By John D. Stoll
Oakland University didn't top Matthew Henry's list when he started hunting for colleges in Michigan to attend. But one visit to the spacious campus, situated on a serene 1,400-acre estate donated by the heiress to the Dodge auto-making fortune, sold him on the school.
Four years after making that decision, the 21-year-old senior is capping an education made possible, in significant part, by a corporate behemoth from another part of the world. German industrial giant Siemens AG provided software, instruction, curriculum, technical support and sophisticated gadgetry to make Mr. Henry and his fellow Industrial and Systems Engineering classmates fluent in some of the most used tools in the profession they aim to pursue.
"Siemens has no doubt played a bigger role than I gave much thought to before starting," Mr. Henry says. He came to find out that his chosen focus would require learning what is equivalent to a software language. Siemens' "Tecnomatix" digital manufacturing programs are a fixture in Oakland's department.
Robert Van Til, director of Oakland's Industrial and Systems Engineering program, says experiences like Mr. Henry's are a meaningful template for future students of design, engineering and other sciences. While companies have long provided grants, engaged in joint research, funded scholarships, and offered internships or apprenticeships, an era of close-knit working relationships between companies and undergraduates in classrooms at four-year universities is now getting under way.
Tim Sands, the president of Virginia Tech, says that student experience with real-world corporate problems will become table stakes in the job market in years to come. Students "really need to be embedded within an employer that has real-life problems, and to look at how they solve those problems," he says.
Mr. Sands has welcomed several corporate partners to Virginia Tech's campus in Blacksburg, including Qualcomm Inc., Caterpillar Inc. and General Electric Co. New initiatives require students to spend extensive time working on the actual riddles companies are trying to solve to get a degree.
Partnerships like this remain somewhat rare, Mr. Van Til says, but they are a hot subject at education conferences. "There's a real push to get academic programs to actually take the tools like these and integrate them."
Elizabeth Popp Berman, a University of Michigan professor of organizational studies and author of "Creating the Market University," says there have long been critics of corporate meddling in four-year universities. Often, funding from companies for research or other academic pursuits comes with strings attached, she says.
Corporate involvement in curriculum may also narrow the skills that students pursue, ignoring information or career pathways that may not apply to a company's business.
But colleges are more open to corporate partnerships as budgets are squeezed and student debt loads rise, Ms. Berman says. "The tighter the budget the institution has, the more open they are going to be," she says. "It's hard to reject this support outright because of the position the students are in." Companies also offer deep-pocketed support for a "practical applied model" that doesn't break the bank, she says.
The Siemens partnership, partially funded by the company, has been on Oakland's campus for a decade and serves hundreds of students. They have used the partnership to complete projects at hospitals, banks and aerospace companies. To set up a facility like the Siemens lab where Mr. Henry studies would cost a university hundreds of thousands of dollars, not including steep licensing fees for software and tech support.
"We're not asking them to create a factory or our employees for the future," says Barbara Humpton, the CEO of Siemens' U.S. operations. Siemens isn't necessarily hiring all the students who use its tools in class, she says, but it expects those students could work for Siemens customers or suppliers.
Caterpillar, International Business Machines Corp. and Amazon.com Inc. have implemented similar efforts. A company's branding on curriculum and classroom instruction is often unmistakable.
Students at Cal Poly University's Digital Transformation Hub walk through a door proclaiming the department is "powered by AWS," short for the Amazon Web Services cloud-computing product. Here, students participate in the AWS Cloud Innovation Center, about a dozen of which are embedded at schools around the country.
Instead of being a classic sponsorship, like an advertising deal at the university's football stadium, programs like the Cloud Innovation Center are staffed by Amazon employees, bringing Amazon business principles into formal education. In this case, students interested in solving public-sector problems learn how to think like an Amazon employee; the company's leadership principles, such as "customer obsession," are taught in college workshops.
Paul Jurasin, director of the Hub, says the partnership is designed "to provide our students with learn-by-doing activities." Amazon funds the operation but knows that most who go through it will use Amazon Web Services as clients or in outside organizations instead of as Amazon employees, a spokeswoman says.
Corporate America suffers less from a skills gap, and more from a "failure to develop its discovery muscles," says Dave Calhoun, chief executive of Boeing Co. Before he was CEO, he personally gave $20 million to Virginia Tech in 2018 to create a "Discovery Program" to bridge a "multidisciplinary gap" that many students suffer from when leaving college. "You're now trying to solve for things outside just the raw technology, and we have very few people who are really skilled at doing that kind of thing," he says. "Usually they are in their mid 40s or early 50s."
A task force assembled by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities found in 2017 that such relationships are becoming more attractive as institutions look "to attract the resources, relationships and recognition necessary for these institutions to be competitive in an environment marked by declining state funding and continued questions on the value proposition of public higher education."
George Mason University's new president, Gregory Washington, says educators aren't necessarily inclined to go out and find corporate allies. His charge to faculty is to "partner or perish," playing off the old "publish or perish" adage that long measured a professor's success. Mr. Washington, an engineer by training, says research is important, but it can fall short if companies don't have a seat at the table.
There is urgency driving Mr. Washington's rewiring of George Mason's philosophy. Amazon is aiming to add tens of thousands of jobs at a second headquarters in Arlington, Va., located about 18 miles from Mr. Washington's offices. While George Mason is held up as one of the state's deepest pools of technical talent, its president worries that Amazon will take its programs (and jobs) elsewhere if unwelcome on his campus.
Amazon currently has several initiatives with George Mason. Amazon officials pointed to George Mason's commitment to invest $250 million at the Arlington Campus, which is close to Amazon's second headquarters, adding 1,000 new faculty and doubling the number of computing majors in the next five years as evidence that the university's commitment is deep.
"Universities tend to be more insular entities -- they focus on graduating their students; they focus on taking care of their faculty," Mr. Washington says. "Now? We can't meet the mission of our future, we can't tackle the big challenges that the country needs us to tackle without real partners."
Mr. Stoll is the business columnist for the Journal, and a graduate of Oakland University.
Write to John D. Stoll at email@example.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
November 09, 2020 12:16 ET (17:16 GMT)Copyright (c) 2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.