The relationship between universities and corporations is essential to both constituencies. Universities are a valuable research partner and talent pipeline for companies, and industry is one of the prime employers of future graduates, an important investor and collaborative innovation partner for the Academy’s students and faculty.
How is this critical relationship managed by universities? Short answer: in a myriad of ways ranging from a centralized, “across the university” approach to a decentralized one with potentially competing stakeholders. This structural dichotomy does not even take into account the professionals in career services who have important but different corporate relationships with hiring managers and human resources. Some universities have adopted hybrid approaches. How a university structures its relationship(s) with industry is a critical factor in the overall success of the partnership and something that merits serious consideration.
What’s in a Name? Structure is Key
It’s telling that there are several different titles used to describe this important relationship. Corporate engagement and corporate relations are two common examples; others include industrial liaison, industry relations, and economic development.
The confusion goes well beyond the nomenclature; it extends to the internal structure–or lack thereof– universities construct to manage their relations with corporations. Some of the most successful partnerships have been forged by universities with a centralized relationship management structure. They appoint a “relationship manager” —much like a medical concierge—whose principal functions are to ensure alignment of university/company objectives and to direct the corporate partner to the appropriate university resource and stakeholder. MIT and Carnegie Mellon, institutions with long-standing relationships in the corporate world, are two prominent examples.
Many universities are rethinking how they handle corporate partnerships; a puzzle they struggle to piece together into either a centralized/decentralized advancement or office of research structure. This can create several systemic problems–competing stakeholders within the university’s advancement system whose performance/compensation favors a tactical approach; the office of research focused on sponsored projects; technology transfer and IP; and corporate engagement/relations in the school of engineering that may or may not have a collaborative relationship with the Office of Research and/or Central Advancement. It is common for faculty to fund their labs/research by leveraging these relationships. They are often proprietary about their relationships with industry and effectively compete with other parts of the institution. This is similar to origination conflicts endemic to law firms and other professional service providers. This decentralized structure can result in internecine spats that are harmful to the overall relationship, lost opportunities borne of communications breakdowns, and failure to advance university objectives.
Different Options Exist
There is no “one size fits all” solution to the structure issue and numerous approaches are used.
- Stand-alone, corporate concierge program such as MIT’s Industry Liaison Program. This approach includes a fee-based model where companies pay an annual fee to access MIT talent.
- Office of Research is a likely place for a comprehensive corporate relations program to sit – the University of Illinois is an example http://corporaterelations.illinois.edu/staff.html.
- Office of Development is another likely suspect where this function can be located. When housed in Development, it is either centralized or decentralized.
- Dual Report to Office of Research and Office of Development is a new trend bringing together key stakeholders working together for the greater and holistic good of the institution.
Universities are increasingly aware of the potential benefits of forging relationships with corporations and foundations. While they must be mindful that this sometimes comes with significant “strings attached”— most of these initiatives result in win-win situations for the university stakeholders and industry. It is important that universities develop a strategic plan for overseeing industry relationships. The most successful ones advance the partnership objectives from internal structures that are integrated. These universities create points of corporate contact and reward systems that foster holistic, integrated approaches to their industry relationships. No matter the structure, the university must operate with clarity and cohesion with its corporate partners to further advance research and development that fosters forward-thinking partnerships that advance their mutual interests.