Editor's note: This is one in a series of stories examining the University of Oregon's bid to develop "clusters of excellence."
When Oregon State University faculty recently read about the University of Oregon's "clusters of excellence" hiring plan, they said: "Been there, doing that."
OSU has added about 180 faculty over two years concentrated in narrow areas of research -- much like the UO's planned clusters of excellence.
OSU's clusters are further grouped under three broad "signature areas of distinction": sustainable earth ecosystems, human health and wellness, and economic growth and social progress.
OSU's motivation for launching its cluster hiring program five years ago is just about the same as the UO's. The Corvallis university wants to elevate its academic profile nationally with hires in selected fields.
OSU seeks to move to the front ranks of international and comprehensive land grant universities in America, according to the most recent version of its strategic plan.
Cluster hiring is the means.
"You're not just recruiting people," OSU President Ed Ray said in an interview. "You're recruiting some amazing colleagues who bring their own research and teaching and service capabilities with them.
"It's not just more of the same, but you're bringing in people with an idea of where in fact the future might lie," he said.
OSU's approach is very similar to the tack the UO is proposing: identifying and hiring staff in cutting-edge fields, often with real-world applications to address compelling problems or promising markets and capture the hearts and wallets of donors.
OSU says its cluster hiring program -- whose initial versions emerged in the College of Engineering as long ago as 2003 -- has been a big boost for the university.
The number of graduate students is up, licensing royalties are up, donor giving is up -- and OSU has climbed onto the top 200 list of best universities published annually by U.S. News & World Report.
"Research grants and expenditures have continued to increase dramatically during the last decade," according to the most recent OSU strategic document, "clearly establishing our reputation as the premier research university for the state of Oregon."
OSU is using a combination of funds, both existing revenues and new donor dollars, for the new hires, OSU officials say.
The cluster concept has become so pervasive that it has sunk into the roots of OSU hiring.
In June, for example, OSU advertised for a soil scientist to be stationed in Madras.
This new employee was not part of a cluster hire, but he or she was expected to contribute to OSU's three cluster-based signature areas of distinction.
At OSU -- as at the UO -- the provost is in charge of the cluster hiring process. Every couple of years, faculty and academic units make pitches for adding faculty to a particular narrow fields of inquiry. Robotics, for example.
"We have nine faculty now, really up from nothing five years ago," an uncommonly quick expansion for an academic department, said OSU robotics Professor Jonathan Hurst, who has designed and built a bipedal robot that can walk and run outdoors.
Robotics is increasingly a present -- as opposed to futuristic -- field of mechanics and engineering. Robots are used in medicine, space exploration, house cleaning, emergency rescue. And they even back up soldiers on the battlefield, according to Hurst and his colleagues at OSU.
Bill Gates says robotics is clipping along these days like the development of the Internet in the 1980s and 1990s.
OSU's burgeoning robotics program researches human-robot interactions, legged locomotion, prosthetics, snake robots and full body locomotion.
The size of OSU's robotics personnel cluster makes it stand apart, Hurst said.
"There are so few robotics groups that usually when you are looking for (an academic) job in robotics you're going to be with one or two people at a university. It's really cool to come to a place with a good concentration."
The OSU robotics grew successfully, but at every round Hurst had to be ready to make the case to the administration, Hurst said. He'd say: "?'We have quite a group. We need another in this area. We're trying to build one of the best groups in the country.'" So far, the administration has been won over.
"It hasn't been a top-down push from a dean or a president or anything like that. It's just been every year, based on the strength of the people we recruit, they say, 'This is a good thing. We should keep this going.'?"
Flexibility and innovation
Now, OSU faculty are leading lights in robotics.
At the Robot Science and Systems Conference in Berkeley, Calif., last week, conferencegoers from other universities sidled up.
"People are asking me every time I go to a conference now, 'Hey, you guys are taking over -- what's going on there?' What's it like to work there?" Hurst said.
In pushing to bring on more faculty over the past five years, OSU took advantage of a sweet spot in the marketplace. With the economy slack, fewer elite institutions were hiring their own -- so OSU picked up freshly minted PhD.s from such places as Harvard and Cornell, said Rebecca Warner, senior vice provost for academic affairs.
The cluster program helps the school attract the best because candidates see flexibility and innovation.
"People see what's going on here," Ray said. "They look it up. They like what they see. We've been very successful at bringing the people here that we want to bring here."
A cluster hire initiative helped OSU this summer establish Oregon's first accredited College of Public Health, Ray said.
"A clear dividend was the ability to get accreditation," he said. The accreditation is from the Council on Education for Public Health, a federally recognized accreditation agency.
A cluster hire in the College of Liberal Arts -- with faculty from economics, sociology and political science -- resulted in OSU offering the first doctorate in public policy in the state, he said.
Next will be hires in the marine sciences, Ray said.
"We're hoping to build a marine studies campus over in Newport that's affiliated with the Hatfield Marine Science Center but also with the community colleges, the aquarium and hopefully OMSI," he said. "We see some real possibilities there."
The next round of cluster hires is underway. The OSU provost has solicited proposals for 10 new cluster positions for hire next year. Winning proposals will be announced in the next month or two, Ray said.
Cluster hires still account for only a fraction of OSU's faculty, but their impact is outsized because they're placed in fields where a few more faculty can lift the university's standing. OSU has 3,554 full-time faculty and 643 part-time.
Donors getting on board
Cluster hires have probably been key to OSU's rising fortunes over the past decade, Warner said. Research spending grew 12 percent, to $233 million a year, in that time. Licensing revenue more than tripled to $7.3 million annually.
"All of those things -- while we can't identify a causal relationship -- the correlation is pretty strong. These things are happening at the same time." Warner said.
OSU attracted 22 percent more doctoral, masters and professional students since 2008, with 5,497 arriving on campus last fall. That contrasts with the UO in the same period, which lost 3 percent enrollment of graduate and professional students, down to 3,740 last fall, figures kept by the Oregon University System show.
"Students say they're attracted to Oregon State because of the clusters," Warner said.
Over a decade, annual private giving to OSU grew 178 percent, to about $81.5 million a year -- and donors like what they hear about the clusters, Ray said.
"It allows you to answer the first question that skeptical supporters have and that is: 'Are you guys still trying to be everything to everybody -- and not excellent at a lot of things?'
"We can say 'No. We're very focused; we're very clear on what we're doing here. That enables us to be much more thoughtful and effective when we do engage in hiring and other activities."
In U.S. News & World Report's annual rankings, OSU climbed, in four years, from the basement of "unranked third tier universities" to claim the 142nd spot of the top 200 universities. UO in the same period moved up six places, to 115.
UO looking for money
In Eugene, meanwhile, it's not yet clear when the UO will launch its cluster hiring program.
A big challenge is finding the new money to pay for the hires. The UO is hoping to use some existing cash, but mainly to bring in large new donations from philanthropists excited by the tight focus of the clusters.
Provost Scott Coltrane recently identified 10 cluster hiring proposals that the university hopes to fund.
Brad Shelton, interim vice president for research and innovation, is spending the next two weeks helping the cluster proposers to establish realistic budgets, including estimates for laboratory space, scientific equipment and salaries.
Coltrane earlier said the UO already had $1.5 million with which to launch a cluster or two, but he's not yet ready to say which of the 10 are in line for the money.
"We want to work in concert with potential private philanthropy so that we can achieve the maximum impact from this program," Coltrane said in an e-mail. "We hope to be able to make an announcement in fall of 2014 about one or two clusters that might be authorized to start searching in winter or spring of 2015."
Supporters have indicated that the university is on the right track, Coltrane said. "We are hopeful that some generous support will be forthcoming, but it is too early to predict how many clusters we will eventually be able to fund."
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