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Gregory P. Crawford is President of Miami University of Ohio.
Early in my career, while working as a researcher in Silicon Valley, I landed an evening job teaching optics and electronics students at a local university. After observing the students’ enthusiasm as I shared my real-world display-technology knowledge, I was inspired to consider a career in academia — a career change that eventually led me to become president of Miami University. Perhaps the same kind of inspiration that made such a difference in my own life makes me eager, in my current role, to bring more business and industry leaders into the classroom, offering them a similar experience to my own.
I believe the synergy of theory and practice in universities is even more vital today. There is no room for ivory towers when accelerating change and facing global problems that require solutions. The cascade of innovation; the lessons of a global pandemic; and the ascendance of data, robotics and artificial intelligence highlight opportunities, while the demands of the workplace and the aspirations of students call for creative connections between professional fields and academic disciplines.
This convergence can take various forms. There are more research collaborations today between industry and academe than ever before. There are also more opportunities for industry leaders in the classroom. These business professionals can be brought in as part-time instructors with their own classes; team teachers with academic experts in a best-of-both-world setting; guest lecturers who can change lives by sharing their inspirational stories about how their education has underpinned their success; and mentors who engage individual students or groups. Whatever the structure, such connections offer rich benefits for the students, the university, the company and the business leaders.
For The Students
Instruction from a practitioner comes with a host of insights that complement and extend the classroom experience. Professional experts not only know how to perform their craft but also what it feels like to conduct that work every day. Textbook descriptions that appear straightforward can, in turn, gain dimensions of complexity, uncertainty and immediacy. For example, a business ethics lesson from a practicing business professional might include the story of an especially fraught and ambiguous moral choice. A bioengineering lesson from a practicing engineer might include their participation in the search for a Covid-19 vaccine. An author or journalist might share their inspiration for stories or articles.
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Such encounters not only tell the students about the “real world” but also bring that world into the classroom. Insights into the complex dimensions of a career, including its personal and time demands, might motivate students to choose such a path — or give them an early warning that a career attractive in the abstract might not advance their life goals or align with their passions. They can see a model of the kind of person who is likely to succeed in such a field. The instructor might have gone into a field different from their college major or taken some career pivots, as the student likely will during their life. The relationship with such a leader might introduce the student to a network that will remain foundational.
For The University
Universities are typically eager to engage partners in commerce, industry, government and not-for-profits. These connections often involve research collaborations, curriculum development, worker credentialing, financial support and other mutual benefits. Bringing leaders from such organizations to campus for personal, regular and meaningful interactions with students and faculty can elevate the university’s reputation and reach. Participation by top-tier experts in science, engineering, business, arts and other fields might also reveal scenarios for research by students and faculty. Furthermore, when the company is considering a partnership, the leader can provide inside information about intangibles, such as passion, camaraderie and dedication, that cannot be translated to a written proposal or even a campus visit. The industry instructor becomes an ally.
For The Company
The organization that shares the expertise of its leaders with a university likewise benefits from potential partnerships. The company can gain insight into what future workers are being taught — both technical skillsets and the intangibles they will bring to the workplace. And where preparation is lacking, they can seek collaboration with the university that will provide it.
For example, a local industry might need its staff and professionals to learn more data and analytics; they can collaborate with educators to create a microcredential course. Meanwhile, the brightest and best-trained local students gain a positive impression of the company from a representative willing to share time and talent in a meaningful way. The company will have an inside track when those students become sought-after graduates.
For The Leaders
Experts who participate in university teaching and programs can also reap rewards. I have found today’s students to be bright, creative, reflective and eager to make a positive impact in the world. They want to know how to apply their knowledge for good, and many are eager to learn whatever they can from someone who has achieved success. They are also remarkably creative; a question from one of these students might trigger an investigation of innovative products and processes for the instructor’s own work in their industry. Instructors might even, as I did, find a whole new career by bringing their expertise to the academy.
To address the broad and complex challenges of our time, universities and industries can unite their strengths for collaboration on breakthrough solutions. Beyond the focus on research and recruiting, there are many opportunities in the teaching mission. Theory and practice, no longer operating in separate silos, are converging with multiplied power. If you are in business or industry, consider calling your local college, university or alma mater to see how you can advance this vital movement. You will likely find partners eager to join in elevating the well-being of everyone. Successful companies and successful universities will make such shared progress a priority.