Tuesday, November 08, 2005 | Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles examining the research being conducted at San Diego State University. Each Tuesday, Voice of San Diego will profile SDSU researchers on the cutting edge.
San Diego State University has emerged as a state powerhouse in the pursuit of research dollars and the academic prowess that comes with them.
SDSU now raises far more money for academic research than any other California State University campus.
While its annual research revenues are still dwarfed by its University of California, San Diego neighbor to the north, SDSU annually secures a significant chunk of the research dollars available through federal, state, local and non-governmental sources.
“We are a very major player with regards to the research activity which goes on in San Diego,” said Tom Scott, vice president for research at SDSU. “Our traditional contribution has been in training the workforce that makes San Diego work, but there is increasingly a large contribution to the scholarship.”
This shift toward an increasing role for research at SDSU is particularly noteworthy considering the traditional role envisioned for the institution.
In 1960, a special session of the California legislature passed the Donahoe Higher Education Act. The legislation enacted many of the recommendations of the California Master Plan for Higher Education. That document has been hailed as a masterful piece of education planning that revolutionized the state’s higher education system.
Basically, the master plan gave the University of California the job of research – UC was initially given sole jurisdiction in the granting of doctoral degrees within the state. California State University was given the primary mission of undergraduate education and graduate education through the master’s degree program, and the California Community Colleges were given a primary role of providing academic and vocational instruction for lower division academic courses.
Those clear-cut lines have never really been blurred, according to representatives of CSU and SDSU, but there has certainly been a push at SDSU to incrementally increase the amount of research its faculty and students perform.
At SDSU, that push has been largely driven by the university’s leadership and faculty.
“San Diego has made it a goal of theirs to do more basic research,” said Richard West, executive vice-chancellor and chief financial officer for CSU. “As long as they reach their instructional requirements and things of that nature, that’s permissible.”
West and Scott both agree wholeheartedly with the original goals of the master plan, and they both stressed that CSU universities, including SDSU, have at their heart the goal of educating and training their students.
However, if such education and training can be better served through a healthy element of research, then that’s what SDSU is aiming for, said Scott.
“We sometimes encounter some resistance within the CSU, saying ‘Are you doing as much as you should be doing toward the basic mission of a CSU university?’ ” said Scott. “I think a reply to that is we’re becoming an extraordinarily well-respected university. That remains our goal. We’ll do it within the restrictions that are laid upon us by the master plan, and we will fulfill those obligations, but I know we can do more than that.”
Hence the nearly $150 million SDSU brought in during 2003-2004 in grants and contract revenue. That’s more than twice the amount raised by California State University, Long Beach, a state university of comparable size.
Those research dollars are being invested in programs from molecular biology to business. SDSU now awards 16 different doctorates and the university works with everyone from the local biotech community to California law enforcement.
Scott attributes SDSU’s success at raising research funds to many different factors. Not an insignificant element of the equation, he said, is San Diego’s location. Many academics come to San Diego for the lifestyle, and choose SDSU as a base from which to conduct their research.
“If we were tucked somewhere in North Dakota,” said Scott, “with exactly the same constituents as we have, run everything back 50 years and ask how we would have developed – we wouldn’t be the university we are today.”
SDSU still suffers somewhat from local geography, however. It’s not perched on the Torrey Pines Mesa with UCSD and many of the city’s most prestigious research institutions. But Scott said that doesn’t stop SDSU researchers from collaborating with UCSD academics and from forging links with institutions and biotech companies.
Nevertheless, West admits that researchers looking to come to San Diego will be likely to first consider UCSD, which, according to a spokeswoman at the university, brought in $728.4 million in research funding in 2004-2005. If UCSD isn’t hiring, however, West said SDSU is a great bet.
“There’s no doubt that San Diego State tries to create an environment in which sponsored research can occur,” said West. “If I’m a junior faculty and I want a place to start, it’s a good place to get a start and prove yourself.”
Scott and others have ambitious plans for SDSU. The university is now on a hiring streak after three years of budget cutbacks, and the plan is to attract as many excellent researchers to the campus as possible. University leaders believe that a continued focus on academic excellence can only benefit their indispensable role as a teaching institution.
“I’m abetting the teaching mission by conducting research,” said Scott. “But, central as that is to our mission, we will remain a local university as long as we do not distinguish ourselves in original scholarship.”
“The toughest arena that academicians play in, is the arena in which we are competing with one another for scarce resources,” he added.
That’s an arena that SDSU has charged into full-bore, and that the university shows no signs of shying away from.
Please contact Will Carless directly at