Mass High Tech

Aug 3, 2010, 4:36pm EDT

UMassí  Jack Wilson on leaving a legacy

E. Douglas Banks

Jack Wilson, president of the University of Massachusetts system, announced in March that he is stepping down on June 30, 2011. He recently met with Mass High Tech publisher and editor E. Douglas Banks to discuss his accomplishments and the challenges that face his success.

Here are excerpts of the interview. Click on the image for video highlights.

MHT: What is it that youíre looking to do upon departure?
Wilson:
For the first seven years of my presidency I could always say, ďWell, if I donít get it done this year Iíll get it done next year.Ē This year I canít say that. So Iím really focused on the next year and what Iím going to get done. However, I am looking forward to having a little more control of my time. Iíll adjust my time to whatever the trustees need and the new president needs coming in. Iím involved, as you know, on many boards, so many things in town, volunteer boards for the most part, focused around the issues of economic development and science and technology, and I intend to continue that. I also intend to continue being a faculty member and teaching. Iím looking forward to going back to having some contact with students.

MHT: Over the past seven years, what are you most proud of, and what could you have done better?
Wilson:
There are a lot of things, first of all, that Iím very proud of, so itís hard to pick out one. I might normally pick one of the flagship type of things like the Green High Performance Computing Center. Iím extraordinarily proud of that. Or, the Edward M. Kennedy Institute, which we organized. Or, the Nobel Prize, Iím very proud of that. But Iíd have to come back and say that the thing Iím most proud about is that we have a stronger university today. Weíre serving more students. The quality of the students has increased and weíve kept it affordable. Weíre delivering a university to the student; weíre meeting their needs; and I think I could say to any parent in the state, ďIf your child prepares herself or himself for study at UMass then in fact, weíre going to make it possible independent of your income through our financial aid strategy.Ē We measure it carefully. We look at it, and we put tons of money into financial aid. So I would say that would be the one Iím most proud of. But that doesnít mean that Iím not proud of the fact that weíre growing twice as fast in research as any of our other competitors in this region and that weíve built one of the research powerhouses of the northeastern United States.

MHT: Weíll come back to the research question. What could you have done better?
Wilson:
I wish that I could have helped the country avoid a recession at the beginning of my term and a recession at the end of my term. I think I pretty much failed miserably in that regard, and I wish I could have done better on that. You know, Iím not the type of person that has a lot of regrets. Iím a classic entrepreneur. One of the things about entrepreneurs, they donít mind failure. Because what is failure? Itís your next building block for success.

So the fact that a few years ago we took a run at the law school and we lost it and everybody was wringing their hands, I didnít wring my hands at all. Now we understood what we needed to do to be successful next time, and, and we were. We took a run at a number of research projects that the first time maybe we didnít get it. I could say, oh well, I regret that I hadnít thought of doing these following things in putting together the team. These were for the very large research projects, clinical translational science, for instance, the first time around you know, we had a very good proposal, we worked really hard on it and we didnít get it. We realized these are the things we should have done. So weíve done it again. We have high hopes for it. So watch this space for an announcement.

MHT: You were CEO of a couple of venture backed start-ups. You were the president and CEO of UMass Online before you became president of the system. It pretty well tells that youíve got an entrepreneurial spirit. Have you been able to create a culture of entrepreneurship at the UMass system level?
Wilson:
Was it a goal, yes. Is it even possible? Yes, but itís not easy. You have to realize that a cultural change takes a long time. Iíve always seen life as this relay race. If somebody hands me the baton, I run like crazy and hand the baton, right? I have to do the best on my part, but I recognize that the race is not over when I hand off the baton. And the race didnít start when I took the baton. Somebody went before, somebodyís going after. On entrepreneurship, itís a work in progress but Iím very pleased with how far weíve come. Yes, Iím an entrepreneur, but you know what? There are a lot of people around the university that are entrepreneurs.

What an entrepreneur does when theyíre in a situation like this is they find all the like-minded people, and pretty soon you form kind of a community of like-minded individuals. Before long, others are looking around saying, ďWell, what do they have thatís so interesting?Ē So other people want to join. Thatís how you change culture.
Iíll use UMass Online as an example. When we started out I would say there were some great advocates and some, a community that we developed, that were interested. But it was a small percentage of the university. As things became successful, some departments looked around and saw the Eisenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst getting tremendous revenue and getting good students, and getting all sorts of national attention because theyíre running this online program.

Iíve seen this sea change in the way the University of Massachusetts is perceived. And thatís very exciting to me, because parents now see us as a first choice.

MHT: Thatís a good segue to one of my questions. When you talk to other university presidents across the nation, folks outside the state of Massachusetts have one perception of UMass as a system, compared with the people in Massachusetts who maybe take for granted that itís here. How do those perceptions differ outside the state?
Wilson:
It has changed rather dramatically. The interesting thing is that when I came here I came from outside the state I had a very high perception of the University of Massachusetts. I knew many of the faculty from a variety of the campuses, and I had a good impression. So when I came here and I discovered that the local market perception was not as good as the national market perception I found that curious.

I knew it was much better than people were giving it credit for, and weíve seen the local perception change rather dramatically and approach the kind of former national perception. But the other part of it is the national perception has gone up too, which is good news. I was elected last year as the chairman of the Commission on Innovation, Competitiveness and Economic Prosperity and the election was of presidents of the major public universitiesó the power publics. You know, the Penn Stateís, the Marylandís, the Michiganís, the Virginiaís, the Californiaís, and so on. Thatís really a tribute to the University of Massachusetts that weíre perceived as a leader, that they were willing to elect someone from Massachusetts as the chairman of that commission.

MHT: Where do you think that change has come from? Is it the national rankings in say, research commercialization? Is it inbound SAT scores? Is it the number of licenses, licensing technology?
Wilson:
The good news is every metric that you just listed weíve gone up on. So whether itís our incoming SAT scores, whether itís the selectivity index, whether itís the research as you know that weíve greatly for years now outgrown any of our competitors in this region in terms of research. Itís the intellectual property, weíre always top 15 and weíre likely top 10 when they release the next set of data in terms of commercialization of intellectual property.

All that fits together, and all that data is important. But over the years Iíve learned that it takes more than just good data. People have to know about it. You have to be able to tell your story. And weíve systematically worked at the marketing aspect of telling the universityís story, especially locally where we saw that biggest gap between the reality and peopleís perception of the university. We began to look specifically at what the aspects of that gap were by doing sophisticated kind of marketing, polling techniques, the same thing your advertisers do, and then began to try to address that perceptual difference. So the data is good, and youíre right, all those are positive for us. But it doesnít do any good if no one knows about it.

MHT: You were CEO of UMass Online. How has online education changed?
Wilson:
When I first started running it there was a lot of enthusiasm, not much experience, and also a lot of skepticism. I would say now itís more of a everyday kind of a thing. Itís grown tremendously. Weíre serving over 50,000 enrollees. We make over $50 million dollars a year. We might be getting close to $60 (million) now, million dollars a year for the university at a time when the state cut back its funding. Weíve needed funding streams like that.

I think the unrealistic enthusiasm is not so much there anymore, and the vehement skepticism is not so much there anymore. Thereís still skepticism, thereís still enthusiasm, but I think the amplitude of each of those things has gone down considerably. We just view it as kind of what we do these days.

MHT: What disciplines align themselves best to online education? Whatís the driver?
Wilson:
The driver is not so much; itís the discipline but thatís secondary to the market demand. Yes, itís the discipline, but why is that? Itís because thereís demand for that discipline from the market. So you really start from market demand, what the students need, and what the students need to be delivered at a distance. We focused on a few things early on. I mentioned the MBA program. Thatís always a great market. Business is a great market because the individuals want the education. They value it very much, but theyíre pretty busy. Theyíve got careers and they want to get it going. As much as they might want to take two years and just sit on a beautiful campus and have a two-year MBA experience in a traditional fashion many of them canít. So, thatís a market thatís always straight forward.

Another market we found early on, during the Ď90s, during the tech boom, is that universities had a lot of graduating sophomores. Thatís what I called them. Theyíd be doing fine in school, but the job market was so robust, how could you turn down going out and going to work and making a lot of money? So they went off and they didnít finish school but they had a great job and things were going along. Then after the tech bust they said, ĎHmm, wouldnít it be nice if I had at least a bachelorís degree on the resume in addition to all my experience.í So, we identified degree completion as something that students would want.

MHT: You started on the heels of a recession and you may be leaving on the heels of a recession. As youíre thinking about your successor what would be the advice that youíd give to that person?
Wilson:
Itís always dangerous to set the agenda for your successor. I donít intend to be one of those presidents that hangs around looking over their shoulder. In fact, thatís one of the things that Iím focused on for next year. I want to be in a place where I donít do that and where I have plenty to do. However, I think itís a no brainer, some of the things you have to do. Weíre going to have to continue to focus on the financial model of the university. The same thing that in the end I said I was proud of. Itís maintaining the affordability and the accessibility of this university for the students of Massachusetts at a time when thereís very little likelihood that the state will provide additional money.

In that sense itís the same challenge that I faced when I came in. I had my mantra, which was that economic and social development in Massachusetts goes through UMass.
To my successor, I think that message will be the same. Theyíre going to have to be entrepreneurial. Theyíre going to have to figure out how to do more with less. I think weíve made much progress on this university taking its place among the great research universities of the world. I hope my successor doesnít take her or his eye off the ball on that, that they stay focused on that research.

MHT: Do you think that people realize just what a small percentage the state actually contributes?
Wilson:
No, they donít know. Maybe thatís a tribute to us. Hereís the funny thing. We had a fellow that worked in this officeó heís an alum but heís also a consultant in a variety of areas of alumni relations and so on ówho did a poll for us of our faculty asking them what percentage of the UMass budget comes from the state. When he came back, it was hilarious. We were laughing, except that it was a little sad, because people truly believed that most of the budget came from the state.

MHT: What was the average percentage?
Wilson:
I donít remember what the average percentage was but it was probably above 50 percent. There were some people who said 85, 80, and the answer was 14 percent.

I guess thatís a tribute because it said we kept our mission. The faculty didnít have to worry about the fact that we werenít getting the budget from the state. That was good.
But, on the other hand, if you donít understand where your financing comes from then you probably will have a harder time understanding why certain policies and actions are taken and why you do certain things. Once you begin to understand that youíre responsible for creating 86 percent of your own revenues then youíre probably going to focus more time on that 86 percent rather than just worrying day and night about the money thatís coming from the state.

MHT: In the national rankings UMass is number one or number two, second only to MIT, right up there next to Harvard or above Harvard on research commercialization. How did that happen?
Wilson:
The interesting thing is we donít coordinate the research across the campuses, because what we try is to incent the research, then they naturally raise research dollars campus by campus. We donít distribute it; the National Science Foundation does, the National Institutes for Health.

You need a lot of strategy and a little money. It would be nice if you had a lot of money. We didnít have a lot of money. At the same time you had suggested I came in kind of at the heels of a great recession. A hundred and fifty million dollar budget cut. We were still coping with it. We were taking $150 million dollars out of our budget. And the very first year instead of taking the $150 (million), I took $151 (million). Everybody said, how can you do that? I said, because weíre going to take that one and weíre going to invest it right back. And weíre going to invest it in going to particular faculty who are already very successful in research and say, weíd like to you bump this up five or ten times. The people that could convince us that they could increase their research funding and output/input by five or ten times, we gave them a little seed grant , and we gave them some matching money and so on. That first million dollars paid off in $30 million dollars in new funding.

Weíve since increased these kinds of grants. The Presidentís Science and Technology fund is the main one. Weíve had the Presidentís Creative Economy Fund to identify that part of the economy which is less science and technology based and so on. And we have another fund that we call the CBIP or Commercialization Fund. And that fund is really meant to help bridge that famous valley of death of commercialization of products. What we tried to do is bring the research a little further along so that from the other side of that valley the venture capitalists could see it and say, ďOh, hey, this is worth investing inĒ to get it the rest of the way across the valley.

MHT: What role should UMass play in economic development?
Wilson:
I see UMass as having a pivotal role in economic development. You have to recognize itís in partnership with a lot of other organizations. We have to be willing to interact with industry. We have to be willing to interact with government. We have to be willing to interact with other community groups, non-profits. We have to have these coalitions between the various groups everywhere so we can find out what the needs are. And when you have those kinds of interactions and coalitions it makes things much better. A few years ago we we had heard from the medical device community that they would really need some help. So a group of faculty and staff went off, and put together with some industry advice, a plan for how we could help them; a medical device development center. Thatís great, right?

MHT: M2D2.
Wilson:
Right, but if we quit there it would have been a disaster. The next step was to get the industry groups out there. The industry groups they said things like, ďgood idea, good intentions. Thereís this wrong with it. Thereís that wrong with it. It doesnít meet our needs here. It doesnít meet our needs there.Ē

So we completely rejiggered the thing and we were excited because we have better insight into exactly how we could be helpful. They were excited about it because what we were creating looked a lot more like it would be helpful to them than what we originally thought.

MHT: What havenít I asked?
Wilson:
I guess the last piece that we really havenít discussed is that the key to all of these kinds of quality improvements, whether itís teaching of students, whether itís doing the research, is really attracting good people to the university, good faculty and staff. We have become extremely good at that. As we get good at it then more people want to come and we get better at it. Thatís a classic snowball. I mean the Nobel Prize winner role, a whole bunch of people wanted to come and work in a lab where there was a Nobel Prize winner around. So weíve worked hard to attract outstanding faculty at every one of our campuses and itís gone very well and thatís the key to success. We had to do that, by the way, without getting a lot of money from the state to help us do that. Once again, you come back to the entrepreneurial thing. How do you do what you need to do to take you where you need to go and do it without the resources you really need. Classic definition of an entrepreneur.