Last summer, hackers broke into the computer files of the University of Delaware and compromised the personal data of 74,000 current and past employees. One week later, there was a similar breach at Stanford University. The University of Maryland's network was compromised in February, exposing the records of more than 300,000 faculty, students, and staff.

Many assume such breaches are similar to attacks on commercial banks and giant retailers. But at large research universities, more is at stake than Social Security and credit card numbers. Hackers are feeling their way toward some of the most vital, and vulnerable, secrets in American society.

Universities have long supported the work of preeminent scientists, and today they are centers for cutting-edge corporate and military research. At UD, to offer just a few examples: Nobel laureate Richard Heck's groundbreaking work on the building blocks of carbon atom-bonding has had a profound influence on everything from pharmaceutical and electronics manufacture to DNA sequencing; professors David Mills and David Farber have played pioneering roles in the development of the Internet; Wayne Westerman, who received his doctorate from UD, developed the multitouch technology used on Apple's iPhone; and researchers here designed the magnetometers aboard Voyagers 1 and 2, which have traveled further into the universe than any other manmade object.

The data generated by such cutting-edge research amounts to the most valuable intellectual property in the nation. But it is housed in computer networks that were designed for academia's long-standing culture of openness and sharing, not for secrecy. In other words, university computer networks are the soft underbelly in our nation's defenses against spying and corporate theft.

The bad guys have figured this out.

The shift toward university-based research began under President Ronald Reagan, who cut federal funding for basic science, convinced that the private sector would fill the void. It hasn't worked out that way. Markets value short-term profits over the riskier, potential returns of basic research. For example, the unfettered competition that followed the break-up of AT&T led directly to the decline of Bell Labs, one of the great drivers of innovation in the last century. The slack has been picked up by research universities, which were founded, in part, to perform this mission. When Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act in 1862 to create land grant colleges like UD, he charged them with both making college more accessible and molding a modern agricultural and industrial economy for the next century.

The law democratized education and spurred innovation. This is not just an academic conceit; 80 percent of the United States' leading new industries are directly or indirectly related to university research. If you want sustained economic recovery, this is where it happens.

In tacit acknowledgment of the value of such work, federal grants now require substantially upgraded cybersecurity. The National Science Foundation has begun enforcing tougher standards for data protection, requiring all proposals to include a two-page "data management plan." According to the National Science Board's 2012 report on "Trends and Challenges for Public Research Universities," such upgrades accounted for $4.7 billion in unrecovered costs. At UD, that bill was $7.7 million.

Who pays? Since 2007, the country's four-year public universities saw state appropriations fall by 17.4 percent. Philanthropic giving has been anemic in the wake of the recession, and Congress is continually threatening to slash federal research expenditures. The only option for most universities is to increase tuition, which has more than doubled at four-year colleges in the last decade. At private colleges, the increase has been 60 percent. The credit-rating agency Moody's has characterized this trend as "a critical juncture in the evolution" of higher education's business model.

If research grants end up costing more than they bring in, what financially strapped university will continue to apply for them? No one disputes the need to protect intellectual property, but the responsibility ought to be shared by all who benefit from it. If research universities are to continue this mission, we need to synchronize, broaden, and fund efforts to harden the walls around our computer networks.

We need to revisit the Morrill Act and restore the nation's commitment to our future. Pure research is too important to be left to chance or the market. There is a need for steady, patient public investment, and no place is better suited for that investment than research universities. We are engaged in the essential tasks of nurturing our nation's youth and sustaining its most creative minds. The ideal Lincoln asserted is both fundamentally conservative, preserving and spreading knowledge, and revolutionary, creating the new knowledge that will transform society in ways we cannot foresee. We can't afford to abandon it.

Patrick T. Harker is president of the University of Delaware.