The Faux Field of Dreams: If You Build A University Research Park, They May Not Come

Editor’s note: In June, the Pope Center’s senior writer, Jesse Saffron, wrote an article entitled Universities Are Not Economic Saviors, So Let’s Stop Pretending That They Are.” The University of North Carolina system’s Board of Governors had just approved the creation of a 328-acre “Millennial” research park at East Carolina University; Saffron questioned whether ECU is the right institution and whether the surrounding Greenville area provides the right economic environment for such a park.

Saffron received a firestorm of criticism from many involved with the Greenville project, who argued that he does not understand the Greenville environment or the nature of economic development. He was also invited to speak before the UNC system’s Economic Transformation Council on July 23, 2015. The following is a transcript of his speech:

My article about research commercialization parks and East Carolina University’s recently approved millennial campus—distributed to you prior to this meeting—has generated plenty of controversy, to say the least. 

Apparently, some people were upset that I challenged the conventional wisdom that such public-private research hubs are a sure ticket to prosperity, and that the Greenville region is a logical place to build one. 

But one of the major points that I tried to make is, in my view, uncontroversial and grounded in common sense. Namely, North Carolina’s higher education officials and elected leaders should exercise more caution when it comes to public-private partnerships within the university system. 

Healthy skepticism is important because the fact that the millennial campus concept has worked at one university does not necessarily mean it will work at another. 

Instead of assuming that building a new research commercialization park will revitalize an economically depressed region, it’s best to first explore the socioeconomic complexities of that region and then be willing to honestly assess whether the project is viable or necessary. 

I raise this point in the spirit that due diligence and prudence in this regard will benefit the UNC system, as well as the taxpaying public, down the road. 

The reality is that success or failure of a project depends on numerous and often interdependent factors, such as the local business climate, population and demographics, the level of human capital in the region, the university’s research infrastructure, and so forth. 

When we look at successful research parks—which, by the way, are the exception, not the rule—we see that in most instances those conditions were favorable before the parks were created

NC State’s Centennial Campus provides a case in point. 

Centennial has been heralded as an engine of economic growth. But that is extremely difficult to prove directly. It’s equally possible that, rather than creating development, the research park has ridden the crest of a developmental wave in the Triangle that’s been ongoing for many years. 

However, if we assume that Centennial is responsible for some development, we need to recognize its uniquely fortunate situation. NC State is a world-renowned Tier 1 university; it’s part of Research Triangle Park and a vibrant metropolitan area with a thriving economy; and talented scientists and engineers flock to the area to put their advanced knowledge to use. 

Those factors existed before Centennial came along. From the 1960s to the tech boom of the 1990s, RTP, and the entire Triangle region, was on the rise and was becoming a top destination for skilled workers and firms seeking to relocate. The Raleigh area would likely have continued to develop, with or without Centennial Campus. 

This raises another important issue: even if similarly favorable conditions exist near a university seeking a millennial campus—and that’s not the case at very many schools—there is no guarantee that things will turn out positively. History shows that luck or geographical accident have been as significant in helping to launch commercialization hubs as some of the socioeconomic factors I’ve mentioned. 

These assertions, by the way, are not based on conjecture. They’re backed up by academic studies and empirical evidence that show no causal link between a university’s “entrepreneurial” activity and local economic development. Examples of failed research campuses include Innovista at the University of South Carolina, UT-San Antonio’s Texas Research Park, and the Maryland Science and Technology Center in Bowie, Maryland. 

Officials in those cases promised thousands of jobs and economic stimulation. Instead, the projects failed to grow their local economies. Hundreds of millions of dollars were wasted on what ultimately turned out to be glorified office space. 

“Economic development” seems to be the mantra for many state leaders in North Carolina and other parts of the country. But as Marc V. Levine concluded in his 2009 study titled The False Promise of the Entrepreneurial University (also referenced in my article): 

Local economic development is a public policy field with a checkered history, prone to fad chasing and a “herd mentality” among decision-makers and often dominated by powerful business interests… In many ways, the entrepreneurial university is the “next new thing” in [a] long line of oversold economic development fixes. 

Perhaps, before committing money and university resources to millennial campuses, we should reconsider a more proven way for regional universities to enhance economic outcomes. And that is to provide a quality educational experience that increases citizens’ human capital, thereby producing positive “spillover effects” in the local area. 

Remember, our universities are educational institutions first and foremost. The UNC system should be wary of assuming the responsibility for developing the state’s economy, a job for which it was not designed to do.

Thank you very much.