The Arizona Desert Lamp

White Paper: College of Optical Sciences

Posted in UA Transformation Plan by Connor Mendenhall on 23 October 2008

Arizona’s College of Optical Sciences is something of a poster boy for our scientific prowess. Judging by the college’s white paper, it could be the new poster boy for UA Transformation, too:

While the College of Optical Sciences has had 9 budget cuts in 7 years we are financially sound because we have both reduced unnecessary expenses and more importantly we have greatly increased our revenue through many means as described below.  Furthermore, Optical Sciences appears to already be structured in a manner which is consistent with the direction the U of A would like to go. We have no departments and we have a cost effective administration which is centralized at the college level.  Because we are not hurting like so much of the U of A we feel the most beneficial thing we can do for our transformation plan is to help other portions of the University. 

The optics experts offer two ideas for lending a hand. First, sharing courses. According to the report there are 7 engineering, 16 physics, and “several” math courses that could be crosslisted with Optical Sciences, freeing a few instructors to teach other subjects. Easy enough.

Second, helping to “spread the entrepreneurial spirit” of Optics. This sounds like standard white paper claptrap, but the rest of the paper shows that Optics grasps a crucial economic insight: people respond to incentives. Take the college’s financial model:

Our funding model is different from many of the other colleges.  We receive little state allocated funds, but we receive a larger rate of overhead return than most colleges.  This means our financial condition is more in our own hands and there is a large incentive to increase our outside grants and contracts.  Since we get a larger percentage of the overhead return we are able to invest it in the areas that we feel will give the best payoff.

Or its faculty salary system:

We allow our faculty members to get pay increases if they have sufficient funds from outside grants/contracts to pay the increase.  The pay increase is given with the agreement that if at any time the faculty member is not able to pay the increase off his own grants/contracts the compensation goes back to the level it would have been without this increase.  This provides a big incentive for the faculty member to maintain a healthy level of outside grants and contracts.

Or correspondence courses:

We also have a distance learning program where we record many of our courses and then students throughout the world, mostly industrial scientists and engineers, take these courses to get either a Certificate in Optical Sciences or a Masters in Optical Sciences.  The faculty involved in these distance learning courses share in the revenue so there is an incentive to teach distance learning courses.

Little details in design can produce big payoffs, especially when they align self-interest and self-funding. Tweaks like this should be made to faculty salaries and funding systems in other departments.

Optics also provides ample evidence of its “entrepreneurial spirit” in action. Professors sell recorded lectures “to universities, companies, and individuals in the U.S., China and Europe,” along with “short courses on DVDs.” Optics wrote a full third of the patents filed by UA last year, which the college expects to pay off in the long run. Even better, “inventors of course share in the revenue so there is a good incentive to do the additional work involved in doing patent disclosures.”  Finally, Optics has “approximately 50 Industrial Affiliates,” who pay $5,000-$25,000 for access to faculty and a database of student resumes. 

The College of Optical Sciences is a great example of smart incentives and creative sources of private funding. Hopefully, UA will be able to focus and magnify their model across campus.

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2 Responses

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  1. Libby said, on 24 October 2008 at 12:16 pm

    Connor and Evan, you guys ought to consider this contest: http://www.americasfuture.org/calendar/archives/022996.php

  2. […] of Optical Sciences, which filed a full third of UA’s patents last year, according to their whitepaper, and it starts to look a little embarassing. Seeking higher returns on intellectual property is one […]


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