, VCSU, and Williston State College have been recommended for funding.

Twenty million dollars is a lot of money by any measure, and devoting such a sum to a new, untested program was quite a leap of faith by our governor and legislature. They recognized, as many current leaders do, that the essential fuel for growth in these times is innovation. This is the kind of thinking that can create a very positive future.

COE has strong safeguards and accountability measures. The approval process requires favorable votes by five different groups. Centers must demonstrate significant measurable results in a short time.

Legislators wanted any campus to be eligible for a Center, but the original concept was that Centers would fuel the transfer of new technologies from the laboratory to the marketplace. New technologies come from the kind of activity that takes place at research universities. Comprehensive universities and community colleges do not have that kind of mission.

This dilemma has not yet been resolved – that every campus could have a Center, but only two campuses have the mission and resources to play the expected roles. So projects from campuses other than UND and NDSU tend to be controversial, and the votes tend to be split.

All of the other campus proposals represent challenging, promising, and innovative ways to achieve the goals of the COE program. I would have tried to fund them all. Collectively they lead to an astounding vision of North Dakota in 2015.I feel extremely fortunate that we are one of only four non-research institutions to have been recommended for funding.

I hope that the COE vision of innovation-based economic development will be stronger and broader in the next legislative session. Research is a necessary but not sufficient condition for economic growth. All parties throughout the process need to be creative critical thinkers who can start something from scratch or see how to modify what already exists.

Often, innovation means not just new products but also whole new jobs and careers. This is a knowledge economy, full force. It runs on intellectual capital. All North Dakota colleges and universities produce intellectual capital, and the Centers program will help make sure that it is the right kind in the right place at the right time. We could be the talent capital of the world.