Science Foundation Arizona leader challenges universities to regain respect for education

Bill Harris
Bill Harris
During the first of this year’s President’s Speaker Series, Science Foundation Arizona leader Bill Harris urged the NAU campus to remain dedicated to meeting research goals. Photos by Amanda Voisard

The president and CEO of Science Foundation Arizona threw down the gauntlet Tuesday, challenging universities to reestablish a high level of respect for education and warning of a nationwide complacency that has allowed China, India and European nations to take the lead in the sciences and engineering.

“The political system has gotten off the tracks in Arizona and the country,” said Bill Harris, a former chemistry professor turned outspoken advocate for education and university-led research. “We are getting what we deserve by our level of participation.”

Harris spoke before about 100 people in Ashurst Auditorium, the first guest in the 2009-10 President’s Speakers Series.

“We need to raise the bar of participation in democracy and make a stronger connection with leadership,” he said. He also called for reestablishing a “culture of education.”

Harris was referring to a lack of government commitment to education both in Arizona and nationwide. Earlier this year the state Legislature eliminated funding for Science Foundation Arizona, spurring a lawsuit against the state.

Prior to joining Science Foundation Arizona, Harris served for five years as director general of Science Foundation Ireland. Before his position in Ireland, he was vice president for research and professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of South Carolina.

MJ McMahon, NAU executive vice president, and Al White, a Flagstaff City Council member, listen to speaker Bill Harris, who says the United States is the not the prominent leader in research that it once was.

He contrasted America’s educational commitment to Ireland’s, where Irish leaders were critical of what they perceived as “inefficiency” and “flip-flopping” in the United States, depending on who was in power.

“Our problem is we, as a nation, don’t like to study other places,” Harris said. “I’m concerned we’re fooling ourselves into thinking we do things uniquely. We sit back and say we can innovate our way out of problems.”

He blamed the nation’s current educational troubles on a post-World War II America, when Americans were setting high standards for education and research, both private and public. “But we had no competition, and we coasted.”

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the development of the Internet in the 1990s changed the world rapidly and “most people didn’t realize it,” he said.

“We have become complacent that our universities are the best in the world and no one can compete with us,” he said. “But the universities of the world are moving aggressively, and you may be afraid to face the fact that the new normal is not what you grew up with.”

An attentive crowd of about 100 people watched in Ashurst Auditorium.

He encouraged higher education officials to raise the bar for university admission, creating an expectation of higher standards in the K-12 system, which would lead to better teachers and better universities. “We have a broken supply chain in K-12,” he said. “We need to raise the standards.”

Harris did cite four current research endeavors in Arizona that demonstrate what could be highly successful public-private partnerships among the state’s universities.

  • Generating wind power, led by NAU professor Tom Acker
  • Developing low-cost solar power, which could lead to what Harris called “the Microsoft of solar energy”
  • Creating fuels from algae, which already has sparked interest from the military and private airlines
  • Increasing mining efficiency, which would lead to much-needed copper for computers and other engineering

He urged university professors and leadership to continue to pursue excellence and student achievement. “I encourage you to control your own destiny,” he said. “Do not allow the craziness of politics to shape you.”

Three more speakers are planned for the 2009-10 President’s Speakers Series. Anthony Cortese, president of Second Nature, is scheduled to speak Nov. 3. Two additional speakers will be scheduled to round out the series in the spring