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Question and Answer with Jon Fink


May 02, 2007

Being at the center of change is not a place where many people would feel comfortable for extended periods, but Jon Fink has spent much of the past decade there. As vice president of research and economic affairs, Fink has helped transform ASU into something few envisioned when he accepted the position for a one-year “interim” term in 1997.

Before heading the research office, Fink was chair of ASU’s geology department (from 1990-1991 and 1995-1997) and he has served as a faculty member in geology (as a volcano specialist) since 1982. He also spent a year heading the geochemistry program at the National Science Foundation. His scholarship has been acknowledged by his election as a fellow of the Geological Society of America (1997) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (2004).

But it is as research vice president that Fink made an indelible mark on ASU. Since 1997, Fink has overseen the largest buildup of research infrastructure in ASU’s history, with more than 1 million square feet of new research space; he has seen research expenditures nearly triple (now at more than $200 million per year); and he has helped attract and hire many of ASU’s academic and administrative leaders. Throughout this period, Fink has promoted the building of bridges that blend disciplines as the underlying theme that has guided new construction, new hires and new research initiatives.

In a wide-ranging interview, Fink reflects on the past, present and future of ASU – and his role within it.

When did you first come to ASU?

I came to ASU as a post-doctoral researcher in the planetary geology program in 1979. I planned to stay for a year and then find a “real” job.

Compare the university then to ASU today?

ASU was a comfortable place with a few outstanding programs but low expectations overall. Faculty in my home department of geology came from the best schools in the country and measured themselves professionally against those peers. But few thought that ASU, as an institution, would ever rise very far above mediocrity, and we got used to seeing many of our most accomplished colleagues get “poached” by schools with better reputations. Resources were always tight, and we expected that the University of Arizona would always get preferential treatment from the Board of Regents. Academic buildings were dedicated to individual departments or colleges, and took over a decade to go from concept to construction.

Today, it is almost completely the opposite. Among the senior administration, most of which are relative newcomers to ASU, there is an almost palpable sense of destiny that ASU has the chance to emerge as a unique, great university, with ambitions and opportunities unlike most others. We have gained worldwide attention as an institutional innovator, with very strong programs emerging across all four campuses. At the same time, we are learning how difficult it is to transform an entire multiple-campus university at the recent breakneck pace. An insufficient level of public interest and investment in the university over many decades created problems that are only now being addressed. Among faculty members, especially the long-timers like me, there has been skepticism about whether these changes are sustainable, but I believe there also is growing confidence that we can have world-changing accomplishments here that would not be possible elsewhere. Equally exciting is how many of the world’s brightest scholars are now moving here.

You’ve been vice president of research and economic affairs for 10 years. What kind of changes have you seen in that time?

Greatly increased confidence and momentum. When ASU President Michael Crow arrived in 2002, the faculty at the university already had been making good progress in research, for instance doubling our funding in the previous five years. We had earlier joined an elite group of eight universities that had achieved the Carnegie Foundation’s “Research 1” status without a medical or agricultural school. We had won some very large grants, had a few nationally ranked programs and had a small number of National Academy members. But we did not have critical mass in most of these areas, nor did we have the resources needed to get it. Our reputation and standing were vulnerable to the loss of a single grant or a single key faculty member. Today, with a greater range of strong programs, faculty leaders and resources, we have more confidence that we can continue to rapidly improve.

What are the top accomplishments in your time as VPREA? Would it be the doubling of research expenditures, the building of the research infrastructure, the star hires, and the expanded role of economic development for ASU and the Phoenix areas?

All of the items you cite are major institutional achievements for which I can take a small share of the credit. Perhaps our most important accomplishment during this period has been the institutionalization of ASU’s interdisciplinary culture, which became one of the foundations upon which Crow was able to propose the New American University model. Through selective investment in those programs, departments and individuals that subscribed to an interdisciplinary philosophy, several of us in the administration were able to strongly encourage and reward collaborative behavior.

A personal contribution that I am proud of is having served as a bridge between the senior administration and the faculty. Few universities have attempted to undergo as much change as ASU over the past 10 years (and especially the past five). Explaining what this all means to concerned faculty members and department chairs, bringing their questions back to Crow and his cabinet, and then having these same faculty become some of the university’s most productive and enthusiastic proponents of institutional transformation has been particularly rewarding.

Are there any hidden treasures here? Accomplishments that looked small but turned out to be much bigger deals later?

Many of ASU’s major successes owe their origins to creative exploitation of historical accidents or lucky breaks. Our world-leading planetary exploration program (which attracted me here as a post-doc nearly 30 years ago) owes its existence to the purchase of a set of meteorites by ASU’s chemistry department in the 1960s. We have had one of the world’s greatest electron microscopy facilities for several decades, thanks to the arrival of a single faculty member, John Cowley, from Australia in the 1970s. CRESMET (the Center for Research on Education in Science, Math, Engineering and Technology), which has brought in more federal money for research in science education than any similar group in the country, emerged from the seminal work of a loose network of physics, zoology and engineering faculty members that started comparing notes about teaching large lecture classes in the 1970s. There are stories like this all across ASU.

One of Crow’s significant contributions to ASU has been to provide access to his large Rolodex of contacts, many of whom have been recruited as faculty and administrators, and others who have become outside advisers. These new connections have greatly accelerated the rate at which these “fortunate accidents” have been happening.

It seems that more now than ever the university has expanded out and includes Phoenix, and we now must consider ASU research to be an integral part of the community, rather than a stand-alone operation. What are the benefits of this?

When Crow said in 2002 that ASU needed to become a force rather than a place, few of us knew what that meant. But, after five years, we are seeing the realization of that vision in a number of ways. This is especially true in the research arena, where the work we do has a direct impact on the growth, economy and evolution of our region. To take just one of hundreds of possible examples, ASU’s urban sustainability initiatives provide research results that are of direct benefit to water managers, air pollution regulators and transportation planners. This relevance has, in turn, helped these programs garner a substantial number of competitive grants from the National Science Foundation. ASU and the citizens of metro Phoenix all benefit from these linkages.

What are the challenges for ASU research in the immediate future? Re-doubling of research expenditures?

Growing research expenditures is not a goal in itself. Rather, it is a quantitative reflection of the maturation and external recognition of ASU’s research enterprise. While this is always a challenging exercise because of intense competition, I am optimistic that with the recent investments we have made in research space, the recruitment of junior and senior “star” faculty members, and the growth of collaborative partnerships involving organizations like the Mayo Clinic, TGen and the UA-ASU Medical School in Phoenix, we are positioned for accelerated expansion of our research totals. The trick will be increasing our administrative staffing levels so they can keep pace with the growing workload. We also need to continue to diversify our funding base, for instance expanding our support from the National Institutes of Health, but also tapping into more industry grants and philanthropy directed toward research programs.

What are some of the major economic development initiatives during your tenure?

Economic development has really been the biggest research story in Phoenix during the past 10 years. A series of public and private sector investments in major research infrastructure has transformed the regional economic landscape in ways that could hardly have been anticipated. The passage of Proposition 301 in 2000, which dedicates nearly $1.5 billion of sales tax revenue over 20 years to university-based research, was an unprecedented event in Arizona’s history. The subsequent raising of more than $100 million to recruit the Translational Genomics Research Institute was a second milepost on the road to a high-tech economy.

This was followed by the Arizona Legislature’s passage of the research infrastructure bill (which brought nearly $200 million to ASU), a Phoenix bond election to raise more than $180 million to create a new downtown ASU campus, the city of Scottsdale donating more than $80 million to ASU in land and facilities to form the SkySong innovation center, and the Legislature’s funding of Science Foundation Arizona with $35 million in 2006. Each of these investments allowed the regional economic impact of the university to greatly expand.

This evolution also has been reflected in the increasingly central role that ASU (primarily through the Economic Affairs office) has played in regional economic development. Among the substantial achievements have been the creation of Technopolis, the Edson program for student entrepreneurship, the Kaufmann designation of ASU as an entrepreneurial university, our participation on the Governor’s Council on Innovation and Technology, and our close partnership with Greater Phoenix Leadership and the Greater Phoenix Economic Council. Equally noteworthy have been the robust business and research partnerships forged with leading global companies like Google, Dial and Bank of America.

What are some of the major strategic research initiatives during your tenure?

In 2002, we took most of the discretionary funding we had in the research office and invested it in about two dozen research initiatives. Most of these, such as Arts, Media and Engineering, the Biodesign Institute, CRESMET, the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict, the Center for Law, Science and Technology, Greater Phoenix 2100 and a wireless consortium (which became ConnectionOne), paid off handsomely, in terms of enhancing ASU’s reputation and bringing in significant outside funding. Our largest strategic investments have been in the Biodesign Institute, the Flexible Display Center, CRESMET and the Global Institute of Sustainability (GIOS).

What do all of these accomplishments say about ASU?

ASU is an adaptable institution, ready to quickly respond to new challenges and opportunities with minimal reference to traditions that would normally justify moving more slowly.

What do they say about the people of the OVPREA?

The people of OVPREA are dedicated to serving the faculty in a professional manner, protecting the institution’s interests and taking on a continually growing workload. It has been a privilege to work with them for the past decade.

Will you pursue research in your new position?

I am looking forward to developing a research program in urban systems science, building off of many of the exciting projects in GIOS and the Decision Theater that I’ve been involved with as more of a spectator in the past. One of the downsides of being a full-time administrator for over a decade is that it is difficult to concentrate on any one problem for an extended period before being drawn to the next emergency. This way of thinking is generally at odds with the reflection required for good scholarship. I imagine that it will take some time for me to tame my administrative Blackberry addiction enough so I can productively focus on the discovery process.

What do you see as the future for GIOS?

Through GIOS and related academic programs at ASU, we have the chance to become the world’s foremost university addressing several of the most urgent and complex problems of global sustainability. For instance, our leadership in research on rapid urbanization has been acknowledged by influential groups including the National Academy of Sciences, the World Bank, the National Science Foundation and the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Our sustainability efforts have been given a tremendous head start on the path to success by Julie Wrigley’s substantial donations of resources, ideas and connections.

Where do you want to take GIOS and sustainability?

I want our legacy to be that the study and practice of sustainability across all of ASU had a lasting impact on improving the quality of life for people around the world and for future generations. Thirty years from now, others will measure our success by such practical outcomes as whether a vibrant metropolitan Phoenix is thriving in balance with the resources it requires, and whether the global community acknowledges that many of the solutions to the crises of the 21st Century were solved with ideas generated here.