American higher ed doubles down on polytechnic renaissance

Higher ed is still surfing the polytechnic revival wave at engineering schools, colleges, and universities across the nation.
By: | Issue: October, 2015
October 2, 2015

Several years ago we shared with University Business readership our prognostications on contemporary polytechnic institutions popping up across the U.S. In relatively short time, higher ed is still surfing the Polytechnic Revival wave at engineering schools, colleges, and universities across the Nation.

The common heritage of Classic Polytechnics extends back to the 1745 founding of the Technische Universität Braunschweig in Germany; the establishment in 1794 of the École Polytechnique in France; and the first American polytechnic, Rensselaer, chartered in 1824.

By definition, Polytechnics specialize in the applied learning fields of engineering, science, and technology. Over time, Polytechnics proliferated in step with the rapid industrialization of the 19th Century, and the science and technology revolutions of the 20th and 21st Centuries – creating a well-educated workforce – propelling new product knowledge, development, and discovery.

Today, American Polytechnics are among the most elite schools in the world. By way of illustrative example, just consider California Polytechnic State University for its Industrial Engineering program; Colorado School of Mines’ Natural Resource Management; Massachusetts Institute of Technology for its focus on Entrepreneurial aspects of Engineering; New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology in Hydrology; University of Wisconsin Stout in Packaging Sciences; Florida Polytechnic for its research on Phosphates and the role they play in the environment and in public health; Purdue University’s Polytechnic Institute for its focus on robotics; and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute for its Nuclear Engineering program.

In their seminal work entitled ‘Blue Ocean Strategy’, authors W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne teach us that marketplaces in every industry are chock full of craven competition, turning blue waters red. Blue Oceans teaches corporations, NGO’s, and non-profit organizations to find clear, distinctive niches in empty blue oceans where they can carve out their distinctive niche – without fear of predatory competition in the food chain.

In a bold and decisive move, The University of Akron (Ohio) transformed into a more focused, attractive, and competitive polytechnic institution in response to the emergent demand for a highly skilled smartcollar workforce. Remarkably, Akron has connected the dots between engineering, science, and technology with design, art, and the humanities.

In a speech given to the Mandel Forum at the City Club of Cleveland, University of Akron President Scott Scarborough suggested that Akron does not want to be “perceived as a generic public university, with limited reach, no clear identity, struggling to survive and likely to fail.” Instead, Scarborough wants Akron’s new Polytechnic path to be “Distinctive. Better. Different.” so that the University “survives and thrives in the future of higher education”. ““Polytechnic” describes both [Akron’s] historical strengths and [Akron’s] path forward: career-focused, experiential, technology-infused, connected to business and industry, applying to both sciences and the arts.”

This forward looking Polytechnic vision at Akron has already generated a new Center for Data Science and Information Technology, led by a former Microsoft executive and Akron alumnus, in service to the big data analytics and information sector. Beyond Data Science, the Center for Experiential Learning, Entrepreneurship, and Civic Engagement pairs Akron students with industry leaders so that they can learn by applying their new skills to actual real world problems.

Uniquely, Akron’s College of Polymer Science and Polymer Engineering is recognized for its excellence around the world. Closely linked to the polymer industry, Akron has well established strategic partnerships with Goodyear and Bridgestone to conduct path finding research in tire safety.

In Akron, institutional transformation means serving a compelling demographic. Hence Akron’s partnerships with Lebron James and JPMorgan Chase. These partnerships create polytechnic pathways supported by scholarships for Akron kids who complete LeBron’s Mentorship Program, get good grades, and engage in community service efforts.

It is no coincidence that the rise of the Polytechnic in American higher education is in sync with a nation-wide campaign to increase the enrollment funnel in the sciences, technologies, engineering, and mathematics – the so called STEM fields. In doing so, Akron unites the arts with sciences (turning STEM into STEAM) in ways that provide students with the creative design, problem solving, critical thinking, and communication skills employers most value today.

—James Martin and James E. Samels are authors of The Provost’s Handbook: The Role of the Chief Academic Officer (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015). Martin is a professor of English at Mount Ida College (Mass.) and Samels is president and CEO of The Education Alliance.