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NIU among U.S. best in innovation, economic development, finalist in national award program

October 14, 2013

Logo of the Association of Public and Land-Grant UniversitiesNorthern Illinois University is among the inaugural 16 institutions nationwide designated as an “Innovation and Economic Prosperity University” by the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities (APLU).

The designation, announced last week, acknowledges universities working with public and private sector partners in their states and regions to support economic development through innovation and entrepreneurship, technology transfer, and talent, workforce and community development.

In addition, NIU was named one of six national finalists for APLU’s inaugural Innovation and Economic Prosperity Award.

“Universities are economic engines that not only directly employ people, but also generate research-based innovation and technical expertise that allow businesses to start up, grow, and thrive,” said APLU President Peter McPherson. “This designation recognizes universities that are really stepping up to strengthen their local economy.”

Doug Baker

Doug Baker

The extensive award application was a joint project of the Division of Outreach and Engagement and the Division of Research and Graduate Studies.

In addition to an expansive description of how NIU fosters entrepreneurship and develops external partnerships that result in mutual benefits, the application focuses on three case studies: broadband development, the P-20 (pre-school through graduate school) initiative, and engagement efforts in Rockford.

“Like our Carnegie designations, the APLU title defines a level of excellence in how we serve our community and our region,” said NIU President Doug Baker. “It further affirms to students and their families that NIU is on the cutting edge of real-world education.”

NIU finds itself in excellent company in APLU’s first class of innovation and economic prosperity universities. “Classmates” include the University of Michigan, Ohio State, University of Georgia, State University of New York, University of Missouri and the University of Idaho, among others.

“To be placed in the company of America’s top public universities in this effort sends a message about the centrality of engagement to the overall mission of the modern public university,” said Anne Kaplan, vice president for outreach and engagement.

NIU’s application describes how the institution serves a region that is simultaneously urban, suburban and rural, and how it forges both public and private partnerships that benefit all parties.

Three case studies anchor the application.

In the first, NIU describes a decade-long effort to bring high-speed broadband connectivity to the region. As of this fall, the university has overseen installation of more than 2,200 miles of fiber optic cable throughout the northern Illinois region and beyond. More than 750 “community anchor institutions” – schools, libraries, public safety agencies, museums, hospitals and city governments – have been connected to broadband through NIU-managed projects that have attracted close to $120 million in federal and state funding.

Logo of the NIU Center for P-20 EngagementA second case study focuses on the Center for P-20 Engagement. The P-20 center connects external partners such as schools, government agencies and community colleges with people and resources across five colleges and more than 20 offices, centers and institutes at NIU.

Among more than 30 university-wide activities currently managed by the center, the APLU application highlights STEM Outreach as an initiative providing a broad range of examples of innovation growing out of multi-disciplinary collaboration.

The final case study focuses on NIU’s engagement efforts in Rockford, where residents face the dual hardships of high unemployment and low educational attainment. One such initiative involves NIU’s successful partnership with Rockford to develop an aerospace cluster based less on manufacturing and more on design and testing. This project has attracted considerable attention from both federal agencies and private business: Last year Rockford landed a $2.4 million grant to support aerospace job development, while a leading aerospace company cited the NIU-led initiative as a deciding factor in its choice of Rockford for a $385 million expansion investment.

“In all three of these case studies, what we see is a commitment to innovation,” said Lisa Freeman, vice president of Research and Graduate Studies. “At NIU, we are both doing new things, and doing old things in new ways, always with a focus on creating value.”

Anne Kaplan and Lisa Freeman

Anne Kaplan and Lisa Freeman

Unlike many award programs, the APLU competition required universities to describe both accomplishments and challenges. To that end, NIU’s application includes a “growth and improvement” section that outlines how the university intends to maintain momentum in its regional engagement efforts.

“Highlighting this kind of work is critical to developing a sustainable culture of innovation and entrepreneurship among our students and faculty,” Freeman said. “It really requires us to consistently focus on what works, why it works, and what it will take to do more of it.”

APLU is a research, policy and advocacy organization representing 219 public research universities, land-grant institutions, state university systems and related organizations.

Founded in 1887, APLU is the nation’s oldest higher education association with member institutions in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and four U.S. territories. Annually, member campuses enroll more than 3.8 million undergraduates and 1.2 million graduate students, award more than 1 million degrees, employ nearly 1 million faculty and staff, and conduct more than $37 billion in university based research.