University-Industry Engagement Week

Controversial partners put industry engagement managers in tough spot

By David Schwartz
Published: March 19th, 2019

The controversy involving the Chinese firm Huawei and the possibility of IP theft has filled the headlines, and with the media coverage has come stories of the tech company’s university partners ceasing, or at least questioning, ongoing research collaborations.

For example, while the University of Toronto did not suspend research, Vivek Goel, vice president of research and innovation, issued the following statement: “The University of Toronto continues to take into account information provided by the Canadian government. There has been no change in the advice available or the actions of the government with respect to Huawei Canada and its operations in this country.”

On the other hand, Oxford University suspended funding from Huawei, The University of Minnesota has suspended its relationship with Huawei, and UC Berkeley suspended new research collaborations with the company. It was also reported that Johns Hopkins had done the same, but the university’s communications department tells us in no uncertain terms that the story was false.

Several other universities have found themselves at least questioning the wisdom of their foreign partnerships with firms from countries that have been steeped in controversy. These diverse reactions had at least one thing in common: The decisions were often made “above the pay grade” of university corporate engagement leaders, and yet it is they who direct and participate in the day-to-day interactions with corporate partners and develop and grow the all-important personal relationships so critical to successful collaborations.

And it’s not only controversies like the one involving Huawei that can put pressure on these relationships — corporate partners can become involved in all sorts of troublesome situations, from financial to political. How do engagement managers face these situations and keep the partnerships strong — assuming they continue at all? Several experts shared their strategies, which they say are designed not only to minimize damage but also to make it less likely for such controversies to arise in the first place.

At UC Berkeley, while Vice Chancellor for Research Randy H. Katz made the final decision to halt any new Huawei deals, he sought input from many campus offices, including Government Relations, Research and Compliance; Export Control; Legal Affairs; and Intellectual Property and Industry Research Alliances (IPIRA), which includes the Industry Alliances Office (IAO) that handles Huawei research contracts. Collegial networks at multiple levels within the UC system and other universities were also contacted to solicit copies of other universities’ policies, and/or information on their intended plans, to help inform Berkeley’s decision.

Katz reached out to Huawei’s university relations contact for Berkeley shortly in advance of the campus announcement, to discuss the institutional relationship and Berkeley’s policy decision. He then updated Eric Giegerich, Director of the IAO, and Carol Mimura, Assistant Vice Chancellor, IPIRA.

“IAO continues to handle existing Huawei contracts and work with the relevant principal investigators,” says Giegerich. “As the new campus policy directive on Huawei calls for no new engagements, no immediate changes to existing industry contracts were needed. Change orders or amendments to existing contracts are being handled the same as for any other industry sponsor of research.”

Mimura emphasizes that the interests of the university must take precedence over the continuation of any single relationship. “As the contracting office for industry sponsored research, Berkeley’s IAO does not view a transaction with Huawei and preservation of the relationship with Huawei as more valuable than the risk that the university could incur while investigations are being conducted,” she notes. “Although the IAO is encouraged to engage in new and broader ways [to engage] with industry, the Office is also expected to avoid anything that harms the university, or our state or our nation.”

A detailed article on how industry engagement professionals respond to controversies in their partnerships efforts appears in the March issue of University-Industry Engagement Advisor. To subscribe and access the full article, along with the publication’s entire archive of best practices and success strategies in building and managing corporate partnerships, CLICK HERE.

Posted under: University-Industry Engagement Week