College Insights · Article

The Successful Corporate University Partnership

January 22, 2019

BMW™ and Clemson, Boeing™ and Georgia Tech, Stanford and Google™: Once a target of derision in academia, corporate university partnerships are now more than commonplace. They are highly-praised engines for the advancement of research, technology and student service that further a school’s mission and bolster a university leader’s reputation. But partnerships bring challenges, too.

Few educational initiatives require more leadership skill than the implementation of a successful commercial partnership. Even an exceptional university president benefits from a deputy who can identify and vet potential partners, according to the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) 2018 report, “Making Partnerships Work.” This paper, created by a task force of state university presidents with extensive experience in public-private cooperation, recognizes that commitments come with risks — not just to the university’s bottom line but also to its leaders and its long-term reputation.

However, when they succeed, corporate university partnerships bring dividends that serve the school for decades.

Whether the collaboration is public-private or corporate-nonprofit, a fruitful commercial endeavor can launch the university into a new era of global influence and recognition. It dusts the cobwebs off a university’s academic brand and positions it as a powerful driver of the 21st century economy.

Three Qualities of a Successful Corporate University Partnership

1. It furthers the school’s mission

University leaders must be able to answer at least two questions about a potential partner before investing time, money and energy in a collaboration, according to the AASCU report. First, does the partnership align with the school’s mission? Second, what does the company hope to gain from the connection?

Many American universities have global brands that outshine those of national businesses. Take care that the company in question is as interested in promoting your school’s brand as its own. The company should also have an outstanding reputation within its industry. A high-profile public relations disaster for Boeing or BMW would leave a lasting mark on Clemson and Georgia Tech.

It’s critical that your corporate partner have brand-promotion and protection processes in place before your university gets involved. When the brand affiliations are effective, they lift the profile of the university and demonstrate fulfillment of the school’s mission — whether it is a large state university dedicated to serving the public good, a community college aiming to revive a local economy, or a small liberal arts college with a reputation for shaping tomorrow’s creative leaders.

2. It enhances student achievement

Student achievement data matters. If a corporate partner offers training that facilitates workforce advancement, then enrollment, retention and graduation rates increase. Many corporate partners provide students with hands-on workplace skills that bring a strong return on investment in their education.

The newest cohort in college now, Gen Z, is known for pragmatism. These young people scrutinize student satisfaction data, the median salaries of graduates and the long-term impact loans will have on their standard of living. A solid corporate partner appeals to these students’ wish to acquire skills that will serve them long after they graduate. Such a company also counts student achievement among its own metrics for success.

3. It works effectively with diverse community stakeholders

As university leaders know well, higher education is an industry like none other. Many corporations operate as top-down hierarchies. They are not accustomed to working with vociferous stakeholders — like faculty, whose voices are often as powerful on campus as those of the executives.

If faculty work against a corporate collaboration, the outcomes can be devastating, regardless of the company’s public reputation. Find out what kind of history the company has working with academic communities. Does it have strong faculty relations? Will it collaborate in the process of securing buy-in from all members of the campus community? If so, then you have found a corporate ally that brings vast potential for success.

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