Is Richmond Listening?

The high-tech community of Northern Virginia sees an even bigger role for George Mason University, but the traditional powers in the Old Dominion aren't paying attention

P> When George Johnson, president of George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., announced that he would retire in June, the news sent shock waves across the Netplex region, which Johnson supported and nurtured during his 18-year tenure at the university.

As president, Johnson led the charge to create the university's Center for Command, Control, Communications and Intelligence and the School of Information Technology and Engineering in 1981. He served as a key link between the university and the Netplex, which is credited for the economic growth of the Northern Virginia region.

But high-tech companies fear that Johnson's replacement, who has not been named, will signal the beginning of a new era that downplays the university-industry relationship. Already, Northern Virginia and GMU seem to be getting short shrift in the Virginia budget process, and some argue it may be a case of Virginia killing the proverbial goose that laid the golden egg.

"I've seen a business community like this get killed," said Jim Roth, president of GRC International, which relocated from Santa Barbara, Calif., to Vienna, Va. "There are so many ivory towers in the world, so many people out of touch. Why would you want that here?"

Consider this: Coopers & Lybrand published a study in June 1995 on 424 companies and their relationships with area universities. Forty percent said they relied on college and university resources, and growth companies using those resources experienced productivity rates 59 percent higher than their counterparts. The study also found that companies with university partnerships have higher projected annual revenues, more recent bank loans and more major capital investments planned in the next year.

Although the goals of Johnson's replacement are not known, one thing is certain -- the Netplex has benefited from GMU's presence and dedication to supporting the high-tech industry, both through the quality of its students and technical resources. That kind of relationship has been responsible for spawning some of the nation's other high-tech regions, such as Silicon Valley, Boston's Route 128 and Austin, Texas.

The response from the governor's office has been muted, to say the least. GMU continues to receive less funding per student than other Virginia schools -- such as the University of Virginia or Virginia Tech. For some, this suggests politics as usual, with the established political machine around Richmond exhibiting its disdain for Northern Virginia -- which shares little in common with the rest of the state.

David Botkins, a spokesperson for Virginia Gov. George Allen, would not comment specifically on GMU's role in the high-tech community. "Attracting high-tech industry to the commonwealth is a priority for the governor," said Botkins. "GMU and all other universities in Virginia are important for attracting business and industry."

Robert T. Skunda, secretary of trade and commerce, also would not comment specifically on GMU, but said, "The universities should serve as a stronger resource to consult companies on how to attract capital to the state," said Skunda.

GMU's Role in the Netplex

Currently, GMU plays many different roles in the Netplex. According to Bob Templin, president of Virginia's Center for Innovative Technology in Herndon, Va., GMU provides the region with an educated work force, a center for research on areas such as systems integration, computer science, command and control, and a forum for the exchange of ideas for the growth of the region. But Johnson says the most important role the university plays is intellectual stimulation.

"The university has got to be an entrepreneurial university," said Johnson. "We have got to get involved with the hurly burly of the work world and develop general partnerships."

The close industry-university relationship forged by Johnson has meant new graduates are prepared for the demands of high-tech Netplex companies. It also has facilitated the transfer of university-funded research into marketable products.

"The challenge for the region is how to continue its rapid growth and strength," said Templin. "There is a challenge to accelerate the maturity to reach full potential early on. If this doesn't happen, the region suffers a mismatch of workers and industry needs."

According to Andrew Sage, dean of GMU's School of Information Technology and Engineering, the university has several research contracts with high-tech firms and the government. For example, it does information systems development work for American Management Systems, Fairfax, Va., and has a command and control contract with TRW. These types of high-tech contracts are funded through subcontracts or directly from the companies themselves. The contracts are small, ranging in value from $20,000 to $50,000 a year, for six months to five years.

Currently, GMU also has 31 grants from the National Science Foundation in Arlington, Va., ranging from $10,000 to more than $1 million. The projects cover areas of mathematics, education, engineering and the environment. The government-backed foundation uses its $3 billion budget to fund research at colleges and universities nationwide. "Unless research has near-term application, a lot of companies are reluctant to spend the money on basic research," said George Chartier, public affairs officer for the NSF.

As one of the most influential government agencies supporting industry-university partnerships, the NSF sponsors several programs that bring together universities, industry and state and local governments to form research partnerships. Each entity contributes one-third of the cost of funding the research. The foundation reports that in 1995, industry funds totaled $250 million to these partnership programs throughout the country.

Heidrick & Struggles, the executive search firm in Washington, D.C., has narrowed the list of Johnson's successors to four candidates. And Netplex industry executives want a close industry-university partnership that will continue and span decades -- much as it has in California and Texas.

"There is no way Silicon Valley would have grown the way it did without that strong university presence," said Doug Henton. Henton works on Joint Venture Silicon Valley in Palo Alto, Calif., a group similar to the Potomac Knowledgeway in Northern Virginia. He credits Stanford University as a major contributor to the birth and growth of Silicon Valley.

Fred Turman, the dean of the school of engineering at Stanford University during World War II, was very involved in bringing technology to the war effort, which indirectly led to the birth of the space program and semiconductor industry. Turman produced the team Hewlett-Packard, now the largest company in Silicon Valley. The birth of the high-tech community in California started through the relationship between Stanford and industry. And as the companies grew, the university kept generating a steady stream of talent.

And that relationship continues today. Stanford participates in the Industry Affiliates Program, which gives top Stanford engineering students the chance to work with companies on industry projects and research programs.

Dr. David Gibson, senior research fellow at The Innovation, Creativity and Capital Institute at the University of Texas in Austin, gives sole credit to the university for the growth of the region's own high-tech community.

"High-tech employees can live anywhere they want, but I think they like the excitement of research," said Gibson.

The Innovation, Creativity and Capital Institute has studied technology regions worldwide, and in every case, there has been a strong university presence.

"If Gov. [Allen] wants students to be educated in Virginia, that's fine," said Gibson. "But they'll come to Austin for the jobs."

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