Preparing Faculty For Effective Corporate Partnerships

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In January, we shared three effective models for more holistic corporate engagement. This is the second article in our series on corporate engagement in higher education.

While partnering faculty members with companies seeking research partnerships is increasingly attractive to colleges and universities, faculty may approach the new partnerships cautiously. Building effective corporate and faculty partnerships requires you to address potential challenges early — ideally before a contract is in place!

We spent time interviewing institutions with successful corporate engagement strategies. Here is a review of the challenges, steps to take in addressing them, and key considerations for aligning corporate and faculty interests proactively and responsibly.

3 Critical Challenges

1. Building Faculty Trust and Buy-in

At Kansas State’s Office of Corporate Engagement, Director Richard Potter explains that one of their biggest challenges has been to change how faculty partner with corporations, and to build trust in the university’s vision for a holistic approach to corporate relations. They have been asking faculty and departments to share information about existing partnerships with companies, but some have been reluctant to compromise those relationships.

At California State University Fullerton, the challenge has been to build faculty relationships with the CSU Foundation, which was established in 1997 to help fundraise for the university. Because the foundation is relatively recent, the Office of Foundation Relations and Office of Research Development focus extra effort on publicizing funding opportunities for faculty, notes Camille Harper, Director of Foundation Relations.

To cultivate faculty trust and buy-in, you need to proactively:

  • Address concerns about whether the results of any research done for a company could be compromised by corporate interests.
  • Set up clear guidelines regarding intellectual property.
  • Outline a policy about publishing the results of research before entering into partnerships.
  • Establish trust in offices dedicated to overseeing corporate partnerships. This is especially true for faculty who may want to protect their turf rather than share information about existing relationships.
  • Ensure that tenure and promotion guidelines are clear about the value of corporate partnerships, particularly at institutions where government grants have been more highly rated in tenure and promotion decisions.
  • Address any concerns of faculty members who are also leery of institutional development. Concerns include who gets the credit for landing the money, concern about the donor and expectations, and concerns about specific strings that may be attached to funding.

2. Aligning Corporate and Academic Timelines

Aligning corporate and academic timelines and interests is a challenge on every campus. There is a sizeable difference in academic and corporate timelines, explains Ann McAdam Griffin, recently the associate director of Corporate Relations at Rice University.

The corporate world tends to be more fast-paced, while universities often move fairly slowly on grants and contracts. Items like a scope of work need to be produced more quickly when partnering with companies than when applying for government grants. In addition, deliverables are often due sooner.

Clear timeline expectations should be spelled out as early in the process as possible — including specific deadlines for submitting a scope of work proposal. Timelines also need to take into account the demands of the academic calendar to avoid scheduling deadlines at busy times like final exams or professional conferences.

The rhythm of working with industry is also different, with companies typically expecting more regular updates than government grants do. A researcher might submit an update every six months for a federal grant, but with a corporate grant, the expectation may be that the researcher will do a conference call with the company once a month.

3. Equipping Faculty to Work Effectively with Corporate Expectations

A third challenge is to prepare faculty members to work effectively with corporate expectations — a challenge best addressed before entering into a partnership. Items you may need to address include:

  • Getting faculty members through the paperwork, and establishing expectations for producing a scope of work and being responsive to industry needs
  • Clarifying access to intellectual property
  • Acknowledging that partnerships are not about the institution but the donor
  • Aligning interests of faculty and companies Sometimes companies are more interested in the research part of R&D, while companies are more interested in the development part.
  • Also, interests are not always aligned.  She said sometimes faculty are more interested in the research part of R&D, while companies are more interested in the development part.

Steps to Take to Prepare Faculty

Here are actions that institutions have taken to prepare for successful corporate partnerships:

  • At Kansas State University, the Office of Corporate Engagement serves as a broker or concierge service for companies. They have also created an online toolbox and workshop series to prepare their faculty for working with industry.
  • At CSU Fullerton, staff in the Foundation Relations office collaborate with the Office of Research Development, conduct meetings with faculty and deans to explore funding opportunities, and are working on training and outreach on the front end. The university has hired deans and administrators who can model working with philanthropic partners.
  • At Rice University, the Corporate Relations office held a faculty workshop to address common issues, sends office staff to talk at faculty meetings, and sends out a regular newsletter. They also they also focus on communicating with the deans of engineering and natural science frequently. Website links have also proved particularly helpful with new faculty.
  • Ohio State University offers workshops to “industry-interested faculty” to equip them with basic strategies for responding to requests for a scope of work in a timely manner and other fine points of working with industry.

Steps to Take to Align Faculty & Corporate Interests

It’s also important to keep the process consistent and to spell out expectations for both parties before entering into a partnership. Consider these best practices:

  • Be upfront about expectations from the beginning. For example, Rice University is careful to make clear that when faculty members do public policy research, the results are the results, and the university has to remain objective to uphold its reputation.
  • Streamline the process so that all proposals go through one office, as CSU Fullerton is doing. The goal is to keep everyone on the same page, Harper explains.
  • Connect faculty across departments. At Ohio State, making connections between industry and faculty, but also between faculty from different departments who have similar research interests is an important part of his work, explains Paul Reeder, director of operations and collaboration strategy at OSU’s Industry Liaison Office. Often, faculty in different departments don’t know each other or that they’re working on the same topic.
  • Engage faculty, students, and new corporate contacts months in advance. Sharon Deffely, executive director of academic and corporate development at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, explains that the earlier WPI starts engagement with a corporate client, the better the chance that a partnership will develop.

Successful institutions view these partnerships as relationships, and they cultivate them accordingly. This approach allows everyone to consider mutual interests and look for ways to build engaging and exciting partnerships for all involved.