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Investing in Ideas

July 10, 2004

Mary Ann Travis
Michael DeMocker

Five years ago, Tulane had a new president with new ideas. Scott Cowen came on the scene talking of strategic plans, goal-setting, ideas and vision. He also inherited a university whose endowment was among the lowest of prestigious Association of American University research institutions and in serious need of a shot in the arm. Not exactly the stuff of which dreams are made. Then the phone rang.

tulsp04_wall1A woman in Monroe, La., who had received medical treatment at Tulane in the 1950s had remembered the university in her will, to the tune of $18 million from her estate, which was managed by her two nephews, Henry and William Anderson of Shreveport, La. Suddenly, Tulane's new president was able to exercise his creativity a bit more.

Two-thirds of the gift from the estate of Lallage Feazel Wall, the widow of longtime Louisiana Rep. Shady Wall, went toward the university's endowment and facilities improvements. With the other third, Cowen did the unexpected, setting up a fund to encourage creativity and entrepreneurship among the faculty and staff.

Now in its fifth and final year of awarding grants, the Wall Fund has sparked creative rounds of competition among faculty and staff members vying for seed money to boost their ideas in research, education, leadership, resources and community. Several Wall Fund awards have been leveraged into other sources of funding from outside the university.

All the projects funded have been chosen with an eye on their impact for raising the stature of Tulane University. It's amazing what creative minds can do with the freedom--and funding--to further their ideas. "There's an incentive when you know there's funding out there," says Yvette Jones, senior vice president for external affairs. "It enables people to think about things in a different way than they had before."

The money from the Wall estate arrived in the office of Scott Cowen just as he and other Tulane administrators had completed the strategic plan for the university. This serendipitous gift, from someone unknown to most of the Tulane administrators, could make an enormous difference in the university's future.

Jones recalls that Cowen said, "Wouldn't it be great to take some of this and use it for funding strategic initiatives?" The Tulane Board agreed, and the Wall Fund was born. While $9 million of the bequest went into the university's endowment and $3 million was earmarked for strategic facilities improvements, such as sprinkler systems in residence halls and upgrades to classrooms, the remaining $6 million went to the Wall Fund.

What would have happened if Tulane hadn't received the gift? Cowen says, "I doubt the university would have progressed as fast as it's progressed in certain areas." Would Tulane have ultimately accomplished the same things? "The answer is probably yes," says Cowen. "But it would have taken a lot longer and probably have been made more painful than it was."

An inspiration for the Wall Fund came from the well-known "genius grants" of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. These grants are awarded to individuals from all disciplines--literature, science, art, philosophy, economics--whose creativity shows great promise for excellence in the future. For five years, an annual call for proposals for Wall Fund grant money has gone out to Tulane faculty and staff. In the first round, there were 114 proposals, and five were funded. (See the complete list of Wall Fund grants, totaling $5,230,550, later in this article.)

Anything--literally, any idea--was given full consideration. "We didn't restrict the thinking of the faculty or staff," Cowen says. "We encouraged them to think broadly and expansively, to think across multiple units and to reinforce things that we were already doing and doing well, or to create some new initiatives where we could potentially excel as an institution."

All Wall Fund proposals have undergone rigorous review, with the research proposals sent to external reviewers for scrutiny. Experts in their fields, these reviewers from other universities or research institutes give advice to the Wall Fund committee, composed of Cowen; Jones; Lester Lefton, provost; Paul Whelton, senior vice president for health sciences; Tony Lorino, senior vice president of operations and chief financial officer; and Mike Herman, dean of the Graduate School.

The Wall Fund grants are one-time awards (although they are sometimes spread over three years). Wall Fund grants do not support research, per se, but, instead, provide the tangential support that faculty members often need to get their projects off the ground. The grants are meant to remove roadblocks that might hinder the faculty or staff member from moving forward with an idea. "It's an acceleration tool," says Jones.

The committee has received proposals from throughout the university. Now faculty members don't have to shelve ideas because they need a bit of money to do more work. Wall Fund money has provided funds for needs such as administrative support, postdoctoral fellows and equipment. "It has let us put money where it's most needed to jump-start a unique project," says Jones.

Wall Fund proposals are evaluated for their leveraging potential. "There's an expectation that you're going to take the amount of money you get out of the Wall Fund and be able show that you've leveraged it for additional funds, more resources," Jones says. She estimates that Wall Fund awards of about $3 million to research-related projects have resulted in about $25 million in extramural funding from sources such as federal and state research-funding institutions, including the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health and the Louisiana State Board of Regents.

But Wall Fund decisions are "not always just about the revenues," says Jones. "Remember the criteria. It's about visibility. It's about the leadership position of the university." It's also about sustainability and differentiation. Impact is the most heavily weighted criteria for awarding the Wall Fund grants, with impact counting for 50 percent in the Wall Fund committee members' analysis as they determine who gets the awards.

This spring, the committee is deciding who will receive the last round of Wall Fund grants, at which time the money will have run out. Cowen would love it if someone gave a gift and made this process a permanent part of the institution; Jones thinks it might be smart to use some of the operating budget each year to keep this type of fund going forward. People. It's really all about people. People are the cornerstone of Cowen's strategic plan.

People--from Lallage Feazel Wall to Yunfeng Lu, recipient of the Presidential Early Career Award, a Wall Fund initiative--make the difference in advancing the university. Set up the way it is, the Wall Fund grant process makes "sure that we invest in the very best people, and the very best people get the kinds of benefits, academically and otherwise, that you want from these proposals,"says Cowen. "You know, to advance a university, you really make investments in people. Because if you have the right people, everything else will take care of itself."


The Wall Fund, by the numbers
> Five rounds of calls for proposals
> 221 letters of intent submitted
> 50 proposals invited for consideration
> 19 projects funded
> 55 principal investigators
> $5.2 million awarded in the first four rounds, 2000-03

Round 1

Creation of a Start-up and Cost-sharing Fund
> $600,000 over three years
Start-up packages attract new faculty members, and Tulane's research infrastructure is improved.

Collaborative Efforts Between the Departments of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Environmental Health Sciences
> $474,000 over three years
An engineering department on the uptown campus and a public health department on the downtown campus collaborate on environmental research.

Living/Learning Communities
> $250,000 over three years
The Living/Learning Communities morph within two years into the Tulane Inter-Disciplinary Experiences. Both programs have the same goal of creating a distinctive undergraduate experience. (See "First-Year Connection")

Renal and Hypertension Center of Excellence
> $50,000 planning grant
Lee Hamm, professor of nephrology, and Gabriel Navar, professor of physiology, develop ideas for building on Tulane's expertise in renal and hypertension research and care. In 2002, Tulane lands a $10.8 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to establish a Center of Biomedical Research Excellence and a $3.4 million grant from the Louisiana Board of Regents Health Excellence Fund to accelerate and expand research efforts in the field of high blood pressure and its effect on the kidneys.

Neuroscience Center
> $150,000
Richard Harlan, professor of structural and cellular biology, and Gary Dohanich, professor of psychology, set up an advisory board of outside experts to help point the way for Tulane's progress in neuroscience. A program coordinator is hired to help put together a grant application in partnership with Xavier University to the Louisiana State Board of Regents Millennium Health Excellence Fund for support of research in neuroendocrinology and cognitive/sensory neurosciences. The proposal is funded for $2.9 million over five years, and the Tulane/Xavier Center for Substance Abuse and Prevention is established.

Round 2

Development of a State-of-the-Art Transgenic/Knock-out Mouse Facility in the Uptown Vivarium
> $365,000 over three years
New autoclaving equipment and micro-isolator units are purchased and installed to house transgenic/knockout mice. The facility allows re- searchers to breed transgenic mice--those with extra genes--and knockout mice--those lacking a specific gene. This capability aids genetic medical research in diabetes, cleft palates, heart position and regeneration of teeth.

Center for Ethics and Public Affairs
> $300,000 over three years
Tulane's Murphy Institute establishes a universitywide center to coordinate teaching, research and discussion of ethics in public and professional life. The center offers seminars and faculty and graduate fellowships and involves faculty members from architecture, economics, engineering, history, law, medicine, philosophy, political science and public health.

Tulane Structural Proteomics Initiative
> $200,000 over three years
Principal investigators receive support for a cooperative, intercampus, interdisciplinary initiative in the area of structural proteomics. (See "Protein Folding Unraveled")

National Endowment for the Humanities Regional Humanities Center for the Deep South
> $200,000 over three years
A regional humanities center dedicated to the study of the Deep South is formed. The center receives a $387,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. More than $1 million of additional funds from private sources are raised. The Louisiana Purchase, the impact of World War II on the South and Southern culinary history are among the topics of the center's community outreach programs.

Center for Computational Sciences
> $150,000 over three years
Lisa Fauci, professor of mathematics; Ricardo Cortez, assistant professor of mathematics; and Donald Gaver, professor of biomedical engineering, create the Center for Computational Sciences in 2001 with a $2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to encourage the use of computational tools across the disciplines. They are also awarded a $1.2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to establish the center, which is a joint program with Xavier University, as a National Program of Excellence in Biomedical Computing.

Establishment of an Institute for Chemical Sciences at Tulane University
> $100,000 over three years
Workshops, educational development and seminars in the chemical sciences are presented in a joint effort of the chemistry, biochemistry and chemical engineering departments.

Executive Master's Degree in Clinical Research Program
> $100,000 one-time award
A curriculum for the executive master of public health in clinical research is developed. A joint program of the medical and public health and tropical medicine schools, it is the only such degree program of its kind in the United States. Clinical and physician scientists acquire methodological, quantitative, creative, critical and intellectual skills to perform first-class clinical research.

Round 3

Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers
> $500,000 in matching funds to establish an endowment
Tulane creates an endowment to fund an early career award for faculty members in the sciences and engineering who are in their first three years at the university and have shown exceptional potential for leadership in the frontiers of scientific knowledge. The first recipient of the award is Yunfeng Lu, assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering. (See "Research Success Starts Early")

Creation of a Technology Innovation Gap Fund
> $300,000 over three years
Faculty members get support for the development of intellectual property. (See "The Road to Market")

Achieving Information Literacy: Freshman Writing and Staff Development
> $52,550 over two years
A Web-based information literacy program helps students and staff become more discerning users of information. It's a joint project of the Howard-Tilton Memorial Library's Center for Library User Education and Digital Services Department, the Innovative Learning Center, the Department of English's Freshman Writing Program and the Office of Human Resource's Center for Workforce Effectiveness.

Round 4

Tulane Center for River-Ocean Studies
> $250,000 over two years
Infrastructure support is provided for a river-related research center, increasing the likelihood it will be named a National Science Foundation center.

Enhancements to Neuroscience Undergraduate Education
> $200,000 over three years
A neuroscience teaching laboratory is created. (See "Brain Study Boost")

The College of Human and Urban Ecology
> $50,000 in year one and $119,628 in year two (additional funds up to a total award of $489,806 will be released if milestones are met)
An innovative new college is in the preliminary planning stages. It is a collaboration among faculty members and administrators in the liberal arts and sciences, social work and architecture.

Upgrade and Construction of Biosafety Level-Three Facilities
> $500,000 one-time award
Laboratories in the medical and public health and tropical medicine schools are upgraded to strengthen research competitiveness in areas related to bioterrorism, infectious diseases, vaccine research and the study of pathogens.


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