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Companies hungry for ideas, talent snuggle up to universities

Already poised to play a pivotal role in the United States' emerging knowledge-based economy, America's colleges and universities may in fact become the epicenters of economic growth in the 1980s and beyond.

Businessmen, scholars, real-estate specialists, and economists are beginning to see a historical analogy. They compare the siting of factories in 19th- and 20th-century industrial America along rivers and ports, with their easy access to raw materials, to the siting of corporate facilities of the late 20th century near the raw material of the technological age: brainpower.

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Instead of locating a steel plant near a source of iron ore, or basing a paper mill near a hardwood forest, today's research-oriented companies are rushing to establish their presence on college and university campuses in order to remain one step up on fast-breaking technologies.

Already, circumstantial evidence of the emerging trend is evident at over a dozen universities across the country in the form of university-developed research parks.

''I have counted 31 colleges and universities that are now developing, or plan to develop, research parks,'' says Douglas Porter, associate director of research for the Urban Land Institute, a nonprofit research and education institution based in Washington, D.C., that deals with development issues. ''There's a tremendous amount of activity where there was none five years ago. The whole high-tech field has been caught up in the efforts of universities that are looking to found research parks.''

A case in point is Princeton University's rapidly developing Forrestal Center , a corporate office and research center situated on a chunk of land owned by the university and larger than the central campus itself. Over 50 companies, including IBM, Mobil, Xerox, Exxon, and RCA Corporation, have located at the site, where corporate buildings are surrounded by manicured lawns and separated from each other by acres of woodlands.

Other colleges and universities are visiting Forrestal Center at a rate of more than a dozen a year. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., is one that did. It has now developed 400 acres of a proposed 1,200-acre park and attracted a division of National Semiconductor, a leading high-technology firm, which closed down its facility in Santa Clara, Calif., in order to be near the school, its research facilities, and its body of engineering students.

Industrial Research Park at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, will break ground in September on a 393-acre park. The Ben Franklin Center at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., still in its first year, is one of several state-supported technology centers spread around the state.

In all, there are roughly a dozen colleges and universities actively engaged in developing research centers, including the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Utah, which has been at it for a number of years.

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While the location of businesses near universities is a growing trend, three regions of the country have long traditions of cooperation with the private sector. Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, and Duke University, the University of North Carolina, and North Carolina State, which combined to form the 17,000-acre Research Triangle in North Carolina, all established research parks long ago in addition to spawning literally hundreds of high-tech firms that have settled in the surrounding areas.

The mutual attraction of business and higher education is based primarily on mutual need. Colleges and universities are still feeling the pinch from years of inflation and now face the prospect of dwindling enrollment and cuts in federal support. Research parks, in addition to their other benefits for colleges and universities, mean higher revenue.

For their part, businesses are finding that competition on the world market is so keen that it pays to be right on top of research breakthroughs that might lead to product development. By locating at colleges and universities, businesses can take advantage of highly trained faculty members, employ graduate students at low rates, and get a jump on recruiting the most promising students.

There are also quality-of-life considerations. Since most high-tech firms are generally footloose and can locate just about anywhere, such criteria as the tranquility of a rural campus are high on their list of priorities for siting a facility. Proximity to a university also allows for the continuing education of employees, something deemed particularly important for companies who need to keep workers up to speed with emerging technologies.

Tom Field, director of the Technology Park at Rensselaer, has a slightly different perspective on why colleges and businesses are getting together. He says he believes students looking for specific career training are pressuring universities to attract research companies.

''While academics may think universities are associating more closely with business in order to capitalize on industrial strength,'' Mr. Field explains, ''what we're really seeing is a trend to a more realistic student saying, 'We want to see and experience what we are going to find in industry when we get out of school,' and industry saying, 'Let's teach them what they need to know while they're in school, so we don't have to waste two years training them when they graduate.' That is the significant aspect of all this.''

Some observers say there are already too many universities chasing too few high-tech firms, and that a glut of research office space is highly probable. ''There are going to be a lot of open fields in the next 20 years,'' says Field. ''You can't just open the doors of the university and expect industry to come in. It takes hard work and excellence in a particular field of research.''

But the problems inherent in the intensifying relationship between business and higher education go far beyond the practical concerns of real-estate management. Not all schools relish the central role business is beginning to play in research planning. There are concerns that basic, pure research will be forced to give ground to product-development research, and that charges of conflict-of-interest against professors who consult on the side will sour the blossoming relationship.

Not all universities share that fear. MIT in many respects has organized itself along the same structural lines as a corporate research facility to deliberately encourage interaction.

Currently, it would appear that only large research universities will be the beneficiaries of business's migration to campus, but Robert Wolfe, director of Princeton's Forrestal Center, sees the opportunities eventually broadening to include a number of small colleges.

''I think trained manpower as well as ideas are what the companies will be seeking from the schools,'' he concludes.

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