Business Matters

Mason, Amazon stress importance of public-private partnerships

George Mason University President Ángel Cabrera, sitting on a panel with an executive from Amazon and two of the people who helped bring the tech giant to Northern Virginia, was asked a tough question.

Can higher education work with private industry to align its curriculum with the demands of the job market without betraying the independence of universities, where the goal traditionally has been to focus on creating critical thinkers?

“It’s not a betrayal,” Cabrera told a standing-room-only crowd. “Our mission is to prepare good citizens who can contribute to society. This includes being well-rounded and seeking to understand the world we live in. That also means helping them prepare to be able to get a good job. It’s not creating creative thinkers OR preparing them to get a good job. If we don’t do both, we’re failing them.”

The discussion was a highlight at the second Annual P3•EDU Conference, which focuses on the rise of public-private partnerships in higher education and the universities that best understand the importance of those partnerships. The 345 conference attendees represented 130 colleges and universities from 38 states and five different countries.

All came to the event to talk about how universities can balance their mission of educating students through independent critical thinking and the ability to help students be successful and get good jobs.

Joining Cabrera on the panel were Ardine Williams, vice president for workforce development for Amazon’s HQ2; Stephen Moret, president and CEO of the Virginia Economic Development Partnership; and Wes Bush, chairman of Northrop Grumman Corporation. Robert McCartney, senior regional correspondent and associate editor at The Washington Post, served as moderator.

Amazon could have gone anywhere, but it chose Northern Virginia for the talent pool.

“We did come to this area for the talent. It was the number one driver,” Williams said. “We can’t deliver to customers without talent, and higher education is a main driver of talent.”

Also speaking at the conference were Mason Provost and Executive Vice President S. David Wu, Senior Vice President for Administration and Finance Carol Kissal, and Vice President for Academic Innovation and New Ventures Michelle Marks.

Cabrera cited three areas in which higher education and industry can work together to assure the region’s talent pipeline despite reports of a shrinking population of traditional-age college students. First, he said, there needs to be a concerted effort by higher education and industry to recruit more women and people of color into science, technology, enginerring and math (STEM) fields to ensure everybody benefits from the tech boom.

Second, there must be cooperation to improve immigration policies to assure that the United States continues to welcome the brightest minds from around the world. Third, the two must work together to expand online education, providing opportunities for  the estimated 40 to 50 million Americans who have some college credits, but no degree, to complete their education and better their lives.

Mason is currently partnered with Wiley for online graduate courses, with plans to expand its online curriculum.

“Public-private partnerships are an important part of a solution to many of our challenges if you do them right,” said U.S. Senator Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who served as keynote speaker on Wednesday.

Bush lauded Mason for introducing programs such as its digital credential to help students gain necessary skills for the workforce.

“We live in a very digital world,” Northrop Grumman’s Bush said. “We need proficient digital people who are able to do data. And we need them to be able to do it on day one.”

Collaborations between business and higher education make a lot of sense when there is an alignment in values and when the private partner can bring to bear the technical know-how and upfront financial investments, Mason’s Wu said.

But it remains imperative, he said, that universities retain academic control and engage their faculty throughout the process.

“The faculty needs to be fully engaged so we can flex our institutional muscle for innovation collectively,” he said.

Marks said she’s received terrific feedback about the conference.

“Many of our guests attended for the second time and thought that the conference was even stronger than year one,” Marks said. “We got to the heart of many of the critical issues that exist in public-private partnerships. I think we really advanced the conversation.”