THIS IS A TALE of two cities, two business schools and one man who has held top academic jobs in both places.
The man is Joseph A. Alutto and he knows just how important strong colleges and universities are for an area's business community.
He saw it in Western New York when he was dean of the University at Buffalo's School of Management from 1976-90. And he's seeing it now in Columbus, Ohio, where he has been the dean of the Ohio State University College of Business for the last four years.
Yet the relationship between colleges and businesses is getting tighter. "We're clearly getting closer," he says.
That makes sense. After all, universities can offer a wealth of resources to business, from providing technical assistance and research to honing the skills of their students so they can quickly become productive and innovative workers.
So we thought it might be interesting to ask Alutto how the relationship between UB and the business community in Buffalo compares with the ties Columbus companies have with Ohio State.
But first, understand that there are some major differences between the two cities. Columbus has a population of nearly 633,000 people and grew by 12 percent during the 1980s. In contrast, Buffalo is less than half that size and its population shrank by 8 percent during the last decade.
What's more, Columbus, which is becoming a center for the information processing and telecommunications industry, is the home of several prominent national companies, like Nationwide Insurance, Wendy's International, Red Roof Inns, Borden Inc. and Sun TV and Appliances. Columbus also has the added advantage of being the state capital, which gives it a base of fairly stable government jobs to shore up its economy.
Buffalo, on the other hand, is replacing its dwindling industrial base with medical and service jobs. It also is largely a branch office town, which means the fate of many local plants and offices are in the hands of executives hundreds of miles away.
The schools are quite different too. Ohio State is more than twice the size of UB.
"It's difficult to make a comparison because it's a different situation," says Alutto, who was in town last week to speak to an Ohio State alumni group and to attend a Comptek Research Inc. board of directors meeting.
But, undaunted, we asked Alutto to compare anyway.
The biggest difference that Alutto found between the two cities' academic-business relationships is more one of attitude than anything else.
"Here in Buffalo, when the university does something special, everyone says it's wonderful, but what a surprise," while good things are expected from Ohio State, Alutto says.
The health of the local economy also is a big factor. Because Columbus is growing, a lot of Ohio State graduates want to stay in the area. In contrast, Buffalo still is fighting a brain drain, where top students move away simply because they can't find good jobs here.
What's more, Alutto says businesses in the Columbus area seem to be more willing to work with Ohio State because it's the dominant university in the state, Alutto says. In Buffalo, university officials have to spend a lot of time convincing executives that it's in their best interest to work with the school, possibly because UB's position as the flagship of the state university system isn't as widely known.
"There's certainly more of a history of the business community in Columbus using the university, just as we (at Ohio State) have a history of using the business community," Alutto says.
It's also important for schools to build long-term relationships with local businesses, rather than becoming just an occasional source of help for a firm's projects or problems and then cutting back on those ties once the issue is resolved, Alutto says.
"My experience here in Western New York was, well, when I have a problem, I go to the university," he says.
That, of course, isn't always the case. Taylor Devices Inc., a North Tonawanda shock absorber manufacturer, is working closely with UB's earthquake center to develop shock absorption systems that can help protect buildings and bridges during earthquakes. That's the kind of long-term relationship that helps both the company and the university.
And UB has other programs to help local businesses, like its Center for Industrial Effectiveness, which has worked with 125 Western New York firms during the last eight years. That help has ranged from obtaining training grants to helping Birdair Inc. prepare a design proposal for the roof of the new Shanghai Stadium in China by translating the Amherst firm's documents into Chinese.
The university, along with other local executives, also helped create the Western New York Technology Development Center Inc., a 12-year-old business development organization.
"A university has to understand that it is not a primary vehicle for entrepreneurial activity," Alutto says.
But it sure can help a lot.