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John Gardner

New Businesses - New Jobs
Yesterday's address by Carl Schramm at the Washington Press Club included both good and bad news.  He presented further evidence of entrepreneurship as the catalyst for a vibrant US economy.  He also shared a poll suggesting entrepreneurs have an increasingly dim view of our country's future competitiveness.

I had the privilege of working my youth away caring for the lawn and and home of Ewing and Muriel Kauffman in Kansas City.  I learned a lot about growing grass from George Toma, my supervisor and mentor as groundskeeper of the KC Royals and Chiefs.  And I learned much about attitude, ambition, and leadership observing Ewing Kauffman.  A self-made man, he created Marion Laboratories as a player in the pharmaceutical industry by recognizing opportunity that others didn't see, and drafting a business plan others couldn't write. 

Ewing and Muriel left philanthropic foundations; Muriel's dedicated to arts in Kansas City, and Ewing's dedicated to entrepreneurship.  I've watched and witnessed the evolution of the Kauffman Foundation, now one of the leading think-tanks on entrepreneurship in the world.  It's most recent leader, Carl Schramm is among the leading authoritative thinkers on entrepreneurship.

So - when Carl Schramm and the Kauffman Foundation speak about universities and entrepreneurship, or publish their new economy index, or speak at the National Press Club on the state of entrepreneurship - I listen.  Carl's messages yesterday are worth noting, as well as his concluding suggestions:
  • Reform immigration policy - grant the green card to our graduates
  • Revise Sarbanes-Oxley to reduce undue burdens
  • Provide a temporary payroll tax holiday for young firms
  • Create multiple pathways for university faculty to commercialize their research
  • Offer fellowships for doctoral graduates to work with businesses
  • Start entrepreneurship education in our K-12 system
In sum, Carl's message clearly suggests it's not small business, or large business, but new business as the real creator of jobs in our economy.  He also continued to suggest the critical role of  universities in our new economy.  We have much to live up to.

Regards, John

Farm to Fly
For thousands of years we've farmed to eat, to produce fiber, and feed our livestock.  In the 20th century, we farmed for fuels, producing ethanol and diesel from farm commodities like corn and soybean.  Within the next few years, we could also 'farm' to fly - producing advanced aviation biofuels not from food crops, but farmed industrial oilseeds, algae, cellulosic waste, even synthetic biology.

Airlines are hungry for alternatives to petroleum-based jet fuel for two main reasons: the first is a predictably priced fuel that allows commercial air travel to be affordable; the second is the need to reduce carbon emissions in a world beginning to tally the score.  To reduce the staggering fuel bill for the commercial airlines, while also reducing the carbon footprint of its customers, sustainable aviation biofuels are particularly attractive.

Carbon tallies are scheduled to have teeth in 2012. The EU's Emission Trading Scheme requires airlines to buy allowances for the carbon emitted during the entire distance of flights that land or take off from the EU.  A few of the major airlines, and the Air Transport Association, are questioning the wisdom of slicing up the globe, jurisdiction-by-jurisdiction, in a patchwork quilt of carbon policy.

Rather than piecemeal regulation, most of the aviation industry is seeking a global solution.  Despite a relatively small amount (~8%) of the liquid transportation fuel used in the US for air travel, leaders in the aviation industry have been among the most ardent advocates for next-generation, sustainable aviation biofuels.  Boeing has been among these leaders, not only in support of sustainable fuels, but also advanced new planes, such as the Dreamliner, which will greatly increase fuel efficiency per mile.

WSU is working with Boeing, other universities, research institutions, and companies to help bring sustainable aviation biofuels to market.  Partnering with the Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuel Initiative, WSU is particularly active in developing the most appropriate regional biofeedstocks for the aviation biofuel supply chain. Our 'farm-to-fly' initiative hopes to assist the Pacific Northwest to be among the first to utilize the new fuel at Seattle's SeaTac Airport within the next few years.  Also, along with Oregon State University, we hope to provide leadership across the country in developing other supply chains that best suit local conditions through the Sun Grant Initiative and network.

Agriculture and aviation may have more in common than most would imagine.

Regards, John

MicroEnterprise WA Style
Most are familiar with the revolution of microenterprise and microlending spreading through-out the developing world.  Grameen Bank, and it's founder Muhammad Yunus were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for unleashing entrepreneurship in places never thought possible.  Which lessons learned would be applicable across the US, across Washington state?  There is a growing community of partners wanting to find out.

Microlending and entrepreneurship in the US face many obstacles not found in the developing world, such as regulation, scale, competition from credit cards, and many other differences between the two economies.  Web-based lending however, such as Kiva, may offer the kind of scale making US markets feasible. They recently joined with ACCION for a peer-to-peer lending network in the US, now active in a wide range of cities.

Washington has nurtured its own microenterprise infrastructure.  In late 2007, the Washington State Microenterprise Association was born as an independent, non-profit, hiring Teresa Lemmons as their first Executive Director.  Today, Teresa runs the office in Federal Way and works with partners and affiliates across the state. 

I have always been intrigued by microenterprise development in the developing world.  Mentioning such in my first days in WA to WSU Regent Mike Worthy, he suggested I explore the US operations of Mercy Corps in/around Portland, OR via their Mercy Corps NW operation. Meeting and getting to know MCNW Executive Director, John Haines, convinced me of their passion and skill.  Since, I've joined their board and we've opened a Seattle-based office staffed by Anthony Gromko, who partners with local lender Washington CASH

Washington State University's Extension program, the Washington Small Business Development Centers, Mercy Corps NW, the Northwest Area Foundation and other partners recently launched a entrepreneur assistance program focused on latino business development in central Washington.  The Rural/Latino Microenterprise Assistance Pilot Project  involves these partners, the Washington Microenterprise Association and more as they pilot new efforts at catalyzing entrepreneurship in all corners of the state.

I look forward to watching and helping the emerging Washington effort to assist entrepreneurs in our midst. 

Regards, John
Reset, Reboot … Just Don’t Forget to Recall

I’m sure you’ve heard the new phrases of our time such as ‘don’t waste a crisis’, ‘coming out stronger than before’, and the ‘big reset’.  Count me among those who welcome the new economy as difficult as the transition may be.  And, as much as I relish a fresh start, I hope we don’t forget what we’ve learned along the way.  I hope we can do better than my computer which can’t reboot without losing its random access memory.

Among the lessons I hope we remember in the last half century, let’s include those concerning how we’ve organized, and reorganized, society.  Having apportioned my life among rural (36%), suburban (36%), university town (24%), and now urban core (4%) communities, I find it difficult to suggest one is more important than the other.  I’ve enjoyed them all, and from each witnessed unique characteristics (and characters) that would seem essential to the new economy.

It was Richard Florida’s thoughts in the Atlantic that reminded me – he is not alone in discounting the asset we have in rural America.  I’ve read, appreciated, and even believed the importance of a new metro America, including the blueprint from colleagues at the Brookings Institution.  But metros can’t be strong while our rural areas are weak.  In full disclosure, the New York Times Sunday Magazine long ago revealed my identity as ‘an officer in the army of the frontier’, and despite loss of all romanticism of the agrarian ideal, I remain in the reserves.  I have great respect for rural America.

My wife Julie and I raised our three children in rural North Dakota, and though I can’t begin to explain the experience here, suffice to say our entire family was the beneficiary.  What our children may have missed in social studies and the humanities was more than replaced in learning how society and culture work first hand.  They grew up knowing the farmer, but also the banker, the politician, the grocer, the doctor, the undertaker, the vet, the promoter, the skeptic, the transient – personally.  I’ve found little that matches experiencing the beauty and savagery of life, death, winners, losers, and inevitable cycles like that of a rural life lived to its fullest.  What may be missed in the formal education is picked up in the rigor Tony Wagner describes.

Perhaps a curse, but my mind churns in review of the past, both successes and failures.  I’ve reprinted below an op-ed Julie and I had published in the Fargo Forum more than seventeen years ago after appearing on a program with Frank Popper, whom with his wife Deborah, coined the ‘Buffalo Commons’ approach to the Great Plains.  Let’s proceed to reboot our ideas, our plans, and our economy – but let’s do so only if we can also recall what we’ve learned.

Regards, John

Don’t Accept Inevitability of Commons

By John and Julie Gardner

Originally published in The Forum Newspaper, Fargo, ND, January 10, 1992

As residents of the Great Plains, we too have had a curiosity with the “Buffalo Commons” notion of New Jersey’s Frank and Deborah Popper.  As much as we find their thesis a challenge to reevaluate appropriate land use, we’ve found the underlying more than “business as usual” and inviting of a rural collapse.  Unfortunately, it is this social and economic destiny which is rarely questioned.

Writing on Popper’s last visit to North Dakota, Forum editorial page editor Jack Zaleski wrote (Dec. 22), “…he (Frank Popper) sees the truth without the handicaps of small-town loyalty, historical attachments to the land and the rose-tinted romance of the family farm.”  Despite all the pressure to conform to this presumable progressive thinking, we’d like to suggest that perhaps there is an economic bias against the people who care for the land and produce the agricultural wealth which both feeds us and a growing food processing, packaging and distribution industry.

A future as told by the Poppers may occur if old trends continue, but we’ve been increasingly encouraged by changes around the world which indicate that the rules may be changing.

First, the “family farm” may prove more valuable than serving as a romantic image of yesteryear.  It’s beginning to appear that centralization, either by government or economic might, is not the best strategy to deal with either the natural world or our own social and economic structures.  As we gloat at the ominous task of privatization of the former Communist world, how can we at the same time snicker at our own “family farms?”  Farms with people who know the land, don’t charge overtime, and actually enjoy the challenges of a rural lifestyle?  This high-handed negligence for the very agricultural institution from which our country was born may become a haunting irony.

Further evidence of a transition to decentralization is found in the marketplace.   No longer is wheat used only for white bread, or corn for feed.  The marketplace is increasingly driven by local and unique market niches.  Opportunity is growing for those who listen to the marketplace and quickly adapt.  There are few agricultural regions of the country that can efficiently grow the diversity of grains, legumes, oilseeds (and even buffalo) that the Northern Plains can produce.  We need only take the diverse marketplace seriously and respond, rather than try and “educate” the public to demand what we’ve already produced.

Like most occupations, the farm is evolving.   Still, there are plenty of indicators that farming is far from being a historical curiosity.  Decreasing supplies of non-renewable resources offer a great opportunity to create an agriculturally renewable society.  And increasing evidence of environmental degradation suggests that a healthy agriculture could be as important in the future as it ever has been.

Should such a tomorrow come, how can we best prepare for it?  We can begin by channeling our instinct of competition into a spirit of cooperation.  Why can’t urban and rural societies both be healthy?

While Zaleski suggests “…a new economic order that does not depend on vibrant small towns…” we’d like to suggest that farming and ranching cannot (and should not have to) exist in a meaningful way without a community of its own.  A sparsely populated agricultural landscape is not only ripe for poor stewardship, but also poor education, poor medical facilities and poor attitudes.

Let’s invest in our own communities, rural and urban alike, but in a way of encouraging new farmers and businesses to beckon the shifting economy.  Let’s break down the barriers and biases that keep people, ideas, capital and enthusiasm channeled only toward our urban centers.  Let’s care for our land and the people who tend it, creating places to celebrate our rural culture, arts and achievements.  Through cooperation, much of today’s technology can be as effectively used to build rural communities as yesterday’s technology tore them apart.  Telecommunications, rapid transit, information: All are now widely available, yet underutilized to the rural communities benefit.

The Poppers have alerted us to the signals that the Buffalo Commons is coming, but the evidence we see only strengthens our conviction to choose a different future.

We see a Buffalo Commons of the elite growing in Montana, with the Plains turning into a weekend playground. Former ranchers punching another man’s dogies and time clock, with the wives enslaved in minimum-wage jobs.  We see a Buffalo Commons of the well-meaning, but single-minded, defenders of wildlife on a mission of acquiring deeds for ducks.  If only the agricultural and wildlife communities could see the benefits of pooling their resources instead of competing for them, often with disappointing results.  We’re looking but have only seen what others have dubbed the tragedy of the commons.

It is time for the people of the Great Plains to decide on a future that will serve us best.  We should be cautious of the possibility of self-serving outside interests.  We should also question whether to continue past policies which threaten what promises to be a good life for all.

Let Form Follow Function

Consider how often we focus on the significance of organizational structure before the reason for our jobs.  Reporting lines are often of greater concern than the strategic intent of the institution. Human – yes.  Productive -? 

First, let’s be compassionate with ourselves. We are experiencing an unprecedented pace of change, whether it is the half-life of what we’ve learned and know, technologies touching our daily lives, or institutions (and jobs) disappearing around us that we’ve never been without.  If this didn’t cause angst, I’d be disappointed.  But have we considered the larger patterns driving change, and considered expending our time and talent in helping shape what is to come, rather than agonize over what must be left behind?

Washington State University is but one example of a public institution (in our case with a 120-year history) that is mustering the wisdom and courage to determine the founding principles to retain, while betting on the needs of our future students and citizens.  In the small portion of the institution I touch, the changes are part of a predictable evolution.

Born with the Smith-Lever Act of 1914, Extension was created for use by the citizen, business, government, and others deserving access to the best information available.  Using modern terms, it was designed to close the disparity gap, and reduce the asymmetry between those who knew, from those who didn’t.  Despite all the changes since, I still see Extension with this same value proposition – as a vehicle to couple the university directly to local communities across the state. While not the only means of engagement, it is an important one, especially to the communities of county and state government, agriculture, youth, small business, and families.

I’ve been in more than one state that had ‘Wisconsin envy’ for its comprehensive Extension campus and state-wide system; but I’ve never been in another state that would pay for it.  Given the harsh consequences of the coming Washington state budget, we are choosing to consolidate our relationship with USDA (Smith Lever Act for Extension, Hatch Act for research) within the Dean’s office in our College of Agriculture, Natural and Human Resources.  I spent much of my past with North Dakota State University (serving as the director of the first co-located research and extension center) and the University of Missouri (serving as the Associate Dean of Research and Extension) being a champion of integrating these two historic forms for a contemporary function – and I am doing all I can to help Washington State University do the same.

Our institutional commitment to economic development as a measurable and logical outcome of being a land grant university will not change.  We have firmly established this as an institutional goal, with ‘relevant local, national, and global engagement’ in our strategic plan.  In fact, our further reorganization-- which blends economic development with international programs--fits the scope and scale of our plan.  I can’t imagine such a combination  a century ago, maybe even a decade ago, but who today would deny that the local is not vitally connected to the global (and vice versa)?  We’ve now created a form to match this emerging function - Economic Development and Global Engagement (EDGE).

Extension a program, engagement the mission, economic development the outcome.  I look forward to continued work with Extension faculty across the state, and getting to better know my new colleagues in International Programs. 

Regards, John

Shaping the Future of WSU

Despite the ever-present dire news that surrounds us every day, it is still a shock when real consequences of the shrinking economy hit close to home. That’s exactly what is happening  across Washington as we internalize just what an $8.4 billion (and counting) deficit really means. Every day we read of protests and disagreements throughout the ranks of government officials and a wide variety of hard-hit constituencies. We are now experiencing this in academia after WSU, UW and other higher education institutions were required to lay out potential budget-cut scenarios in testimony before the legislature last week. 

There is no precedent (I am aware of) for this state’s extraordinarily rapid economic downturn or its dramatic impact on our public universities. The impact is especially hard on a land grant institution like Washington State University, which has so much involvement in the daily lives of Washingtonians throughout our 39 counties.

Unlike other higher education institutions, land grant universities have a special brand of public service in their historical mandate – Extension. With a broad reach and diverse constituency, the community surrounding Extension is unlike any other. Programs like 4H (that have mentored youth for multiple generations) agriculture, horticulture, nutrition, and community development, just to name a few – have become a part of the fabric of our society and culture.  When hearing the prospect of the state budget crisis reducing or eliminating these programs, we should expect an emotional response. In some cases, the discussion of possible cuts to public service and Extension has even given way to fear of the unknown. 

I don’t believe that WSU and other land grants have ever, since their creation in the 19th century, faced such a need to redefine ourselves and to craft a new vision for the future that meets tough realities with creative solutions. Certainly, technology can play a great role in addressing diminishing resources, but we will also be called upon to find new opportunities for leaner, more cooperative, approaches.

Even before the devastating budget news, WSU had begun serious discussions about the need to ‘rethink’ our funding and operational models. The academic prioritization process, as well as specific planning within WSU Extension have been on-going. Now, as the economic crisis strikes close to home, we must build upon continuing efforts to find additional partners, new funding streams, and further opportunities to leverage our assets -- all while becoming as lean and cost-effective as possible. All our hard work to date has produced an amazingly inter-connected, complex, and highly leveraged funding model for Extension.  Leveraging assets, however, swings both ways – it amplifies good times, but it also accelerates the bad times.

Sources of funding for Washington State University's Extension program over the last eight years.


We do not yet know what our state funding will be, nor have we finalized any details of how the shortfall will be allocated across the institution.  The President and Provost are committed to a process that involves gathering and listening to input from all corners of the state. Certainly, that includes the people who have expressed great concern about the future of Extension. I have personally spent more than a week answering questions and reading advice from faculty, staff, and constituents. All of your suggestions and concerns will be considered as we make and implement difficult decisions in the weeks and months ahead. 

I cannot predict what the ultimate budget impact will be on Extension, the Small Business Development Centers, or the other aspects of our university that exemplify WSU’s strong commitment to engagement. What I do know is that this administration and institution are committed to a strategic plan that includes engagement – and, like teaching and research – it will survive in some form. It will only thrive, however, if we work together in  shaping WSU for the next generation. 

Sincerely, John

China as a Clean Tech Partner?

The state of Washington has the ambition to be a major player in solving the energy and environmental challenges of the future.  Can we use our proximity and connections in the Pacific Rim to aid this effort?  Initiated by Washington’s private sector, the US-China Clean Energy Forum is attempting to bring together the research, development, and market strengths of the world's two largest energy users and polluters.


From Asian immigration, to university education, to trade – I’ve learned of the many links between Washington and a number of our neighbors around the Pacific.  With China specifically, I’ve found state and federal legislators, former governors, and research institutions with close connections.  The University of Washington recently launched a full-time office in Beijing, lead by Hank Wang, a savvy representative for the university and the state (getting to know him, I’ve also discovered many personal connections from his time in St. Louis).  And our Battelle/Pacific Northwest National Laboratory colleagues in the Tri-Cities are also involved in China, maintaining good contacts with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, among others.  


Washington business interests in China are also varied and strong, from Boeing’s long-standing partnership in aviation, to central Washington’s tree fruit trade, to the number of Starbucks sites (which are still increasing).  Products from companies like Microsoft are ever-present, but they also signal one of the key challenges in doing joint research and development in China --- the protection of intellectual property rights.


The seeds of the US-China Clean Energy Forum were planted in the fall of 2006.    Original drivers of the concept included US Senator Maria Cantwell, UW Regent Stan Barer, attorney Jon Kroman, and Dennis Bracy, current board chair of the Washington State China Relations Council—each of whom understands the importance of US-China energy interdependence.  All of these players continue to be involved in the work of the Forum, with additional leadership provided by Carla Hills, Richard Holbrooke and Micky Kantor.   

Participants in the October 2008 meeting of the Forum in Beijing.  (l to r) Mark Levine (Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory), Rod Quinn, Dennis Bracy, Hank Wang, and Stan Barer.


The Forum is driven largely by Washington players, including Joe Borich, President of the Washington State China Relations Council, Rod Quinn (Battelle/PNNL) and Hank Wang (with UW’s Beijing office).  After learning about the Forum’s potential from these colleagues, I attended October’s first round of talks in Beijing.  The second round is currently planned mid-February in Washington State, with site visits (such as the Tri-Cities) followed by  talks in Seattle.  The CEF has won the support of and coordinated its activities closely with the current administration, and is now working with the Obama transition team to garner additional support.

Another federal initiative, also launched in 2006, is the US-China Strategic Economic Dialogue (SED), a framework for discussion at the highest levels of strategic economic issues confronting the two countries.  That Dialogue has fostered a series of eco partnerships, the most recent announced this past December, between the ports of Seattle and Dailan.  A key distinction between the work of the Forum and the SED is that the former is driven by the private sector and limits its scope to issues surrounding energy and the environment—both of which possess a good shelf life.

From what I’ve learned, WSU would seem able to contribute to and complement the existing players in the three key areas outlined by the Forum—energy  conservation policies, environmental protection and renewable energy.   My quick list would include the following:

Energy Conservation Policies

Our WSU Extension Energy Program has long been the prime contractor for a national program on public education and policy analysis.  Much the same is needed across China.

Institute of Sustainable Design 
could contribute to design objectives of the built environment.

Coping with the increased need for updated codes, standards, and training to provide credible energy audits of the built environment is needed in Washington – so too in China.

WSU’s power engineering program
works on its own unique aspects of implementing the smart grid which complements others in Washington and certainly those in China.

Environmental Protection

WSU’s Laboratory for Atmospheric Research is directly applicable to much of China’s challenges with air pollution.

Agricultural waste regeneration using anaerobic digestion  (among other methods) is a major focus applicable to China.  In fact, WSU’s Shulin Chen was recently awarded a USDA grant to initiate work there.

Renewable Energy

The WSU Center for Bioproducts and Bioenergy has a significant program on biofuels and bioproducts, including the joint venture with PNNL at the Tri-Cities campus. 

Among the  approaches being explored are both the
 molecular biology and re-design of plants (models in trees and grasses, as well as annual crop plants) for direct production of next-gen plant-based fuels  as well as integrated biofuel production systems using algae.  

Advanced materials are being explored to enhance PV panels for solar energy production and utilize fuel cells, and hydrogen fuels.

Growing Washington’s innovation capacity in clean technology seems an obvious choice for both the public and private sectors.  While involving China as a key partner adds complexity to the challenge, it also represents the biggest opportunity for future growth. 

Beyond growth, there are other benefits to working with China.  It can help dispel old stereotypes about the developed/developing world, global competition, and the notion of independent states in a global economy.  Let's move on.  The society and economy we are creating promises to bear little resemblance to the one we are leaving behind. The US and China will play a major role in shaping it.


Regards, John

Mapping Washington's Economy
How often do we guess, assume, rely on the street narrative regarding our business commmunity, its competitiveness and performance?  While the available data can never fully describe our economy, the most recent cluster analysis of Washington state's economy comes close.  

Authored by Paul Sommers, William Beyers, and Andrew Wenzl, they have detailed the geography, indentified the sector clusters, and provided an estimate of the relative national strength of Washington's business community.  Certainly, broad maps of known clusters are intuitive.  For example, the state-wide clusters of agriculture, forestry, aerospace, and fishing illustrated below:


The report goes much deeper than the general.  In dives into the specifics.  For example, in each of Washington's twelve Workforce Development Areas (WDA), they map sector clusters via their location quotient (the concentration of employment in that sector relative to the national share), employee wages, and sector size (the bubble).  For example, Seattle's King County is found in the following bubble chart:

In addition to the report, the data is also available via a website, with menus for examing the state region-by-region, sector-by-sector.  I've not found a better source of spatially-oriented, timely and relevant data describing the Washington economy.

One of the first things you'll recognize in the report is that 'clusters' don't explain as much about economic growth as today's street talk might lead you to believe.  Other factors, like a region's largest employer, the stealth new technology start-up, food and nutrition trends - depending upon which region you examine - these might be as big, or bigger drivers of the local economy than an industry 'cluster'. 

Another fact which struck me are the large 'location quotients', or proportional share of the national market some of our clusters have.  Aerospace is one that most would readily name.  But look at the electrical utilities in eastern Washington, the hot spots for food/agriculture (especially around fruit, vegetable, and grape/wine industries) and, of course, IT and related sectors in western Washington.  These all are promient national, if not world, centers for their industries.

What the data does not reveal (and the authors aptly point out) are all the inter-dependencies among clusters.  Sure - it seems reasonable that aerospace manufacturing has likely spun off sophisticated manufacturing cousins like cranes, electronic (and medical) devices, trucks, heating equipment and others spread across the state in clusters.  But we can't pull from these data the link between WSU and the wine industry, UW and the health fields, or IT and gaming for example.  We can speculate, but we can't quantify.

Despite the limitations, we need such quantitative data now more than ever.  There are many tough decisions to be made in the coming months while coping with the bleak economy.  Keeping Washington at the forefront of innovation and the new economy requires we know all we can about our economy, and ourselves. 

Regards, John

Going Native [While Staying Civil]

Any business or institution with distant, multiple locations knows the tension – aligning the mission, goals, and protocol of headquarters with the operational reality of the local branch office.   When do you ask permission? Seek forgiveness?  Plead ignorance?  You’ll find no written guide on how to be a good branch manager.  And, with WSU itself an assembly of nearly one hundred individual sites across Washington (the ‘grid’ as I’ve called it), a large part of our success depends upon how all these sites are collectively cohesive while locally relevant.

‘Going native’ implies being so locally enmeshed that one loses objectivity - long a challenge among governments, business, and science alike.  The U.S. State Department uses the practice of rotating locations among its staff in hopes of reducing the tendency of becoming too familiar, too sympathetic to local host country needs at the expense of the U.S. mission.  Business has a history of much the same technique, ‘transferring’ or ‘planting’ employees from corporate when deemed necessary to control the local branch (ever watch ‘The Office’ tension between Michael and Toby?). Even science develops its own enclaves, its own ‘paradigms’ as coined by Thomas Kuhn.  He has convinced me that scientific revolutions don’t occur until someone breaks (or unknowingly ignores) the rules of convention.

Having lived both ends of the tension - as branch manager and CEO – I’ve come to appreciate leadership at the local branch and the corner corporate office as necessary to make constructive change, and indicative of a dynamic, healthy institution.  In fact, if you read the new strategic plan from WSU, you’ll note our ambitions for excellence, as well as relevant local and global engagement.

Land grant universities have their own legacy of engagement using branch offices created through our research and extension missions. Usually traced to the economic or civic leadership of a state’s particular geography and demographics, many have powerful (even notorious) outposts in branch agricultural experiment stations or county extension offices.

Often, the success of these branch offices includes a history of one (or more in sequence) skillful, decades-long, resident superintendent or county agent who earned themselves a special respect among local civic and business leaders. These celebrated branch managers possess the diplomatic ability to effectively recruit and extract the human, physical, and financial resources from the main campus that match the needs, and take root in being matched (and appreciated) in the local community. And, rather than any ‘guide to being a civil native’ or professional training, I’ve found successful local engagement is a skill better learned through mentoring and apprenticeship than through being taught.

My own past experiences have also revealed the damage done by local leadership gone astray.  In fact, I’ve learned three profiles of the branch manager to avoid:

The Tyrant – motivated not by the mission of the university nor the locals, but rather have sought the branch office as a means to exercise their own power, boost a sense of self-importance, and play university and local leaders against one another in order to follow their own pursuits.

The Martyr – generally well meaning, but insecure. The need for acceptance by the local community is so great that they lose the will to represent the institution when its goals may be at odds with local leadership.  Wanting to avoid confrontation, they bring less and less from the university to the local community.

The Anarchist – those with a disdain for authority in first place. The branch office is a natural destination for such an orientation. Though often locally productive and popular, they damage the image and brand equity of the university as a whole.  They prefer to publicly criticize institutional flaws rather than work internally to fix them.

WSU is fortunate to have many excellent role models in leadership positions across our campuses and state.  Many have thrived for a decade or more serving the local community and bringing the best of the university to its doorstep.  Choose one of these mentors to emulate, and observe how they honor university and local wisdom. Become familiar with the skills and traits of a constructive internal navigator, negotiator, and change agent - an intrapreneur.  Rarely will it be necessary to choose between institutional policy and local practicality.

As we launch a new era at WSU, one where we are recommitting to local engagement across Washington and around the world, we’ll need savvy local champions.  While it may be far easier to describe, even spoof, the traits of the poor branch manager, we need to recognize and celebrate what excellent local leadership can do for the institution as a whole.  I’m confident Washington will respond and reward such a place.

Regards, John

A Whole New Kind of College

I attended Imagine Tomorrow, with hundreds of high school students coming to Pullman in a creativity contest related to energy.  I can only hope that we’ll be as creative in studying the feasibility for a virtual college of sustainability and the environment. Specifically, I’m hoping it advances our thinking regarding two issues of the skeptics – creating a ‘virtual’ organization and having ‘sustainability’ as the economic, social, and environmental goal.

Energy and environmental issues are the grandest challenges of our times.  We may debate the amount of supply remaining, but our fossil-fuel based energy supplies are finite.  We may disagree on the cause/effect, but the fundamental data revealing climate change are real.  And at the crossroads of this awareness, the world’s political, economic, and social institutions are attempting to practice what they believe sustainability means.  How might we create a whole new kind of organiztional form to research, teach, and serve the public concerning these dynamic problems?

My quick review of the WSU effort was eye opening as to how pervasively energy and environmental topics are imbedded in our university.  You’ll find them at all four campuses, in at least seven colleges and 37 or more departments.  These themes are found as a major portion of at least 30 undergraduate degrees and as a major topic of many graduate programs in five colleges.  They serve as the principle organizing themes of many of our centers (at least ten), and several unique, dedicated facilities (e.g. Wood Materials Lab, BSEL, ARC, etc.).  All are a part of the WSU ecosystem surrounding energy and environmental study. 

Given the breadth of involvement, how are we applying this expertise? The University of Washington is intent on a merger of existing units to focus on the environment.  Somehow, I don’t think consolidation is our solution.  We need to sharpen our focus on the cutting edge, the areas where we could really grow rather than be incremental.

As a goal, I’ve written about sustainability as the inclusion of social and environmental outcomes along with economic viability.  While most understand what is commonly referred to as the triple-bottom line  there is considerable skepticism in placing such a theoretical goal into the name of a college, much less having it as an institution-wide organizing principle as at Arizona State University.  What does sustainabilty mean at WSU?

Being ‘virtual’ in university-speak generally means offering distance education via online access or other media.  We have considerable experience with virtual media in our distance degree program, creating access to thousands of students who could not participate otherwise.   WSU has even been instrumental (via former President Sam Smith) in creation of the Western Governor’s University , an ever-growing online university.

Being virtual in terms of expanding the audience of learners is now leaping to worlds apart from our own.  An increasing number of universities, from Harvard to Northern Illinois, have even set up campuses and courses in the imaginary world of Second Life

We have far less imagination in forming virtual organizational forms around faculty.  Like most universities, we’ve relied on hierarchy and entities such as departments, schools, and colleges with a defined population and scope.  Inter-disciplinary centers, institutes and other forms have been successful when oriented around a specific expertise or focus, but few other organizational forms are common at WSU or elsewhere among universities.

As the world changes around us, I’ve often wondered why we’ve been so slow to explore and test new organizational forms.  We have some experiences in sector-specific consortia, such the Semiconducter Research Corporation.  Canada has it’s Networks Centres of Excellence. Another possibility is the young field of open innovation, which I feel could be instructive.  Largely explored in the private sector, it contains organizing principles that seek/unite internal and external ideas, with solutions that can quickly reach the marketplace through a number of routes.  In the words of Joel West, “open innovation is using the market rather than internal hierarchies to source and commercialize innovations.” That sure speaks to my ambitions for the kind of impact and relevancy I envision for this new college.

We’ll soon begin exploring the feasibility of the new college utilizing a small team of faculty along with outside expertise, especially with regard to sustainability as a goal and a virtual organizational form as the means.  Perhaps we should also include a few students in our group.  It’s hard to solve problems that you’ve helped create.

Regards, John

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