Ready for lift-off

University business partnerships can be risky, but offer promising opportunities

The University recently officialized its partnership with Rolls-Royce as part of a network of universities affiliated with the company which have centers dedicated to research and new technology. Rolls-Royce will provide the University with funding for student resources, and in return, students from the Commerce School and the Engineering School will contribute to business and research projects for the company.

Partnerships like these have existed for graduate schools, polytechnic schools and community colleges, but traditional undergraduate programs are relatively new territory. Douglas Belkin and Caroline Porter of the Wall Street Journal postulate these partnerships are becoming more common at the undergraduate level because the recession caused public funding for state schools to decline, and because companies feel not enough college graduates have the skills necessary to succeed in the workplace.

A partnership between a company and a university manages to solve both problems at once. The company has a whole batch of graduates to hire with exactly the skills they are looking for, and the university gets to use the company’s funding to enhance students’ education without having to raise their tuition too significantly. The students also benefit from the employment opportunities they gain.

Such a partnership is not without risk, though. Some academics are concerned these kinds of business-university partnerships may give corporations too much control over academic decisions. Hossein Haj-Hair, mechanical and aerospace engineering department chair at the University said “we don’t want to necessarily just get homework from Rolls-Royce. We also come up with new ideas. It’s a back and forth partnership.” This is the ideal relationship that should be in place in order to accomplish the goal at hand — to provide students with education opportunities that are directly applicable to the work force.

Haj-Hair also said the University’s new technology center is better than many others of its kind, because at the University the focus is more on research than application. This focus stays true to the University’s primary commitment to academic excellence. As researchers, students develop critical thinking and innovation skills, providing them with a more well-rounded education, as opposed to the education they would get if they just executed projects already outlined by the company.

Third-year commerce student Jamie Wasserman, working on the business side of Rolls-Royce’s projects, says the company really takes the students’ input seriously. Given that many University students have already worked on Rolls-Royce projects, the newly solidified partnership shows promise in giving students and professors a great amount of autonomy over the research they conduct with Rolls-Royce’s funding.

The most crucial concern regarding a partnership like this is that the University may be hesitant to terminate such a relationship for fear of losing the funding that has provided new and updated lab equipment and brought in new faculty members. Public funding for higher education is already scant, so alternative revenue streams are attractive for their monetary value alone. But if a company proves to be more interested in its own profit rather than the education of the students it is supposed to be funding, such a partnership is not worth the money. It is crucial that academic officials maintain a critical eye over partner corporations — perhaps by conducting regular student and faculty surveys to gauge their satisfaction with the programs.

Another concern is that a company could exert greater control over a university’s curriculum, beyond just providing funding for research projects. At the University of Maryland, for example, Northrop Grumman is designing the curriculum for a concentration in cybersecurity as part of their business-university partnership. Rolls-Royce will not exercise this much control over the University’s curriculum, for the time being. University academic officials should maintain the relationship as it is now, so that the company does not exert too much influence over such academic decisions.

The Rolls-Royce partnership opens up many promising opportunities, but we must proceed with caution. A year of in-state tuition may cost $10,000, and a Rolls Royce Trent 1000 engine may cost over $16 million, but a well-rounded education — that’s priceless.

Published April 14, 2014 in Opinion

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