Luis Proenza has become somewhat of a poster child for efforts in leading change and driving innovation, collaboration and economic development in the Akron region. Under his leadership, the university has transformed completely, inside and out. UA’s campus has been renovated, as has the area around it. The university’s revenue and research portfolio has more than doubled during Proenza’s presidency, thanks to new community and corporate partnerships.
If Proenza were graded on fulfilling his duties as president of UA, he’d get an A. But if you take into account his decisive and sweeping approach to leadership, he’d probably get extra credit too.
After all, it’s this approach that has enabled Proenza to successfully lead the university to embrace innovation and change.
“We’ve just been used to defending and believing that the very best approach is one of a professor standing in front of a class,” Proenza says. “I happen to think that faculty will remain at the core of learning for a student, but it’s not necessarily the key to be in front of the class.”
They’ll need to be interacting with students in new and greatly expanded ways.
“What we’ve tried to do — and obviously, for any large organization, it’s something that has to be on the front burner at all times — is to be very relentlessly focusing on the fact that we need to innovate if we’re going to sustain our success and if we’re going to be increasingly successful in other ways,” he says. “In short, if we simply do what we’ve always done, we won’t get ahead.”
Smart Business spoke with Proenza to discuss how UA is changing higher education’s role in supporting regional economies and the advancement of “The Akron Model” — a platform for driving economic development in Akron.
SB: What are the goals of The Akron Model?
LP: It is inherently about the university’s role in economic development. Many institutions, when they talk about how they contribute to economic development, talk about what they do to license some technology and to occasionally start a company based on that technology.
We took a very different approach. We felt that we needed to apply all our resources and create what we call a broad-based and robust platform for economic development.
Many educators believe that the best quality is delivered when you have very small classes. And so the approach that I believe will emerge over the next few years is a model in which universities, either as institutions or faculty across institutions, will work to create new products that will be available to all.
It’s an approach to developing through a variety of partnerships and in a variety of connected ways a greater impact on our community. We summarize The Akron Model by saying that we are relevant, connected and productive across the full spectrum of the university’s expertise.
SB: What steps have you taken to lead this model at UA?
LP: The first thing that we’ve done is just make sure that we have the infrastructure to make this possible. So for many, many years we’ve been one of the most advanced institutions in terms of the deployment of information technology tools. We were one of the first totally wired for wireless institutions in the country.
We have also for many years had the lead in the number of our classrooms that are technically equipped to support online learning and distance learning, and we’re now in the process of finalizing ‘delivery to the desktop’ so that the student need not be in a similar classroom elsewhere but can access what we offer at a computer wherever they might be, at whatever time they might wish to access it.
The other piece that we’ve been doing is talking to a number of companies that we probably need to have as partners to make the model work more comprehensively. It’s not something that we’re likely to be able to do entirely on our own.
SB: Why is collaboration important in promoting economic development?
LP: We developed a framework here that we called ‘shared leadership,’ and it basically is the idea that two heads are better than one, that the more that our own employees, our own faculty, our own colleagues, our own students contribute to the process of thinking about our future and formulating that future, the more successful that we will be. A corollary of that is you can’t do that entirely in isolation from the rest of the community.
In the old days, universities used to be thought of as ivory towers. And clearly, if we insist on being isolated from our community, we become irrelevant. If you’re not connected, you can’t be productive.
So collaboration sort of begins to be the driving force of relevance, connectivity and productivity because it’s that way that not only will you succeed as an institution but your larger community will succeed. That’s important because if your community isn’t succeeding, guess what will happen to you as an institution? You won’t get very far. Collaboration becomes very, very vital internally — that’s shared leadership — and externally — that’s The Akron Model.
SB: What criteria do you use to evaluate opportunities for external partnerships?
LP: If we don’t have the strengths and it’s not something that’s of interest in Northeast Ohio, we’d probably just say no. So the two key pieces of where we start are, ‘Do we have some strengths?’ And, ‘Is it needed in Northeast Ohio?’ The programs that we have are very much aligned with the major industrial segments of Northeast Ohio.
So some key examples are the Timken Engineered Surfaces Laboratories that we inaugurated a few weeks back, the Corrosion program, which is a partnership between several companies, the Department of Defense and the University of Akron. Also through our research foundation it’s laying the groundwork for having some companies that will hopefully be revenue-producing and have a chance to feed back to the university in the long term some of that success.
SB: How did the economic downturn affect UA’s focus on economic development?
LP: What you see when there is an economic downturn then an economic boom is there’s a mismatch between how fast the new jobs are being created and how quickly the people who were displaced in the old jobs are able to rise to the occasion by acquiring new skills.
The important thing then is we’re concentrating on communicating to our students as well as to people that are displaced from jobs that the only way that they’re going to progress is to remember that they must acquire the new skills required for the jobs that maybe didn’t exist five or 10 years ago — or maybe even yesterday. It becomes very important to convey that to our students and to let them know the challenges that they will face both as individuals as part of larger organizations and our nation will face as part of the increasingly very, very, very global economy.
SB: What else have you done to make UA a more connected and innovative higher-learning institution?
LP: First is the almost complete physical transformation of the campus. We have built 22 brand-new buildings. We’ve made major additions and renovations to 18 buildings. We’ve added 34 acres of green space. We’ve planted an excess of 30,000 trees and other plantings. We have created walkways and terraces and plazas and gardens for people to enjoy. … We call that program for transforming the campus the New Landscape for Learning.
The other couple of things are what we call the New Landscape for Living … an initiative that has now become a standalone nonprofit to completely revitalize the neighborhoods that surround the campus. That’s moving along very nicely. The third is a partnership with the area hospitals and the nearby medical schools called The Austen BioInnovation Institute. It’s had some successes already, including its first start-up company. That’s all about bringing together our world-class strengths in polymer science and polymer engineering.
SB: What kind of results have you achieved with The Akron Model so far?
LP: We’ve created a set of partnerships with companies where we’re able to not only commercialize our own technology but to work with them to develop new technology and, if they have patents that are sitting on their shelves, to help them commercialize those that they’re not going to use in their own business. In other words, taking stranded technology and making it available.
In the last 10 years, we’ve started as many companies from other people’s technologies as we have from our own. We just celebrated the establishment of the 50th company and about half of those are from our own technology and half from others. We’ve started an angel investor network called the ARC Angels — Akron Regional Change Agents — and that’s met with significant success, reporting now nearly $400 million of follow-on funding for the companies that have presented. We’ve started a women’s investment network. We’ve started a student investment network.
SB: What advice would you have for other leaders about driving innovation in their organizations?
LP: I think it’s going back to three (terms): be energetic, be enthusiastic, be encouraging. Secondly, be relentless in that focus, but at the same time, understand the limits of people to embrace change. It’s got to come hopefully a little faster than we might have had otherwise. But you can’t push it too much or there will be significant pushback. So be relentlessly focused on the future but patient enough not to get so far ahead that you lose the connectivity with your old colleagues. ?
How to reach: The University of Akron, (330) 972-7111 or www.uakron.edu
The Proenza File
University of Akron
Born: Mexico City, Mexico
Education: High school at Riverside Military Academy; college at Emory University (BA), Ohio State (MA), University of Minnesota (Ph.D.)
How would you describe your leadership style?
When people ask me that, I tend to use three words, and that’s ‘energetic, encouraging and enthusiastic.’ Those three kind of characterize the core of my approach, … and I typically use one other thing. There’s a quote by the great German poet Goethe that says, ‘Whatever you dream or thing you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic to it. Begin it now.’ That’s sort of a much better way of saying the energy, enthusiasm and encouragement piece.
How do you set priorities?
The interesting thing that by virtue of being focused, just about everything that I do is very synergistic — one to another. So it that way, I’m able to do more. It’s related. It builds on itself. It doesn't detract and it doesn't distract either
What do you to regroup on a tough day?
Enjoy a glass of wine with my wife and our pets.
What excites you most as you look forward?
Probably the most exciting thing is how many different challenges present themselves every day. In short, I just don’t get bored. Something is different every day, whether it’s the fact that some company’s called us, or we've established a contact with somebody else or that there’s an international visitor. There’s a variety of challenges.
How do you help keep everyone at UA focused on new opportunities?
It’s beating that drum time and time again. We sometimes say that being a leader is like talking to a parade. No sooner have you said it that you've got to say it again and again and again.