Innovation and its spirit are what drew me to Dayton

Eric F. Spina, Ph.D., became the 19th president of the University of Dayton on July 1. An aerospace engineer by training, he served Syracuse University for 28 years, including nine years as vice chancellor and provost.

When a search firm called me last year about applying for the University of Dayton’s presidency, I immediately clicked on the university’s website to learn more.

What I discovered amazed me: GE Aviation had recently built a $53 million R&D lab on campus, Midmark Corp. moved its world headquarters here, and construction workers were putting the finishing touches on Emerson’s new $35 million global R&D lab, the Helix Innovation Center.

This was not the narrative I expected at a Catholic, Marianist university located in the heart of the Rust Belt. On land that once housed NCR’s manufacturing facilities and corporate headquarters — not far from where the Wright brothers’ innovation helped bring forth the American century — high-tech companies and a private research university are reimagining and shaping the future with support from the broader Dayton community and the state of Ohio.

In laboratories and offices located literally in our front yard, University of Dayton faculty, researchers and students are working side by side with these forward-thinking companies and building on our long-time partnership with the Air Force Research Lab (AFRL) to advance technology in areas such as next-generation, fault-tolerant electrical systems for aircraft and sensors to control microclimates in homes, grocery stores and restaurants.

Building on this momentum, start-up Krush Technologies recently located its headquarters on campus and hired 60 people for its “innovation factory,” working on cutting-edge ideas like virtual and augmented reality, and artificial and emotional intelligence.

You can find business incubators on other college campuses, and it’s not unusual for research parks to locate near research universities. For instance, Atlanta’s Tech Square boasts the corporate research centers of a dozen Fortune 500 companies that located there to be near Georgia Tech for joint research and commercialization opportunities.

But in Dayton, I discovered a different mindset and far deeper engagement, one that could be a national model for collaboration and innovation. We’re not the first — the Research Park at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is home to more than 100 technology-based businesses — but the model is rare in higher education.

In this approach, high-tech companies locate R&D facilities on a college campus to take advantage of the brainpower and creativity of faculty, researchers and students.

Benefits flow the other way, too. Partner companies add value to the education of students by supporting classroom education through adjunct teaching, collaborative curricula development and guest lectures. Students have increased opportunities for experiential learning through internships, co-ops and capstone projects in areas ranging from engineering to communication to business, giving them an advantage in the job market by demonstrating they have the job-ready experience and skills employers are seeking.

This model allows industry partners to introduce a stream of young, bright talent to their companies and the exciting, world-changing careers they offer. Our partners tell us the recruitment advantage they have gained has surpassed all of their expectations.

We need new models, especially today, and we can’t turn inward.

Historically, the higher education, aerospace and software sectors have been deeply committed to local and global engagement, realizing competition keeps us on our toes and drives innovation. I believe it is one reason these American industries remain the benchmarks against which others around the world measure themselves.

I join with leaders across higher education to call for greater — not less — collaboration and cooperation with global companies because we learn from them and they challenge us to be best in the world. Today, higher education institutions must work in innovative ways to educate our students for new jobs in areas where R&D and advanced manufacturing are central, preparing graduates to excel in the global workplace and drive growth and economic transformation.

Earlier this summer, those messages came home in full force at a town hall meeting on our campus about global competitiveness convened by General Electric. Jeff Immelt, CEO of GE, and Ohio Sen. Rob Portman moderated a panel, “Global Competitiveness and Manufacturing Innovation,” that included me, leaders of our corporate partners and C. Douglas Ebersole, executive director of AFRL.

While realistic about the challenges, these leaders are optimistic about the future. They want to support faculty as they innovate in the classroom and engage in discovery and problem solving. They want the creativity and can-do spirit college graduates bring to their enterprises. They understand that American workers must be agile, continually reinvent themselves and work across borders to be successful in an interconnected world.

University students today across all disciplines want to be innovators. It’s part of their DNA. They want to change the world and think they can. So do I.

Whether it’s an ivy-covered campus building or a CEO’s corner office, it’s our job to leave the Ivory Tower and find ways to help today’s students realize their dreams and build the nation’s future. In Dayton, Ohio, we are doing just that.