Engineer and education advocate Norman Augustine is next in the Chancellor's speaker series, "The Research University in the World of the Future," and will speak at 4 p.m. April 2 in the Beckman Institute auditorium. A reception will follow in the atrium.
Norman Augustine, an acclaimed engineer and the retired chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin, was just beginning work on his graduate degree at Princeton University in 1957 when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first artificial Earth satellite.
The unexpected launch rattled Americans' post-war confidence and caused concern that the new technology would soon be used by other nations to spy on them or initiate attacks from high above Earth's atmosphere.
The corresponding national response heralded a technological research and development boom at research universities across the nation - funded by the federal government and corporations - that would lead to the moon landing, the computer revolution and, eventually, the Internet.
It also confirmed for Augustine, who had been considering a career as a forest ranger, his pursuit of a career in the burgeoning field of aerospace research.
Fast-forward nearly 60 years and Augustine says the threat of being overshadowed by the rest of the world is greater than ever - and if something isn't done quickly, America's technological pre-eminence will become a historical footnote.
"I've had not inconsiderable involvement in issues of higher education and have become very concerned about America's competitiveness in the new global economy," he said. "We have to take some dramatic steps because what is at stake is nothing less than the American Dream."
But in contrast to the space-race era, the country's toolbox for making those fixes today is in danger of being severely under-stocked.
"Companies used to support research, but today they are expected to produce results next quarter, not next decade," he said.
Meanwhile, the other traditional research funding partners, federal and state governments, have disinvested from secondary and higher education at an alarming rate because of the economic downturn, a corresponding drop in tax receipts and public debate over the role of government and the benefits of education.
"Education investment goes hand in hand with having a strong economy and universities are the key to making the nation more competitive," he said. "We have got to enable the development of an educated citizenry."
Augustine said universities also have to reconfigure themselves to meet the challenges of the 21st century. He said universities have to become more introspective and aware that their ultimate mission is to serve the public good.
"The problem is, universities in this country and elsewhere have changed very little in the last 100 years," he said. "What they teach has changed, but it's still being delivered in basically the same way. We also need to decide what it is we want our universities to have as their priorities."
Change is no longer an option but a requirement, he said, and competition is coming from every direction - from the online-course revolution to rapidly improving university systems overseas. He said the competition stems from students seeking a better education value and from a growing list of alternatives to the traditional university.
"Great universities of the past have been generally defined by a superb faculty and a fine library," he said. "Today you can carry the library in your back pocket and access faculty from around the world from your home. The great universities will survive, but in a different form, and the lesser universities may not be recognizable a few years hence. Online education isn't equivalent yet, but it's becoming more and more equivalent; face-to-face teaching and learning have value, but how great is that value?"
He said higher education's challenge reaches far beyond campus boundaries. For example, secondary education needs to focus more on science, technology, engineering and math if the country is to remain competitive.
"Part of the cost of higher education is that many high school students aren't prepared when they get to our universities," he said.
Eight years ago Augustine chaired a commission studying U.S. competitiveness that issued a report, "Rising Above the Gathering Storm." It recommended significant improvements in K-12 math and science education, more investment in long-term basic research, strategies to attract high-tech students and scientists from around the world, and the creation of programs to create and sustain incentives for innovation and research investment.
In a 2011 article in Forbes magazine, Augustine offered some disturbing statistics about the importance America places on academic excellence:
U.S. consumers spend significantly more on potato chips than the U.S. government devotes to energy research and development.
In 2009, for the first time, more than half of U.S. patents were awarded to non-U.S. companies.
China has replaced the United States as the world's number one high-tech exporter.
Between 1996 and 1999, 157 new drugs were approved in the U.S. Ten years later, despite growing funding, that number had dropped to 74.
The World Economic Forum ranks the U.S. 48th in quality of math and science education.
"Innovation is the key to survival in an increasingly global economy," he concluded in the article. "Today we're living off the investments we made over the past 25 years. We've been eating our seed corn. And we're seeing an accelerating erosion of our ability to compete. Charles Darwin is said to have observed that it is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but rather the one most adaptable to change."