Friends with Benefits? Building Effective Alliances

By Carla Beam, Jim Geringer, John Hitt, and Leslie Wong    //    Volume 23,  Number 1   //    January/February 2015

Today, colleges and universities are forging innovative alliances with for-profit corporations as well as other organizations. On behalf of AGB, Carla Beam, vice president of university relations at the University of Alaska system and president of the University of Alaska Foundation, spoke with two presidents and a board chair about how they are leveraging such public-private partnerships to benefit their institutions and various constituencies.

Carla Beam: Governor Geringer, I noticed on the website for Western Governors University the listing of a very sizable national advisory board made up of corporate and foundation leaders. That suggested some sort of partnership to me, and I’d like to hear more about it.

Jim Geringer, former governor of Wyoming and chair of Western Governors University: The national advisory board is an adjunct to our board of trustees. For every meeting, the board of trustees meets first and then has a joint meeting with the advisory board, which has its roots going back to the mid-1990s, when we first started talking about the organization that we now call Western Governors University. At the time, eight of the 10 states with the fastest growing populations were in the West, and as governors of those states, we were trying to anticipate how we might meet the need for higher education of those rapidly growing populations. Bricks and mortar weren’t going to do it. What were our other alternatives?

About that same time, Utah Governor Mike Leavitt was approached by some of his constituents who had achieved virtually perfect scores on the SAT test, yet were denied admission to a state university in Utah because they had not graduated from accredited high schools. They had demonstrated competency in their homeschooling, but they were not eligible for the rite of passage to higher education. That got us to talking about the whole issue of competency.

We were also hearing from the business sector that our universities were not graduating students with the capabilities they needed, particularly in high-tech areas. Finally and most important, we were concerned about how we could reach our underserved populations: first-generation, minority, and rural students, as well as returning students who might have some college credit or were changing jobs. About three-fourths of our student populations fit those categories. We wanted to fill that gap for our potential students—and in a way that would meet the needs and expectations of the people who would hire them. So we set up academic advisory councils composed of people who, in addition to the background they could bring, could help us define the competencies needed for our various degree programs, map them against instruction, and devise learning assessments.

All along the way, we’ve created publicprivate partnerships—even getting Western Governors University started in the first place. A number of for-profit companies contributed, and then each of the 19 states put in $100,000. That was the full extent of state support that went into the university; it’s been supported through tuition and other grants since then. And given our enrollment of 44,000 students, that has kept the annual costs for each student for unlimited courses down to only around $5,000 to $6,000. That’s what you call leverage, and it’s serving an underserved population.

Beam: Dr. Hitt, in a recent address on the 50th anniversary of your institution, the University of Central Florida (UCF), you said, “Our story is one of partnership.” Can you tell us what that means and how you’re advancing that goal?

John C. Hitt, president of the University of Central Florida: Long before I knew anything about UCF, people there had set about forming partnerships. In a partnership, you agree on a problem you’re trying to address and what you want to accomplish. You put resources into the pot, and you engage in efforts that are designed to produce results that benefit both parties, or however many parties there are. That’s easier said than done. But if you get involved, you receive the immediate benefit of engagement in your community. Most partnerships are with external groups, and you start to become better at understanding what people need and expect from their hometown university.

The first partnership we put together at UCF after I arrived there had an unexpected long-term personal benefit. The institution sits on the boundary of two different communities, and we worked with them to build a fire station on a small, isolated, otherwise unusable piece of land on our campus. At that time, there was a state-wide governing board, the Florida Board of Regents, and their approval of the land commitment was required. Ultimately, constructing the fire station there saved more than $20 million in operating costs over the other solutions that were being considered, and it was a great success.

That said, I didn’t know how big a success it was until one Saturday afternoon, when I had a heart attack out riding my bike, and the EMTs came almost immediately from that fire station. Had they not gotten to me pretty fast, I wouldn’t be here today. As it was, they arrived so quickly that I have almost no measurable damage from the heart attack. Not every partnership has that kind of immediate and personal benefit, but often the advantages are pretty dramatic.

To cite another example, in the mid- 1990s, we were trying to prevent a major microelectronics plant that employed more than 1,000 people from being moved to another country. UCF, the University of South Florida, the plant itself, and the state government came together as partners. We put together a package of benefits from the universities that was conservatively valued at about $10 million. That was the crucial component that saved the plant: It enabled the company to make an additional investment of $1.2 billion and add another thousand employees. It wasn’t easy to put that partnership together. The board of regents had to approve a request for funding by the legislature. And we didn’t get it done all at once. But it had a significant impact and improved the lives of many people who got well-paying jobs as a result.

It also enabled our engineering departments, several of them working together, to gain some capabilities and instrumentation that we could never have afforded without the funding supplied by the state and our industrial partner. The company put high-level measurement instruments into our facilities, and its employees had first call on using them whenever they needed them, which was only about a third or fourth of the time. So we gained a lot, they gained a lot, and the community gained a lot of well-paying jobs.

Beam: Dr. Wong, your website describes San Francisco State University as “a major civic force partnering with government, business, and education leaders to advance both the university and the region.” Can you talk a bit more about that?

Leslie Wong, president, San Francisco State University: When I first arrived at San Francisco State in 2012, one of the pieces of information that I thought was vitally important to know right off was what our relationship was with our alumni network and the business community in San Francisco. Part of the effect of the recession, particularly in California, was that the alumni network thinned out and in many ways needed extensive repair. And everybody in the business community and on the campus just hunkered down during the recession and had not thought about relationships after it.

So the key questions that I posed to my new team were: “What are our relationship assets? Whom do we know? Are we contacting them? Are we making sure they’re hearing the San Francisco State story?” Our commitment to social justice as a university means that our students and faculty are deeply engaged in the activities of the community.

I can give an example of what happened as part of that assessment. One of the companies with which the vice chairman of our board works is the San Francisco Giants. He suggested that we find out if we had any relationships with the Giants. So we did some homework and discovered that three of their five senior vice presidents are alums of our university—in other words, they are a pretty good relationship asset. I asked the vice chairman if he could set up a lunch with them, and they jumped at the chance because it was the first time that the university had reached out to them. Imagine, this was after winning two World Series, and the organization’s leadership is filled with alums.

As it turned out, the San Francisco Giants have a deep commitment to the community, as well. Larry Baer, the CEO of the Giants, is very community-minded. So our values matched up, and we now have a great relationship between San Francisco State and the San Francisco Giants. It includes a number of ideas of how the university can help the Giants’ community organization reach out—both through the team and through the Giants Community Foundation. They send their players out to do a lot of work with local schools. So we’re linking our outreach program with theirs. It all has to do with how we develop relationship assets so we can serve some of the San Francisco Giants’ needs, as well as them serving some of our needs.

Another story along those lines: San Francisco has a newspaper called the San Francisco Business Times, and it annually lists the “Top 100 Women-Owned Businesses.” We found out that about a half a dozen of the women who were on that list are alumni of San Francisco State and running large businesses in the Bay Area.

I realized that we needed to reconnect them to the university, so I wrote them congratulatory letters, and now we’re building a relationship with some of them. We are continuing to enhance those relationships through guest lectures, meeting with students, attending events with board members. We also discovered two female alums who are not on the list—one who is an executive with a major television network and another who is a senior executive with one of the country’s largest banks. Both now serve on our foundation board in leadership roles.

Beam: What distinguishes a partner relationship from the donor relationship that our universities and university foundations often have with corporations, private foundations, and other entities?

Hitt: I think the typical donor relationship is motivated by a sense of accomplishing something that’s a general good. It’s less motivated by an expectation of specific results that benefit the individual partners. If you’re talking to someone about the general benefits to society of graduates in engineering, for instance, it’s not surprising that companies that employ a lot of engineers would find that argument easier to understand than companies that don’t. But the donor organization doesn’t expect that the graduates from that program will necessarily work for it.

In the kind of partnerships we establish, there is a clear, overt understanding of what each entity will receive from its activity. I’m not talking about necessarily a financial return, but if you’re going to call it a partnership, there should be a clear linkage between activity and outcome— an expectation on the part of whoever makes the investment as to what he or she will see as a result of the activity.

Wong: One of the things that we keep in front of us all the time is that our relation to corporate America is about our students. So when we can match up our motives, our mission, and our vision with another company and see that, through our interactions, we can create opportunities for our students that they wouldn’t ordinarily have, we put those partnerships at the top of our list. Oftentimes I’ll open up my conversations by saying, “What are the kinds of things your company is doing in the areas where we have top programs within the university, and are there ways we can get together and team up?” After all, they’re after talent, and we are a major source of that talent in San Francisco.

Let me give you one more example. San Francisco is home to one of the premier leather-making companies, and the custom-made purses and briefcases they turn out are done on computers. They have a huge scrap pile of leather that the computer doesn’t cut, that’s not used. So one of our university programs works with the owner on how to recycle all of the high-end scrap leather that comes off the laser machines. That gives undergraduate students a wonderful experience in sustainability and responsible business practices, and it opens the door to some very innovative work with computers in making leather goods.

Geringer: A partnership could mean that there’s a direct mutual or individual benefit that results from it. But I don’t think that’s typically the case. Good partnerships usually have broader benefits.

For instance, at the University of Wyoming, a major energy company came in and put in a sophisticated laboratory. The company can use this laboratory, and the students have an opportunity to learn, and that creates an extraordinary pool of people who then become available to the larger community—not just to the benefactor. That type of partnership, I think, can have the longest-lasting effect.

If a donor is simply viewed as somebody who provides the discretionary funds so that we can do what we want to do as institutions, we are presuming a societal benefit. But most donors would like to go further and ask: ”What did you do with the money? Can you demonstrate its impact?” They want the satisfaction of knowing that value has been added as a result of that money, perhaps not even personally to them. People have a tremendous feeling of accomplishment when they know that something specific was done that added measurable value.

Hitt: Yes, if you’re looking to build relationships, it’s certainly more effective if people know what to expect and how to evaluate whether they’ve received it.

Beam: What are your relationships with government entities? Is there opportunity for higher education to develop more of a partnering relationship with governments at all levels?

Wong: I’m fortunate that Mayor Ed Lee of San Francisco is one of the most capable city mayors I’ve run into in my career. The economic plan that his administration has put together is reflected in the success of San Francisco. There are close to 2,000 high-tech companies in town, and they are hiring a great many of my students before they even graduate.

The mayor has started what he calls Tech Tuesdays—his way of visiting these companies. He called me and said, “Les, I’d like you to go along with me. If they have educational needs, I want San Francisco State, our university, to be serving them rather than some other higher education institution.” So I’ve been accompanying him on these Tech Tuesdays and meeting people in various companies— whether they have six employees, 100 employees, or many more. That has been a way for me to get a sense of the training and educational needs that those companies have.

In every case, I have run into alums, but I have also found people who are moving in from North Carolina, from Texas, from all over the country. They have stopped their education and are working full time, but they still want to finish their courses and receive a degree. So it’s been a great way for me to work with city government and also connect with businesses.

Hitt: We’ve had opportunities working at the city, county, state, and federal levels that have significantly benefited us. At the city level, a while back, Electronic Arts came to us and said they were having a problem with recruiting game developers into the Orlando area. They wanted us to put in a program that would educate local people to the master’s level in computer game development.

The city of Orlando jumped in and helped us with the gift of a building that they spent roughly $4 million renovating for us. The state also invested money, and the university put some money in. Today we have a very successful program that’s attracted other electronic and digital media, as well.

At the county level, we’re involved in a lot of economic-development activities that are more general in nature. Orange County funded a chair for an economicforecast analyst who can show us the relative competitive position of the Greater Orlando area versus other areas that might be competing for the businesses we are hoping to attract. Plus, the university has a director of economic development who probably works as much for the local economic-development organization as he does for us.

It is said now that there is no real economic-development activity in Central Florida that doesn’t involve UCF. That certainly wasn’t true 20 years ago. That progress would not have been possible without the strong support of our board of trustees for our role as “America’s leading partnership university.”

At the federal level, we often work with the Department of Defense (DOD). Orange County created a 1,000-acre research park that sits adjacent to our campus. It is the international center for military simulation and modeling, and we have been working with DOD agencies there for years.

We’ve gotten the state to build three buildings of about 125,000 square feet each. We occupy half of the facility, and the U.S. Navy, Army, or Marines occupy the other half. Our researchers are advantaged by having that close relationship with researchers and developers from the agencies. About $5 billion flows through the park annually in the way of contracts and grants for research and development on modeling and simulation.

Geringer: We have not yet mentioned community colleges. They are as close to the community as any educational institutions can be, and oftentimes they are the places where incubators and startup companies go. Of course, the term now is accelerators. How can you move beyond the sheltering and nurturing effect of an incubator to the accelerator, where you have a program that’s all ready to go but you want to accelerate it into the business sector? Such partnerships can easily evolve, whether you’re a community college or a major research institution. They could be a way to leverage each other’s capabilities again for mutual benefit.

Hitt: Valencia College, Seminole State College of Florida, Eastern Florida State College, and Lake-Sumter State College all now have an agreement with us whereby we coordinate curriculum. In exchange for that agreement to cooperate, we will grant automatic admission to any of their graduates who have either an associate of arts degree or an articulated associate of science degree. The boards of each of those institutions approved these arrangements. Literally tens of thousands of students have expressed their intent to come to UCF following their graduation from one of those four colleges.

That has proved to be a very good partnership, and of course it offers students who would not be admissible under our highly competitive standards for freshmen admission an opportunity to go and earn that associate’s degree and be assured that they all will have access to a UCF baccalaureate degree. We take seriously both the access and excellence components of our mission, and that’s primarily how we’re addressing the issue of college access.

Also, the county and city governments in Central Florida figured out that an incubator in our system generates more tax revenue than it consumes. It creates jobs. So now we have about nine incubators paid for mostly by the county government. If an institution hasn’t looked at something like that as a partnership opportunity, I recommend that it do so.

Beam: Any final words of advice?

Wong: People want to give to an organization moving in what they believe is the right direction. If we’re minding our relationship assets and building them strongly, raising money gets easier and easier because our mutual interests are served. I constantly tell my deans and the department heads that it’s all about the relationship. And it’s how you build that relationship that will net you support over time—not only in money, but also in many other ways.

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