Higher education panel members discuss working together to fix regional economy

Jackie Valley

Members of a higher education study commission agree a “silver bullet” to heal Northeast Ohio’s economy does not exist, but increasing the number of citizens with advanced degrees is the first step.

Area business leaders and presidents of the five public universities involved in the Northeast Ohio Universities Collaboration and Innovation Study Commission held a panel discussion in Brecksville yesterday to discuss the commission’s 18 recommendations with that goal in mind.

To do so, the recommendations encourage collaborations among the region’s five public universities: Kent State, University of Akron, Cleveland State, Youngstown State and NEOUCOM.

Brad Whitehead, commission member and president of the Fund for Our Economic Future, said 60 percent of the new jobs created in Northeast Ohio require advanced degrees, yet less than 25 percent of the region’s citizens have advanced degrees.

Theodore Boyd, chair of the study commission and chairman of FirstCommunications, said the collaborations among the five public universities, which have a collective $1.27 billion operating budget, will improve the region’s economic health.

“Regionalism in Northeast Ohio has not been an easy event to engender,” he said. “Now, it’s the only way anyone can think about how we can improve our future.”

One of the recommendations calls for administrative collaborations, such as a shared data center and procurement platform, to improve service and reduce expense.

President Lester Lefton said using the same purchasing system would save $25 million – a 10 percent reduction of the $250 million the five universities collectively spend each year.

“There’s very serious money involved here,” he said. “It’s just a matter of implementing it.”

President David Sweet of Youngstown State said another recommendation – the creation of a community college in the Mahoning Valley – is crucial to increase levels of educational attainment.

Sweet emphasized the need for a community college by comparing the University of Dayton and Sinclair Community College’s combined student population of about 40,000 in the Dayton area to the Mahoning Valley’s 17,000 students enrolled in Youngstown State and three of Kent State’s regional campuses.

Although the study commission’s report does not recommend moving the location of NEOUCOM, it does suggest that Cleveland State be added to its six-year B.S./M.D. program.

Michael Schwartz, president of Cleveland State, said Cleveland State’s inclusion in NEOUCOM’s medical program also stands the benefit the region’s economy.

“This could be a boom to the region and our local economy, which is based so heavily in biosciences,” he said.

In addition, Schwartz also advocated the recommendation to form a single, combined computer science program with electrical engineering to benefit the region, saying the regional effort could become “as large or larger than MIT.”

Although Boyd said the report is simply a list of recommendations, he said those recommendations serve as agreements between the universities that the presidents plan to follow.

“I think the process will flow into the presidents’ annual report to the Chancellor,” he said. “How the presidents organize the reporting process will be up to them, but the expectation is that they’ll do it.”

Contact administration reporter Jackie Valley at [email protected].