Earning Trust: Business-Higher Education Forum Helps Academic and Corporate CEOs Form Better Relationships

Article excerpt

Sometimes the academic world feels that anything to do with industry is a sell out. Meanwhile, corporate CEOs often claim that graduates know nothing about leadership or the science of management because faculty and administrators don't either.

These longstanding perceptions prompted Jack Peltason, the former president of the American Council on Education, to form the Business-Higher Education Forum in 1978.

Peltason saw a need to bring together chief executives in the business world and the academic world because there was very little trust between the two sectors. Peltason strongly believed there had to be a way for leaders of both constituencies to communicate.

"The forum remains unique in that its membership is drawn exclusively from business and academic sectors and its focus remains exclusively on issues of mutual concern to those two sectors," Judith Irwin, managing director of the forum, said.

"What's so important here is having the corporate and academic world understanding each other's perceptions, perspectives, and also what they are dealing with. They can't do things as they would in their own organizations. They have to work together."

The forum, an affiliation of ACE and the National Alliance of Business, educates members about the characteristics of successful partnerships, such as acknowledgement of differences, open communication, clearly defined goals that benefit both parties, flexibility, and support from high-level management. The organization holds semiannual meetings, publishes policy reports, and manages projects that use the resources of its members.

The ACE is the nation's coordinating council of higher-education associations. NAB is the only nonprofit, business-led organization focused solely on human-resource issues. Its member companies are, among other things, leading efforts to improve education, bridge the gap from school to work, expand life-long learning opportunities for workers, and more.

One of the important aspects of the Business-Higher Education Forum and the reason Irwin believes it has survived over the years is that only the heads of colleges and universities and businesses can attend meetings. For example, when the chairman of Pfizer couldn't make it to one of the summer meetings, he could not send a substitute in his place.

"Much of the forum's effectiveness comes from its strong sense of ownership in the organization and its work," Irwin said.

From the beginning, the organization was determined to stay at a reasonable size so it could maintain synergy between the participants. Therefore, membership is by invitation only. Forum members identify CEOs and/or university presidents they know, or know of, who have an interest in building partnerships between business and academia.

"Often it is a personal relationship whereby one of our members can verify that the forum is worth their consideration," Irwin said.

Today there are 70 members, more academic than corporate. An executive committee made up of presidents and CEOs votes on all final decisions.

"Throughout its history the forum has provided an environment for executives to form strong relationships with each other," Irwin said. "They have used these new bonds to explore a variety of issues of current and future interest. The forum's collegial style has permitted a freedom to explore mutual self-interest without prejudice. Its independent posture has enabled it to reach consensus conclusions and make public recommendations with ideological and political neutrality."

Even though membership is by invitation, any college, university, or business can benefit from the Business-Higher Education Forum because of its initiatives and the policy reports that result from them. Task forces of forum members prepare the reports. (Reports can be ordered from the BHEF.) Each task force is assigned two co-chairs, one from business and one from academia. …