Improving the business climate benefits universities [Commentary]

About six months ago, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, speaking at the Maryland Competitiveness Coalition's Economic Summit, was asked how Maryland could position itself to compete in this fast-paced global economy. Mr. Freidman's view was that the state and its anchor institutions needed to start with a compelling economic vision that would have appeal to investors around the world — a vision with the same cachet as those in the Silicon Valley, along Route 128 outside Boston or in North Carolina's Research Triangle.

Well, that "vision" for Maryland became clearer last month when Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, House Speaker Michael E. Busch and other legislative leaders introduced a package of forward-looking bills aimed at making Maryland's business and economic development environment significantly more attractive. As Maryland's only public, urban, research university, Morgan State is excited about the prospects of this legislation and fully supports this bold initiative.

The health of the economic ecosystem of the Baltimore-Washington metroplex is extremely important from a higher education perspective. We want to make sure that the students we educate at our institutions are so enamored with career opportunities in the area when they finish their degrees that we are able to retain them in the region long-term through high-paying jobs or opportunities to start their own businesses. Indeed, student success is the hallmark of Morgan's 2021 Strategic Plan, which emphasizes not only greater emphasis on student retention and graduation, but also on ensuring that our graduates have opportunities to move into high-paying jobs or start their own businesses in our state.

Maryland universities have not been fully exploited to be the anchors of an innovative economy as have universities in many other states. Recent studies have shown that Maryland's universities are in the top percentile in receiving federal research and development dollars, but the state is 37th in translating university research into new business enterprises. The passage of these bills can change that drastically.

I applaud the formation of a private sector-led commission to review the state's business climate and to make recommendations as to how we can support the formation, growth and retention of more high-tech, health care and scientific-based businesses. I think this is a first and necessary step toward improving Maryland's economic competitiveness and innovation. Norman Augustine, the former CEO of Lockheed Martin, is the right choice to lead this commission: He will challenge the status quo, and he abhors incrementalism.

There are at least two other pieces of this proposed legislation that are spot-on: the tax-incentive zone bill and the Maryland E-nnovation program.

Morgan is the anchor institution for Northeast Baltimore, and we endorse the Regional Institution Strategic Enterprise (RISE) District Program, including reduced tax zones to attract investments. Over the past year, we initiated the Morgan Community Mile (MCM) — a partnership with the community to increase educational attainment, reduce health disparities and spur the development of small business growth around the campus and throughout the neighborhoods that abut the campus. The MCM encompasses approximately twelve square miles of the city, with over 110,000 residents. The various communities have been fully engaged in establishing the vision for this region, and we are ready to make it happen. I believe the proposed enhancements to the RISE Districts will lead to positive and tangible outcomes for the MCM and other university-neighborhood partnerships in our city.

Maryland E-nnovation will maximize the opportunity space for public-private partnerships with the state's universities. Morgan supports the notion of funded endowed chairs distributed fairly across the state's public research universities, representing each institution's research niche. Such a program could be modeled after a program the state of New Jersey introduced during my time at Rutgers called the World Class Scholars Program. Its success, I believe, elevated all of the research campuses in New Jersey to new heights. The same can happen here in Maryland.

As we have witnessed from recent news events, cybersecurity is woven into the fabric of our everyday lives. And since we sit at the nexus of institutions like the National Security Agency, the Department of Defense and National Institute of Standards and Technology, which are concerned with both national and civilian cybersecurity, it makes sense that we also make investments to start new companies to develop cybersecurity products for both the government and private sectors. Morgan is pleased to have been the recipient of two recent Maryland Technology Development Corporation awards to commercialize laboratory research in this area, and so we feel we are well on our way toward building capacity.

Maryland has the opportunity to become a national hub for cybersecurity research and high tech investment. More importantly, because the nation faces cyber threats from various criminal enterprises, it is our region's diversity that becomes an attractive asset for making Maryland the center of cybersecurity in the nation.

The bottom line is that, from whatever vantage point you have, we know that we can no longer do business as usual if Maryland is to be competitive in our global economy. The world is an open market, and those regions that can attract talented people and foster a successful business climate will be sustainable for the long haul. It does not matter what we did or had in the past, as legacy is not a part of the current economic formula for success. The 2014 Joint Legislative Business and Economic Development Agenda is the first step toward a vision for a globally competitive Maryland, and a pronouncement to the world that Maryland is in it to win it. Messrs Miller and Busch heard you, Thomas Freidman.

David Wilson is President of Morgan State University. His email address is

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