Can 'Close' Ever Be Too Close?

Close corporate relationships help us develop what we teach, guide future research, and provide students with opportunities to hone their skills through internships and classroom projects. 

Can 'Close' Ever Be Too Close?

TWO YEARS AGO, Arizona State University announced a collaboration with Starbucks that would allow Starbucks employees who were juniors and seniors to complete their undergraduate degrees online at the company’s expense. The Starbucks College Achievement Plan was later amended to offer employees 100 percent tuition coverage for all four years of undergraduate education.

At the time, ASU received compliments from those who saw this arrangement as a path forward for higher education, paid for by the very constituents who benefit. But many in higher education wrung their hands, unaccustomed to such a close relationship between the classroom and the boardroom.

Now many in higher education are forming similar alliances.

Business schools are judged by how employable our graduates are, how rapidly they advance in organizations, and how well their skills will fit the workplace today—and tomorrow.

Business is an applied professional field, guided by what the profession needs. We earn AACSB accreditation only if we can offer relevance and impact through our research, curriculum, and students. Close corporate relationships help us develop what we teach, guide future research, and provide students with opportunities to hone their skills through internships and classroom projects. Our corporate partners also offer employment to our graduates and provide financial support for students, faculty, and programs. But we must carefully choose our corporate partners or we risk losing more than we gain.

THE STARBUCKS CASE

The Starbucks partnership came about because Starbucks sees investing in its employees, known as partners within the company, as core to its success. Through this partnership, the W.P. Carey

School of Business is committed to offering several degrees that are applicable to the Starbucks workforce, including global logistics, business sustainability, and business communications. These are among the more than 60 undergraduate online programs ASU offers.

As Starbucks and ASU developed the program, the Starbucks team asked us to create an entirely new degree in retail management based on needs the company had uncovered in an employee survey.

This led to some soul-searching, as we had to weigh several considerations. First, up until this point, we had never offered any degree online that we didn’t also offer face-to-face, since a significant part of our online differentiation is that we have the same faculty teaching both formats. Second, we wanted to make sure that if we developed the new degree, we could make it available to anyone, not just Starbucks partners. That meant we had to determine whether the curriculum was so customized it could only suit one partner, or whether it would serve a larger market.

In the end, we created the retail management degree by packaging a cross-disciplinary set of existing courses that spanned management, marketing, supply chain, and sustainability. This package not only met Starbucks’ learning objectives and aspirations, but also appealed to a wider audience. Enrollment in the program is strong, and we’re considering offering the program face-to-face as well as online.

A PARTNERSHIP CHECKLIST

The collaboration between ASU and Starbucks has led us to think through the entire idea of partnering. While I don’t believe ASU can get too close to a good partner, we never enter partnerships lightly. Before the W.P. Carey School aligns with any partner, we ask ourselves the following three questions:

Do we have alignment in terms of ethics and integrity? The first test of any potential partnership should focus on ethics, because there is nothing more important than maintaining integrity. We research every company we are considering as a school or university-wide partner and every individual we are considering as a board member or guest speaker. When in doubt, we don’t risk our reputation. Although the research takes time and can lead to awkward conversations, it is critically important.

Do we share a brand identity?
When we choose partners, we are saying they are projections of our brand. Starbucks and ASU are both innovators, but we share more than a commitment to innovative approaches to education and business. We also share a deep sense of fundamental responsibility for the communities we serve and the environment around us. We know that not all potential partners will embody every quality our brand represents, but we want all partners to reflect one or more of our key values. If they don’t, then we don’t partner.

Can we maintain control? When we worked on a potential new degree for Starbucks, the company’s leadership told us the six to eight competencies they wanted, but they didn’t dictate specific courses, topics, or methods of teaching. Any time a corporate partnership extends to degree work, it’s important to define who will call the shots on course content. As educators, we believe that we must determine what is taught, as well as how and why that content is delivered. For instance, if potential partners asked us to give college credit to student interns for firm-specific training by firm employees, we would refuse, because they would be demanding too much control.

To ensure that all of us—the school, the students, and the business community—benefit from these relationships, we must carefully research all potential partners. We must evaluate the ethics, integrity, and brands of those organizations.

We also have no interest in designing courses or degrees that offer value to only one firm. The challenge is to discern whether a course is useful to only a single employer because it contains customized content or to many employers because it relates to an emerging trend. Sometimes the best answer is to develop close relationships with multiple partners. For instance, we rely on the input of several firms to design our courses in business analytics.

THE FUTURE TEST

Once a partnership has been established, we consider it essential to re-evaluate it on a regular basis. For example, we might discontinue an endowed chair that was established by a large retail chain that has since declared bankruptcy. We might break off a partnership with a company—even if it provides a source of revneue—because we feel new circumstances risk the reputation of the school. Conversely, a partnership that is not optimal at one time might be excellent if it is initiated at another time. Brands and values can evolve as organizations mature.

Strategic partnerships have immense value to universities and their business schools. To ensure that all of us—the school, the students, and the business community—benefit from these relationships, we must carefully research all potential partners. We must evaluate the ethics, integrity, and brands of those organizations; we also must maintain control of the educational elements and regularly evaluate the agreements. If we follow these steps, we will never be too close to our partners—and we will never miss out on tremendous opportunities.

Amy Hillman is the dean of the W. P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University in Tempe.